To the Heroes

There are howls of pain all around me: on social media, in the news, on whatsApp.

“I couldn’t be at the funeral”

“I wasn’t there when she died”

“We said our goodbyes over an iPad”

“I had to rely on strangers to make sure the kids had food”

“I couldn’t sit with my son during his chemotherapy.”

“We took care of our six month old while we were both ill and it was terrifying”

“I was scared and alone.”

“I am scared and alone.”

For a while, the fear and the grief were made just a fraction more bearable because you were sure that you were doing the right thing. In overriding every human instinct to run to those you love, you were putting the lives of others above your own very real need for solace, for care, for safety.

Now that outpouring of grief and fear is shot through with a bright, barbed threads of self recrimination and self doubt. Pain upon pain. Guilt upon grief. Anger upon fear.

But you did the right thing. You are doing the right thing. Look at this curve:

The graph shows a peak mortality figure of around 1,200 deaths per day in early April, before a slow decline to a current rate of around 300 deaths per day
Graph of the daily deaths in hopsital due to Covid 19 from

Before the effects of lockdown came into play, there were over 1,000 deaths in a single a day in hospitals alone. Maybe your loss is recorded in this awful chart. Maybe it isn’t, as this figure ignores everyone who died of Covid19 in care homes or at home and who were – shamefully – not recorded by the government as casualties of their public health failure.

But had you not made the sacrifice you made, by staying apart and slowing the spread, that rate would have continued to grow exponentially. For every extra week of undistanced behaviour, we would have seen tens of thousands more families facing the exact same grief and pain you’re dealing with now.

Instead, you saved us.

Your name and your photograph won’t be on the news. We won’t applaud for you or paint portraits of you to hang in Westminster in years to come. Your name won’t be in any history book. Humans are crap like this: we like to believe that history is made by individuals, by great men.

But you – all of you who stuck with the actions needed to slow the spread of this virus despite your own fear or agony – each and every one of you did the right thing. For what it’s worth, I am so very grateful. There’s a good chance you have saved the lives of countless people, including those that I love.

Thank you

Animal Magnetism

I have a fun freelance gig, writing up public-facing papers that have won a genomics award. Most of it is embargoed as yet, but I wanted to share something that has me shook.

I get to interview some seriously fascinating researchers, many of whom are very, very generous with their time and explanations. It’s thanks to one of these interviewees that today I learned about ‘salt bridges’ in protein folding, and was reminded, once again, how incredibly intricate and elegant life is.

Figure from an old textbook showing the field of a bar magnet
Opposites attract: the basis of the building blocks of life, as well as being the basis of one of the most unsettling music videos of all time.

The sequence of bases in your DNA determines (in many cases at least) the sequence of amino acids that are assembled to form a protein. There are 20 different amino acids in human biology. Some of these are hydrophobic: they usually make up the core of the protein as they cluster together in the centre, away from the sogginess inside the cell.

But the rest of the protein also needs to fold. And one of the ways this happens is with something called a ‘salt bridge.’ Some amino acids tend to have a positive charge (arginine or lysine) or a negative charge (glutatmate or aspartate.) When two amino acids of opposite charge are close together in the sequence (close here being less than half a nanometer) they *boop* together and fold the protein. All these folds make the protein do whatever it needs to do, whether that’s help metabolise your food, build your body, fight off invaders, or carry messages.

A single mutation in the amino acid sequence can cause major problems. For example, the loss of a single negatively-charged amino acid (replaced with an uncharged version) is enough to cause progeria syndrome.

Just thinking about all these little tiny charges, making these tiny origami shapes, is enough to induce a kind of vertigo. Inside you, me, every living thing, there are billions of these electrostatic bonds snapping shut, time after time after time. The machinery of life is complex, beautiful, and common to us all. We are all fragile, precious beings made of fragile, precious things.

It’s a wild statistical improbability – a more spiritual person than me might just go ahead and say it’s a miracle – that any of us is here.

Bye Bye Extraneous Elephants

I’m doing the desk research for the chapter on perception and attention in the forthcoming book, and I’m struck by how systematically kids’ spotlight of attention narrows over the years until it matches our own, and how much I’ll miss my daughter’s erratic searchlight now it’s starting to settle down. Writing the following kind of broke me:

I remember a supermarket trip with our daughter when she was about 18 months old. From her vantage point in the trolley, she pointed out everything that interested her. Distracted by the task of getting through the shopping list (and oriented solely to the shelves-that-might-have-the-things-I-need-and-for-goodness-sakes-Tesco-stop-moving-them-please!) I was doing that kind of parental echoing thing without fully listening… 


‘Yes, darling, yummy strawberries.’ 


‘Yes, juicy oranges!’ 

‘A elephant!’ 

‘Yes, darling, a nice, big…what?! Where?’ 

‘A elephant in the bananas!’

A picture of a small plastic toy elephant with a raised trunk and a bit of a cheeky look in its eye
Bye bye elephant – picture by Magda Ehlers

There was indeed an abandoned toy elephant in the bananas. Without the attentional shackles of a shopping list, my 18 month old’s attention could wander happily, bringing me wonders like these. 

I miss those days when everything from ‘windmills’ (wind turbines) to ‘pijishins’ (her first attempts at ‘pigeon’) and ‘bishisicles’ (bicycles) was worthy of note. As her spotlight of attention narrows, she’s more capable of navigating the adult world, and of helping me find the cornflakes, but I wonder if we’ll experience the wonder of spotting the rogue elephant in the bananas ever again.

Making toddlers fall over (for science, you monster)

I just saw the most divine figure in a paper from 1974:

Figure 2 from thr 1974 Paper by Lee and Aronson. There are three panels showing a) a stick figure representing an infant standing in the swinging room. b) the infant's internal response to the walls swinging away (which is indicated by a dotted line showing that the infant senses that they are swaying backwards.) Panel c shows the infant stick figure with a solid line arcing towards the front of the room, showing the direction of most infants' motor responses. there is also a dotted version of the stick figure lying on the floor, presumably to indicate the children who fell on their asses - or faces.
In the ‘swinging room’ experiment, which investigates whether vision or the vestibular system is dominant in early balance, Lee and Aronson of the University of Edinburgh successfully made infants fall over 33 percent of the time. Now that’s empiricism I can get behind…

:chef’s kiss emoji:

The setup is a room with a static floor but the ‘walls and ceiling’ are an inverted open box that can be swung at will by the experimenters. This makes it look like the floor is tilting (and is the essence of carnival funhouses from time immemorial.) Adults in this setting will sway a little – it’s hard to ignore your eyes even when your ears and muscles are telling you you’re not moving. But what’s the story for infants? When do they learn to trust their non-visual cues?

“Not by the age of 16 months” is the answer. Poor dotted stick figure in panel c. Lee and Aronson only did the experiment with seven small subjects. Whether that’s because they ran out of time, volunteers, or ability to keep a straight face is lost to history…

The Best form of Defence is a Tax (Adviser)

As a self-employed author, tax and accounting is definitely the second largest administrative overhead (after chasing freelance clients for invoice payments.) I set aside Friday afternoons to deal with my finances – largely because I’m pretty written out by then, and partly because I don’t think it’s a great idea to email anyone after 2 p.m. on a Friday unless you’re happy for them to have forgotten about you on Monday morning.

Person signing in to online self assessment on their phone
I never do this on my phone… I do it with about 600 explanatory tabs open and a litre of coffee.

Even though I’m a girly swot, I still have a serious case of the jitters at the prospect of misfiling my tax return. Do I account for my royalties before or after my agent’s percentage has been taken off? Do I declare expenses payments as payments? What expenses can I claim. Being a timid soul I’ve always tended to declare everything and claim almost nothing.

But yesterday I was lucky enough to attend another Society of Authors event provided by tax specialists HW Fisher. You don’t necessarily expect a two-and-a-half hour session on tax to be exciting but it was incredibly lively and it really brought home how confusing it is to account for multiple types of income from multiple countries, being paid in multiple ways.

It made me realise I’m not alone and I’m not entirely cretinous when it comes to all things HMRC: an author’s life is just really complicates. Our incomes tend to oscillate wildly, we often have some form of employment alongside our writing although this is often part time or on a short term contract. We are, most often, our own accountants, collections agents, and payroll processors rolled into one. It’s no wonder we need advice.

So here are the top 10 things I learned about self-assessment tax for authors:

  1. VATable and taxable income are not the same: all income is taxable (over the personal allowance threshold – 12,500 as of October 2019) but only income earned in the UK is VATable. And PLR income is taxable but not VATable. ALCS income is, on the other hand, VATable… See Barry Kernon’s 2017 guide on VAT for authors for details.
  2. Always declare expense payments as income and the corresponding expenditure as an outgoing. It won’t affect your taxes but it might put you over the income threshold for VAT. However, if the organiser of an event pays for your travel and accommodation directly you don’t need to account for this.
  3. If you are travelling for research/talks/meetings and you happen to tag on a day’s sightseeing then you can include flights, and the accommodation required for attending the meeting, as outgoings. But if you happen to do a bit of work on holiday then sadly you can’t claim for the trip. The primary purpose of the trip has to be business.
  4. If you’re fortunate enough to be an author of sufficient renown that people would pay to own your archives, you will have to pay tax on the income that comes from selling those papers.
  5. Most authors currently don’t benefit from voluntarily registering for VAT, or from setting up as a limited company. The benefits of doing these tend to change as tax regulations change – it’s definitely something you want expert advice on before committing!
  6. HMRC’s flat rate home working allowance is probably far less than you could claim if you actually worked out your expenses. Utilities are worked out on proportion of time and space used for working. Building overheads (council tax, insurance, interest on mortgage/rent…) can be claimed as a proportion of space used (either by square foot or by the number of rooms – not including kitchens or bathrooms – in your home.)
  7. But don’t use a room entirely for work. If it doesn’t have at least some personal use, this has capital gains implications when you sell your house!
  8. Professional subscriptions and training are deductable but only if they relate to the business you’re in. I could potentially claim for a course in shorthand or archival research, but not for a course in taekwando or felting.
  9. Reasonable subsistence: if you have to be away from home – for a training course, to visit a client, or to do research, you can claim reasonable meal costs as expenses. Things that don’t count are: eating out when you could conceivably have home home for lunch, eating out because you chose to work from the library, eating out because the seventeenth trip to the fridge failed to yield anything more appetising than the first sixteen.

    You can’t claim for entertaining. You shouldn’t claim for buying lunch for your publisher or agent: apparently they should always buy lunch for you…
  10. Keep six years of records as a minimum in case of investigations. Keep a diary that logs your meetings and travel (this can be your work calendar – it’s worth annotating this with mileage if travelling by car.) You don;t need to log all calls but keep a sample log of your calls so you can figure out the proportion of business and personal calls.

If you’re a member of the Society of Authors (and if you make or are planing to make money as an author and are based in the UK you really should be – it’s the best investment you could make in your career!) then there is a tax helpline you can call, and you can also benefit from a free, one hour tax review with HW Fisher. You can also benefit from insurance that will pay accountancy fees should you end up being the subject of an HMRC enquiry.

So if tax is giving you conniptions, don’t hide from it. I’ve realised I have been under-claiming on home-working expenses systematically (because of lack of confidence) and that I was likely to make an error on my 2019-20 tax return by declaring royalties/advances as net of agency fees. It won’t make any practical difference, my income wont go high enough to have to register for VAT, but it could have raised an eyebrow at HMRC if I systematically declare an income that is 20% lower than my publisher’s expenditure…

Time to go back to my usual place of work, look in the fridge for an eighteenth time, and fire up my accounting software.