The consolations of ‘self-isolation’

It’s interesting that a few friends have mentioned the publication of The Mirror and the Light, the third and final volume of Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall trilogy, as a good excuse for self-isolation. These are mostly pretty busy academics who would really like a fortnight’s break that’s been ‘legitimised’ by public safety measures — time that they could enjoyably spend in Mantel’s virtual world of Tudor England.

Which made me think of the only time when I have been really ill — way back in the mid-1990s when I had a bad case of influenza. It was the first time in my life when I felt unable to get out of bed and so I decided that it was legitimate to stay home and do nothing. Except, of course, that I didn’t ‘do nothing’. I started to read about the history of computing and came up with the idea of writing an account of the origins of the Internet. Thus began the process that eventually led to A Brief History of the Future. So that particular period of self-isolation turned out to be amazingly productive.

Quote of the Day

“For most of my adult life, “going viral” has been a good thing. Coronavirus has ruined the metaphor. It has reminded us that the world is not as controllable as it appeared.”

  • Henry Mance, Financial Times, 7/8 March, 2020.

How a global health crisis turns into a state-run surveillance opportunity

This morning’s Observer column:

When Barack Obama was US president, his chief of staff, Rahm Emanuel, had a useful motto: “Never let a serious crisis go to waste: it’s an opportunity to do things you think you could not do before.” The Chinese authorities have clearly taken this to heart – as evidenced by the unprecedented scale of their geographical lockdowns and quarantining, restrictions on movement, industrial slowdowns and heightened surveillance.

At this distance, it’s impossible to judge how effective these measures really are. But all the experienced China-watchers of my acquaintance tell me that one should never underestimate the gap between realities on the ground and the story as told from Beijing…

Read on

Quote of the Day

Some mathematicians are birds, others are frogs. Birds fly high in the air and survey broad vistas of mathematics out to the far horizon. They delight in concepts that unify our thinking and bring together diverse problems from different parts of the landscape. Frogs live in the mud below and see only the flowers that grow nearby. They delight in the details of particular objects, and they solve problems one at a time. I happen to be a frog, but many of my best friends are birds. The main theme of my talk tonight is this. Mathematics needs both birds and frogs.