The myth of certainty

You are watching people go through withdrawal from the emotional addiction to the myth of certainty.

Ashley C. Ford, on Twitter

This feels like the most true, and succinct thing I’ve seen someone say about living through this pandemic. I see it in the leaders who waited too long to take serious measures, or who rush to hastily back toward what they think will be a familiar normalcy.

I have had this ongoing feeling during the pandemic that, while many things are different, people and institutions have become a more concentrated version of what or who they are. A friend who craves social contact craves it more as it becomes harder to access, prisons and jails are dangerous and deadly places, those who feel entitled to space take it up when space is a measure of safety and concern. Within this concentration, it feels particularly stark how those who can expect certainty struggle to grapple with the amount of uncertainty we now all face. And for those who live in daily uncertainty, this moment feels different, perhaps, but no more dire.

Vee L. Harrison wrote for the Tribe about a Chicago house party that got a lot of attention as attendees seemly ignored social distancing recommendations, and (if you care about it) the law. The party, guests said, was thrown to celebrate the lives of two people who were shot and killed. When I lived on the West Side, there was this sense of the elusiveness of life, whether it was the gunshots, or a memorial to someone who had been killed or someone passed out from an overdose. Space and safety feel so significant. When I ran, I had to make sure to give people a lot of space, because running could signal alarm and wasn’t a common fun activity. I had to think about how to navigate the space of people who were at work in the drug trade. As I fished for my wallet to get on the bus, a woman once warned me about taking out my wallet too conspicuously. And the thing about all of those perceived risks, is that they could be totally fine. The line between normal and dangerous felt so blurry. It makes sense that COVID-19 is just another one of these things, and not the thing.

One of the subjects of the article said this:

I’ll stay in the house if you come build me a basketball court like you got in your house. Come put a zoo in my backyard. These rich people got things to do while they sit in the house. Us people that aren’t as rich as them, we don’t have nothing to do in the house. Sometimes this can cause you to go into boredom and depression and you have to get out, you have to get some air.

Tink Purcell, talking about (mostly) complying with social distancing, but how that’s hard.

It is a privilege to not be bored as the world gets smaller. I am so glad for the cooking, baking, sewing, wood, coding and all the other projects I see people I know post on social media. Pleasure feels hard to come by these days, but I have found pleasure, or at least the comfort of agency, or being able to see a straight line from the beginning of something to the end in little projects. And while I am proud of the time and persistence I have put into developing the skills to do some of these things, the first steps, or even the belief that it is possible to do these things for yourself was given to me by others. I am grateful for the people and institutions that have given me these gifts, some accepted gladly, others reluctantly, some rebuked until many, many years later. But I know these gifts aren’t universally given.

When heath or housing or food feel so precarious, boredom seems like a trivial thing, but, throughout my life, it has also felt like one of the heaviest weights. It could be because I have not often, or for very long, had to question my health, housing or access to food, but I still think that there is something essential to life as it should be that everyone has things in their life that make one day different from the next, or worthy of anticipation or that they can feel their mind widening or diving deeper inside. So, when I hear about basketball hoops being taken down, I also wonder what is being given in their place? It isn’t too much to ask that we are encouraged to be, and supported to be both safe (and considerate of others safety) and also enlivened.

Models, their limits and the importance of not downplaying what is clearly known

It’s past one month since I was at a journalism conference where we learned that someone had tested positive for COVID-19. I found out this information waiting for a train to Chicago. In this in-between space, the area between “fuck it, there’s nothing I can do at this point” and “what are the minute things I can do to tip the scales for my own health and others” felt so murky.

Those days were a different world, but the confusion and calculation is even more acute. There is so much that is still unknown, but I find comfort in understanding a bit more about how that unknowing works, and the things that are very clearly known. I thought this quote, from Brian Resnick’s COVID modeling explainer captures this well:

What’s very important is not the details of the model, it’s that this is a virus that can crush health care,” says Bill Hanage, an epidemiologist who studies infectious diseases at Harvard. “That’s not a model result, that’s an observation. We know it because of Wuhan, we know it because of Italy, because of Spain, we know it because, now, of New York.

The explainer also breaks down some of the variables that go into a model, different types of models, what they can and can’t tell us, and what is needed to make them actionable.

538 took on models in comic form, with an emphasis on how getting good inputs to the models is really challenging.

But I want to go back to the things that you don’t need a model to know. 19 children detained by the U.S. in a Chicago shelter for unaccompanied minors have tested positive for COVID-19. There are 300 cases of COVID-19 in Chicago’s Cook County Jail. Three people incarcerated there have died.

While models both influence policy and their variables are dependent on policy, there are stark realities right in front of us that those who have the space and mobility in this moment to feel like they have choices must choose how to respond. The parts of the present that feel ghastly are because of sick choices from the past.

Ok, a few media things that are not about a virus

This Bad Moves single has brought me a lot of joy, along with a playlist they compiled of other new music.

My friend Jenny made a lovely radio piece about a lovely poem that can feel like a game.

More COVID-19 dispatches

Fabricating masks

April 5, 2020

I made some of the masks in this video from UnityPoint Health in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. I used scrap fabric I had around, planning on inserting some kind of filter into my mask. This New York times article on mask materials was an accessible summary of which materials that (limited) research indicates works best for homemade masks.

I took the idea of reusing a produce twist tie to allow shaping the mask nose from this video. That video was interesting because it introduced me to PM 2.5 filters, which seem popular for people worried about air quality.

The CDC has a number of mask designs and instructions as well, that are a bit simpler.

The CDC says masks can be washed in the washing machine. A doctor told NPR that masks should be thought of like underwear and washed after each use.

Every map of Chicago is the same map

April 5, 2020

WBEZ reports “in Chicago, 61 of the 86 recorded deaths – or 70% – were black residents. Blacks make up 29% of Chicago’s population.”

On Friday, ProPublica reported “African Americans made up almost half of Milwaukee County’s 945 cases and 81% of its 27 deaths in a county whose population is 26% black.”

A great testing explainer

Both for work, and as someone living through this, I’ve been trying to understand how testing for the new coronavirus works. The inability for many people getting tested has many contributing factors, and the language of what constitutes a test “kit” is confusing. How Coronavirus Tests Actually Work (538) is an accessible explainer that is consistent with what I’ve learned from other sources over the last few weeks.

Explaining uncertainty

There is so much that researchers are still learning about the new coronavirus. While I think it’s comforting to have clear answers, it’s often more truthful, and useful to just break down the uncertainty. Every expert opinion you’ve heard about wearing masks is right (Quartz) does a good job of explaining why differing advice about whether or not the average person should wear a mask to help stop the spread of this virus is grounded in evidence.


I’ve been on self-quarantine since returning from the NICAR conference, where one attendee later tested presumptively positive for the new coronavirus.

One result of this is being able to do some maintenance on this website and I thought I’d use it to take some notes on information that stands out.

Fabric masks

I’ve seen a few guides on how to make fabric masks, and heard stories about how some hospitals requesting homemade masks, but this doc, Fabric Mask Best Practices, has the most detail I’ve seen and an appropriate amount of caveats.

A really good show

I’ve seen people organize online poetry readings and fashion shows, which is awesome, but it’s been hard to make some of these or it’s felt strange to enter an intimate space, even a virtual one, with strangers. Don Giovanni Records has organized an online fest, Going the Distance, and I am truly excited.

It starts at 1 p.m. on Monday, March 23 with the last set at 11:00 p.m.

Nasal swab

March 18, 2020 01:30 a.m.

If you’re curious about what a drive-through COVID-19 test looks like, this is it:


March 18, 2020 01:20 a.m.

I live with roommates, and really have done so for most of my adult life. This resource offers reasonably simple ideas for reducing risk to people you live with.

Things to do

March 17, 2020 12:30 a.m.

Tonight I went to a restorative yoga class. It was over Zoom. It was harder to focus, lying on a mat in my room, which has become my office and dining room and still had the remnants of each scattered around me. Still, it felt nice to do something that was in real time, even if everyone was remote.

It seems like many people are trying to find ways to be social, even as we try to keep a healthy distance. I’ve seen dance parties, a calendar of livestreamed musical performances, meditation, origami instruction and people hanging out in colorful 3-D virtual worlds.

Coronoavirus and the incarcerated

March 15, 2020 7:35 p.m.

Coronavirus and Prisons: A Toxic Combination (The Marshall Project) is a good rundown of the dangers facing incarcerated people from this virus which include barriers to hand washing and bans on hand sanitizer.

In Illinois, activists are petitioning the governor to provide medical furloughs or compassionate release for elderly or infirm people in prison who would be at higher risk if infected.

There are already some changes that will impact those in the criminal justice system. The Chief Judge in Cook County, Illinois has postponed most court cases for 30 days. Many on probation do not need to meet in-person with their probation officers.

Simulating social distancing

March 15, 2020 4:30 p.m.

The Washington Post has published a great visual explainer showing how different strategies for limiting social interaction slow and limit (or fail to) the transmission of the disease. It’s important to understand that these visualizations are for a simulated infection, not the new coronavirus, but this was the first time I really understood what it looked like when infected people have broad contact with others.

I think part of that struggle is the disconnect between the present and the past and between here in the U.S. and other places.

A timeline of the United States’ slow response

March 15, 2020 4:30 p.m.

The March 11 episode of “The Daily”, Why the U.S. Wasn’t Ready for the Coronavirus, has an easy-to-understand timeline of the U.S.’ misteps in making testing available to the virus, from the president shutting down a White House office created to respond to global health crisis, the delays caused by the decision of the CDC to make its own test instead of using the WHO’s and prohibiting researchers in Washington State from using an existing infectious disease research program and their own test to understand the spread of the virus.

A wild information environment

March 15, 2020 2:45 p.m.

I’ve seen even journalists share later discredited information, or be imprecise about the takeaways from even credible news. For example, the Los Angeles Times reports that some people who testedvery positive for the virus and recovered from symptoms are once again testing positive for the virus. It’s easy to take away from this that people are getting reinfected, but a careful reading of the article shows that there are a number of reasons why someone might retest as positive.

As with everything about this virus, there’s still a lot that experts are learning.

The U.S. is testing more slowly than other countries

March 15, 2020 2:35 p.m.

Rani Molla (Recode) made this chart and writes:

As of March 12, Americans had tested fewer than 10,000 people total when South Korea was testing that number of people in a day. Even Italy, where the coronavirus’s spread has forced the country to shut down, is testing people at a much higher rate than the US.

Source: VoxCare Newsletter, March 13, 2020