Monday 18 May, 2020

Apologies for later delivery. I forgot to hit 'publish'. :-(

Food deliveries continue

This morning, outside our kitchen window.

The poor chap needs a haircut — like every other male at the moment.


Keith Thomas: Working methods

The London Review of Books has a nice idea for the pandemic: publishing an article or a review from its amazing archives and putting it outside the paywall for a day. The criterion for choosing pieces that there should be nothing in them about pandemics.

It’s like a breath of fresh air. Here is one of them: a lovely essay by Keith Thomas on how a great historian does his work. Riveting, revealing, inspiring and utterly charming. Thomas is the most unpretentious of scholars.


Zoom: The Seven Commandments

  1. Thou shalt not forget about the agenda or deviate from it.

  2. Thou shalt not cancel meetings shortly before they start.

  3. Thou shalt not all speak at the same time.

  4. Thou shalt not keep your mic on when you are typing.

  5. Thou shalt not abandon the chat.

  6. Thou shalt not assume people can see your presentation clearly – or at all.

  7. Thou shalt not scribble on whiteboards and assume people can follow.

I would add one more, which I consider a cardinal sin: checking and replying to email while on a call and leaving the sound on. Yes, we can hear your Outlook or Apple Mail sounds when the email is sent.

Om Malik


Samuel Pepys: the very first pandemic blogger

Lovely column by Andrew Sullivan, who’s been reading Pepys’s diary for the plague year of 1665. 

There’s a certain Monty Python Black Knight vibe to Pepys’s equanimity. Does he think he’s immune? Even when the plague reaches his own parish, with 40 suddenly dead, Pepys stays up and about, with “a pleasant going and a good discourse … But Lord! to see in what fear all the people here do live. How they are afraid of us that come to them, insomuch that I am troubled at it, and wish myself away.” Even in his bedroom, as he works “undressed all day long,” the plague cannot be avoided: “It was a sad noise to hear our bell to toll and ring so often today, either for deaths or burials; I think five or six times.” Nonetheless, he attends a wedding — getting there late — and has a blast in the middle of it all: “Thus I ended this month with the greatest joy that ever I did any in my life, because I have spent the greatest part of it with abundance of joy, and honor, and pleasant journeys, and brave entertainments.”

I’m a little dumbstruck at the stoicism of it all. In the middle of a nightmare, he’s having the best month of his life! He’s not in denial. He’s somehow capable of finding an equilibrium so that even in the face of mass death, he can let himself go and enjoy a massive party. Here in the 21st century, we’re finding that not so easy. And Pepys faced horrors far worse than ours. His friends endure terror: “And poor Will, that used to sell us ale at the Hall-door, his wife and three children died, all, I think, in a day.” The press of corpses gets so great, there’s a citywide decision to carry them to burial at night, “the town growing so unhealthy, that a man cannot depend upon living two days.”

And then just a little moment that gives us a sense of how lucky, in comparison, we are: “It was dark before I could get home, and so land at church-yard stairs, where, to my great trouble, I met a dead corpse of the plague, in the narrow ally … But I thank God I was not much disturbed by it. However, I shall beware of being late abroad again.” Maybe it’s just the English stiff upper lip as far back as 1665, but the tenacity and composure of the man are impressive, even as he passes by mounds of corpses lying out in the open, piled up against the walls of houses in the streets, dumped into mass graves, and all the doctors dead in Westminster, leaving the dying to fend for themselves.

Typical Sullivan: original fresh, perceptive. When, at the beginning if all this, I was looking for books on previous pandemics, it never occurred to me to reach for Pepys. Growl.


162 benefits of Coronavirus

Yeah, I know this might look like tasteless trolling, but it isn’t. The virus is terrible, sure; but it also forces us to do things we ought to have done decades ago. So it’s an interesting and thought-provoking list that includes stuff that I at least hadn’t thought about.

Call it creative contrarianism.


Atul Gawande on how to keep the virus at bay

Fascinating and sobering New Yorker piece on what you have to do to keep a hospital safe.

The Boston area has been a COVID-19 hotspot. Yet the staff members of my hospital system here, Mass General Brigham, have been at work throughout the pandemic. We have seventy-five thousand employees—more people than in seventy-five per cent of U.S. counties. In April, two-thirds of us were working on site. Yet we’ve had few workplace transmissions. Not zero: we’ve been on a learning curve, to be sure, and we have no way to stop our health-care workers from getting infected in the community. But, in the face of enormous risks, American hospitals have learned how to avoid becoming sites of spread. When the time is right to lighten up on the lockdown and bring people back to work, there are wider lessons to be learned from places that never locked down in the first place.

These lessons point toward an approach that we might think of as a combination therapy—like a drug cocktail. Its elements are all familiar: hygiene measures, screening, distancing, and masks. Each has flaws. Skip one, and the treatment won’t work. But, when taken together, and taken seriously, they shut down the virus. We need to understand these elements properly—what their strengths and limitations are—if we’re going to make them work outside health care.

Four basic ‘pillars’ of the strategy: hygiene, distancing, screening and masks. They won’t return us to normal life, he says,

but, when signs indicate that the virus is under control, they could get people out of their homes and moving again. As I think about how my workplace’s regimen could be transferred to life outside the hospital, however, I have come to realize that there is a fifth element to success: culture. It’s one thing to know what we should be doing; it’s another to do it, rigorously and thoroughly.

Great piece. He’s the best writer on medicine that I know.


What comes after Zoom?

Answer: conversations and spontaneity. Zoom is fine in its way, but really it’s just reinforcing one of the most pernicious aspects of organisational life — an addiction to group meetings. But because we’re all working for home, there’s no place for the random conversations that are often the key to productive working and creative endeavour. There’s no such thing as planned creativity. So the search is on — predictably — for a technology that might make that kind of serendipitous conversation possible in a remote-working context. There’s currently a lot of noise about this idea — and of course venture-capital involvement.

Here’s a good survey of emerging apps.


Quarantine diary — Day 58

Link