Journal tags: covid-19

8

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The Machines Stop

The Situation feels like it’s changing. It’s not over, not by a long shot. But it feels like it’s entering a different, looser phase.

Throughout the lockdown, there’s been a strange symmetry between the outside world and the inside of our home. As the outside world slowed to a halt, so too did half the machinery in our flat. Our dishwasher broke shortly before the official lockdown began. So did our washing machine.

We had made plans for repairs and replacements, but as events in the world outside escalated, those plans had to be put on hold. Plumbers and engineers weren’t making any house calls, and rightly so.

We even had the gas to our stovetop cut off for a while—you can read Jessica’s account of that whole affair. All the breakdowns just added to the entropic Ballardian mood.

But the gas stovetop was fixed. And so too was the dishwasher, eventually. Just last week, we got our new washing machine installed. Piece by piece, the machinery of our interier world revived in lockstep with the resucitation of the world outside.

As of today, pubs will be open. I won’t be crossing their thresholds just yet. We know so much more about the spread of the virus now, and gatherings of people in indoor spaces are pretty much the worst environments for transmission.

I’m feeling more sanguine about outdoor spaces. Yesterday, Jessica and I went into town for Street Diner. It was the first time since March that we walked in that direction—our other excursions have been in the direction of the countryside.

It was perfectly fine. We wore masks, and while we were certainly in the minority, we were not alone. People were generally behaving responsibly.

Brighton hasn’t done too badly throughout The Situation. But still, like I said, I have no plans to head to the pub on a Saturday night. The British drinking culture is very much concentrated on weekends. Stay in all week and then on the weekend, lassen die Sau raus!, as the Germans would say.

After months of lockdown, reopening pubs on a Saturday seems like a terrible idea. Over in Ireland, pubs have been open since Monday—a sensible day to soft-launch. With plenty of precautions in place, things are going well there.

I’ve been watching The Situation in Ireland throughout. It’s where my mother lives, so I was understandably concerned. But they’ve handled everything really well. It’s not New Zealand, but it’s also not the disaster that is the UK.

It really has been like watching an A/B test run at the country level. Two very similar populations confronted with exactly the same crisis. Ireland took action early, cancelling the St. Patrick’s Day parade(!) while the UK was still merrily letting Cheltenham go ahead. Ireland had clear guidance. The UK had dilly-dallying and waffling. And when the shit really hit the fan, the Irish taoiseach rolled up his sleeves and returned to medical work. Meanwhile the UK had Dominic Cummings making a complete mockery of the sacrifices that everyone was told to endure.

What’s strange is that people here in the UK don’t seem to realise how the rest of the world, especially other European countries, have watched the response here with shock and horror. The narrative here seems to be that we all faced this thing together, and with our collective effort, we averted the worst. But the numbers tell a very different story. Comparing the numbers here with the numbers in Ireland—or pretty much any other country in Europe—is sobering.

So even though the timelines for reopenings here converge with Ireland’s, The Situation is far from over.

Even without any trips to pubs, restaurants, or other indoor spaces, I’m looking forward to making some more excursions into town. Not that it’s been bad staying at home. I’ve really quite enjoyed staying put, playing music, reading books, and watching television.

I was furloughed from work for a while in June. Normally, my work at this time of year would involve plenty of speaking at conferences. Seeing as that wasn’t happening, it made sense to take advantage of the government scheme to go into work hibernation for a bit.

I was worried I might feel at a bit of a loose end, but I actually really enjoyed it. The weather was good so I spent quite a bit of time just sitting in the back garden, reading (I am very, very grateful to have even a small garden). I listened to music. I watched movies. I surfed the web. Yes, properly surfed the web, going from link to link, get lost down rabbit holes. I tell you, this World Wide Web thing is pretty remarkable. Some days I used it to read up on science or philosophy. I spent a week immersed in Napoleonic history. I have no idea how or why. But it was great.

I’m back at work now, and have been for a couple of weeks. But I wouldn’t mind getting furloughed again. It felt kind of like being retired. I’m quite okay with the propsect of retirement now, as long as we have music and sunshine and the World Wide Web.

That’s the future. For now, The Situation continues, albeit in looser form.

I’ve really enjoyed reading other people’s accounts throughout. My RSS reader is getting a good workout. I always look forward to weeknotes from Alice, Nat, and Phil (this piece from Phil has really stuck with me). Jessica has written fifteen installments—and counting—of A Journal of the Plague Week. I know I’m biased, but I think it’s some mighty fine writing. Start here.

100 tunes

We got a headstart on the lockdown. A week before the UK government finally stopped dilly-dallying (at the expense of tens of thousands of lives), Clearleft became a remote-only company. At the beginning of this stay-at-home time, I started recording a tune a day. I wasn’t sure how long I’d keep it up, but I’ve managed to keep it going the whole time.

Yesterday I recorded my 100th tune.

It’s funny how small efforts can build up into a satisfying corpus. It’s not like I’m attempting anything ambitious, like Matthias, who is doing 100 days of writing. Recording one tune isn’t too much hassle. There are days when it’s frustrating and I have to do multiple takes, but overall it’s not too taxing. But now, when I look at the cumulative result, I’m very happy that I didn’t skip any days.

One hundred is a nice round number, so this could be a good time to stop. I could quit while I’m ahead. But I think I’ll keep going. Again, despite what the official line might be from the UK government (who have lost all trust), I reckon I’ll be staying at home for a while yet. As long as I’m here, I may as well keep playing. I have plenty more tunes to play.

At some point, the daily streak will end. But even then, I think I’ll continue to record tunes like this, even if it becomes more sporadic.

If you like these tunes, as well as being here on my own site, they’re all in a YouTube set. So …like’n’subscribe, or something?

Lightweight

It’s been fascinating to see how television programmes have adapted to The Situation. It’s like there’s been a weird inversion with the YouTube asthetic. Instead of YouTubers doing their utmost to emulate the look of professional television, now everyone on professional television looks like a YouTuber.

No more lighting or audio technicians. No more studio audiences. Heck, no more studios.

There are some kinds of TV programmes that are showing the strain. A lot of comedy formats just fall flat without the usual production values. But a lot of programmes work just fine. In fact, some of them might be better. Watching Mary Beard present Front Row Late from her house is an absolute delight. It feels more direct and honest without the artiface of a television studio. It kind of makes you wonder whether expensive production costs are really necessary when what you really care about is the content.

All of this is one big belaboured metaphor for websites.

In times of crisis, informational websites sometimes offer a “lite” version. Max has even made an emergency website kit:

The site contains only the bare minimum - no webfonts, no tracking, no unnecessary images. The entire thing should fit in a single HTTP request. It’s basically just a small, ultra-lean blog focused on maximum resilience and accessibility. The Service Worker takes it a step further from there so if you’ve visited the site once, the information is still accessible even if you lose network coverage.

Eric emphasises the importance of performance in his post Get Static:

I’m thinking here of sites for places like health departments (and pretty much all government services), hospitals and clinics, utility services, food delivery and ordering, and I’m sure there are more that haven’t occurred to me.  As much as you possibly can, get it down to static HTML and CSS and maybe a tiny bit of enhancing JS, and pare away every byte you can.

Tom Loosemore offers this advice to teams building new coronavirus services:

  1. Get a 4 year-old Android phone, and use it as your test/demo device.
  2. https://design-system.service.gov.uk is your friend.
  3. Full React isn’t your friend if it makes your service slow & inaccessible

Remember: This is for everyone.

Indeed, Gov.uk are usually a paragon of best practices in just about any situation. But they dropped the ball recently, as Matthew attests:

coronavirus.data.gov.uk is a static site, fetching and displaying remote data. It is also a 100% client-side JavaScript React site.

http://dracos.co.uk/made/coronavirus.data.gov.uk/ is 238K vs 770K (basics) on load. I’ve removed about 550K of JavaScript. It seems to work the same.

As Tom says:

One sign that your website isn’t meeting the needs of all your users is when Matthew Somerville gets sufficiently grumpy about it to do a proper version himself.

It’s true enough that Matthew excels at creating lightweight, accessible versions of services that are too bloated or buggy to use. His accessible Odeon project from back in the day is legendary. And I use his slimline version of the National Rail website all the time: traintimes.org.uk—it’s a terrificly performant progressive web app.

It’s thankless work though. It flies in the face of everything considered “modern” web development. (If you want to know the cost of “modern” framework-driven JavaScript-first web development, Tim has the numbers.) But Matthew is kind of a hero to me. I wish more developers would follow his example.

Maybe now, with this rush to make lightweight versions of valuable services, we might stop and reflect on whether we ever really needed all those added extras in the first place.

Hope springs eternal.

Update: Matthew has written about his process in Looking at coronavirus.data.gov.uk.

Living Through The Future

You can listen to audio version of Living Through The Future.

Usually when we talk about “living in the future”, it’s something to do with technology: smartphones, satellites, jet packs… But I’ve never felt more like I’m living in the future than during The Situation.

On the one hand, there’s nothing particularly futuristic about living through a pandemic. They’ve occurred throughout history and this one could’ve happened at any time. We just happen to have drawn the short straw in 2020. Really, this should feel like living in the past: an outbreak of a disease that disrupts everyone’s daily life? Nothing new about that.

But there’s something dizzyingly disconcerting about the dominance of technology. This is the internet’s time to shine. Think you’re going crazy now? Imagine what it would’ve been like before we had our network-connected devices to keep us company. We can use our screens to get instant updates about technologies of world-shaping importance …like beds and face masks. At the same time as we’re starting to worry about getting hold of fresh vegetables, we can still make sure that whatever meals we end up making, we can share them instantaneously with the entire planet. I think that, despite William Gibson’s famous invocation, I always figured that the future would feel pretty futuristic all ‘round—not lumpy with old school matters rubbing shoulders with technology so advanced that it’s indistinguishable from magic.

When I talk about feeling like I’m living in the future, I guess what I mean is that I feel like I’m living at a time that will become History with a capital H. I start to wonder what we’ll settle on calling this time period. The Covid Point? The Corona Pause? 2020-P?

At some point we settled on “9/11” for the attacks of September 11th, 2001 (being a fan of ISO-8601, I would’ve preferred 2001-09-11, but I’ll concede that it’s a bit of a mouthful). That was another event that, even at the time, clearly felt like part of History with a capital H. People immediately gravitated to using historical comparisons. In the USA, the comparison was Pearl Harbour. Outside of the USA, the comparison was the Cuban missile crisis.

Another comparison between 2001-09-11 and what we’re currently experiencing now is how our points of reference come from fiction. Multiple eyewitnesses in New York described the September 11th attacks as being “like something out of a movie.” For years afterwards, the climactic showdowns in superhero movies that demolished skyscrapers no longer felt like pure escapism.

For The Situation, there’s no shortage of prior art to draw upon for comparison. If anthing, our points of reference should be tales of isolation like Robinson Crusoe. The mundane everyday tedium of The Situation can’t really stand up to comparison with the epic scale of science-fictional scenarios, but that’s our natural inclination. You can go straight to plague novels like Stephen King’s The Stand or Emily St. John Mandel’s Station Eleven. Or you can get really grim and cite Cormac McCarthy’s The Road. But you can go the other direction too and compare The Situation with the cozy catastrophes of John Wyndham like Day Of The Triffids (or just be lazy and compare it to any of the multitude of zombie apocalypses—an entirely separate kind of viral dystopia).

In years to come there will be novels set during The Situation. Technically they will be literary fiction—or even historical fiction—but they’ll feel like science fiction.

I remember the Chernobyl disaster having the same feeling. It was really happening, it was on the news, but it felt like scene-setting for a near-future dystopian apocalypse. Years later, I was struck when reading Wolves Eat Dogs by Martin Cruz-Smith. In 2006, I wrote:

Halfway through reading the book, I figured out what it was: Wolves Eat Dogs is a Cyberpunk novel. It happens to be set in present-day reality but the plot reads like a science-fiction story. For the most part, the book is set in the post-apocolyptic landscape of Prypiat, near Chernobyl. This post-apocolyptic scenario just happens to be real.

The protagonist, Arkady Renko, is sent to this frightening hellish place following a somewhat far-fetched murder in Moscow. Killing someone with a minute dose of a highly radioactive material just didn’t seem like a very realistic assassination to me.

Then I saw the news about Alexander Litvinenko, the former Russian spy who died this week, quite probably murdered with a dose of polonium-210.

I’ve got the same tingling feeling about The Situation. Fact and fiction are blurring together. Past, present, and future aren’t so easy to differentiate.

I really felt it last week standing in the back garden, looking up at the International Space Station passing overhead on a beautifully clear and crisp evening. I try to go out and see the ISS whenever its flight path intersects with southern England. Usually I’d look up and try to imagine what life must be like for the astronauts and cosmonauts on board, confined to that habitat with nowhere to go. Now I look up and feel a certain kinship. We’re all experiencing a little dose of what that kind of isolation must feel like. Though, as the always-excellent Marina Koren points out:

The more experts I spoke with for this story, the clearer it became that, actually, we have it worse than the astronauts. Spending months cooped up on the ISS is a childhood dream come true. Self-isolating for an indefinite period of time because of a fast-spreading disease is a nightmare.

Whenever I look up at the ISS passing overhead I feel a great sense of perspective. “Look what we can do!”, I think to myself. “There are people living in space!”

Last week that feeling was still there but it was tempered with humility. Yes, we can put people in space, but here we are with our entire way of life put on pause by something so small and simple that it’s technically not even a form of life. It’s like we’re the martians in H.G. Wells’s War Of The Worlds; all-conquering and formidable, but brought low by a dose of dramatic irony, a Virus Ex Machina.

Outlet

We’re all hunkering down in our homes. That seems to be true of our online homes too.

People are sharing their day-to-day realities on their websites and I’m here for it. Like, I’m literally here for it. I can’t go anywhere.

On an episode of the Design Observer podcast, Jessica Helfand puts this into context:

During times of crisis, people want to make things. There’s a surge in the keeping of journals when there’s a war… it’s a response to the feeling of vulnerability, like corporeal vulnerability. My life is under attack. I am imprisoned in my house. I have to make something to say I was here, to say I mattered, to say this day happened… It’s like visual graphic reassurance.

It’s not just about crisis though. Scott Kelly talks about the value of keeping a journal during prolonged periods of repitition. And he should know—he spent a year in space:

NASA has been studying the effects of isolation on humans for decades, and one surprising finding they have made is the value of keeping a journal. Throughout my yearlong mission, I took the time to write about my experiences almost every day. If you find yourself just chronicling the days’ events (which, under the circumstances, might get repetitive) instead try describing what you are experiencing through your five senses or write about memories. Even if you don’t wind up writing a book based on your journal like I did, writing about your days will help put your experiences in perspective and let you look back later on what this unique time in history has meant.

That said, just stringing a coherent sentence together can seem like too much during The Situation. That’s okay. Your online home can also provide relief and distraction through tidying up. As Ethan puts it:

let a website be a worry stone

It can be comforting to get into the zone doing housekeeping on your website. How about a bit of a performance audit? Or maybe look into more fluid typography? Or perhaps now is the time to tinker about with that dark mode you’ve been planning?

Whatever you end up doing, my point is that your website is quite literally an outlet. While you’re stuck inside, your website is not just a place you can go to, it’s a place you can control, a place you can maintain, a place you can tidy up, a place you can expand. Most of all, it’s a place you can lose yourself in, even if it’s just for a little while.

Local

How are you doing? Are you holding up okay?

It’s okay if you’re not. This is a tough time.

It’s very easy to become despondent about the state of the world. If you tend to lean towards pessimism, The Situation certainly seems to be validating your worldview right now.

I’m finding that The Situation is also a kind of Rorschach test. If you’ve always felt that humanity wasn’t deserving of your faith—that “we are the virus”—then there’s plenty happening right now to bolster that opinion. But if you’ve always thought that human beings are fundamentally good and decent, there’s just as much happening to reinforce that viewpoint.

I’ve noticed concentric circles of feelings tied to geography—positive in the centre, and very negative at the edges. What I mean is, if you look at what’s happening in your building and your street, it’s quite amazing how people are pulling together:

Our street (and the guy who runs the nearby corner store) is self-organizing so that everyone’s looking out for each other, checking up on elderly and self-isolating folks, sharing contact details, picking up shopping if necessary, and generally just being good humans.

This goodwill extends just about to the level of city mayorships. But once you look further than that, things turn increasingly sour. At the country level, incompetence and mismanagement seem to be the order of the day. And once you expand out to the whole world, who can blame you for feeling overwhelmed with despair?

But the world is made up of countries, and countries are made up of communities, and these communities are made up of people who are pulling together and helping one another.

Best of all, you can absolutely be part of this wonderful effort. In normal times, civic activism would require you to take action, get out there, and march in the streets. Now you can be a local hero by staying at home.

That’s it. Stay inside, resist the urge to congregate, and chat to your friends and relatives online instead. If you do that, you are being a most excellent human being—the kind that restores your faith in humanity.

I know it feels grim and overwhelming but, again, look at what’s triggering those feelings—is it the national news? International? I know it’s important to stay informed about the big picture—this is a global pandemic, after all—but don’t lose sight of what’s close to hand. Look closer to home and you’ll see the helpers—heck, you are one of the helpers.

On Ev’s blog, Fiona Cameron Lister quotes the president of the Italian Society of Psychiatrists:

Fear of an epidemic is as old as mankind itself. In this case its effect is amplified by incomplete, even false information which has caused public confidence in our institutions to collapse.

She points out that the media are in the business of amplifying the outliers of negative behaviour—panic buying, greed, and worst-case scenarios. But she goes on to say:

It doesn’t take much to start a panic and we are teetering on the brink.

Not to be the “well, actually” guy but …well, actually…

That view of humanity as being poised on the brink of mass panic is the common consensus viewpoint; it even influences public policy. But the data doesn’t support this conclusion. (If you want details, I highly recommend reading Critical Mass: How One Thing Leads to Another by Philip Ball.) Thinking of ordinary people as being one emergency away from panicking is itself giving into fear.

I guess what I’m saying is, if you’re feeling misanthropic about your fellow humans right now, try rebalancing your intake. Yes, it’s good to keep yourself informed about national and global events, but make sure to give plenty of attention to the local level too. You may just find your heart warming and your spirits lifting.

After all, you’re a good person, right? And you probably also think of yourself as a fairly ordinary person, right? So if you’re doing the right thing—making small sacrifices and being concerned for your neighbours—then logic dictates that most other people are too.

I have faith in you:

When this is over, I hope we will be proud of how well we loved one another.

Nice

Yesterday was Wednesday. Wednesday evening is when I play in an Irish trad session at The Jolly Brewer. It’s a highlight of my week.

Needless to say, there was no session yesterday. I’ll still keep playing tunes while we’re all socially distancing, but it’s not quite the same. I concur with this comment:

COVID-19 has really made me realize that we need to be grateful for the people and activities we take for granted. Things like going out for food, seeing friends, going to the gym, etc., are fun, but are not essential for (physical) survival.

It reminds of Brian Eno’s definition of art: art is anything we don’t have to do. It’s the same with social activities. We don’t have to go to concerts—we can listen to music at home. We don’t have to go the cinema—we can watch films at home. We don’t have to go to conferences—we can read books and blog posts at home. We don’t have to go out to restaurants—all our nutritional needs can be met at home.

But it’s not the same though, is it?

I think about the book Station Eleven a lot. The obvious reason why I’d be thinking about it is that it describes a deadly global pandemic. But that’s not it. Even before The Situation, Station Eleven was on my mind for helping provide clarity on the big questions of life; y’know, the “what’s it all about?” questions like “what’s the meaning of life?”

Part of the reason I think about Station Eleven is its refreshingly humanist take on a post-apocalyptic society. As I discussed on this podcast episode a few years back:

It’s interesting to see a push-back against the idea that if society is removed we are going to revert to life being nasty, brutish and short. Things aren’t good after this pandemic wipes out civilisation, but people are trying to put things back together and get along and rebuild.

Related to that, Station Eleven describes a group of people in a post-pandemic world travelling around performing Shakespeare plays. At first I thought this was a ridiculous conceit. Then I realised that this was the whole point. We don’t have to watch Shakespeare to survive. But there’s a difference between surviving and living.

I’m quite certain that one positive outcome of The Situation will be a new-found appreciation for activities we don’t have to do. I’m looking forward to sitting in a pub with a friend or two, or going to see a band, or a play or a film, and just thinking “this is nice.”

Home

Clearleft is a remote-working company right now. I mean, that’s hardly surprising—just about everyone I know is working from home.

We made this decision on Friday. It was clear that the spread of COVID-19 was going exponential (even with the very incomplete data available in the UK). Despite the wishy-washy advice from the government—which has since pivoted drastically—we made the decision to literally get ahead of the curve. We had one final get-together in the studio yesterday to plan logistics and pick up equipment. Then it was time to start this chapter.

I’ve purloined:

  • one Aeron chair,
  • one big monitor,
  • a wired keyboard,
  • a wireless mouse, and
  • noise-cancelling headphones.

Cassie kindly provided the use of her van to get that stuff home. The Aeron chair proved to be extremely tricky to get through my narrow front door. For a while there, it looked like I’d need to take the door off the hinges but with a whole lotta pushin’ and a-pullin’ Jessica and I managed to somehow get it in.

Now I’ve got a reasonable home studio set up, I can get back to working on that conference talk I’m prepar… Oh.

Yeah, I guess I’ve got a stay of execution on that. For the past few months I’ve had my head down preparing a new hour-long talk for An Event Apart. Yes, it takes me that long to put a talk together—it feels kinda like writing a book. I’d like to think it’s because I’m so meticulous, but the truth is that I’m just very slow at most things. Also, I’m a bad one for procrastinating.

For the past week or so, while I’ve been making pretty darn good progress on the talk, a voice in the back of my head has been whispering “Hey, maybe the conference won’t even happen!” In answer to which, the voice in the front of my head has been saying “Would you shut the fuck up? I’m trying to work here!”

I was due to debut the talk at An Event Apart Seattle in May. Sure enough, that event has quite rightly been cancelled. So have a lot of other excellent events. It’s a real shame, and my heart goes out to event organisers who pour so much of themselves into their events; their love, their care, and not least, their financial risk.

I speak at quite a few events every year. I really, really enjoy it. For one, public speaking is one of the few things I think I’m actually any good at. Also, I just love the chance to meet my peers and collectively nerd out together for a short while.

Then there’s the travel. This year I was planning on drastically reducing my plane travel. I had bagged myself speaking slots in European cities that I could reach by train: Cologne, Strasbourg, even Lisbon, along with domestic destinations like Nottingham, Manchester, and Plymouth. I was quite looking forward to some train adventures. But those will have to wait.

Right now I’m going to settle into this new home routine. It’s not entirely new to me. Back in the early 2000s, I worked from home as a freelancer. Back then, Jessica and I worked not just in the same room, but on opposite ends of the same table!

We’ve got more room now. Jessica has her own office space. I’m getting used to mine. But as Jessica pointed out:

I’ve worked from home for 20(!) years, I love it, I’m made for it, I can’t imagine not doing it—and I’ve gotten absolutely nothing done for the past week.

Newly WFH folks, the situation now is totally unconducive to concentration and productivity. Be gentle with yourselves.