Well That Was a Week

The big news this week in our area were the eerie yellow and red skies due to the marine layer lofting the smoke from fires up north high into the atmosphere. (More here.) It was yellow and dark most of the day here in Mountain View, but further south and north the skies were red and much darker. But the air quality at ground level was actually fine, it just made for a from and foreboding rising every time one looked out the window.

The apparent end of the world was overshadowed for me because Jackson started showing signs of conjunctivitis again, meaning I guess the respiratory infection some of the cats had a month ago isn’t entirely gone. So we took him to the vet and got some meds. We couldn’t take him in until the end of the day, so I spent much of the day looking out at the dire heavens, and worrying about our boy. So we’re going him two meds for a week and then we’ll revisit. It remains to be seen whether the others will also need meds, although Edison started showing signs of eye trouble today. Sigh. I was really hoping a month after finishing the last round of meds that we were done with this.

(Despite the dramatic coloring, our weather was greatly overshadowed for the rest of the country by the disastrous wildfires in Oregon, which have been about as bad as anything I can recall in California.)

Unfortunately the marine layer moved out of the area by Friday, which meant the smoke came down to earth, and our air quality has been lousy for the last couple of days. Even worse up in San Francisco, I think. But we’ve basically been sitting inside, running the house fan and occasionally and A/C (the outside temperature did hit 80°F today, and the sun even came out). I don’t think anyone really knows, but the best prediction I’ve heard is that we won’t get relief (in the form of winds blowing the smoke elsewhere) until at least Monday.

Of course, the best thing would be for the fires to get put out. California firefighters have been doing a heroic job of containing the fires – the three large ones around the Bay Area are almost completely contained – but the whole west coast and several inland states have been set ablaze and things are bad.

Anyway, hopefully next week will be better. On top of the pandemic, this week was just nuts.

The Stayest of Staycations

Originally the plan was that this was the year we’d take lots of trips. I haven’t taken many vacations the last few years, largely because I’ve been working on some exciting and rewarding things at work (most notably Xcode’s new build system, and support for Apple Silicon Macs), so we’d mainly just taken our annual trip back east to visit our families in the summer. But this year we’d planned to do that, and go to Hawaii, and maybe visit a friend in Portland, and maybe go somewhere we hadn’t gone before, such as Seattle or San Diego.

Well, we managed to get a trip to Disneyland in. And then the world ended, courtesy of COVID-19.

But, I still had lots of vacation time saved up, and was getting close to our vacation cap, so after taking the odd day off here and there, I decided to take last week off.

Originally I’d figured I’d spend some time walking around outdoors, and hopefully make a trip over to the coast when I could visit the seashore with fairly few other people around. But that was before a freak lightning storm a couple of weeks ago touched off enormous wildfires around the Bay Area. In particular the CZU Lightning Complex lit up large sections of the mountains between here and the Santa Cruz coast, which wiped out historic FDR-era buildings in Big Basin Redwoods State Park. Other coastal communities asked people not to come to the coast since they were where affected people were evacuating to (I have a few friends & cow-orkers who were in evacuation zones from various fires).

So, a staycation it was. And mostly inside because the air quality was often quite bad. I went out for walks when I could, sometimes with a bandanna just to filter the air particles a bit, but I tried to avoid the worst times. And I put running on hold.

I spent a lot of my vacation playing Magic Arena, leveling up on the constructed ladder. I made Platinum, which was pretty nice since I wasn’t trying that hard. Still a long way to go if I ever want to make Mythic, though. Someday, maybe! I also played a bunch of Overcooked 2 on our Switch with Debbi and her sister, and we’ve been getting pretty good at it.

My other project was to sift through the stack of old – in some cases very old – Apple hardware I had sitting around unused, and figured out which pieces I could trade in for gift cards. I got through most of them, and the trade in process seems pretty nice: Apple sends me prepaid boxes to ship them back in. They also have a recycling program for stuff which isn’t worth anything, but you have to find a box and pack it yourself. For that I decided I’ll just take it to our community E-waste center, which is where I usually took such stuff. All of this made me feel accomplished, but it took a while because pulling serial numbers and info off of the old, often wiped-clean machines was not simple. Collect this info before you wipe your devices, kids!

I also did a bunch more clean-up in the study, and it’s looking pretty good now.

Beyond that we did a bunch of random stuff at home: Worked on a puzzle, I made my favorite Indian dish, played with the kittens, had a socially-distanced happy hour with a couple of Debbi’s friends, and so forth.

Not exactly where I’d wanted to spend my vacation time, but I expect I’ll take at least a couple more such weeks before we have a vaccine, so, shrug. I realized by the end that I had been pretty burned out at work, so I really did need some downtime.

If all goes well, a year from now maybe we’ll be back visiting our families again. If Incompetent Racist Impeached President Trump is reelected, it might be another year or two after that before things start getting back to normal.

Let’s hope it doesn’t come to that. I love our home, but this has been a lot of home.

Kitten Update

It’s been over two months since Simon & Edison joined our family, so it’s time for a kitten update!

Let’s get the bad stuff out of the way first: You may recall that they had upper respiratory infections and kitty conjunctivitis when they arrived, which we treated them for. Well, it turns out it was worse than that: The infection they almost certainly had from the start was kitty chlamydia, which we learned when their big brother Jackson’s right eye started watering and got hecka inflamed. We found out because we took him in to get tested.

So the three boys were on antibiotics for three weeks. We decided not to treat Sadie and Roulette because neither of them had showed any symptoms, and both of them had been avoiding the kittens (and Roulette avoids Jackson anyway). It was a bit of a risk, because if it turns out one of them was infected, then we’ll get to do this again, for all five of them. So of course every time I see Sadie sniffle I think, “uh oh”. But Sadie is a sniffly, slightly-drooly cat anyway, and she hasn’t shown the eye watering that all three of the boys showed. It’s been a week and a half since we finished their meds and none of them seem to be showing any symptoms, so it seems we got away with it.

The other downer is that a couple of weeks ago we were watching The Mandalorian, while the kittens were playing hard, when Edison jumped down off the top of the cat tree and must have twisted his ankle or something because he stopped putting weight on one of his rear legs and went and hid behind the couch. We put a stop to playtime for the night and corralled him and took the kittens up to their room and closed the door and left them alone for half an hour. Then we checked on them and he was limping, but he was using the leg again. So we decided to let it go to the next day, and while he was favoring the leg he was using it, and it wasn’t stopping him from running around. So we’ve kept an eye on him, and will probably ask the vet to take a look when we bring him in for their next shots. He was less adventurous about jumping for a while, but maybe it was psychological. Recently he’s been back to his old self, getting all kind of places, so hopefully it was something small.

We have another appointment for them to get their next round of shots in a week so we’ll have the vet check them out and make sure they’re okay. Fingers crossed!

Anyway, end of bad news.

The good news is that both kittens are growing up and are now in that delightful time where they’re able to do more, and they’re interacting with us more.

And stealing our chairs.

You may have guessed that they’re no longer confined to a bedroom. We staged letting them out, first giving them play time upstairs – usually with Jackson monitoring or even playing with them – and then giving them supervised visits downstairs. Next we let them out all day from morning til night, putting them back for the night. And finally last weekend we left them out overnight, which predictably ended up with us being kitten-piled at 2:30 am, but otherwise they seem to have adjusted well.

Jackson, somewhat to our surprise, is quite fond of the kittens. At first when they’d run up to him he’d tackle them too hard and they became wary of him, but after a week or so he figured it out, and the kittens would look for him whenever we let them out of their room. Simon in particular loves Jackson and would rub up against him whenever he first saw him after being released. We eventually caught Jackson and Simon sleeping together, with Jackson roughly grooming Simon and Simon purring away in happiness. The next development was hearing cats running around the house and spotting Edison chasing Jackson through the dining room. That chase ended with a hiss, I think because Jackson didn’t think a kitten could keep up with him, but they’ve had some chase time since then and it’s gone well. Jackson sometimes gets a little tired of the kittens and finds a place to get away from them, but mostly they get along great.

Simon can be a little winky sometimes.

Sadie and Roulette… it’s a work in progress. Sadie I think has been trying to figure out how to play with them, but has been having a hard time finding a way to do it without wapping them with her paw. It’s funny because she and they all have their spaz-all-over-the-house moments, but they haven’t played chase yet.

Meanwhile, I think Edison is looking for his special big cat to love, the way Simon has Jackson, and he’s chosen… Roulette, our grumpy 17-year-old cat who has spent most of the time since the kittens arrived under our bed. Fortunately we quickly identified that she came down to eat and use the litter, and finally she started coming down to hang out with us in the evening. But Rou would really like to be an only cat. Which is why Edison giving her the hard sell has been so funny: Sitting near her, watching her, trying to sneak up on her and lie next to her or lick her head. She is getting less belligerent, but I don’t know whether he’ll win her over. But he’s trying so hard. It would serve her right if he does, though, since that’s basically the hard sell that she gave my cat Jefferson when she was a kitten.

We’ve been trying to promote acceptance by giving everyone wet cat food together. Roulette and Simon are both very food-oriented, and Jackson and Edison will also join in. Sadie is not really food-oriented and often sits and watches.

As you probably know California has been wracked with wildfires for the last couple of weeks, and the air quality combined with unusually warm weather this month has led us to keep the house closed up and the A/C on for most of the time since we released the kittens for good. So they haven’t really gotten the full experience of sitting in windows and watching things outdoors. They’ve gotten a little of that in the last couple of days, and it seems Simon is a sunbeam cat, while Edison is going to be the one who tracks every little thing that goes by outside. Hopefully we can make sure that doesn’t include him.

The best part is that both of them like to snuggle with us, and each one will spend time sleeping on our chest or sometimes our lap. Edison in particular will sometimes get up and visit each one of us, sitting on our chest for a couple of minutes purring away before he goes back to whatever he was doing. And sometimes we wake up in the middle of the night with one of the cats snoozing next to us.

Despite the hiccups, these are still great kittens, and I’m really glad we got them.

Farewell, Fitbit

Back in 2012 I bought Debbi a Fitbit One for Christmas. Early in the next year Debbi bought one for me. We’ve been using them all this time, but this month my device finally gave up the ghost, first the button started being finicky, and then today it just shut down and couldn’t be resuscitated, even though I’d charged it just a couple of days ago.

For context, the Apple Watch didn’t come out until April 2015, so for over two years these were the only activity trackers we were using. And they seemed to do a pretty good job of tracking steps. I think I peaked at somewhere over 24,000 steps in a day in Las Vegas once.

For most of that time my daily step goal was 9,000 steps. I would usually beat that goal by a few thousand steps on running days, but I set it to be achievable on non-running days, which it usually was.

It was interesting to contrast it with my Apple Watch once I had both of them. A couple of years ago something happened so that my Fitbit thought I was running significantly faster than my Watch, and I suspect something was amiss with the Fitbit, measuring the distance I was running differently. Looking at the activity map it thought I zig-zagged all over the place, likely accounting for the discrepancy. Since I assume both devices were getting the positioning information from the same source – my iPhone – I’m not sure why they were so different. Even if the Watch has more accurate GPS built-in, it doesn’t explain why the Fitbit’s measurements suddenly changed. It was weird.

Fitbit had pretty good customer service, too: Both of our Ones died at some point – I think Debbi’s died twice – and each time they sent us a new One. Hard to argue with that. So I guess our current devices are really 5-6 years old, not almost 8 years old. Still, not a bad run for a tiny device with a presumably small battery. And mine has gone through the washing machine at least twice.

Our friends with Fitbits have mostly switched to other devices, and Fitbit has discontinued the One and as far as I know only makes wrist-based devices these days. And, well, I have my Apple Watch now.

So, farewell, noble Fitbit. It’s been fun.

Star Trek: Voyager

As long as I signed up for CBS All Access to watch Star Trek: Picard, something made me decide to watch Star Trek: Voyager. Longtime readers may recall that I was not a fan of The Next Generation, and I only made it through a season and a half of Deep Space Nine before I hit the eject button, as by that time Babylon 5 had sucked all the air out of the room for television science fiction. (It’s still the best SF series I’ve ever seen.) So I had little interest in Voyager when it debuted in 1995.

I think what made me decide to watch it this time was hearing that it had a bunch of time travel episodes, and I’m a sucker for a good time travel episode. Once I decided to watch that many episodes, I figured I’d draw up a list of the supposed best episodes and go through those. I didn’t really have the interest or patience to watch the whole thing, and while I assumed I’d miss out on some nuance of character development over the full 7 seasons, I also figured – based on the other “NuTrek” series between 1987 and 2005 – that characterization would not be the series’ strong suit. If the episodes I came up with ended up being surprisingly great, then I could branch out to some second-tier episodes.

We powered through the 48 episodes on my list (plus one we watched by accident) throughout June and July, and the verdict is: It was okay. Not great. Most episodes were watchable, none were great, none were outright awful. Definitely some disappointments, though. But I doubt I’ll watch any more than this. (It’s over a quarter of the series, which seems sufficient.)

Anyway, spoilers for a 20-year-old TV show in case you care about such things.

Here are the ones we watched, with my grades (on an A-F scale):

  • Caretaker (season 1 episodes 1-2) C+
  • Parallax (S1 E3) C
  • Time and Again (S1 E4) C-
  • Eye of the Needle (S1 E7) B
  • Non Sequitur (S2 E5) D+
  • Deadlock (S2 E21) B-
  • Flashback (S3 E2) C
  • Future’s End (S3 E8-9) D
  • Unity (S3 E17) C+
  • Before and After (S3 E21) B+
  • Worst Case Scenario (S3 E25) D
  • Scorpion (S3 E26, S4 E1) B
  • The Gift (S4 E2) C
  • Year of Hell (S4 E8-9) D
  • Message in a Bottle (S4 E14) B-
  • Hunters (S4 E15) C
  • Prey (S4 E16) C+
  • Living Witness (S4 E23) B
  • Demon (S4 E24) C-
  • One (S4 E25) C
  • Hope and Fear (S4, E26) C
  • Drone (S5 E2) B-
  • In The Flesh (S5 E4) C
  • Timeless (S5 E6) C
  • Dark Frontier (S5 E15-16) B
  • Course: Oblivion (S5 E18) D+
  • The Fight (S5 E19) D (this is the one we watched by accident)
  • Relativity (S5 E23) C+
  • Equinox (S5 E26, S6 E1) C+
  • Survival Instinct (S6 E2) B
  • The Voyager Conspiracy (S6 E9) B-
  • Pathfinder (S6 E10) C-
  • Blink of an Eye (S6 E12) B-
  • Memorial (S6 E14) B-
  • Collective (S6 E16) C
  • Unimatrix Zero (S6 E26, S7 E1) C+
  • Repression (S7 E4) C
  • Shattered (S7 E11) B+
  • The Void (S7 E15) B-
  • Homestead (S7 E23) C-
  • Endgame (S7 E25-26) B

I also erratically live tweeted watching these episodes, and if you care you can read my at-the-moment reactions in this thread.

For those unfamiliar with Voyager, the premise is that the USS Voyager is captured and taken to the Delta Quadrant by an alien called the Caretaker, along with a ship of insurgents from a group called the Maquis. The ships end up stranded there, with casualties on both, and integrate into a single crew on the Voyager, captained by Katherine Janeway (Kate Mulgrew), who makes the Maquis captain Chakotay (Robert Beltran) her first officer. 75,000 light years away from the Federation, it will take them 75 years to get home, through entirely unknown territory.

“Caretaker” appeared on several best-of-the-series lists, and while it wasn’t a bad episode, I figured if it ended up among the ten best of the series then I was going to be glad I didn’t watch the whole series. Having not watched deep (heh) enough into Deep Space Nine I didn’t have any knowledge of the Maquis, but I could take them on principle. So the first half of the episode was mostly based around Tom Paris (Maquis) and Harry Kim (Starfleet ensign), which was enjoyable enough, but once the Doctor showed up, he overshadowed everyone else as a character.

I didn’t have many episodes in the first 3 seasons in my list, and what I did have wasn’t great. Despite being a bit padded, “Eye of the Needle” was the best episode of the first 2 seasons, with a nifty kicker which I wondered whether it would become relevant near the series’ end (it didn’t). “Before and After” was a touching episode which foreshadowed some future events, but unfortunately those didn’t really play out very satisfyingly either. The other time travel episodes were pretty mediocre. “Future’s End” was sort of the centerpiece of these three seasons, I guess, but it was basically another dumb “go back to the 20th century” yarn.

Maybe the best episode of the whole series was “Scorpion”, which introduced Seven of Nine. It was a solid adventure, gripping at times, with a fairly smart interaction between Voyager and the Borg. Species 8472 is (briefly) a breath of fresh air in introducing aliens which look and feel alien compared to the typical Star Trek fare, and it’s just about the only episode of the series which has a genuine “yeah!” moment when Janeway tells Chakotay to execute “scorpion”.

It’s not exactly all downhill from here, but it’s a bumpy ride from here. The biggest change is that Seven of Nine sucks most of the oxygen from the room as far as characterization goes, as she far overshadows almost everyone else in interest and development. Tom Paris had been nominally the point-of-view character (certainly he seemed to be the one with the best mix of practicality and moral compass), but he gets smothered by Seven. I guess there’s a subplot which leads to him and B’Elanna Torres getting married, but Torres was not a very interesting character to me.

The biggest disappointment of the series was “Year of Hell”, touted as the best episode of the show in at least one list, and teased in “Before and After”. It was basically a big waste of time, the dumbest of time travel episodes (everything gets reset at the end), with lots of questionable decisions by Janeway and others. I guess it was trying to ramp up the tension and the stakes, but it was all so artificial and manipulative it was hard to take it seriously. And of course it didn’t track with “Before and After” at all.

“Living Witness” was a nice little surprise in the middle of a bunch of otherwise unremarkable episodes, feature the Doctor being revived 700 years later to help set straight what happened when the Voyager encountered a particular planet on their journey. While not an entirely original premise, it was one of the best executed of its type. I certainly enjoyed it more than the maudlin NextGen episode “The Inner Light”.

The biggest disappointment of Voyager was without a doubt the portrayal of Captain Janeway. While I guess they were aiming to show her as less perfect than Kirk or Picard, in a different way from Sisko, she was written very erratically, often headstrong and stubborn and honestly something of a tin dictator at times. “Year of Hell” had some of this, but the peak of Janeway stupidity was “Equinox”, in which the Voyager encountered another Federation ship, the Equinox, which had also been pulled to the Delta Quadrant by the Caretaker and had been trying to get home despite being a short-term research vessel. That ship ended up making some morally reprehensible choices to try to get home, which by the end of the first half left the Voyager in a bad spot. But in the second half Janeway goes around the bed, engaging in her own morally disgusting actions, and everything comes to an end when the Equinox captain has a change of heart for no apparent reason. A great set-up wasted by lousy writing in the second half.

(Several Equinox crew end up joining the Voyager, and I assume are never mentioned again – they weren’t in any of the episodes I watched.)

Though if she was frustrating as a Captain, her interactions with Seven and Chakotay were her high points. I suspect I missed the full nuance of her mentoring Seven to become a functioning human being, but even the glimpses I got were engaging. Jeri Ryan’s portrayal of Seven as imperious and haughty felt a bit off in her debut as a full Borg, but seemed more and more spot-on as Seven’s personality developed. Seven got many excellent moments, disagreeing with Janeway, confronting other Borg, interacting with one of the few children on the ship. She was surely the high point of the season.

Then, Chakotay ended up filling Tom Paris’ role from the first 3 seasons, as the ship’s even keel and moral compass. One of the final season episodes, “Shattered”, was a clever way of revisiting a number of key moments from the series without doing a clip show, but it was Chakotay as the featured character who held it all together, recruiting and convincing a much younger Janeway to help.

One interesting dynamic was Janeway and Chakotay meeting privately, since they were effectively the only people on the ship who were truly equals. They could air their differences, and argue all they wanted, as long as it was behind closed doors where their reports couldn’t see. This was one of those bits where the show almost seemed to understand what it had – a chance to show the power dynamics among Starfleet personnel, especially in a high-stake scenario – but it mostly treated it as an opportunity for NuTrek’s patented irrelevant character moments, showing things the character liked or remembered or experienced without really giving us a reason to care about it.

What about the rest of the cast? Well, in true NuTrek fashion there were just too many characters for all of them to be treated as major characters. The aliens Neelix and Kes were both somewhere between “just there” and outright annoying (though Kes at least got a good story in “Before and After”). Most of the rest just never really grabbed me, either. Torres was the typical “grumpy former rebel”. Paris also kind of filled that role, but with a vaguely self-destructive, sarcastic attitude, but I wish they’d played up a lot more. Ensign Harry Kim seemed like a cousin to Geordi LaForge, especially in that both of them were a little too earnest and a little too underdeveloped. The real missed opportunity was Tuvok, in whom Tim Russ turned in a pretty good Vulcan performance in the style of Leonard Nimoy, but the character himself was quite generic, and could have just been “Vulcan Science Officer #1”.

The only other character that worked for me was the Doctor, as Robert Picardo immediately brought humanity and humor to the role of the ship’s artificially intelligent medical officer. He got several good stories to play off of characters other than the main cast, including off of himself in “Equinox”. He was also the best part of “Blink of an Eye”, which was a fairly routine “this planet is in a faster time frame than our heroes” story elevated primarily by his performance.

Watching Voyager in 2020, it seems like a series of missed opportunities for story and character development: The ship just flits from place to place with no continuity. When the Equinox showed up I wondered just how they were able to make it through the obstacles Voyager had just barely cleared with far fewer resources. Sometimes they’re badly outclassed by the Borg, other times they’re willing to face them directly. The characters change in very small increments, but mostly there’s no character development here. All of this was par for the course for The Next Generation, making Voyager a natural successor to it, but it’s also very much an 80s/90s series with storytelling that seems shallow by today’s standards. It shows just how far ahead of its time Babylon 5 was compared to Star Trek.

The series finale, “Endgame”, is one of the very few episodes I’d seen before. When I did, I was glad I didn’t sit through 7 years of stories just for that. Watching it again, it works to the extent it does largely because of Kate Mulgrew’s performance as Admiral Janeway, who is driven to save her old crew but is also convinced by her old self to try something different. The story ends very abruptly, with no denouement, no winding down of the characters after they make it back to Earth, despite the backstories they’d all built up. It was pretty disappointing, and other than a brief appearance by Janeway in a NextGen film, and Seven appearing in Picard, I don’t think we learn anything about what happened to the others. (I imagine other media covered this, but I don’t care about anything other than what’s shown in TV and movies.)

So am I glad I watched it? Glad enough, I suppose. It wasn’t bad, but it always felt like the really good stuff was right around the corner… right up until the end, when it still felt that way.

The Last Crest

This is an entry about toothpaste.

I’ve been using Crest toothpaste for as long as I can remember, presumably because one or both of my parents used it when I was a kid. Sometime in the 90s, toothpaste manufacturers (or are they extruders?) started diversifying their products, and after trying various kinds, I eventually settled on Crest tartar control fresh mint gel as my preferred product.

(I don’t really strongly about paste vs. gel, but I’ve tried both cool mint and cinnamon flavors, and say “no thank you” to both of them.)

Back around 2013 I noticed that I could no longer find the gel in stores, so I turned to Amazon, which sold them – either directly or through third parties – in batches of 5-to-10 tubes. Annoying, but whatever. I also learned that you’re only supposed to use a pea-sized blob of paste to brush your teeth with, and while I still use a little more than that, cutting down made the tubes last a lot longer.

Unfortunately, my reprieve seems to have reached the end of the line: Amazon no longer offers this product, so I assume Crest has stopped making it. Which means sometime in the next week I will crack open the last tube of my favorite toothpaste, and sometime in the next eight months or so it will be gone. Alas.

Crest does still make something similar: Fresh mint gel+paste mixture with baking soda & peroxide whitening with tartar protection (and doesn’t that just roll off the tongue?). I bought a tube, and will try it out when this last tube is gone. It will probably be fine. Maybe just a touch weird, I don’t know.

I guess I should blame the millennials for ruining my favorite toothpaste, but probably it’s just good for me to try something new. Kind of.

Welcome Simon & Edison

Did you ever find yourself mostly stuck at home for months on end and think to yourself, “This would be an excellent time to adopt some kittens”?

Well, we are, and so we did. Meet Simon and Edison!

Simon is the brown tabby, while Edison is the black fellow.

We met them because one of my cow-orkers was fostering them, and we went over to visit a few weeks ago (pretty much the only people we’ve visited indoors since shelter-in-place started in March), and we thought they were pretty adorable. But, color-wise, they fit in with our three current cats, Roulette (calico), Jackson (gray tabby with white), and Sadie (white with orange tabby markings). And they had fun, playful personalities. So we decided to adopt them!

They are not brothers – Edison is about a week older than Simon according to their records, and they’re about two and a half months old. Simon has had a rough first couple of months, with some sort of bug that suppressed his appetite, and a foxtail or something in his right eye which left an ulcer. But he seems to have recovered from both, and is a little behind Edison in size and weight.

We brought them home two Mondays ago, and they’ve been mostly confined to a bedroom since then. And holy cow they are just about the most high-energy kittens we’ve ever had, other than maybe Blackjack. They zoom around their room and play and play and play. They’re changing practically every day, learning to jump higher, complaining that I’m not scooping their litter enough (we put a larger tray in the room after a couple of accidents), finding their meows, learning to snuggle, learning to clean themselves. Some switch flipped in Simon a couple of days ago and he’s become a lot more assertive, which has been adorable.

We’ve given them some supervised access to the rest of the upstairs, which they find delightful. They’re also very interested in the big cats, though only Jackson is interested in them so far, and somewhat cautiously, although we’ve played with all of them at the same time. Sadie will get a glimpse of them and then run away, while Roulette doesn’t like the cats we already had and I think is in denial that we have more.

Unfortunately, it hasn’t all been fun and games.

We took them in for their first appointment with our vet, for which they did very well. Both have put on a bunch of weight since they arrived (Simon is going to be a roly-poly guy, while Edison is going to be long and lean). That’s good, but less good is that they both have upper respiratory infections, and also conjunctivitis (or something like it). So we get to give them both meds for the next week and a half, and have to keep them separated from the other cats – and likely also change our clothes when we visit them – to keep the others from getting infected (especially Roulette, who will be 17 later this month; Jackson and Sadie are 7 and can probably deal with an infection if they contract it). Aside from the hassle for us and the disappointment for the kittens, it also means it will be a couple of weeks at least before we can start integrating the household.

Hopefully we’ll all come out the other side okay, but it wasn’t a great start to the long weekend.

As for the names? I’ve had “Edison” in my back pocket for decades waiting for the right cat, and I think this is the right one. We talked through a bunch of other names and both liked Simon. Of course, these are my fourth and fifth cats whose names end in “-on” (Jefferson, Newton, Jackson), so next time we’ll have to add a little more variety. But I think these names suit these kitties.

So despite the speed bumps, we’re very excited about these new additions. I’ve felt since they arrived like these are exactly the kittens we were meant to have.

COVID-19’s Darker Timeline

People sometimes joke (well, maybe they’re not joking) that this is “the darkest timeline”, between COVID-19, the idiots in the White House, the idiots in 10 Downing Street, etc. But it’s easy to imagine the development of COVID-19 taking even darker turns. I think about this sometimes, and wanted to write down some of my thoughts.

This is going to be a pretty dark post, so if this isn’t your thing, then you should skip it.

I have two what-ifs for you, one building on the other, and some thoughts on how they might go:

1) What if we never develop a vaccine?

This is possible. We’ve never developed a vaccine for the common cold, which can be caused by coronaviruses. We don’t yet know whether COVID-19 can be vaccinated against, and we probably won’t know for a year, if not several years.

What does it mean if we can’t develop a vaccine? Well, it means that almost everyone in the world will eventually contract the virus, which at a 1% fatality rate means that about 70 million people will die worldwide, 3.5 million in the United States, and many more will have serious health problems, probably for the rest of their lives. (I don’t know what percentage of infected survive but develop such problems.) I don’t think humans have the will to be able to go into the long-term total lockdown that would be necessary to prevent this.

It also seems likely that immunity to the virus provided by recovering from it won’t last forever – maybe it would last for 2-5 years. So if there’s no vaccine, then everyone who contracts it and recovers would contract it again a few years later. People who got seriously ill the first time around might not survive the second time, raising the fatality rate. And maybe people who came through fairly easily the first time would have a harder time the next time. Or the next. We might each of us end up living in fear of the day that the virus eventually hits us hard.

Moreover, we know that older people are more susceptible to the virus than younger ones, so as we age we may be aware that the next time we catch it could be the last time. People who before were expecting to live to age 70 or 80 might start thinking they’ll live 10 or 15 fewer years – and most of them might be right.

What might such a world look like? Well, we might just decide that since there’s nothing we can do, we’ll just go back to living the way we did before. Maybe we’d ramp up medical services to ameliorate the impact on individuals, but maybe not. (Many nations probably wouldn’t be able to. Some nations might not have the political will to do so.)

Alternately we might continue the lockdown for years, or forever, altering the way the economy works to accommodate. Office buildings would largely be a thing of the past, as would restaurants as we know them and many other social gatherings. Lots of things would move online further. We’d probably see a gradual reshaping of our cities and suburbs along lines it’s difficult to predict – more single-family homes? Fewer? No mass transit? As some have already predicted, people who work in jobs where they can telecommute would no longer be motivated to live near work, and housing prices in places like the Bay Area might plummet as people leave. On the other hand, jobs where people need to interact with other people might become less desirable – but no less critical. Maybe they’d start to pay better as a result.

Some people have already clamored for Internet to be classified as an essential service, regulated or free. That might be a necessity in such a world, but of course the need for medical care hasn’t prevented the U.S. from developing a for-profit health care system where people get raked over the financial coals for essential care. So Internet service might be no different. And even if it is, providing quality Internet service across as large a nation as the U.S. would take time, as many rural areas still have poor service.

If this were to continue into the future, one can imagine significant investments in robotic technology and other automation to serve people who are mostly living in their homes. Automated production, packaging, and delivery, overseen by a bare minimum of people. Restructuring of infrastructure around this sort of life, where cities have automated distribution centers and roads get narrower and mainly used by robots. At an extreme there’s the cheesy science-fictional idea where humanity becomes slaves to our machines, letting our physical bodies atrophy as we’re all living alone in our own homes without the interest in going anywhere. (Much like the “Seerons” in this comic book.)

But I digress. Maybe.

2) What if the virus mutates?

From what I’ve read, COVID-19 is not mutating very quickly. The reason we need to get a flu shot every year is because influenza mutates rapidly, so there are new strained every year. Fortunately we do a pretty good job creating influenza vaccines, though it’s not perfect. COVID-19 doesn’t seem to have this characteristic, and the strains we’re aware of seem to be closely related.

However, we could be wrong about how fast it’s mutating. Alternately, it might start to mutate faster. Either way, it might become more virulent, or more fatal, and mutations might also mean the temporary immunity gained from contracting one strain wouldn’t provide any immunity from another strain.

This isn’t necessarily game over for the human race. If the virus doesn’t become more fatal then it would just be a rougher form of the scenario above. If it does become more fatal, though, well… it probably means mass deaths, close to an extinction-level event. Our only hope as a species then is that it kills so many people that it kills off its ability to spread, and a few pockets of uninfected humans manage to survive long enough to restart the species, without being infected by the remnants of the virus left elsewhere. This is sort of how Europe survived the Black Death – exactly how things play out depends on how fatal the virus becomes.

A cheery picture, yes?

And so:

How likely is all this? Heck if I know. Probably not very likely. I choose to be optimistic that we will develop a vaccine, and that at worst we’ll all be getting an extra shot every year or two to stave off the virus. While it could take longer than the 18 month minimum, supposedly we were close to developing a vaccine for the 2012-13 MERS outbreak before it was determined to be much less virulent than feared and research funding petered out. If so, then hopefully we’ll be able to develop one for COVID-19.

Everyone keep your fingers crossed.

The Spread of the Virus

As I write this (and I say this mainly for posterity, not for anyone who reads this in the next few days), we’re about 5 months into the COVID-19 pandemic in the United States, and over 3 months into the shelter-in-place measures which have closed down much of the economy.

Just under 110,000 Americans have died from the virus, with about 2 million having tested positive. However, testing in the U.S. has been woefully inadequate, due in large part to the inaction of the Racist Impeached President Trump administration – since usually government action and coordination is key in driving nationwide efforts to deal with an emergency – so its likely far more people have been infected. A case fatality rate of 1% means that about 11 million people – around 3% – of the population has been infected. Adjust accordingly if you believe the fatality rate is actually higher (which would be bad) or lower (which would be good, but still pretty bad even at 0.5%).

In other words, the pandemic is a long, long way from being over.

Despite this, the nation is starting to “open up”. It differs by state – some states never really entered full ‘lockdown’ – but even California is allowing outdoor dining at restaurants, retail is reopening, and I think we’re on the cusp of hair and nail and similar stores reopening. (I honestly haven’t been following the details that closely as there are some businesses I just don’t plan to visit any time soon.)

We’ve also had the Black Lives Matter protests – as well as some other, smaller (and in some cases far stupider) gatherings – over the last few weeks, where mask wearing has been haphazard and physical distancing difficult or impossible.

COVID-19 has a gestation time of about 2 weeks, which means right about now we’d expect to be seeing additional cases, but it’s difficult to be sure due to the poor testing. The number of new cases reported nationally has been going down very slowly, but it’s going up in some states such as California and Texas. It’s hard to know whether this is due to more cases, or more testing. This is one reason that I look to the death rate rather than the reported case rate. We’ll probably know a lot more by the end of July, unfortunately in the form of a spike in deaths (or not).


The question I keep coming back to is: How many people will get the virus before we develop immunity?

Some people have advocated letting the virus run its course through the population for us to develop herd immunity. But if it takes at least 70% of the country catching the virus to develop herd immunity, that means 230 million people. And that means between 1 million and 4 million deaths – maybe more, if the medical infrastructure gets overwhelmed. Sweden elected not to enact significant social changes and it hasn’t been going well for them. The other issue with this approach is that we don’t yet know whether people who catch and then recover from the virus end up with durable immunity, and many people who survive have significant health problems. So it’s a painful and risky approach.

(When I’ve occasionally butted heads with someone who thinks herd immunity is the way to go, I’ve noted that they should be prepared to say goodbye to between 1 and 5 of every hundred people they know. This goes over about as well as you’d expect.)

Most experts think we’ll need to develop a vaccine. Putting aside the question of whether we can develop a vaccine (which we don’t yet know one way or the other), experts agree that it will take at least 18 months to develop a vaccine which we know works and is safe (i.e., that won’t kill or injure the people who get it) and it could take 3-to-4 years.

So even if we continue to impose physical distancing and masks and other measures, how many people are going to end up catching the virus anyway in that time? If 11 million people have been infected so far, that probably means 33 million by the end of the year, and double that before a vaccine is developed, assuming it’s developed in the 18-month window and is rolled out more-or-less instantaneously. 66 million a lot less than 230 million, but still a lot of deaths.

But now the country is starting to re-open, which means more people may be infected, at a faster rate. Humans are social animals, and our economy and social structures are based around getting together in groups. And it’s just very, very hard for humans as a group to make significant sacrifices over a long period of time to combat an emergency. Historically – for example, during war – this behavior is reinforced through strong leadership at many levels, but especially driven from a unifying force at the top. The United States obviously doesn’t have that – we have the opposite of that – and the mid-level leaders such as the governors don’t have the social capital to maintain this level of sacrifice indefinitely.

I don’t think it’s necessarily impossible to find a way to start re-opening and country safely, but I don’t think the people motivating the re-opening are interested in “safely”, they’re just interested in “re-opening”. So I believe things are going to continue to open up, and then the virus will spread faster, people will get sick and die, medical facilities will be overwhelmed, and things will get worse.

I could be wrong. There are a lot of things we don’t know (for example, maybe face masks are a magic bulletif we can convince people to use them). But based on what we know so far, I think it’s going to be a long summer, possibly leading into a painful autumn.

We’re much closer to the beginning of this than the end.

Three Months Inside

A week or so ago marked three months since I started working from home, and just a little less than that since the Bay Area started its shelter-in-place policy. Debbi started working from home about a week after I did.

As I’ve chronicled, it was rough for the first few weeks, some better than others, but we’ve mostly gotten used to it.

We were doing “happy hour” video chats with friends for the first few weeks, but those have tailed off, though we did one with some neighbors and some former neighbors last weekend. We’ve also done some in-the-driveway evening drinks with other neighbors, using our six-foot folding table to separate us. Sadly, they’re going to be moving at the end of this month, as their landlords wanted to raise their rent, and they found a place closer to where they work. We’re going to miss them. I think their landlords may be in for a surprise, as there are a couple of vacant rental homes in our neighborhood.

The county has been gradually opening things up. Construction started up again a few weeks ago, and the house across the street from us has gone from little more than a foundation to the plywood exterior going up. Other new construction is moving along, too.

Over the last few days, retail businesses are opening up as well. Diamond comics distributors had closed for several weeks, which meant no comic books, but they’re ramping up again and I’ve driven down to pick up my books at the curb the last couple of weeks. Supposedly I’ll be able to go into the store tomorrow – with up to four other people so long as we distance ourselves. Restaurants and game stores and other retail are also opening up – we picked up lunch today and saw a few people eating at outdoor tables at downtown restaurants. Ditto when I picked up coffee today. Meanwhile, the city may close the main street downtown to allow restaurants to set up seating there. (By the time I publish this, the city council will probably already have voted.)

Is it too early? My gut says ‘yes’, but a lot depends on whether the measures to keep people separate work. I do most of the shopping for us – Debbi comes with me to the farmers market on Sunday, and not much else – and what I see is pretty iffy. Safeway supermarkets aren’t very diligent about enforcing masks, distancing, or the one-way arrows in their aisles. I encounter lots of clueless people. By contrast, I went to Costco this morning for the first time since shelter-in-place and it was smooth: Everyone was let in promptly at 10 am, everyone wore masks, almost everyone was keeping their distance. Granted, it was a Tuesday morning and not a Saturday afternoon, but it made me hopeful. I also went to the nursery to get some pots and plants and it was great too. (In case you’re wondering why I wasn’t at work, I took the day off.)

We’ve had a couple of heat waves in the last few weeks – it got over 90° today – and we’ve been glad of our air conditioning. On the other hand, it got cold over the weekend. Strange days in more ways than one.

We’ve been cleaning up our study, buying new furniture and making it a more usable space, and getting rid of a lot of stuff (like, two bankers’ boxes worth of paperwork from my late mother). I’ll likely do an entry about it when we’re all done, but progress has been going pretty well, just more work than I’d expected.

On another front, we’re thinking of getting kittens, since if we’re home all the time it seems like the perfect time to have kittens. And frankly, Jackson and Sadie (who turn 8 this fall) really need and deserve kittens. On the other hand, Roulette (who turns 17 next month) didn’t like these kittens, and has gradually been showing her age. Last night she peed on our bed, though it may have been because we’d closed the door to kick Jackson out so she couldn’t get to the litter. So, I don’t know. I don’t want to have her slowly decline and end up waiting 2 years, either.

So, it’s been a time. I know lots of people have had it a lot harder than we have, even people with jobs, and maybe we’re lucky we haven’t caught COVID-19 (or maybe we have – who knows?). In two weeks Apple has its developers conference, which ought to be an odd experience as an entirely-remote affair.

Now that summer is here we’re gently mourning our vacation plans for the year, which included visiting family, going to Hawaii, and maybe to Las Vegas. But I doubt there will be any non-essential travel in our future for at least a year (and, frankly, any essential travel probably won’t be for happy reasons, if it happens).

I imagine these entries start to sound like a broken record after a while, but so it goes when you’re mostly at home. I hope everyone reading this is doing as well, or even better.