Do I really need an everything bucket?

During this continuing long convalescence – if you don’t know what that’s all about, you haven’t been paying attention to my earlier posts – I’ve had to resort to all the kinds of amusements and pastimes that the long-term sick commonly resort to. It’s a tedious business, being ill for a long time and unable to engage in all the activities you’re used to. You get bored with inactivity, stir-crazy from being effectively housebound for long days and weeks; it’s alarming, even, to discover how quickly your muscles begin to waste away if you’re not using them. True, I’m now able to get out a bit more and walk half a mile or so; the muscles in my buttocks and thighs don’t complain as much as they did when I first tried getting out again. But there are still long hours of sitting at home without much to do.

So… there are books to read. Though the one attraction you imagine there will be about illness – “Now I’ll be able to read all those books I’ve not been able to get around to!” – doesn’t quite live up to hope and expectation, because most illness takes away the concentration that you need to read as much as you’d like. Still, I’ve read or re-read a number of good things. Currently I’m about halfway through Diarmaid MacCulloch’s Reformation: Europe’s House Divided 1490-1700, which I never managed to finish before. It’s a fascinating story, well-told and entertaining, and one of those books that makes you wonder how anyone can possibly know and remember so much and present it in such an engaging way.

There are DVDs and TV and Netflix movies to watch. I finally viewed my way right to the end of The West Wing: it only took me 4 or 5 years because of a long intermission after I first retired. I even watched a few more episodes of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, though on the whole I have much preferred more recent series like Sex Education and Fleabag. And a recent discovery, recommended by one of the reviewers in The Big Issue: Deutschland 83 on All4.

And then, of course, there are my computers and the Internet. One of the constant quests of my computing history has been to find the perfect note-taking, -keeping and -storing programme. Some years ago there was a lot of talk about this being an ‘everything bucket’: a place, program or app where you could simply dump and save everything. Conventional filing systems were places you could typically store stuff, and typically never find it again – or only with great difficulty. The ‘everything bucket’ would have perfect search and retrieval functions, so that you would never be unable to find what you wanted, ever again. As far as I can tell, there is no longer much talk about everything buckets. Perhaps it’s because Evernote has pretty much cornered the market? I did use Evernote for quite a time, but for me the problem was not lack of ability to search and retrieve, but not being able to remember what I’d thrown in there, anyway. Also, I became disenchanted when they changed their terms and wanted to charge a subscription for some of the functions I had been using for nothing.

Since then, of course, much more of everyone’s computing is in the Cloud, and it’s become much more usual to have to pay for the privilege of using some of these functions. I still much prefer the freebies, but… So I’ve been looking at some of the current crop of

Evernote Alternatives

These are the ones I thought looked best (with comments from the site). You’ll note that most of them emphasise the

Coda

Availability: Web-only

Pricing: Free (pricing unreleased)

Coda is a new resource combining document creation with interactive tools like gantt, kanban, tables and more. Coda is a combination of Dropbox Paper and Evernote. With a growing audience and template gallery, Coda is becoming a fluid place to store your notes.

Rating: 7.5/10

Best for: doc lovers, Google users, professionals

Dropbox Paper

Availability: iOS/Android/Web

Pricing: Free w/ Dropbox account

Dropbox Paper is one that many praise for its flexibility and connection with storage tool Dropbox. Paper allows users to create documents, meeting notes and assign and delegate tasks across a team. These collaborative documents are similar to Google Docs and Coda but combine more media and project management tools to the table.

Rating: 8/10

Best for: doc lovers, professionals

Notion

Availability: iOS/Android/Web/Mac/Windows

Pricing: Free, with 1k blocks. $4.99 per month (personal)

Notion is the rising star of the personal productivity space. Notion combines the interactivity of Coda and Dropbox Paper whilst allowing you to add elements anywhere, anytime. Notion doesn’t have a structure, but for those who want the add more than just text and images to their notes.

Rating: 8/10

Best for: project management, visual thinkers


But as for the question of whether or not anyone actually needs this…

Why you should have an ‘everything bucket’

Why you shouldn’t use an everything bucket

Are digital Everything Buckets a good filing system? – Unclutterer


So here I am, still trying one of these after the other, and still little the wiser. On the other hand, I really do need somewhere I can keep all the records of my symptoms, the meds I’m taking, all those Google searches for the terrible possible side-effects, my hospital appointments… and so on. It helps to pass the time.

All-of-us in Blunderland

In 2013 Anthony King and Ivor Crewe published their book The Blunders of Our Governments, a study of the cock-ups of British Governments in recent decades. Here’s their opening paragraph:

“Our subject in this book is the numerous blunders that have been committed by British governments of all parties in recent decades. We believe there have been far too many of them and that most, perhaps all, of them could have been avoided. In previous generations, foreign observers of British politics viewed the British political system with something like awe. Government in Britain was not only highly democratic: it was also astonishingly competent. It combined effectiveness with efficiency. British governments, unlike the governments of so many other countries, knew what they wanted to do and almost invariably succeeded in doing it. Textbooks in other countries were full of praise, and foreign political leaders often expressed regret that their own system of government could not be modelled on Britain’s. Sadly, the British system is no longer held up as a model, and we suspect one reason is that today’s British governments screw up so often.

When I first looked at this book, probably in 2014, I just thought it would be too depressing to read. Who could imagine that, five years later, there would be so much more evidence, and even more incontrovertible evidence, of the authors’ assertions? It has become a truism, repeatedly written about and discussed in the media, that our ‘political class’ have failed us, that our whole politivcal system is no longer fit for purpose, that Britain has become a laughing stock, over which former friends scratch their heads in bewilderment, wondering how we can so far have lost our sanity.

The blunders that have clustered around the whole Brexit debacle are so egregious, that they probably draw attention away from all the other blunders of the same period (failure to deal adequately with the 2008 Crash, austerity policies, out-sourcing to private companies, Universal Credit…) So, just a recap (I’ll probably forget some of these, so do prompt me if memory fails.)

  • David Cameron promising a referendum on EU membership in the first place
  • … without sufficiently defining the terms of whether the result would be advisory or mandatory, or what majority would be required to force so great a constitutional change
  • Parliament leaping to accept the narrow 52-48 result
  • Mrs May’s decision to hold a General Election to help her implement ‘the will of the people’
  • Her precipitate invoking of Article 50 before there was any kind of plan about how to implement it
  • Spectacular failure of a succession of (let’s face it, often ignorant and incompetent) negotiators to negotiate or reach any kind of deal until beyond the eleventh hour
  • Failure of MPs to agree to any proposed Brexit plan
  • All of this to appease the most extreme Eurosceptic members of the Tory party

And all the while, this process is accompanied and orchestrated by the right-wing press whipping up hatred and issuing threats against anyone who dissented from the new orthodoxy. And no one challenges the lies that continue to be told to smear opponents. In the interest of ‘balance’ and the reporting of the most sensational events, the most extreme individuals and groups have constantly been given more airtime than the voices of reason. (Ask yourself how many times Nigel Farage has appeared on the News or in panel discussions, compared with, say, Caroline Lucas?)

It’s not just the Governments that have blundered. Somehow the whole electorate, the whole country, has taken leave of its senses and continues to follow the path of most damage. At least Alice got out of Wonderland, and managed to return from Through the Looking Glass to the world of reality and sanity. I wonder if we will ever be so fortunate?

A long, long Lent

Lone and dreary, faint and weary?

Often sung during Lent (and at weddings?) is the well-loved traditional hymn, Lead us, heavenly Father, lead us. Written by James Edmeston (1791-1867), an architect, surveyor and prolific hymn writer – though this is the only hymn penned by him that appears in any of the hymnals I know – it takes a trinitarian form in which the three verses are addressed in turn to the Father, Son and Holy Spirit, as we pray for their presence and guidance through life.

The second verse, addressed to Jesus, appeals to his humanity which enables him to understand, because he has shared, all our experiences of weakness and temptation:

Saviour, breathe forgiveness o’er us
all our weakness thou dost know;
thou didst tread this earth before us,
thou didst feel its keenest woe;
lone and dreary, faint and weary,
through the desert thou didst go.

The last time I sang this in our parish church, I found that something strange had happened to the 5th line of this verse. Perhaps some bright spark, or possibly committee, felt it sounded a touch too, well, defeated, for the Superhero Saviour that we want to present Jesus as nowadays? So that the verse we sang went:

Saviour, breathe forgiveness o’er us
all our weakness thou dost know;
thou didst tread this earth before us,
thou didst feel its keenest woe;
tempted, taunted, yet undaunted,
through the desert thou didst go.

Three little adjectives, in place of Edmeston’s four; yet the third somehow undermines the effect of the first two, by making Jesus’ victory sound easier and more heroic. Am I the only person who thinks this might even reflect a kind of Docetic tendency in modern Christology? The heresy which teaches that Jesus only seemed to be human, over against orthodox teaching which has always been that it was only by being really, truly, fully human in every way, sharing every weakness of the human condition, that Jesus was able to be a Saviour at all?

Anyway. All of this (possibly anorakish?) hymnological rant is really only to serve as an introduction to the account of my long, long, not lone, but certainly dreary, faint and weary Lent. Most often the virtue of Lent is that you choose the disciplines of giving something up, or taking something up, in order to try and grow spiritually. Some new discipline or personal prayer or reading. Some self-denial of abstaining from a pleasure like alcohol or chocolate.

But then, sometimes, life whacks you with the kind of Lent you don’t choose for yourself, like the extended Lent I’ve been having. Weeks of pain from the osteomyelitis bone infection, so that I’ve been virtually housebound and unable to do many of the things I would have liked to do – even just going for a walk, walking to church, going out to the pub or for a meal. A whole pharmacy-full of antibiotics and pain medications and accompanying laxatives. And yes: no alcohol. What I’ve rarely been able to achieve for a whole Lent by choice, I’ve had to do because alcohol is strictly forbidden if you’re taking codeine. And I’m not even sure that this imposed Lent will end with the joyful Resurrection of Easter on April 21. The six-week course of antibiotics, which may in any case need to be extended, doesn’t end until Easter Week. I’ve been hoping the pain would have gone before the antibiotics finished, and I’d be able to come off the codeine and start making up for all the glasses of wine I’ve missed. But we’re over halfway there, and who knows?

And what about the spiritual aspect of all this? My spiritual director or soul-friend is going to be asking, “And what do you think God is saying in all of this? What have you been learning?” These are good questions… But the answer is mostly, I simply don’t know. Perhaps it’s a message about mortality. About the inescapable fact that we are not in control of our lives, our destinies, our health or our future. Perhaps it’s some kind of training in trust, patience, courage, simply accepting whatever bad stuff life throws at us, and getting on with it. Perhaps it’s one of those times you’re supposed to count your blessings, like I did when I was in hospital for a couple of nights and all the other guys in the room were much worse off than I am. Perhaps it’s a preparation for relief, joy, or gratitude when (or possibly, if) it’s all over and I’m better. Perhaps it’s all of these.

But in the mean time, it’s still a long, long Lent. That I’d often rather be doing without.

On being a medical curiosity

When the medics and the tests finally reached a diagnosis of the condition that has taken out six weeks of my February and March (so far!), it was that I had osteomyelitis of the symphysis pubis. This is a rare condition: so rare that it doesn’t even appear on the NHS website. A ‘rare and elusive diagnosis’, which probably explains why it took them so long to arrive at it.

When I finally got around to pressing for a consultation with my surgeon, he was as puzzled as the local GPs had been. That’s the great advantage of being a medical curiosity: the professionals get interested and really want to find out what’s going on. Although it involved a lot of sitting around in hospital waiting rooms both that day and a number of days following, the battery of tests finally pointed to a result. Two MRI scans and blood tests indicated that there was evidence of an infection around the symphysis pubis. This is treatable with antibiotics, but they have to be pretty serious antibiotics, and the course is likely to take six weeks or longer. Naturally it’s important to identify the exact bacterium and target it with the most appropriate antibiotic. My surgeon was very keen to get me in and start IV antibiotics as soon as possible; so after the second MRI and a cystogram to make sure there were no leaks of urine from my bladder or urethra, I was admitted to the Urology Ward, precautionarily catheterized (oh, joy!) and written up for broad spectrum antibiotics.

At this point a near mythical character enters the story: The Microbiologist. My surgeon told the Microbiologist what he proposed, and the Microbiologist commanded to hold off on the treatment until a biopsy could be performed. I suppose this is the problem with having a condition that requires interdisciplinary cooperation: it’s not a question of my surgeon being outranked, but that if you ask a colleague of another specialism for help, you pretty much have to do what they say, even if you’d prefer to get on with what you first thought of. But it made sense, really. Broad spectrum antibiotics before the biopsy could easily mask the real cause of the infection, and make that all-important targeting difficult to impossible.

So I was sent home with catheter, after 24 hours in hospital, to wait for the biopsy. We hoped this would be done on Monday. It wasn’t possible until Tuesday, when we returned to the hospital’s orthopaedic centre. A biopsy of the pelvis isn’t a pleasant procedure, no matter how charming the radiologists and nurses may be, who are administering it. It involves lying under the X-ray, having your belly injected with local anaesthetic until the repeated question “Any pain, now?” gets an honest No answer. Then the biopsy needle is inserted, and though I wasn’t looking too closely (I wouldn’t have been able to see anyway) it was clear they were drilling into the bone. They did succeed in getting three good samples.

Then we drove on to the Urology Ward again. (The hospitals are on three different sites, and my surgeon wanted to keep his eye on me, rather than let me be taken over by orthopaedics, which is probably what they wanted to do.) Admission again, cannula in, more blood tests, and finally the first IV antibiotics.

The following day was taken up with waiting for results of the biopsy, because on this depended whether I would be allowed to go home with oral antibiotics, or whether they would want to continue IV administration which would involve setting up a plan for that to happen. There were some high points in the day: family visiting, and a consultant (I’m not sure of what specialism) coming to ask if she could bring some medical students to talk to me about my condition. (Another fun consequence of being a medical curiosity.) With various health professionals in the family, I’m happy to help in the training of future medics; and the four students who arrived were delightful young people. I enjoyed watching them being put through their paces of asking me questions, telling the consultant what they had learned from my answers, what else they should have asked or noticed, and carrying out some physical examination. One of the most helpful things in the whole experience of going through all this pain and incapacity, has been the opportunity to talk to many different people about it. Talking somehow puts things in perspective: the ‘talking cure’ is obviously not just for mental health problems, but can also help in the cure of physical ones.

During the day we were inching towards an identification of the infection: word came up that it was a coliform bacterium – maybe not that surprising, but they still needed to know which one. They weren’t any nearer to knowing why I was one of the 1 in 500 prostatectomy patients who suffer this complication. The video of the surgery showed that the pelvis had not been nicked during the procedure. Possibly the cutting and rejoining of the urethra had allowed some urine to remain in the pelvic space, and this might have caused an E.coli infection some five weeks after the operation. Perhaps we’ll never know. E.coli is always present in the body, but why should it be ‘triggered’ in this particular case?

While MPs in Westminster were voting to reject a ‘no-deal’ Brexit, I was getting ready for a second night in hospital. It was uncomfortable because of the pain, but at least the catheter meant I wasn’t having to get in and out of bed to go to the toilet every hour.

And another day dawned. At last the Bone Infection Unit consultant brought news that it was indeed an E.coli infection and could be treated with a six-week course of oral ciprofloxacin, and I would be allowed home that afternoon. This would have meant returning the next morning to have the catheter removed, so I asked if that couldn’t be done that afternoon: it was only a little more than 12 hours earlier than we had agreed. Luckily, my surgeon agreed, the nurse had the catheter out within minutes, there was the usual procedure of drinking fluids and producing urine to prove that the bladder and urethra were working normally, and at last I walked out through those hospital doors.

You always hope that every next step in the treatment process will produce almost instant results, that you’ll feel immediately well again. It’s already clear that isn’t how it works. So, though I have moved on to the next stage of recovery, it is only the next stage. There is still more to come. Readers of a queasier disposition may be hoping, not too much more.

Learning the Word by heart

Elle Dowd makes a case for progressive Christians to memorize Scripture, in order to argue back to conservatives.

At the Network of Biblical Storytellers International we prefer to call this ‘learning by heart’, because it’s a kind of embodied, whole-body learning, much more than the ‘in the brain’ stuff the word ‘memory’ evokes. But it’s the same thing when it comes to it, and it’s certainly something that all Christians should take seriously, not just the ones who make such big claims to be ‘bible-believing’ (and don’t always seem to know their Bibles that well).

The Satanic Verses 30 Years On

Somewhere on my bookshelves, I used to have a copy of Salman Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses. Its pages slightly browning, because even though I never read it, it must be over 20 years ago that I bought it, and for some of those years it sat on a window sill in the sun. But had it survived the downsizing, and terrible cull of books, that took place when we moved to Thame?

It didn’t take long for me to find it, and yes, it had survived, and is still on my list of Books To Read. Some time. (Being able to find it so quickly, incidentally, is an indicator of how few books remain…)

This search happened after I was reminded of Rushdie’s book by the recent BBC2 documentary, The Satanic Verses 30 Years On. In this film, presenter Mobeen Azhar examines the lasting effect Salman Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses has had on the Muslim community and how the events of 1989 continue to have an impact today. Those ‘events’ followed the book’s first publication, when Muslims in Britain were scandalized by Rushdie’s fiction, convinced that it was a blasphemous affront to Islam. Huge demonstrations took place in Britain, where the book was notoriously burned in the public square in Bradford, and in other countries, especially Iran and the USA. Ayatollah Khomeini issued the notorious fatwah calling upon faithful Muslims to assassinate Rushdie, and death threats were also made against the book’s publishers and all the individuals who had been involved in its publication. 59 people lost their lives in the most violent demonstrations around the world.

At the time there were laws against blasphemy in England and Wales, but they only protected the Christian religion. For a time there was some discussion, supported by a number of liberals and Christians, about extending the law to protect Islam and other faiths. In the end this did not happen: instead, the blasphemy law was repealed in its entirety in 2008, and may be considered to have been replaced (in part) by legislation against religious and racial hate crimes.

It was nothing but a good thing for the Blasphemy Law to have been repealed. It was ridiculous and out-dated, had hardly ever been used by Christians in the hundreds of years of its existence, and the possibility of it being used by Muslims in a case such as the Rushdie case, simply appalling. It’s also an unfortunate reality of the differences between the world faiths, that there are passages even in the sacred Scriptures that could be construed as blasphemous by the adherents of other religions. Christians ‘blasphemously’ (to Muslims) believe that Jesus is the Son of God. The Quran ‘blasphemously’ (to Christians) asserts that Jesus is not the Son of God, and that he did not die on the cross. This is just the start of the problem…

Mobeen Azhar’s documentary followed up the events of 1989, interviewing some of the men who had been involved in the protests. His conclusion was that, although the protests had given the Muslim community the opportunity to make a protest which was, as much as anything, about the racial intolerance and disadvantage they had suffered, it had also had many negative consequences. In particular, the caricature of the Muslim bogeyman was born, because of the way the tabloid press reported the riots. Azhar’s final comment:

“It ushered in this age of division, with Muslims being seen as the other. But we’re not outsiders. We’re a really important part of British society. But we have to be able to stomach debates about our culture, and actually our religion as well. Even if we find them offensive, we have to be able to do that. And it’s only when we can do that, that the ghost of The Satanic Verses will truly be put to bed.”

That blasphemy is still considered a crime anywhere in the world, in the 21st century, is a scandal. We only have to look at the terrible way it is used in Pakistan and other Islamist countries, where not only Christians and ‘apostates’ from Islam are routinely lynched or murdered, but also Muslim politicians and justice officials who try to protect them. And this in a country which, as a member of the United Nations, is supposed to subscribe to the UN Declaration on Human Rights, with its protection of Freedom of Religion. (Including guarantees of the freedom to choose one’s religion, to hold to any religion or none, and to change one’s religious beliefs without fear of reprisal.)

Are human beings offended by material insulting to the God they believe in? They need to just get over it. Is God offended? I think God is likely to have a good laugh about the presumption of us thinking that God might be. But even if God is offended, I’m pretty sure God knows how to deal with it. Probably by grace, mercy, and love, and (I hope) opening the blasphemer’s eyes to see the foolishness of insulting the Divine.

Literacy and life expectancy

A new documentary, H is for Harry, to be released in cinemas on 7 March, focuses on the fact that white, working class boys form the demographic that does worst in our education system. It’s said that 1 in 5 children left primary school in 2018 unable to read or write properly. I’ve heard this statistic before, and understood the difference it makes to life chances, employment, and health, but I was especially shocked to read in the Guardian report on this documentary about the difference it also makes to overall life expectancy:

Adults with poor literacy skills are more likely to be unemployed or in low-paid jobs. There is a link between low levels of literacy and shorter life expectancy, depression and obesity. According to the National Literacy Trust (NLT), a boy born in Stockton-on-Tees, which has some of the most serious literacy challenges in the country, has a life expectancy 26.1 years shorter than a boy born in north Oxford.

26 years off a life expectancy of around 80 is 54. Let that sink in.

A couple of days ago I posted about the differences in library funding between the UK and Finland. It’s instructive to note a few other comparisons as well, described in another article in the Guardian. Life expectancy in Finland is rising; in the UK it has stopped rising. Infant mortality is twice as high in the UK as in Finland. Finland has some of the best education in Europe, because it trusts and rewards its teachers, so that professional morale is high. It also provides free school meals for all pupils, so that no child goes through the school day unable to learn because of hunger. And its system is truly comprehensive, with none of the blight caused by our private schools and selective grammars creaming off the most advantaged children. Finland is dealing effectively with homelessness, and its truly preventative health care measures include the provision of genuinely affordable housing for all, so that people can afford good food rather than paying much of their income on the kind of astronomical private sector rents we see in our system. Finland spends a slightly lower proportion of its GDP on health care provision than the UK, but it can afford to because doctors don’t need to be paid as much as they are in the UK, since housing costs are lower. For every 10,000 people in Finland, there are 32 doctors, compared to 28 in the UK, and there are 40 hospital beds for every 10,000 Finns, compared to 26 in the UK.

There’s more: Finland is also seeking to introduce a truly universal basic income. It has the best green credentials in the world, ranking top in the 2016 Environmental Performance Index. Add to this that Finland is one of the most equal societies in the world: the gap between the richest 20% and the poorest 20% is one of the lowest in the world, second only to Japan.

If we’re looking for ways to improve British society in the coming years (if such an aspiration is even possible) we could do a lot worse than look at how Finland does it.