Today marks the thirty-fourth anniversary of the Chernobyl disaster [].

I highly recommend Adam Higgenbotham’s incredible account of the disaster – Midnight at Chernobyl. Fantastically detailed, compellingly told, and undoubtedly among the most impactful books I’ve read in years.

I also found the acclaimed HBO dramatization to be well worth the time. That’s not the same as saying I enjoyed it – I found it worthy while being occasionally agonizing to watch.

Read the book to understand the disaster, watch the series for a relentless emotional pummeling.

Gang aft agley

Punxsutawney Phil has seen his shadow. At least three more weeks of lock-down…

Like many of the 7.5 billion inhabitants of this insignificant little blue green planet we call home, we had plans. (Our best laid plans, you might say.)

Funny thing about plans – they’re bets on the future state of the universe. Much of the time, most of the time, reality cooperates. Tomorrow will probably be pretty similar to today, which is pretty similar to yesterday.

I don’t know anyone who’s plans included a global pandemic, infecting 2.1 million people, claiming over 140 thousand lives to date, forcing huge swaths of the population to stay in their homes, shuttering the global economy, and setting us on an uncertain path toward an as-yet-indescribable new normal.

And speaking of “new normal,” I can’t be the only one who’s (already) finding that phrase irritating. We have a deep desire to name things. I get it. And I guess “new normal” is as good a name as I can think of for the current uncertainty. And it seems true that we’re going to have no choice but to rapidly evolve our societal norms. But still. “New normal” is high on my list of phrases I’ll be happy to see the back of. Like “lock-down.”

Like many, I’ve been thinking about why basically all the western countries failed so utterly and completely to prepare for, and respond to, this pandemic. As comforting as it might be to think it was unpredictable, it wasn’t. People have been raising the general alarm about our global susceptibility to pandemic for years, and this specific event has been raising alarms for several months. But like a car in a mall parking lot, the alarm was screaming, and everyone was ignoring it.

I think it has a lot to do with how we learn. And how we don’t. And how a lack of deep scientific literacy among elected leadership became a force multiplier for uncertainty.

You might disagree, but on the whole I think individuals are pretty good at learning from their experiences. It’s generally a good idea not to make the same mistake twice – so much so that we often “over-index” on not doing so (everyone remember taking off their shoes at airports ’cause of that one guy who tried to get something on a plane in his shoes? everyone remember airports? ahh. good times.) It’s also usually sensible to assume that what’s happened (many times) before is pretty likely to happen again – and to assume that extraordinary events are… well… extra-ordinary.

What most of us are not so great at is learning from other people’s mistakes. Especially mistakes made by people we don’t have a high implicit degree of trust in. It’s too easy to convince ourselves that we’re different. That we’re smarter. That they were just unlucky.

Responding in the moment to the pandemic required taking action without direct experience – before, as they say, all the facts were in. It required us to take action based on theory.

It required realizing that novel in “novel coronavirus” was the game changer. That the exponential nature of the spread of infection meant a decision today was literally twice as good as that same decision tomorrow. And maybe most difficult, it meant realizing and admitting that we weren’t different. We weren’t smarter. And that this time we were all unlucky.

Politicians – at least US politicians – rarely have scientific training or backgrounds. They live in the shades of grey – in organizational structures and leadership, and soft power. The good ones have deep experience with the malleable rule systems humans create, negotiating changes to those rule systems is their stock in trade. To those people, the predictions of calamity must have been hard to fathom – and the idea that the counter-measures being proposed were proportional and appropriate must have beggared belief.

It couldn’t have helped that the only choice they were being offered by their scientific advisors reduced to a shut down of their economies. Those who acted quickly and decisively to curtail public activity – with immediate and massive economic impact – must have felt like they were taking a hugely expensive bet.

Consider what might have happened if every country, and ever local leader, had acted quickly. In that alternate timeline, with much lower infection rates and mortality counts, it seems certain that the nagging question would be if we over-reacted.

The key question now, and one I don’t have any answers to, is “how do we get out of this mess?”

And as we navigate toward that “new normal,” how do we learn from our near-global mistake? And how do we apply that learning to other low probability high impact events? How do we convince ourselves that just because yesterday and today are fine, there’s a small but important chance that tomorrow may be the day when our best laid plans gang aft agley.

You Can Run, But You Can’t… Dine

I should establish something up front. I’m not “a runner.” I’m not one of those people who enjoy it. I’m not fast. It’s not easy. It doesn’t fill me with a sense of freedom. I started running because I’m not getting any younger, I appreciate good food and drink, and I have a “desk job.” So some aerobic exercise seemed like a good idea. I’ve tried joining gyms (I give them my money and quickly stop going), bicycles (every home we’ve owned has managed to be up a hill), and my low tolerance for “pre-workout-work” combined with crappy Seattle winter weather convinced me I needed an indoor solution at home.

So, years ago, we bought an elliptical. I used it irregularly, and Dawnise never loved it, so when we moved from our house in the Seattle suburbs into the city we sold it and bought a treadmill. In theory the treadmill folded, and would take up less room in our more compact urban space. Even folded it still took up much of the room it was in, but it fit where the elliptical wouldn’t have. I convinced myself to work up to running a couple miles three mornings a week. I never really learned to like it, but after a while I built a habit, and would bring running shorts and shoes on business travel and mostly stick to my routine.

That all changed when we moved to London. Our initial apartment had an exercise room, and I used it for the month we were there before moving into our “permanent” space. We don’t have a good space for a treadmill, so I looked around at gyms. The fees seemed too high a price to pay for access to a treadmill – and I knew I’d likely stop actually going pretty quickly anyway. The prospect of running through London’s crowded streets and using my lungs as a fine particulate filter for London air didn’t appeal.

All that changed a couple weeks into the pandemic. The streets in our part of London are pretty empty. The air quality is notably improved. And I wasn’t even getting my 20 minute walk to work each day. So I woke up one morning with a plan to go running. And quickly realized that I didn’t have anything suitable to wear to go running when it was 3 degrees out (high-30’s in “freedom units”). I asked a couple friends who run what I needed and “went shopping.” From my sofa, of course.

A quick look at Amazon left me discouraged – running base layers aren’t essential goods, and delivery prioritization meant nothing would arrive for a month. By that time this crazy idea would have subsided. Which would be good for the lazy bastard in me, but probably not good in general.

One bit of advice I got was to avoid cheap synthetics and try a merino wool base layer. That bit of advice, combined with my inherent, um, frugality, led me to – who had what I needed on sale for a price I was willing to pay, and even claimed I could get it in a few days. True to their word, and frankly to my surprise, the package arrived only a day later than promised and the next morning I hit the road.

Turns out running on the street isn’t quite like running on a treadmill. And it turns out that I don’t know how to self-regulate my pace. I ran faster than “normal” and could only run about half my normal distance. I chalked it up to the elevated pace and 8 months of being sedentary. I’ve gone a bit further each run, and this morning I ran to St. Paul’s and back – which is about what I’d have run in the spare room in our townhouse. Despite reaching 22 today (72F) it’s still cool in the morning, and the wool base layer has worked well.

I figure as long as exercise is still a legitimate reason to be out, I’ll keep running. I’ll have to see how I feel when the weather turns in the fall – it’s hard to imagine choosing to run in the windy rainy cold – but frankly fall is so far in the future it hardly bears thinking about.

Who knows what the world looks like by then.

Central London: Island Paradise

We woke up Saturday morning in Hawaii.

After a fashion.

The sky was bright blue, bright sun among scattered fluffy clouds. The hint of chill in the air was fighting a losing battle with the gathering warmth, and the only sound in the air was birdsong.

I opened the a wall of floor to ceiling glass windows that lead out onto our deck and welcomed the outside in. We spent the day sitting on the deck, or the sofas just inside. I finished the book I was reading and started another. In the early afternoon, Dawnise watched Ru Paul’s Drag Race on Netflix with a friend, her laughter spilling out into the hush of the courtyard. We had afternoon aperol spritz. The cats took full advantage of the unusual opportunity to lounge on the deck.

We left the wall open all day, closing it against the evening chill.

This morning started out much the same.

We tried our hand at making shakshuka – our regular dish at Mola, the cafe around the corner we frequent for weekend breakfasts and have been missing in the shutdown. (We gave it a 7/10, flavors were good, the eggs spread further than intended and ended up a bit over cooked.)

As I type these words the birdsong has been temporarily replaced by the ringing of the bells of St. Paul’s – a reminder of where we actually are. We’ve all temporarily retreated out of the direct sun, even the cats, currently lounging in the shade – one under a deck chair, the other on the rug inside.

I anticipate another day of forced relaxation. I’ve got a piece of brisket flat sous-vide’ing, and I think we have all the necessary bits for Pimms this afternoon.

And really, why wait?

Here’s to your health, safety, and sanity. Slainte.