/data/universe/

March 31, 2020

The children were like wild animals today–happy, cheerful animals, but animals nonetheless.

Hospitals are firing doctors for speaking out on lack of PPE.

Trolls are disrupting online classes, thesis defenses, and more by “Zoom bombing” them with obscene imagery and chats.

Scientists are discussing how to relax the lockdowns without leading to a second wave of infection.

An epidemiologist’s blistering critique of the NYT’s White House coverage during the crisis.

The stories from New York are heartbreaking and terrifying: constant sirens, 911 triaging patients on the phone as too ill to care for, vast swathes of first responders fallen ill, hundreds of sick patients dying isolated from loved ones…  It is the future we feared was coming to Seattle.  So far there is reason to hope it will not be so bad here.  But there is some survivors’ guilt, nevertheless, and fear for the rest of the country as the graphs tick ever-upward.

Sometimes at midnight, in the great silence of the sleep-bound town, the doctor turned on his radio before going to bed for the few hours’ sleep he allowed himself. And from the ends of the earth, across the thousands of miles of land and sea, kindly, well-meaning speakers tried to voice their fellow-feeling, and indeed did so, but at the same time proved the utter incapacity of every man truly to share in suffering that he cannot see.  –Albert Camus, The Plague

March 30, 2020

We went for a walk, and saw that a small little boutique near our house had gone out of business.  The space was already emptied, stripped bare as if it had never existed.

Wifi speed is suffering some and hindering video calls.

Not everyone believes in the threat.

March 29, 2020

We went on a longer walk today, up to the “schoolyard playground” near our house where we’ve whiled away countless hours.  We knew it would be closed, but seeing the play structure wrapped up in caution tape and the gate locked really brought the change home.

On the way home we did the social distancing dance on the sidewalks with others out on walks.

New York City is dealing with more 911 calls than during 9/11.  People are fleeing to remote areas and encountering resistance from the people who live there due to the obvious risk of accelerating the spread.  And while I get that it’s scary to hear about the state of the hospitals in NYC right now, do people think their prospects would really be better if they find themselves with bilateral pneumonia in some small rural hospital?  (and out of network, natch)

Continued positive news on the caseload in Washington State (although there are already internet idiots claiming this means the threat was overblown and the reaction too severe).  I do wonder if we’re due for a small surge: while there were moderate distancing steps taken here early, things were only shut down completely very recently, and there were certainly large groups of people congregating at parks and having parties just a couple weeks ago–those cases would just start appearing now.

Hopefully soon serological tests will allow us to determine everyone who has been infected, and finally nail down some of the transmission numbers.  In the meantime amateurs continue to fill the void and influence federal policy.

I realized we hadn’t started our car in three weeks, so I took it for a short drive this evening to get the fluids moving.  U-Village was as empty as if it were Christmas morning.

March 28, 2020

I heard a couple sirens today–it felt unusual, though perhaps I am just over-sensitized.  It brought to mind one of my favorite pieces of writing, John Donne’s famous Meditation XVII:

Perchance, he for whom this bell tolls may be so ill, as that he knows not it tolls for him… As therefore the bell that rings to a sermon calls not upon the preacher only, but upon the congregation to come, so this bell calls us all; but how much more me, who am brought so near the door by this sickness.

It seemed especially apt in that so much of the current crisis is about the need for empathy: to see ourselves in the place of another, to see how our actions affect others, and—even harder!—to be willing to make substantial sacrifices and never to know how or for whom they made a difference.

Sadly this is very countercultural these days in America.  The last weeks have shown that it’s hard even recognizing that what’s happening elsewhere is relevant to us.

Human beings, who are almost unique in having the ability to learn from the experience of others, are also remarkable for their apparent disinclination to do so.  –Douglas Adams

It’s becoming clearer that there may be stages of lockdown and release while we wait for a vaccine.  Twitter consensus is moving towards the need for widespread mask wearing to help blunt asymptomatic transmission (#masks4all).

It’s challenging to get flour.  I’m getting out of shape from not getting any real exercise for a month.

March 27, 2020

Our youngest started fussing off and on at 5 am, so I was falling over tired all day.  Even in these unusual times, normal things keep happening.

Not that it slowed the youngest down any!  His latest game is taking flying leaps off of the couch.  Nerve-jangling!  And a good way to get hurt.  Heaven knows we don’t want to go to the E.R. for some prosaic injury right now…

I gave a remote conference talk while the kids caused general ruckus and mayhem upstairs.

VC-funded startups are showing signs of stress.

Some cautious optimism about the slower rate of case growth in Washington State.  While we’re a long way from out of the woods, it feels… a little hopeful?  I expect complaints that this has all been overblown any moment now.

Still, it’s a strange juxtaposition as the news from the rest of the country starts to turn so much worse.

But some positive news that much faster tests may be on the way.

Seattle Public Schools is going to start “supporting continuous learning” next week.  I don’t envy anyone trying to make consequential decisions or long-term plans right now.

March 26, 2020

A chilly, rainy day here.

Though it felt awkward I sent a message of support to an old friend who is an ER doctor on the East Coast–and I’m glad I did.

Dispiriting news continues from Washington.  Large-scale stimulus passed late last night (with all the sausage-making that entails), but there is apparently still no agreement to nationally fund large-scale ventilator production.

Professional epidemiologists are dispirited by politicized attacks on their work.  Wonder about all those Spring Breakers….

New Orleans is emerging as a major new hot spot, just a few weeks after thousands crowded together.

While the White House response continues to be unconscionable, many of us downplayed the risks until they were on our doorsteps.  What is the psychology that prevents us from recognizing that the experiences of others in far away places can be relevant to us?

We’re going to take a belated moment tonight to sign a Community Property Agreement, although of course we can’t get a notary at the moment.  (My brother, who is an estate attorney, will try to smack me in the head via the Internet if he reads this.)

March 25, 2020

Another virtual conference finished today.  It was nice in that I wouldn’t have gone in person–it was international–but I found it hard to participate in any kind of sustained or meaningful way with the kids’ schedule and other work meetings.

My oldest is starting to resist “family school” activities, complain about boredom, and repeatedly ask when he can go to the airport to go see grandparents.  He had a first Zoom call with his teacher and classmates today.

Noteworthy people are starting to pass away.  Harrowing stories are emerging from NYC hospitals.

Comedians and DJs are doing Instagram sets.  Universities are freezing academic hiring and cancelling job searches.

I startle involuntarily when I see pictures of groups of people close together, even if I know they were taken months ago.

March 24, 2020

Today felt like an inflection point to me.  Already so much has happened in the last month; situations that seemed impossible weeks ago are now commonplace, and our thoughts and emotions have evolved accordingly.  I want to remember how each day felt, after it’s over.

How did we get here

For me, and for many of us in Seattle, it started feeling real with the tweet on February 29 from a local researcher that concluded that COVID-19 had been circulating undetected and unmonitored for 6 weeks in Washington State.

I had been worrying that since only those recently returned from mainland China were getting tested, we could be missing other cases.  The analysis confirmed that fear.  I knew immediately that containment had failed.  It was clear that there would be no way to do contact tracing for all those people, and there were clearly not enough tests.

My fear for my own family was mitigated to some degree: reports from other countries indicated that most fatalities were for older people, and vanishingly few kids.  There was the open question of whether the high estimates of the case fatality rates were inflated by the many who supposedly were asymptomatic or showed only mild symptoms.

My spouse was away on an overnight trip that night.  By the time she returned there were already runs on Costco for basic supplies.

Still, while there were quickly tragic clusters of fatalities in local nursing homes, for a few days life continued as normal.  We all went to work; the kids went to school, and we started asking what we should do next.  Surprisingly rapidly, major tech employers in Seattle (Microsoft, Facebook) sent their workers home.  On social media we started chattering about #SlowTheSpread but little concrete action seemed to result.

I started working from home March 6.  I was one of the first to do so, and faintly perceived some judgment from a few colleagues–but I thought it was crucial to set the example for my junior teammates that it was okay to do so.

For about a week it felt like we in Seattle were living in the future.  Colleagues elsewhere seemed to have little concern.  I was on the planning committee for an in-person workshop to be held the week of March 16th on the East Coast.  Others on the committee living in other cities saw little reason to change plans, even as European attendees began cancelling their registrations.  I pushed for postponement or a virtual meeting, sensing that I would not leave my family in these circumstances.  East Coast colleagues argued that they could still meet as a group even if it were not officially the meeting site.

I got in a little bit of a rhythm working at home, picking up some work time normally spent commuting and subtracting some to help deal with kids naps and school pickup and dropoff.  My rigged up standing desk on top of my dresser proved functional although the long periods of standing aggravated shoulder problems due to my poor posture.

Colloquium speakers and other visitors to Seattle started cancelling their visits.  Airlines sent us frantic emails offering unheard-of deals.

Then on March 11, Seattle Public Schools announced that they would be closing for three weeks–and suddenly working from home got a lot more challenging.  On March 12 the governor extended the closure to April 24.  With a lively two-year old and an intense five-year old to keep entertained it looked insurmountable.  (Just the two weeks at home around Christmas we thought was hard!)  We repartitioned our day so I could squeeze in work intervals and calls in between helping with the kids.  My spouse took the lead organizing “Family School,” and our oldest did some worksheets in the morning, a family walk mid-morning, Snap Circuits during brother’s nap, another walk mid-afternoon, and then we all faded into screen time in the late afternoon.  I felt jealous of my child-free colleagues working under what I imagined might be easier circumstances, perhaps even enjoying a pleasant boost of productivity thanks to all the cancelled meetings.

We held virtual visiting days with our admitted graduate students, pitching them on UW and Seattle when everyone was trying to stay far away from us.  All my colleagues were working from home.

On March 14 our oldest spiked a fever, and then there were no more walks.  For two and a half days he had a minor fever–and then my spouse got it as well.  Our youngest was in the midst of a snotty cold.  My spouse spent four hours on hold to talk to a doctor virtually, who didn’t recommend a test as it wasn’t a classic presentation of COVID-19.  Maybe it was just the flu?  Though we had all had flu shots.

Since we couldn’t go to the stores we turned to online delivery; some poor shopper spent an hour texting us pictures of empty shelves and asking us what we wanted to replace out-of-stock items with.  We quickly learned to start the next order right away to “hold our place” as available delivery dates stretched out to almost a week later.  Items started to vanish from stock on Amazon.

I spent a lot of time on Twitter, frustrated that there was no progress on getting tests moving on a massive, industrial scale, wondering why a war-like mobilization to manufacture the ventilators we would so clearly need very soon wasn’t starting.  Why were we wasting this time instead of preparing?  I watched the President deny the crisis, undermine the scientists around him, and fixate on the stock market rather than dealing with the actual pandemic.  Every company with my email address sent me a message telling me about the precautions they were taking.

Famous people tested positive.  All the sports were cancelled.

We held our workshop fully virtually, with me sneaking in sessions on my phone while watching kids or during naps.  Our oldest recovered from his fever only to relapse scarily a few days later.  I found myself with a low fever and mild shortness of breath.  Were they psychosomatic?  Was my thermometer reliable? I knew there was no point calling anyone about them.  All of the pulse oximeters on Amazon were sold out.

We started to hear scary stories from Italy.  Harvard sent all of its students packing for home with one week’s notice.  Colleagues elsewhere were working from home and figuring out the virtual backgrounds feature of Zoom. Those of us with kids made lots of silly jokes on Twitter.

California issued a shelter in place order, but we still didn’t have one in Seattle–and there still seemed to be some people going about their lives as normal.  The stock market did giant belly-flops over and over, and I wondered why I hadn’t thought to move our small retirement funds into cash at the beginning of the month.

Bars and restaurants were closed.  Those of us fortunate to have salaried jobs heard of mass layoffs in more precarious industries.  Seattle’s mayor issued a moratorium on evictions.  Young, healthy people started giving first-person accounts from the ICU.

My department chair spearheaded a local drive for unused N95 masks, seeding similar efforts nationwide.  My spouse wrote a reflection on Instagram that was seen by millions.

We spent a lot of time in our small, thankfully fenced front yard, enjoying some warm spring weather and dreaming up little games to try to distract the kids a little while longer until iPad time.  Finally everyone was healthy again.

Yesterday & Today

Last night our governor issued a “Stay Home, Stay Healthy” order shutting down remaining non-essential businesses, spawning a surge of bureaucratic emails today.

A few of the remaining holdout telescopes have now halted operations.

Various quantitative people who are not epidemiologists are arguing about whether this is all blown out of proportion, whether to plot per-capita or totals, whether the number of confirmed cases is meaningful, etc.  Deaths are unambiguous but a trailing indicator given the long incubation time and the time to get truly sick.

After waffling for awhile, Boris Johnson delivers a forceful message locking down the UK.

A chart indicates Seattle has a slower growth in death rates than other places–have our social distancing measures helped?  How long can we sustain them?  Have we done anything to stop a resurgence once they are lifted?

Cases in New York City have rocketed past Seattle, and there are some grim signs (lines outside to enter an ER?).  This feels like a turning point.

The President suggested we just restart everything by Easter.

The Best Books I Read in 2019 (and 2018)

Previous editions: 2016, 2015, 2014, 2013, 2012, 2011.

New job, new city, new kid…  I didn’t read much for a while there.  Thankfully I found Libby!

This Blessed Earth: A Year in the Life of an American Family Farm
Ted Genoways
Follows a Nebraska family as they farm corn, beans, and cattle, fighting the constant worries of weather and markets while figuring out how to pass on the business to the next generation–even as uncertainty about the future crowds in.

Our Kids: The American Dream in Crisis
Robert Putnam
A sobering study of the ever-growing chasm between the environments of kids growing up in households with and without college-educated parents in America.

The Boys in the Boat: Nine Americans and Their Epic Quest for Gold at the 1936 Berlin Olympics
Daniel James Brown
A gripping, engrossing account of the 1936 University of Washington crew which won Olympic gold in Hitler’s Germany.  Richly renders Depression-era Seattle.

Working
Robert Caro
One of the world’s greatest historians explains his craft.

Born a Crime
Trevor Noah
The South African comedian describes a childhood growing up mixed race in (post-) apartheid South Africa with humor and perception.

Digital Minimalism
Cal Newport
Digital disconnection is a luxury–but this book still offers lots of thoughtful, actionable advice about improving the quality of your life.  This blog post only exists because I deleted a bunch of apps from my phone!

Strangers in Their Own Land: Anger and Mourning on the American Right
Arlie Russell Hochschild
A Berkeley sociologist heads to Louisiana to try to understand and empathize with Tea Party conservatives.

Barbarian Days: A Surfing Life
William Finnegan
An autobiography of a life well-surfed.

Some Luck
Jane Smiley
A fictional saga follows an Iowa farm family year by year from the 1920s to the 1950s.

A Terrible Country
Keith Gessen
An American with a Russian Literature PhD on the margins of academia confronts his ideals when he moves to Moscow to care for his aging grandmother.

The Undoing Project
Michael Lewis
An intellectual biography of Amos Tversky and Daniel Kanehman, the partners who developed the broad field of heuristics and biases.

The Best Books I Read in 2016

Previous editions: 2015, 2014, 2013, 2012, 2011.

Fewer books read this year–toddlers take attention!

Twilight of the Elites: America After Meritocracy
Christoper Hayes
Perceptively anticipating current events, this book argues that America’s ostensibly meritocratic elite has become self-dealing and detached from the concerns of the larger population, undermining governance and stability.

Skyfaring: A Journey with a Pilot
Mark Vanhoenacker
A beautiful, elegiac mediation by a professional airline pilot on the human experience of air travel.

Lactivism
Courtney Jung
Examines the history, science, and sociology behind today’s widespread consensus that “breast is best.”

Water to the Angels: William Mulholland, His Monumental Aqueduct, and the Rise of Los Angeles
Les Standiford
A forgiving biography tracing the life and achievements of one of America’s great executors of public works.

Easy to Love, Difficult to Discipline
Becky Bailey
It’s challenging to read and harder to implement, but this book presents a powerful philosophy of parental discipline as teaching.