The Dream’s in the Ditch

Mark Cavendish broke his collarbone on Stage 8 of today’s Tour de France and was forced to abandon the race, one day after narrowly missing out on what might have been his record-setting 35th sprint stage victory.

I started following professional cycling during graduate school in the late aughts. Fixies and blogs were ascendant. I spent a chunk of my work procrastination time hopping from site to site, and master of cycling snark BikeSnobNYC provided enough of a hook that I got interested in the culture and personalities of this very Euro-centric sport as it entered its first post-Lance era. Soon I was religiously reading Velonews and getting up early to catch pirate streams of grand tours and monuments. I got my own road bike and went to a few stages of the Tour of California in person.

Cavendish was everywhere then–ripping off five or more sprint wins in Tour after Tour in dominant fashion. Some folks found his brashness off-putting, arrogant, and were quick to blame him for the crashes that are part and parcel of chaotic sprint finishes. But I always felt like I could see his heart on his sleeve and his love for the sport shining through, and who doesn’t love cheering for a winner?

As the number of his Tour stage victories crept up, there were whispers that he might approach the 34 Tour stage victory record set by unanimous all-time great Eddy Merckx. He won the World Championship, and his palmarès placed him among the best sprinters of all time.

But then the wheels started coming off. Desperate to win the first stage of the 2014 Tour on his home soil in the UK, he crashed out. He won one stage in 2015 and four in 2016 before leaving the Tour early to prepare for the Olympics. In 2017 he crashed into the barriers due to a controversial clash with Peter Sagan, and he missed the time cut on a stage in 2018. Then he came down with the Epstein-Barr virus and his teams didn’t even bring him to the Tour in 2019 and 2020. One began to have an uncomfortable feeling that perhaps the time had passed, and each fall I’d keep an eye on Twitter for news if he’d found a team to sign with for the next season.

The 2021 Tour brought a miracle, though: after signing for the minimum salary with classics powerhouse team Deceuninck–Quick-Step, he was substituted onto the Tour squad at the last minute. With the assistance of a strong leadout team he won four stages, finally bringing him level with the Merckx record at 34. On the final stage in Paris, though, he could only manage third, missing the chance to finish on the highest of notes.

Management fiat giveth and it taketh away: in 2022 his team boss chose to leave him home for the Tour, preferring a younger sprinter. So in 2023 he once again scrounged up a ride with the Kazakh Astana team. With minimal support he aimed for one more stage victory in what he billed as his final Tour. But first shifting trouble and then the crash extinguished those hopes once more.

I only found out the news with difficulty. Some years back Velonews was bought by a conglomerate and slapped up a paywall, on its way to laying off most of its writers. I stopped reading as much, and didn’t learn who the new generation of riders were, and slowly lost track. The blogosphere is long dead; I last saw Bike Snob circling the drain into the reactionary side of social media. steephill.tv is no longer serving up pirate streams, and Twitter is right now in the midst of a Musk-led rapid unscheduled disassembly. Only CyclingNews still seems to provide any kind of reasonable coverage, but I had to think to go seek it out, and nearly didn’t.

Why do I care what an athlete—this athlete—achieves, or doesn’t? Is it just a parasocial relationship, like tracking which celebrities are dating? One difference: even with tremendous talent, the opportunity to win in sport is never guaranteed. The Tour comes but once a year. Fantastic levels of preparation are necessary but not sufficient; chance, illness, and injury will mar even the longest career, leaving behind plenty of “what-ifs” as age forecloses possibility. A memento mori as I enter mid-career and mid-life myself.

The Best Books I Read in 2022 (and 2021)

Hmm, looks like I missed a couple of years there… something must have come up. Previous editions.

The Premonition
Michael Lewis
A prehistory of the Covid-19 pandemic that makes clear the importance as well as the invisibility of public health.

Raising Raffi
Keith Gessen
A series of connected essays from a (frustrated, exasperated, confused, loving) middle-aged literary dad, about the first five years of his eldest son’s life.

Eric Berger
An early history of SpaceX, from its founding to the first successful flight of the Falcon One.

The Scout Mindset
Julia Galef
Practical strategies for avoiding self-deception.

The Right Stuff
Tom Wolfe
This classic documents the changing culture of the test pilot fraternity in the late 50s and early 60s as the leading edge of aerospace shifted from Chuck Yeager and rocket planes at Edwards Air Force Base to the Mercury astronauts.

The Broken Heart of America: St. Louis and the Violent History of the United States
Walter Johnson
A work of radical history that traces how St. Louis served as prototype and exemplar for a racialized capitalism of removal and extraction.

Diary of a Very Bad Year: Confessions of an Anonymous Hedge Fund Manager
Keith Gessen
A series of funny, lucid interviews with a hedge fund manager during the 2008 financial crisis and its aftermath.

September 13, 2022

For some time now I have been struggling with how to end this “COVID series” of blog posts. I have other topics I’d like to write about, but I kept waiting for some moment of closure, some demarcation point to end of this strange and uncomfortable chapter in our lives. Eventually I realized that this post series is over in the same sense that people say “COVID is over”: the underlying phenomenon persists, and yet we are no longer interested in it.

It’s been the year of Omicron and friends. December and January saw a truly staggering spike in cases, one that saturated the nation’s testing capacity. A deep lull in March and April gave us hope that prior immunity might give us what vaccination had not: a path out of surges and back towards normalcy. Unfortunately the subvariants followed, and through the late spring and summer an alphabet soup of new Omicrons washed over us, seemingly with little regard to prior infection. Rapid tests proliferated, giving quick and easy (if only provisional) estimates of infectiousness; but their private nature meant that true case counts became uncertain once again. By the end of the summer we found ourselves once again trying to estimate spread by eyeing wastewater charts for major cities.

For the first time in the pandemic, it became common for friends, family, and coworkers to catch COVID. Increasingly relaxed (maybe just lax) quarantine guidelines from the CDC meant that the perceived impact of the illness was lower–although the actual experience of the illness seemed bimodal, with some folks reporting quite challenging symptoms and others barely noticing it at all.

Public life returned more or less to normal: concerts, sporting events, and public gatherings resumed, with few or any concessions to what had come before. Only vestigial “social distancing” stickers on the floor remained to mark what had been our shared experience. Restaurants, bars, theater, airports all saw returns to pre-pandemic levels; the surge in demand help fuel an inflationary spiral for prices. Only office buildings remained quiet, as workers now accustomed to the flexibility of remote work resisted a resumption of the status quo ante.

We, too, began a return to a more normal life, if more slowly than most. I finally started working on campus again, though typically just two or three days a week. I flew to science conferences, where fellow PhDs and I created a tiny redoubt of masks amid the crush of American life. We traveled to see family in the summer for the first time in three years, though COVID cases complicated those joyful homecomings.

We waited with extreme impatience for the long-delayed vaccination of our youngest, one of the “under 5s.” The initial Pfizer 2-dose regimen proved underpowered, and the resulting back-and-forth with the FDA is too exhausting to recount. We fretted through months of uncertainty before we could finally get a Moderna shot for him in late June, and a second in July. Fully vaccinated. Somehow, despite all the odds, we had made it.

Still, while we and our loved ones were fortunate and avoided the outcomes we most feared, we still find ourselves marked—scarred, even—by the events of the last two and a half years. Our trust that institutions will do the right thing, and that people will make sacrifices for the common good, will never be quite the same. Walking a route familiar from days gone past, a temporary school closure: small moments can summon again the deep darkness of those interminable 2020 months, when we sequestered ourselves from external contagion and fought internal, psychic battles instead. Today in particular I am especially grateful to my spouse, who persevered alongside me through those difficult days. May the years ahead bring again an expansion of life and of possibility.

December 17, 2021

And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,

Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?

Yeats, The Second Coming

It’s been a fall full of surprises. The school year started with the Delta wave cresting, and indeed both kids had classmates test positive in August and September. But we were fortunate, and neither kid caught COVID, and we settled into a stable state. In our area, mask mandates were applied again, soon joined by vaccine mandates–with predictable but (locally) muted protests.

My university, like many others, resumed in-person instruction despite the Delta wave; but with no in-classroom responsibilities I mostly continued working from home. The strain is starting to show, though–despite more regular work hours, my projects and my motivation languish. Several of my staff quit to take other positions: evidence that interpersonal bonds are fraying. Sudden inflation pushes industry salaries ever higher, too.

We continued our eager awaiting of the kids’ vaccines, and our patience was tested by ever-lengthening timelines. Pfizer finally submitted the EUA for 5-12 year olds in September, but it took until November to get fully approved. I was fortunate to be checking my email when the clinic at my son’s school was announced and snagged him a pair of slots. He got his second shot after Thanksgiving, and we now can look forward to less restrictive quarantines from school in cases of close contact, I think.

In response to evidence of waning efficiency, we picked up boosters for ourselves as well for good measure, at a city-wide clinic run with ruthless logistical efficiency at the Amazon headquarters.

My folks came for a lovely visit at Thanksgiving, the first time we had seen them since June. It was a very welcome interlude from a miserably rainy fall–an all-time record for September-November in Seattle, which is terrifying to contemplate. We were grateful for our new roof and gutters!

December, though, brought news of a new variant, Omicron, first identified in South Africa. While at this writing it appears less likely to lead to hospitalization and death than Delta, it spreads incredibly rapidly relative to what we’ve been used to with COVID to date. Neither immunity from prior infection nor from even triple vaccination is a guarantee against illness, thought they do appear to mitigate the more severe outcomes. With little broad appetite for (or outright hostility to) any sacrifice or real disruption to the status quo (let alone a lockdown or similar), an enormous holiday wave is inevitable. Even if most people avoid the worst outcomes, disruption of day-to-day life seem likely simply from everyone being sick at once (doctors, bus drivers, grocery workers…). And we must expect that, mostly out of sight, vulnerable people will suffer and die, and many others will face a long, slow recovery back to health. It’s the darkest time of year.

And today brings yet more unwelcome news: the 2-4 year old vaccine trial failed because the low dose did not trigger sufficient immune response. I expected it during the Delta wave, but now it seems truly inevitable that our youngest will catch COVID before he can be vaccinated; we are left to trust the probabilities that he’ll be okay.

August 16, 2021

Whiplash. It’s the only way to describe it.

With two kids under twelve, we never fully relaxed into the “hot vaxx summer” everyone was planning. But in June both kids were finally out of the house in camps and preschool–all day, every day. Frankly it took a little while to get used to concentrating through a full workday again.

Things already were going a little sideways in May, when the CDC told everyone vaccinated they could take their masks off–with predictable effects. Thankfully our kids’ care still required them. Still, it was a strange feeling to be the only ones still wearing masks on the playground at the end of June.

Already then there were rumbles of bad news on the horizon: increasing case rates in highly unvaccinated areas from the much more transmissible “Delta variant.” Rumors, and then increasing certainty, that the Delta variant could break through full vaccination. Vaccination still seemed to provide good protection against hospitalization, but it soon became clear that vaccinated people could get sick, could transmit the virus, could get long COVID, could get hospitalized, could die. Even the rhetoric that “kids don’t get sicktook a hit. Approval for the pediatric vaccine is still months away, despite the AAP begging the FDA to speed approval.

Through it all the steady drumbeat of resistance to public health measures has only intensified. Red state governors have banned mask mandates and vaccine mandates, despite mounting case rates. Schools have seen significant protests in opposition to mask wearing.

It’s taken awhile to get our minds around these changes. We’re having to question assumptions about the end of the pandemic that we clung to for a long time: especially, that once we have a vaccine it will all be over. The future, sadly, looks endemic: we will all likely get it, repeatedly.

In the meantime: schools nationwide are opening for the fall, many without any precautions, and are seeing truly astonishing infection rates. Schoolchildren are being hospitalized and dying. Case counts are rocketing upwards nationwide, and even in (relatively) highly-vaccinated Seattle.

It feels a lot like March 2020 again–but somehow we can’t stomach a lockdown again. We cancelled a family get-together, and have cut out risk wherever we can, but the kids are still doing school in person. Every option feels deranged. The youngest already had a close contact in his classroom and spent two weeks at home with us–thankfully he tested negative. At this point it feels like “when” rather than “if”–and we ask ourselves if we’re making the right choices.

May 3, 2021

What a month.  More changed for us in April than since the pandemic started.

We worked ourselves into a frenzy waiting for our turn to get vaccinated, but ultimately both of us were finally able to get shots.  Washington State flirted with maintaining the May 1st date for general adult eligibility, but ultimately accelerated it to April 15th.  And almost immediately afterwards there was excess capacity and appointments everywhere, even in Seattle, one of the most vaccine-willing places in the US.  Given the lack of uptake, as expected herd immunity appears all but impossible to achieve.  That’s no help for kids in the short term, but we’re at least breathing a bit easier ourselves for the first time in a year.  Emotionally, it may take awhile before we feel comfortable to go eat in a restaurant or back to the gym–but a few long-deferred visits with friends and neighbors are brightening our days.

Our oldest returned in person to hybrid school, so once again I start my day walking him up the hill to class.  Even four days a week at 2.5 hours is transformative after a year of unending Zoom calls.

Our youngest, however, has thrown us for a loop by dropping his afternoon nap.  He stuck with a nap far longer than his older brother–but then one day he came sailing into my room during a conference call, commenting on my colleague and I wearing the same work hoodie, and it was all over.  Without that two-hour break from his increasingly exuberant three-year-old energy, we’ve all come a bit unglued.  My spouse hit the phones and found him a spot in a local preschool–and he immediately blossomed into it.

We’re not sanguine about the risks to the kids–but it was clear we had no real alternatives.  Intense spousal effort yielded summer care as well, and we have hope for more regular school hours in the fall.  Suddenly our cramped professional lives can stretch a bit and we can survey what remains.

Still, fourth waves surge here and there in the US, and India has exploded into a terrible humanitarian crisis, devastating friends and colleagues.

I hope at some point to have space to reflect on what to take from this experience.  But for now this article captures at least a little of it:

Someday soon — maybe summer, maybe fall — you’ll blink and find yourself wandering through a park without having to debate distance, masks and the social viability of hugs in your head. What a moment that will be: to live without having to think about how to live. In that moment, it will feel like you won. Like your own choices saved you, other people’s doomed them, and maybe it was even pretty easy to do the right thing.

But don’t forget how you really felt. How doubt kept you up at night and how tired you were of thinking. Remember all the times you couldn’t remember … that thing you’ve forgotten … and all the times you impulse yelled and impulse shopped. Remember how many times you just wanted help — not authoritarian, one-size solutions, just help — and how angry you were when, instead, you were expected to become an expert in seemingly everything.

March 23, 2021

Everything is moving quickly now.  It’s disturbing, after so much stasis.

We were relieved to see family members in other states get vaccinated, and thrilled to start planning (not merely dreaming) when we might see them again.

Our state governor added K-12 teachers (but not higher education) to the then-current vaccination phase.  Then President Biden gave us all some much needed clarity by directing states to make vaccines available to all adults by May 1.

Oregon’s governor, and then our own, ordered schools to reopen–so after more than a year our son will return to the classroom half time.  That is already throwing off our carefully-tuned work and family schedules, with more disruption to come.

Every day other states open vaccination to all adults, but we are still weeks away.  To check social media is to chew glass–we’re thrilled to see friends get shots, but it only amplifies our own desire and frustration.  Thousands of Seattlites haunt Facebook groups, trying to learn where they might await waste shots at Rite Aids in distant counties.

We’ve kept so safe for so long.  It’s frightening to consider opening the bubble when we’re so close.  But we are also truly at a breaking point emotionally.  Patience has expired; hobbies and rituals have lost luster; even the lengthening days dawn wan while we wait.



March 1, 2021

It’s been a year since we learned COVID-19 was spreading undetected in Washington State.

More than half a million people in the U.S. have died.

But signs are pointing in positive directions, finally.  Case counts, hospitalizations, and deaths are all down from their terrible holiday peaks.  More people have been vaccinated in the US than have contracted COVID, and the vaccines are proving very effective.  The one-shot Johnson & Johnson vaccine has now been approved, and tests are starting on safety and efficacy in children.

We are very tired, though.  January was one of the rainiest on record in Seattle, and we’ve all been cooped up together for too long.

School districts in large cities–Seattle among them–are having big fights about whether to reopen for in-person learning.  In some states educators are being prioritized for vaccines, but in Washington they’re still in future phases.  It’s frustrating watching university faculty & staff my age who aren’t in classrooms getting shots, especially when grocery workers, folks with preexisting conditions, and near-retirees still can’t.

Vaccine supply is supposed to increase sharply in the next few months–fingers crossed.  Before long vaccine hesitancy will probably be the biggest challenge.

Spring weather is starting to peek through.  The days are lengthening.  There will be outdoor summer day camps for the kids, and preschool for the youngest in the fall.  We are hopeful, but it is a hard scrape ahead to get there.

January 1, 2021

Like so many others, I greeted the changing of the calendar year today with relief: there’s some psychic release associated with putting “2020” behind us.

Unfortunately we start the new year with lots of bad news.  A new virus variant first identified in the UK appears to be more transmissible, and it is already spreading in the US.  This means even more rapid spread of the disease, and substantially higher rates of immunity needed for herd immunity (90% or more of the population will need to be vaccinated or have immunity from prior infection).  Our runway for getting the vulnerable vaccinated just got shorter, and in the US I see no further willingness to engage in the sorts of broad public health measures that could have limited the spread in the last ten months.

Worse, the rollout of the vaccines has been disastrous.  Despite (or perhaps due to) a widely decentralized vaccine distribution process, few states have managed to inject more than a few tens of percent of the vaccines they have received to date–raising a real risk in some cases that the doses will expire, unused, in the fridge.  Some of this is attributed to growing pains and the holiday season–but why are we taking vacations from administering vaccines during a pandemic?

Public health experts (and Twitter logicians) are debating all aspects of the vaccine prioritization.  A major question raised by the UK variant is if we should administer only one shot of the two-dose regimen initially, with the thinking that ~80% effectiveness for twice as many people is more helpful than 95% effectiveness for fewer.

There’s more: sizable proportions of the first-tier groups are refusing the vaccine!  If 50% of health-care workers in hard-hit LA County won’t get the shot it’s hard to see how we are going to vaccinate ourselves out of this, even when there’s enough supply…

But still–small bright spots shine through.  My mother-in-law and two sisters-in-law have each had a first dose–here’s hoping we will all join them very soon.

December 14, 2020

Today, I hope, marked the beginning of the end of COVID-19.  The first doses of the Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine were administered to health-care workers around the country.  And the Electoral College voted for Joe Biden to be the next President.

I had hoped to capture a bit more of the last two and half months as it happened, but it has been an incredibly busy time.  While we hit our stride with remote schooling, work obligations for both my spouse and me skyrocketed, and today feels like the first time in months I could really take a breath.

October was particularly tough due to remote meetings.  Every science organization that normally would have planned an in-person meeting for the fall decided to try their hand at a virtual one, and they put them all in October.  If they were in-person meetings, you would decide if it was worth it to attend, if it was logistically feasible, etc.  And if you went you’d clear your calendar.  But for virtual meetings there’s no barrier to attending, and no good excuse for cancelling standing meetings.  So any open work time I had to write or code or even just skim emails evaporated.

We also spent a lot of our mental cycles processing the news.  Confirmation of a new Supreme Court justice.  A subsequent celebration that disregarded public health guidelines.   Result: a superspreader event that infected many Republicans, including the President.  The President is hospitalized, and for a weekend everything seems to hang in the balance.  And then–clearly too soon–he returns to the White House, and… recovers?  And begins campaign rallies again?  And suddenly it was time for the election, and the long, lingering farce that followed.

Our focus on politics distracted us from the start rise of the next and biggest wave of COVID infections, though, and in November it was here.  Hospital ICUs around the country were full.  Folks on the outer edges of our social network–friends of friends, distant social media contacts–reported catching COVID.  But unlike in the spring, nothing seemed to really change–Washington slightly tightened a few restrictions, but not in any really impactful way.  While our understanding of risk has improved since the spring, it seemed more a resignation that any sense of shared responsibility, sacrifice, or even reality had long since evaporated.  We waited for reckless Thanksgiving celebrations to drive the wave’s crest even higher.

For us, then, the dreary, darkening Seattle winter was a chance to turn further inward, and find (somehow) new energy and new family pastimes.  We had an all-Zoom Halloween inside our house.  The boys built elaborate Lego and MagnaTile and RC creations.  We played soccer and did windsprints in our muddy, sodden yard, the grass long since destroyed.  As the rain and the cold and the dark allowed, we pushed scooters and strollers around the same one-block lap.  We put up Christmas decorations, bought presents, and baked.  I put in new light fixtures and replaced light bulbs with brighter LEDs to stave off the darkness.  And, with all semblance of balance gone, we worked at night, almost every night, desperate to keep ahead of more-than-full-time obligations.

Yet peeking through the darkness was cause for hope.  Two newly-developed vaccines reported Phase III trial results of stunning efficacy.  States and local authorities began planning how to allocate the scarce supplies.  Last week the Pfizer vaccine was given an Emergency Use Authorization, with the same expected for Moderna’s later this week.  And so today our heroic health-care workers finally got the prioritization they have deserved.

We’re not out of the woods yet.  2,500 people a day are still dying, and the curves of infections still have not peaked.  We’re months away from having enough vaccines for the broader public, with big arguments about allocation (and conversely, persuading the vaccine-hesitant) still to come…