Life: Happy New Year

Decorative banner displaying San Francisco's financial district from the southeast in the evening, along with the western spans of the SF Bay Bridge, and fog draped over Mt. Tamalpais

2024… is definitely happening. Ready or not!

I had time off from work during the last week of the year, and used it to recover my health more fully (having been ill earlier in December), read, and print acrylic monotypes (a favorite art pastime!).

I don’t do new year’s resolutions – no one should wait until January of a new year to make useful life changes! – but as a concession to tradition, I’ll make a sincere effort to do a better job of using the ALT TEXT features of WordPress. (This feature helps disabled readers know what’s going on by making more information about images available to supportive tools.)

Out in the world, COVID is still spreading, my most alert friends don’t want to dine indoors, and my social circle includes several people who have had COVID two or three times (!). The data on Long COVID, and what scientists are finding as changes in the bodies of those who were exposed, is… alarming, and completely beyond the perception of my friends in Europe, somehow.

Humans continue to be… I’m looking for a euphemism for violently disagreeable, but it isn’t coming to me. There are multiple scary wars and attendant war crimes happening. It has become unpopular to say that genocide is wrong. (Sign I need to make: friends don’t let friends do war crimes!) Right wing, racist, and authoritarian parties do too well in elections. Fascism appears to be entirely too popular, though I observe that people who support it mosts don’t like the label, which is a minor concession to accepting that it is not good. (Not that semantic arguments work with fascists.)

My reading list has more books on it, but it might alarm you if I disclosed the full list, so I’ll just note that I am actively reading The Story of Art Without Men by Katy Hessel. The title may sound provocative, unless you’ve ever taken art history in a U.S. college, in which case you noticed that only ancient Egyptians and European men have art that was considered worthy of books, and that these textbooks were all written by European men (coincidentally!). For the design degree I was pursuing, art from any other part of the world was only offered as an optional elective, implying that it didn’t really matter. This felt… wildly inaccurate. It took some nerve to call a class “Art History” when it should have been called “European Male Art History, plus some Egyptian Monuments.” [cough] So this book has a good premise, and is off to a good start. Perhaps I’ll be able to read it I have fewer 9pm meetings and people from work stop texting me on weekends to get me back online?

I have some personally disruptive events coming up, and expect my posting to be spotty, though more frequent than in 2023.

Here’s hoping 2024 is a better year for all living beings!

Book: How High We Go in the Dark by Sequoia Nagamatsu

How High We Go In the Dark
By Sequoia Nagamatsu
Audiobook published by Harper Audio

How High We Go In the Dark is a book about a plague that reshapes humanity for centuries. (Note, this is not about the plague we are in at the moment. Also: it is intense to read about a world reshaped by plague, while in a world pretending not to have an ongoing plague at all…)

Melting permafrost reveals the remains of ancient people, who thaw and release the Arctic Plague upon the world, a pandemic of terrifying symptoms and profound lethality. The scale and scope of the suffering it causes remakes the world in surprising ways.

If you have wondered how serious a plague would need to be for society to adjust its values around voluntarily ending life to limit suffering; to refocus the economy around the business as its core; or how the risk of humanity’s end could drive new goals for space exploration, Sequoia Nagamatsu has wondered about this more – elaborately, delicately, thoughtfully. Through a series of interconnected chapters / short stories / vignettes, we learn about the Arctic Plague through the eyes of people who discover it, die from it, spare their loved ones from dying of it, mourn their losses, try to cure it, survive it, and travel between worlds to create a future without it.

Nagamatsu’s world building is remarkable – so plausible, so human, yet so far from the particular choices we are making during our current plague. The characters have motivations that are varied, but make sense. The settings are notable in the way the characters describe how they feel when they experience them, yet are never so detailed that you require footnotes. The emotional journey of coping with global grief and hope is handled so well. The story reveals humanity adapting to this challenge in surprising ways under the worst circumstances.

I listened to the audiobook version of this from, which is brilliantly acted by a cast of about fifteen voice actors (!), whose characters are compelling. (For those of us who live in the SF Bay Area, some of the voices sound pleasantly local in our port-city, collecting-people-from-afar-and-influencing-each-other way.)

This has been my favorite book of 2023. I think of it often, and have recommended it internationally! Go read or listen to this excellent book.

Life: End of Year Update

So, I haven’t posted in a very long time, and… so much has happened that I can’t summarize it all today!

The highlights: I emptied my home of 20 years, moved to a neighborhood where all the little dogs have their own outfits, had a major structural retrofit start at my house, covered the work of multiple open roles at my job, photographed an amazing series of sunsets, spent a lot of time enjoying holiday lights, and caught COVID.

The books I was in the process of reading are all in storage, and most of my ordinary habits have been very much disrupted. I’ll get back to them, but I’ve been living in an interim (liminal?) state for months.

I’ll get back to myself and start posting again. In the meantime, best wishes for a healthy and happy 2023.

Pandemic: US Surpassed One Million Deaths this month

That’s the official number, and it is known to be an undercount.

There are a range of excess-death resources online, including a CDC dedicated Excess Death page associated with the pandemic, which notes other causes of death that increased beyond those associated directly with COVID-19 infections, because people couldn’t access care to address other serious health concerns.

The US President ordered flags flown at half staff earlier this month, which is a memorial tradition here, but it doesn’t feel like enough. We have more mourning and memorializing to do.

With new COVID variants in circulation, and cases still popping up weekly at my workplace, the pandemic still isn’t OVER.

The impact of all of these deaths, plus the infrequently spoken of impact of long-term COVID disabling so many people, is still not well understood. It feels like it touches everything in the developed world in some way, but how people and organizations manage is up to them. Which… creates some concerns.

It is an unfortunate milestone.

Zoonosis remains in the news in other areas outside of the COVID pandemic. New outbreaks of avian flu are causing destruction of captive agricultural birds, with a confirmed domestic (US) case of transmission to humans; there is an unusual monkeypox outbreak being tracked; and porcine cytomegalovirus may have contributed to the death of the patient who received a pig’s heart, even though there should have been no way the unwilling, genetically engineered donor pig should have had the infection. (How many times have I read that there is no reason to worry about xeno-transplants, and yet…)

Pandemic Life: early May, 2022

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Hello! *wave* gosh, working full time in another county really does take my writing time/urgency off, doesn’t it?

It is spring, the double-cherry trees are blossoming with their pom-pom like blossom clusters, and I have still managed not to get COVID!

It hasn’t been easy.

I was exposed at work semi-recently to someone whose COVID test confirmed their case DAYS after we’d met together, and after countless other meetings. I’ve probably been exposed to lots of people with COVID, considering the case spikes (and the slow upward creep of the case count at the office), but this time I was unmasked and in a room for an hour with someone, so I fell into the CDC “close contact” definition. Because I’m required to work in our corporate office, responsibility for case tracking and contact tracing falls to a team my employer set up, and I was advised of key details, told to get PCR tested after 5 days (the exposure day was day zero), and wear a mask for 10 days as a precaution.

I was delighted to test negative.

I was less delighted to wear a mask again, not for the usual whiny reasons you hear, but because: wearing a mask keeps me from eating snacks and drinking coffee CONSTANTLY, and I have coffee in one hand every moment I’m not typing or presenting. (Well, or fizzy water, but you get the idea.). So, I had a quite silly reason to feel put-out, which provided me material for self-deprecating jokes.

Despite the snack limitations, I didn’t lose weight, so I feel vaguely ripped off.

I also was unable to spend time up close with someone near and dear to me who is high risk and was about to travel to see someone who was even higher risk, and so the work exposure came with some personal/social cost to me, even though I didn’t personally feel danger. It was still disruptive.

Anyway, we’re creeping toward the lab-verified 1 millionth US COVID death, and that is beyond horrible. It is known to be an undercount. It is known not to include people who are suffering from long-COVID, who may or may not have debilitating symptoms.

It is also a reminder that many of the complaints in the news about having a hard time finding people to do [anything] pretends that this pandemic context isn’t present, and I’m getting tired of that.

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is Screen-Shot-2022-05-01-at-8.29.15-AM.png is the source, as always

I always seem to know someone with COVID, and am happy to report that the last friend who told me she and her spouse have it (in Germany) are now feeling better. While at least one of my friends has had COVID more than once (!), I don’t think anyone in my social circle is infected at the moment, and that is a LOVELY thing.

I’ve ordered some more masks, because I apparently will still need them for a while.

Pandemic Life: Late January 2022

I was hoping to post a pandemic living update AFTER the omicron peak was far behind us, but the peak isn’t happening everywhere at the same time. While there is a lot of chatter about how the infections can be less serious with the omicron variant of COVID-19, they are still serious for too many people: the US is still losing more than 2,200 people to COVID EVERY DAY.

But: a downturn in local new case numbers after an alarming spike is still somewhat encouraging, and we’ll take encouragement where we can get it.

Screen grab from this evening, showing how BIG the recent infection spike in San Francisco was, and how alarming it was considering our success in keeping rates low earlier in the pandemic. (There’s a lag in data gathering, so we’re always about a week behind the trend, but the steep drop is promising.)

As noted in an earlier post, there aren’t many restrictions that affect me, as a fully vaccinated and boosted person here in San Francisco. I now have some fashionable and very comfortable FFP2 masks (a European variation of a good mask standard) for transit and indoor public places, and can largely go anywhere and do anything. Outdoor dining has been delightful recently.

The bigger things I’m not doing – like flying on airplanes to visit other regions – relate to my risk tolerance. Why go to locations with poor health figures (indicated by low masking/vaccine rates), dangerously full hospitals, and/or unusually high case numbers? No one is preventing me from going, but regions that are struggling (or which are actively opposed to infection prevention politically) are unlikely to be both comfortable and fun.

(There are still countries that are restricting non-essential travel, and I don’t blame them – the US did the same thing! Some are much safer to travel within than the U.S., but that’s also why they are closed to Americans right now.)

A friend in [a European country] who had COVID in 2020 said they are tired of COVID restrictions, but… they’ve been under so few meaningful restrictions over the duration of this pandemic that I’m wondering if they are just saying that to be polite. (Currently: restaurants there must have guests depart before 11pm, and there are limits on group sizes of 8 for dinner, 50 for other events… how would this even be noticeable?) Another friend in their country just got COVID this month, and so may view it differently, but it may be too soon to ask.

I’m just excited that ZERO friends have announced new COVID infections in the past two weeks! That bodes well.

I visited an office that requires masking and vaccine boosters (YES!), and was quite comfortable. It was novel and vaguely pleasant to be in an office and around other people in a place with a safety culture! I… could get used to that.

Pandemic Life: New Year

Lavender latte made with almond milk, enjoyed outdoors in January because: California

The sky is blue, the sun is low, and my home state is not on fire: it is a lovely day.

I’ve run my errands for the day, filled with the confidence that a well-fitting KF94 mask provides. The KF94s from Korea are new for me: I had been wearing lighter and lighter fabric masks (with/out layering as situations required) as the pandemic dragged on and our local risks sunk ever lower (high vaccination rates, low case numbers). The new omicron variant is more contagious, however, so we’ve been advised to step up our protection standards. KF95 is one of the recommended standards, and the masks I am wearing are quite comfortable, and hold their shape well around my face. I appreciate their stiffness in the right place, so the material doesn’t rest on my nostrils or mouth, even while wet.

Since I last wrote about the COVID 19 pandemic, the remarkable achievements of vaccine development and (uneven) global rollout have been overshadowed by more contagious variants, continued political opposition to infection prevention, and more contagious variants.

The U.S. has maintained its place as the country with the highest number of cases and deaths. I feel lucky to live in a city with great mutual respect and care, where most people are vaccinated, and most people wear masks indoors willingly. If more of the US was like this, I would have gotten on planes and traveled for fun, at least before omicron…

JHU data as of right now, Monday, January 10, 2022

A friend in another region asked me how I’m managing, and I told her that the situation continues to improve: thanks to masking and air filtration, I get out of the house regularly, ride trains and streetcars, eat in (non-crowded) restaurants where vaccine confirmation is required (YES!), have visited several museums, and have even seen a few movies in movie theaters. A comfy mask makes many fun activities possible!

Four people in my long-distance social circle currently have COVID, and at least four relatives on the East Coast contracted COVID in December. Determination to celebrate the holidays with larger numbers of people with unknown habits comes at a cost! One friend wanted to host as safely as possible, and required negative tests to attend her 12+ person event: two of the negative-testing-guests turned positive on NYE morning, and had exposed other guests unknowingly, so even those precautions weren’t enough. Another friend had just three people over (such a reasonable number!) on NYE, and she still wound up with COVID, along with all of her guests.

This is a great time NOT to see your friends! 😀 (All my pals who postponed our planned meetings over the past two months have won my automatic forgiveness.)

Sign up for a phone exposure notification system! While on my first pandemic-era, out of state trip last month, I received a notification from MassNotify (the Massachusetts version of CA Notify, which my phone asked for my consent to participate in) that I was near someone on December 20th for the threshold exposure time who subsequently tested positive for COVID. While I had no symptoms and had already home tested (negative) as a precaution, I still appreciate the alert AND the instructions on what to do. This is a clever tool, and we should all use it!

I usually post a link to some data, so I’ll share the Year In Review from Johns Hopkins:

Right now: despite the new variant of the moment, I’m optimistic. We should have high quality masks distributed to us by health authorities, and access to home tests should be easy and cheap – we need progress in those areas! The fact that masks work, that vaccination numbers continue to rise, that good cleaning practices are in place at businesses, and that new businesses are opening up now are all encouraging. We need that encouragement! (I know I really needed it.)

Life: First Visit to Boston and Cambridge

For reasons that I may/not eventually disclose, I visited Boston and Cambridge in Massachusetts this month. I wanted to get a feel for what life is like there, so I bought some new “base layers” for winter weather (!), and headed out of the Bay Area for the first time since the COVID 19 pandemic began.

Boston and Cambridge each made a good impression on me. As a happy San Franciscan heavily integrated into the fabric of my multicultural, open-minded, caffeinated City, I wasn’t sure that Boston would feel comfortable. Happily, the diverse population, reliable subway system, and great vegan food won me over!

Both towns were walkable. The subway system made sense, and my Charlie Card (their version of Clipper) made travel easy.

Each time I ate in restaurants within earshot of others, other patrons were chatting at their tables about trying to get their research funded. (A good sign!)

Yes, many of the Freedom Trail sites were closed due to the pandemic, but I found other things to do. Yes, it got down to 20 degrees Fahrenheit (-6.6 Celsius?), but I was dressed very carefully (lightweight yet insulating base layers!), and I could handle it. It snowed gently, and that was kind of fun. Puddles froze and never thawed, and I caught other tourists trying to break one, which was hilarious (adults playing with puddles like children!).

I did not fill my suitcase with art books. I did not go out to take photos at night when it was below freezing. These were good decisions.

My masks were comfortable in all indoor settings, and I learned that masks are very cozy when it is snowing.

Boston and Cambridge are both booming, filled with new construction of businesses, housing, streetcar stations, and more. Infrastructure matters, and they are clearly planning for growth.

I had a good time and a positive experience.

There is an awkward/funny postscript. I was there before the omicron variant of COVID was well understood. I participate in CA Notify, which is my home state’s bluetooth exposure tracking system. While I was in Boston, my phone asked me if I want to participate in MassNotify, and I agreed.

MassNotify sent me a COVID proximity/exposure warning 8 days after my return home (and three days after my negative home test). Someone with the right combination of proximity + duration on the day before I flew home subsequently tested positive for COVID. The instructions were clear, and since I’m both vaccinated and boosted, quarantine was never required – vigilant masking is enough. I’m impressed that the system worked, even though I was just visiting! Yaay, technology!

Pandemic News: Another Treatment Candidate

This is preliminary data from a combined Phase 2/3 clinical trial, so they are still confirming the dosing along with the tolerance, but the preliminary results from this Pfizer trial are even better than those from the Merck drug. Which suggests that COVID may soon be something that is survive-able for more people!

An 89% reduction is AMAZING, and it will be good to see what the final analysis shows.

This warms my heart. We could all use some more hope for better outcomes with this terrible pandemic.

Pandemic Life: Ongoing (with Progress)

This is where I have to decide: am I just interpreting the news favorably because I need some good news? Or is it actually good?

It’s a mixed bag.

I am thrilled that there is a drug for the treatment of COVID, which can decrease the symptoms and speed recovery. Merck’s Phase 3 study of molnupiravir showed a 50% reduction in hospitalization and death, which is dramatic. This investigational drug is already emergency-authorized in the UK, and is being reviewed for use in the US.

I’m looking forward to seeing it on the US FDA’s list of emergency authorizations for this crisis. (The list is a bit depressing, because you see statements like that first footnote: “1 The virus that causes COVID-19 has led to an increased number of patients requiring critical care, such as  with severe respiratory illness. As a result, there is a shortage of adequate, FDA-approved  drugs used for their treatment, such as propofol for sedation of mechanically ventilated patients.” The idea that there is a shortage of common sedatives because of this crisis is a reminder of how broad the impacts are…)

We need more where that came from! There are other medicines in the pipeline, which I get to read about in the local pharma news summaries, and while reading about a vaccine company where a friend works. I would like this progress to be celebrated more widely, or at least recognized, though I understand that the emphasis is, and should be, on getting everyone vaccinated. (Additional vaccines are in development, also!)

My European friends are frustrated. Cases are shooting up in Europe (Germany is setting new 50k daily records (my friends there complain about the inconsistent and seemingly performative guidance there), and the Netherlands are considering another light lockdown as hospitals fill (my friend there wants to go to some educational events, and is hoping that will still be possible).

Since I’m writing from the country with the highest cumulative number of cases and deaths, I see lots of reasons for optimism elsewhere, because other countries are doing so well relative to us!! [Laugh/cry here]. A country with a fraction of our infection rate is high on my tourist destination list, and I hope they will open for vaccinated tourism in early 2022 so I can go.

~ * ~

These zoonotic diseases continue to make me resent consumers of animals, who bring these illnesses into human populations and affect all of us.

One of the stranger articles on the animal-impact theme is that Americans are infecting deer with COVID, and the illness is now raging through deer populations without our noticing. Which is just another population for it to potentially mutate in…

I wish humans learned faster!

~ * ~

My daily life is relatively conventional now, in terms of being able to get where I need to go on transit, being able to keep supplied in basic household goods, getting medical appointments for routine check ups, and such.

My City isn’t fully recovered. There are still many boarded-up storefronts. There are still For Lease signs up in even those posh shopping districts with brands I’ve never understood. (You can see all the way through some fancy shops and out into Maiden Lane in spaces that have not been vacant in my lifetime…) There is still a fleet of “recreational vehicles” serving as housing at unprecedented densities in certain locations. There are still too few shelters for the people who need them, with prior progress being undone by health distancing requirements. Some hotels and restaurants remain closed, especially those that catered to professional conferences in my once-conference-filled town.

The impacts of evolving remote work policies will also take a long time to sort out.

~ * ~

I’m happy for the new medicines, the flexibility the FDA has shown, the large number of medicines still in development, and regional improvements in infection rates. I’ll try to dwell on these things.