Jon's ramblings


When I arrived in Italy in mid-February, I was greeted by a squad of workers in biohazard suits taking everybody's temperature before allowing them into the terminal building. For once, it seems I was actually cool enough to be let into the club... Once inside, it was business as usual; Italians were aware of the whole coronavirus thing like everybody else, but it was just one of many things to be worried about. One of the headlines on La Repubblica that day as about how Greeks drank 2400 years ago.

By the time we left two weeks later, coronavirus was all there was. Schools and businesses were closed, soccer games canceled. Spots with TV personalities telling us to wash our hands a lot and not touch our faces. Quarantined red zones. A number of countries were denying entry to people coming from Italy and blocking Italian flights; I was not fully convinced we were going to be able to leave. Here's a few thoughts on the experience for anybody who might be interested.

Everything I have seen tells me that what has happened there is going to happen here – indeed, if it hasn't already happened to an extent far beyond what we know. When things happen, they happen quickly; Italy went from fairly normal to being a country under siege over the course of about two days. It can be tempting to see this whole thing as a slow-moving crisis, but the pace can change abruptly.

TV news, as one might imagine, went nuts with it; all coronavirus all the time. Lots of exhortations not to panic, but the whole thing seemed almost designed to bring about just that sort of panic. From what I could see, in a city (Ravenna) that had no cases by the time we left, people were absolutely not panicking. Life was mostly normal, if a bit slower than usual. Restaurants were open; bars were full of people yelling at games on the TV. Everybody talks about the situation all the time, but they are not cowering from it. Until we got to the airport we saw almost nobody wearing masks.

There was talk of a bit of craziness in the grocery stores, but we went a couple of days later and found the shelves full – and a lack of people that made coronavirus almost seem like a nice thing.

As the number of cases grows, the situation will surely become less nice.

One of the reasons people aren't wearing masks may well be that they have become rather difficult to find. Hospitals are running short of them. They are, naturally, made in China, and the whole “made in China” thing isn't working all that well at the moment. If there are more infections, more travel bans, more closed borders, there are going to be more supply-chain disruptions. It's a good time to think about having a personal supply of things you really don't want to run out of.

Italy has been unlucky with this disease, but it may not be as much of an outlier as it seems. Many of those coronavirus cases have been found because Italy has been especially determined to look for them. As of earlier this week, Italy had tested ten times as many people as France, for example.

...and France has tested more people than all of the US has. It is amazing how little effort has gone into checking for coronavirus cases here. There is a real chance — if not a certainty — that there's a lot more coronavirus circulating in the US than we think there is.

Not everything the Italian government has done seems to make sense; a certain amount of it looks mainly driven by the need to be seen Doing Something. But I got the sense that the government fully understands the scale of the problem it is facing, is truly working to address it as well as it can, and is not feeding the country bullshit. The realization that the response in the US does not engender the same sorts of feelings is disquieting at best.

We do live in interesting times.

It's not every year that a hummingbird decides to set up home in your yard...

[Momma hummingbird]

Technology is so much fun

Getting to the airport is a hassle in the best of times, but it seems that, with the help of modern technology, it can be worse.

Gergely Orosz makes explicit something I've felt for a long time: the ability to write well is a crucial part of an engineer's skill set. Writing has helped me in all phases of my career, even before I ended up doing it most of the time. I've never regretted the effort it took to get (relatively) good at it.

Here's another Google Fi horror story. I remain a happy user of Fi, but this kind of story highlights my biggest worry with the whole thing: Google never has figured out this whole “customer service” thing, and life gets miserable any time that you have to deal with a real human being. I sure hope to never find myself in such a situation.

(Why do I like Fi, you may ask? It's cheap, especially for somebody like me who can't run up a lot of data usage even when doing all of my work tethering through the phone. But mostly I'm there for the international roaming, which still seems to beat every other offer out there. Now if they would only fix data service in that especially remote place where I often end up going: Wyoming).

The BBC looks at John Brunner's Stand on Zanzibar with an eye toward the many things it predicted, 50 years ago. It's great to see Brunner getting some attention; his work was greatly influential on young pre-nerds like me, but it has kind of faded into obscurity over the years.

The Shockwave Rider helped to redirect my life. It predicted much of what we see on the Internet now, including privacy issues, governmental control attempts, and worms — all in 1975. Many years later, I can confess that a desire to emulate its super-hacker hero helped to push me toward a career in software all those many years ago. Good stuff.

The view from my San Juan, Puerto Rico hotel room. Not quite the ocean vista I might have been hoping for...

[hotel-room view]

The “regional transportation district” (RTD) is a special tax district for the provision of transportation services to the larger Front Range urban area. In my part of the world, it has often been seen as a way of taxing Boulder to pay for transportation services in Denver. No part of that has been more overt than the “fast tracks” program, voted into existence in 2004. It is there to provide rail service — to Denver. Boulder was promised a rail line, but such promises were obviously hollow at the time and have not improved since; no such line has been built with all that tax money we have paid.

(For the curious, this line was going to be built using an existing freight line. Somehow they were going to create regular passenger service on a single track, owned by Burlington Northern, where freight trains will have priority. It's hard to see how that would ever work well.)

Last week, we are informed, RTD “recommitted” to completing the northwest corridor through to Boulder and beyond. But one need only read to the end of the article to see what that is worth:

“Our current financial plan reaches out to 2040,” Jaquez said. “We don't have a (Northwest Rail) construction date identified within that timeframe because we don't have funds identified. If funds become available we will reassess the situation.”

It doesn't take a whole lot of cynicism to conclude that, in fact, nothing has changed and they have no intention of creating this line we were promised in 2004.

In Colorado, it takes a month or two for the bureaucratic gears to turn far enough to allow permanent registration of a new car, so the Bolt EV's turn came up recently. Like all new cars, it was expensive to register, but there was one component of the cost that was a surprise: Colorado adds a $50 annual surcharge to EV registrations.

The reasoning perhaps makes sense: since we're no longer buying gas, we're not paying gas taxes. But the car still definitely uses the roads, and the roads have to be paid for. This charge, it is argued, is just making up for what is lost in gasoline taxes. Colorado charges $0.22/gallon in taxes, so that's like charging us for 227 gallons of gas. We work from home, and so didn't use a whole lot of gasoline in the first place. So this looks like a tax increase over here.

Governments become dependent on revenues from cigarette taxes as well. Perhaps they should start taxing non-smokers, who are selfishly avoiding paying those taxes?

The EV tipping point

Meanwhile, it seems that falling battery prices mean that EVs will be price-competitive with internal-combustion cars (without tax credits) by 2022, at least in some markets. Given how much nicer EVs are in many ways, even without considering things like carbon footprints, that suggests that a big tipping point is coming fairly soon.

It can't happen too soon.

Range anxiety

One last thing about EV range... Mileage numbers for gasoline-powered cars always come in pairs: city and highway. The city mileage is always worse, due to the start/stop nature of city driving.

EVs turn that around. Regenerative breaking and lower speeds mean that they are at their most efficient in the city. It's when you get out onto the open road that the car loses efficiency and the range drops. That is something one has to take into account when planning road trips.

Cooking Indian food has long been a hobby of mine. The alchemy of the spices is fun, and the results are delicious (when I don't screw it up). But it can also be a lot of fun visually:

Bese bele powder

This is an early stage in the creation of bese bele powder, from which many good meals can result.