Tags: coronavirus

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Saturday, July 4th, 2020

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.

Friday, June 26th, 2020

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?

Wednesday, June 17th, 2020

Pandemic Time: A Distributed Doomsday Clock - NOEMA

A meditative essay on the nature of time.

The simultaneous dimming of Betelgeuse and the global emergence of COVID-19 were curiously rhyming phenomena: disruptions of familiar, reassuring rhythms, both with latent apocalyptic potential.

Time and distance are out of place here.

We will have left a world governed by Chronos, the Greek god of linear, global, objective time measured by clocks, and arrived into a world governed by Kairos, the Greek god of nonlinear, local, subjective time, measured by the ebb and flow of local patterns of risk and opportunity. The Virus Quadrille is not just the concluding act of pandemic time but the opening act of an entire extended future.

Saturday, May 23rd, 2020

Why I hate the log graph, and you should too - Geek in Sydney

I must admit I’ve been wincing a little every time I see a graph with a logarithmic scale in a news article about COVID-19. It takes quite a bit of cognitive work to translate to a linear scale and get the real story.

Sunday, May 17th, 2020

Why is this interesting? - The Transmission Edition

Looking at COVID-19 through the lens of pace layers.

…a citizen could actually play a part that was as important as a vaccine, but instead of preventing transmission of the virus into another cell at the ACE receptor level, it’s preventing transmission of the virus at the social network level. So we’re actually adopting a kind of behavioral vaccine policy, by voluntarily or otherwise self-isolating.

Monday, May 4th, 2020

It’s OK.

This is for everyone at Clearleft, but I’m sharing it here for you too.

ongoing by Tim Bray · Bye, Amazon

May 1st was my last day as a VP and Distinguished Engineer at Amazon Web Services, after five years and five months of rewarding fun. I quit in dismay at Amazon firing whistleblowers who were making noise about warehouse employees frightened of Covid-19.

Fair play, Tim Bray!

The victims weren’t abstract entities but real people; here are some of their names: Courtney Bowden, Gerald Bryson, Maren Costa, Emily Cunningham, Bashir Mohammed, and Chris Smalls.

I’m sure it’s a coincidence that every one of them is a person of color, a woman, or both. Right?

Thursday, April 30th, 2020

‘The stakes feel higher but, with good practice, it need not be scary’ – NHS.UK design lead on responding to coronavirus | PublicTechnology.net

This isn’t the time to get precious about your favourite design and development tools. Use progressive enhancement as your philosophy. Your service might have to be accessed on old devices in hospitals with outdated tech or unsupported operating systems. HTML+CSS is your best bet to ensure that the service can be accessed in unlikely scenarios you’ve never even considered. Do you want to take that risk at a time like this? Nope, me neither.

Save the React squabbles for another time. Make it accessible and robust from day one.

Prioritizing users in a crisis: Building the California COVID-19 response site

This is a great case study of the excellent California COVID-19 response site. Accessibility and performance are the watchwords here.

Want to know their secret weapon?

A $20 device running Android 9, with no contract commitment has been one of the most useful and effective tools in our effort to be accessible.

Leaner, faster sites benefit everybody, but making sure your applications run smoothly on low-end hardware makes a massive difference for those users.

Monday, April 27th, 2020

Looking at coronavirus.data.gov.uk - Matthew Somerville

I worry that more and more nowadays, people jump to JavaScript frameworks because that is what they know or have been taught, even though they are entirely inappropriate for a wide array of things and can often produce poor results.

Last week I wrote about the great work that Matthew did and now he’s written up his process:

The important thing is to have a resilient base layer of HTML and CSS, and then to enhance that with JavaScript.

Thursday, April 23rd, 2020

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.

Monday, April 20th, 2020

Web Sites as ‘Public Accommodation’ under a Pandemic | Adrian Roselli

If you dodged an accessibility lawsuit because you have physical locations, what does it mean when those physical locations close?

Good question.

As movie theaters, restaurant ordering, college courses, and more move to online-first delivery, the notion of a corresponding brick-and-mortar venue falls away. If the current pandemic physical distancing measures stretch into the next year as many think, then this blip becomes the de facto new normal.

Thursday, April 16th, 2020

Didn’t I Write This Story Already? When Your Fictional Pandemic Becomes Reality | Tor.com

Naomi Kritzer published a short story five years ago called So Much Cooking about a food blogger in lockdown during a pandemic. Prescient.

I left a lot of the details about the disease vague in the story, because what I wanted to talk about was not the science but the individuals struggling to get by as this crisis raged around them. There’s a common assumption that if the shit ever truly hit the fan, people would turn on one another like sharks turning on a wounded shark. In fact, the opposite usually happens: humans in disasters form tight community bonds, help their neighbors, offer what they can to the community.

Monday, April 6th, 2020

6, 95: Barrel aged

Human consciousness is the most astonishing thing, and most of it happened in deep time, beyond the reach of any writing and most legends. Human experience, in general, is prehistoric. And prehistoric experience was just as full as yours and mine: just as deeply felt, just as intelligent, just as real. What we know of it is mostly from durable artifacts and graves. I’m thinking of the woman found near the Snake River, buried at the end of the ice age with a perfectly crafted and unused stone knife tucked under her head. I’m thinking of the huge conical hats, beaten from single pieces of gold and inscribed with calendars, found north of the Alps. I’m thinking of Grave 8 at Vedbæk, where a woman held her premature baby on the spread wing of a swan. These are snapshot that experts can assemble into larger ideas, but what they tell all of us is that we’ve been people, not just humans, for a very long time.

Thursday, April 2nd, 2020

Ted Chiang Explains the Disaster Novel We All Suddenly Live In - Electric Literature

Ted Chiang’s hot takes are like his short stories—punchy, powerful, and thought-provoking.

Wednesday, April 1st, 2020

Indoor Voices 🤫🤫🤫

A group blog by a whole bunch of people who are staying at home.

It’s hard to believe, but there was a time where the internet was just full of casual websites posting random stuff. And you’d go to them maybe even multiple times a day to see if they had posted any new stories. It was something we all did when we were bored at our desks, at our jobs. Now there are no more desks. But there are still blogs.

Tuesday, March 31st, 2020

This Is Not the Apocalypse You Were Looking For | WIRED

I just love the way that Laurie Penny writes.

In the end, it will not be butchery. Instead it will be bakery, as everyone has apparently decided that the best thing to do when the world lurches sideways is learn to make bread. Yeast is gone from the shops. Even I have been acting out in the kitchen, although my baked goods are legendarily dreadful. A friend and former roommate, who knows me well, called from Berlin to ask if I had “made the terrible, horrible biscuits yet.” These misfortune cookies tend to happen at moments of such extreme stress that those around me feel obliged to eat them. They say that if you can make a cake, you can make a bomb; if the whole thing implodes, my job will not be in munitions.

Monday, March 30th, 2020

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.

Brighton Quarantine Delivery

Fellow Brightonians, here’s a handy one-stop shop for all the places doing deliveries right now, generated from this spreadsheet by Chris Boakes.

Friday, March 27th, 2020