Saturday 14 March 2020

Covid-19 resources

The Worldometer pages have real time data on confirmed cases and mortality by country here. You can click through to country level data and charts. There are also pages with data on additional data on age, sex, pre-existing conditions etc.

The John Hopkins tracker isn't quite as real time but has a good visualization of cases around the world.

WHO daily situation reports - which give complete day by day tables - including whether there are cases of local transmission in any country - can be found here.

World in Data have a great site showing the speed at which confirmed cases are doubling in different countries and estimates on test coverage.

Nextstrain have an incredible site tracking the genomic epidemiology - scroll down for a map showing transmissions tracked globally through genetic mutations.

WHO have a database of all academic publications on Covid-19 which also has links to all the main academic publishers who have made their articles on the topic free to access (e.g. Elsevier here)

The Lancet is collating all the articles it's publishing on the topic here

My twitter list of experts from epidemiology; virology; modelling; science journalism etc... is here.

Monday 11 December 2017

Top books of 2017


This year I've found myself more and more drawn to ancient history. For some reason I'd always dismissed it as a bit dull compared to modern history - all those coins and bits of pot - but inspired by Tom Holland and Peter Frankopan in particular I've realised how much I've been missing out on.

This year my classical education began with what is technically a novel but so close to history as to feel worthy of this section - Augustus by John Williams. Williams is more famous for Stoner but for me Augustus is the better book; I'd place it alongside Gore Vidal's Julian and Creation as one of the all time great novels set in the classical era. It's written as a series of diary extracts, letters and speeches from Augustus's closest associates, most poignantly his daughter Julia, who he exiled to a barren island for her polyamorous lifestyle.

Spurred back into Roman history I read Mary Beard's SPQR - an excellent overview from the foundation of Rome to 212 AD when all men in the Roman Empire were given citizenship. Covering almost a millennium in just over 500 pages means it's pretty high level in places but it's a perfect introduction to the period. I have Beard's Confronting the Classics on my list for next year.

Later in the year I read Tom Holland's wonderful new translation of Herodotus's Histories, which was remarkably fresh for a book 2500 years old. The description of the Babylonian marriage market will stay with me for a long time. I read this alongside And Man Created God by Selina O'Grady, an arresting guide to the development of early religion across the ancient world. I'm currently working my way through Edward Gibbon's classic Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, which, at 3.5k pages should keep me busy over Christmas. Even though many of his conclusions have been surpassed by later historians it's stylistically so beautiful that it's worth reading for the language alone, as well as the deeply snarky footnotes. He'd have been a twitter natural.

The best modern history I read this year was the third (of a planned six) in David Kynaston's "New Jerusalem" series covering British social history from the end of the war to Thatcher's rise to power. Modernity Britain covers 1957-62 and shows in stunning detail how technology, demographics and politics were morphing society, often against the strongly traditionalist sentiments of much of the population. He is particularly strong on schools (rare for me to say that about a non-education specialist) and housing  - where he shows how the disastrous trend towards high-rise tower blocks came about, with scant regard for the views of people who'd actually have to live there. Every MP, and aspiring politico, should read this series if they want to understand the origins of contemporary social policy debates.

I'd also strongly recommend John Bew's Citizen Clem - one of the best modern British political biographies I've read. Attlee was a famously private man who left no diaries and few letters, his memoirs are almost comically repressed and unrevealing, so Bew tries to capture him through his intellectual interests in empire, social reform and poetry. Combined with the recollections of his peers this works triumphantly succeeds in casting Attlee as one of the great figures of 20th century British history - combining clear-eyed patriotism, a steely belief in individual responsibility and a deeply held commitment to socialism. A combination - Bew is not afraid to point out - sadly lacking in today's politics.

The first two volumes of Charles Moore's Thatcher biography were surprisingly balanced for someone who's Telegraph pieces often read like Littlejohn with a thesaurus. They're broadly favourable towards an undeniably transformational politician but don't hide away from her personal and political failings. His idiosyncratic decision to introduce every character with a footnote showing their educational background is a powerful demonstration of the deep iniquity in our school system.

I also enjoyed Richard Evans's Pursuit of Power - a comprehensive trawl through 19th century European political, social and cultural history - and The Deluge by Adam Tooze, a complex look at the post-WW1 failure of global leadership that plunged the world into deeper darkness.

I only read a couple of books on contemporary politics this year - Tim Shipman's Fall Out - was just as good as last year's All Out War - an excellent case study in how not to run an election campaign (or indeed anything). I hope for the sake of Tim's sanity that 2018 avoids any elections/referenda. I'd also recommend another, more personal, study of an election that went wrong: Hillary Clinton's What Happened. A funny and bitter insight into how she coped with losing to the ghastly orange baby. The section on the continuing misogyny of the political world seems even more unanswerable after the post-Weinstein scandals; though, oddly, some on the left seem to want to think her loss was purely down to a lack of ideological fervour.

Outside of history and politics my favourite this year was Michael Lewis's Undoing Project on Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky, whose theories on behavioural economics have transformed multiple disciplines. Some of the sections on the protaganists' relationship are deeply moving and the explanations of their ideas are clear and concise. The only problem with the book is it's too short - it feels like he's missed out several chapters of material at the end by fast forwarding several decades.

Originals by Adam Grant was a rare business/leadership book that didn't make me want to throw it straight in the bin - some interesting ideas on building trust and culture in organisations. Signifying Rappers was a wonderful little book David Foster Wallace wrote with a friend early in his career - its analysis of hip-hop culture was uncannily prescient. My favourite comic at the moment is Stewart Lee and his How I Escaped my Certain Fate is a fascinating mix of memoir and annotated stand-up that gives an unusual insight into how comedy works.


The best fiction I read this year was Middlemarch. I'd gone through life imagining it was a extremely dreary provincial melodrama - a sort of Victorian Archers. It's actually a very funny, even acidic, study of universal archetypes. Along with Charlotte Bronte's Villette it's probably the best novel I've read by an English author. The other "classic" I read this year was Les Miserables by Victor Hugo which has sublime passages - especially early on - but badly needed a better editor. The last third of the book (400 pages) was a real drag.

My favourite contemporary novel of the year was Laurent Binet's HHhH - a post-modern take on the assassination of Reinhard Heydrich but a hell of lot better, and funnier, than that makes it sound. Binet manages to hold the suspense of the historical drama (even though I knew what happened) while simultaneously running a commentary on what he's doing. It's very clever. I also read Binet's follow-up The 7th Function of Language - which is much less accessible - I wouldn't bother unless you really enjoy French post-structuralist in-jokes. However, it did inspire me to read Umberto Eco's Foucault's Pendulum (Eco is a character in the Binet book) which is engagingly bonkers and highly learned at the same time.

I found Francis Spufford's Golden Hill a bit disappointing given all the hype. It's very readable but I guessed the twist halfway through and I was expecting something a bit less obvious. Good for the beach though. Robert Harris's Officer and A Spy on the Dreyfuss case was another great beach read (again suspenseful even though I know the story - how does he do that?) As were Don Winslow's superb, brutal, Power of the Dog and Cartel on the Mexican drug wars (thanks for the recommendation Chris Deerin).

Other books I read this year:

The Inevitable by Kevin Kelly - dreary futurist nonsense - no idea why I bothered.
Creativity Inc by Ed Catmull - leadership advice from Pixar founder - entirely generic.
Electric Shock by Peter Doggett - pretty entertaining guide to the history of pop music.
I want my MTV - an oral history of the early years of MTV - quite niche.
A Perfect Spy by John Le Carre - I really wanted to like it but I was bored by the end.
Respectable by Lynsey Hanley - interesting ideas on class, more an elongated essay than a book.
A History of the World in 100 Objects by Neil McGregor - does what it says on the tin.
Liberty or Death by Peter McPhee - a new history of the French Revolution. Not particularly revolutionary.
His Dark Materials by Phillip Pullman - read again after 20 years in preparation for the new series.
Origin of our Species by Chris Stringer - engaging introduction to human evolution.
A History of Histories by John Burrow - good introduction to historiography.
The Unathorised Version by Robin Lane Fox - quirky review of the historical accuracy of the bible.

Monday 12 December 2016

My top 15 books of 2016

For the last five years I've written down every book I read, partly for the obvious reason that otherwise I'd forget, but also because I'm lazy and it's a really easy way to keep a diary. Looking at the book I was reading on any given date gives me the context to recreate everything else I was doing then - who I was with; where I was etc...etc..

Anyway I read roughly 40-50 books a year so I've gone through this year's list and picked my top 15 in case you're stuck for some holiday reading or a Christmas present. In the order in which I read them....

1) Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates

Written as a letter to his son this short, emotionally-charged book looks at the history of American racism through episodes in the author's life. Inspired by James Baldwin and, I'd say, just as good as anything he wrote, it won the US National Book Award in 2015.

2) The Swerve by Stephen Greenblatt

Coincidentally another National Book Award winner this is a history of the rediscovering of Lucretius's "On the Nature of Things" and about 100 times more interesting than that sounds. I knew nothing about the original poem or about the late medieval book hunters who saved such treasures from extinction. I'd have liked a broader discussion about the poem's place in the Renaissance - the recent historiography of which Greenblatt pretty much ignores - but it's fascinating on its own terms.

3) The Iron Wall by Avi Shlaim

I've been searching for years for a scrupulously fair guide to Israeli/Arab conflict in a field where so many books are written from a deeply partisan perspective. The best I'd found before was Ahron Bregman's "Cursed Victory" but that only covers more recent decades. The Iron Wall takes us all the way from the founding of Israel to the present day and shows compellingly how the remorseless logic of Israeli politics, combined with the weaknesses of Palestinian leaders has made peace impossible. It's difficult to come away from reading it with any hope that a solution can be found.

4) Second-Hand Time by Svetlana Alexievich 

The best book I read this year. One of the best books I've ever read. Alexievich's unique style involves weaving hundreds of interviews into a complex narrative that, in this case, tells the story of Post Soviet Russia. Individually the stories are interesting and moving but somehow she turns the collective into something equivalent to the best modernist literature. It was gripping, beautifully written (and translated) and also taught me more about Putin's success than any number of conventional non-fiction books. 

5) Silk Road by Peter Frankopan

An ambitious history of the world that takes central Asia as the centre of global movements over the ages. Taught me a huge amount about empires and civilizations that aren't mentioned in the English school curriculum including the incredible story of the Turkic Khazar tribe that converted to Judaism in the eighth century and allied with the Byzantine empire against the Persians.

6) King of the World by David Remnick

When Muhammad Ali died in June reading all the tributes inspired me to read this biography of the five years between 1962-1967 when Ali, at the peak of his career, refused the draft and was banned from boxing. As well as great set piece accounts of the key fights Remnick is particularly good on Ali's relationship with Malcolm X and the Nation of Islam. I also read Thomas Hauser's more detailed biography of Ali which covers his whole career. But start with Remnick.

7) On the Move by Oliver Sacks

Sacks' autobiography, completed just before he died last year, offers brutally honest insights into his neuroses and paranoias as well as extraordinary descriptions of the creative process in action. He also crossed paths with any number of fascinating poets, statesmen and scientists which adds to the richness. 

8) Revolution 1989 by Victor Sebestyen 

A great history of the most important year of my life even though I didn't know it at the time (being 8). I knew the basic story of the fall of Communism but this added lots of detail about the differences between each of the Warsaw Pact countries. The complete bafflement of East German leader Erich Honecker as his world collapsed around his was particularly memorable. He even voted for his own sacking to keep up the tradition that all votes of the East German ruling council were unanimous.

9) Submission by Michel Houllebecq

It's impossible to tell how tongue in cheek Houllebecq is being, which is one reason why reading his novels is simultaneously so uncomfortable yet so fun. Narrated by a typically unpleasant misogynist it has a Muslim party winning the French presidency in 2022, helped by the socialists who are desperate to block the National Front. Weirdly it was released on the day of the Charlie Hebdo massacre, garnering it even more attention than Houllebecq usually gets.

10) The Kindly Ones by Jonathan Littell

Another controversial French novel - this one from a few years ago - written from the perspective of a Nazi officer explaining, and excusing, his horrendous crimes. It's about 300 pages too long (1,000 pages in total) and drifts off badly towards the end, but the central section, in which the narrator sets out his experiences on the Eastern front, is as good as any war literature I've read. Don't read it on the train into work though. More than once I found myself sitting in an early morning meeting thinking more about the horrors of Stalingrad than whatever I was supposed to be concentrating on.

11) All out War by Tim Shipman

I have absolutely no idea how Shipman was able to write a fluent, comprehensive, 600 page guide to the crazy events of our political summer in a few months but somehow he did and I'm grateful. Easily the best Brexit book and particularly nostalgic for me as I worked, in a previous life, with the leaders of the Leave campaign (albeit that I was and am a Remainer).

12) A Different Kind of Weather by William Waldegrave

I only read this because John Rentoul kept tweeting sections of it but it's one of the most honest political memoirs you'll find, describing the insane ambition that drives so many in Westminster from the perspective of someone who now realises how daft it all is. It's also extremely well written, which helps.

13), 14) and 15) Imperium, Lustrum and Dictator by Robert Harris

I'm reading Harris' trilogy on Cicero at the moment and it's absolutely wonderful. Harris expertly weaves Cicero's real speeches in with speculation about some of the key events in the history of Rome. Also, as the tale of oligarchs who use whip up cheap populism to smash the key institutions of the state it feels pretty relevant.

Sunday 21 August 2016

How will GB do in Tokyo?

The performance of the GB team in Rio has been exceptional but not hugely surprising. I had projected they would be third in the medal table with 22 gold medals and 56 medals overall with good chances in over 100 events. For those of us who obsessively follow Olympic sports between games it was clear that GB would be extremely competitive in a wide range of events.

2nd place in the medal table was a bonus caused largely by China's decline since topping the table in Beijing - they've finished nine golds and around 15 medals below projections. And, over the longer term, the collapse of sports administration (and state doping programmes) in former USSR and Warsaw Pact countries.

The decline of China is something of a warning to GB. Both China and Australia followed up home games with strong performances in the following Olympics - though GB is the first to get a higher medal total - but both then declined as politicians lost interest and funding reduced.

So can GB buck the trend and continue to improve at Tokyo? A quick overview of the key sports suggests it's possible:

The athletics team will see the greatest transition as it's unlikely that Mo Farah, Jess Ennis, Greg Rutherford and Christine Ohuruogu will appear in Tokyo. As they're responsible for nine out of GB's thirteen athletics medals in London and Rio their retirements will leave a big hole to fill. There have, though, been enough strong performances from young athletes to make it possible. On the men's side Adam Gemili (22) missed out on a 200m medal by thousands of a second. And Matt Hudson-Smith (21) made one of the most competitive 400m finals in history. Andrew Butchart (24) came fourth in the 5k behind Mo Farah becoming the third fastest Brit in history after Mo and David Moorcroft.

On the women's side Dina Asher-Smith (21) came fifth in the 200m and her PB would have won a bronze. She also won a 4x100 bronze alongside two excellent 100m prospects - Desiree Henry (20) and Daryl Neita (19). Cindy Ofili (22) has had a breakthrough season this year and missed out on a 100m hurdles bronze by 0.02 hundredths of a second. Sophie Hitchon (25) won a hammer bronze with the two in front of her too old to make the next Olympics. Katarina Johnson-Thompson (23) clearly has the talent to get a heptathlon gold in Tokyo if she can conquer her nerves and look out for Morgan Lake (19) who reached the high jump final in Rio.

The track cycling team should be more or less the same in Toyko as in Rio bar Bradley Wiggins and Mark Cavendish. And there are a whole load of young cyclists behind them waiting to step up in the case of injuries and early retirements. Look out for Lewis Oliva (24) in the men's sprint; Jon Dibben (22) and Mark Stewart (21) in the pursuit/omnium  and on the women's side Emily Nelson (20) and Emily Kay (21). Whether GB is as dominant in Tokyo as in Rio/London/Beijing will depend on the rest of the world's ability to catch up.

The swimming team probably has the greatest potential for improvement. There are 34 golds available in swimming - 2nd only to athletics - and GB have only won three this century (Becky Addlington x2 and now Adam Peaty). GB's performance in Rio was much better that London - increasing from 3 to 6 medals and another 7 fourth places - nearly all achieved by young swimmers who should be in Tokyo. Peaty is just 21 and I'd love to see him try and develop his 200m breaststroke to give him the chance of two golds in 2020. Siobhan Marie O'Connor (20) came agonisingly close to gold in the 200m individual medley and has the potential to be challenging for 3 or 4 golds in four years time.

James Guy (20) came fourth in the 200m freestyle after winning the world championships last year and could be in the mix for 2 or 3 golds in four years time. Max Litchfield (21) came fourth in the 400 individual medley and has improved his PB a lot this year. As did Ben Proud (21) in the 50m freestyle. Duncan Scott (19) smashed the British record in the 100m freestyle and came fifth in the final. And Chloe Tutton (20) came fourth in the 200m breaststroke having broken the British Record earlier in the year (she'd have won a medal if the Russian Efimova's ban had been upheld days before the games). And look out for a few excellent prospects who were a bit young for Rio - Emily Large (just 15) in butterfly and Tazmin Pugh (16) in butterfly and backstroke.

Collectively this is the most talented group of young swimmers outside of the US and they should peak in Tokyo - potentially winning five or six golds.

The gymnastics squad probably had the most impressive Olympics of any GB team in Rio with almost as many medals as GB has won in all previous games. On the men's side the core of the team Max Whitlock (23), Nile Wilson (20) and Brinn Bevan (19) will be peaking in Tokyo. If they can find one more world class gymnast by then they could challenge for the all-around title (look out for Jay Thompson - 20 - to come through into the senior ranks). On the women's side it doesn't seem the US dominance will be challenged anytime soon but Amy Tinkler (16) - who won floor bronze in Rio - is a huge prospect. Look out as well for junior champions Catherine Lyons (15) and Tyesha Mattis (17) to turn the team into a real all-around medal contender.

The rowing team were one of the few in Rio to miss their medal target even though they topped the medal table for the regatta - so certainly room for improvement. Most of the rowers in the winning men's four and men's eight crews are young enough to keep going and should be able to maintain dominance. Helen Glover (32) and Heather Stanning (33) could just about make Tokyo if they want to mount another defence of their title. The main areas for improvement are on the lightweight side where GB won no medals this time having won three in London and sculling where Katherine Grainger and Vicky Thornley were our only medalists.

Elsewhere most of our Rio champions should be back to defend their titles. Nick Skelton has said he'll retire at 58; Charlotte Dujardin is certainly young enough to compete again but her horse Valegro isn't; Liam Heath is 32 so probably won't make another games; Nicola Adams will be 38 in Tokyo but hasn't ruled out staying on. Everyone else is definitely young enough to come back. Joe Clarke in kayak slalom is just 23. Double diving medalist Jack Laugher is 21 and synchro partner Chris Mears is 23. Giles Scott and Hannah Mills (though not her partner Saskia Clark) will back in the sailing. And Jade Jones (23) / Alistair Brownlee (28) will be able to defend their titles for a third time.

The overall impression is that, as long as national lottery investment continues as roughly the same levels, GB should be able to perform at least as well if not better in Tokyo. If they can maintain dominance in track cycling and push on to five or six swimming golds then a target of 30+ golds and 75 medals should be achievable.

Wednesday 25 November 2015

The 10 key education headlines from the spending review


  • The Autumn Statement was published today. Overall DfE spending will fall just 1.1% over the next four years. Even in the "unprotected" areas that were expected to be cut by around 25% reductions are much lower - somewhere between 5 and 10%. While this is much better than feared it still means providers across the sector will be seeing significant reductions in spending power over the next few years.


  • The 5-16 school budget is protected in real terms. This means that the amount of money currently given to schools will increase in line with expected inflation. However it does not take into account the additional 500k pupils coming into the system over the next five years so will still mean a 7-8% cut for schools (also taking into account changes to employer pensions and national insurance). This is a slightly better deal than was promised before the election.
  • The extra cash in the schools settlement will help the transition to the National Funding Formula which will start in 2017. There will be a consultation in Jan/Feb next year but we know it will be a phased introduction so schools that lose out won't get the full hit all at once.
  • The Education Services Grant, which is currently £820m, and gives a per pupil amount to local authorities and academies to pay for a variety of services is being cut by £600m. This is the only new big cut in the DfE settlement. It will take about £90k out of the budget of a large academy. The remaining money left over will presumably be used to cover LAs statutory duties and the DfE will also look to reduce the number of statutory duties to help.
  • £1.3bn over four years will be provided for teacher recruitment and training. It's pretty hard to tell what this is being compared to. But I reckon it means funding will continue more or less in line with current spending.
  • Capital budgets are essentially flat in cash terms. So existing maintenance and basic needs grants will stay at similar levels and the Priority Schools Rebuilding programme will continue at the same rate. The 500 free school commitment will be met.


  • The base rate paid for all post-16 pupils is protected in cash terms (i.e. won't go up in line with inflation). We don't yet know if the other aspects of the post-16  formula (e.g. disadvantage) will take a greater cut. Either way it's a better outcome than many feared as this protection wasn't offered before the election.
  • Sixth form colleges will now be able to convert to academy status which means they won't have to pay VAT. This is a very significant saving for these colleges and helps simplify the system a bit.

Early Years

  • There will be an additional 15 funded hours of childcare for three and four year olds as promised in the Conservative manifesto. These hours will only be available to those families where no parent earns more than £100k and where both parents work (equivalent to 16 hours of work at the minimum wage).
  • There will be an increase in the hourly rate paid to childcare providers from 2017. The new rate swill be £4.88 for 3/4 year olds and £5.39 for 2 year olds.

Sunday 6 September 2015

ResearchED 2015 Presentation: The 5 Big Policy Challenges for the New Government

I don't usually share presentations as I'm not sure mine ever make much sense out of context. But a few people asked for this one on policy challenges for the new Government.

(For the record I did offer a few solutions to some of the problems set out in the paper during the talk...)