Covid Diary: Reflections at the start of Fall

The long (or did it seem short?  I’m not entirely sure.) and seemingly hot (it MUST have been hotter than normal…) summer is almost over, and so I thought I should reflect a bit on where we are.  Classes start up again at the UW on Wednesday, and I apparently have several Bucky masks waiting for me on campus if I ever find myself back there.  As I predicted, masks have finally become a pervasive consumer product.

The standard thinking — it seems held by everyone, though in direct contradiction to official line — is that the semester will not last long in-person.  Given that there is no universal and frequent testing for covid on campus, it will not take long for a limited outbreak to expand to unacceptable levels.  In the US, covid is simply too pervasive at this point to be put under control without dramatic behavioral changes.  It is unreasonable to expect students to wear masks all the time in dorms, or to refrain from socializing.  There will certainly be parties and other large social events off campus.  And why shouldn’t students act this way?  I take it that young people have largely ignored the lie that covid presents them with a level of risk that they are probably unwilling to accept.  Young people already do things that are a greater risk to them than covid.  The risk of their socializing is primarily on older people and we haven’t given them substantial reason to care about them; after all, these are the same people holding their student debt and constantly remarking about how they are privileged and lazy.  Any non-compliance of theirs’ is a failing of our society more than their rationality.

Though perhaps everything will turn out and UW will make it until the Thanksgiving finish-line without substantial outbreaks.  We shall see.  However, the early casualty of football does not bode well for the rest.

At this point the obsession over testing in the US is starting to appear misplaced.  Although testing is certainly important to indicate the start of an outbreak and to track its progress, at a certain level of infection there are simply too many people to test.  Our system of testing begins to buckle, no matter how much we have spent on it, and test results are returned too late to be of any good.  At that point — which is exactly where those in the US find themselves — people must generally assume at all times that they will encounter infected people.  They should also assume that they themselves are infected.  This means that we simply not act in ways that we could with low levels of infection and surveillance testing (the sort being done in South Korea, China, Japan and Europe).  Indoor dining is probably not safe in most areas, nor are social gatherings outside of a small “bubble.”  Life is going to be a cruel shadow of itself until these things change.

We are at this point in the US because Americans failed to take shutdowns seriously.  Shutdowns were supposed to cut back levels of infection, so that people could generally assume when they went out that they would not put themselves (or others) at risk of infection.  Wearing a mask when in inside public spaces would be enough of a reasonable precaution.  We could return to many of our previous activities.  However, in most areas people were too laxed in their behaviors.  They didn’t take the crises seriously.  Our lack of discipline, especially outside of major cities and among certain political groups, has doomed us to our current situation.

We might be enjoying our patio eating and pleasant mid-day walks now, but that will soon end in the north.  As winter arrives, our lives will become even more depressing.  Alternatively, we might just give up, and accept the sickness and death that comes with infection.  Yeah, that’s probably what we will do.  We are Americans after all — we don’t like feeling sad.

Madison to DC by rail

I recently had to take a trip to Washington D.C from Madison, WI in order to look for a new apartment. My wife and I decided to try out the Amtrak route that runs from Chicago to Washington D.C; neither of us had been on a modern train the the US, so we thought it might be interesting. It was certainly a worth-wild experience.

Unfortunately, Madison lacks any passenger train service, only a crappy bus that runs from here t o Chicago. There is, however, a commuter train from Milwaukee (about a 1.5 hour drive from Madison) to Chicago so we decided to start our train journey there. Doing that (including the reduced parking fees for train users) made the price of the trip about the same as flying out of Milwaukee and a little less than flying out of Madison. But, the train trip was definitely not an economical choice.

A few things surprised me. For one, I expected very few people to be taking the train from Chicago all the way to DC. “Who would do this?” thought I . After all, it seems like most normal people would not choose the 17hour train ride over a flight of a couple hours. But the train was completely full on both our trip there and when we returned. Luckily we got our tickets ahead of time, so this was not a real problem. This also relates to the fact that the main train stations we stopped at (In Chicago and DC, both named ‘Union Station’) were extremely busy places. They had the feel of airports without all the crazy security; but they were a bit anxiety provoking regardless. And Chicago sucks; nothing is open on Sunday near Union Station and countless people will ask you for money.

Some other things left me yearning for Germany. American rails are pretty crappy. I sort of knew this before the trip, but actually traveling on them reminded me. European commuter railroads (at least the German ones I have experience with ) are quit smooth; this makes for a rather enjoyable traveling experience. However, for the most part, American passenger trains travel on standard freight rail lines that are not maintained at the sort of level required for fast speeds and smooth travel. Expect to be shaken around quite a bit; at some points the train felt as if it was experiencing a sort of minor turbulence. I was told that for a period between Cleavland and Pittsburgh the track was smooth as silk (I was asleep….perhaps because of this); it sure would have been nice if the entire trip had been like that. So, I know that rail travel is capable of being far smoother. The entire operation was also somewhat less organized than I would have liked. We were not given seats (even though we had ‘reserved’ seats) until entering the train; this made us wonder whether we would be able to sit together if we didn’t hurry to the train once the gate doors were opened. I’m not sure if our worries were justified, but it would have been nice to get actual seat numbers on the tickets (though you do actually get tickets mailed to you before the trip, so there is no need to check in and there is no risk of being ‘bumped’).

Otherwise, the trip was ok. And there is one bonus. If you ride the train, you get to see the rusting remnants of the rust belt (I got to see Cleavland…that was pretty exciting). You will pass by vast factory yards that have been long since deserted but for perhaps a few buildings. The highway doesn’t go near these sorts of places, so you usually forget that they exist, that our nation once produced things in such filthy environments; an Amtrak trip will remind you of these industrial wastelands. Sort of fun places to pass in the middle of the night.

Some might worry about the 17 hours it takes to complete the trip, but it isn’t actually all that bad. You get extremely large seats that are ok to sleep in and there are a number of cars between which you can divide your time (dining car, observation car, cafe car). And if you can get to sleep, the trip doesn’t actually feel that long (but don’t miss Pittsburgh!). Also, you ‘feel’ the distance far more than when you travel via airplane; I always feel a bit odd at the end of air-travel, like I haven’t traveled as far as I have. Though, maybe that is just me.

So, to conclude my observations. I would ride Amtrak again, but it certainly is substandard in comparison to European rail. I also wonder why it is not cheaper than travel by air. It might be that the greater staff hours required by Amtrak is the culprit, but I also wonder whether cheap petroleum makes air travel more affordable than it should be. But I don’t have those answers.

Update about my real life

The last few months have been quite hectic, so I haven’t really updated this much.  There are a few coffee shop reviews that I have yet to write up, but those should be coming soon.  Also, I’m moving to the Washington D.C area by the end of summer where I’ll be starting in the philosophy PhD program at the University of Maryland.  So, the entire admissions process is over for me and I’m quite happy with how it turned out in the end.  However, the waiting process was probably the most stressful period in my life and I’m very glad for it to be over with!  I’ll probably post more about my experiences later; I did learn a few things as I went through this admissions cycle and perhaps it may be of some (limited) help to others.  And maybe I’ll have some thoughts about philosophy eventually…who knows.

Some bread

I have been trying to write a continuation of some of my thoughts I presented about ethics in a previous post.  But, I don’t want to throw anything online until the post doesn’t suck.  However, life goes on and we must eat, so maybe I’ll just share a really good wheat bread recipe that I found.  Yes, everyone is capable of making fresh bread!

The link is here, but I’ll just repeat it below:

  • 1 cup warm water (110 degrees F/45 degrees C)
  • 2/3 (.25 ounce) package active dry yeast
  • 1 tablespoon and 2-1/4 teaspoons honey
  • 1-2/3 cups bread flour
  • 1 tablespoon butter, melted
  • 1 tablespoon and 2-1/4 teaspoons honey
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • 1 cup and 3 tablespoons whole wheat flour
  • 2 teaspoons butter, melted
  1. In a large bowl, mix warm water, yeast, and 1 tablespoon and 2-1/4 teaspoons honey. Add 1-2/3 cups white bread flour, and stir to combine. Let set for 30 minutes, or until big and bubbly.
  2. Mix in 1 tablespoons melted butter, 1 tablespoon and 2-1/4 teaspoons honey, and salt. Stir in 1 cup and 3 tablespoons whole wheat flour. Flour a flat surface and knead with whole wheat flour until not real sticky – just pulling away from the counter, but still sticky to touch. This may take an additional 1 cup of whole wheat flour. Place in a greased bowl, turning once to coat the surface of the dough. Cover with a dishtowel. Let rise in a warm place until doubled.
  3. Punch down, and form into loaf. Place in greased 9 x 5 inch loaf pans, and allow to rise until dough has topped the pans by one inch.
  4. Bake at 350 degrees F (175 degrees C) for 25 to 30 minutes; do not overbake. Lightly brush the tops of loaf with 2 teaspoons melted butter or margarine when done to prevent crust from getting hard. Cool completely.

The ingredient amounts are a little odd because the original recipe calls for 3 loaves, and the version above will give you 1.  Also you can substitute maple syrup for the honey.  Anyway, it was super easy and delicious!

I didn’t roll mine into a log completely so it had a bit of a ridge…..

dinosaur bread

I guess you could call it dinosaur bread…but it tasted great!  I think I’ll make another loaf tomorrow, and I’ll make sure not to deform that one.  This also brings to light the fact that I’ve acquired the use of a digital cameras during Christmas; so, maybe I’ll put more pictures on this blog when I get around to it.

Now go and learn how to make your own food; it is a far better skill than philosophizing!

A couple days of geek

I’m trying it again. A couple years ago I experienced that slight naiveté of the intermediate windows user; I thought I could throw aside the windows that seem so confining. I tried to give them up entirely and instead use Linux. Ubuntu seemed to be an opportunity for just such a freedom; it beckoned as only open source can to someone who hates commercialism.

However, it was not meant to be.

I tried to dual boot it with XP on my main desktop, which had the side effect of making boot times longer. There were problems; I tried out the 64bit version of Ubuntu (may as well use those extra bits!) but flash didn’t work in 64bit Firefox (and it still doesn’t!) so I had to get help from a computer savvy friend in order to get flash videos to work. I don’t want to list all the problems, but they were there, and to top it off, OpenOffice 2 wasn’t quite as good as my copy of Office XP. Sometimes freedom is quite frightening, after all. Mistakes were made, and I eventually found myself not logging into Ubuntu as often as I had planned. Finally, when I got a new desktop I only installed XP.

But perhaps things will now be different.

I’ve formatted my laptop’s hard drive (a Dell Inspiron 600m from 2004 that is still going strong) and Ubuntu 8.10 is now its only operating system. So far, I am quite impressed. Installation was a snap, the open source drivers seem to work quite well, and OpenOffice 3 has improved enough so that I don’t even miss that copy of Office XP that now only exists on a CD. Though, I don’t think Ubuntu has changed all that much; mostly I think I’m making a more realistic choice of how I’m going to use it. My laptop is primarily for ‘work’ (words and data) and isn’t my primary computer. I’ll still be able to use all those unsupported (and sort-of supported) devices on my XP desktop; and, of course, the desktop will be able to play video games. I’m also a bit excited about learning more about R, the free statistical software, as SPSS is such a farce.

I’m sure glad all those programmers spent time making me free software!