Social Distancing Day 10

Hello dear readers, we are now into the double digits of social distancing days, and at the point where I have to look up yesterday’s entry to figure out which day we’re on. A number of states have gone from social distancing to “shelter in place”, meaning that residents are not to leave their houses except for groceries (and other essentials) and medical necessities (and maybe short walks). Massachusetts will probably do the same within a few days. My roommates and I have been doing that voluntarily for this week, so it won’t be a big change for us, except our walks might become even more infrequent. But as I noted in yesterday’s post, though these measures are inconvenient and annoying, they are a sign that people are taking the threat seriously and reacting appropriately. Better late than never.

Some news from around the Coronavirus world: there seems to now be a test to detect antibodies to the coronavirus, which means that it would be possible to detect not only those who currently have it, but those who had it and have recovered. This means that even if you never had symptoms, you can find out if you had it. Having antibodies to the virus will render you immune to it, but it’s unknown for how long. There’s some evidence to believe that immunity will last for about a year. Here’s a detailed thread with lots of references and information on this aspect of things. And here’s an interesting video on why the hand washing instructions you may have seen are what they are (and different from how you’re used to washing your hands). Yesterday, I pointed to the Massachusetts site for tracking COVID-19 test, today I found The Atlantic’s tracker, which collects statistics across states. Finally, you may have seen some photos of nature “recovering” as a result of people staying at home. Unfortunately, they are probably not accurate.

On a different note, a few days ago I said that the plural of anecdote is not data. It turns out that I was wrong about that.

In other news, I was in two virtual town halls today, one for Harvard’s School of Engineering and Applied Sciences and one for the Computer Science department. Most of the questions and concerns were related to continuing education for our students, especially related to grading and evaluation. But there was also discussion of how we are continuing to support custodial and maintenance staff, which I found heartening. This is an unprecedented and trying time for us all, but it’s good to have some feeling of being part of a community that is trying to do right by its members.

I’m in the process of wrapping up reviews for PLDI, and hoping get back to doing research full time next week. I’ve made a certain amount of peace with our current situation, at least for now. There’s not much for me to do at the moment besides going about life as best as I can. I have some remote social activities planned over the next few days which I’m looking forward to. I’m allowing myself to feel excited about Apple’s new MacBook Airs. I’m focusing on staying sane, staying safe, doing the best with the time I have, while also keeping in mind what Heather Havrilesky said: We’re living through an unprecedented moment in global history. Give that the weight it deserves.

Social Distancing Day 9

First, a big thank you to everyone who has told me that it’s been helpful for you to read these days. It means a lot to me, and motivates me to keep on writing. Secondly, apologies for missing yesterday. I seem to have underestimated the psychological toll of this whole situation. Even though I am safe and sound (and so is pretty much everyone I know), I am worried a lot and often, both by the pandemic itself, and increasingly about the economic chaos it’s causing, at least here in the US. So even though I had a pretty good day yesterday (some remote socializing, some work progress, watching an episode of The Witcher), I was completely exhausted by the end of it. Staying off social media helps, but often that’s easier said than done.

Anyway, I am less exhausted today, and getting to writing this before I get any more tired. The roommates made an extended shopping trip today. Most of the stores are out of things like wipes, hand sanitizer, and toilet paper. Thankfully we have enough of those in stock to last a couple weeks. We managed to pick up a substantial amount of food, both fresh and shelf-stable, as well as things like dishwasher pods, soap and shampoo. Some of the stores are rationing things like eggs and meat, and limiting the number of people who can be in at once. While these measures are inconvenient, the fact that they are being enacted is actually a good thing. It means that there will be more for everyone rather than allowing a few people to hoard everything. And the supply chain doesn’t have to play catch-up for several weeks.

The latest news on Coronovirus suggests that the virus can survive for a couple days on plastic and cardboard, so we are letting some of our new supplies sit in a corner for a few days before putting them away. Curiously, the virus only seems to survive for a couple hours on copper, and some maker of copper pens and pencils are now offering discounts on their copper products. We live in interesting times.

I’ve been keeping abreast of virus-related happenings in Massachusetts. The Commonwealth’s Department of Public Health has a concise, but informative site keeping track of Coronavirus numbers and quarantines, including a summary number of tests and confirmed cases. There is also a Twitter account for combined COVID-19 test capacity in the US. The state’s testing lab is doing about 400 tests a day, but the Broad Institute is gearing up to run a 1000 tests a day starting next week, and Quest Diagnostics in Marlborough is hoping to get up to 3000 a day.  That’ll be a testing capacity of about 4000 per day for a state of 6 million. For scale, South Korea, with a population of about 52 million was doing about 12,000 tests a day. So not bad, Massachusetts, not bad at all. It would have helped to have that capacity a week ago, but there seems to be still time for effective curve-flattening. Unfortunately I am hearing that hospitals are already encountering shortages of masks and other essentials, so it’s definitely not all on the upswing. And I’m not even trying to do similar calculations for the rest of the country.

All told, today was better than yesterday, and hopefully tomorrow will be better still. I am still pursuing some sense of normalcy, and having mixed experiences. But each day is an opportunity to try again. Until then, stay safe, stay sane, and take care of each other.

Social Distancing Day 7

I’m starting to get into something of a routine. I’m still waking up later than I would like, but early enough that I can spend the morning meditating, exercising, and generally getting ready for the rest of the day. Afternoons are for working, evenings are for dinner and hanging out with the roommates, or video conferencing friends. I usually spend another hour or so working or writing these posts before calling it a night.

The last couple of days I’ve been working on reviews. I’m on the Artifact Evaluation Committee for the PLDI 2020 conference, and reviews are due at the end of the week. That means that I get to look at a number of pieces of research software, and verify that the software operates as described in the corresponding research paper. It’s been good to have something concrete and relatively well-defined to focus on. Otherwise, it’s far too easy to stay glued to Twitter all day.

Today is St. Patrick’s Day, and the roommates’ put together some thematically appropriate fare for dinner: corned beef, cabbage, green beans, and bread, paired with some Guinness. Things can seem pretty bad at the moment, and in a lot of ways they are, but it’s important to celebrate when possible.


Social Distancing Day 6

Today has been pretty quiet. Mostly just working from home. Went to bed late last night, and woke up at a reasonable time, so I was a little exhausted by late afternoon. I made the most of my work-from-home situation by taking a long nap. It was wonderful, but hopefully won’t interfere with going to bed early tonight.

Like many of you, I have been keeping an eye on scientific news and results surrounding the Coronavirus. So what follows are some things I’ve learned recently and might be of interest to you. Please note that for all of these, I am not a doctor, and this does not constitute medical advice. I have linked references wherever I could.

You’ve probably heard the advice to wash your hands for 20 seconds, with soap and hot water. According to the CDC, the temperature of the water does not matter as much as does using soap. The soap dissolves the virus’ lipid bilayer, causing it to fall apart. Soaps with “anti-bacterial” ingredients do not seem to add any benefit.

Something you may not have heard is that one of the commonalities among young people with COVID-19 who need to enter the hospital is that they were taking NSAIDs (like Advil, Motrin, Aleve and Aspirin). It seems like they might actually make it easier for the virus to enter your cells, and also does a number on your kidneys.

In addition to current research, I’ve also been looking at some articles that talk about the 1918 Spanish Flu, and other viral infections. For starters, there’s an article on the relationship between sleep and susceptibility to the common cold. From the response to Spanish Flu (in Boston in particular) we learn that open air and sunlight seems to have a significant positive effect on patient mortality. This is likely related to vitamin D, which our bodies produce with sunlight exposure.

The plural of anecdote is not data, but when I moved to Boston, I got mildly sick almost every other week my first winter. My nutritionist encouraged me to take regular vitamin D supplements, and I’ve barely been sick since then. Alas, sunlight is not always easy to come by in this part of the world.

In line with all of that, I made sure to open my windows, and spend a couple hours sitting in the sun today. I’m very grateful to have large windows with a view in my bedroom, and a balcony that gets a lot of sun in the afternoon.

Some breaking research out of Iceland seems to reinforce what we’ve learned: most people are asymptomatic, or have mild symptoms, but that those without symptoms are certainly spreading it. That means that it’s not sufficient to stay home until you get sick. Unless you live in a country with sufficient testing capacity, you need to stay home right now. And while you’re doing that, please try to stay safe, stay sane and take care of each other.

Social Distancing Day 5

As I write this, cities and states across America are implementing more stringent social distancing measures, because some people just won’t listen. Here in Massachusetts, Gov. Charlie Baker imposed a sweeping shutdown: restricting restaurants to takeout and delivery only, and banning gatherings of more than 25 people (except for grocery stores and pharmacies). That means you will probably have to cancel your St. Patrick’s Day plans (as you should have already). So most of us are pretty much stuck at home now.

But life goes on, for sanity’s sake at least. Over the last few days I’ve been coming to realize that “social distancing”, because I have been quite social, just not in person. We talked with two friends over video yesterday, and I talked on the phone with two more today. My roommates have been playing World of Warcraft with some of their friends. I’ve been playing Age of Empires 2 (if you’d like to play, let me know).

For the past year or so, I’ve been attending the Millennial Zen group at the Cambridge Zen Center on Sundays. Today we had our meeting online. It’s not the same, certainly, but it’s not nothing. I think it’s important to not think of these sorts of meetings as lesser versions of physical socializing, but really just as something different (in the same way that vegan ice cream is a perfectly good dessert, as long as you’re not comparing it to dairy ice cream).

As someone on Twitter mentioned, it might be better to think of these measures as physical distancing, not social distancing. We can be as social as we like, just not in person. Personally, I find that heartening.

Tomorrow is Monday, and I would normally be going in to campus for a full day’s work. I will not be going in to work, but I will be working. I managed to do a good job of staying off social media today and avoiding too much doom and gloom. I’m hoping to do the same tomorrow, and of course y’all will be along for the ride. I’m also going to try to write these posts a little earlier each day so that those of you in the US can read them before going to bed.

Till tomorrow, stay safe, stay sane, and take care of each other. (And please don’t go outside.)