June 24, 2022

Technology at a glacial pace Part 2

Back in November 2016, I replaced my mobile phone. The new purchase was a OnePlus 3, and I wrote about its huge 5.5″ screen and the colossal battery that I only got through 30% of each day. I also optimistically wrote that I hoped to get 4 years out of it, assuming that the collapse of civilisation didn’t render mobile phones redundant first.

Well, I’m happy to say that the collapse of civilisation is progressing a little slower than anticipated, so mobile phones are still a thing. Also, it’s now more than 5 and a half years later, so the OP3 definitely rose to the challenge. That said, the fact that I’m writing this blog post has probably clued you in to the fact that all is not rosy.

Over the last couple of years the battery capacity of the OP3 has diminished noticeably. Whereas when it was fresh I was only needing to top up 30% per day, this increased to more like 70%. Not really a problem while I was spending most of my life stuck at home, but it seemed like the world had collectively decided that covid wasn’t a thing worth trying to combat any more, and so I might find myself spending more time out of the house. The phone itself was still meeting my needs, so I figured that a battery replacement would prolong its life considerably. I got a quote from a very reputable-looking shop in town and they quoted me £70. This felt like a good deal, if it meant I could keep using the phone for another 5 years.

It turned out to be a bad idea.

Initially, the phone seemed to be having difficulty calibrating the new battery. It would run down to 1% within a few hours, and then sit on 1% for a day. I contacted the shop and they gave me some tips, and suggested I stick with it. But 3 months later, and things are still bad. I charge the phone overnight, and by the evening it’s always down to 1%, and sometimes even switches off entirely. I will contact the shop but I feel like they’re probably going to try and find some excuse to dodge giving a refund. They’re more likely to offer another replacement, which means the whole cycle starts again.

I’ve decided to do what I should have done in the first place, and just get a replacement.

Phone trends have changed quite a bit over the last 5 years. The OP3’s 1cm top and bottom bezels would be a laughing stock nowadays, much to my chagrin. We briefly went through a period of “notches” in the screen, nowadays it’s all about the little punch hole for the front camera, and having the slimmest bezels possible. Back camera assemblies have also changed, from generally only holding a single lens, to typically 3 or 4. The saddest thing of all is that headphone jacks are not common on phones nowadays.

I’ve been occasionally browsing phones over the last few years, and have generally been disappointed with what I’ve seen, which is why I’ve stuck with the OP3. It has to have a headphone jack, and NFC. It has to be Android. It has to be reasonably performant, with at least 64GB internal storage. I don’t want a Samsung or Sony. And it can’t be more than about £300.

But at last, I have found a phone that I could get really excited about. After recommending Motorola phones to friends and family for years, I’m finally getting one for myself. I have ordered a Motorola Edge 20 Lite, and it should arrive in the next few days.

Pete
March 15, 2022

Pandemic Legacy (not the boardgame)

Lots of people have had COVID-19 by now, as was always the long term plan of our government. A couple of weeks ago I can remember having more than one conversation in which I remarked that it was quite something not to have had it in this house yet. And despite the lack of any kind of interventionist deity, this immediately summoned the Gods of Covid Cussedness, who whispered in my ear, go on, take a train to Banbury, have lunch in a cafe with a colleague, visit a couple of shops. You’ll be FINE.

A rapid covid test cartridge showing a positive resultThat was on the Thursday. On Saturday morning I was mostly a bit grumpy. In the afternoon, I fell asleep on the sofa and woke up feeling decidedly grotty. I had suspicions, but a LFT told me they were unfounded, so I carried on into Sunday, when the full headache and sore throat developed, and I did a lot of sleeping. First thing on Monday, I did a test and was unsurprised to see two lines. Like a pregnancy test, it’s no longer a scare once it’s real. I cancelled everything for that day and went back to bed, getting up to make and eat dinner, at which point Bernard rather crossly said, if you’ve got COVID, why are you eating with us? so I went back to bed and have been here pretty much ever since.

Here’s how it’s been for triple-jabbed me: tiredness, sore throat, headache, head cold, cough, sore teeth/gums, tiredness tiredness tiredness. About three days of pretty bad symptoms, but never as intensely awful as my reaction to the jabs. Able to do a bit of work on and off, much dozing and listening to audiobooks. Pete moved into the spare room/his office and has been sleeping on a zedbed and manfully claiming that he’s fine with that. I’m not fine with it, I miss him and I’m fed up of the bed, which is now covered with notebooks and biscuit crumbs. There’s no point changing this bedding until I test negative and he can come back. We wear masks if we’re in the same room as each other. We converse over Discord. In the evenings, he loads a couple of TV programmes on to a thumb drive and we watch “together” in our separate rooms, occasionally texting one another with our thoughts.

On Day 5 I did a LFT and the line was black and bold, just in case I thought I was malingering. I cancelled my work weekend in Worcester and couldn’t get a train refund. I got up and recorded a podcast, then slept all afternoon. Pete walked into town at lunchtime and brought me back a cinnamon bun. It was the most delicious cinnamon bun. I have had no taste/smell symptoms at all, for which I am grateful.

From Day 7, I have been testing daily, and the line is getting feinter, but it’s still there. It’s still a line that would, had I seen it on Day 1, have sent me into isolation. I google “am I still infectious after 10 days?” and “will I have COVID in my system forever?” and continue to stay in my room, with the daily exception, since the weather improved, of a daily walk of about one mile. I get breathless on zoom calls and have to pause mid-sentence; but I can stand up long enough to cook dinner without feeling awful. Most of the symptoms have eased off, and without a world in which we test our virus levels, I would expect myself to be back to normal life by now. But if it’s still showing up on a LFT, I’m not prepared to risk giving it to Pete and Bernard. Bernard has Teacher Assessed Grading exams all week, which are the Plan B for if COVID disrupts GCSEs again, so it was never worth the risk of them missing those. And who will run around after me if Pete gets sick?

Karen
March 12, 2022

He’s a Keeper

I am very bad at getting rid of things. I’m like the anti-Marie Kondo.

Having read this, you probably now have a mental image of one of those people who lives in squalor, boxes upon boxes of old newspapers and tat lining the walls, the walkability of their house reduced to just narrow lines of dirty carpet amidst the piles of detritus, sleeping upon the piles of old football programmes on their bed, plastic bags full of human faeces in the corners, a dead cat corpse that is so old and dessicated that it no longer smells (and even when it was fresh, the odour was barely noticeable anyway amidst the rest of the stygian funk).

I hasten to add, this is not me, and this will never be me. As is so often the case, I open with a shocking statement, and then spend the rest of the blog post backpedalling from it until you are left with a feeling of being somewhat cheated. I pretty much invented clickbait.

The Caveats

First off, I have no problem with getting rid of things that are broken. If a thing no longer works, and can not be repaired, then I will bid it adieu.

Secondly, I acquire new things very slowly. So slow as to be glacial. New purchases are researched carefully. I still have almost every mobile phone that I’ve ever owned, but then that total only comes up to 6, so it’s not really a huge problem. I still have every guitar that I’ve ever owned, but then that total comes up to 9, so it’s not really a huge problem. On that note, when I’m on a video call and someone remarks upon the array of guitars behind me, it always leaves me with a faint feeling of duplicity, because what I know (and they don’t) is that half of them never get played, but are only still here because I can’t bear to part with them. I own many pairs of shoes which I never wear, but aren’t quite fucked enough to throw away.

What this means is that I’m not terribly worried about becoming a full-on hoarder. I think that to get to that state, you need to have the combination of never getting rid of things, with a high rate of acquisition. One without the other is generally manageable.

The Exceptions

The fact that the exceptions to this pattern are so clear in my mind is testament to the fact that there are so few of them.

I have generally been good at getting rid of old bass amps. I don’t have a 100% success rate here, as my wide streak of nostalgia has prevented me from parting with the piece of crap that is my first ever bass amp, but with that exception, I’ve managed to stay on top of this one, and always sold on my amp once it’s superseded. I think that, in this case, it’s a question of size. When something takes up such a large amount of room, it’s much easier to look at it and say “I’m never going to use that, and keeping it around just in case is not worth it.”

A few years back I also went on a bit of a cable-management spree. As is probably the case for anyone who is a bit of a computer geek, I had a huge collection of spare USB cables, power cables, video cables, and other paraphernalia. They were taking up a lot of space, so I made a project of collating them by type and identifying duplicates. In most cases, I felt like there was value in having one spare but not multiples, so I kept one and gave away the remainder.

I also have, in the past, sold (or given away) large numbers of CDs, DVDs and VHS tapes. It felt justifiable at the time, but I still find myself regretting parting with one or two of them. I think that, to understand this better, it’s time to burrow into my brain and start exploring The Why.

The Why

Part of this stems from a logic of “that thing might be useful again one day, it’s worth keeping around”. I’m going to show you an example now. But before I do, I want to make a small prediction. Ever since the second paragraph of this blog post, you’ve probably been thinking “okay, this all seems reasonably rational.” But this next example is possibly going to be the thing that makes you think “wow, I spoke too soon, I think this guy does actually have problems.”

These are the adhesive labels that you got with blank VHS cassettes. This particular vintage dates back to the ’90s, or maybe early ’00s. I haven’t owned a VHS player for over a decade. But once upon a time, I started holding onto the spares because they seemed like they might be useful one day. Maybe those little icon stickers could be useful in some other context? Or maybe I’d have a situation where I needed to reuse a particular tape for the thirtieth time, and I wanted to have a fresh label for each recording? These stickers are perhaps one of the oldest items in my collection, but I knew exactly where I’d find them, and if you wanted me to keep showing other such examples, I could do so all day. But this segues nicely into the second part of The Why.

I seem to be quite a nostalgic sort of person. I like to look at the adhesive labels and be reminded of the person I was back then – how he’s changed, and how he’s stayed the same. He had his flaws, of course, but he sure did like to organise his VHS tapes. I like to look at an old CD single from the 90s and remember all the time spent in music shops in Lincoln, and the people I used to sit around with and listen to indie music. I guess I’m afraid that if I don’t have these physical items to tie me to the memories, then I’ll lose them forever. And I think that I’m justified in believing this, because I know that it happens. I have precious few artifacts from my three years at university, and it really bothers me because I find that huge swathes of that period are collapsed down into the few brief glimpses that I can still remember, and I feel like if I had more things from that time then I’d be able to stimulate and retain more of those memories. Soon after finishing my degree, I found myself regretting that I hadn’t taken more photos, especially of the mundane things. I wish I had taken a photo of my bedrooms – not to highlight any particular detail, but just as a record of the spaces that I spent so much time in. I suppose at the time I was living very much in the now, and not thinking about what Future Pete would want.

As an example of how it manifests itself, my home recording studio setup has evolved throughout the years, from a tape-based 4-track, through a minidisc-based 8-track, and now to a studio that’s entirely on my computers (desktop and laptop) that has none of the limitations of either. I’m never going to use the 4-track or 8-track again, I can be certain of that. But they both still work, and so I still own them both. I suppose I’m afraid that if I get rid of them then I might also lose access to the memories associated with them. To which you will reply “why not take a photo, and then get rid of them?” To which I reply that I now seem to have the opposite problem, which is that I now have a 45 GB photo archive, and putting photos in there in the hope of retaining memories is about as optimistic as homeopathy. I did used to be quite methodical about curating my photo archive, back when I used a standalone digital camera, but as I’ve shifted towards using my phone more, the process has fallen apart.

The Conclusion

It seems that I will keep things under the following conditions:

  1. I am actively using them
  2. I think I might need them again some day
  3. There is a memory attached to them

The Plan

Here are some things that I might consider:

  • Get back into the habit of curating my photo collection. Turn it back into something that’s a pleasure to review, instead of tedious
  • Identify the things that I’m keeping for pure nostalgic reasons, not because I think they might be useful. Focus on larger items. Figure out what it would take for me to get comfortable with the idea of handing them on.
  • Identify the things that I don’t use, or have an emotional attachment to, but I’m keeping “just in case”. Again, focus on the larger items. Once I’ve convinced myself that I’m realistically not going to need them, by my calculations it should be a breeze to rid myself of them.
Pete
February 7, 2022

Pandemic Legacy: December (Part Two)

WARNING: This blog post contains shameless spoilers for Pandemic Legacy. Reading this blog post if you have not yet played the game will impair your enjoyment should you decide to play it in the future.

Previously, on Pandemic Legacy…

  • We lost November twice in a row
  • The mission briefing for December was to vaccinate all Faded cities and find the secret stockpile of COdA in Atlanta
  • We were able to complete the task to vaccinate all Faded cities in our first attempt at December, but failed to find the stockpile

December (Second Attempt)

We felt fairly confident going into this game. In the previous game we’d managed to vaccinate a whole bunch of cities and collect up all the cards needed to find the COdA stockpile, and the only thing preventing us from winning was running out of cards in the player deck. Therefore, given that we no longer had to worry about vaccination, surely that would make this game a doddle by comparison. Right?

We got a fairly favourable initial deal of disease cubes. Lots of them corresponded to vaccinated cities, which meant that they were effectively nullified, and the result was a small blue cluster and a sprinkling of cubes elsewhere.

Blue cluster

We chose to play as the following characters:

  • Jonesy the Generalist (Susan)
  • Derek the Operations Expert (Gammidgy)
  • Wei the Dispatcher (Pete)
  • Eric the Medic (Karen)

With this team, Eric could focus on managing any disease cubes that appear on the board, while Wei could move people around with speed, warping people back to Atlanta when they need to search, and warping players to each other when they need to trade cards.

An early epidemic and immediate subsequent outbreak in New York put a bit of a dampener on our spirits. However, we played cautiously and methodically, thinking about how to consolidate city cards to optimise searching, while the disease cubes on the board were well under control.

Everything’s under control

Search progress was coming along nicely, but as the third epidemic popped up, we started to get worried about the state of the trail. There was a feeling that at about this time, we were merely killing time waiting for the red city cards to pop up so that we could advance the search.

This trail is not as warm as it once was

Sadly the epidemics got the better of us, and the trail went cold before we could reach the target. We felt that we had some poor luck here, with the epidemics seeming to come up generally earlier than average, and a real shortage of red city cards. Since the state of the board hadn’t changed much during this game, and we had only been playing for about an hour (of which the first 20 minutes was setup and strategising) we decided to pretend that this hadn’t happened, and replay the game.

December (Second Second Attempt)

We felt fairly confident going into this game. In the previous game we’d managed to vaccinate a whole bunch of cities and collect up all the cards needed to find the COdA stockpile, and the only thing preventing us from winning was running out of cards in the player deck. Therefore, given that we no longer had to worry about vaccination, surely that would make this game a doddle by comparison. Right?

We had a fairly favourable initial cube allocation – no troublesome clusters, and plenty of vaccinated cities in those initial 9 meaning no cubes had to be placed.

Initial cubes for our (cough) second attempt at December

We chose to play as the following characters:

  • Jonesy the Generalist (Susan)
  • Derek the Operations Expert (Gammidgy)
  • Wei the Dispatcher (Pete)
  • Colonel K*D (Karen)

Eric the Medic would clearly be useless in a scenario such as this, hence Karen’s choice of Colonel K*D, not that it really needs justifying, because it’s just so patently obvious.

We did slightly worry about the supply of red city cards. We cast our minds back to those occasions when we’d had a “permanently destroy any card of your choice” sorts of opportunities, and if we’d possibly nuked all the red city cards out of existence.

We took an early decision to make use of the relationship between Derek and K*D to trade 2 black city cards for a single red city card out of the discard pile. Red cards are like gold dust, and we think we have black cards to spare.

Time ticked by, and the epidemics continued to trickle in. We realised that getting pairs of city cards into peoples’ hands was only part of the problem – we also needed to consider the order in which we take our turns. I mused that it would be great if the developers of the game had provided an event card that enabled us to take turns out of sequence, or reverse the direction of play, or something like that.

Three epidemics down, but we’re closing in

The state of the world, during the closing stages of the game

With one life left, time was ticking away, but we came up with a masterful plan to get the three required pairs of city cards into Susan’s hand, hence circumvening the complexities associated with the order that we have to take turns in. All that Gammidgy needed to do on his turn was to not draw an epidemic, and we’d be home free.

Victory!

With the COdA stockpile found and destroyed, we scratched off the silver panel and totted up our final scores. We got 565/1000 – not great, not terrible.

To finish the evening, we played a nice little game of Azul and called it a night. We’re definitely interested in playing season 2 of Pandemic Legacy, though not straight away. Before we started playing season 1 we used to play a variety of games on our board game nights, so it’ll be nice to enjoy that for a little while before we commit to a legacy game again. I did feel that season 1 ended with more of a whimper than a bang, as our last game ultimately revolved around a fairly banal searching exercise that felt like it was affected more by luck than skill.

Thank you very much for staying with the series, and when we play the next season, I intend to keep a log again.

Pete
January 28, 2022

Introducing Boo

It was almost exactly a year to the day ago that I wrote a blog post about cats. As mentioned in that post, Henry left us soon afterwards (his toilet habits were too extreme for us to handle) and since then we’ve been in a sort of catless abyss. We had plans to convert the conservatory into a kitchen, and so we’d agreed that it made sense to wait until after that work was complete before getting a new cat. Sadly, the new kitchen never materialised, and it took us a while to accept that it was never going to. So, with the kitchen plan shelved, the cat plan is back on the table, and after browsing the Battersea catalogue, we selected Boo!

Boo has been with us for three weeks now, and here’s what we’ve learned about her.

In the first few days, some things became apparent. Firstly, she’s a bit of a chonker. She’s overweight, at more than 6kg, and needs to slim down. We have also learned that her reaction to a new environment is to crawl under the sofa (which is quite the impressive feat, given her bulk) and hide. She’s generally not terribly touchy-feely, but she has moments during the day where she enjoys a vigorous stroke on her cheeks, head and shoulder area. For the first few days she hung around the table a lot at mealtimes, watching us, standing up on her hind legs, and trying to touch a bread roll. We suspect that her previous owners (an elderly couple, now deceased) may have fed her from the table, which would explain both this behaviour and her portliness. Thankfully, after a few days of us refusing to indulge her, she has given up on this silliness.

Over the weeks she has settled in. She often comes into my office during the afternoon to be picked up and put on my lap and stroked for a bit. My colleagues find this adorable as my microphone picks up her purring clearly. She’s doing well on the diet front, and her weight does seem to be slowly dropping. She doesn’t hide under the sofa any more, preferring instead to spend much of the day under our bed. However, she is much more comfortable with our presence, and generally no longer startles and runs away when someone walks in her direction at any significant speed. She’s even joined me for bass practice once, so the sound of that clearly does not bother her. Initially, she spent a lot of time sat in a lovely little cardboard box that we set up for her, but has since eschewed that, and it has sat ignored ever since. We should probably get round to tidying that away at some point.

She also likes to sit in the kitchen – the famous “Henry spot” where the hot water pipes run under the floor – where she sometimes strikes the most elegant pose imaginable.

On the subject of the name, we all felt that Boo was a fairly crap effort, and considered whether we’d refer to her by something else. However, we all seem to be fairly lazy, so we’ve been sticking with Boo.

She seems to be pretty good with the catflap, unlike Henry was. It surprises us that she even fits through the thing, but I guess she compresses down quite nicely when required. However she totally ignores the scratching utensils provided, and prefers the carpet instead, which we’re pretty displeased about.

Pete
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  • I think you'll find that she has been renamed Madame Bootiful Pussikins de Boozieboo. - Karen
January 23, 2022

The Big Website Consolidation 2022

The first website domain I ever registered was way back, probably in 2002. A lot happened back then, so it seems likely. Since then, I have registered a few more. I’ve also noticed that over the years my preferred supplier has changed too. Once upon a time I swore by 34sp, as did most bloggers, as they offered a really competitively-priced hosting package. They then shifted their target market and their prices went up from about £20 per year to more like £100. So I moved on, and TSO became my preferred supplier of choice. However, they were recently purchased by GoDaddy, and have also increased their prices while simultaneously reducing their offering, so I’ve moved on again.

Problematically, in all of these years, I’ve tended to shy away from actually migrating my site, meaning that I have ended up with a scattering of domains across three providers, and subsequently I am paying a lot more than I need to. I’ve decided that 2022 is the year to address this. It’s the year of the big consolidation. I’ve managed to do two of my sites already, without too much disruption. Uborka’s probably going to be next.

There will probably be some downtime, though I expect you won’t notice. I’m hoping not to delete the entire site, though I can’t make any promises.

Pete
January 2, 2022

2021: Top Ten Books

This year I’ve read even less than last year. I blame Stardew Valley and the continued lack of work travel. Of the paltry 37 books I did manage to read, for the first time five of them are actually audiobooks, and they have crept into the list in two ways: Firstly, what travelling we have done, has been as a family for a couple of short breaks, and we have started listening to audiobooks together on journeys. We all really liked The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, which Pete and I had both read before, and we all equally disliked Dave Grohl’s The Storyteller, which is largely self-indulgent twaddle. Secondly, sometimes I listen to music while I’m running, and sometimes I listen to podcasts; now I also listen to audiobooks.

So anyway, which have been the best books? There are in fact eleven in this top ten, but these are featured in no particular order because deciding on an order is an intellectual challenge too far.

A Song of Achilles, and Circe, both by Madeleine Miller
I ended 2020 with The Children of Jocasta, by Natalie Haynes, and immediately followed it with these two, as I do love a well-researched retelling of the classics, with a strong feminist lean, and Madeleine Miller does this quite as well as dear Natalie. Both of these books have stayed with me, details re-occurring throughout the year, and I think somewhere I have recently come across a retelling of Thetis’ tale, which I should probably look into. For your amusement, I followed these two with The Argonauts by Maggie Nelson, which was not in fact a retelling of a classic tale at all, but an early stage of my education about trans issues.

Journey Through Britain, by John Hillaby
You’ll know that in the past I’ve read quite a number of hiking memoirs, and often despaired that the Venn diagram of long distance walkers and good writers does not have a very large shared set. Journey Through Britain is considered something of a grandfather of hiking memoirs, written in the 1960s before technical fabrics and support-insoled hiking boots were a thing. Hillaby has an endearingly arrogant old white blokish sort of style, and walks Lands End to John O’Groats in plimsolls. It’s impressive.

Waterlog, by Roger Deakin
Similarly, this is the grandfather of swimming memoirs, written in the late 1980s. Deakin claims he is swimming the length of Britain, although while he does dip into quite a number of different places, there is no clear linear plan. He just swims where he feels like it, and why not. We newbie wild swimmers of the 2020s may be shocked by his solo ventures and reckless dives – just wait to the bit where he swims alone down a pothole in the Yorkshire Dales, it’s astonishingly dangerous stuff. However he does evoke the most glorious freshwater experiences, and inspire the reader to want to holiday near the sea for a long period of time and swim two or three times a day. Delightful.

In The Darkroom, by Susan Faludi
This too is a memoir. Faludi’s hungarian father transitions in her 70s to live as a woman, and Faludi writes about how this reframes her perspective on her relationship with her father, and their difficult history. Really fascinating both as a personal journey, an exploration of one particular transgender experience, and also as a bonus, the political history of Hungary. This book was a surprising, transformative read.

Mothership, by Frances Segal
Another memoir! Segal’s twin daughters are born prematurely, and spend the first several months of their lives in NICU. Segal writes about forming a relationship with them through their plastic incubators, her first opportunity to hold them, the camaraderie of the expressing room, the everyday terror of losing them as they struggle to survive. Gripping and heartbreaking, this book is an insight into the importance of relationships in new parenthood, from an angle we might not often consider. Could not put this down, in case something happened to one of the babies while I was away.

Bee Season, by Myla Goldberg
I don’t seem to have read much fiction this year, not sure why my to-read shelf is so full of Serious Educational Tomes. Bee Season was a nice break from all that, which I knocked off in a day, possibly when I was recovering from my covid booster. Delightfully geeky and unexpectedly twisty, just what we want from our escapes into fiction these days.

White Fragility, by Robin diAngelo
A friend of mine introduced me to Libby, the free library app, which has audiobooks available. It doesn’t have many, but by some lucky coincidence, it did have the very first book I searched for (setting up some high and to-be-disappointed expectations), which was this. White Fragility has changed my understanding of race and racism, in ways I have found incredibly helpful. Alongside probably many other charities, we have been doing lots of anti-bias/cultural safety/not being racist training in work this year, so I know I have a huge amount of work to do, and listening to this while running was great because I so rarely have the mental space to process this sort of thinking, and running does give me that. diAngelo absolutely pulls no punches in this book, and it was again a transformative experience.

Man and woman, outdoors, presumably at the Also Festival

Also Festival 2021

The Art of Rest, by Claudia Hammond
I always make it a point to buy a book at the Also Festival, and while 2020’s festival went digital (giving us a lovely weekend of talks from the comfort of our sofa), I still did buy something, and it was this. It then sat on my shelf for the rest of 2020 and most of 2021, I think because I became less strict about taking things off the to-read shelf in the right order, and somehow during all that enforced rest, I felt no need to read about the subject. Often I will skim these interesting sciencey books that I buy slightly out of obligation, but I read every word of this and was pleased to discover that reading was in fact the official best way to have a rest. I already knew that, but if Claudia Hammond says it, then it must be true.

(M)Otherhood, by Pragya Agarwal
In fact, the Also Festival did go ahead in 2021, back in the field where it was supposed to be. We went, and had a nice time. Pragya Agarwal was one of the speakers I was particularly looking forward to, and wouldn’t you know it, her talk about her book Sway (which I also read this year) clashed with Jamie Bartlett, and that was a very difficult decision. I did get to listen to her smaller-scale (no slides) talk on (M)Otherhood, and then bought it and she signed it for me, and we follow each other on twitter and sometimes she replies to me, which makes me squee a bit. Anyway, the book. Another memoir! This one winds together the author’s personal story of motherhood, abortion, infertility and surrogacy, with a wider exploration of those issues within global society. This is not just a book for women, or for mothers, but a well-researched and evidenced book on how society views and values (or doesn’t value) women and motherhood, and why this matters for every human on the planet.

Queen Victoria’s Mysterious Daughter, by Lucinda Hawksley
I’m just going to tell you that this is the best work of non-fiction writing that I have ever read. I have absolutely no interest in Princess Louise, or Victorian society, or royalty: none. This book was on my shelf after meeting the author, again at the Also Festival – in fact she sat down and had lunch with Susan and me, and we had both read another of her books, March Women March, and she told us about this one which I think had just come out, so yes I went ahead and bought it (though failed to get it signed). Lucinda is the great-great-great grandaughter of Charles Dickens and the sister of a former colleague of mine, and a generally lovely person who once agreed to do a podcast with me. Princess Louise, who I had never heard of, was a strong woman living in difficult times, and while having no interest whatsoever, as I may have mentioned, I was utterly glued to this book. With writing like this, absolutely anyone would become interesting – it’s testament to the fact that the author failed to find out any details of the juciest scandal of Princess Louise’s life, and yet made the mystery around that, its context and consequences, into such a gripping biography. Bloody well done, I say.

I finished Princess Louise last night, and quite fancy a bit of fiction now, as a small palate-cleanser. My unconscious decision to lean into memoirs is still evident from my to-read shelf, so expect more of the same next January. It seems like this year, the books I’ve liked the most have generally been ones that were good for me, and I’m self-indulgently intrigued at why this has become such a focus. Maybe I’ll blog about that, when I figure it out.

Karen
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