Sigh. This was a long week. It felt like everyone’s collective bubble burst about returning to “normalcy”1 anytime this Summer. My initial estimate of a ~10 week lockdown now seems misguidedly optimistic. The best piece I read this week about this was Matt Webb’s There is no After:
There is no After. Yes there will be some loosening of restrictions. We’ll be able to return to school and work, at least for a bit until there’s a risk of a second peak and then the lockdown will tighten again for a while.
National borders will close periodically, like the Thames Barrier – you’ll never go on holiday or travel for work without thinking of the 1% chance that you’ll be stranded for the duration. It may never come, and let’s hope it doesn’t, but we’ll always be watching out for that second peak, it will always be a few months in the future, shaping our present.
Matt Webb’s article frequently quotes an article written by Kim Stanley Robinson, which is also very much worth reading: The Coronavirus Is Rewriting Our Imaginations.
Possibly, in a few months, we’ll return to some version of the old normal. But this spring won’t be forgotten. When later shocks strike global civilization, we’ll remember how we behaved this time, and how it worked. It’s not that the coronavirus is a dress rehearsal—it’s too deadly for that. But it is the first of many calamities that will likely unfold throughout this century. Now, when they come, we’ll be familiar with how they feel.
I’m now resigned to the fact that we’ll probably be in some form of lockdown until at least the Fall. And the Fall will, quite probably, bring another spike in cases, dragging lockdowns into 2021. There’s not much to be done other than staying home, supporting friends and family from a distance, and making changes to one’s environment to adjust to what will likely be a very, very long lockdown.
And yet, life goes on. Seattle’s experiencing an early Summer; the flowers are blooming, the birds are out, and the daylight stretches well past 8pm.
Followup: Note Taking Systems
Last week I mentioned that I was looking for a note-taking system. I had a couple people reach out a suggest emacs' org-mode. I’d seen org-mode before, but hadn’t ever tried it. In the project’s own words:
Org mode is for keeping notes, maintaining TODO lists, planning projects, and authoring documents with a fast and effective plain-text system.
Org-mode seems to be pretty close to what I want: it’s a plain-text system with support for hierarchical information entry, metadata, and basic formatting. The biggest hangup I have with org-mode is that I’m not an emacs user. I also was suggested Doom Emacs, which has vim keybindings. I tried Doom Emacs + org-mode for an afternoon, and wow is that a powerful tool. Someone also wrote a Roam replica in emacs called org-roam.
I’ve always like the idea of fully committing to the vim/emacs lifestyle. In practice, I’ve generally been more comfortable with mouse-friendly editors like Sublime and VSCode. Doom Emacs is intriguing though, I hadn’t realized how sophisticated the Emacs ecosystem has become – it feels ahead of vim in the amount of esoterica it supports. The fuzzy file picker is very usable, as is the fuzzy command palette. I’m not super thrilled about learning Emacs Lisp (though, I imagine that you can do a lot without learning it), but, to that end, it’s good that I’ve been learning Clojure recently.
For a taste of org-mode, check out this video.
This week I read through Midnight in Chernobyl, which is a historical account of the Chernobyl nuclear disaster. It’s a great book, and I couldn’t help but draw comparisons between the bungled response to Chernobyl and our approach to Coronavirus. After the Chernobyl nuclear plant exploded, all levels of the Soviet government downplayed the severity of the crisis until it became so damaging that they had to deploy expensive, ineffective, scattershot fixes to prevent a global catastrophe. Sound familiar?
Last year, I watched HBO’s Chernobyl miniseries, which was enthralling. That show deserves praise for how much detail it managed to squeeze in to its 5 episode run. Accordingly, Midnight in Chernobyl didn’t really tell me much I didn’t already know from the HBO series. Of the subjects covered in the book but now the show, I enjoyed the accounts of political infighting among government ministries, notably within the “Ministry of Medium Machine Building”. What does a “Ministry of Medium Machine Building” do? Well, according to Wikipedia, it “supervised the Soviet nuclear industry, including production of nuclear warheads”, of course! The USSR did have a way with names. I also learned that the “Ministry of General Machine Building” was the ministry that oversaw the Soviet space exploration program. I guess that’s a reminder that Orwellian fiction had a basis in historical fact.
Back on the bread-making bandwagon! I resuscitated my sourdough starter that had been chilling in the fridge for the past few weeks. It came back to life, as strong as it was pre-hibernation. I used some of its feeding discard in my favorite banana bread recipe, which turned out pretty good:
I make my banana bread using a since-paywalled America’s Test Kitchen recipe. – The secret is to microwave the bananas, drain the banana liquid, and reduce the liquid in a saucepan until you make a browned banana syrup.2 Adding the sourdough starter added a bit of extra funkiness. Tasty!
I also made my first sourdough loaf in a dutch oven. I was happy with the crust I got. The dough didn’t rise as much as I’d wanted though, so the texture is a bit less airy than I’d hoped. However, I used a temperature probe to measure the final baking temp of the loaf, so it didn’t turn out doughy.
- Music for Empty Malls - I was promised that malls would be playing 1940’s Swing after the apocalypse happened! Seriously though, empty malls are eerie – and somehow music wafting though empty malls makes them even eerier.
- Shaving and being human - On the importance of maintaining personal care routines during crises.
- Small, sharp tools can cut you - On the limits of the UNIX command-line philosophy.
Yes, I too hate the word “normalcy”. COVID-19 has created a list of tired phrases (“reopen the economy”, “flatten the curve”, etc.) that I’ll be happy to flush from my vocabulary. ↩︎
If I have time, I also use browned butter. That doesn’t make as much of a difference as the reduced banana liquid, but it does impart a bit of nutty smokiness. ↩︎