Thursday, 30 December 2021

Best books I've read in 2021

Last January, I finally caught up with William Gibson’s classic trilogy Sprawl (Neuromancer, Count Zero, Mona Lisa Overdrive). While I’m more fond of his new books (The Peripheral / Agency), Neuromancer, published in 1984, is really remarkable. Gripping, and it’s hard to overstate how much Gibson has captured and shaped the overall nerd imagination. It’s no accident that kids who grew up on Sprawl are now molding the tech companies to their preference. Perhaps a shame though that we seem to have missed the fact those books were meant to show a dystopia, not a preferred path forward.

In August, I went on a kind of a media refuge. Not quite a hermitage, I was nevertheless secluded in Bieszczady mountains, mostly offline, time dedicated to hiking - and books. I devoured the last three parts of the Expanse series (not quite true now - the final book was published this December and I look forward to reading it). The James S.A. Corey writing duo has created something remarkable. The vision on screen is one thing, the details of the written story have a different pacing to them - but the overall result is incredible just the same. One of those books that can be emotionally engaging enough that I sometimes need time away from them, to not amplify the stress of daily life - but that made them perfect reading for the leisurely summer holiday time.

I’ve only really picked up audiobooks recently. Of the non-fiction books this year, most I have listened to - either on dog walks or while driving. Unfortunately I’m not the type of a person who can listen to a book and simultaneously concentrate on work. However, adding audiobooks to my walks increased my overall book consumption quite a lot - I’ve finished 36 books overall this year, the most since I’ve started keeping track.

Out of those, the most impactful probably was Akala’s reading of his own Natives: Race and Class in the Ruins of Empire. He’s got a brilliant voice, full of personality, and his writing is very engaging as well. The book touches on hard topics the UK museums still do their best to stay clear of, digging into the history and impact of slavery and the class system. From my central-European perspective, the passages on Ham and the biblical justifications of oppression were especially interesting.

The English biblical Ham translates to Cham in Polish. The appetite kindled by Akala led me to two books focusing on history more local to my origins: Chamstwo by Kacper Pobłocki and Ludowa Historia Polski by Adam Leszczyński. Somewhat surprisingly (at least to myself), I was mostly blind to the impact the class society of XIX still has on the supposedly class-less XXI century culture and social norms. Those books serve as a harsh awakening. Kacper Pobłocki focuses more on the culture side, while Adam Leszczyński reanalises the history of Poland from the point of view of the vast majority of its population. It is not a pleasant picture, but the books are well worth reading.

Similar train of thought led me to finally reading The Theory of the Leisure Class by Thorstein Veblen. Over 120 years old and rather lengthy, I’d probably struggle to get through it if not for the audiobook version. Thorstein observations at the end of the era of aristocracy (even when it wasn’t yet feeling its nearing demise, or at least, downfall) are still applicable today. His views on race and gender unsurprisingly are really outdated, but what stands out are the parts that do not change, starting with how the moneyed groups value tradition over human life.

Veblen’s book neatly tied into a very modern one I’ve followed it with: Capital Without Borders: Wealth Managers and the One Percent, by Brook Harrington. In the aftermath of the Great Recession in 2008, Harrinton trained for two years as a wealth manager and then continued her academic research for another six, documenting the off-shore and transnational nature of modern wealth. The book is as much a fascinating and morbid view into the modern upper class as it is a villain’s manual.

Then, prompted by a Freakonomics podcast episode, I’ve read Nudge: the Final Edition by Richard H. Thaler and Cass R. Sunstein. 14 years since the first edition, governments all over the world (or at least the English-speaking ones) embraced its approach.However, I’m mostly reading it from an tech professional point of view, and it’s brilliant enough to be a required training: pointing out how practically every decision has an impact on the user behaviour, and needs to be considered from their point of view.

Monday, 15 March 2021

A year went by

It’s been exactly a year ago that I’ve posted about the pandemic for the first time. In retrospect, the numbers that were frightening then look positively optimistic. In many countries, the first peak - the Spring 2020 one - does not even register when looking at a full year history. The third peak has started in full swing in multiple places, and it might be worse than the second one. Poland is well on the way to topping the infection numbers from November 2020, though we’re not hitting comparable daily death counts yet. Potentially the vaccination campaign has at least managed to remove the most vulnerable from the pool.

Poland now has 4.5 million people vaccinated, versus 1.9 million who’ve contracted the disease. Worldwide, it’s 355 million vaccinated versus 120 million recorded cases. Certain threshold has been reached, but it will be the end of 2021 before wealthy countries are done with the vaccination drive, and potentially even 2023 until the whole world has achieved a reasonable level of immunity. Global deaths are estimated at 2.65 million, but likely to be severely underreported.

In terms of global impact, this definitely is a generation-defining event, as was predicted a year ago. In local terms, I see people I know dealing in very different ways. Burn out and anxiety are through the roof, as the unending unpredictability of the circumstances takes a toll. Statistically, I’m aware that birth rates have taken a heavy hit, but among my close family, this seems to have been the year to have offspring in multitudes.

Personally, I’ve tried to leave most social media and newspapers behind, as news was causing me a significant amount of stress I could not resolve in any way. Winter darkness has also taken its usual toll. We have hardly met with any friends or family the past year. At times I question the sanity of my own choice, when I hear about elder relatives entertaining 10+ guests, indoors. Only weeks away from being vaccinated, this feels like a particularly unreasonable behaviour. Though we have discussed this so many times that I have no hope left of getting through to them.

Wednesday, 25 November 2020

Death

Globally, at least 59 million have been infected. At least 1.4 million have died. In Europe, almost 17 million infected, 383 thousand dead. In Poland, 876 thousand infected, 13 thousand dead. I find it difficult to believe the Polish figures, though, as positive test ratio in Poland has been well above 30% for the last two months. Some days, over 60%. Some districts, over 100% for up to a week. WHO recommends aiming for positive test ratio under 3% to maintain an overview of the situation. Any time discrepancy is found in Polish official data, it is resolved by no longer reporting unconsolidated data points. In September and October, only patients exhibiting 4 symptoms of COVID-19 simultaneously (high fever, difficulty breathing, cough, loss of taste and smell) were being tested. Asymptomatic patients, or patients with mild symptoms, are not being tested at all. Wait time for test results stands currently at 3.5 days on average. As a matter of policy, patients not diagnosed before death are not being tested. Tests made commercially are not included in public statistics. Officially, Poland is through the peak of the second wave, but this does feel like artificially generated optimism, created by severely limiting the number of tests being conducted. Excess mortality metric keeps rising fast, currently highest in Europe, at 86%.

COVID-19 mortality, across the whole world population: 0.02%. Mortality across the population of Europe: 0.05%. Mortality of confirmed COVID-19 cases aged under 40: under 0.5%. Mortality of confirmed cases, across various pre-existing health conditions: under 10%. The probability wave collapses when observing a singular point.

You develop fever, 39 °C, and shortness of breath. A day later, your partner loses the sense of smell (WHO reports: loss of smell is correlated with a milder form of the disease). Your partner tries to get a phone consultation with your registered family doctor, but it is difficult over the weekend, and neither of you manifests the full set of symptoms required to qualify for COVID-19 test. Friends hunt for available pulse oximeters online, two get delivered on Monday. At no point do they show blood oxygenation over 90%. Rescue services visit several times per day over the course of the week, suggesting auxiliary oxygen treatment at home. There are no available places at the city hospital. Someone delivers compressed oxygen canisters, someone else orders an oxygen concentrator device. Oxygen prices, both online and in pharmacies, are now at plainly absurd levels. Around mid-week, you finally get tested. 7 days from developing symptoms, SpO2 barely hovers over 80%. Oxygen inhalations provide a brief respite. On the 8th day, test results confirm COVID-19. During the night, you get admitted to A&E. Your child bursts into tears in the morning, as they did not get to say goodbye when you were taken in. Someone perished at the hospital that night, so on Saturday you get moved to the freed place in the isolation ward.

10 days from the infection is considered a threshold date - mild cases ten to recover by then. Prognosis worsens for those who don't. Your partner is still in quarantine, but feeling much better by now. You aren't.

16 days after symptoms started, you get a call from health services - they are interested in conducting a tracing interview. You tell them you are in the isolation ward, find it hard to talk, can't really talk in multiple sentences. Ask them to call when you can. Your blood oxygen saturation struggles to climb over 80% while breathing concentrated oxygen. Mortality of cases with SpO2 still under 90%, after 10 days on oxygen: 40%.

20 days since the symptoms started, SpO2 67% in the morning. You get moved to the intensive care unit. High-pressure oxygen administered.

21 days. SpO2 again critically low. Intubation. Attached to the ventilator ("respirator"). Mortality of cases on forced ventilation, best case scenario: over 90%.

When faced with a problem, I tend to look at the world through numbers. It helps me put things into perspective, develop plans, propose actions. I know the numbers. I have read the WHO reports, the relevant medical studies. There is nothing I can do. I do not tell the numbers to anyone.

My friend died from pulmonary embolism last week, shortly after intubation. The city of Zielona Góra reported no COVID-19 deaths for the whole 7 day period.

Tuesday, 29 September 2020

One million

Total deaths worldwide have crossed over one million, half a year (and a few days) after Europe had the emergency lockdown. 20% of those deaths have been in the USA. Total infected, while much harder to estimate, stands at around 33 million, with about 10 million of them currently sick.

It's really hard to comment on those numbers.

Locally, Poland crossed one thousand diagnosed per day a week ago and hasn't dropped below that daily threshold since. There's fewer deaths than in the first peak, but not by much.

A lot of the initial epidemiologists’ predictions are still holding: September - October is on track to be a second peak in infections; there’s multiple vaccines in trials, near the end of 2020, but none of them are likely to be globally distributed before the end of 2021. No real return to work from the office for those who can afford remote work. What crowds have been calling “expert scaremongering” turned out to be just expert knowledge.

Wednesday, 17 June 2020

#BLM

Looks like some countries decided to pretend the pandemic is over, and all is going peachy, time to reopen. UK and USA being the main developed examples - still riding strong on the first wave. Poland is, in an odd way, in this camp as well - roughly constant number of infections daily (well within health service capacities), but not managing to get a drop - and deciding to open up anyway. People got to earn money somehow, the saying goes.

And in terms of people earning money, the US statistics/predictions are that 30% of the companies that closed down will not, in any shape, recover. What's more, about a third of people who lost jobs because of coronavirus layoffs, are not going to be re-employed in the same jobs, ever - those positions will be lost, or automated. Which is in line with what was seen after 2007/2008 - still, it's grim news for those affected. The initial wave of stimulus money runs out soon, what happens next?

Three weeks ago we saw how most serious protests and revolutions start. It's not enough to be oppressed, people put up with a lot. Get used to it. And - in words of Black celebrities - the racism in the USA isn't getting worse, it's just that it gets documented more. Still, this wasn't enough to blow the fuse. What ignited the truly massive protests was being scared, on the basic level, about putting food on the table. About meeting your very basic needs. Those conditions had pushed thousands of revolutionary movements before, they've also pushed BLM this time, for the people in USA (and some other countries) to take to the streets in hundreds of thousands.

Will things change? The administration is even more openly aligning itself with KKK; the dog whistles are more like fog horns now. Though it's worth to remember, that by demographics numbers, the previous presidential elections were already ones where GOP would not have won in a democratic country with proportional representation, those numbers have moved even more in the four years of Trump's first term. Various methods of voter suppression can only go so far - at some stage, GOP would lose the presidency - will Trump actually leave the White House?

Wednesday, 6 May 2020

Month and a half

Current death count stands at about quarter of a million.

The first peak seems to be over in Europe, countries are heading towards easing up the restrictions - with an eye towards a second (hopefully less tragic) peak in summer. The outliers, who tried out unorthodox strategies - UK, Sweden, USA. Well, UK now has the most deaths of all EU countries. Sweden has four times the mortality ratio of Norway or Finland. USA...

USA is still before the peak. There's now talk about "stabilising" at 3000 deaths per day. Which is about the total world death count at the moment. States are already opening up, with protesters demanding end to social distancing measures.

The "month and a half" seems to be the point where most "stable" companies are running out of liquid cash. Mass layoffs are likely to happen at the May/June boundary, unless there's either a heavy government intervention or business can start again.

I'm starting my third week of the unplanned holiday leave. My bread baking is getting much better (all the supply shortages seem to be over, confirming that they were mostly due to panic buying in March) - even though the last loaf was a real "dwarven bread" offensive weapon grade one. But I do know why it came out like this, and can improve. There's some gardening work, some house improvements, a bit of open source. In general, time is passing slowly. If this was a normal situation, it'd be a rather pleasant spring.

Monday, 30 March 2020

Exponential

In the last 7 days, number of diagnosed cases went from roughly 350k world-wide to over 700k. A lot of people are going to learn what "exponential growth" means.

The tourism/travel business not so much crashed as completely disappeared in the 4 working days after I wrote the previous post. Numerous corporate groups simply terminated all contractors in that week, my contract included.

Several countries are using "temporary" epidemic regulations to permanently erode civil liberties (UK, Hungary, Poland are the ones I'm following) - nothing like panic and emergency to get things rushed through.

It's not looking good.