All about catching thermals

Small publishers are sweeping the Booker and Nobel prizes

On this years’s Booker by Philip Lynch (Prophet Song)

What is the secret to big success for small presses? Nothing new, the editors say, but rather something as old as the book trade: picking worthy titles, editing them carefully and promoting them well. It often comes down to money—in particular, not thinking too much about it.

Publishing, by its nature, is a gamble. The recent renaissance of independent presses may fade with the changing tastes of prize committees or the fickle fancies of readers. “Sometimes you catch a thermal,” Ms Mabey says, and a book soars. “Sometimes you don’t.” But small publishers can adapt to changing winds. And with another Booker in the bag, Oneworld, like so many of its peers, is flying high.

Which is once the way academia worked. All about being the right size for the job in hand.

On the importance of not achieving anything

Psychology Lost a Great Mind – Nautilus

At a dinner one night, a first-year graduate student noted how he preferred his new intellectual freedom to the pressure for immediate results he had endured in industry:

“I like coming home at the end of the day not having accomplished anything.”

John replied, “Young man, you have a bright future in academia.”

Steve Pinker writing about John Tooby who died earlier this month.

On not being properly confused

I like orderly confusion very much. But this is neither orderly nor properly confused

Dieter Rams

His German is a pleasure to the ear.

Via John Naughton 10 November 2023 link

Departure time 2023, arrival 1943

Timothy Garton Ash in the NYRB

When I started writing my book Homelands: A Personal History of Europe five years ago, I thought that in order to bring home to young Europeans the horrors against which postwar Europe has defined itself, I must hurry to track down some of the last surviving elderly Europeans with personal memories of the hell that was Europe during World War II. So I did, in Germany, France, and Poland. But today all you need do to experience such horrors firsthand is take a train into Ukraine from the southeastern Polish town of Przemyśl. Departure time 2023, arrival 1943.

The (not so) strange case of Katalin Karikó

The 2023 Nobel prizes – What they mean for higher education

The strange case of Katalin Karikó

Dr Katalin Karikó, joint winner of the physiology-medicine award, has received much comment in the media. Born and educated in Hungary, she has spent most of her career in the United States. But she has also held appointments in three other countries at a variety of institutions, and has most recently been senior vice president at BioNTech, a biotech company in Germany.

The debate stems from her time at the University of Pennsylvania, where she worked from 1989 to 2001, in positions ranging from scientific assistant professor, to senior head of research, to adjunct associate professor.

During that period, she was demoted from a tenure-track position in 1995, refused the possibility of reinstatement to the tenure track and eventually ushered into retirement in 2013.

Meanwhile, her close collaborator and fellow prize winner, Dr Drew Weissman, whom she met in 1997, remains at the University of Pennsylvania as professor of medicine, as well as being co-director of the immunology core of the Penn Center for AIDS Research and director of vaccine research in the infectious diseases division.

Some have pointed out that Karikó was working on risky or unconventional scientific themes, and that the usual funding agencies and senior academics were unable to see the promise in her work until recently, when she and her colleague Weissman have been recipients of multiple prizes. The fact that she received her doctorate from the University of Szeged in Hungary and not a prestigious institution in a major country may not have helped.

None of this story is surprising nor strange.

Robert Conquest’s third law of politics

The simplest way to explain the behaviour of any bureaucratic organisation is to assume that it is controlled by a cabal of its enemies. (Robert Conquest’s third law of politics)

I tend to think the NHS is directed by people who don’t like it.

SLS: things that don’t appear in medic final’s

Which goes with that other common disease christened by the late Sydney Brenner (yes, the same Brenner): MDD or spelled out, money deficiency disease)

The Enlightened Economist | Economics and business books

The over-burdened welfare state is not quite coping with people suffering from what (I learned here) doctors describe as “Shit Life Syndrome” when they go to their GPs for help with depression or other mental ill-health conditions. And there will not be enough money to fix any of this unless growth picks up. But that would require a competent, effective government able to take clear decisions, build cross-party consensus, devolve money and powers, and stick with the plan without changing ministers and policies every 18 months.

All is power and all is politics

Daniel Trilling · Not Much like Consent: Crisis at the Met · LRB 30 March 2023

In the​ 1980s, the Met was a key part of the coalition of interests that underpinned the Thatcher government. Together, the Conservative Party, the police and the right-wing press successfully undermined the power of the unions, by legislating against them, physically attacking their members (as officers from the Met and other forces did at Orgreave and elsewhere during the miners’ strike) and persuading just enough people that this was necessary to maintain law and order. Not every officer approved of the role the police played: Dick wrote an essay during her training arguing that the Thatcher years created ‘the impression that the police had been reduced to the status of political tools’. But the Tories bought goodwill among the rank and file – and boosted recruitment – by implementing a 45 per cent pay rise soon after taking office in 1979. ‘Most of us in the police thought [Thatcher] was simply magnificent,’ Ron Evans, a former Met protection officer, told Harper.

Late night thoughts on listening to Mahler’s ninth

My main theme in the book, which is something I’ve discussed for a number of years in other fora, is that we are in a state where science has greater potential benefits, but greater potential downsides. And indeed, in our evermore interconnected world, there’s a genuine risk of global catastrophes, which could arise through our collective actions, as we’re seeing in the concerns about climate change and loss of biodiversity. But it could also arise from an engineered pandemic, for instance, which could be generated by ill-intended applications of biology.

I’m talking really here in the book about what I’m trying to do, that is to measure up how much progress we have made with how much progress could be made or is ever likely to be made

Martin Rees explains how science might save us – Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists


I want to end by reading something Bertolt Brecht wrote that I stumbled across in my twenties:

Nowadays, anyone who wishes to combat lies and ignorance and to write the truth must overcome at least five difficulties. He must have the courage to write the truth when truth is everywhere opposed; the keenness to recognize it, although it is everywhere concealed; the skill to manipulate it as a weapon; the judgement to select in whose hands it will be effective, and the cunning to spread the truth among such persons.

Great piece about John Markoff by Steven Levy

Training? What training

Training is in tatters as doctors prioritise urgent care and discharges | The BMJ

“During my last job on an acute medical unit, one of the FY1s would sit in a box room separate from the doctor’s office for three days a week and write up to 15 discharge letters a day. It’s farcical to suggest that’s rounded training.”

“Prioritising training for juniors isn’t just about having competent and confident doctors in the NHS but actually having them at all. It’s hard to feel compelled to pursue a career in the NHS after a week in which your sole learning point was how to make the ward photocopier work,” she said.

Not enough saints to go around

British politics needs more money | The Economist

Plumbers are paid well because they wade through effluent. In their own way, so do those in politics (indeed, one parliamentary candidate recalled being sent a photo of her election leaflet covered in a large human turd). Relying on public spiritedness alone to guide people into politics is as foolish as hoping goodwill will be enough to persuade someone to spend a life unblocking toilets.

In a previous paragraph

A lack of money also dilutes the quality of the politicians tasked with putting those ideas into practice. When salaries were first introduced for MPs in 1911, they amounted to £400 per year or roughly six times the average wage of the time. Now an mp earns around £84,000, just over double the average full-time wage. (The days of being able to boost pay via dodgy expense claims are long gone, too.) Meanwhile, incomes for high-flyers in professional services have exploded in the past few decades. Lawyers, bankers and even accountants now command large salaries, pulling well ahead of former fiscal peers such as doctors and politicians. The opportunity cost of a career in politics is huge for the most able.

Ends with

A lack of money leaves much of politics the preserve of those who are rich, mad, thick or saintly. Sadly for Britain’s body politic, the saints are outnumbered by the rest.

Parallels between Argentina and Britain’s inept political class

The parallels between Argentina and Britain’s inept political class – New Statesman

John Gray in the New Statesman.

The catastrophic meltdown in public finances that very nearly happened during Liz Truss’s short spell as prime minister was not the result of a one-off act of political folly. Her madcap dash for deficit-financed growth revealed Britain’s heavy dependency on global capital flows and acute vulnerability if they come to a sudden stop. Since then, UK government borrowing costs have risen. Quantitative easing after the financial crisis of 2007-08, the costs of lockdown, and energy subsidies have left colossal levels of public debt.

In effect, the British state is operating as a highly leveraged hedge fund.

It won’t end well.

This is a new civilization…

Vaclav Smil on the Need to Abandon Growth

Speaking as an old-fashioned scientist, I think the message is kind of a primitive and, again, old-fashioned message. This is a finite planet. There is a finite amount of energy. There is finite efficiency of converting it by animals and crops. And there are certain sensitivities in terms of biogeochemical cycles, which will tolerate only that much. I mean, that should be obvious to anybody who’s ever taken some kind of kindergarten biology.

Unfortunately, this is a society where nobody’s taking kindergarten biology because everybody’s studying what’s communications, writing in code, economics, business administration, liaising the state office, and things like that. This is a new civilization we have. People are totally detached from reality. If you are attached, at least a bit, to reality, all of this is common sense.

Shopping for money

What supermarkets reveal about Britain’s economy

Last year a boss in the social-care sector told a parliamentary committee that he dreads hearing that an Aldi is opening nearby, as “I know I will lose staff.”

Conspicuous Destruction

Conspicuous Destruction | Kim Phillips-Fein | The New York Review of Books

Private equity has become such a force in dermatology that job postings now emphasize when the business is “NOT private equity.”

Just like the buses

John Lanchester · Get a rabbit: Don’t trust the numbers · LRB 21 September 2023

One way of explaining how Britain got to this place is to say that we waited all this time for the worst prime minister in history, and then four came along at once.

On building for our children’s future

Arianne Shahvisi | Liable to Collapse · LRB 12 September 2023

The education secretary, Gillian Keegan, seemed both surprised and peeved that the prospect of concrete falling on children’s heads would cause so much bother. She observed that ‘schools can collapse for many reasons,’ mithered that no one had told her ‘you’ve done a fucking good job,’ and breezily tweeted: ‘most schools unaffected’. (Keir Starmer’s press team live for this kind of low hanging fruit, and were quick with the obvious riposte: ‘most beachgoers not eaten by big shark’.)

While in Susa, de Morgan oversaw the excavation of a seven-foot basalt stele inscribed with the Code of Hammurabi, the best-preserved copy of one of the world’s oldest legal texts, drawn up by the sixth Amorite king of the Old Babylonian Empire. It is now on display in the Louvre, five thousand miles (and a great many political barriers) away from the sight of modern Iranians. The code, which lists 282 provisions and their punishments, is the first recorded example of the lex talionis principle, predating the Torah’s ‘eye for an eye’. It also lays out the earliest written building regulations:

  1. If a builder build a house for someone, and does not construct it properly, and the house which he built fall in and kill its owner, then that builder shall be put to death.
  2. If it ruin goods, he shall make compensation for all that has been ruined, and inasmuch as he did not construct properly this house which he built and it fell, he shall re-erect the house from his own means.
  3. If a builder build a house for someone, even though he has not yet completed it; if then the walls seem toppling, the builder must make the walls solid from his own means.


Rishi Sunak used helicopter for trip from London to Norwich | Rishi Sunak | The Guardian

Rishi Sunak has used a helicopter to travel to and from an engagement in Norwich, a trip of little more than 100 miles, Downing Street has confirmed, in another example of the prime minister’s fondness for flying brief distances.

UWE Bristol rugby player waited five hours for ambulance, inquest hears | Bristol | The Guardian

A 20-year-old university student who died after being injured in a rugby match and acquiring an infection in hospital lay in agony on the pitch for more than five hours while she waited for an ambulance, an inquest has heard.[she had a dislocated hip]

Patients in England will be first to access seven-minute cancer treatment jab | Cancer | The Guardian

Patients in England will become the first in the world to benefit from a jab that treats cancer in seven minutes.

It is expected that the majority of these people will now get the drug via a seven-minute injection instead of intravenously, which usually takes 30 minutes to an hour.

How many months they wait to be seen, scanned or started off on treatment is not mentioned.

On being old

FT business books — what to read this month | Financial Times

From a book review in the FT The Perennials: The Megatrends Creating a Postgenerational Society’, by Mauro Guillén.

The loneliness and emptiness of retirement could be alleviated if classrooms and offices welcomed all comers, regardless of age. Big shifts in thinking will be needed to bring this about, not least inside educational institutions and executive suites. But it’s a change that is long overdue, says [ Mauro] Guillén, who pointed to words written about a century ago by anthropologist Margaret Mead: 

It is utterly false and cruelly arbitrary to put all the play and learning into childhood, all the work into middle age, and all the regrets into old age.

And yes, I do think about these things more and more.

Essay grades: not funky, just tight

Letters · LRB

Lorna Finlayson’s Diary took me back to the 1970s when my husband’s lecturer in Buddhism at Lancaster University offered this sublime assessment of one of his essays: ‘Tight. Like Bill Wyman’s bass or the Liverpool defence.’ Happy days.(Caroline Walker)

Which brings to mind Geoff Norman’s phrase to the effect that objectivity is not a useful objective, the only judge of expertise is subjective.

Those sensible Dutch persons

Race to lead European Investment Bank heats up – POLITICO

DUTCH CAMPAIGN GEARING UP: From an EU perspective, Dutch elections used to be simple: about 20 parties fought a fierce campaign and in the end, Mark Rutte was back at the European Council table.

The defacement of public office

Braverman’s war on the ‘crooked lawyers’ – POLITICO

Or as Tory Deputy Chairman Lee Anderson put it: “If they don’t like barges then they should f*ck off back to France.”

Splendid. Which brings to mind Aneurin Bevan’s infamous description of the Tory party. My sympathy, as ever, is with the Welshman.

If you tolerate this, your children will be next.

Don’t aim to work in the NHS

A little while back, Lisa and I were out for dinner at a friend’s house. The mother, ’M’ was a doctor and the husband, ‘H’, worked in finance. M ticked all the boxes for what you might wish for if you were a patient: technically competent, deeply caring, and worked way beyond her contractual hours. Nor did she park her patients in some tidy box somewhere: her job was part of who she was.

M and H had a few children under 11. As often happens, while watching the children play and interact, the question was asked what they might end up doing as a career. H spoke immediately and with conviction: ‘I just hope neither of them ever works for the NHS.’ Note, not I hope they do not become doctors, but rather I don’t want them ever working in the NHS.

I find it hard to imagine this same conversation a quarter-century ago. Things have changed.

Training is in tatters as doctors prioritise urgent care and discharges | The BMJ

“During my last job on an acute medical unit, one of the FY1s would sit in a box room separate from the doctor’s office for three days a week and write up to 15 discharge letters a day. It’s farcical to suggest that’s rounded training.”

“Prioritising training for juniors isn’t just about having competent and confident doctors in the NHS but actually having them at all. It’s hard to feel compelled to pursue a career in the NHS after a week in which your sole learning point was how to make the ward photocopier work,” she said.

A dog at the master’s gate predicts the ruin of the state. (William Blake)

I wish I had said that

Letters · LRB

Nicholas Spice speaks of ‘the conductor demanding ever more rehearsal time, the players wanting to get home and have a life’ (LRB, 16 March). This put me in mind of Frank Zappa’s definition of conducting as ‘drawing designs in the nowhere which are interpreted as instructional messages by guys wearing bowties who wish they were fishing’.

Chris Sansom

Roger Searle Payne (1935–2023) | RIP

Roger Searle Payne (1935–2023) | Science

He changed the world. Humanity takes longer to come aboard.

Roger Searle Payne, the biologist who pioneered studies of whale behavior and communication and advocated for their protection, died on 10 June. He was 88. Payne was widely known to both scientists and the public for his groundbreaking discovery of the songs of humpback whales.

Born on 29 January 1935 in New York City, Payne received a BA in biology from Harvard University in 1956 and a PhD in animal behavior from Cornell University in 1961. From 1966 to 1984, he served as a biology and physiology professor at The Rockefeller University in New York. In 1971, Payne founded Ocean Alliance, an organization established to study and protect whales and their environment, and he remained its director until 2021.

Initially, Payne’s research focused on auditory localization in moths, owls, and bats, but he changed course to focus on conservation and selected whales for their status as a keystone species. In 1967, he and his then-wife Katharine (Katy) first heard the distinctive sounds of the humpback whales on a secret military recording intended to detect Russian submarines off the coast of Bermuda. Payne and his collaborators, including Scott McVay and Frank Watlington, were the first to discover that male humpback whales produce complex and varied calls. Mesmerized by the recordings, Payne realized that the recurring pattern and rhythmicity constituted a song. He published his findings in a seminal Science paper in 1971. After many years and many additional recordings, he and Katy further realized that the songs varied and changed seasonally.

These hauntingly beautiful whale songs captured the public’s attention thanks to Payne’s extraordinary vision. He released an album, Songs of the Humpback Whale, in 1970 that included a booklet in English and Japanese about whale behavior and the dire situation that many species of whales faced. He recognized the power of juxtaposing the plaintive and ethereal songs of humpbacks with images of whaling.

The album remains the most popular nature recording in history, with more than two million copies sold. Humpback whale songs are now carried aboard the Voyager spacecrafts as part of the signature of our planet.

Playing a corrupt signalling system

The ticking clock for America’s legacy admissions | Financial Times

This article from the FT is about Ivy league admissions in the USA but I think has relevance to the way people gain entry to medical schools in the UK. I was never involved in med student selection at either Newcastle or Edinburgh so I feel free to admit that I have always felt vaguely hostile to the grade 8 violin crowd. Now, self-taught guitarists, are another matter, as are those who have worked in paid employment whilst at school.

Many of us know at least one wealthy person whose kids spent a week in India or Tanzania building houses or digging latrines. Bizarrely, I know of a family that travelled to a nameless developing country on their private jet on precisely that quest. Competitive volunteering as a means of glamorising résumés for Ivy League applications long ago reached absurd heights. The ideal student would play concert-level violin, cure river blindness, win yachting competitions and get intensively coached into high SAT scores. At some point, the system has to collapse under the weight of its self-parody. I don’t know how close that moment is, or what a revolution in university admissions would precisely look like. But the data keeps pouring in.

Shit life syndrome

The Enlightened Economist | Economics and business books

The over-burdened welfare state is not quite coping with people suffering from what (I learned here) doctors describe as “Shit Life Syndrome” when they go to their GPs for help with depression or other mental ill-health conditions. And there will not be enough money to fix any of this unless growth picks up. But that would require a competent, effective government able to take clear decisions, build cross-party consensus, devolve money and powers, and stick with the plan without changing ministers and policies every 18 months.

As a med student I remember sitting in with an Irish senior registrar in psychiatry as he saw a young woman whose life seemed to consist of one random but state-induced tragedy after another. That she could still get out of bed and care for her numerous children seemed to me to attest both to her sanity and her moral character.

The psychiatrist’s assessment was blunt: the patient had no need of a physician, but needed to join the f***ing labour party and mobilise for office. Quite so.

An ode to regulation

Guardrails | No Mercy / No Malice

People have always been stupid, and everyone is stupid some of the time. (Note: Professor Cipolla’s definition is people whose actions are destructive to themselves and to others.) One of society’s functions is to prevent a tragedy of the commons by building safeguards to protect us from our own stupidity. We usually call this “regulation,” a word Reagan and Thatcher made synonymous with bureaucrats and red tape. Yes, Air Traffic Control delays and the DMV are super annoying, but not crashing into another A-350 on approach to Heathrow, not suffocating as your throat swells from an allergic reaction, and being able to access the funds in your FTX account are all really awesome.

The NHTSA is one of the many boring state and federal agencies critical to a healthy society. Before the Food and Drug Administration, the sale and distribution of food and pharmaceuticals was a free-for-all. The Federal Aviation Administration is the reason your chances of dying in a plane crash are 1 in 3.37 billion. Next time someone tells you they don’t trust government, ask them if they trust cars, food, pain killers, buildings, or airplanes.


Peer review

Shakespeare’s First Folio assembled the world’s greatest literature from TheEconomist

In 1612 the founder of Oxford University’s Bodleian Library had even warned against collecting play-texts: worthless “baggage books”.

No freeman (or woman) is free if judged by their peers. [JLR]