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The Very Hungry Pupperino

UntitledOn Monday, the Very Hungry Pupperino ate a sofa.

On Tuesday, the Very Hungry Pupperino ate a set of six mahogany dining chairs.

On Wednesday, the Very Hungry Pupperino ate a small semi-detached ex-Local-Authority house in Cromer, Norfolk.

On Thursday, the Very Hungry Pupperino ate the award-winning Georgian market town of Holt, Norfolk.

On Friday, the Very Hungry Pupperino ate 4,000 Holes in Blackburn, Lancashire.

On Saturday, the Very Hungry Pupperino ate the Chernobyl nuclear power station and acquired remarkable superpowers.

On Sunday, the Very Hungry Pupperino ate Vladimir Putin, and there was Much Rejoicing.

On Monday, the Very Hungry Pupperino visited the vet who made her sick it all up again. After that she felt much better.

(Picture by Denise Reynolds at Glaven Veterinary Practice, Holt. With apologies to Eric Carle’s The Very Hungry Caterpillar).

Posted in Apparitions, Blog Norfolk!, Silliness, The Very Hungry Caterpillar | Leave a comment

In which my lab is a garden

purple crocuses

It’s a grey afternoon, the light already fading. R. and I have just done a circuit of the back garden – ‘inspecting the troops’, we call it.

The entire space is dishevelled, as it always is this time of year: the brown skeletal remains of last year’s growth tangled in with the green perennials, most of which are in dire need of a prune. The lawn is more mud than grass, and everywhere the bulbs are pushing upwards. Hellebore already blooms in the train-wreck of our unweeded herb garden, along with the snowdrops, rosemary, winter jasmine and the first crocuses. There are even a few of last autumn’s roses unfurling, having powered through several weeks of hard frost to put on their last-gasp performance. Magnolia trees display furry pods that you can’t resist stroking, and the bird cherry in the back hedgerow – always the first to kick off – is studded with hundreds of tiny white buds. Wild onions – the bane of R.’s existence – seem to reproduce in real time, spewing out ten clumps for every one he yanks up. I’m sure our well-meaning predecessors (largely sensible in most of their other horticultural choices) had no idea what a cursed epidemic they were unleashing.

Our overwintering shallots, garlic and broad beans are doing well, but our greenhouse needs a good clear-out, to prepare for the dozens of seedlings that are already germinating indoors in heated propagators under industrial LED light panels. After last year’s aphid infestation, it probably needs a good fumigation too.

Earlier today after J’s rugby practice, we skulked into the local park and dug up a few lush cow parsley crowns, taproots squirming with fat earthworms, from the weedy verge, which I transplanted along the back garden wall. Our hedgerow has turned into a little woodland, and I think every woodland needs cow parsley on its sunny edges. If try hard enough, I can almost smell the shimmering springtime haze of a field of cow parsley in bloom.

As if on cue, R. has just put a cocktail into my hand made from rum and pulverised blackberries picked last August and stored in the chest freezer since. A little bit of summer in an ice-cold glass.

Things are going well at work – which sometimes resembles an untidy garden of its own, old and new all entwined, everything coming and going. We published a paper in the first week of January, have another with minor revisions which should soon see the light of day, a second one close to submission, and several more taking shape. I’ve nearly finished the second of two major grant applications already submitted this year. Meanwhile, three grants are pending with outcomes expected soon. I’m advertising for a PhD student, just in time for one of my existing ones to take his viva. A postdoc has joined to start a project, while another has just moved to a new position abroad. All the various strands of what are euphemistically known as “output”, but are really human beings and their amazing achievements, bits of the cycle shooting here, blooming there, or blowing away like feathery seeds to take root somewhere else. And me in the middle, a smudge of mud on my forehead, reading glasses shoved onto the top of my head, wielding a spade and secateurs, half proud, half bemused as it all takes shape.

Posted in academia, Domestic bliss, Gardening, Research, The profession of science, work-life balance | Leave a comment

Inequity and Research Culture

Research culture remains a topic that is of concern to many, because it can be so very far from ideal. You don’t have to be from a minority background – of whatever kind – to find yourself in an environment that doesn’t bring out the best in you. Can anything be done because, if it can, it is likely to help all those who are ‘othered’ by their personal characteristics even more? A recent report from the University of Oxford identifies many areas where processes about the whole research system could be improved for people who fit into the category of ‘marginalised researchers’, which covers women and racialised minorities, people with disabilities and those identifying as LGBTQ+. As the report says

‘A growing body of evidence underscores that academia is not a meritocracy. In academia, as in the rest of society, systemic barriers remain to limit the success of researchers in many marginalised groups.’

As I do with many such reports, I started off by reading the recommendations. I found these, at first sight, rather disappointing. Not that there was anything wrong with them, but they seemed to be treading along familiar paths and it didn’t strike me they were likely to lead to much change. Equally, this had been my initial reaction, and this still holds, to the 2021 BEIS People and Culture Strategy document, about which I wrote

‘full of laudable sentiments though the strategy is, it appears to lack any clear indication of the path from where we are now to where BEIS aspirations would take us.’

Eighteen months on from the publication of that BEIS strategy, I’m not convinced there has been much progress.

However, when I read the full Oxford report, I felt rather differently about what it had to say. Not because I feel the recommendations are particularly novel or ones which will immediately change the landscape, but because the way they are put into context is very powerful. It identifies exactly how the current system introduces inequity for different parts of the researcher population, ranging from the less confident (who may find an interview intimidating and lead them to underperform) to those with a disability, who may have problems accessing or completing forms.

There are certain of their recommendations which really should be easily put into practice, for instance by funders. In particular, I would highlight the timing of closing dates for grant applications, so they do not fall immediately after the main holidays. It should be obvious that a closing date of early January is likely to impact more severely on those with caring responsibilities than those without, who may in fact just have had several weeks without the normal teaching or committee loads so making grant-writing easier not harder. Funding calls which are only open for a few weeks are also likely to be detrimental to carers, but these are far from uncommon.

The issue of confidence I allude to above is a more tricky one. Firstly, because having the confidence to give a convincing conference presentation is a relevant skill for success, and may feel as pressured as an interview. Consequently, I believe such skill is not entirely divorced from the ability to conduct a successful project. Nevertheless, I am sure all readers will have encountered the brash or arrogant candidate. If they come across as patronising to their audience it may cause uncertainty about how well they would do in running a group or giving an undergraduate lecture. I well recall one man, smartly turned out in a pinstripe suit that would not have been out of place in a bank (yes, I know, I should not be prejudiced against someone because of the clothes they wear), who – as part of an interview process for a lectureship position – gave a seminar that was positively intimidating in the way the audience was addressed. It was full of chutzpah. I was less convinced it was full of content, but others on the interview panel seemed not to spot this. I argued that an undergraduate faced with such a style of lecturing would not have received it well. That seemed to me a significant part of the reason for requiring a candidate to give a seminar. Again others (almost certainly all male, although it is so long ago I cannot swear to that) did not seem to be as put off as I was.

That level of ‘confidence’ I believe is dangerous. Someone can come across as persuasive and on top of things, when actually it’s simply a smokescreen of performance. Any successful leader should understand their audience and never give off an air of intimidation. At least that’s my view. Shyer people may stutter a little, in a presentation or an interview, but not giving glib answers to questions may indicate deep thinking and knowledge and not ineptitude. It is my belief we are, collectively, too easily swayed by style of delivery rather than actual content. It is totally appropriate that such an issue should be highlighted, as the report does.

Other types of bias may be well-known, but nevertheless still prevalent. The statistics about ethnic minorities is particularly dispiriting. The report cites Wellcome data which shows that the success rate for Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic applicants is 6 percentage points lower than that for white applicants (8% compared with 14%), with precisely zero awards made to UK-based applicants reporting their ethnicity as Black or Black British in 2019/20. The fact that there are hardly any black professors in the sciences across the UK is obviously directly related to this. What the report makes clear is how many different parts of the system disadvantage such people, from lack of mentors and sponsors, to internal sift systems as well as grant-giving panels which fail to overcome their biases. A black woman who speaks up may be classed with the standard trope of ‘angry black woman’ when behaving in exactly the same way as a white man, who is simply seen as confident and assertive.

The report spells out the dismal situation many researchers face, identifying the different key stages where problems occur. I found it salutary reading to look far beyond those areas of disadvantage I am familiar with from my work regarding women. Not that I think we have by any means overcome those hurdles more familiar to me, but it is important to recognize that different groups face disadvantage from many different parts of the system and that all of these need to be identified and addressed.

Posted in disability, Equality, ethnicity, marginalised researchers, research funding, Science Culture | Leave a comment

What I Read In January

Screenshot 2022-12-31 at 15.28.51 Penelope Fitzgerald: The Bookshop It is 1959, and widowed Florence Green opens a bookshop in the sleepy Suffolk town of Hardborough. Discovering a strain of quiet obstinacy she doesn’t know she has, she ignores or attempts to sidestep the  polite yet determinedly ruthless opposition of a town with minefields of unwritten social rules and hierarchies that will not be gainsaid. I left this in a state of righteous indignation on Mrs Green’s part, for all that she appears to have brought much of her woes upon herself.

 

 

 

 

Screenshot 2023-01-07 at 17.19.31Neil Gaiman (ed). Unnatural Creatures Having run out of original Neil Gaiman books to read (though one or two might have escaped my notice) imagine my pleasure at running across this anthology of tales curated by the man himself. It’s hard to pick favourites from a diversity of authors that includes Anthony Boucher and Saki, Nalo Hopkinson and Gahan Wilson, but I feel bound to reserve that honour for Gaiman’s own story The Sunbird, which he says was inspired by E. Nesbit but written in the style of R. A. Lafferty. If the tales have anything in common it is that if the tales themselves do not always have the air of fairy-tale whimsy, it lurks not too far beneath. Delightful.

 

 

 

 

Screenshot 2023-01-14 at 20.30.41Peter Frankopan: The New Silk Roads It must be awfully frustrating, being a modern historian like Peter Frankopan. No sooner than you publish a revised version of your 2015 best-seller The Silk Roads, than the world changes again. For this snapshot of the world in 2019 seems already out of date. His analysis of geopolitics centres on the ‘spine’ of Eurasia (between the eastern Mediteranean and China) and contrasts the ‘Belt and Road’ initiatives of China with the chaos of the Trump administration. But that was then. Trump has now been replaced with Biden, and the world has been reshaped once more by COVID. The New Silk Roads reads like a three-year-old feature in The Economist. Nothing wrong with that, but I expected more from a book that promises a glimpse into the future to say more than it was unpredictable and volatile. Because I knew that already.

 

 

 

Screenshot 2023-01-21 at 12.51.35Carl Chinn: Peaky Blinders The Real Story You will  both probably be familiar with Peaky Blinders, a stylish and violent televisual emission dealing with the fictional Birmingham bookmaker and gangster Tommy Shelby and his family in the years after the First World War. Shelby leads a gang called the Peaky Blinders, called after their habit of seeing razors into the brims of their peaked caps for use as weapons. Social historian Carl Chinn, descendant of Brummie backstreet bookies himself, shows that almost everything in the TV series is a myth. The peaky blinders were assorted Birmingham toughs who terrorised the poorer districts of Brum in the 1890s (by 1918 they were all but extinct); nobody sewed razors into peaked caps; and the real story is one of social deprivation, squalor and general thuggery, told here as one long litany of barely digested gobbets of court reports from contemporary newspapers.

 

 

Screenshot 2023-01-28 at 16.13.19Gary Gibson: Stealing Light I was in the mood for a good old-fashioned space opera, and, having read everything that Iain M. Banks and Alastair Reynolds have had to offer, was casting around for something new but in that similar post-gothic vein. Glasgow-based Gary Gibson is a new author for me and on the strength of Stealing Light I’ll be in the market for more. The author has clearly thrown everything into the sensawunda electric kitchen sink — apocalyptic weapons, incomprehensibly ancient alien civilisations, amazing technology, a majestic plot, exotic sex, lashings of violence, and a feisty but flawed heroine who never gives up. Wonderful stuff. If you like that sort of thing. Which I do.

Posted in cal chinn, gary gibson, neil gaiman, peaky blinders, Penelope Fitzgerald, Peter frankopan, Science-fiction, space opera, stealing light, Writing & Reading | Leave a comment

The Last Question

In his 1956 story The Last Question, Isaac Asimov has human beings ask computers of increasing power the Ultimate Question. You know, the one about Life, The Universe, and Everything. And the question goes something like this —

HOW CAN THE ENTROPY OF THE UNIVERSE BE MASSIVELY DECREASED?

In six scenes, in which humans evolve and their computers get more and more sophisticated, the answer always comes back something like this. No, not ’42’, but

INSUFFICIENT DATA FOR A MEANINGFUL ANSWER

Eventually, in the Universe’s dying gasp, the very last human asks the gigantic mega cosmic hyper computer this same question, and … but I’d be spoiling it.

Well, what with the current fuss and brouhaha over quasi-intelligent wordybot ChatGPT, I thought I’d try it out. This is what happened.

entropyScreenshot 2023-01-25 155806

… from which I learned that ChatGPT doesn’t quite have the succinct elegance of a professional SF writer.

It doesn’t have much of a sense of humour either. When I asked it

HOW MANY BEANS MAKE FIVE?

the answer came back

beanzScreenshot 2023-01-25 155919

Which suggests that the way to tell the difference between true intelligence and a simulacrum is to tell it a joke.

Posted in ChatGPT, Humour, Isaac Asimov, Science-fiction, Silliness, The Last Question | Leave a comment

I am evangelical about this

PhD students should* consider industry roles; academics should not dissuade them.

Ten years ago today I began what I now refer to as my industry detour, a decade spent as a statistical consultant in the pharmaceutical industry. I went directly: I submitted my doctoral dissertation on a Friday, went clothes shopping on the Saturday and started my new gig on the Monday. I moved house the following Thursday, in order to cut my commute down by the order of one cross-London Tube journey.

Academia, and academics, can be hostile to this sort of hijinks. After I left Imperial and UCL and went to industry, I missed academia. In the intervening years I figured out how to talk my way into many free-or-cheap-to-register seminars, workshops and other academic events related more or less tangentially to my day job, only to realise I am overdressed, too direct with my language, and do not belong at all in those dusty lecture halls anymore.

Erika with the GSK pride group ready for the parade to start in 2016.

A statistician who has never felt more awkward: the one time I relented and put on a company-branded T-shirt, at London Pride in 2016.

In corporate life, one was supposed to carefully plan one’s conference attendance for the year during January, jointly with one’s line manager, but I was line managed two layers up from the US. Because time zones I could usually get away with it, especially if I could find a quiet corner of a conference to dial into any important meetings. Don’t get the wrong impression of working industry life: whilst the work-life balance is, in general, compared to academia, more reasonable, it varies over time and career stage as it does in any profession. The flexibility I was granted with my working hours is by no means a given. I earned trust through the Seattle gig among others, ask me in the pub about that and I’ll tell you. I could turn the handle when needed and was committed: I used to wire my work laptop to my personal mobile data connection and once turned out a suite of graphs on a train from Sheffield to London after convincing my manger to let me go there. To talk about careers. I wanted to go, because, same topic as this blog post.

Why? Industry suits some people better. In concrete terms: academia is a zero-sum game. I get the grant, you do not get it. I scoop you, I get the kudos. There are finite prizes, and limited resources. Fighting for academic karma points becomes the raison d’etre. I am reminded of Sayre’s law as applied to academia in a quotation usually attributed to Kissinger and rephrased to me as

In academia, the fights are so bitter because the stakes are so low.

In industry, the stakes are different. The whole ship is at stake; if one of us goes down, we take others with us. Humans are still humans and whilst turf wars and latent power struggles and empire building and all the rest of it do go on, the overall winners are not always the ones who fought to be first author. The goal such as there is one is to navigate the whole team through current, concurrent economic, scientific and political cycles safely, with the minimium of carnage, and, in pharma, hopefully along the way to play our incremental parts in the process of making a medicine. One goes from being master of one’s destiny with an outcome to an extent proportionate to time spent at work, to a tiny, tiny cog in a hundred-thousand person machine. There are roles for everything, including things that you have never heard of. So I was the statistician who supported the pre-clinical scientists in one or more areas of biology, or one or more technologies; at one point I was the in-house go-to person for the statistical design of transcriptomic studies; another the stats point person to Immunology. A niche within a niche, as it were, but I was perceived to add value nonetheless. If this had not been the case, my role would have been made redundant eventually.

Corporate adjustment, the change in ways of being and doing from academia to industry is painful. I observed over the years that the transition needed to be made judiciously and with a degree of self awareness. The move looks to be possible at two stages although of course there are always exceptions. One can move, as I did, fresh from a masters or doctorate or perhaps a short postdoc just to make sure one was not at home in academia. At this stage one is malleable, still relatively young and able to learn new things quickly, and not yet quite so wedded to the ideals so important mid-career. The other people who arrived who were successful were professor-level and brought something specific. In my field this was usually technical expertise. If these people came willingly they commanded respect straight away, especially if they were known from the literature and conference circuit.

If what I am saying makes sense to you, and you are a life sciences graduate who can program in R, has a degree of intuition for the philosophy of statistics and a doctoral thesis in applied statistics; or the other way around, if you are a maths or statistics postgraduate with due awe and respect for the almost and not quite overwhelming stochasticity of biology; this is your job listing. For other scientists, there are other roles, companies and routes. A year in industry is a good bet, for example. As you wish, ask me and I will point you in an appropriate direction if I can.

Enjoy.

* I don’t really believe in “should”, said breezily with a wave of the hand, used to be one of my maxims. My vocational transition is about as much fun as it sounds.

Posted in alternative careers, career, careers, conferences, Life, PhD, science careers | Leave a comment

Computers these days

When I was in primary school, in the early nineties, Tesco ran a scheme called Computers for Schools. Shopping at Tesco earned paper vouchers which were collected by local schools. When a school had collected enough vouchers, they could spend them on computer equipment.

The window of time when I was in love with technology began when I was five or six years old. My primary school employed the father of one of the kids to teach us the basics on the suite of Acorn computers my school had bought using Tesco vouchers.

The IT teacher taught us two maxims:

  1. It is very difficult to break a computer, aside from using a hammer. This teaching was designed to encourage us, as we learned the rudiments of BBC Basic or word processing, to experiment, to wonder what this button does.
  2. Computers are stupid. They do what humans tell them, and nothing else. If someone’s machine did something unexpected and the teacher was called to investigate, the whole class would carry out a call-and-response exercise:

Mr IT: Computers are…?

Class: Stupid!

I progressed from Acorn computers to Windows. At home we always had a modern PC, cast off from my father’s place of work. Their tech was being upgraded annually to keep up with the demand of that field. I remember vividly the day dad came home and told us kids solemnly that this new computer had a gigabyte of memory.

Wow, Dad.

I said.

What’s a gigabyte?

In preparation for my undergraduate studies, I pored over PC World magazine before picking out a Dell desktop, a gift from my father. I took immense care of it, and used to open up the case to add RAM, virus-check it often, and back up my work to a series of DVDs every month(!). At the start of my MSc I won a MacBook in the essay escapade and became a Mac convert; I worked primarily across UNIX and Mac for the next four years. As well as the trusty MacBook I was furnished with a beautiful 27-inch iMac and a UNIX box with NVIDIA GPUs for my PhD, with thanks to the Wellcome Trust for their generous funding. Further I had access to Imperial’s incredible High Performance Computing service for anything my own tech could not handle – quite the privilege.

On my first day in my first job post-PhD, the hiring manger handed me a laptop with the apology that it ran Windows 7, meaning that the company’s Windows 8 upgrade was still in progress. I replied dryly that I was sorry that it was Windows at all, perhaps the first indication that corporate Erika was not going to be an authentic edition of the self. I installed emacs to do my work in R, and got hauled up by IT whose virus-scanner had picked up one of the extensions I had installed, which makes emacs keybindings work in Microsoft applications and reads to a virus scanner as a keylogger. Oops.

Working with corporate IT is different to working with academic tech, where I had been largely left to my own devices. As the years passed I came to learn that it was in my best interests to get on with the job in hand, and that it was not my job to try to understand what was going on under the IT hood. Outside of work, I had a succession of iGadgets and was aware that I was becoming less and less au fait with how the whole thing chained together.

But it’s not just me. Richard once told me “you have tech chops” and that is probably still true to an extent, but I don’t think Maxim Two holds anymore. iGadgets and their ilk now hoover data up furiously. Behind your back they mine email, social media, calendar, text messages and photos. Your friends end up tagged, your geography monitored, memories and suggestions are supplied to you unbidden. If you have had a turbulent few years involving the loss of the husband, marriage, home, career and worldview that you once treasured, this is a cruel system, worse than human memory that can blindside you with a once-familiar perfume or train station, say. No, I do not want to see a photograph of my honeymoon today, thank you very much.

That window of time has closed, then. Yet another important aspect of my life that my perspective has changed on. Weird.

Posted in Apple, Computers are stupid, Life, Mac, Meta, Tech, Windows | Leave a comment

Where is Social Mobility Heading and for Whom?

Levelling up may have been a phrase that tripped off Boris Johnson’s lips more than other politicians, but whether or not the phrase is politically dead, the concept is as important as it ever was during his prime ministerial tenure. Andy Burnham, Mayor of Greater Manchester, certainly thinks so, having said recently

“I’ve always been clear since I came into this role that in the end Greater Manchester’s devolution will be judged by what it can do for Oldham and Rochdale. This is us levelling up Greater Manchester ourselves.”

Parts of Manchester are wealthy;  many other parts – such as Oldham and Rochdale – are anything but. Trying to bring new jobs, industry and money to these deprived areas will be a challenge, which the Innovation Accelerator funding, announced in the Levelling Up White Paper should help, but there is only so far the allocated £30M will go in transforming the local economy.

Inequality does not just exist in major urban settings though. Whereas my home city of Cambridge may look like a booming economy, possibly even overheated and certainly reaching the limits of expansion unless its infrastructure is urgently sorted out, it is hardly uniformly wealthy. Marked out as the most unequal city in the country, according to the Centre for Cities, there is much that needs to be done. However, unlike Burnham in Manchester, its devolution deal lead to a mayor responsible for the three utterly disparate regions of Cambridge, Peterborough and the fenland surrounding rural areas. It is inevitably hard to find solutions that fit all, and its transport links between these different constituent regions are woeful. World-class research within the University of Cambridge and the many research institutes, may seem a world away from the lived experience of the 14-year-old in the fens. Or even from the experience of a 14-year-old in one of the further flung council houses within the City, who may never have set foot in a Cambridge college, or visited one of the city’s wonderful museums. Social mobility across these societal divides needs to form a central part of levelling up.

How well is the Government addressing these issues? This brings me back to Oldham, with the Principal of Oldham College (a further education college), Alun Francis, taking over from Katherine Birbalsingh as (Interim) Chair of the Social Mobility Commission (he was formerly Vice Chair). In their joint response to the autumn statement, the pair have previously said, with concern at the lack of attention directed towards the issues,

“How early years [education] is delivered and how skills are taught are both extremely important areas of interest for us.”

So they should be. Middle class children may get to school already familiar with the idea of books as a source of pleasure; those less advantaged may barely have seen one. Early years are crucial in getting a child onto a firm footing to traverse the subsequent education system. A child who falls behind then may never catch up.

Birbalsingh herself may be head teacher of one of the most academically successful secondary schools in England, one in a pretty deprived part of London, but she came in for a great deal of flak (not least from me) when she pronounced, to a Commons Select Committee, that

“From my own knowledge of these things, physics is not something that girls tend to fancy. They don’t want to do it. They don’t like it….There is a lot of hard maths in there that I think that they would rather not do.”

She later admitted this was ‘a guess’. To my mind, and I would suspect to many in the STEM community, probably including the Institute of Physics, attitudes such as these should disqualify someone from being responsible for social mobility. By casual statements such as these – ones not based on evidence – she is condemning some of her pupils to feeling their dreams are unattainable, shutting down avenues for their future study and careers. (The title of the IOP’s 2013 Report, Closing Doors, says it all. And, as the report spells out, doors can also be closed for boys in other subjects due to a school’s culture reinforcing outdated stereotypes.)

Those skills, that Francis and Birbalsingh stress in the comments I quote above, may well require the numeracy and grasp of physical concepts that an A Level in maths or physics (or equivalent BTECs or T Levels) could confer, even if a student has no intention of studying the subject at University. To be a qualified electrician or machine shop operator, helping to rebuild a manufacturing hub in Manchester, as Burnham aspires to, or to support the thriving technology industries around Cambridge, needs this kind of numerical and conceptual competence and confidence. A head teacher who closes doors to 50% of the population by out-of-date attitudes may well be ‘doing more harm than good’ coming with “too much baggage to be as effective as I would like to be as Chair”, as she put it in her resignation letter. Her comments regarding girls and Physics would seem to confirm this, although she will also have been referring to many other of her outspoken views.

So, Alun Francis, principal of an FE college in one of the left-behind parts of Manchester, now has the opportunity to shape social mobility and to facilitate local and national levelling up. His task will be all the harder, for the very reasons the pair stated in the autumn: there is little cash or attention being directed towards either early years’ education or FE and subsequent skills development for young adults, and upskilling for adults. Whereas the last Labour government put money into Sure Start, to try to overcome the early years’ hurdles for the less advantaged, this government has lost that focus and cut that programme right back. FE has been the poor relation in the education system for decades and, as a recent Sutton Trust report on apprentices highlighted, the fall in apprenticeship starts has been much greater in the more deprived regions compared with the better off and, in the total number of starts, there has been a shift towards degree apprentices for the latter group.

Social mobility remains a challenge. Cash for the education system overall remains a challenge. There is much to be done to enable cities across the country, not just Manchester and Cambridge, to thrive, but if our economy is to recover and thrive in the long term, that cash needs to be found.

Posted in Alun Francis, education, Equality, Further Education, Katherine Birbalsingh, Levelling Up, Sure Start | Leave a comment

It Has Not Escaped Our Notice

Screenshot 2023-01-04 at 10.25.57
This one contributed by my correspondent Professor Trellis of North Wales and received with thanks. Presumably the injunction does not apply to Residents.

Posted in it has not escaped our notice, Silliness | Comments Off on It Has Not Escaped Our Notice

Hard of Hearing

While researching a recent tome I discovered much about the wonder that is mammalian hearing. As the so-called mammal-like reptiles of the Triassic shrank, from the size of large dogs to small dogs to cats to mice to shrews, they also changed in shape. The tooth-bearing bone of the lower jaw (the dentary) expanded, kettling the other bones at the back until they left the jaw completely and were swept into the middle-ear. There, the bones of the jaw joint, specifically the articular (in the back of the jaw) and the quadrate (the bone in the skull with which it articulated) became respectively the malleus and the incus, joining the time-hallowed stapes to give a chain of three tiny bones (the ossicles) connecting the eardrum to the inner ear. Mammals have a new jaw joint, in which the dentary articulates with another bone in the skull, the squamosal.

The result was transformative. The ossicles allowed hearing of refined sensitivity and at much higher pitches than reptiles could manage. Even birds — which still hear with the reptilian system, and its single stapes bone — cannot hear pitches higher than about 10 kilohertz (kHz), for all their trills and tweets and coos. Yet small children can hear up to 20 kHz, and this is positively cloth-eared compared with dogs (45 kHz), cats (85 kHz) and dolphins (160 kHz).

It was as if the first true mammals discovered a door in the high hedge surrounding the dark and dense woods in which they lived and found a wide-open vista the existence of which they had not suspected.

I use the word ‘small children’ above advisedly. As we humans age, we tend to lose our ability to detect the higher pitches (I am now 60). Over the past few years my own sensitivity to higher pitches has declined, such that I am now affectionately known chez Gee as ‘You Deaf Old Bugger’. After months of resistance I was finally persuaded to get my hearing tested, which I did at an audiology branch of a well-known chain of optician. My audiogram showed significant loss of sensitivity to higher-pitched sounds, especially above 2000 Hz (2 kHz). It is these frequencies that define consonants in everyday speech. This hearing loss explains why when Mrs Gee asks me to send reinforcements as the Russians are going to advance, I think she is asking me send three and fourpence, the Russians are going to a dance. The family has had to endure regular subtitling on TV – either that, or volumes too high for the rest of the family to tolerate.

Although I have abused my hearing throughout my life with exposure to loud music, mild to moderate age-related hearing loss is very common. There might also be a genetic element. Close relatives younger than I have hearing aids. So, in the past week I have joined the ranks of the hearing-aided.

What a revelation it has been.

I cannot pretend it is anything like the experience of the first mammals. However, we can turn down the volume on the TV and radio here at chez Gee and subtitles aren’t always a must. My hearing aids are also equipped with bluetooth which is brilliant. I can listen to music or audiobooks as I engage on my daily round — something I was used to doing with earbuds. And there is an app for that (of course) so I can control my hearing aids from my phone.

It was rather disconcerting initially. For the first two days or so the world did seem rather ‘fizzy’ as I could hear ‘noisy’ and high-pitched sounds well for the first time in years. I didn’t realise how much birdsong there is, even in midwinter. But I learn that it takes time for one to learn to live with the experience and after a few days it settles down.

There are downsides – if I want too play music through studio headphones I need to take my hearing aids out. And, as I am one of the few people with sufficient sense left in the world to wear an FFP2 mask in crowded public spaces (one wonders if the NHS would be quite so burdened with flu and COVID cases were mask wearing compulsory in public spaces),  putting on and removing a mask is quite tricky when there are hearing aids in the way. But that’s an argument, perhaps, for another time.

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The Humane Scientist

It was Philip Ball who drew my attention to the recent memoir by Lindy Elkins-Tanton, Portrait of the Scientist as a Young Woman. He said, over Twitter, that he thought it would resonate with me, and it certainly did. His review of the book can be found here. There is much that is factual – about her treks to study the so-called flood basalts in Siberia, for instance – and there is much that is tragic about her life, ranging from childhood abuse to cancer. But what struck me most was her determination to find a different way of doing science, in which every member of a team is valued, not merely a cog in a hierarchical power structure. She deplores the idea of a ‘hero’, as she puts it, at the top claiming the credit. Such a stance does indeed resonate with me.

Elkins-Tanton’s arguments explore how such a structure leads to an environment in which minorities are likely to suffer. A she puts it

“I have watched graduate students, particularly men, learn the practice of harsh contradiction instead of discussion, and I’ve watched them practice on each other, and on female faculty.”

This reminds me of what I heard from female early career philosophers, who told me how much they hated the so-called Socratic method of argument their discipline favoured. In this the dialogue is necessarily argumentative, one side contradicting the other (that contradiction, no doubt often being harsh), supposedly to tease out better answers but, in the process, leaving many feeling diminished.  In philosophy, undergraduate numbers of men and women may start near equal, but certainly don’t end up like that higher up the pecking order. There would seem to be a connection between method of teaching and gender outcomes.

No doubt there are those who believe that ‘harsh contradiction’ is simply toughening up the wimps, but I do not see it as such, but agree with Elkins-Tanton’s view that

“This practice does not indicate the depth of the person’s knowledge….it’s a way of saying, I am master of my field…And this practice does not lead to best learning and discovery.”

The need of some leaders to suppress anyone whose views do not accord with theirs, whatever the seniority of the other, can only be detrimental. At its worst, it can lead to lateral thinking and alternative hypotheses being cut down, so that someone’s dominant viewpoint can thrive: that can never be good for science. I am tempted to use the amyloid hypothesis as an example of this, where ideas take hold and are not challenged for far too long. In this field specifically, it has taken more than 15 years for what looks like fraudulent evidence supporting one version of the hypothesis to come under suspicion. With Alzheimer’s such a devastating disease, and much effort directed towards a target that may not even exist, the damage globally done by not allowing alternative ideas to be developed fully is impossible to quantify.

Elkins-Tanton is equally forceful about the damage that can be caused by ignoring those who bully or harass their colleagues. When she draws a particular person’s appalling behaviour to the attention of her institution’s leadership, she is met with rebuttal, including the argument of ‘the need to keep Chris because he brought in a lot of grant money’ and that he ‘should be forgiven because he was drunk when he did it’. She persisted, and ultimately the culprit left. The emotions I felt when I tried to draw attention to a senior professor’s harassment I have detailed before. I felt sullied and appalled that arguments such as “oh yes, he behaved like that with many female colleagues, that’ s just how he was, but he was immensely supportive of women” and that “it’s always gone on” were regarded as adequate to proceed with offering further honours to the individual, although I was promised the centre would look to see if there was further evidence of harassment on file. Of course, there wouldn’t be. It is a fearful business to make an official complaint, particularly when there seems little likelihood of anything being done to remedy the situation.

Similar situations arise far from the higher education sector. Recently this has been very clear in the allegations regarding Dominic Raab’s bullying in various Cabinet roles. As expressed in the Guardian

“Sources claim that while none of the officials wanted to make a formal complaint because they felt that working for the department was a privilege, they decided to inform McDonald [Lord Simon McDonald, now Master of Christ’s College here in Cambridge] about the alleged bullying.”

Civil servants, just like many in Higher Education, do not seem to have much faith in official processes.

Bullying may be hard to define formally (where do you draw the line between exhorting a student and being excessively demanding?), but it should be possible for an institution to put brakes on people who damage others, even without sacking them. Where a supervisor repeatedly demeans students under their care, surely it should be possible to ensure that they are not permitted to take on new students for a year or two while they learn the error of their ways and realise there are consequences of inappropriate behaviour. That someone, who I know has been investigated for bullying within a University, can still be in post and be described to me by a former researcher in their team as ‘neither a misogynist nor a racist, he just bullies everyone’ is an absolute condemnation of the system as it currently stands. Often it does feel as if an institution will support those who bring in the research cash, regardless of the devastation they may wreak on those in their teams.

In his review of the book, Ball remarks that

“Elkins-Tanton’s memoir joins a small group that is reconfiguring the way science is presented and framed: not as a triumphant march of discovery but as an intimate journey in which researchers navigate their own dilemmas, struggles and traumas at the same time as they try to expand our knowledge of the physical world.”

He also notes that these memoirs typically come from the pen of a woman. It is an interesting point. Do men not want to admit to the fact that they are vulnerable, and that the default way of doing science – constructed by white men over the last century and a half within universities – has its failings? If I compare the two books by E.O. Wilson (Letters to a Young Scientist) and, much earlier, by Peter Medawar (Advice to a Young Scientist), it is clear how much Wilson falls into the camp of believing in mastery and being self-serving in order to succeed, whereas Medawar comes across as much more humane. (I commented on this comparison previously.) However, Medawar’s own memoir (Memoir of a Thinking Radish) does not come across exhibiting much vulnerability at his core. We perhaps will have to wait longer for a memoir from a male scientist written with as much humanity, as well as interest and insight, as Elkins-Tanton’s.

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In which I step over the edge

Trees reflected in a pond

Another first of January, and I find myself in that fuzzy transition between old and new, between holiday and the resumption of real life. The Christmas tree and its associated trappings give me that look, seeming to realise they they belong to another era and are living on borrowed time. Their glimmer has an air of tragedy. You really want them gone — the decorations, the festive table settings, the fairy lights, the deformed candle-ends, the last few days of going through the motions. The coup de grâce. You want to rearrange the furniture back to normal, restore the boxes of ornaments and relics to the loft, hoover up all the needles on the carpet. But it’s not quite time: tomorrow, perhaps.

I’ve been ill for so long that this Christmas could never have been normal. Only in the last few days have I started to feel somewhat like myself. The best I can say is that I caught up on my sleep, read a few good books and gained back three of the twelve pounds I precipitously shed in the acute November throes. I’ve started to learn the accordion (again), and have resumed my fitness regimen, months behind where I used to be, but you have to start somewhere. I’ve enjoyed the walks we’ve taken, fresh mild air in the lungs, stands of old oak and holly and mud beneath my boots, crunching on spent chestnut casings and acorns and sodden leaf.

I’ve thought about the future: what would I want to see different this year? As usual, I already feel happier and more secure than I probably have any right to. If it ain’t broke… But nevertheless, I’d like to up my game. Some of this I can control: writing more, doom-scrolling less. But some of it is out of my hands, and none of it is urgent.

In the meantime, 2023: welcome. Let’s see how we get on.

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Darwin and the divine

On Boxing Day, Jerry Coyne posted his blog post The New York Times touts religious miracles as proof of God. In his post, Coyne deconstructs an essay published in the New York Times. The essay by Molly Worthern uses individual testimony as the source material and contemplates the question How would you prove that God performed a Miracle?

Coyle says:

Worthen’s title question mentions two important issues. First is that of “proof”, which is really irrelevant to a scientist since we don’t think of empirical “proof” of God—or of anything. We speak of the strength of evidence, which, to me, is strong for the formula of a water molecule having two hydrogens and one oxygen, and far, far weaker for an omniscient and omnipotent being who cares for each one of us.

Coyle says that scientists do not think of empirical proof of anything, which might be true in theory. However, Coyle’s retirement is showing. When a laboratory scientist consults me in my role as project statistician, their project is grounded in the truths of their discipline. Accepted theories allow next experiments to happen. In designing an experiment, we control for the less certain truths but we don’t, for example, let the theory of evolution by natural selection be taken as less than a truth for the sake of our experiments, just because, per Coyle, we cannot consider it to be proven empirically.

What I am getting at is that the scientist at the coalface knows of truth in two senses. They know the truths of their day, theory-as-accepted, language with which to share new findings with colleagues. To an outsider watching the work, this information appears to be certain to everyone involved. The true scientist, though, also holds in her heart that at some stage in the future, current truths might become past theories as new information emerges. A scientist who cannot work with this paradox becomes frustrated and stuck.

Erika competes in the backstroke at the Cold Water Swimming Championships, 2015.

Erika competes in the backstroke at the UK Cold Water Swimming Championships, 2015.

The reference made to the molecular formula of water pierces me in a way that it would not have before. It is the very existence of the water molecule, with its atoms and its properties perfectly in tune with the demands of photosynthesis, respiration, death and renewal, that serve as the evidence of existence of something divine. Long before I became a Christian, I for several years swam round the year outdoors, so central to my well-being. Simple immersion connected me with the changing seasons. Central London life can bypass the rhythm of the year; ice, frost, algae, blossom then crowds, weeds, dying leaves into the ice again were the way I kept in tune. It does not surprise me that much in hindsight that I was unable to thrive absent this ritual and broke down in a life of corporate tyranny and commutes.

Water is symbolic for Christians via baptism; there is holiness also in the making and sharing of a cup of tea. Discernment seems to involve a lot of tea.

I don’t have any particular authority in the faith/science pseudo-divide. I find the conversation boring quite frankly, a bit of a wankfest. Is the earth 6,000 years old or four billion? I don’t care, I’m not a geologist.

Admittedly the evolution by natural selection piece speaks to me more; I cannot not be a Darwinist however hard I try. But I believe that I understand probability theory, why the scientist’s spirit is drawn to the significance test, and what those pesky p-values really mean. I look at all of that, and I look at my soul and its longing. I picture the cygnets and swans on the Serpentine this coming spring. I contemplate the journey ahead. Integrating all of that in both sense of the word, I found my belief in God. I went with Christianity for the simple reason that I was baptised as an infant. My journey began itself around me, before I joined alongside.

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My Reads of 2022

In 2022 I consumed devoured read 62 books of various sizes, from slim novels to the multi-volume epic that is Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire (which I counted as one book). I haven’t read as many books in a year since records began (2014, in my case), and, perhaps, ever. Perhaps there hasn’t been much to watch on the telly. I doubt if I’ll ever match it – since I had COVID I find it harder to concentrate, lose patience more easily and so take longer to finish things.

Here they are, in no particular order, as they say on the game shows.

Screenshot 2022-12-01 at 19.39.20Richard Fortey: A Curious Boy It was the author himself who recommended this book to me, as he said — and I hope, if he reads this, he won’t mind my saying so — that aspects of his book reminded him of me. And it did. It was uncanny. The geeky boy who loved nothing better than to roam the countryside; to spend time alone with collections of fossils, or insects, but who loved art, and literature, and music, ideas; was allergic to virtually every sport (Fortey played Tiddlywinks for Cambridge University: I represented the University at Scrabble); and who was drawn, ineluctably, into science. And writing about science. And even the same areas of science. Fortey’s Life: An Unauthorised Biography (perhaps his best known book) plows a furrow adjacent to my own writings. However, I suspect that Fortey and I are less long-lost brothers than exemplars of a type: variants of the same species. There are, to be sure, many people out there who will see themselves in this book, whether or not they became scientists — or, as Fortey nearly did, a historian of science. Or a poet. A joyous read.

UntitledAnnie Proulx: Barkskins Like many people, I suppose, I first came across Annie Proulx with her redemptive novel The Shipping News. Later on I read Accordion Crimes. The two novels are totally different in scale and scope, yet both united by their unequalled grasp of the effects of history on the residents of North America, and their spare, unsentimental style. Barkskins follows this tradition. At the very end of the 17th century, two down-and-out youths from the slums of Paris are transported to New France — today’s Nova Scotia and New Brunswick — as indentured labourers. One, René Sel, becomes a woodsman, set with his axe to fell what seems to be the inexhaustible forests of the new continent. His descendants largely belong to the indigenous Micmac people — woodsmen, fishers, trappers, hunters, ever trying to hold on to the threads of their ancient traditions. The other, Charles Duquet, absconds, and eventually founds a mighty dynasty of lumber barons. So begins a walloping great family saga, which could have degenerated into a potboiler, but works because of Proulx’s signature style – pure, terse prose occasionally ornamented by sentences of breathtaking beauty and startling originality. Many of the characters are explored in depth — the Micmac paterfamilias Kuntaw Sel, the timber baroness Lavinia Duke — but most make only fleeting appearances. The real stars are the panoramic landscapes, the trees, the great forests of America, and, later, the world, felled by the human need to conquer and subjugate. If I could find one fault, it is the tendency to dump a lot of historical information into the mouths of her characters as a way of helping you, the reader, catch up with world events. The thing is, you see, Proulx’s best characters struggle when the need to express themselves hits their fundamental inability to carry it through, usually because, in their world — a tough world of physical hard labour to which Proulx’s style is ideally suited — doing counts for a lot more than saying. Think Brokeback Mountain. (Yes, Proulx wrote that, too). Most of her characters work best when they say little. By giving voice to the unlettered and inarticulate she elevates them to a kind of dignity and greatness.

UntitledAlastair Bonnett: Off The Map That a sense of place has meaning to human beings is the theme of this charming book, which, in its collection of 47 cartographic oddities, is an appeal to the importance of topophilia – a love of place. Failure to recognise this leads to consequences that vary from the amusing to the tragic. Among the motley collection of locales is Leningrad, a kind of alter ego to St Petersburg; the two fractally intertwined villages of Baarle-Nassau and Baale-Hertog, one in Belgium and the other in the Netherlands, each no more than a doorpost away; and the multiple enclaves-within-enclaves of the Chitmahals between India and Bangladesh whose inhabitants suffered discrimination from both states (a situation resolved in 2015, after this book was first published). One is reminded of China Miéville’s urban fantasy The City and the City, in which two entirely different cities share the same space (indeed, the author mentions this book). There is the urban landscape of Bonnett’s native Newcastle known only to foxes; the lay-bys known only to doggers; and Sandy Island, a sandbar in the South Pacific known only to cartographers, but which doesn’t actually exist at all. Through it all is a sense of regret that our sense of place has been replaced by a preoccupation with the journey. Old Mecca, for example, has largely been demolished, consisting mainly of the Grand Mosque where pilgrims gather, and the hectares of parking lots and hotels required to accommodate them.  And there’s a parking lot at Los Angeles International Airport (LAX) that is a shanty village of campers that house the often transient airline staff, but with no power or running water. At the opposite extreme are the luxury cruise ships that have become a home from home for the super rich. Everywhere — but nowhere. A poignant read.

Screenshot 2022-06-15 at 00.29.23James Joyce: Ulysses The premise of Ulysses is simple. It follows a small group of characters through their lives in Dublin, Ireland, during the course of a single day, specifically, 16 June 1904. On the way it challenges, reflects, refracts, subverts, transmogrifies, distorts, compresses, explodes, eviscerates, reassembles, thesaurizes and recycles everything we think we know and understand about how human thought gets processed into language, or words on a page. Like many specimens of Anglo-Irish literature through the ages (by that I mean literature in English by writers who self-identify as Irish), all the way from Jonathan Swift and, as it happens, Thomas Beckett, to Spike Milligan and Roddy Doyle, Ulysses is marked by a strong sense of the absurd. Now, this doesn’t mean that there don’t exist writers from places other than Ireland who are absurdist, nor that there might be writers from Ireland who write in a more conventional style. But — and this isn’t just because the action takes place in Dublin — one does tend to find reading this easier if one’s internal voice takes on an Irish accent, and rather than trying to think too much about what’s going on, simply go with the flow. And it is, in general, a modernist work, which seems odd for a book that was published almost exactly 100 years ago, but if you’ve read the poems of T. S. Eliot, such as The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock, you’ll know what to expect. The erudition (especially long quotations in Italian); the rich allusion; sometimes disconcerting contrasts between the internal worlds of the characters and their everyday circumstances; and above all the long, seemingly meaningless and certainly incomprehensible diversions. In the room the women come and go, talking of Michelangelo. What the Actual? Which room? Which women? And what’s with this Michelangelo business? And I thought this bus went to the station? Don’t sweat it, just enjoy the sounds of the words as they roll past: Ulysses is not so much a novel as a prose poem. What Joyce tries to do in Ulysses, apart from simply do things for — oh, heck, I’ll say it — the craic, is chart the interior monologues of characters as they happen. That is, quite literally, a stream of consciousness. So when the main protagonist, one Leopold Bloom, decides to go to a friend’s funeral, we don’t see him — as an omniscient narrator would, directing Bloom as a puppet — putting on his black suit and hat and going to the funeral, making small talk with his fellow mourners as they share the cab ride to the cemetery. Yes, we get that, but at the same time we witness every thought that passes across Bloom’s mind, whether everyday anxieties (he has a business appointment, and he needs to find time to do some shopping) or bubbling up from his subconscious, such as his sexual fantasies, and the state of his bowels, and all in the order in which they would happen — uncurated, unedited, unexpurgated and in real time — with no sense of propriety or logical order. This is no more than honest reportage of how people think, but our mind’s editor is as self-deluding as it is fierce, so what reaches the outside world is usually the cleaned up version — even more so for characters in fiction.  But if this is really how people think, it’s a wonder we can make any sense of our lives at all. As far as I know, no writer has worked harder to craft a work in such detail (Ulysses has a particularly knotty textual history and arguments persist to this day about the most authentic version) and yet at the same time remove himself from the process of his own creation. It is a remarkable book. Perhaps the most remarkable I have ever read. Will I read it again? Not on your Molly Bloom. But did I enjoy it? O yes, very yes I did yes yes YES!!

Screenshot 2022-05-01 at 20.32.25Lesley Glaister: Little Egypt This little book was a tonic. I was attracted because it is based around one of my favourite settings — a large country pile in an advanced state of decay, with secrets piled on secrets. Indeed, the house is the title character. Little Egypt is a grand house in the north of England. Like many grand houses, the First World War pretty much did for it, and the spendthrift owners progressively sold off more of the land until it is a  small island completely cut off from the rest of the world by a railway line, a dual carriageway and a superstore. Although dilapidated, it is still inhabited by nonagenarian twins Isis and Osiris, whose childhoods had been scarred by their abandonment in the house, during the 1920s, by their Egyptologist parents who were forever in Egypt squandering their wealth on a search for the fabled Tomb of Herihor. As the story opens, Osiris has long ago descended from eccentricity into madness, but Isis is still as sharp as a tack. For years she has been courted by a developer who wants to buy Little Egypt so it can be levelled to make way for yet another superstore. Isis is sorely tempted … until she remembers the awful secrets that the house conceals. The only flaw for me was a section in the middle in which the young twins actually travel to Egypt to see their awful parents. This seemed to go on longer than necessary. Mainly, I think, because those scenes didn’t feature the slowly decaying mansion, against which the tombs and temples of ancient Egypt seemed fresh and new.

Screenshot 2022-05-06 at 19.48.00Robert Harris: Conclave  To make a thriller out of the election of a new Pope would seem a tall order, given that almost all the characters are elderly men in frocks. Despite an almost total lack of sex or violence, and no car chases  Harris weaves a truly unputdownable tale about the election of a (fictional) Pope. The incumbent Pope has died after a long illness during which he has left several loose ends and made several seemingly unusual decisions. It falls to Cardinal Jacopo Lomeli, the Dean of the College of Cardinals, to organise the conclave of 118 of his fractious fellows in which a successor will be elected. Cue a great deal of intrigue, politicking, quotations from the Bible and some jaw-dropping plot twists. It might seem odd to write a novel about the Catholic Church these days that is in any way sympathetic. This one is — sympathetic, that is — because despite nods to the ongoing scandals involving sex abuse by the clergy, and the financial chicanery with which the Pontifical bank accounts have been associated, the protagonist is a fundamentally good man. Lomeli has spent a life in the Church, and despite his own repeated bouts of Imposter Syndrome he is clearly devout, well-liked, tactful and skilled in untangling the various problems that the task of running the conclave throws up. And if after reading this book you don’t know everything there is to know about running a Papal conclave, you’ve been reading a completely different book.

Martin Cruz Smith: Wolves East Dogs Arkady Renko, dogged Moscow detective (introduced in Smith’s 1981 novel Gorky Park), tries in vain to wrest any kind of order from the collapse of the Soviet Union and the rise of the ‘New Russia’, which is every bit as corrupt as the old. Here he investigates the case of millionaire Pasha Ivanov, who has — apparently — thrown himself to his death from his penthouse apartment. This seems out of character for the cheerful, outgoing Ivanov, whose apartment walls are decorated with pictures of himself with notable figures of the day. ‘He embraced Yeltsin and Clinton and the senior Bush. He beamed at Putin, who, as usual, seemed to suck on a sour tooth’. But Ivanov has been acting out of character of late. And the floor of his walk-in closet is covered in — of all things — salt. Renko’s trail leads nowhere. And more than nowhere, for he finds himself chasing leads in the radioactive exclusion zone around the wreck of the Chernobyl nuclear plant, a region inhabited by a bored militia, desperate scientists, shady scavengers and the peasants who refused to leave after one of the reactors blew up in 1986. Renko finds a kind of respite here, perhaps because he has no formal jurisdiction in Ukraine, even enjoying the rustic hospitality of the peasant farmers. ‘Arkady found the pickles crisp and sour, with perhaps a hint of strontium’. The plot is, eventually resolved, although perhaps rather too quickly and neatly after a series of unlikely coincidences. But a satisfying read nonetheless. Especially at the moment.

Kyle Harper: Plagues Upon The Earth. Kyle Harper is an historian, specialising in the history of disease. He is specifically interested in the pandemics that swept through the Roman Empire – events that might have changed the course of history. While thinking about that he reasoned that the entirety of human history, not just the Roman Empire, might have been shaped by contagion. Considered as apes, humans, as it turns out, are uncommonly prone to pestilence. Chimpanzees, for example, are strangers to bodily hygiene (they even like to snack on their own poo) and yet have fewer kinds of germs than humans. Harper’s history is divided into several eras. First came our prehistoric past, when we were mostly plagued by worms. After that came agriculture — an disaster for human health – in which humans began to live in close proximity to their domestic animals, one another, and the excrement of all. Diseases sprang up that exploited the fecal-oral route, and the possibilities of vector-borne transmission. The Iron Age saw a greater concentration of people in cities, adding respiratory diseases to the mix. Oh yes, and cholera. The Iron Age ended with the Columbian Interchange between Africa, Eurasia and the Americas, with dreadful consequences for all concerned. After that, modernity lurched into view with a greater realisation of the importance of hygiene, followed by the germ theory. For the first time, cities were places where people could safely be born, rather than sinks of mortality that required constant immigration to keep their populations from collapse. Today, people are more likely to die from accidents or genetic disorders than the infectious diseases that exerted such a grievous toll. Depending on who’s counting, there are around 200 viral, bacterial, protist, fungal or parasitic diseases that affect infect humans. Harper hadn’t meant to write this book during the COVID pandemic. That he has done underlines the importance of this book, which one can only feel guilty about for finding racily readable, given the subject. Humans, for all our control of the natural world (and perhaps because of it) are ever at the mercy of diseases.

Francesca Stavrakopoulou – God: An Anatomy. The God of the Bible is a musclebound, physical, jealous street-fighting brawler. He has feet, and hands, and legs, and arms, and a head, and viscera, and dangly bits. This physicality is hard to see, as it has been progressively airbrushed out in successive reworkings of the canonical texts that eventually became the Bible, largely as a result of Christianity which, with its constant worrying about the nature of the Holy Trinity has to pour the corporeal essence of God into Christ, leaving God as no more than some indefinable essence or pneuma, the smile of an ever disappearing Cheshire Cat. The author digs into the original Hebrew of the Bible texts and interprets them as products of the politically turbulent times in which they were written – the closing centuries of the last millennium BCE, when the tiny Yahweh-worshipping kingdoms of Israel and Judah were progressively despoiled, reorganised, destroyed, reorganised again and finally destroyed by waves of Assyrians, Babylonians, Persians, Hellenic Greeks and Romans. She also traces Yahweh back to his roots among a wider Levantine pantheon, as a storm god and son of the High God El, and who eventually took over El’s consort for his own — and shows how Yahweh fits in to the patterns of religion and worship characteristic of the region back to the earliest times. It should be a deeply scholarly work — and it is — but it’s also racy and engaging, and will give pause for thought to anyone who takes the King James Bible literally. Yes, the Bible should be interpreted literally. But in its original Hebrew, which I know from experience, is a very slippery fish, the translation of which will depend a great deal on the moral stance of the translator.

And the winner is…

UntitledEdward Gibbon: The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire (Folio Society Edition). What can one say about this 2,900-page epic? I found it as stately, well-proportioned and elegant as a Georgian mansion. As someone said of Wagner, it has marvellous moments, and rather tedious quarters of an hour — but the overall effect is spectacular. To be sure, it wouldn’t do for every day. Rather like turning up at the supermarket to do the weekly shop in a chauffeur-driven Rolls. But as a prose stylist, Gibbon is (in my opinion) unmatched.

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Books of 2022

Another year, another tweet thread of the books I read these past twelvemonth. Click on the images to access higher resolution versions which are just about legible, or better still, read the thread on Twitter.

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In 2022 I managed just 20 titles, five of them novels and seven by women. Of the novels I read – all by women, it turns out – the most captivating were Foster and Small Things Like These by Claire Keegan, though Persuasion and Hamnet were both immensely enjoyable.

My favourite non-fiction book of the year has to be Ignatieff’s biography of Isaiah Berlin, which provides not just an entertaining account of his life but a hugely insightful introduction into his liberal philosophy. I continued my explorations of liberalism with A Thousand Small Sanities, Adam Gopnik’s lively account – written for his daughter – of why liberalism is hated by the left and the right. (If you have an appetite for yet more on liberalism, I would still heartily recommend Ian Dunt’s How to be a Liberal, which I read last year).

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A very close second to my favourite non-fiction title has to be Fintan O’Toole’s personal and sharply observed history of Ireland since the 1950s: We Don’t Know Ourselves. O’Toole is a just few years older than me, and while I grew up north of the border, I have enough connections through aunts, uncles and cousins in the South for there to be many resonances with my own history in Ireland. But many revelations too – I never realised Charlie Haughey was such a crook!

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Several of my non-fiction choices I read for instruction and of these by far the most helpful were Ian Leslie’s Conflicted, a thoroughly researched examination of how to resolve arguments, and John Amaechi’s book on leadership (The Promises of Giants), a book so packed with useful insights I was left wishing it could be taken in pill form.

 

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