A year ago, we were spending a lot of time on our own as Boris cancelled Christmas and Covid 19 was everywhere. This December is little different — Samuel and Benjamin have been our only Chanukah guests. But we are getting out more. Michael has resumed teaching in person; Claire is researching in libraries; and we are going to a few small family events. Remarkably, we have enjoyed two holidays. In July we toured for two weeks around a wide area of Kent, Sussex, Surrey and Oxfordshire; we visited twenty former lunatic asylums/mental hospitals, almost all of them now housing estates, of varying design and exclusiveness. The use to which old mental hospital chapels can be put is remarkable — we found gyms, swimming pools, derelict buildings, housing and even a Buddhist Temple. In October we stayed for a few days in Southsea, visiting friends and more hospitals, and discovered the UK’s most Covid-friendly public transport, the “sun deck” at the top of the Isle of Wight ferry.
Claire continues to research the history of psychiatry, write blogs and edit newsletters, grow vegetables, make jam, and do beautiful Hebrew and Arabic calligraphy. She has written a number of blog articles about what she learned on our holiday outings, including on asylum cemeteries, asylum chapels, water towers, and even cricket. She also wrote “A History of Psychiatry in 1500 words,” which led to a fascinating interview with Radio New Zealand, which you can hear here. Sadly, a number of Claire’s older colleagues, who had also been of such help with her history, have passed away over the past year. We attended the stone setting for Professor Tom Arie at the Jewish cemetery at Wolvercote, Oxford.
Claire’s book Civilian Lunatic Asylums during the First World War is available on line for free, and has now had 10,000 individual chapter downloads. You can access it here. Michael continues to teach classical Greek, train student rabbis, mentor some of his colleagues, campaign with Harrow Citizens, plan and attend interfaith conferences, and teach adult education classes at the Liberal Jewish Synagogue. Both of us continue to pursue our classical Arabic studies with the help of our expert teacher, Nazmina Dhanji. Thanks to the pioneering new Oxford School of Rare Jewish Languages, we have also joined a wonderful group of online students to learn how to read Judeo-Arabic, Arabic written with the Hebrew alphabet, the language of Maimonides.
As for Samuel, Jacob, and Benjamin, they have developed a remarkable synergy with what they want to do with their lives. It all began when Samuel was at Oxford, when he got involved with the Effective Altruism (EA) movement, founded by Professor Peter Singer, and Toby Ord. Effective Altruists research the most effective ways to relieve extreme poverty in the world, and also research existential risks to the future of humanity. Samuel went on to be a founder and trustee of Effective Altruism UK, and is now working as a researcher for Charity Entrepreneurship, an EA organization that helps start multiple high-impact charities annually based on extensive research. He has been one of many people behind the scenes campaigning for better pandemic planning, leading up to a Select Committee report which has just been published. Jacob continues his work for Open AI in San Francisco, which has an effective altruist aim of researching how to make General Artificial Intelligence a safe enterprise: and San Francisco itself is now the world headquarters of the EA movement. Jacob’s new publication (in press) is about the latest in web searches, a tool which can read the web pages related to a query and write a composite answer to order.
Benjamin has just complete a year working in the Cabinet Office, where he has been serving the Brexit Committee, and has been awarded a distinction for his part time MSC in Economics at Birkbeck College. After a brief stint at the Treasury, he has now left the civil service and started a new job as a researcher and blogger with 80,000 Hours, a charity in the EA family based in Charterhouse Square, London. The aim of the charity is to give careers advice to people who want to make a positive difference to the world.
Let’s hope that 2022 will make a positive difference to all of us, as we continue to navigate our way through these strange times.
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