Tag Archives: covid

A Saturday

This is just to record what a Saturday during what we hope are the late stages of the pandemic looks like here.

Slept well but had complicated dreams; the only part I remember is that I ran into Mike Sonnenschein in Pittsburgh while eating a gigantic meatball I’d bought at a hipster bookstore, and he invited me over, but when I got there, it wasn’t Mike’s house anymore, it was Craig Westerland’s. Akshay Venkatesh was there too. We were going to work on something but nobody really knew how to start and Craig and Akshay were absently flipping through their phones. The thing was, Craig had a tiger for a pet and the tiger got out of its cage and seemed really threatening. It was a bad scene.

A cold wave from the arctic settled in here overnight and it was 7 Fahrenheit this morning. AB and I made French toast with the challah that was left over from last night and watched Kids Baking Challenge on Netflix. Then I had to go out into it and scrape the car, remembering, as I do every time I scrape the car, that I broke the head off the scraper so I have to use the jagged plastic edge of what used to be the head, which works well at breaking up the big chunks of ice but is pretty bad at getting the window fully clean. I’ve lived here long enough to not find 7 Fahrenheit that bad, for the fifteen minutes it takes to scrape off the car. I wore the voluminous sweater that’s so ugly I wear it only on the coldest days. I’m not even sure it’s that warm, but psychologically the body feels it wouldn’t be clad in such an ugly sweater unless the sweater was warm, and that creates the right sensation.

Quiet afternoon. CJ had a mock trial competition against teams from Oregon and Brookfield. AB and I worked on some fractions homework. I posted an early-term course questionnaire for the real analysis course I’m teaching for the first time in my life, and I went through another 50 pages of page proofs of Shape. How there can still be so many typos and small verbal infelicities, after I and others have gone over it so many times, I don’t really know. And there will still be some I miss, and which will appear on paper in thousands of printed books. I wrote a math email to Aaron Landesman, about something related to my work with Westerland and Venkatesh (no tigers.) In honor of Dr. Mrs. Q’s half-birthday we got takeout from Graze for dinner. They had the patty melt special, which I’ve only seen there once before, and which is superb, certainly the best patty melt in the city. I got it with Impossible since we don’t eat milk and meat together in the house.

After dinner, we did what we’ve been doing a lot of weekends, play online games at Jackbox with my sister’s family and my parents. Then we all retreated into our zones. AB is doing some homework. CJ is talking to friends on the phone. I washed dishes while I watched a movie, Fort Tilden, about people being out in the city, in the summer, coming in and out of contact with other people. It was funny.

I’m going to put AB to bed and then think, just a little bit, about a cohomology group whose contribution I don’t understand.

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Unwarranted optimism and the new strain


Seems fitting for the first non-pandemic post to be about the pandemic.

So let me own up to a reasoning failure. I have found that I’m not really capable of expecting the pandemic to get worse. In May, I understood rationally that there could be another wave of infection, but I wasn’t really able to anticipate it. Then there it was. In September, I could have given you no reason to be certain the worst was past, but I felt that it was. But it wasn’t. The worst came back and got worse and is still with us. Maybe now cresting.

Now the vaccine is available, and is going into people’s arms; not as fast as people would like, but faster than almost everywhere else in the world, except Israel, which for some reason is lapping everybody else by a factor of ten. So does that mean it’s over? Maybe. But also there’s a novel strain, already present in the United States, which some people think is 50% more transmissible! Is there a reason to think we couldn’t have yet another period of rapid growth of cases and deaths in the months before we have time to achieve mass vaccination? There’s no reason! That could totally happen! It is right there in the interzone, neither inevitable nor impossible. And yet I can’t really bring myself to treat that possibility as real.

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Pandemic blog 46: the end (not actually the end)

I’ve tried to make every blog entry since March be about the pandemic, but at some point one must blog more broadly. A change of number on the calendar is as good a time as any to declare an end; so this will be the last marked-as-such pandemic post, though probably not the last post about the pandemic, since while 2020 is over, the pandemic is not.

To 2020, let us say

And of course, what I listen to every New Year’s Eve: with the greatest performance of “Auld Lang Syne” there is, here’s Snail Ramp:

Happy New Year to all!

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Pandemic blog 45: reading

Here’s the list of books I read in 2020:

  • 26 Dec 2020: Surrender on Demand, by Varian Fry.
  • 15 Dec 2020: He Knew He Was Right, by Anthony Trollope.
  • 20 Nov 2020: The Secret of Chimneys, by Agatha Christie.
  • 15 Nov 2020: The Man In The Brown Suit, by Agatha Christie.
  • 2 Nov 2020:  And Then There Were None, by Agatha Christie.
  • 15 Oct 2020:  The Camel, the Hare, and the Hyrax, by Nosson Slifkin.
  • 10 Oct 2020:  selections from Portrait of Delmore (journals of Delmore Schwartz, 1939-1959)
  • 1 Oct 2020:  Murder on the Orient Express, by Agatha Christie.
  • 25 Sep 2020:  The Spy Who Came In From the Cold, by John LeCarre.
  • 17 Sep 2020:  4:50 from Paddington, by Agatha Christie.
  • 10 Sep 2020:  The Silver Arrow, by Lev Grossman.
  • 8 Sep 2020:  The Lying Lives of Adults, by Elena Ferrante.
  • 2 Sep 2020:  I Left My Homework in the Hamptons, by Blythe Grossberg.
  • 25 Aug 2020: The Unreality of Memory, by Elisa Gabbert.
  • 17 Aug 2020:  Journal of a Disappointed Man, by W.N.P. Barbellion.
  • 16 Jul 2020:  A Working Girl Can’t Win, by Deborah Garrison.
  • 4 Jul 2020: Bullies, by George W.S. Trow.
  • 30 Jun 2020:  Diary of a Flying Man, by Randy Cohen.
  • 20 Jun 2020: The Game-Players of Titan, by Philip K. Dick.
  • 11 May 2020: Interstellar Pig, by William Sleator.
  • 25 Apr 2020:  The War Between the Pitiful Teachers and the Splendid Kids, by Stanley Keisel.
  • 15 Apr 2020:  Edith Wharton, by Hermione Lee.
  • 10 Apr 2020:  old 1980s issues of Elementals and Squadron Supreme
  • 3 Apr 2020: Weather, by Jenny Offill.
  • 20 Mar 2020: Powers of X / House of X #1-6, Jonathan Hickman.
  • 10 Feb 2020: The New York Stories of Edith Wharton (Roxana Robinson, ed.)
  • 8 Feb 2020: Jews and Judaism in New York, Moses Weinberger (Jonathan Sarna, trans.)
  • 4 Jan 2020: Scythe, by Neal Shusterman.

27 books. I think I thought I’d read a lot, being home all the time, but in fact I think I get a lot of my reading done on planes. At home there’s really not a time I shouldn’t be dadding or working. And also, I was writing a book, and I find it hard to write and read at the same time. (And books I read for writing research I don’t put on the list; I don’t usually read all of them, for one thing, and it doesn’t feel like the same activity as reading reading, if you know what I mean.

Hermione Lee’s Edith Wharton bio was the first book I bought in 2020; I went to the Joint Math Meetings in Denver and went to the Tattered Cover, probably the last really famous American megabookstore I’ve never been to. It was a used paperback and it seemed to me the odds I’d actually read it were low. I bought it aspirationally. But then I read those New York stories (bought at a really appealing new bookstore, Shakespeare and Co. in Philadelphia, and now that I think of it that was definitely over winter break so that might have been the first book I bought in 2020, unless it was the last one I bought in 2019.) Anyway: reader, I read it. When was I going to read 800 pages of Edith Wharton’s life except now? And I liked it; I liked it a lot. I liked the way it just dove into every detail with a fearless exhaustiveness; you’re here, I’m here, in an 800 page biography, who’s gonna set down in print everything it’s possible to know about Wharton’s pre-fame ideas about garden architecture if not me, here and now? I think it actually got into my fingers as I wrote Shape, sending me down some historical research byways that didn’t actually make it into the book. But that’s good! Because there’s some weird historical stuff that maybe didn’t have to be in Shape but which is great and I credit Hermione Lee.

I also credit her with sending me to Journal of a Disappointed Man, which Wharton read and liked later in her life. A strange, bitter, very well-rendered diary chronicling a short life in science in the beginning of the 20th century in England. It’s surprising how few journals I read considering how much I like them. (From a Darkened Room was the first book like this I ever read and it shook me so much I never opened it again.) It’s out of copyright and freely available at Internet Archive, which is how I read it.

One thing I used my home time to do was unpack and shelve some boxes of books that had been sealed up since I moved to Wisconsin in 2005. I suppose I am supposed to say “I realized I could have discarded this stuff long ago and lived lighter,” but no, it was a pleasure to be reunited with these old friends. Bullies and Diary of a Flying Man are both specimens of a very specific genre of fiction which maybe doesn’t have a name; it has to do with the 1970s and the idea of producing things that could be read as light comic stories or avant-garde provocations. It has something to do with Donald Barthelme I guess. It definitely is a strain that helped form me as a writer. There’s a very specific nostalgia that comes from reading what you used to want to imitate. (It was similar to what I felt watching After Hours earlier this month; I never wanted to make movies but I wanted to write stories that felt like that movie, that’s for sure.)

Two childhood favorites, Interstellar Pig and Stanley Keisel’s unjustifiably forgotten The War Between the Pitiful Teachers and the Splendid Kids, were also in the boxes and were as good as I remembered. The Keisel is so strange, so angry about the way school works, so casual about plot in its struggle to find feeling. People would like it now, I think. It is surely a good time for a novel whose antagonist is named “Mr. Foreclosure” and who is actually an — well, just read it, if you can find it.

The Lying Lives of Adults was the best new novel I read, and maybe the year’s Ferrante book always will be. A funny thing about reading is that I still have Zadie Smith books and Peter Carey books in the house I haven’t read, and they are all surely better than the next book I’m going to read, whatever it is, and if I had extra Ferrante books around it would be the same. But I don’t read by greedy algorithm.

I read a lot of Agatha Christie as the election approached because I needed to be reading things where I knew the crooks would be exposed and marched off at the end. Reading four in a month was too much, you start to see how they work. But they were good. I was planning to get into Le Carre, too, but he was a little too man-cold for me. Then he died and I felt weird reading and only sort of liking Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, so I stopped.

Books I didn’t read. I thought this might be the year I read Maryland: A Middle Temperament, a very long history, but no. I didn’t actually read any history at all unless you count Varian Fry’s very good memoir about smuggling politically disfavored people out of the sort-of-occupied South of France in 1940 and 1941. I started a re-read of The House of Mirth but I’d had enough Wharton at that point. I didn’t read Quan Barry’s We Ride Upon Sticks. I will! But her wonderful book party, in February, was the last party I went to, and every time I look at the book I think about wanting to go to a party again, and that gets me out of the mood. Next year.

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Pandemic blog 44: white Christmas

Just above freezing today, a light snow falling. I took a walk down to Wingra Park, reading He Knew He Was Right, one of the funny parts where a hapless clergyman attempts vainly to not get married (I know that describes a lot of Trollope but the joke lands every time.) The near shore of Lake Wingra was a hockey rink for parents and their kids, on the last day of the long Christmas weekend. Last night, as the holiday requires, we ordered Chinese delivery from Ichiban (in Madison, for reasons lost to history, Szechuan restaurants have Japanese names) and watched the new Pixar movie, Soul. There are very few movies all four of us are willing to sit down and watch in full; I think this year it was just Soul and American Pickle, so I guess we only like to watch sappy movies about hapless comic figures who return from apparent death. The kids and I agree that cumin lamb should be one of those Chinese dishes on the permanent shortlist of American menu standards, like kung pao chicken and ma po tofu and beef lo mein; why isn’t it? Is it hard to make?

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Pandemic blog 43: bluster

Blustery day in Madison; windy and wet, light snow falling, but not sticking. An unwelcome reminder that the constrictedness of our current way of life is going to be harder to handle when the ground’s frozen solid and you have to Hoth up to go outside. Still: this wave of cases has clearly crested in Dane County, which even at the severest moments has been spared the worst of what’s hit Wisconsin these past few months.

And bluster in the State Capitol, as legislators, whether they actually believe this or just feel constrained by political realities to say so, are arguing that my vote and the votes of my fellow Wisconsinites shouldn’t count, and that those legislators should be empowered to choose our Presidential electors in our stead. I prefer the sad wet snow.

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Pandemic blog 42: Thanksgiving

A lot of political tumult about Thanksgiving and whether turkey dinners are likely to give the pandemic another boost in the last few months before vaccines become available.

Maybe! But I think these things are really hard to predict and my conviction that they’re hard has only gotten firmer over the last few months. Here’s a sketch of how large-scale interstate travel and protracted indoor maskless multigenerational proximity might not generate new outbreak conditions.

  • At least one family I know who traveled for Thanksgiving quarantined for two weeks before hand. In general, public health advice has been not so much “never see anyone” as “ration your in-person interactions to prioritize the ones that really matter to you.” It doesn’t seem implausible to me that people who are planning to spend five hours eating dinner with grandma would have limited their bar-going in the weeks before. If that’s the case, total November transmission opportunities might not be any higher than if there hadn’t been Thanksgiving.
  • In the same vein, it’s possible that people who chose to celebrate Thanksgiving in person are differentially likely to be those who have already contracted COVID and recovered, which makes them much less likely sources of spread.
  • Am I being too optimistic about people dialing back their in-person socialization if they’re doing Thanksgiving? Maybe! But it really does seem to be the case that people, in the aggregate, respond to disease conditions. When a region gets hit hard with virus, the wave does tend to crest, whether the regional government imposes hard limits on gatherings or not, and it really doesn’t look like that crest is happening because immunity levels have gotten high enough to suppress outbreak without behavior change. I think that, despite lots of coverage of defiant COVID truthers, the median person is aware of the outbreak status where they are and changes their behavior accordingly. So you get some amount of homeostasis from aggregate behavior change. I really do think this is part of the story! My memory is that in Wisconsin in March, cellphone data showed that visits to stores dropped sharply before there was a state stay-at-home order.

Anyway, we were not among the travellers; I bought a smoked turkey from Beef Butter BBQ and candied up some yams and made a green bean / cream of mushroom soup / french fried onion casserole, which, like the WKRP Thanksgiving episode, turned out to be enjoyable but not as great as I remembered from childhood. We had long Zoom calls with both my family and Dr. Mrs. Q’s, We felt grateful, as we have been all year, that this is easier on our family than it is on most other people.

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Pandemic blog 41: dream

I’m in New York City. An app on my phone shows me when anyone in my contact list comes nearby, and I see that my friend Mark Poirier is just a block away — I haven’t seen him in years, what a treat! So I go meet up with him. We’re hungry so we go to an underground food court to get doner kebab. But suddenly I realize, I’m not wearing a mask, nobody‘s wearing a mask, what am I doing inside in a crowded place unmasked? Fortunately I have one with me, so I put it on; but a woman in a block-print T-shirt first glares at me, then gets into it with me, insisting that I shouldn’t wear one. I don’t know how to respond; I feel chastened, even though I know I’m in the right.

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Pandemic blog 40: overdispersion?

So the “overdispersion hypothesis.” This has been a thing for a while. Suppose the spread of COVID is highly heterogeneous, with only a few infected people producing much of the transmission; then a) it means you can reduce the exponential rate a lot, or flip to to exponential decay, by targeting superspread events, even if you do only modest suppression on ambient socializing; b) there might be a lower herd immunity threshold, as the people gathering en masse attain high antibody prevalence faster.

How is that relatively optimistic hypothesis looking? I’m finding it hard to figure that out. This piece from the Washington Post suggests that a lot of scientists think small everyday gatherings are sufficient to drive out-of-control spread, even without large infection events.

This seems like a really important question! If paying bars and restaurants to stay closed, wearing masks when we go in buildings, and pausing big indoor weddings and parties is enough to control the pandemic until the vaccine gets here, that sure seems like it’d be the way to go. But if that’s going to be far from enough, we need to know that too.

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Pandemic blog 39: pandemic election

Oh yeah, we had an election. Joe Biden won. I could have written about it but actually a lot of other people were also writing about it. I did do an interview for the Atlantic the day before Election Day, on how to think about “probabilities” as they apply to non-repeated events like elections.

COVID didn’t dampen turnout; in fact, it was the highest-turnout election since 1908. (Taftmentum!) A lot of people are interpreting this as a signal of the high level of interest in the election, and the high level of enthusiasm of Trump fans for Trump, and of Biden fans for flushing Trump. The enthusiasm is real! But also: millions of people voted by mail, many, like me, for the first time. And voting by mail is really easy and convenient! I wonder whether some people will keep doing it even when there’s no pandemic. (I don’t think I will; I usually vote early in-person at the library that’s a few blocks from my house, but if that option weren’t so convenient, I really might.)

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