Saturday, January 15, 2022

Life In the Times of the Virus: Omicron Update

Drug Store - Edward Hopper 1927
So, are we back to normal? No, no we are not.

Am I tired of this? Yes, I am. You're tired too. We are all tired. And yet we row on.

When last we spoke on the matter, some six months ago, Delta was just blooming. Viruses mutate over time, and on occasion, one shows up that is more adapted to its environment and overtakes the previously popular model. And it was the case with Delta, and now Omicron (which sounds particularly threatening - wait until we get to Omega in the alphabet). Now, Omicron is a more successful virus because not only is it more virulent (spread faster and more easily) but it has the added feature of not killing its host immediately (Dead host = dead virus, so actually Delta is not an very effective virus from a continuing existence standpoint, but speaking as the potential host, it is nasty enough).

Anyway, the end result is after declining numbers, we are seeing more cases and hospitalizations, and the resources are strained right now. In Washington State, we have seen fewer deaths over time, particularly among the vaccinated, but still have hit 1 million cases and 10,000 overall deaths (WA's population is 7.6 million). And people are saying it is going to get worse in the next couple weeks.

And why? Well, part of it is because Omicron is better adapted to its environment. But part of it is because we've gotten tired of it. We want to go out. We want to go back to work. We want the kids back in school. We want to put this whole thing behind us. We want to miss it, but we can't miss it if it doesn't go away. 

And yeah, most of the current casualties are from people who decided that the vaccinations are not for them. There is an entire sub-Reddit dedicated to people who have publicly come out against vaccinations, then catch the coronavirus and die. And that makes me more sad than angry. Yeah, it is the perfect sort of inverse Boy Cries Wolf tale, but I am still saddened by people who are deciding to take the risk that somehow they won't be victims, and then lose. Despite this, I don't think they should be turned away at the hospital, or charged more, or otherwise punished for decisions that overclog the hospitals. I'm just sad.

But there are breakthrough infections, and those who have gotten vacced and boostered are catching the coronacrud as well. It is not nearly as fatal, but still is no walk in the park. The vaccinations can reduce the severity of the disease, but not limit exposure to it. Sort of like seat belts - they can increase survivability in a crash, but not take that drunk driver running the redl ight off the road.

Here on Grubbstreet we got boostered, and the results were a lot more severe than last time. Last time was no biggie, but this round of boosters left both the Lovely Bride and I wiped out of the day. Which makes a little sense, since our immune systems were prepared for something coming in, and then responded heavily. So it was an expected day off.

Mask discipline has changed. Over time, I've lost the hand-made masks I started with, and the logo-ed masks from my company (discarded/lost masks have replaced cigarette butts as the urban refuse of choice). I've switched almost entirely to the black KN95s that are this year's fashion statement. And we are fortunate, because our neighborhood is pretty solid as well - I go to the grocery store and the overwhelming majority are masked, and the overwhelming majority of those are wearing them correctly. Good going, team.

No one wants to shut everything down, but we may not get a choice. Schools are closing for lack of teachers. Alaska is losing 10% of its flights because it doesn't have the manpower. We've called out the National Guard to support the hospitals. I hate the idea of returning to quarantine and to vaccine mandates, but I am just so tired of it all. And yeah, you probably are too.

And the most frustrating thing about it is that we have shifted in an attitude of "Let's do everything to stop the spread!" to one of "Yeah, you're probably going to get it, but it (hopefully) won't be too lethal". So this contributes to the feeling of frustration and exhaustion.

And here's a thing. In the before times, I remember how we talked about the Spanish Flu of a century ago. Not Spanish in origin, but that's where it first identified (sort of like people getting made at South Africa for announcing Omicron). There were a bunch of hygiene attempts and resistors and overburdened hospitals, and yeah, it sounds AWFULLY similar to the present. But then there was the Great Forgetting, as the news of the Influenza got swallowed by the Roaring Twenties and Prohibition and labor disruptions and rising Fascism and ...

Hey, the future doesn't repeat, but sometimes it rhymes. And the rhymes are pretty tight these days.

More later.

Tuesday, January 11, 2022

Book: A Sudden Case of Death

The Case of the Canterfell Codicil: The First Anty Boisjoly Mystery, by P.J.Fitzsimmons, 2020.

Provenance: A Christmas present I purchased, then entrusted to the Lovely Bride to deliver to me on the day itself (I in turn order clothes that she has specifically noted in catalogs, wrap them and return them to her - it is a system that works). The book was endlessly flogged on Facebook to me, as the Mighty Algorithm had determined my interest in mysteries of the interwar years (of course, if you read this blog, you might determine that as well), and I was curious.

And the book,  apparently self-published, cuts free of the stuff and nonsense of modern publishing process, allowing the tiller of the literary fields to deal direct with the consumer with a severe reduction of middlemen and gatekeepers. A farmer's market for literature! Huzzah the revolution!

The Review: And how was it? Not too bad, but not as strong as it was hyped. The book was oversold, promising a collision of Wodehouse, Sayers, and Christie. A high bar to be sure. The frothiness of Bertie and Jeeves, the eloquence of Peter Wimsey, and the clockwork plotting of a Miss Marples cozy, all compressed within its covers. Demanding such comparisons, however, reminds the reader the the originals, written in the era itself, are well-remembered classics for a reason. My expectations were high, and while the end result was a romp, it does not measure up, and left me a bit disappointed.

Anthony "Anty" Boisjoly (Boo-Juhlay) is residing at his club when a telegram from his old college pal summons him to Canterfell Hall, where the much-disliked Uncle Sebastian has just taken a header out of an upper-story window.  Anty arrives at  Canterfell to find a cross between Blandings Castle and a Poirot-inspired railway trip. Mysteries abound, small and large, starting with a locked room mystery and spiraling out from there.

Anty as a character falls between two chairs. He is neither the cloth-headed Bertie Wooster nor the supreme intellect Lord Peter, but exemplifies traits of both, depending on the situation. So it is hard to get a handle on him as he sometimes lumbers through some scenes, then has flashes of brilliance and glory. If you're going to ape Wodehouse (*cough* The Wyvernspur *cough*), you have to catch his ear for banter, and some of the chat falls more into the Realm of Monty Python and Blackadder than into the era itself.

Also, in presenting Wodehousian descriptions, there is a much of muchness, which makes you appreciate Plum's tact and reserve (there's a line I never expected to write). Every briar patch and weir, every doorknob and newel post, gets an achingly florid string of similes and comparisons. Sort of like being trapped in an esoteric comedy routine from the 80s.  Also, there seems to be a decided lack of synonyms for the word "thatch".  In a similar fashion the mysteries sort of pile up on each other, as EVERYONE has a secret or ten. The locked-room death of Uncle Sebastian, the nature and location of the titular codicil, the disappearing painting, the horrible dinner and excellent breakfast, they just tend to pile up over time. But yes, they all get answered, to some degree, by the end. 

Does Fitzsimmons play fair with the reader? Mostly. Some of the brain blasts that Anty gets are based on previous information that he, the character, does not share with us, the reader, until the time for the reveal (such as how an off-handed complaint from an Police Inspector tells him that a member of Parliament is lurking about). And the cause of the first death is less of a well-executed plan and more of a random roll of the dice. Yet it barrels along merrily to its resolution.

As a self-published work, the book's production values are high. The cover has that slightly tacky plasticized cover which continues to disappoint me, but I am afraid that, publishing-wise, that ship has sailed. The cover is a stylized art deco with a metro-retro font (also in the chapter headings). It coulda stood a map, to be honest, to position various rooms in the manor correctly (which Nine Tailors did), but that is a minor point.

So will it leave the major publishers quaking in their boots? Not really, but that's OK. It is a pleasant enough volume, and I would recommend it above the recent Westlake. If you approach it as a lark and paean to the previous masters, it is fine. But I would be very wary about the ad copy in the future.

More later,

Monday, January 03, 2022

Book: You Say You Want A Revelation?

Perhaps the Stars by Ada Palmer, Tor Books, 2021

Provenance: Purchased from Amazon.Com. The first three volumes were available as trade paperbacks, but I could only find the American edition in hardback. Receiving it, I can see why - it is a massive tome, longer than its predecessors.

The Review: This is the final book in Palmer's Terra Ignota series. Books one and two are reviewed here. Book three is here. Go read those reviews, because it gives the best summary I can come up with about how we got to a future world of rational actors who are going to kill each other over valid reasons. As noted previous, it is impossible to give a detailed review without spoilers, so consider yourself warned. 

So, here's where we are. The world's population is divided into non-national Hives, which are now pitted against each other. The cassus belli is the arrival of a god. Not the god of this universe, but a god from somewhere else, who seeks to flush out the god of our reality by remaking the world. Some of the Hives support this - they are the Remakers. Some do not. They are the Hiveguard. Now, not all the Remakers are fighting for a complete remaking, and not all Hiveguard are united either. And there are factions within each Hive that disagree with what their parent Hive is doing. AND there are smaller groups which are neutral, but not really neutral, as it is revealed. AND it turns out there is another subtextural war going on between those who want to go see Mankind spread throughout the solar system and those who want to psychohistory our way to a better existence on earth.

So, yeah, it is confusing. And as the war progresses just gets moreso. The allies from the previous chapter are revealed to be enemies, the enemies of the next chapter turn out to be allies, apparent victories are really defeats, and defeats turn out to be victories as far as ultimate goals are concerned.This is not "You can't tell the players without a scorecard" in that you are provided with a scorecard at the start of the book and by the time you're halfway through, it is untrue. That chapter there? Never really happened. Or maybe it did. Plus, the fact that everyone calls everyone else by different names deepens the confusion.

Which is OK, in that book moves through these twists and turns with the expertise of Odysseus moving between whirlpool and monster. Our unreliable narrators become even more unreliable. We have two - Mycroft and the 9th Anonymous. Well, kinda. Like everything else in this future, it's complicated. Lemme leave it at that. It is one of those books that have to be paid attention to, to be conquered, to be scaled, to pull away its understanding. 

Everyone here is a hero. Everyone is a villain. Everyone does bad things for supposedly good purposes. Each of the Hives is not a monolith, but riven with its own subfactions and rebellions. There is war on multiple levels, by multiple prime actors, and individuals change sides swiftly. Things that are presented as very good things when they occur are later reveled to be very bad things. 

This book challenged me. I am no student of philosophy, so if you tell me that a particular philosophy is X or Y, I will believe you. I've got the wiki-version of most philosophers, boiled down to a few choice points. But I can tell you that while the earlier books belonged to Voltaire and Hobbes, this one belongs, blatantly, to Homer, as Mycroft identifies all manner of roles from the Iliad to the various players. 

Once upon a time we referred to Dune and Lord of the Rings as being "unfilmable" - their scope and depth was too much for the screen. Now, portioned out over several movies and backed up with supercomputer animations, they have been filmed. Ignota has that challenge now, in part because of its nongendered/gendered nature of all the characters. Characters have swapped gender identifications throughout the story, from a non-gendered they to either he or she, depending on who is talking and what they are talking about.

One thing that is interesting is that over the course of the publication, out language has moved to the point that singular They is no longer as weird as it  once was. Palmer points out that this is flaw in her future, by assuming that the eradication of noticed gender differences stymies gender equality (sort of like, since we now use the term Ms, equality has been achieved).

In one of the earlier reviews, I pointed out how a lot of the presented Utopia of the book is progressive, liberal, and ultimately wrong. Now I feel there is a stronger religious element to the book as well lurking not-too deeply under the surface. JEDD, the Alien God, is taken at face value as a god without too much demand of credentials. Bridger, the young mutant (?) with the power to create anything, seems very much the much the miracle worker, who ultimately transforms himself to fit a more savage world. And Mycroft's super-ability, reworked by Bridger, involved imbuing and transforming others. So I wonder if JEDD, Bridger, and Mycroft can be interpreted as the Trinity - Father, Son, and Holy Ghost. 

This is a tough series to scan properly, and Palmer's style harkens back to Gene Wolfe's ability to be completely clear and opaque at the same time, along with Herbert's tendency to delve deep into political discourse. (Indeed, the Alien God JEDD in many ways is an echo of the Kwisatz Haderach). It is a rewarding book, in that it encourages me to think more about what has happened, and even now, two weeks after finishing it, I am still considering what lessons it holds.

More later, 

Friday, December 31, 2021

Snowed In

As you may have heard, we've had a a bit of snow up here in the Pacific Northwest. It is not unusual to have snow once or twice a year, and by snow I mean snow-level-at-sea-level, lasts-more-than-a-day type of snow. We're used to snow with visiting rights - if we want snow, we can just go up to the passes, or to watch it at a respectful distance from the foothills. Rarely does it come to visit, squatting down in your driveway, and showing no intention of moving on.
After the first wave

This is one of those times. The there was a light set of flurries just before Christmas, and the main onslaught began that night. About 6 inches up here on Grubb Street, judging from the pile-up on the deck railings. Then a few days of flurries as the high
dropped into the 20s, then another wave of about 3 inches more. Currently it is hovering just around freezing, with most of the blacktops clear from melting.

So, enough to shut everything down - this level of snow is so rare that the local authorities are limited in response. King County has all of 14 plows. Kent itself has 8 de-icer or sander trucks that have snow blades on them. Kent does have a priority list of streets to plow. Odds are that your street is not on that list. Businesses are either shut down, running with reduced staffs, or closing early before the roads freeze. I haven't had a newspaper delivered to the house for a week, though the Post Office, Amazon delivery guys, and milk deliveries have been uninterrupted (thought one of them has lost his gloves in our driveway - if you're missing brown fur-lined gloves, they are on the bench out front).

Snow Halfling
Still, this is an opportune time, and not just because so many folk are still working from home. Hitting the Christmas break puts a lot of kids at home from school. Our department had already decided to take off between Christmas and New Year's. We managed in the break between storms to get out to the grocery store, and while the deli counter was shutting down (not enough workers that day) and the bread aisle was severely depleted, there were neither major shortages or panic in the aisles.

Swedish Snow Lantern
And the housemates have been playing in the snow, making both a snowman and a set of Swedish snow lanterns. The Lovely Bride and I have been keeping to the warmth of the house, and I have enough new books to tide me over.

We still have power and the Internet, so that puts us ahead of game, as opposed to several years back, when the power went out and we relied on the fireplace and wind-up emergency radio. So we are fortunate. Rumors (meaning the weather report) say that it should warm up in the next few days, then we get hit with another round of snow. Nothing is overheated, nothing is on fire, so we are doing well. And we at Grubb Street hope you're doing well, too, and have a safe and sane New Years.

More later.

Monday, December 27, 2021

Ten Movies

 So, talking about other things, I considered what my favorite ten movies were. And I had to think about I would mean as "favorite". There are movies that a really like, and would recommend to others, but probably not watch again. They were a great experience - blockbusters, indie films, but they were one-and-done for me.

And there are "films" where you want to take apart how the plot is unspooled, how the shots were taken, how they got that take, or sought out that emotion. Films can be analyzed. Movies are just embraced.

And then there are the films that I will watch. Every time. Channel hopping or random streaming, coming in on the middle of them, and I will hang on until the end credits. I know the lines. I know how they end. I know the stories behind them. But these are movies that I will WATCH again and again. This is what I'm talking about.

Not all of these are great movies. Not all of them have "worn" well since their release. Some of them are a bit cringe. Many of them lack deeper meaning. A lot of them bunch up in my teen aged years. Some are even in Black and White. But I will watch them. Every. Damn. Time.

Here are ten movies:

The Thin Man (1934)

The Maltese Falcon (1941)

The Longest Day (1962)

It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World (1963)

The Great Race (1965)

The War Wagon (1968)

Ice Station Zebra (1968)

2001: A Space Odyssey (1968)

Star Wars (1977)

Big Trouble in Little China (1986)

So what are YOUR Ten?

More later,

Thursday, December 23, 2021

Season's Greetings

 Wishing you a safe, sane, and secure Holiday Season.

Art by Eyvind Earle

More later, 

Monday, December 20, 2021

Seattle Weather

When we moved to Seattle twenty-some years ago, I started encountering weather features and climate conditions that I hadn't encountered before, or had few references to. Here's a handy list for new arrivals:

Weather Forecast: Fiction. 

5-Day Forecast: Science Fiction. 

Mountain Day: We are surrounded by mountains - Cascades to the east, the Olympic range to the west. But when we say "The Mountain is Out" (and we do), we are talking about Mount Rainier (rah-NEER), which looms to the south like something out of Greek Myth.If we can see it from base to tip, we call it the "Full Mountain".  People are usually happy when we can see the Mountain, despite the fact that Rainier is an ACTIVE VOLCANO (not erupting, but not quite dead, either).

Sunbreaks: The opposite of Partly Cloudy, but rarer out here. It a term used from the Fall to Spring, and usually means "You might see some sun today." Most of the summer is pristine, blue, and cloudless. That's when your relatives from back East visit and tell you how nice it must be to live out here. You want people to stop moving to Seattle? Invite them out in the dead of winter.

June-uary: When we say "summer" in Seattle, we don't count the first two weeks in June. Sure, May is nice, with soft rain in the evenings and fogs in the morning, but a grey overcast dominates the landscape in early June, so much so that it gets its own month. Also called June Gloom.

Atmospheric River: A recent term, it reflects the fact that Washington State doesn't really have any large agricultural states to the west of it we can call up and ask for steady weather forecasts.What we often see on the doppler radar is the thick stream of heavy red bearing down on us. Makes the weathermen on the evening news excited.

Pineapple Express: When the atmospheric river commutes from Hawaii. Really makes the weathermen excited.

Convergence Zone: I mentioned the Olympics, they are a massive upthrust of mountain due west of us. They tend to stand in the way of the atmospheric rivers that buffet the coast. Of course, the weather tends to go AROUND this big chunk of mountains, so Seattle is often at the point where the weather coming around the northern side hits the weather coming around from the south. When they hit, we get interesting, local effects. So Kirkland can get heavy rain and hail while Kent gets nothing.

Rain Shadow: The flip side of the convergence zone. Because the mountains are in the way, some places get untouched by rain while it rains heavily to both the north and south. The Olympics become Seattle's umbrella, and like an umbrella, a treacherous wind can turn it inside out.

Microclimates: As a result of the differences in altitude, plus the rain shadow and convergence zone, microclimates mean that you can have radically different weather in relative close proximity. While in certain parts of the country, the saying is" If you don't like the weather, wait fifteen minutes" in Seattle it is "If you don't like the weather, drive fifteen miles."

Misting: What Seattlites call it when it really ISN'T raining. You don't need a slicker. You don't need an umbrella (a sign of being a tourist). It's just misting. Works up to the point when you start seeing hail.

Thunder:  A rarity. It happens maybe once a month, consists of one long, rolling peel. and people will talk about it at the office the next day. It is so cute to those who come out from the Midwest. 

Snowed In: More than a quarter inch on the roads. Everyone forgets how to drive. Archaic term now that everyone is working from home.

Snow Level: Snow is measured by altitude here, and as winter proceeds the snow level descends down from the mountains to the sea. So we really pay attention to where the snow level currently is. "Lowland Snow" sets off alarm bells and closes schools. Grubb Street is located at the 500 foot mark, just in case you were wondering. 

Seattle Freeze: Has nothing to do with the weather, but is as close as we get to feeling chilly. 

Black Ice: Not a uniquely Seattle phenomenon, its the scarier way of saying "It's a little slick out there".

Closing the Passes: The main east/west highways out of/into Seattle go over the Cascade Mountains, and as winter arrives, travel over them become perilous and often avalanche-y, until finally the passes are closed, sealing us off from the rest of the northern US. We're pretty happy with that.

Polar Vortex: Not so much a Seattle thing, this is a weather effect that has been picked up on the national reports. It is bitter cold with heavy snows and wind - what Wisconsin used to call "A pretty average winter".  The weakening of the Jet Stream around the Arctic Circle results is sudden bulges of cold air descending on the heart of of the country, giving Climate Skeptics the chance to complain "Where's your Global Warming, now?"

Pyroclastic Flow: We have an active volcano nearby (see Mountain Day, above). Someday, it will go off, and send a cascade of molten rock, hot mud, and melted snow down the surrounding valleys, including the Green River valley, where Renton, Kent, and Auburn lay. This is a reason that Grubb Street is up on a hill. Have a pleasant day. 

Subduction Zone: The Big One - that massive earthquake that will cause the West Coast to fall into the sea, belongs to us, Oregon and California, so it not unique to Seattle. However, we DO talk about the tectonic plates far out to sea that have the potential to slip and create a Tidal Wave, which, given the narrowing of the Straits leading to Puget Sound, will channel it like a shotgun blast at the city.

Tsunami Route: You can see signs occasionally. I'm not sure they're being kept in order. They are usually pointing towards higher ground (well, yeah), in case the subduction zone triggers a tidal wave that will swamp the low-level areas of the Sound.

Solstice: Solstice is an important holiday in Seattle. We are the furthest north major metropolitan center in the continental US. We are further north than most of the population of Canada. So this means that our day/night cycle takes wide swings back and forth during the year. In the summer months, we are used to the sun setting in the Northeast, and twilight showing up around 10 PM. In the winter months, we are looking commuting in the darkness both to and from work. Both are a bit wearing on the senses, and the Solstice is the moment when the pendulum reaches its furthest point, and starts slipping back.

Happy Solstice. More later.