Tag Archives: pandemic

Pandemic blog 14: slimming

I have occasionally worked to lose weight, never too seriously because my weight problem has never been too serious. I used to sometimes do the Scarsdale diet in sync with my dad and once, a few years back, I went six weeks without carbs.

Anyway, a month without restaurant food has gone by and I’m 13 pounds lighter. Even though I’m eating all the cakes and cookies the kids are baking, snacking at night, going through enormous amounts of eggs, doing everything wrong. I looked up the records from doctor’s appointments and this is the least I’ve weighed since 2011. Who knew all it took was an order from the Governor to stay at home and make my own food?

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Pandemic blog 13: Violent Frisbee

Already discussed: the fracas over the April 7 spring election, which should have been postponed, or held by mail if it was held at all. To my great surprise, Jill Karofsky, the liberal running to unseat Scott Walker appointee Daniel Kelly from the Supreme Court, did so, with a bang, winning by about 11 points. Incumbents usually don’t lose Supreme Court races here and I thought Democrats’ political attention was taken up by the Presidential primary, by now all but over. Since Trump’s election, conservative candidates have won only one out of seven statewide elections here, and that one (Brian Hagedorn for Supreme Court) was by half a percent.

Why did Karofsky win by so much? One natural theory is that the election being the same day as the Democratic primary helped bring Democrats to the polls. Boosting this: Bernie Sanders made the apparently strange decision to campaign in Wisconsin, stay in the race until election day, and then immediately drop out before the results were reported. It all makes sense if you understand his motive to be getting his voters to the polls to vote for Karofsky as well as him.

But did it work? This chart from Charles Franklin, who knows Wisconsin politics like nobody else, says otherwise:

If it was the Democratic primary driving Democratic voters to the polls, there’d be a bigger turnout boost in more Democratic counties. There wasn’t. So either the primary didn’t really boost turnout at all, or Republicans were equally motivated to go to the polls and vote for Trump against — well, the state GOP didn’t allow Trump’s Republican primary challengers on the ballot, so against nobody.

Was turnout actually higher because of the pandemic? Maybe people are more likely to vote when they’ve actually got a ballot to mail than they are to find time on Election Day.

Our first Seder without family since 2006, when I broke my arm so badly a week before Pesach that I couldn’t travel: Dr. Mrs. Q, baby CJ and I did it alone. This year we had grandparents in by Zoom both nights. But I had to cook Seder dinner, which I’ve never done. We all have things we don’t do in the kitchen for no reason except it’s not our habit. For me it’s giant pieces of meat. Just not what I cook. Don’t know how to roast a chicken or a turkey, don’t ever make leg of lamb (butterfly? spatchcock?) and I have never, before this week, made a brisket. But it’s easy, it turns out!

I was extremely successful, to my surprise, in hiding the afikoman. Both nights I thought it was in too easy a place and both nights my kids required multiple hints and were very satisfied with the search. Either I’m more cunning than I thought or my kids are not born hunters.

We did a gefilte taste test this year; traditional vs. tilapia. Tilapia is better!

With two days left to go we have eaten just about all the eggs.

We have been playing 4-person Ultimate in the backyard, AB and I vs CJ and Dr. Mrs. Q. They always win. The team of AB and me is called “Violent Frisbee” and AB has made us a flag:

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Pandemic blog 12: for the sake of your fellow roofer

Election Day in Wisconsin today; every other state with an April primary moved theirs, but not us. The state legislature, seeing that a contagious illness centered in Milwaukee would be good for depressing Democratic turnout, decided the show must go on. I sent in my vote by mail. But a lot of other people tried to as well, upwards of a million, and the overburdened clerks couldn’t get all the absentee ballots mailed out in time. Some people still don’t have theirs, and that means they don’t get to vote.

I went to Metcalfe’s instead of Trader Joe’s because they have a better Passover selection, and because Trader Joe’s was closed after a worker there tested positive. Wore a mask again. This time the proportion of mask-wearers was close to half and included some of the employees. Metcalfe’s made its aisles one-way to avoid people passing each other, but the signage was confusing and compliance was weak. Shelves were pretty fully stocked but toilet paper/paper towels/hand sanitizers were one to a customer. I bought a giant brisket for seder, which is in the oven now. I’ve never cooked seder dinner before because we always have it at Dr. Mrs. Q’s mom’s house. This time we’re bringing her in via Zoom and hoping for the best.

The only store I saw open in the mall besides the grocery was the Sprint cellphone store. More restaurants than I’d have thought were open for takeout, but we haven’t gotten any takeout yet. The last meal I ate that I didn’t cook myself was a burrito at the Tucson airport on March 9.

“School” has begun. It seems they won’t be doing very much real-time instruction, which I think is for the best; mostly short meetings where teachers give and explain assignments for kids to do in their own time.

I now have two friends who’ve had COVID; both have recovered. I don’t know anyone who’s died.

AB and I have been playing frisbee in the backyard, trying to learn how to throw a forehand reliably. We’re getting sort of OK. Two houses down from us, two guys were working on the roof; one of them coughed at least three times, and wasn’t wearing a mask. Wear a mask! For the sake of your fellow roofer!

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Pandemic blog 11: Why do curves bend?

When you plot the number of reported deaths from COVID on a log scale you get pictures that look like this one, by John Burn-Murdoch at the Financial Times:

A straight line represents exponential growth, which is what one might expect to see in the early days of a pandemic according to baby models. You’ll note that the straight line doesn’t last very long, thank goodness; in just about every country the line starts to bend. Why are COVID deaths concave? There are quite a few possible reasons.

  1. Suppression is working. When pandemic breaks out, countries take measures to suppress transmission, and people take their own measures over and above what their governments do. (An analysis by Song Gao of our geography department of cellphone location data shows that Wisconsinites median distance traveled from home decreased by 50% even before the governor issued a stay-at-home order.) That should slow the rate of exponential growth — hopefully, flip it to exponential decay.
  2. Change in reporting. Maybe we’re getting better at detecting COVID deaths; if on day 1, only half of COVID deaths were reported as same, while now we’re accurately reporting them all, we’d see a spuriously high slope at the beginning of the outbreak. (The same reasoning applies to the curve for number of confirmed cases; at the beginning, the curve grows faster than the true number of infections as testing ramps up.)
  3. COVID is getting less lethal. This is the whole point of “flattening the curve” — with each week that passes, hospitals are more ready, we have more treatment options and fuller knowledge of which of the existing treatments best suits which cases.
  4. Infection has saturated the population. This is the most controversial one. The baby model (where by baby I mean SIR) tells you that the curve bends as the number of still-susceptible people starts to really drop. The consensus seems to be we’re nowhere near that yet, and almost everyone (in the United States, at least) is still susceptible. But I guess one should be open to the possibility that there are way more asymptomatic people than we think and half the population is already infected; or that for some reason a large proportion of the population carries natural immunity so 1% of population infected is half the susceptible population.
  5. Heterogeneous growth rate. I came across this idea in a post by a physicist (yeah, I know, but it was a good post!) which I can’t find now — sorry, anonymous physicist! There’s not one true exponential growth rate; different places may have different slopes. Just for the sake of argument, suppose a bunch of different locales all start with the same number of deaths, and suppose the rate of exponential growth is uniformly distributed between 0 and 1; then the total deaths at time t is \int^1_0 e^{\alpha t} d \alpha which is (1/t)(e^t - 1). The log of that function has positive second derivative; that is, it tends to make the curve bend up rather than down! That makes sense; with heterogeneous rates of exponential growth, you’ll start with some sort of average of the rates but before long the highest rate will dominate.

I’m sure I’ve skipped some curve-bending factors; propose more in comments!

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Pandemic blog 10: I’m masked in the supermarket

After thinking it over in previous posts I realized I had no rejoinder to the argument that we should all be wearing masks to go shopping, so I wore a mask to go shopping. Nothing fancy or ultra-filtering, just an elastic paper mask from a box. I worried I would feel awkward, but instead I felt cool, like a bandit. When I last went shopping, 9 days ago, almost no one was wearing a mask; now it’s up to 20 or 25 percent of the customers. Maybe people are reading my blog! I didn’t ask. None of the Trader Joe’s employees wear masks and I wonder whether they’re allowed to.

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Pandemic blog 9: The Class of 1895

I was wondering about what the last major pandemic, the Spanish flu of 1918, looked like in real time, so I looked at the 25th anniversary report of the Harvard Class of 1895, published in June 1920 and written in 1919. To my surprise, the flu is barely mentioned. Henry Adsit Bull lost his oldest daughter to it. A couple of classmates worked in influenza hospitals. Morton Aldrich used it as an excuse for being late with his report. Paul Washburn reported being quite ill with it, and emphasizing that it might be his last report, demanded that the editors print his curriculum vitae with no editorial changes. (Nope — he was still alive and well and banking in the 1935 report.) I thought 1894, whose report was written more in the thick of the epidemic, might have more to say, but not really. Two men died of it, including one who made it through hideous battles of the Great War only to succumb to flu in November 1918. Another lost daughter.

But no one weighs in on it; I have read a lot of old Harvard class reports, and if there’s one thing I can tell you about an early 20th century Harvard man, it’s that he likes to weigh in. Not sure what to make of this. Maybe the pandemic didn’t much touch the lives of the elite. Or maybe people just died of stuff more and the Spanish flu didn’t make much of an impression. Or maybe it was just too rough to talk about (but I don’t think so — people recount pretty grisly material about the war.)

Back to the present. The Wisconsin Supreme Court ordered all jury trials halted for two months for the safety of jurors, witnesses, and officers of the court; an extremely overwrought dissent from Justice Rebecca Bradley insists that if a right is in the constitution it can’t be put on pause, even for a couple of months, even in a pandemic, which will be news to the people in every state whose governors have suspended their right to assemble.

CJ made a blueberry bundt cake, the best thing he’s made so far, aided by the fact that at the Regent Market Co-op I found a box of pectin, an ingredient I didn’t even know existed. Powdered sugar there was not, but it turns out that powdered sugar is literally nothing but regular sugar ground fine and mixed with a little cornstarch! You can make it yourself if you have a good blender. And we do have a good blender. We love to blend.

Walked around the neighborhood a bit. Ran into the owner of a popular local restaurant and talked to him from across the street. He’s been spending days and days working to renegotiate his loan with the bank. He thinks we ought to be on the “Denmark plan” where the government straight up pays worker’s salaries rather than make businesses apply to loans so they can eventually get reimbursed for the money they’re losing right now. (I did not check whether this is actually the Denmark plan.) Also saw my kids’ pediatrician, who told me that regular pediatrics has been suspended except for babies and they’ve closed the regular clinic, everything is consolidated in 20 S. Park.

I’ve been spending a lot of time thinking about different groups’ COVID projections, claims and counterclaims. I’ll write about it a little in the next entry to show how little I know. But I think nobody knows anything.

Tomorrow it’ll be two weeks since the last time I was more than a quarter-mile from my house. We are told to be ready for another month. It won’t be that hard for us, but it’ll be hard for a lot of people.

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Pandemic blog 8: enter the hermit

It’s family blogging time! Since school is out we need some kind of writing activity so we’re all blogging, not just me. I did not require any particular subject. CJ is blogging about the movies he’s watching in his friend groups’ “movie club ” — he has the Marvel bug now and is plowing through the whole collection on Disney+. AB’s blog is called “The Nasty Times: Foods that Were Never Meant To Be Eaten” and each entry is about a food she considers nasty. The first entry was about mushrooms and she is currently composing “Why Onions Do Not Belong in Sloppy Joes.” I know, I know, who doesn’t like mushrooms and onions? Well, me at AB’s age — I made my mom take them out of everything, much to her annoyance. Now I’m getting my comeuppance.

I have two big longboxes of comics in the basement, almost all from 1982-1986, and AB and I spent part of the morning starting to sort and organize them. Perfect example of a task that feels like productivity and is not important in any way and yet — satisfying. Also nice to see old friends again, covers I haven’t seen in years but are familiar to me in every detail. This one seemed fairly on point:

I am still thinking about the masks. Why so unpopular in the US? Maybe it works like this. You are told (correctly) that wearing a mask doesn’t provide strong protection. Let’s say (making up a number) it only reduces your chance of transmitting or contracting the virus by a half. To many people that is going to feel like nothing: “I’m not really protected, what’s the point?” But in the aggregate, an easy, cheap measure that reduces number of transmissions by 50% would be extremely socially valuable.

talk about class of 1895

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Pandemic blog 7

Made a big, creamy, cheesy casserole with rotini and a million artichokes and peas, the vegetables out of the freezer of course. Times like this bring out the 60s housewife in me. Everyone is saying it’s good to get out of the house and see the sun from time to time, even just on your porch, but there hasn’t really been any sun here; it’s Wisconsin-technically-spring, in the 40s and kind of dreary. I go play basketball with the kids in the driveway each day in the chill. CJ can beat me almost all the time now.

AB and I listened to all the songs on Spotify called “Coronavirus.” There are already a ton; we didn’t actually listen to all of them, there were too many. A lot of them are in Spanish.

Daniel Litt organized a number theory conference, all held on Zoom with more than 130 people watching. To my surprise, this worked really well. People are starting to organize lists of online seminars and at this point there are more seminars I could be “going” to each day than there are when life is normal.

I’ve heard talk about starting baseball with the All-Star Game and having the World Series at Christmas.

Some people are hoping that maybe we’re drastically underestimating the prevalence of infection; maybe the reason curves are starting to bend isn’t the effect of our social isolation measures but the fact that a substantial population has already been affected and acquired temporary immunity, without ever knowing they were sick, and so maybe we’re vastly overestimating the proportion of cases which turn into serious illnesses. Wouldn’t that be great?

At the moment I don’t know anyone who’s died but I know people who know people who’ve died. At this point, do most people in the United States know people who know people who’ve died?

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Pandemic blog 6: safer at home

I went to Trader Joe’s this morning. It was an extremely pleasant oasis of normality. Everything was as it always is, except for the guy standing out front apparently doing nothing but who I guessed was there to control inflow in case the store got too crowded. (Verified by a friend who was at the store early this afternoon, by which point the guy was only letting someone in when someone else came out.) When I was there, the shoppers were somewhat sparse, but even so there was a kind of awkward impromptu ballet of people trying to imitate repelling particles as best they could. My friends in New York are saying the grocery stores are out of flour, eggs, milk, meat, and pasta, but here everything is stocked as normal. I filled my cart really high, not because I’m hoarding (we have enough shelf-stable starch and cans and root vegetables to last us a while, we’re fine) but because I now know that when all four of us, one of them a hungry teenager who’s now taller than I am, are eating three meals a day in the house, we actually consume a lot more food than I usually buy.

I didn’t wear a mask to the store — but why didn’t I? Everyone is saying that you are probably not going to get COVID from touching contaminated surfaces, as long as you are good about handwashing. They think the spread is really person to person — he coughs on you, you cough on me. Wrapping a scarf around the lower part of your face isn’t an N95 mask (remember when I didn’t know what an N95 mask was?) but any form of barrier has to block some reasonable portion of whatever droplet cloud a person coughs out, right? And that’s the game, to block a reasonable proportion of transmissions, to get that exponential constant down below 1. A few people in the store were wearing masks, maybe 1 in 20.

All the talk in the store was about the rumor that Governor Evers was signing a statewide shelter-in-place order, and when I got home I found out it was true. (Despite reassuring information about surfaces, I am trying not to take my phone out when I’m out in the world, to avoid potentially contaminating it.) Ours isn’t called “shelter in place,” it’s called “safer at home,” which I guess is meant to sound softer. What this is going to mean, I think, is that a lot of workplaces which are currently operating are going to stop. And that maybe I should have planned more state park walks with the kids last week because now it’s forbidden.

CJ’s middle school friends have a film club; they watch a movie and then discuss it for two hours the next day on FaceTime. He’s watching Guardians of the Galaxy right now. Last night we made Cincinnati chili, which I’ve never done before. Boiling the meat has always sounded gross to me but it really does make for a meaty-but-not-greasy chili. One small upside: I am making things you have to simmer for an hour, something I rarely do when I have to start dinner after I get home from work.

All in all, starting from the baseline that the news is very bad, the news is not bad. In Italy, which has been in hard lockdown for what, a week? the rate of new cases is starting to decline. (The mathematician Luca Trevisan is in northern Italy and his blog is a very good snapshot of what it’s like to be in the middle of the outbreak there.) China, after two months of lockdown and quite a long spell without major new infections, is starting to loosen up; what happens next seems pretty important. A big new wave of infection or have they really beaten it?

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Pandemic blog 5: exponential

When do you go the grocery store? If you’re concerned about your own risk of infection, the logic of exponential growth insists that today is always better than tomorrow. But the community is better served by each person waiting as long as they can, so as to slow the overall exponential constant.

What is the exponential constant? People are constantly graphing the number of confirmed cases in each country, state, locality on a log-linear scale and watching the slope, but I don’t see how, in a principled way, to untangle the effects of increased testing from actual increases in infection. I guess if one hypothesizes that there’s something like a true mean rate you could plot state-by-state nominal cases against tests done and see if you can fit exp(ct)*(tests per capita) to it. But there are state-to-state differences in testing criteria, state-to-state differences in mitigation strategy, etc.

AB and I made chocolate chip cookies today. Dr. Mrs. Q and CJ watched Inside Out. Weather’s warmer and I think we’ll get some driveway basketball in. We listened to “The Gambler” in honor of Kenny Rogers, deceased today. I had forgotten, or didn’t know, what an ice-cold love letter to death it is. “Every hand’s a winner, and every hand’s a loser, and the best that you can hope for is to die in your sleep.” Damn.

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