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.

Books-of-2022.1

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 work so packed with useful insights I was left wishing it could be taken in pill form.

 

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Photos of 2022

Another year, another two thousand or more photographs, some of which I thought were quite good. There’s a little taster below but if you want to see the full set of 55 pictures that were my favourites from this year, you need to click through to my album on Flickr.

Robin on a branch in silhouette.

Silhouetted Robin.

The Louvre in Paris reflected in the now iconic glass pyramid.

Louvre Reflections.

Black satellite dishes protruding from a multicoloured row of terraced houses.

Colourful Communication

A small balcony in Barcelona with room for just a single red armchair.

Barcelona Balcony

Circle of leaves glowing in the sunlight

The Circle of Light.

Round aluminium tables and blue chairs on a wet pavement strewn with fallen leaves.

No Cafe Society in Autumn.

 

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Intelligent life: Isaiah Berlin

Thanks to the paucity of my education and cultural life I have come late to Isaiah Berlin, the noted philosopher and historian of ideas whose thinking provided such a guiding light to the 20th Century. But I’m definitely a fan now.

Isaiah Berlin - Archive on Four

I’d heard the name, of course, but would have been hard-pressed to tell you why he was well-known. I started tracking him down after reading a piece in the New Yorker about philosopher Elizabeth Anderson, whose ideas challenged Berlin’s assertion of the inevitable clash between freedom and equality. I liked Anderson’s notions of “relational, or democratic, equality: meeting as equals, regardless of where you were coming from or going to” and assumed that Berlin had somehow got it wrong.

But I should have looked before I leaped to that conclusion. When I did finally get around to probing Berlin’s thinking, through reading Michael Ignatieff’s fine biography, I found much more depth and nuance and humanity than I had supposed from that single observation in the New Yorker article.

I marked many passages as I read Ignatieff’s book but one of the few that I selected as especially resonant, highlighted in pink rather than yellow, could stand as my personal credo.

Screenshot of the Berlin biography extract. The text reads "In these wars, he belonged on the liberal left, but he warned his own side that their goals were in conflict. For every supposed gain in social justice there might be a corresponding loss of freedom. This conflict between ends was bound to defy smooth managerial solutions. The best that could be hoped for was some ‘logically untidy, flexible and even ambiguous compromise’. What the age calls for, Isaiah concluded, ‘is not (as we are often told) more faith, or stronger leadership, or more scientific organisation. Rather it is the opposite – less Messianic ardour, more enlightened scepticism, more toleration of idiosyncrasies.’ Fighting injustice was essential, but men ‘do not live only by fighting evils’. They live by choosing their own goals – a vast variety of them, seldom predictable, at times incompatible’. It was individual freedom, to choose well or ill, which had to be defended, not some ultimate vision of the human good. Since no disposition was faultless, no disposition was final. His motto in politics, he concluded, was: surtout pas trop de zèle."

Highlighted extract from Berlin’s biography. Full quote in the Alt text.

It rang such a sonorous bell I think because I have such a logically untidy mind and aspire, however falteringly, to an empathetic approach in debate and decision-making. “Empathy was, for Berlin,” Ignatieff writes, “the core liberal aptitude – the capacity to be open, receptive, unafraid in the face of opinions, temperaments, passions alien to one’s own.” Well, quite.

It’s an outlook I’ve tried to bring to discussions of open access and research assessment, but also, perhaps more critically, to work to address some of the challenges around equality, diversity and inclusion (EDI) at my university and within higher education. EDI is steeped in conflicting values and perspectives; arguments in good faith struggle to be seen as such, since who you are – your history, your lived experience – weighs heavily within what you have to say.

The idea that the best that can be hoped for is some “logically untidy, flexible and ambiguous compromise” rings true for my experience of conversations about the gravity and impact of historical racism, for example, or the rights of cis and trans women, or where lines are to be drawn around free speech.

Berlin’s thinking is founded on a deep belief in pluralism and that values are  rooted in history and culture. For him variety really was the spice of life, and of liberalism in particular. But this also means that conflict is inevitable. The challenge is to find a way to deal with a conflict for which there is not likely to be a solution to satisfy everyone. The best we can hope for is for all sides in any debate to engage honestly, to recognise with Berlin that perspective matters (without somehow following the more simplistic ruts of identity politics), and to be able to live with ‘solutions’ that we may not like. For those of us in the majority in our diversifying society, that may sometimes call for the generosity to cede power.

For more on Berlin, I can recommend the recent Archive on 4 radio documentary which explores his life as one of the last great public intellectuals and makes good use of recordings of his uniquely plummy gabble. I particularly liked his description of the qualifications for membership of the intelligentsia: “…belief in reason, belief in progress, hatred of all forms of irrational conduct, together with a profound moral concern for society.” 

 

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Part-time talking – open science, research assessment and gender equality

Things have come to a pretty pass when the UK can turn out Prime Ministers more frequently that I post to my blog. It might be taken as a sign of the times if the times weren’t so damned confusing.

The dance of light at Barcelona airport

Black and white shot of people reflecting off the gleaming surfaces inside Barcelona airport

Whatever. The itch to keep writing is still there, even if it remains distracted by the demands of work. But those are lessening because I have shed my teaching responsibilities for the year and moved to a part-time contract working four days a week. I am lucky to be able to do so.

I suspect it may be one of the best decisions I’ve made in a very long time. I’m only three weeks into the new regime but am already feeling the benefit of having a long weekend every weekend. Work – including some of my extra-curricular commitments (such as DORA and my involvement in revisiting the Metric Tide) – might still intrude on the weekend, but so far only rarely on Fridays and it now feels more like a conscious, controlled choice. Let’s see if I can stick to the programme.

Anyway, to business. This week I have given three talks on three different but interlinked areas that have consumed my attention over the past decade or more. We are in the midst of open access week and on Monday I was able to participate online in a panel organised by Aberdeen University to discuss the latest moves towards open science. I confess I have not kept as well abreast of developments as I used to – I have still to catch up with all the hoo-haa over eLife’s recent shift in publication practice (though it strikes me immediately as a bold and worthy experiment) – but I have a strong sense that the centre of gravity is shifting in this debate: openness is clearly the way to go, even if the pathway is tangled by the commercial interests of some publishers and unresolved issues of research assessment in the academic community.

Research assessment, or more particularly the reform of research assessment, was the subject of an invitation-only roundtable run by Science Business on Tuesday morning. I think this was in Brussels but I’m not sure; I was an online participant. I’m not at liberty to divulge details but was struck by the divergence of opinion and the imprecision of language. Some talked about the need for ‘objective’ metrics or for ‘concrete’ metrics systems without pausing to analyse how such objectivity or concreteness is achieved in a system that depends critically on individual judgement and social interaction (I have finally got around to reading Ziman’s Real Science). Those of use who wish to see quantitative data about research contributions tensioned and contextualised by qualitative analyses need to make a stronger case.

And finally today I was at the Building Bridges 2022 conference organised by the Academia Europaea, at a session on diversity and inclusion run by the Young Academy of Europe. This was bracketed by intriguing sessions on science policy and on innovation, both social and technological. I hope I gave a good account of the work that we are doing at Imperial to advance EDI (very much unfinished) and was glad to find myself in alignment with my co-panellist, Yvonne Galligan (Professor of Comparative Politics a the Technological University of Dublin), a real expert in this area.

Our discussion was a bit rushed and abbreviated because the previous session on science policy had overrun, but once again I noticed a problematic imprecision in the use of language. Throughout the session, chaired by Robert-Jan Smits (an erstwhile director-general of research and innovation at the European Commission), the need to protect and valorise ‘excellence’ was emphasised. No one is against excellence, right? But during the discussion no one stopped to define what it means. At one point it was implicitly taken to mean performance in the Nature Index, which is a very narrow and contested measure of research output. I’m increasingly of the view that the term needs to be retired, not least because the scholarly critique of excellence has laid bare its weaknesses, deformities and gender biases. What a pity that the scholarly system, with its fixation on metricised performance, has yet to properly absorb this critique.

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Passing the Baton

“The Queen is dead; long live the King!” is such a cliché of stories and films that it was surprising to hear it for real. Not that we did actually hear it for real. The secrecy surrounding the Queen’s final hours means we cannot be sure what was said at the moment of her passing or even if the new King had arrived in time. But the transition was immediate and although the country is now seeing out a long period of mourning, the idea of ‘Prince’ Charles has clearly also died a death.

Queen Elizabeth II lying in state

Various members of the public have expressed their shock and sadness at the death of Queen Elizabeth II by saying they thought she would be there forever. She was certainly there for a very long time – a life that lasted ninety-six years and a reign of just over seventy. So, while it was clearly irrational to imagine that the Queen would be immortal, you can understand the feeling. Even for those of us who take little interest in the monarchy, there is a clear sense of a historical shift – a tear in the fabric of our times.

That will fade. The press of events, of day-to-day concerns will sweep the intensity of this present moment into the jostle of memories that each of us carries around. Vivid at first, and likely to be long-lasting for many, these recollections will recede into the background. Life goes on – until it doesn’t. The baton has passed from Queen to King, from mother to son. In turn, eventually, he will pass it on to his own son.

So it is for the rest of us. Our batons may not sparkle like the royal sceptre, but which of us does not hope to leave some kind of legacy for those who come after? I am thinking not just of the money, property, experiences, wisdom, values and love that parents might impart to their children, but the marks we all make on the world that impact the lives of others, whether through work or charity or friendship.

As someone who is closer to the end of his career than the beginning, I find myself wondering more and more about these marks. The more fanciful hopes of youth have submitted with a wry smile to the accumulated accidents that make up a life – a very good life for the most part. But as children grow up and parents decline and die, the sense of an ending comes into sharper focus. An intake of breath – where did the time go? No matter, really. You always knew in your head it would pass, even if you chose not to believe it for the first few decades. 

Perhaps that is wisdom, to realise finally that you can only hold the baton for a short time? The world will still be here, much as we found it, after we’ve gone. Which is not to say that we should not strive to make it a better place; only that to do so, we might focus more on making every day count, even if only in a small way. We are not likely ever to reach the future that we dream of but it is enough to carry the baton for a while and pass it on to others who might, in turn, ensure that it gets to the hoped-for destination. 

 

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A Declaration on Bicycle Assessment – the Decision

Reader, I bought a Brompton.

Folded Brompton

After all my research – and a considerable amount of humming and haa-ing – I finally took Henry’s advice and went to my local bike shop to test-ride a couple of different eBike models. The cheaper one on offer there didn’t work out – easy enough to ride and a motor with plenty of power, but nothing like the compactness of the folded Brompton. In the end, I decided that was going to be the most critical factor since I need to take the bike on a train to get to work.

At just over £3,000 for the six-speed Electric C-line Explore model the Brompton was one on the most expensive options, but the cost is mitigated since I can buy the eBike through the Cycle-to-Work scheme. This allows me to pay in 12 instalments that are deducted from my monthly salary before tax. Since I am in the higher tax bracket, that knocks about a grand off the purchase price. Not bad – my thanks to the government.

I took delivery yesterday and did my first commute to work today. It was… good. I reckon it will get better the more I get used to the journey.

The motor has three settings which balance power and range. I reckon I will stick to No. 2 for most use but on the return home this evening, with its long, slow climb, I switched to No. 3. The motor kicks in as soon as you start pedalling and made the ride quick and easy. Quicker than the bus, and not too sweaty.

I had a little trouble with the bright sunlight which made seeing the road tricky at times. London may be a great city, but its roads are pitted and uneven. On the way up to Hyde Park Corner from Victoria, I narrowly avoided a pot-hole that would have swallowed the front wheel of the Brompton and sent me flying.

Otherwise, the main thing I need to work on is my folding technique. I missed trains by seconds going to work and going home because I haven’t yet mastered the twists and turns of the mechanism that reduces the bike to a neat little package. When I got off at Victoria Station this morning, I discovered that I’d somehow managed to catch the hook that locks the front wheel to the frame around the chain. All of the other passengers trooped past me as I struggled to unfold my contraption. I tried not to catch anyone’s eye.

Tomorrow, I go again.

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A Declaration on Bicycle Assessment

You’d think assessing bicycles would be a lot easier than assessing researchers, but I’m not so sure.

eBike screenshot

Though I spend quite a bit of time as chair of the DORA steering committee pondering how best to evaluate research and researchers, this weekend I’m mainly preoccupied with rethinking my commuting options. When in 2004 we moved to our current house, a 25 min walk from the station, I used to cycle for that leg of my journey to and from work. I lasted six months. The problem was the house is high above the station.  That hill was an easy descent on the way in but a killer of a climb, even with a relatively light bike and 21 gears, on the way home.

I am now wiser, but also older. And heavier. And less fit. So I am wondering if an e-bike might allow me to get a bit more exercise without risking total collapse on that slow climb home from the station. I’m also trying to convince myself that if I got a folding bike, I could get even more exercise by cycling the last leg of my commute from Victoria Station to the Imperial College campus at South Kensington.

To that end I started looking at eBike options and soon became bewildered. There are so many! I’m not even sure what to look for. Is portability more important than rideability? How much battery power do I need? How many gears?

To cut through the morass of different options I took to Twitter to ask for advice and got a wealth of suggestions from friends and colleagues. The advantage of this approach is that the information comes from trusted sources, most of whom have first-hand experience of the bicycles they recommended.

Even so, there’s a lot of information to process. I put together a spreadsheet of ‘indicators‘ to get a better grip on the key quantitative differences between models.

eBike data table

That helped to sort out some of the decision-making: on price, for example (I can’t yet justify £3k for a Brompton, whatever the legendary design); on gears (I’m looking for more rather than fewer); and on weight (lighter, obviously).

But the choice is still not obvious. As Brompton-owner Andrew McKinley pointed out, ‘I think folding bikes fall into the “you want three things? Pick two” trap. Cheap, easy to fold, sturdy? Pick two…’. He’s not wrong.

And then there are all the qualitative questions to be answered. How portable is the folded bike? How smoothly does the electric power kick in? Do I want a front or rear wheel motor? Is the battery removable – and is that an important feature?

I think what I might be looking for is a narrative CV for eBikes, in which owners can describe there experience of these features. Of course, such judgments are subjective – and tensioned against the numbers. But that is the nature of evaluation of complex systems, research and researchers included. It’s about trying to gather the most relevant information as efficiently as you can and living with the fact that the process can never be perfect.

In the meantime, thanks to everyone who responded to my query on Twitter. I’ll be glad to hear any additional eBike assessments.

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To the sea

With emails running alongside, barking for attention, we beat a retreat from London. The clamour of work was soon swamped by the heat and light and sights and sounds and smells of Barcelona, and by the newness and oldness of it all. In the evening as we wandered the narrow streets in a desultory Google search for a restaurant, the continental warmth seeped into our bodies like a muscle relaxant.

Spanish scenes

All that night and all the next day the city wrapped us in its hot bright charms. We let ourselves be taken away by the saturated colours of the Mercado de La Bouqueria, the vertiginous splendour of La Sagrada Familia, and Picasso’s singular view of our misshapen world.

Spanish scenes

La Sagrada Familia

Spanish scenes

And then we were gone, swept by the train to Cadaqués and to the sea to be with friends and family, to laugh and eat and swim and sit, and to try to remember why it is we go to work so much of the time…

Spanish scenes

…when there is all this.

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Message for my reader

For the longest time I have been meaning to get back to—ugh!—blogging. Regular readers, should any remain, will see that this is the first post of 2022. I haven’t broken any promises with the hiatus and have no excuses to make.

Empty chair

I’ve been busy. I know – who hasn’t been busy in UK academia? Nevertheless, the first half of this year was intense, with several major deadlines that left little mental spare capacity. Plus I’m not getting any younger. I think my recovery times may be lengthening – I don’t remember always being this tired at the end of every day. And then there is the wearisome effects of the ongoing disaster of UK politics, which passed through its latest crisis in this past week with the resignation of Boris Johnson. The runners are now lining up for the next one as the Conservative party leadership contest gets under way. Ho hum. Plus ça change. Perhaps age is making me more cynical. Or is it experience? Added to all this is a feeling, no doubt exacerbated by social media, that there are just too many words spewing forth into the world these days. Why add to that?

And yet, and yet, there are important things to think about. I’ve always regarded blogging as a form of thinking out loud, a discipline that forces me to do my research and get my thoughts in order on a whole range to topics. I’ve missed the rigour of that process.

So here goes, again. Though not just yet. My aim is to keep things short for now. So let me leave you with someone else’s thoughts. Here is Brandon Taylor’s substack post – apparently that’s what we call blogposts these days – on Netflix’s adaptation of Jane Austen’s Persuasion. I haven’t seen the show or read the book (yet) but I do so enjoy Taylor’s ability to write in a style that manages to be loose, funny and razor sharp.

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Books of the Year

One final look back before I turn to face 2022. Following a practice started last year, I have maintained a thread of tweet-sized reviews of the books that I read in 2021 – all of them.

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The Twitter thread of the books I read in 2021. Click on the image to see the high-res version.

There are only eighteen in total, a singularly unimpressive tally – fewer even than I managed in the first year of the Covid-19 pandemic. The only thing I miss about my commute is the loss of a regular slot for reading during the working week. Although life settled into a wearisome rhythm while working from home, the time gained from not taking the bus and train into London was not recovered for reading. Clearly, I lack discipline.

Even so, there was a decent level of diversity within my 18 titles – around 36% were written by women and 31% by Black or minority ethnic authors. I like to think I’m not too old to have my mind broadened. However, only three of my reads were novels and while my non-fiction selections demonstrate — I hope — a reasonable breadth of interest, most of those are rooted in history, and scientific history at that.

So much for numbers. Quality should usually trump quantity and this year’s titles have afforded me a great deal of pleasure and insight. While I have long been a fan of Marilynne Robinson, Jack seemed to take a while to reach the deep resonances that I recall from the opening pages of Gilead, the first instalment of her Iowa novels. Zora Neale Thurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God, written over eighty years earlier, was a fresher and more impactful encounter.

As for this year’s non-fictional forays, Obama’s A Promised Land and Power’s The Education of an Idealist both provided terrific insights into the challenge of trying to do some good in the world through politics (as did Michael Barber’s more practical tome, Accomplishment). I was also gripped by Ananyo Bhattacharya’s prodigious biography of John von Neumann (The Man from the Future) and by Spike, Jeremy Farrar’s and Anjana Ahuja’s blistering account of the Covid-19 pandemic, while Matthew Cobb’s The Idea of the Brain gave a fascinating and sobering view of our faltering attempts to understand that most precious organ.

The most important book I read this year was Shon Faye’s The Transgender Issue which brought much needed cool-headedness – and a human heart – to a topic that seems only ever to be debated in screams on social media.

But my favourite of the year has to be Ian Dunt’s How to be a Liberal, a rich and thoughtful exploration of the development of liberal thought over the past several centuries. It’s a strand of thinking that seems to be under relentless assault from the populists who have taken centre-stage for the moment, but Dunt’s book ably demonstrates that its roots run deep. So we might still hope for another flowering.

Happy new year, everyone.

 

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Photographs of 2021

Continuing the theme of gently exercising the writing muscle by composing posts made mostly of pictures, I present here the round-up of what I think are the best photographs that I took in the past year.

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2021 has been a tad leaner than last year on the photography front because the longeurs of lockdown took a firmer hold, mentally and physically. Being confined to working from home for much of the year and having scant opportunity to travel beyond these shores might have dulled the appetite and reduced the variation the world has to offer, but looking back I find my eye isn’t quite so jaded as I feared.

There’s a small selection below but the full album of 65 photographs can be found on flickr.

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Photos-of-2021 - 72

 

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In the garden

What is it about living through a pandemic that has quelled the motivation to write? I suspect it may have something to do with the unstructuring of time, or rather its reduction through confinement to rhythms dulled by repetition. Whatever the reason, a quick glance through the log of posts here over the past year reveals a loss of activity – or is it a loss of discipline? I am faintly troubled by the notion but still only in a place to regard it obliquely.

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For now, I will take an easy way out by relying more on pictures than words. Here below are some of the birds and animals I photographed in the garden in 2021. Normally, my camera roll of the year would provide a kaleidoscope of travels, my view this twelve month has mostly relied on the local fauna for variation. I am grateful to them.

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Garden-Animals-2021 - 33

The full album (31 photos) can be found on flickr.

 

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