March 2022 Staycation

It’s hard to come up with journal titles sometimes since we’re, well, not going anywhere or doing a whole lot.

I took last week off from work. Since we are, again, not going anywhere, I’ve been accumulating vacation time steadily without the usual trips to spend it on. Originally 2020 was going to be a big vacation year for us, but that didn’t happen. Instead I’ve been taking off about one week each quarter, plus the occasional day off here and there. That’s basically burning my vacation time just slightly faster than I earn it.

Since we’ve been, you know, in the middle of a global pandemic, I probably should be taking the occasional sick day as a mental health day, but I haven’t been. Once we start going back to the office – which may happen soon – I’ll see how that goes and how I feel. I expect being around people will be good for my mental health, but being around people potentially carrying COVID-19 will be bad for my mental health. (I’m sure they’ll feel the same about me.)

Anyway, I spent the first half of the week mostly hanging around at home and doing some chores. For example, ordering some new eyeglasses, which I’ve been meaning to do for a while. Going to get coffee and hang out at Philz, whose closest location to home has a nice outdoor patio. We also got a good rain shower on Monday, which we really needed, and where I was able to do some yard maintenance ahead of the rain, such as laying down some plant food for various things.

Wednesday Debbi also took the day off and we went to breakfast at Stacks in Campbell, and swung by Recycle Bookstore. Then we went to Santa Cruz, where we went to Bookshop Santa Cruz and the Penny Ice Creamery, before driving over to look at the ocean. It was warm downtown, but cold and windy by the water! So we didn’t stay long.

The Penny Ice Creamery

Thursday I decided to drive up to San Francisco. When I got there, I found my car had hit a milestone:

Odometer reading 40002
Yes, the inside of my car is rather dusty

I went by Borderlands Books, where I found a few things. They haven’t changed a lot – other than a staffer I hadn’t seen before – but I think they’re hoping to move into their new space later this year. Then I went by Amoeba Music, mainly because I’ve wanted to pick up a copy of the new Jethro Tull album The Zealot Gene on CD. They didn’t have it, although they did have the ridiculous $120 vinyl/CD deluxe set, but I passed on that.

Visiting Amoeba brought back memories. I went to it and Rasputin in San Francisco, Berkeley, and Campbell many times in the ten or so years after I moved to the Bay Area in 1999. That was when I really got into progressive rock, and it was sort of the golden age of the compact disc, where companies which had issued half-assed versions of vinyl albums on CD in the 80s were reissuing them nice editions with full liner notes and many bonus tracks and other goodies during that period. Those stores were excellent for finding many CDs, including of the increasingly-obscure bands I was getting into – bands which wouldn’t be available via download for quite a few years. (I knew the tide had turned around 2009 when there was an album I could not find on CD, but which was available from the iTunes Store. This was the eponymous album by Days Before Tomorrow.)

Haight Street in SF was still fairly quirky at that time (although I’m sure nothing like it had been 30 or even 10 years earlier). I particularly remember one used bookstore with tall bookcases and similarly tall stacks of books on top of those cases. I don’t generally worry about earthquakes, but I was worried about being caught in those stacks if one hit San Francisco. That store and many others are long gone, and the remnants of quirky Haight Street are not interesting to me – and honestly, even the tattoo parlors are looking pretty upscale.

Amoeba, however, seems to have not changed at all. They still want you to check your bags at the front. They still have extensive new and used CD sections, and a large side room with DVDs and blu-rays. If much has changed, it’s a larger selection of vinyl, as well as some record players. And actually they have substantially improved their organization of artists with large catalogs so you don’t have to go searching through three rows of unsorted discs to find the one you want. I hope they’re doing okay.

Amoeba Music interior

I had lunch at a nice nearby sandwich place called Bite Me Sandwiches, even if I did have to sit on the sidewalk to eat it. (Thanks COVID!) Then I drove over to Green Apple Books, which I haven’t been to in forever. Apple Maps claimed that all their locations were permanently closed, which I was pretty sure was wrong, but which made it hard to figure out which one to go to. When I got there I filed a report through the app with a photo of their open front door and hours, and it got fixed the next day. Fight entropy, everyone!

Green Apple Books is one of those old-style “we’ve crammed a bookcase into every square inch of space” bookstores, with wood floors and writing on the shelves indicating what used to be on those shelves back in the 80s. Still, they have a fine selection of used science fiction in excellent condition, and I picked up a few books here, too.

By this time it was time to head out to beat rush hour traffic, which I mostly did, and I came home and collapsed for the day.

The rest of the week and weekend involved more chores and more hanging around. I was pleased to win my first trophy in a Magic Kamigawa: Neon Dynasty draft. And Saturday night we got together with neighbors at the nearby Sport Page bar for drinks and dinner. They upgraded their patio during COVID and it seems to have paid off for them. The only downside was that we got there halfway through the Duke/UNC Final Four game, which none of us cared about, but once it ended everyone cleared out. We had a good time hanging out, including with a couple of former neighbors we hadn’t seen in a while.

So it was a pretty good week, though it went by fast, and wasn’t as good as, say, going to Hawaii. We know many people who have been travelling, so maybe our turn will come sometime this year, too. Otherwise, I’ll probably be writing another staycation entry in three months.

The Warmest Winter

After a near-record wet November and December, we’ve now had a near-record dry January and February. We got a little rain last week, mixed in with a sudden cold snap with frost on my car several mornings. This is not especially unusually – we always have a little near-freezing overnight weather in the middle of winter, but not sandwiched by days with highs in the 70s.

Today was another such day which cracked 70F, and Debbi and I took the day off and drove over to Half Moon Bay. It was bright and sunny for a coastal walk, and then we had lunch at the Half Moon Bay Brewing Company, which was an impressively tasty and good-value-for-the-money establishment. (Okay, people outside the Bay Area might flinch at their prices, but trust me they are good for here.)

We got a little too much sun, but otherwise a fine day out. Nonetheless I’d be happy to have weeks of pouring rain in March or April. We need it.

The Baseball Hall of Fame is a Clown Show

Yes yes, David Ortiz made it into the Hall this year.

But Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens were not admitted in their final year of eligibility for admission by the voters. Almost certainly because many of the voters believe they used steroids.

It doesn’t really matter to me whether they used steroids, or if they were entitled jerks. They’re scapegoats. As far as I’m concerned, the Hall of Fame is meaningless as long as Bonds and Clemens aren’t in it.

I believe that Major League Baseball willfully turned a blind eye to players using performance-enhancing drugs for decades, dating back to amphetamine use in the 1940s. The owners reaped the rewards of players like Bonds, Clemens, Sosa, Palmeiro and others breaking records in the 1990s and 2000s. The buck stops with the owners and their businesses, who fostered and facilitated this environment.

Baseball and the owners should admit and publicly apologize for their culpability in the PED scandal. They should grant amnesty to every player suspected of using PEDs through (at least) 2005, and by fiat put any player with even a borderline case for election into the Hall. That’s the very least they should do, given the huge benefits they reaped.

Barring that, every player in the Hall who played between 1946 and 2005 should be removed from the Hall.

Are the players culpable? I don’t care. The owners’ shadow games have muddied the waters too much for us to know what happened, and in any event the owners share whatever blame the players deserve due to their (at least) negligence.

Until then, I say that the Hall of Fame is a joke. A clown show.

Fifty-Three

My birthday was Sunday, the middle day of a long weekend for me, as Apple gives us Martin Luther King Day off.

(Growing up in Massachusetts, we got MLK Day off every year starting – as far as I can find – in 1975. As a result I got my birthday off from school a few extra times. True to form I was completely oblivious about why we got it off. In hindsight it’s pretty spectacular that MA started observing it so early.)

We had a pretty quiet weekend, which frankly was fine with me. We had originally planned to go over to the coast on Saturday, but the volcanic eruption near Tonga triggered a tsunami warning across the west coast, and we decided to bail on that plan. For me, less due to worry about the tsunami – which wasn’t expected to present a danger unless you got too close to the water’s edge – as wanting to avoid idiots flooding (heh) the coast to see the tsunami.

We did watch a whole lot of football, seeing the Patriots and Raiders lose, but the 49ers improbably win against the Cowboys. My feeling about the 2021 Patriots is very similar to the 2021 Red Sox – rebuilding teams that surprisingly made the playoffs, and unsurprisingly lost in the early rounds. And Niners I are in the middle of a “still in contention, but kind of rebuilding too” phase, and I don’t expect them to beat the Packers this weekend.

We also went out to eat three nights in a row (Fri/Sat/Sun), which was nice. All outdoor dining – I think we’ve (still) eaten indoors exactly once since the start of the pandemic – but we hit a few of our favorite restaurants downtown. Sadly my traditional birthday restaurant has apparently suspended outdoor dining for the winter – perhaps a bit short-sighted as we’re in the middle of warm spell, with highs getting into the 60s most days in the last week, and likely to stay warm through the end of the month.

Debbi didn’t have Monday off, so I spent part of the day watching TV. I finished The Expanse, which as a series was okay. Started weak, got better, got exciting when they finally got out of the solar system, but ended with a fairly dull set of in-system politics and combat. (I’m not really into near-future in-system SF, so I was really hoping for a big ramping-up of the sense of wonder once the ring gate opened.) I thought most of the characters were pretty weak – especially nominal protagonist James Holden – so I wasn’t very invested in what happened to many of them. Overall, it was okay, but not something I’m likely to rewatch (unlike Babylon 5 and parts of Battlestar Galactica). I guess it only adapts the first six books, so there are three more they could do if someone else picks it up.

Anyway.

Three years in, my fifties feel like a blur. My face is getting those lines of middle age, with an annoying vertical one between my eyebrows. My knees are getting a little creaky, although they’ve been doing a good job lately where running is concerned. (A little weird to think that they’ve been holding up better through running than they did when I was biking regularly.) On the bright side, I still have all my hair, and most of it is still brown!

But time is starting to pass faster. The pandemic is obviously affecting all of this to a fairly large degree. I’m not a big traveler, but there are a few places I’d like to visit. I haven’t spent as much time with my friends lately as I’d like. It feels like everything is on hold, and is going to keep being on hold indefinitely.

Anyway, it was a good birthday, under the circumstances. I get a little less enthusiastic about my birthday each year, but I do look forward to the day that I can have people over to celebrate it again, someday.

2021 in the Rear View

Overall, 2021 was a step down from 2020 for me, which is saying something since 2020 featured the outbreak of a global pandemic, and living the whole year not knowing if you’d catch COVID and die or end up with lifelong health problems.

2021 did have a few good points. First, the U.S. government transitioned from being run by racist, fascist, corrupt, incompetent Republicans to being run by garden-variety politician Democrats, which has been a huge step up. Also, COVID vaccines got rolled out, considerably lowering worry for many people about getting seriously sick or dying from COVID.

On the other hand, COVID has continued to mutate (and will continue to do so, probably forever), so it’s unclear when or if the pandemic will ever end. And those same shit-for-brains Republicans have continued their efforts to topple American democracy, as well as spreading lies about the vaccines which have resulted in a third of the country not getting vaccinated – making it even less clear whether the pandemic will ever end.

And that’s just the big picture.

For me personally, 2021 was a rough year. As I’ve said before, I hate working from home, I hate not having my work and home lives separated, I hate not seeing my friends and cow-orkers regularly, I hate all of it. Vaccinations have helped, as we’ve been able to see some friends sometimes, but it’s a band-aid. It’s been a long slog, and it’s gradually getting harder for me to keep slogging. And we surely have at least another year of this to go.

Last year we lost our elderly cat Roulette, but also very suddenly lost our other girl kitty Sadie. Those were a couple of big blows to take in the space of just a few months. I still miss Sadie coming to tuck us in at night.

We’ve had a couple of unexpected big stressors, too. I don’t often mention our vacation house on the east coast, but the insurance company told us we need to replace the house’s siding to retain coverage. We decided to also replace the windows which were in bad condition, but once the siding was off we ended up in an ongoing cascade of additional things to fix (for example, the bathroom needed to be gutted for multiple reasons). Debbi has been handling most of this, and the contractor we’re working with has been great, but it’s still been an ongoing project with many decisions and no small expense. (And doing all of these remotely has been about as convenient as you’d expect.)

And then just before New Year’s my Dad fell, and while he didn’t sustain serious injury (for instance, he didn’t hit his head), he did end up going to the hospital. Coincidentally my sister was there and was able to help. But we’re still waiting to hear what the road forward looks like, and I imagine it will involve me flying back east during the winter or spring to help out, which is of course exactly what I want to do during a pandemic.

Last and probably least, we almost made it a whole calendar year without ants coming into the house. Fortunately the exterminator was able to come out and do a perimeter spray within just a few days, so the ants are gone. (I really, really hate ants inside my house. It’s not a phobia, but it makes my skin crawl.)

This past weekend we took down our Christmas tree and about half of our fairly ludicrous outdoor light display, marking the end of another holiday season. It’s always a melancholy moment for me, moreso these days since I take a lot of nighttime walks and now the lights I look at are coming down.

Another year of this. Maybe more.

It’s getting harder.

Christmas Munchies

Debbi’s eye was better yesterday, but still bothering her a fair bit. We had plans to have dinner with neighbors and were on the fence about going, since we didn’t know how many people would be there and it didn’t seem like a great idea to mingle with a group of people we didn’t know in these days of Omicron. Eventually Debbi decided to stay home since she didn’t feel up to socializing with a group of people, and I decided to go.

While this was arguably a poor choice, it turns out we had misunderstood the plans, and in fact we were the only people invited, so Debbi ended up coming after all, and we had a nice afternoon feast with the neighbors. They’re Swedish and their family celebrates Christmas on Christmas Eve, including a large meal followed by opening gifts. So we met their kids, and their dog and cats, and all had a good time. All of the humans are vaccinated, so it was probably about as safe as these things get these days.

In the evening we indulged our annual tradition of driving around to view Christmas lights. This was a lot of fun except for the one popular street in Palo Alto which is always overrun with cars and was as bad this year as ever. On the other hand a well-known street in Los Altos was nearly empty when we drove through.

This morning we got up in time for Debbi to take a video call from her parents, followed by her baking homemade cinnamon rolls she’d prepared the night before – one of our newer traditions. We opened gifts (the kittens were thrilled with the wrapping paper), I talked to my dad, and we spent a lot of time sitting on the couches. Then we went for our traditional midday walk, where we got rained on (which is also sort of a tradition).

I cooked my traditional dinner – meatloaf and potatoes gratin – and as also seems to have become a tradition, some of the meat I bought on Wednesday had spoiled and I had to run out and buy more ground chuck. It took longer to make than I’d expected, but it turned out yummy in the end.

I went for another walk after dinner, where I walked through a short but very windy rainstorm, and now we’re sitting on the couch (again!) watching Knives Out on television, with passed out cats around us. And happily Debbi’s eye is feeling much better today!

Holiday Update

Apple closes down its corporate operations between Christmas Eve and New Year’s Day. I added a couple of days to either end of the break to give myself just over 2 weeks off, starting yesterday. And just in time, because I was pretty much out of gas a week ago.

So what’s new?

Debbi and I got our COVID booster shots in early December, which was a relief. The sites around here to make reservations are all terrible, especially the ones for pharmacies which require you to answer a long list of questions before telling you there are no appointments available. We tried a drop-in clinic near our house but the wait was at least an hour. It’s been bad. A friend says that Stanford Health has been a good experience – it’s just about the only site I didn’t try.

I’ve actually had 7 vaccine shots this year: 3 COVID, 1 tetanus, 1 influenza, and two shingles shots. I had negligible effects from all of them, except for the shingles shots, each of which took me out of work for the next day. It wasn’t a horrible experience (I have friends who said they were flattened for several days, especially after the second shot), but it was a bit rough.

Meanwhile, Debbi has been having occasional eye problems, which came to a head this morning and turned out – after a trip to the ophthalmologist – to be a bad case of dry eye, essentially her eyelid chafing on her eyeball. She’s slowly getting better, but it’s been a rough day for her. We’re glad it turned out to be a common and easily treatable problem and not something exotic or chronic.

We put up our outdoor Christmas lights the weekend after Thanksgiving, over 3 days. It’s getting a bit harder to put up the lights each year – for me, anyway, as I go up and down the ladder – so spreading it out over 2-3 days is nice. We’ve been seeing more and more lights going up around the neighborhood each year, which is nice. We probably have one of the larger displays – especially since we don’t have any inflatables – but we don’t compete with anyone. We just do what we want to do.

But then we started to get rain last week – our first rain since the big storms back in late October – and the circuit breaker for our lights started tripping. Strange since that’s almost never happened in the 10 years we’ve been putting up lights here. I had figured I’d need to unplug things to systematically figure out where the problem is, but as it turns out I went out to rake along the boxwood yesterday afternoon, and decided to raise up the net lights on those bushes so they weren’t so low to the ground, and the breaker didn’t trip during the showers last night. So maybe that was it somehow. Who knows.

We also put up the (artificial) Christmas tree, which delighted the kittens, who have been happily playing under it (and one time in it) since then. Until.

So Debbi’s wanted to replace our laundry baskets for a while, but we haven’t been able to find stackable baskets which fit in the space we have for them in the stores we’ve checked in the area. So she finally ordered them from Amazon. And they arrived.

In. Four. Separate. Boxes.

Obviously Amazon’s packing machines don’t have the concept of stacking four laundry baskets in a single box, they just grabbed each one, packed it in its own box, filled the extra space with brown paper, and shipped it to it. (It’s entirely possible that humans did this but didn’t notice the full order – possibly because depending on how the system works, four different people might have packed the four baskets.)

Anyway, aside from four large boxes (promptly recycled), we also ended up with a huge amount of brown packing paper, which drove all three cats bonkers for a couple of days, even Jackson, which has been pretty hilarious. And it’s distracted them from the tree.

(I imagine the pandemic is really testing the efficacy of our recycling programs, since our household is generating at least 50% more paper recycling than before the pandemic. No doubt many households are generating even more.)

We are not going away for the holidays again, and wouldn’t be even if Omicron hadn’t reared its ugly head. (Omicron looks like it should substantially accelerate the endgame of every human on Earth contracting COVID in the next few years, so that’s fun.) Hopefully next summer we’ll feel safe enough to go visit our families for the first time in over two years, but we’ll see.

Anyway, over the next couple of weeks I plan to have some downtime, do some house chores, hang out with Debbi, and get some kitty snuggles. The rain is supposed to stick around through early next week, which is nice – not only do we need it (ho boy do we need it) but I love rain. In particular it looks like it’s going to be a Wet Christmas, just like the song says.

The Great Filter

Earlier this year I participated in a thread on Facebook about where all the aliens are, since none seem to have contacted us – i.e., the Fermi paradox. Through this I learned about the Great Filter, a theory that we haven’t encountered aliens because a series of obstacles eventually prevents any species from being able to contact other planets before they die out.

Current events and (relatively) recent history have made me think that the Great Filter seems very plausible. Consider some of the threats to our species’ survival over the last hundred years:

  • Global thermonuclear war. We seem to have dodged this bullet (although, since the genie can never be put back in the bottle, there’s always some chance of this).
  • Resource Exhaustion. It’s unclear whether this will happen in a meaningful way, since it seems likely that we’ll transition to renewable energy before we use up all the fossil fuels, and it’s basically unknown whether we’ll use up any other key resources before we manage to get into space to get access to more.
  • Climate change. This is the current threat of great concern, and it is looking less and less likely that we’ll overcome it. It might not actually wipe humanity out – we could stop it and be forced to live farther from the equator for some centuries or millennia – but it could still result in a Great Pause in our species’ development.
  • Biological genocide. I.e., being wiped out through a virus or other biological agent, either that we developed, or which evolved naturally. There’s always a risk here, but my guess is that unless we engineer something ourselves it’s unlikely that this is the way we’ll go.
  • The Internet.

This last is the one that’s been on my mind lately, as we’ve watched a slide in many nations towards authoritarianism and fascism, combined with a growing populism rooted in conspiracy theories, disdain for science and education, and extremism. I think what’s been happening is that the advent of the Internet – and generally global, cheap mass and one-to-one communication – has amplified the voices who believe in those things, while taking advantage of an innate tendency to treat things that sound authoritative as being authoritative. Combining this with the human mind’s tendency to see patterns even where none exist, and I think this is pushing a significant and growing fraction of humanity down the authoritarian/fascist path.

Not that the pre-Internet days were perfect, of course (one large and obvious drawback being rampant gatekeeping by the dominant culture), but it seemed that the limits of communication before the Internet were a natural – if accidental – check on the ability of the more lunatic voices to spread and gain an audience. Again, not perfect, as plenty of lunatic ideas ended up being ingrained in human cultures (slavery, anyone?). And of course the Internet allows supports the spread of sane voices that were formerly on the fringe. But the results so far are not making it look like the Internet has been a good thing for humanity.

The Internet itself isn’t going to destroy humanity, but I think its effects make it more likely that something else will. For example, the crazy resistance to reasonable measures to combat COVID-19, including to simply being vaccinated. And even as we have mounting evidence of, and scientific consensus regarding, climate change, there is strong opposition to doing anything to fight it, including a large contingent who don’t believe it’s even happening. Moreover, authoritarian leadership – especially of the narcissistic, incompetent Donald Trump variety – could even revive the prospect of global thermonuclear war.

So my take on the Great Filter is that any time a civilization develops an Internet, it becomes a significant impediment to fighting threats to that civilization’s survival, making it much less likely that that civilization is able to solve the in-and-of-themselves huge obstacles to interstellar space flight. Granted, all of this is very human-centric, but there may well be characteristics of many (theoretical) sentient species which are susceptible to the Internet, even if they’re not the same characteristics that humanity has.

Even assuming developing interstellar civilization – or at least colonization – is possible, and even if there are (or have been) billions of technological civilizations in the galaxy, it doesn’t seem at all implausible to me that they’ve all killed themselves off before they got there.

And these days, it seems like we’re well on our way to doing the same.

(Postscript: If this sort of thing interests you, I recommend the audio drama Out of Place, the second season of which explores a dozen ways that humanity could go extinct. I think most of them are unlikely-to-implausible, but they arguably make for better drama than the ones above.)

Doctor Who: Flux

Doctor Who’s 13th season was one single 6-episode story titled “Flux”. I expect the three specials slated to air over the next year will be the last hurrah for show runner Chris Chibnall and star Jodie Whittaker as they turn the keys to the kingdom over to returning show runner Russell T. Davies and whomever he chooses as the fourteenth Doctor. Chiball’s run has been mediocre and pretty forgettable to date (see my previous season round-ups). Did Flux change that? Let’s find out what I think, with spoilers, after the cut:

Continue reading “Doctor Who: Flux”

This is as Good as it’s Going to Get

This is another COVID-19 entry. It’s a long one, and it’s not a very positive entry, because my feelings about it can be summed up thus:

In the United States, the pandemic is as over as it’s going to get. You may or may not feel that the pandemic is “over”, but I don’t believe it’s ever going to get more over than it is now. At least in my lifetime, and maybe in that of anyone alive today.

I’ll talk about why I think this further down, but I want to lead with what this means for us in our day-to-day lives. It means that the world isn’t going to become much more comfortable for you than it is now. Cases may go up and down, extra measures may come and go, but if you’re not comfortable doing things now, the only way you’re going to get more comfortable is by adjusting your own mind. And if you’re convinced that your current comfort levels are warranted, then what you’re comfortable doing now is what you’ll be comfortable doing for the rest of your life.

For example:

  • If you’re not comfortable eating at a restaurant, nothing’s going to change in the future to make you feel more comfortable. More likely I think there will be fewer restrictions on restaurant patrons with respect to masking and vaccinations over time.
  • If you’re not comfortable flying on an airplane, that’s not going to get better either. (From what I’ve read, flying is one of the least-risky group activities, but it’s not surprising that our lizard brains look at flying in a narrow metal cylinder with a couple hundred other people and think “Nope.”)
  • If you’re not comfortable going to work in a group environment – an office, a retail store, a warehouse, or wherever – that’s not going to get any better. (And I bet we’ll see employers start pressuring people to return to in-person work in the next year. Or, at the latest, in 2025 if the Republicans capture the White House and Congress.)
  • If you’re not comfortable going to an art fair, movie, concert, wedding, funeral, or other event where there will be lots of people around, indoor or outdoor, masked or not, don’t expect much to change in these areas either.
  • If you’ve been looking forward to getting to the point where you don’t need to wear a mask to suppress the transmission of COVID, don’t expect the need for that to change either. But don’t be surprised if lots of other people decide that they’ve had it with masks and just stop wearing them unless required to (and also expect requirements for masking to slowly go away over the next few years).

When people talk about “the pandemic being over” or “the pandemic not being over yet”, or “the pandemic ending”, I don’t think things have appreciably changed in the U.S. in the last few months, and I don’t think they’ll appreciably change in the future – ever. There’s never going to be less need for mask wearing, physical distancing, and avoiding crowds or indoor events, until and unless there’s some significant unforeseen development.

I am not an infectious disease expert, so there may certainly be important things I don’t know. But here’s why I feel this way:

  • A little under 60% of the U.S. population is fully vaccinated. This is likely to continue rising slowly (with a slightly larger bump this month and next as 5-11 year olds get vaxxed), but I think it’s likely that we’ll peak at around 70% vaxxed. I suspect that last 30% will never get vaccinated voluntarily.
  • More importantly, only about 42% of the world population is fully vaxxed, and that also needs to get much, much higher. I bet it will peak at around the same level as the U.S. – around 70% – or possibly a bit higher if more authoritarian governments impose vaccinations requirements than prohibit them.
  • The SARS-CoV-2 virus which causes COVID is never going to go away. Even if we manage to eradicate it among humans – which I doubt we will – it’s likely to survive in animals (such as deer) and retransmit back into humans periodically.
  • The existing COVID vaccines are great at preventing infections and preventing serious symptoms against those with breakthrough infections, but it doesn’t eliminate transmission even among the vaccinated, and I believe we’ll never get to the much-greater-than-90% vaccination rate we need for vaccination to eradicate the virus among humans.

An important caveat is that I believe all of this to be the case assuming there are no unexpected developments. By “unexpected” I mean developments that we either don’t know about or don’t expect will happen. I think we can reasonably expect the world to get to a 70% or slightly higher vaccination rate, but getting to a rate of true herd immunity – above 90% – does not seem like something that’s reasonable to expect.

I think there are reasons for hope among things we could imagine happening, though. Here are some of those unexpected developments which could make a significant impact:

  • Better treatments for COVID symptoms are developed. There are two anti-viral pills which have been announced recently, and hopefully there will be more. This could mitigate the impact of people getting infections to the point that it really is like getting the flu rather than getting a dripping illness (not that the flu is anything to laugh at). It’s not clear to me that this will really move the needle in changing the need for masking, etc., but it might.
  • New, more effective vaccines are developed. I doubt anyone who isn’t researching such vaccines or in close touch with such people has any sense whether this is likely to happen. I’m optimistic that we will create better vaccines, maybe even one which prevents transmission or otherwise significantly reduces the spread of COVID among humans. I think this is the most likely path to returning life to complete pre-pandemic “normal” (for the vaccinated, anyway).
  • We achieve herd immunity levels of vaccination. As I said, I think this is pretty unlikely, but it’s possible.
  • COVID evolves to be basically harmless to humans. There’s a long-standing theory that viruses can evolve in this way, but there seems to be little evidence that this actually happens. (This may be what happened to the 1918 influenza virus.)
  • Humanity evolves immunity to COVID. Seems unlikely, and if it does it might only happen for future generations.

The other wild card is that the virus itself could evolve in various ways. (In a sense Delta has been a boon, because I’ve read that its high transmissibility without being much more deadly than the original virus might be blocking more deadly mutations from taking hold. They can’t replicate and transmit fast enough to beat out Delta.) The really bad mutation, of course, would be one that reliably breaks through the vaccines. Another bad one is that it might become more deadly to the unvaccinated but not substantially worse for the vaccinated.

This brings me to one of the worst parts of all of this, which is the thousands – maybe millions – of people who are unable to be vaccinated. While for people who can’t be vaccinated because of a reaction to something in the vaccine there is some hope that a vaccine might be reformulated to eliminate that problem, for the many others who are immunocompromised such that the vaccine either wouldn’t work for them or might itself be harmful, I don’t see a way forward. This is of course one of the main reasons why we needed to squash the virus through universal vaccination, but as I said I don’t think we’re going to achieve a high enough vax rate to do that, and so the unable-to-be-vaccinated are going to be stuck. While they can mask and physical distance like anyone else – like we did before vaccines – neither of those is a solution, it’s just a stopgap measure, especially in a world where many other people – both vaxxed and unvaxxed – will likely be doing less of both in the future. I expect many tragic stories in the future. We as a society are failing these people because of the shitheads who choose not to get vaccinated.

(This is one reason that I have little sympathy left for people who are unvaccinated by choice, catch COVID, and then die or experience long COVID. They made their choice, and it was the one that basically said fuck everyone else.)

A few days ago the New York Times published this piece which includes interviews with Dr. Bob Wachter, whom I’ve been following on Twitter for his COVID analysis over the last year and a half. He – and the piece’s author – make some points which are similar to my thoughts here. The point that we will likely transition to looking at illness counts rather than case counts as the factor which dictates how we adjust our precautions seems right on to me. Case counts are going to go up and down among the whole population, forever, but more and more of those cases will be vaccinated people testing positive but having no significant illness as a result of the virus. What this means for masking, and testing, and other measures remains to be seen. What exactly happens probably depends on to what extent people are willing to endure those measures. I don’t really have a guess as to what will happen – after all, we put up with an awful lot of security theater nonsense in order to fly.

But I think we’re now at the point where the substantive, enduring measures we can take have been taken, and the next few years will largely be us – as individuals and as groups – deciding what our social structures are going to evolve into.

Personally, I am so, so sick of working from home. But I don’t relish the prospect of wearing a mask for a whole day in the office, either. But at this point, what happens isn’t really up to me.