Friday, June 11, 2021

Life in the Time of the Virus: Finale

Dawn in Pennsylvania, Edward Hopper, 1942
 This is the last entry of this type. Not because COVID is defeated, but because we are moving into a (yet another) new phase. A new normal, with all the abnormalities we have seen in the previous new normals.

I am vaccinated. The Lovely Bride is as well (no side effects from the second Moderna, other than she took the day off anyway). Our housemates are vaccinated, as are the other members of our Pandemic Pod. We have resumed in-person gatherings of the Pod in the backyard as the weather has improved. We even held an in-person gaming afternoon over Memorial Day weekend and a dinner at a local restaurant (patio, but still). We have made plans to visit our families in Pittsburgh. And to make a trip to Disneyworld in the fall. 

So to claim that we are in quarantine, fighting the virus with distance and time, is no longer applicable. We will still be cautious, wearing masks for safety and courtesy. But things are changing. Like cicadas, we are now emerging from our long sleeps into a changed world. And like cicadas, there will be screaming.

At the time of writing, there are about 500 deaths/day in the US. For comparison purposes we are looking at approx 100 car deaths and a similar number of firearm deaths/day (all numbers per the CDC). So, good news by comparison, but still dangerous. The overwhelming amount of new cases are among the unvaccinated, and now we are vaxing teenagers, which makes sense. This past week, the Washington State Government has inaugurated a Vaccine Lottery that you are entered into when you get your shots. Vaccination sites are overrun again with those who have put it off. Man, I hate it when marketing works.

We are still talking about coming back to the office in the fall, and decisions are being made to what degree. I've been thinking about what I enjoy about working at home, and the list has been extensive:

  • No commute.
  • More flexible time to work, and I get to work earlier.
  • No driving in the dark in the winter.
  • I am available to run errands, go shopping, and do heavy lifting for the Lovely Bride.
  • I am reading more.
  • I am exercising more.
  • I've been amazingly healthy. I've had a runny nose or a clogged head a few days, and I was exceedingly Meh after my shot, but I have not been taking sick days. 
  • The cats like me to be around the house.
  • Hummingbirds outside my window.
  • Able to enjoy the rhododendrons and wisteria this spring more.
  • Able to mow my lawn over lunch.
  • End of the day alcohol on my back deck in summer.
  • I can get comics at noon on Wednesday.
  • No surprise snowstorms in winter.
  • I've taken to singing show tunes while I work.
  • I've walked more, but have not had to use a cane for about a year.
  • I've lost a little weight over the past year. Yeah, be jealous. 

On the other hand coming back to office gives me .... um, hang on, give me a moment, I'll come up with something. Oh, here we go:

  • It's good to talk with others.
  • Closer to IT when your computer goes down.
  • Someone might bring their dogs in.
  • Odds of me pouring an entire bag of cat food out on the kitchen floor severely reduced.

So what this means in no more entries titled "Life in the Time of Virus" (I hope). Plague books go back to just being books. Life does not return to the way is was, but then again, it never does.

More later

Monday, June 07, 2021

Plague Books: Grey Britain

The Long Week-End: A Social History of Great Britain 1918-1939 -  Robert Graves and Alan Hodge, W. W. Norton & Company, 1940.

Provenance: Purchased on Amazon. Found out about it while searching the net for other things.

Review: I'm a fan of the Call of Cthulhu RPG, and as a result have done a lot of reading on the period Lovecraft set his tales, in the 20s and 30s. These are called the "Interwar Years" in some references since they are neatly book-ended by WWI on one side and WWII on the other. In America the period is broken up to the Roaring Twenties, and (a phrase that I've heard more often lately) The Dirty Thirties. In Britain, the authors separate them into the Careless Twenties and the Threadbare Thirties. I any event, I am always paying attentions to histories of the era, in particular ones written close the events they describe.

One of the best of these histories was Only Yesterday: An Informal History of the 1920's by Frederick Lewis Allen. Published in 1931, it was a great reference to the previous decade, published close enough to it to be spared a lot of hindsight, plus it reveals what people thought was important at the time. So I had high hopes, in the this book as it was sent to press just as the Germans were pushing the British army back to Dunkirk. And when this version of the book was re-released in 1963, the original lead printing plates had already been melted down for bullets, so they had to reprint it verbatim without the benefit of historical revision. Further, the book was co-written by Robert Graves, who entertained with I, Claudius and Claudius the God (two books I have perennially re-read). So I had high expectations.

So how is it? Not nearly as good as I had hoped. 

Part of it, admittedly, is the fact we're dealing with England (and chiefly London) for the period, so we are separated in space as well as time. There are be references to Chartists and King Zog and the T.U.C. that sent me scrambling to the Wikipedia for clarification, and assumptions that the primary audience (British) would know all this material already, particularly in that time frame. But part of my frustration is that the authors wander about within a single chapter, throwing up a lot of chaff but very little in the way of a through-line. In the course of a single chapter we move from architectural styles to department stores to women's fashion to motorcars to agricultural policy to vitamins. All interesting, but I had to stop a few places to figure out where I lost the lost the thread, and to speculate on where this way all going.

The authors also come off as scolds, particularly for populist movements and "lowbrow" entertainments. Short stories, dance crazes, women's dresses and in particular American jazz were looked down upon. More modern gender roles and alternate lifestyles were to be castigated. Graves and Hodge come off as judgmental against anything that post-dated the Great War. Looking through their wiki biographies, this is a bit of a surprise, as both authors lived lives that could only as being lived by sensitive poets in the 1920's. Here they come off as being so deeply in the closet that their mail is postmarked Narnia.

Particularly to be shellacked for their modern barbarities were ... the Americans. The United States had "enriched themselves at the expense of Europe" during the war, and was held in contempt for its toleration of gangsters and no-enforcement of prohibition. Everything bad came out of America - Jazz, crossword puzzles, advertising, media consolidation, and the Depression (well, they aren't totally wrong, but the US was hardly as the author quotes "A new home of tyranny.") The Germans, who at the time of publication were right across the channel (with guns), were given a lot more leeway - after all, the authors said, they did get the rough end of the stick at Versailles, and details how appeasement was hailed as a victory (until it wasn't). And besides, Edward VIII should be forgiven for meeting with Hitler - the abdicated King was living in Austria at the time, after all.

Politically, within these pages, the Left was usually wrong, and when it wasn't wrong, it was beastly unpleasant about being right. The Conservatives were more thoughtful, but relatively inert through this period. Everyone was more afraid of Communistic Workers' Rebellions than Nazi Authoritarianism. Any mention of British Fascism needs to be balanced by a dig or three at the Communists. The feeling you get towards the end is the authors would hope that this would all just blow over, and things would go back to way they were before the Depression. With less of the American dance styles, of course.

The book had a lot of good leads and concepts for running a campaign in London of the age. England did not have Prohibition, but it did have the Defense of the Realm Act (DORA), which gave the government wide sweeping powers to protect the Kingdom. While it finally wore out its welcome in 1921, and lot of its regulations, including licensing to control pubs and nightclubs, wore on throughout the period (some of these restrictions would continue up to the 1980s), and the government kept a fairly tight lead on the media.

The book gives you the feeling deja vu, as the authors whinge about things that are still whinged about today. On Media, the authors state at the outset: "The more newspapers people read, the shorter grows their historical memory ... And news heard on the radio is forgotten even sooner." Sounds a lot about complaints about people getting their information of Facebook. History never repeats, as Twain is quoted, but it often rhymes. 

Ultimately, The Long Week-End is that long weekend visiting your Tory great-uncle, who is always talking about how things were (better) before the war. It has a lot of good insights, partial histories, and catty commentary. But if you are looking for a good book on the 20s in America, check out Only Yesterday.

More later, 

Wednesday, June 02, 2021

Plague Books: Comfortable Robot

Fugitive Telemetry by Martha Wells,Tordotcom Books,2021

Provenance: Well of course I'm going to read the new Murderbot book. I've come onboard for this snappy series, and have stayed with it. Apparently, the book itself has branched, so now we have Murderbot novels, as well as shorter Murderbot novellas, which are the Diaries. In any event, when this one showed up I ordered it from Amazon in hardback along with two Shakespeare DVDs (King Lear with James Earl Jones and Much Ado About Nothing with Sam Waterston) to present to the Lovely Bride after tax season ended on 15 April. Then they pushed back the deadline a month (which, and this may surprise you, did not endear the IRS to all the tax preparers), so it was mid-May before I gave them to her. And she promptly devoured this one. Then I got to read it.

Review: Over in the Mystery genre they have what they call a "cozy". There are number of related definitions of it, but is usually involves an amateur detective, usually female, usually grudgingly accepted by the professional force, who accidentally discovers murder most foul, but in general has a low threat level and well-known surroundings and a supporting cast. Miss Marples and Jessica Fletcher are the best-known embodiments of the "cozy." Hardboiled writers like Chandler and Hammett HATED the cozy branch of their genre. But in the genre, a cozy is a comfortable read.

Fugitive Telemetry verges on the cozy. It stars our sarcastic friend, the Murderbot, and we are treated to their inner thoughts, which normally involving thinking about how stupid the humans are around them, and if they just spent five minutes not trying to get themselves killed, they could get back to watching pirated space adventure soap operas on their feeds. We are five books in (six counting a novel), and Murderbot (SecBot to everyone else, because, you know, identifying yourself as a Murderbot make fragile, squishy humans a little panicked), is no longer quite as bitingly sardonic, but comes off as cranky, verging on grumpy.

They also digress within their digression, and their personal asides have asides. Which as a writing style is rather contagious. Fortunately, I am resist to such influences (mostly).


Fugitive Telemetry is a mystery novel at its heart, in which the talented amateur gets involved, despite their better judgement. A body is found in a hallway of Preservation Station, the entry port for Murderbot's new home planet. Who it is, who dunnit, and how it got there are all unknown. Murderbot is asked by their friend/sponsor to check it out, because it might be connected with the evil corporation that wants their friend/sponsor and all of her poly/research family dead. 

And grumbling, Murderbot agrees, having to deal with the head of security, who in no way is going to let Murderbot get access to all their mainframes, which would make the job a lot easier. Murderbot brings a lot to the table both with their hacking abilities and their basic assumption that humans at not the brightest tools in orbit. Murderbot's status as an artificial construct makes certain avenues of investigation (like talking to other constructs) blazingly obvious and overlooked by the more organic investigators.

Mysteries in SF (and in Fantasy as well) are difficult in that the author and the reader do not share the same baseline knowledge, and you have to explain the world without tipping your hand that this is why you explaining it. Or why this particular clue is a clue and not part of the world as people know it. In the Mystery genre, people have a basic assumption of how things work - the role of the police, the nature of evidence, how cars and guns work, general history, that sort of thing. In SF, you have to do a lot of groundwork to deal with the fact you are on a space station spinning in a vacuum with a number of different classes of man-made sentients running around (robots, AIs ships, SecBots, and the like), and and how that ultimately affects the story.

And it all works. Murderbot gets stuff wrong, makes bad assumptions, and goes down some blind allies before understanding what is really going on. And it feels ... comfortable. There a no dark bits of their past revealed, no major conspiracies, no serious revelations for the character. It almost feels like the pilot for a series on Netflix, where the Outsider installs themselves as the specialist that Station Security brings in for big cases. So Murderbot doesn't have to deal with the paperwork, just with the cool stuff.

And it makes for a comfortable read. Not quite a cozy, but you can see it from there.

More later,