Back to the Office

Thursday was my first day back in the office since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic over 2 years ago. I’ve been in a few times (four?) to pick up stuff, or to clean out my space from the Apple Silicon project, but those have been brief visits. This was a full day of work.

Since I’d brought home almost all of my stuff from the office, I had to figure out what I’d need to bring back. Since I’m only there one or two days per week to start with, I knew I’d been working on my laptop and leaving my more powerful desktop at home for now. I couldn’t remember whether I had necessary cables and chargers left in my office, or even other stuff like Kleenex, so I drew up a list and packed everything on it up Thursday morning.

In fact I remembered almost everything I needed. The one exception is that I’d ordered a new monitor for my laptop to replace the very old Cinema Display I’d been using before, and I needed a new keyboard since the old USB-A one that connected to the Cinema Display couldn’t plug in to any port on the laptop or new monitor. Fortunately, accessories like that are easy enough to get hold of (especially since I’m happy with basic keyboards – none of those fancy split, recessed keyboards for me, thanks!).

There’s been a lot of controversy about tech companies requiring their employees to return to the office. I’m not going to address that controversy here, but I am going to articulate my own feelings about going back to the office. I think it’s a very complicated situation (and I know there are people who would disagree with that), and I don’t think my feelings or opinions are definitive, but I do think they’re just as valid as (almost) anyone else’s.

There are two major pieces to this: The COVID piece, and the if-COVID-didn’t-exist piece.

If COVID didn’t exist, then it’s a slam-dunk for me: I hate working from home. I’ve always preferred to keep my home life and my work life as separate as is practical. Home has too many distractions (starting with cats coming in to demand attention when I’m trying to focus on something). I also associate physical spaces with memories of what I do there, and it’s been increasingly difficult to enjoy being in our home office because I spend all my time there when I’m working.

I also like seeing and hanging out with my cow-orkers, and find interacting with them in person way easier, more convenient, and more comfortable than doing so over messaging apps or audio or video calls. Those other forms of communication are useful for certain things, but as secondary channels, not the primary one. I like going to lunch and coffee with them, and we’ve worked through many issues over the years by talking through them in person.

I recognize that I’m privileged to work in an office – even though I usually share it with someone else – rather than a cubicle or some worse open-office space (which I think are abominations, and companies that prefer such spaces should be ashamed of themselves). I’m also privileged to have a short commute to work with minimal traffic. Silicon Valley and many other places are terrible to commute in, and I wish housing prices were not so high so that my cow-orkers could afford to live here without feeling so much stress about it (stress I keenly remember back when I was not so privileged).

Anyway, I know lots of people disagree and/or have very different perspectives, but that’s how I feel about it.

COVID of course throws a big wrench into the whole equation. The office on Thursday was pretty similar to any other day in the office. I hadn’t been looking forward to wearing a mask all day, but when I got there most people were not wearing masks. (I decided to try to wear a mask whenever I was not in my own office.) This is of course a false sense of security, in that how the office experience feels has no bearing on whether I’m going to catch COVID from being there, even if case numbers are very low right now. I took my first-ever COVID test on Tuesday in order to go in (it was negative, of course), and for all I know I’ve had it previously (I bet not, though). I wondered whether we’ll get to the point that once someone in the department tests positive if we’ll have a cluster of people test positive shortly thereafter. We’ll find out, I guess.

I don’t want to catch COVID, and I really don’t want to bring it home to Debbi. But I don’t want to work at home anymore, either. I think it’s been bad for my mental health.

It’s still kind of inconceivable to me how much the world has been upended by this. Even more so that there are idiots out there who resist getting vaccinated.

Anyway.

The work day was close to normal for a “coming back after a break” day. Our department has been doing office reshuffling (part of me internally chuckles at the thought that it’s been driving management crazy that we’ve gone almost 3 years without moving offices around), I got to meet some cow-orkers whom I hadn’t met in person before, and saw some folks I hadn’t interacted with much during the pandemic. I introduced at least two people to The Sandman thanks to the PVC figurines I have on my desk. We went to coffee. I made a guess at the cause of a low-information bug report which turned out to be correct (I’m always kind of amazed when I do this). And then I drove home.

For now I’m planning to go into the office at the minimum required rate (1 day a week to start), to see how things go with COVID rates. I think there’s going to be a total disconnect in my brain between the COVID risk and the enjoyment of being around my cow-orkers again. That’s pretty weird. But maybe we’ll be lucky and it will never get worse than weird.

Maybe we’ll get really lucky and we’ll have better vaccines by fall. Because better vaccines and better treatments are likely the only thing that will save us, at this point.

Main entrance to City Center 2

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.

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.

So How Are Things?

Having written an entry about how the cats are doing, it feels like I should write one about how I’m doing.

I’m okay. I’m not great.

After a year and a half of working from home I am so done with it. I’ve always felt like I’m an introvert at my core, but I hate not having people and activity around while I’m working. (I’ve always positioned my desk at work so I can look out the door to see people going by in the hallway.) I miss the random conversations we’d have in the office. And I really hate the mixing of my home and work lives, which I’ve always worked to keep sharply separate. Going up to our study and having my work machines there is disspiriting.

I also have bought lunch at the cafeteria at work almost every day since I started at Apple, which I realize is a really privileged thing to do, but figuring out lunch every day is a drag.

Once the vaccines started rolling out we got vaxxed pretty quickly, and I was hopeful that things would return to normal. Apple had tentatively planned a return to the office in early September. Well, it’s now early September and the return has been pushed back to 2022, and that’s not Apple’s fault, it’s a combination of the Delta variant of COVID, and the amazing number of stupid people who are refusing to get vaccinated. And also the slow roll-out of vaccines to the rest of the world (last I read about 25% of the world is fully vaxxed), which will prolong this until we can massively up that number, as unless we develop an even better vaccine, we probably need 90% or more worldwide vaccination to beat this thing. (I think the worldwide vax rate is a greater long-term thread than the antivax shenanigans in the United States, because the opportunities for the virus to mutate are so much greater outside the U.S. That may change, but we’re not nearly there yet.)

Anyway, some things have improved for me. I scheduled a weekly coffee meeting with some of my cow-orkers at the Philz near work – outside, and yes, unmasked. The eight or so of us who have made it (not all at the same time) are fully vaxxed, and I think only one has children who aren’t vaxxed. I’ve been letting parents decide their level of risk tolerance for getting together with others, and by ‘letting’ I mean trying not to put any pressure on them, because they have enough to deal with.

Debbi has been way more cautious than me during the pandemic, so we haven’t been going out to eat, and I’ve done the grocery shopping – usually during the week when it’s quieter – and picking up take-out. Now that we’re vaccinated she’s been doing a few more things: We’ve switched grocery shopping to Sunday after the farmer’s market, and we’ve gone out to eat several times, though only once inside. We’ve also gotten together with friends, both at their house, and having people over for barbecues at ours. We’re masked during our errands, other than eating, of course. We’re not yet ready to fly, and I don’t know when that will happen, the way things are going. I don’t especially relish wearing a mask for 6+ hours to fly to visit family or go to Hawaii anyway.

So it’s been a long road, and it’s been gradually wearing me down. It feels like everything just gets a little bit harder as the pandemic slogs on. Even though I take the occasional time off, I never get away from it all because I can’t actually go away.

Where do we go from here? It seems clear that successful vaccination is the only path out of this, but the vaccination failures means that even if our vaccinations remain effective and there aren’t new variants that get past them, we’re going to be in this situation for quite a while.

I know a few people who are living lives of hermits (or so it seems), and maybe that’s the smart thing to do. But it’s also very, very hard. Probably harder for many people than it is for me, but it’s hard for me too. I understand people flying on vacation, flying to visit family, trying to return their lives to normal. I really want that too, but not enough to loosen my own level of caution more than I have so far.

I try not to think about how much longer this might go on, though. I just hope everyone will get vaccinated so we can shorten that time as much as possible.

Normalizing

California ended its mask mandate on Tuesday, meaning that people vaccinated against COVID-19 no longer had to wear a mask in any circumstance, though unvaccinated people are still required to. My guess was that about half of all people would stop wearing masks immediately, and of course since there’s no verification of who’s been vaccinated, there’s no telling whether unmasked people have been vaccinated or not. I and most of my friends and family have been vaxxed, and Santa Clara County has a really high vax rate, but this has to be a terrifying situation for people who can’t get vaccinated.

On Thursday, President Biden signed a law making Juneteenth a federal holiday, observed on Friday since June 19 was on Saturday. I wasn’t even aware of Juneteenth as a meaningful date until a few years ago, and as a middle aged white guy I don’t really have any thoughts about it, except that maybe Congress could have gotten its act together and passed the bill a little sooner than the 11th hour. (The Post Office, for example, was unable to shut down on such short notice.) My personal hope is that it helps to promote and develop racial equality, an a better understanding of how slavery affects the United States to this day. I feel like there are things about this that could have been handled better, but that sort of nuance is beyond the federal government of the modern era, I’m afraid.

Anyway, Apple already gave (took?) Juneteenth as a company holiday, so I already had the day off. I don’t think this was the first year we got it, but it seemed like many of my cow-orkers were unaware of it until I told them. Debbi didn’t have the day off, so I was on my own. I went for a long walk in Byxbee Park before the heat set in, as we were at the tail end of a heat wave (it hit 96°F on Thursday).

Then I watched the last two episodes of The Expanse season 5, so I’m all caught up. The production quality of the show is high and gets better over time, but the story is very… emotionally vacant. Lots of action and suspense and a lot of effort put into scientific accuracy, but the characters are generally pretty flat, and it never feels like it gels as more than a series of events. If the series has a message it seems to be, “Humans are horrible people, and we’ll take our horribleness to the stars with us.” Which is probably not wrong, but doesn’t make for pleasant viewing. There will be one more season and presumably it will be more of the same.

In the afternoon I played Magic with my cow-orker Boris over Spelltable, which is a pretty nifty way to play with real cards over a webcam. We played Modern Horizons 2 sealed deck, which was fun, although I don’t think either of us did anything broken. I used a Logitech C922x Pro camera, which I would rate as merely okay: The image it provided of my playmat from about 16″ away was pretty blurry (but props to Spelltable for still recognizing the cards most of the time). I suspect the issue is not that the camera sucks, but that it’s not really made for this kind of task. I’ll have to see if there’s a better choice. That said, getting the camera set up and getting everything working was pretty easy, especially since I have no experience with this stuff.

Long story short, we had fun and will do it again sometime.

Friday night I picked up dinner from downtown Mountain View. My guess is about half of people not actively eating dinner were masked, including the wait staff where I was picking up. Downtown has gotten crazy busy since even before the pandemic, and closing Castro Street for outdoor seating has just made it even more so. Parking was already tight and is now just nuts. Even if things were back to normal we might be avoiding it on weekend evenings from now on due to the crowds and the parking hassle.

Saturday we had our friends Mo and Chris over to meet the kittens, and this was really the first extended experience the kittens had with new people. As I predicted, Simon watched from 20 feet away for a while, but Edison was much more willing to come check them out. We gave Mo and Chris toys to play with them, which got the kittens engaged, and even Jackson got some good play time in. Sadie came and hung out but didn’t play. Simon is a bit of a fraidy cat, but hopefully he’ll get used to people over the next few months as we have more people over.

Sunday we went to the farmer’s market, where in contrast to Friday I’d say maybe 25% of people were unmasked, fewer than I’d have guessed. Vendors were more likely than shoppers to be unmasked. But if I were there for 5+ hours every Sunday, I’d be ready to ditch the mask, too.

Debbi and I are taking things slowly. We’re not ready to dine indoors at a restaurant yet, or go to a movie theater. We still wear masks inside when we go to stores. I quite enjoyed this take on that:

Lady outside of cvs: Why do you have your mask on still?

Me: It helps me mind my business. You should try it sometime.

There’s a lot of controversy on social media about working in an office vs. working remotely. I personally am looking forward to going back to the office and seeing my colleagues there. I like keeping my home and work lives strictly partitioned.

It’s not time yet, but hopefully soon.

Fully Vaxxed

And three weeks after our first shots we went back to Levi’s Stadium today for our second shots of the Pfizer vaccine. So in about 2 weeks we should be as immune to COVID-19 as we’re going to get. Well, for this round, anyway. And no nasty side effects yet for either of us!

I think it’s still going to be a bit of a roller-coaster for the next year or two. I’m confident the vaccines will provide excellent protection against the main strain of the virus, and – much like the flu vaccine – against many of the variants. The problem is they might not protect against all of the variants, and until we are able to roll out vaccines worldwide to 80% or more of the planet, we’re going to keep seeing new mutations pop up.

The reluctance of a significant fraction of the population to get vaccinated is likely to prolong the virus. As a result I think we’ll see some regions achieve “herd immunity” until some mutation from an under-vaccinated region breaks past the vaccine. (This is my own extrapolation from this article. Not that I am not an expert in these matters.)

Uneven Willingness to Get Vaccinated Could Affect Herd Immunity

I’m optimistic that scientists will improve the vaccines in the future as well. And I expect we’ll need a booster shot each year, perhaps rolled into the annual flu shot.

Maintaining this pace for the whole world every year is going to be a challenge, no doubt about that. Things are very bad in India right now and I doubt it will be the last country in such dire straits. Lots more people are going to die. It’s horrifying. I hope the world can pull together to limit the damage.

In the United States it will also be interesting (that’s a word for it) to see the struggle to get everyone vaccinated, persuading the holdouts to get their shots (except people who have a good medical reason not to, of course). I suspect the luddite Republicans in many states will try to force things so people are not pressured to get vaccinated in any way, but I also think – and hope – that there will be overwhelming forces against them. For example, large companies refusing to employ or serve people who aren’t vaccinated. Insurance companies raising premiums for unvaccinated individuals. Airlines refusing to let unvaccinated people fly. And, you know, people getting sick and dying from COVID, especially newer strains. I think it will be slow going, but hopefully reason and science will prevail and the vaccines will become a natural thing for all citizens.

Anyway, on that cheery note.

Today was Debbi’s birthday, too, so getting vaxxed was a nice way to mark the day. She took part of the day off, and spent much of it watching Star Wars movies, too. Things are looking up – for us, anyway.

Debbi & Michael after getting vaccinated
Obligatory selfie after getting our shots!

One Year of Covid-19

These first two weeks of March mark one year since many Americans found their lives changed by the COVID-19 pandemic. March 9, 2020 was my last day in the office – I went in once more to collect my equipment to work at home, and then I wouldn’t go in again until a day in December when I had to clean out some stuff from where I’d been contributing to the M1 Macintosh project. And then again this past Friday to pick up a package I’d accidentally gotten sent to work.

That first month was downright weird. I continued my morning run, and added one or two walks per day as well. But I hardly saw anyone most mornings. There was one morning that I counted five people on my run. I did our runs to the grocery store by myself, staying distant from other people and sometimes admonishing them for not following the arrows for the one-way aisles. Masks weren’t yet a thing.

By the end of March my comics shop had temporarily closed, though it reopened later in the spring and has stayed open since. We ordered a lot of take-out, and cooked at home, discovering a few new recipes.

My wife has mostly avoided going out. The one trip she’d do every week would be to the Mountain View Farmer’s Market, which ironically is one of the busiest places I ever go. Otherwise she’d drive me places to get take-out.

The fear of that first month drained away over the next couple of months, maybe due to exhaustion more than anything else. Not that we were being less diligent, just less fearful. We got together with friends, keeping 6 or more feet apart for drinks in the driveway or in our back yard. The only visit we made to see people inside was to visit my boss and his wife, who were fostering the kittens who we eventually adopted as Simon and Edison. (Who are doing great, by the way!)

We had coincidentally done a lot of things to prepare for shelter in place shortly before it occurred. We’d made a Costco run and had plenty of toilet paper. I made a couple of big grocery runs. We’d both been to the eye doctor, and I’d been to the dentist. We’d taken the cats in for their annual check-up. Lucky, really.

Since then I’ve been to the dentist – twice. We’ve both been to the eye doctor recently. We’ve made numerous trips to the vet for the kittens and for our elderly cat Roulette, but we never go inside. Our parents have been vaccinated, as has my sister. It will probably be a couple more months for us. We made one trip to Half Moon Bay on a day off last summer and ate at a restaurant outside, but otherwise we’ve only left our county to go to the vet. We’ve eaten outside at a couple of restaurants here, but none of them have wait staff.

I try to call my father every other week, and mostly succeed.

In January I joined the people who celebrated a birthday at home. I’ve done that before, of course, but this one wasn’t by choice.

We watched the numbers tick up as hundreds of thousands of people died who probably wouldn’t have if we hadn’t had an incompetent, racist, narcissistic President in the White House. The depth of his failure to act – or even to show the barest human empathy – was breathtaking. Meanwhile the whole Republican Party is careening into fascism.

I miss all the things everyone else misses: Hanging out with friends, eating at restaurants, going on vacation. Even going into the office – working from home has never been my thing.

It’s gradually been wearing me down. More than most? Less? I have no idea. Last year was the year I was going to take more vacation than usual. Well.

While racist impeached President Trump deserves credit for “Operation Warp Speed” to get vaccines developed, he showed his incompetence once again in refusing to expedite distribution. Things have gotten a lot better under President Biden, and tens of millions of Americans have been vaccinated. Hopefully most of the rest will be by summer. Then we mainly have to wait for vaccines to be approved for children – maybe by next fall or winter?

So much more I could write, from the election to the job losses to the concern about vaccinating the rest of the world.

I don’t expect things will change much for us for the rest of 2021. Maybe by fall we can eat at restaurants? I doubt we’ll fly anywhere this year, though.

But I’m ready to. I can really use those postponed vacations.

An Unexpected Puzzle

Puzzles have been a popular pastime during the pandemic lockdown. We’ve only done one, though: Megaplanet, which was pretty neat both because of its vivid colors and its round shape. We finished it over the course of a week – and found we were missing two pieces. Since we have young kittens, we suspected they might have been the culprits, and indeed I found one piece under the couch. But no luck finding the other one so far, so we eventually gave up and took it apart. Would definitely recommend, though.

But this weekend we found ourselves with another puzzle to unravel, as it were:

Like most people, we now own a bunch of cloth masks. Debbi puts them through the laundry in a lingerie bag, which seemed great until she took out the latest load with eight masks in it. In addition to the ear loops, many of our masks have loops to hang them over your neck when not using them. (This is pretty handy when driving from place to place.)

The problem is that the eight masks their loops all tangled up in a big mass. After quite a few minutes Debbi was able to free one mask, but after another while she got frustrated and handed it to me.

It took me several minutes to figure out how to tackle the problem: Pulling at the tangled mass wasn’t any good, as pulling on one end just tightened another end. But eventually I figure it out:

I laid the masks on the counter, with the mass in the center, and arranged them in a circle around the mass. Then I realized that it was a puzzle with two “moves”:

  1. Undo a twist in the loops of two adjacent masks, and
  2. Push one mask through the loop of an adjacent mask.

So the trick was basically to figure out which masks were “adjacent” to each other, and then to take whichever two masks had the “outermost” connection and perform one of the two moves. Every few moves I’d rearrange the masks slightly (basically a simple form of undoing a twist), but this technique made it really easy to methodically untangle the mass. Two masks got freed after a number of moves, and then after a few more moves the other five were freed from each other.

It was actually a pretty neat little puzzle! Not one we need to do every time, and we’re trying to figure out how to wash the masks without this happening again. But it gave me a nice little feeling of accomplishment.

Far From Home

Debbi and I took a vacation day yesterday. I’ve taken some time off since the pandemic started, but Debbi hasn’t taken much, and she was ready for a day off. We decided to take a day trip to one of our favorite places in the Bay Area, Half Moon Bay.

Our trip was slightly complicated by the latest round of fires in the region, specifically the Glass Fire, which has triggered evacuations in the north bay, and dropped a new layer of smoke across the area. But the smoke mostly stayed above the ground layer, so we decided it was safe to go. Well, as safe as anything is in the middle of a pandemic.

It turns out that a pedestrian bridge along our usual walking route was closed – not clear why, but we assume it’s due to the ongoing erosion of the sandstone cliffs along the ocean – so we parked somewhere else and walked along the streets and trails near Pillar Point Harbor. The ocean waves were high, and there were a bunch of surfers out. Also a number of walkers, joggers, and bicyclists, but for the most part it was not hard to keep our distance from others. The ocean mist combined with what smoke did come down to sea level helped keep it from getting too warm, as the area is also in the middle of a heat wave.

We’d made reservations at the Miramar Beach Restaurant, which we’d eaten at once before, and where I saw some friends of ours ate last month. They managed to lose our reservation, and the hostess had trouble keeping her mask over her nose, but otherwise it was a good outing: We only had to wait 15 minutes for a table on their patio, and they were otherwise doing a good job of serving customers with physical distancing and masks.

Afterwards we stopped by the Fitzgerald Marine Reserve, which is one of several San Mateo County parks which is still closed, so that was a bummer. But, we stopped off at Dunking Donuts on the way home.

Did I mention the heat wave? It was about 100°F at home, while it only got a little above 80 in HMB. Despite that, we got a little too much sun and spent the rest of the day lying around at home. The cats – who have had us around almost 24 hours a day since early March – seemed a little put out that we’d been gone. The kittens of course have never seen us leave for so long, and Edison was unusually snuggly with me in the evening.

Despite the bumps, it was a nice, relaxing day. And it was nice to get away – safely, we think – for a change.

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.