Bending the Covid Map

I re-read Deep Survival by Laurence Gonzales. This is the first time I’d read the book since the Covid-19 pandemic started.

An important feature of survivors is that they accept the world as it is, not how they’d like it to be. When the environment changes, they adapt.

Meanwhile, many people die before old age because they failed to adapt to the change in their circumstances. This is not just a matter of knowledge. As Gonzales describes it, we base our decisions on ‘emotional bookmarks.’ For example, I’ve touched a hot stove. That gave me the emotional bookmark that ‘touching hot stoves hurt.’ Therefore, I avoid touching hot stoves without thinking about it.

Emotional bookmarks formed in one situation may betray you in another. Gonzales gave the example of snowmobilers who drove up a slope during prime avalanche conditions–some died. They all understood, on an intellectual level, that going up the hill under those circumstances was likely to trigger an avalanche which would bury them. But they had old ‘emotional bookmarks’ which told them that taking snowmobiles up snowy hills was fun, whereas no avalanche had buried them before. The emotional bookmarks didn’t take into account that this was a different environment.

If you’re old enough to read this in 2022, you have many emotional bookmarks which predate the Covid-19 pandemic. I do too. They may betray us.

I also have some emotional bookmarks which may have directed me to make decisions which protected me from covid. Most notably, my infection with pertussis as a teenager left me with some emotional bookmarks. I know, in my gut, that a respiratory illness can be worse than a ‘common cold’ or ‘ordinary flu.’

It also left me with distrust of acquired immunity. Evidence available now shows that the pertussis vaccines which were available during my childhood in the United States are flawed, and that is a contributing factor to rising pertussis cases in the United States in the 21st century. Maybe pertussis evolved to better evade the vaccine. On top of that, pertussis infected me twice, about a year or two in between infections. Was my second case milder? Yes, much milder. It still happened. The first infection didn’t leave me with perfect immunity.

My body knows that vaccines and immunity from prior infection alone are not to be trusted.

Vaccines help. I recommend vaccinating all children against pertussis unless there is a medical reason not to. Though some will get pertussis anyway, many won’t, thanks to the vaccine.

Pertussis never put my life in danger. The case fatality rate for teenagers with pertussis is practically zero. I didn’t even need antibiotics (pertussis is a bacterial infection, therefore antibiotics are useful in severe cases). However, despite not threatening my life, despite not being severe enough to justify antibiotics, it still sucked. I had to lie in bed all day because I didn’t have the stamina to do anything else. Worse, I felt like I had lost control of my body–and no cold or flu has made me feel that way. A respiratory illness doesn’t have to be deadly to be worth avoiding.

The way that some people speak of Covid—that as long as the risk of killing you is low and you don’t need to go to the hospital, it’s not a big deal—feels wrong to me. Maybe these people never experienced a full-throated pertussis infection.

I also don’t trust vaccines or prior infection without other measures to protect me. (As far as I know, Covid-19 has never infected me, so I definitely can’t count on prior infection).

(Wow, I didn’t expect that pertussis anecdote to run that long).

Over and over, I’ve seen people choose to believe about covid what’s convenient for them instead of what the evidence shows. Alas, that includes the United States’ main public health institutions.

About a year ago, I had a conversation with someone who worked at USCF who told me that the covid-19 pandemic was ‘on its last legs.’ I expressed skepticism and asked ‘what about if there’s a new variant?’ I don’t remember what she said in response, but she wasn’t impressed.

Weeks later, Omicron came to the United States.

I would’ve preferred to have been wrong.

I encountered a Moderna study in early 2021 which indicated that the vaccines would only be effective for a few months and that booster shots would be needed to keep antibody levels up. I cited that study to multiple people who insisted that the vaccine would end the pandemic and there was no longer any need for masks or other counter-measures. They mentioned their credentials (which are more impressive than mine), then told me it was just one pre-print study and they doubted it. Well, to be fair, I wasn’t certain the study was right myself, but wasn’t it a possibility to take seriously?

That study was right after all.

I noticed the evidence. They didn’t.

Sometimes, I read articles about how we need to tell the public to keep up with their ‘annual Covid booster’? Um, excuse me? All the scientific evidence I’ve encountered shows that the boosters are effective for a few months, not a full year. What about all those months when people are effectively unvaccinated if they take ‘annual’ boosters?

That doesn’t mean I’m in favor of everyone getting a booster every 3-4 months: I’m not (for various reasons). What I mean is that we need measures other than vaccines for controlling covid.

If these articles made a case for why boosters should only be taken annually and what they would do about the period when people’s antibody levels are low, I’d listen. I’ve yet to see anyone make that case. To me, it seems that they are ‘bending the covid map’: they want covid to be just like the flu, so they assume it is, rather than recognized that covid is covid.

Likewise, more and more people speak of the pandemic being over. Scientifically, it’s not, but I care more about what practical steps I and others should take. Do we maintain covid precautions or not? With flu pandemics, we don’t know which wave is the last one until enough time has passed after the last wave without another one coming. The last wave of the 1918 flu in the United States occurred in 1920, and it took a few years for people to confirm that wave was the final one.

I’ve noticed that covid cases have dropped locally (not sure about national data). Since people are getting laxer about anti-covid measures and school is back in session, I assume that something has changed at the biological level. Have so many people here gotten BA5 that they have enough immunity to stave off more infections? If so, will the immunity last? Will other variants come? Is something else that I haven’t thought of going on?

It’s possible that the last wave is over… but I won’t believe it until we go through a winter with low death and low hospitalization rates.

Another factor in survival is getting comfortable in new circumstances.

I’m comfortable wearing respirators, and the risk of covid would have to be extremely low to persuade me to not bother.

While I was working on this post, I encountered this tweet which makes some of the same points in a more succinct manner (though I think it’s a little pompous).

What Sending Fanmail Taught Me

One of my ‘pandemic’ hobbies is sending fanmail (both emails and physical letters).

In sending fanmail, there’s the question, ‘will they read this?’ Some people say, ‘I’d send them a fan letter if I knew they’d read it, but I don’t know if they would.’ I understand this. Nobody likes the idea of putting effort into a letter which the recipient will never see.

I once sent a fan letter and received no reply for half a year. I wondered, did she read it? Did she read it and hate it? Later, I sent a much shorter letter congratulating her on her new project. She replied, and said that she loved my first letter, and had even written a draft of a response, but she hadn’t sent it.

Some celebrities say they read all fan mail, but because of the limits on their time, they sadly can’t reply.

Before I started this hobby, I expected that less famous people would reply more often and more quickly than more famous people. That’s… not the case.

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Are These the 10 Best Onsen in Japan? (Spoiler: no)

I originally planned to write about how railroad company executives in the United States are holding the economy hostage so they can avoid wages increases which match inflation and giving their workers paid sick leave… but plenty of other people write about that better than I. I find it astonishing that Congress and the POTUS are avoiding the obvious solution: force a contract which gives the railroad workers what they want. Well, it’s not astonishing. The Railway Labor Act, which allows Congress to block otherwise legal strikes, gives the executives too much power and workers too little. It’s ‘rational’ for executives to abuse this imbalance by denying shipping service to force the government to impose a contract which allows them to squeeze as much as they can out of workers for profit. Workers can’t retaliate with a strike. Except… many railroad workers have been quitting for a long time because the railroad companies penalize them for going to necessary medical appointments. If the railroad companies lose too many workers to stay functional, that’s also a kind of labor strike.

Anyway, instead of writing more about that, I feel like writing about something frivolous: Japanese onsen.

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Western Europe’s Cost of Living Crisis Makes My Jaw Drop

I’ve seen numbers for how the cost of electricity and fuel in Western Europe is rising. Some Western European businesses say they can’t handle the surge in prices and that if this continues, they must close. Many people in Northern Europe need fuel to get through winter—to prevent pipes from bursting and keep the physically vulnerable alive.

All this I understand intellectually, but my feelings refuse to accept this as truth.

We’re going through our own energy crisis in California now. The heat wave has led to more air conditioning, which has overwhelmed our electrical grid. Some people (including some of my contacts) have had blackouts. This is minor compared to what Western Europe faces.

If change doesn’t happen fast, it’s obvious that some businesses will fail. (Dutch greenhouses have already closed). Jobs will be lost—and how will the people who lose their jobs pay these rising energy bills? It looks like a downward spiral. Once some of these businesses are taken down for the winter, some might not come back in spring, even if energy and fuel are cheaper.

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Will 15% of Our Society Experience Long-Covid Caused Disabilities at Once?

I’ve seen predictions that, if we don’t implement policies which do much more to restrict covid transmission, we’ll face having 15-20% of people disabled by long covid, and our society can’t handle that, therefore our society will collapse.

My prediction is that having 15% of people in the United States with a long-covid disability as severe as ME/CFS at the same time has a 5% chance of happening within the next five years.

That I don’t rule out the possibility—that I think this has over 1% chance of happening—is horrifying. But I don’t think it’s the most likely scenario.

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Buy a Product with Money, or Buy a Skill with Time?

My small net-tent under a tarp

People who are new to camping often ask, “What tent should I buy?”

My answer is, “a cheap secondhand tent, ideally from someone who has used it and can show you how to pitch it.”

Might the tent suck? Yes. That’s why you shouldn’t pay much. Never buy a secondhand tent for more than 50% of its original retail price (a few rare ‘collectable’ tents which are no longer manufactured are worth more, but if you’re that kind of connoisseur, you don’t need my advice).

You can find secondhand tents for sale at various websites, but, if possible, I recommend buying from someone you know or a local camping group. Camping enthusiasts tend to build up a collection of tents over time, and chances are some of them have tents they no longer want to keep.

If you can borrow a tent, that might be better. It’s a tradeoff between money vs. the obligation to return the tent in good condition.

As a beginner, there’s something more important than what tent you use: starting with easy conditions.

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Is it okay to enjoy reading about toxic relationships in fiction?

Sometimes, I enjoy reading about abusive relationships in fiction. This isn’t an endorsement of abuse in real life. I’m open to talking about the toxic nature of this fictional relationships (or I think I am). Yet I don’t slap on a ‘yes, I know this relationship is messed up’ disclaimer every time I mention them.

Purging fiction of all toxic behavior is ridiculous. Many people experience abuse, and they deserve to see themselves in fiction. They need to know they’re not alone.

Some time ago, I read an essay by a bookseller who feels uncomfortable whenever 12-year-olds buy Colleen Hoover books. (I haven’t read anything by CoHo). This bookseller read one of her novels and felt that it romanticized relationship abuse. She doesn’t want 12-year-olds to think that’s acceptable behavior. Yes, she sells them the books anyway upon request.

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Do young people fear asking their romantic interests out?

I observed an online chat session where people were exchanging dating advice. What struck me was how many of the people (mostly in their early 20s) seemed to not know how to ask people on romantic dates. Other people gave advice like “you got to put yourself out there, otherwise nothing happens.”

The closest thing I have to experience with romantic dating is guys asking me out. I always said ‘no.’ I have nothing against any of them, I just never wanted a boyfriend.

Intellectually, I understand that asking someone to romantically date you is hard because it feels so important and personal. Emotionally, it doesn’t feel like it should be hard. That I put such low stakes to this is a sign of how aromantic I am.

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Stonewalling Good Air

When I was in high school, my mother joined a group to improve the ventilation on the top floor. That’s where the art classrooms were—they used materials which put out toxic fumes.

This wasn’t for my benefit. I had no classes on that floor.

What most disturbed my mother was that one art teacher was pregnant. After studying the chemicals building up in that air, she believed no pregnant person should work there.

They put together a plan for upgrading the ventilation on that floor. The school district—whose approval was necessary—ignored them. No justification, not even ‘that’s too expensive.’ They refused to acknowledge the problem.

Could they have moved the art classes outside? There was a roofed outdoor area where classes could be held even in rain (a few dance classes were held there). But the wind would’ve blown stuff around.

The ventilation in the entire building was bad, I’m sure. No windows would open, and the school district controlled the vents remotely from a location in a different neighborhood. Just to change the thermostat, teachers had to petition the school district. No, there was one—only one—classroom which had local control. The teachers marveled that they could choose the temperature there.

I wouldn’t trust the school district administrators to keep the vents clean.

Studies show that high carbon dioxide levels impair student learning.

Once in a while, I fell asleep during class. Maybe the classes bored me but… I wonder.

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