I’ve been reading Steven Johnson’s book The Ghost Map, about the 1854 cholera epidemic in Soho, London, that proved to be the breakthrough in linking cholera to infected drinking water, partly though John Snow‘s famous map. The book – which is wonderfully readable – is interesting for several reasons; as a social history of Victorian England; second, in tracing the battle between competing scientific and medical explanations of cholera; and third, for some reflections on the vulnerability of the modern city.
One of the long-term trends from a human rights perspective is that fewer countries are using the death penalty. Just five countries are now responsible for the overwhelming majority of judicial executions – and the United States finds itself in company it might regard as unsalubrious.
The news that the UK government has conjured up £500 billion since I last wrote about the crash to make sure its banking system didn’t self destruct is, at one level, breath-taking. £500 billion is a lot of money – something like 40% of the total value of the UK economy in any given year, even if only £50bln or so of it is to be ponied up straight away. It isn’t all “real” money (to the extent that any money is “real). It is more an extension of the hall of mirrors represented by the banking and financial system and its elusive search for confidence. And Terry Pratchett explains all of this well in his book Making Money, when Moist von Lipwig, newly appointed as the Bank chief, is trying to work out why the currency needs to be backed by the pile of gold which is said to sit deep in the bank’s vaults.
The radical playwright David Edgar had a long article last week about the recent surge in theatre productions based closely on actual events – from Deep Cut to Guantanamo. He suggests that this latest cycle has filled a gap which has been left by the decline of journalism as a critical activity. And he also makes an interesting historical comparison with a similar movement in the early ’60s.