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better late than never

reflection

This post is a week late. I want to blame computers but the problem is my own tendency towards procrastination. Computers just changed the nature of it.

In the last couple of weeks, I've seen a few social media posts that I think of as technological nostalgia prompts. By which I mean prompts like:

What was academic life like before broad internet access?

or

What do you miss about the pre-smartphone era?

Someone's response to the first prompt, about running across a college campus to turn in assignments, reminded me how for all of my student years, including grad school, I inevitably found myself finishing up papers at the last minute. What computers changed was the precise timing of what the "last minute" really meant.

I am just old enough that I did all of my college writing on paper, but just young enough that I never used a typewriter. I made heavy use of printers.

Having to print your papers enforced a certain schedule. It didn't stop me from writing all night when I absolutely had to, but it did mean I had to leave enough time for after-writing activities like: printing, trying to print again, unjamming the paper feed, regretting my attempt to print double-sided, looking for a stapler, showering and getting dressed for leaving my room, going to campus, handing over the paper. I'm still surprised that I never missed a deadline.

Just a couple years later, in grad school, almost every assigment had to be turned in as a file, freeing me up to write and edit until the literal last minute. I had thought that I would develop better writing discipline because historians tend to write a lot. I was wrong. Even when I gave myself more time to finish, I just wrote more, later.

It was only in library school, which I came to after switching careers, that I started to try to work with my bad habits. I'd written so many short-to-medium length papers by then, and was confident enough that I could meet the baseline of "adequate work" required of a professional degree program, that I started to set limits on my writing time by working backwards from deadlines. I'd say, "I think I can write this in X number of hours" and then start writing X hours before it was due.1 I still couldn't avoid the occasional late night but it took a lot of the stress out of procrastination.

This is all a long way of saying that I've been trying to write my posts on Sundays without losing any sleep to the blog. If there's one thing I want to get out of doing this as a regular exercise, it's a healthier relationship to writing. But last Sunday night I drove down to southern California, arriving late, and missed my self-imposed deadline. Since I can "publish" literally any time, I kept telling myself I'd get to it "tomorrow" after work, then kept putting it off when it was clear I'd be writing too late at night.

Which is how I've ended up writing this on a Saturday afternoon, and also why I'm writing today about procrastination itself, which wasn't what I'd originally planned to do. I'll try to get back to schedule tomorrow.

observation

I'm getting pretty tired of people engaging in what I think of as a sort of Covid-19 data arbitrage. It's come up every time there's been a surge in cases, following the original rise and decline in spring 2020. It goes like this:

  • Cases are rising but hospitalizations are steady or declining, and that's what matters
  • Hospitalizations are rising but serious cases remain low, and that's what matters
  • Serious cases are rising, but the death rate remains low, and that's what matters
  • We've reached the peak in cases, and that's what matters (; pay no attention to that high death rate, it's a lagging indicator)

I'd like to think one of the points of having data is to use it to inform policy. And some people actually do that. But there's quite a few people who look at multiple available metrics like they're a menu from which they can pick and choose whichever one supports the decisions they've already made.

memory

The closest I came to missing a deadline in the paper-printout era was for my undergraduate history thesis. It was a small class and at the midpoint we were all supposed to read and comment on each other's papers, so I had to print one copy per person. I left myself the whole afternoon just to do the printing, but it was also the longest paper I'd ever written, and I had a rickety inkjet printer at home.

I did some math after the second copy was done and realized I wasn't going to make the deadline if I stuck with the home printer's pace. So I gathered up my two finished copies and ran to a copy shop to make the rest. When I got to the history department, my classmates were all waiting at the mailroom, also having just barely made the deadline. We tracked down a stapler, exchanged papers, and went on our ways. I don't remember cutting things so close for the final draft.

links


  1. To be clear, I'm only talking about the writing process. I always spent quite a bit of time on reading and research, the activities I enjoy much more than writing. 

you're on your own

reflection

I've been having a difficult time writing this week's post. It's not that I've been lacking in topics; it's that they all feel like too much to take on right now: the pandemic, the anniversary of the January 6th insurrection, my recent decision to move to southern California this coming summer, away from the place where I grew up and where I've lived for the past eight years. But it's the pandemic that's been on my mind the most.

With so much community transmission, so little public health and policy mitigation, and so many reports of breakthrough cases, I've found it difficult to calibrate both my risk and my anxiety. I don't feel all that worried about my personal health, though I don't dismiss the chances of long Covid, but the uncertainty over how effective the vaccines are against Omicron and the transparent wishful thinking involved in calling the variant "mild" make it hard to judge the risk to my parents. My dad especially has multiple risk factors, and he's scheduled to start a short series of cancer treatments in less than two weeks. It's not reassuring to hear public health officials cheerily talk about how among the vaccinated only people with pre-existing health problems are getting severe cases when so many people fit in that category and so little is being done at the community level to help them avoid exposure.

I don't miss the pre-vaccination period of the pandemic at all, but I did feel like there was a collective sense of clarity around what we needed to do to reduce infection and why, even while we ultimately failed to follow through on those responsibilities as a country. Now the response seems much more fragmented, with many attempts to separate out this or that group as one to blame, dismiss, or ignore.

observation

Things seem bad. I've found myself wondering if any public health official who's been holding the line at "Omicron is mild" and "yep, cases are rising, but what are you going to do? [shrug]" is going to look back at this period, once the worst of it is over (whenever that may be) and think: "What have I done?" But few probably will.

They have plenty of stories they can tell themselves and us about why giving up on mitigation is better than any alternative. For purposes of self-justification, it doesn't matter if these stories are internally consistent or based on false dichotomies. They just need to be repeated. The economy is too strong to justify any provision of relief, but also too fragile to withstand even the most temporary of pauses. The isolation period for someone who has tested positive must be either 5 days or 10, not 6, 7, 8, or 9, and even though isolation starts with a test result testing should play only a peripheral role in determining its end. Our only policy choices are a total and complete lockdown without definite end, or doing essentially nothing.

Community spread is so high now it's easier to say there's no possible way to contain it. Contact tracing can't keep up so few infections have verified causes. If we can't see the transmission chains, how could anyone possibly intervene? Failure becomes its own justification; leadership becomes the regular delivery of updates on the consequences of failure.

I'm left wondering, in the absence of mitigation, what is going to stop the current wave? If "everybody" in a population of 300 million is going to get something, and that something is being distributed at a rate of 1 million people per day, you're looking at a long time before literally everyone has gotten it. In that scenario, a rolling average of a few million people would be home (or possibly worse, at work) sick at any given time.

But I doubt many people, even the loudest voices in the "everybody will get it" crowd, believes that literally everyone will get the current strain of Covid before cases start to drop. It's more likely that somewhere along the way a mixture of immunity and people staying home will eventually break enough chains to bring cases down. But if we're not trying to make that happen, when will it happen?1

A pandemic doesn't end just because you became unresponsive.

memory

Fifteen years ago this January I rented a room in a house where five other guys lived. The kitchen was usually a mess and it got worse as winter turned into spring, bringing warmth, new odors, and insects. When you live somewhere with no collective sense of responsibility, cleaning up often falls to the person with the least tolerance for filth. To my surprise that person turned out to be me.

I wouldn't say I cleaned the kitchen daily, or even on a regular schedule. But I did occasionally wash all the dishes that had been left out, run the dishwasher, and put everything away. As the weather warmed, and as I got more fed up with the house, the landlord, and my housemates, I started to back off on cleaning. I remember coming home once on a hot spring day, walking into the kitchen, looking at the sink and counter, and walking right back out to make the half-mile walk to the nearest place I could buy a take-out meal.

The last straw was when someone started putting unrinsed bowls with cereal residue on them into the dishwasher. Maybe today's modern dishwashers can handle that level of grime but that's not what our cheap landlord had installed in the house. The spray of the dishwasher propelled bits of cereal from the bowls in the lower rack up into the cups and glasses on the upper rack. The cereal bits then dried in place. It got so that I couldn't assume any dish I didn't clean myself was actually clean.

I lived there only six months and by the time I left I'd settled into a new cleaning routine. I'd clean my own dishes after I used them. Beyond that, I'd only clean a dish if I was about to use it myself.

links

  • I'd say this just about sums up the U.S. Covid situation right now.

  1. South Africa, apparently everyone's favorite model for Omicron projections, appears to have had mitigation policies in place before, during, and after their Omicron wave. This included a mask mandate, capacity limits in public spaces, social distancing rules, 11 PM closing hours for bars and restaurants, and a curfew from 12-4 AM . The mitigations may not have prevented the rise in cases, but it's certainly possible they helped break up the wave.

    It's becoming increasingly clear that the U.S. and many European countries are not going to see as short of a cycle as South Africa saw. South Africa's current public health regulations can be found here; they were recently updated after a sustained drop in cases.

    Similarly, South Korea brought back restrictions when Omicron reached there, and so far they seem to be keeping cases down. Things might spiral out of control but so far I'd say it's hard to look at their example and conclude that mitigation simply can't work. Meanwhile, according to a reader of The Guardian (which is consistent with other stories I've read), keeping Covid-19 under control has allowed South Korea to avoid major disruptions in other aspects of life. 

one more try

reflection

If time is a social construct, scheduling is a construct on top of a construct. It may be arbitrary that a week has seven days, or that a week is a unit of time at all, but it's even more arbitrary to set yourself a goal to do something weekly. Last year I wanted to get back into the habit of writing and I started the year off writing one blog post per week. Somehow I managed to keep up that pace for nine weeks. Then I didn't post again until October, when I wrote four posts in one month. And then didn't post again in 2021.

By the arbitrary metric of one post per week, last year was not a success: I barely wrote more than one post per month, if you average out the whole year. But thirteen posts is more than I wrote during the years 2014-2020 combined, so I'm going to declare my vague goal of "writing more in 2021" to have been achieved.

This year, I'm going to try the weekly posting schedule again and I'm going to try to learn from what I think was my biggest mistake last year: thinking of each potential post as a sort of essay. What I had wanted to do was form a writing habit, even if what I wrote was boring, trivial, or diaristic, of interest only to myself. And I certainly wrote a few posts along those lines, when I just wanted to get something written down for the week. But I also found that unsatisfying, not much better than not posting at all.

The kinds of things I enjoyed writing were much harder to put together on a weekly basis, such as this surprising history of a viral email from the mid-1990s or this look into an obsolete audio format. Both of those posts took some research; I started writing the first one without even knowing where it would lead. I ended up leaving a few more posts in draft state when I realized they were eating away more of my weekends than I was willing to give up to sitting in front of a computer.

So why am I trying again this year? I felt like my weekly posting schedule, when I was keeping up with it, actually was making it easier for me to do more writing in general. And I was happy to see that some people actually read the posts I wrote last October, which were mostly about digital archives, and even found them useful. So I'd like to do more of that this year, plus possibly write some things formal enough for publication. And the hardest thing for me to do when it comes to writing is to start.

My approach to weekly posts this year is going to follow a template. I'm not going to call it a newsletter but I will admit it has a newsletter-ish resemblance. Each post will have four prompts:

  • reflection
  • observation
  • memory
  • links

I have no particular goals for the length of each section; the point of the prompts is simply to not make myself think up a new topic and structure every week. And maybe when I've gotten into the routine, I'll start doing more of the other kinds of writing again too.

That concludes this week's reflection, which doubles as an introduction.

observation

I'll have to come back to this when I have more time, but I've been thinking a lot about the difference between approaches to leadership that seek to take responsibility and approaches that seek to avoid blame. A lot of pandemic policy decisions in the U.S., especially in the past month, seem to be following the latter approach.

memory

I read earlier this week that California's rainy season is off to the wettest start since 1983. I was pretty young then, but I remember the winter of 1983 as the one time in my life I got to sled off a rooftop all the way down to the ground. We were staying somewhere in the Sierra Nevada mountains, I think near Bear Valley, and the snow had practically buried one side of the lodge.

That winter was followed by nearly a decade of drought, though I don't remember any of those years being as extreme as the drought years we've had since 2014.

links

A couple of articles I read recently about contemporary records:

  • An in-depth look at the infrastructure of death certificates in the US and why it's so hard to account for the death toll of the Covid-19 pandemic (USA Today)

  • A look at efforts to modernize and digitize California's system of tracking water rights (Los Angeles Times)