BlogOfTheMoon

Thursday, 18 March 2021

A year of living in a Covid world

I last wrote about the Covid-19 pandemic a couple of months into it. It’s now been exactly a year since I last worked a full day in my office, so it seems like a good time to revisit the topic and reflect on the last year.

March 2020 was a strange time. I’d been on strike on and off for several weeks beforehand, and hadn’t been in the office much anyway. There was some low-level worry about this new disease, but it didn’t really seem like much until the very last day of the strike, when the picket was called off, and it suddenly started to feel very real. I came back to work after the strike ended, to find the office already half empty. I didn’t really like the idea of working from home full time, and had intended to try to go into work a few times a week, but just a handful of days later, the full lockdown started. I never expected at that point to a) still be working from home a year later and b) how much I’d come to enjoy it! Although I don’t have to commute any more (which is just so freeing), I still get up at the same time as before but instead use the commute time to go for a walk and listen to podcasts before starting the working day, which I enjoy quite a lot (especially when the weather’s nice). I also go for a long walk after work – my pedometer tells me I’ve been getting ten thousand steps more consistently this last year than ever before – and almost never work after hours any more. Unlike many, I think my work/life balance has been improved since working from home!

I do, of course, realise that I’m very lucky. I live alone and have no dependants, so don’t have to worry about home-schooling or getting under someone else’s feet when trying to work. I’ve got a decent space for working and I’m both well-paid and my job was easy to move to remote working, so I’m still working, much I was before. None of these things are universally true, and I’m very grateful for the advantages I’ve had.

I’ve mostly coped okay with not seeing people in person over the last year. During the period when things opened up in the summer (too much, as we discovered afterwards) I took advantage of it to meet a handful of people, over lunch or in the garden. There are short periods when I miss people intensely, but the drip feed of personal contact, combined with online socialising keeps me sane. While we’ve been back in a full lockdown since January, the online socialising has been fine, although I am looking forward to arranging some outdoor visiting as soon as the weather is clement enough to do so.

What brought the pandemic properly home was when my friend Olaf died of Covid-related causes. I hadn’t seen much of him for a while before that, and I regret that now. But there was always supposed to be time ahead of us. He was just my age. Later in 2020 my great uncle also contracted Covid-19 and died of it – although I didn’t really know him. I wonder just how many families have been touched by this – whether it’s someone who died of or became seriously ill with Covid this past year, or know someone who has.

During the summer, I thought we had the thing licked, with case numbers in Scotland down to almost zero. Obviously we know how that ended up. But with the authorities, in the UK and Scotland, insisting that a Christmas loosening of the rules was going to happen, I made arrangements to go back to NI and see my parents, for the first time in a year, only for the last-minute panic and stay-at-home order. At least I’m luckier than many, since my sister and her family live nearby, so I was able to set up an extended household with them and have both Diwali and Christmas with them. But they’re not exactly within walking distance, and although they’ve been kind enough to chauffeur me to and from theirs when we’ve met up (to avoid me having to brave public transport, even when that was allowed), it means that it’s not exactly something I can do on a whim.

Over the course of the year, we can see just how badly the UK fared in terms of cases and deaths compared to comparable countries. We didn’t lock down quickly enough and then we opened too quickly and too hard. We maybe did a bit better in Scotland, but I think we followed England too closely. Our peak of cases and deaths was well below that of England (per million), but still much higher in the first wave than, say, Germany (although their second wave seems to track ours more closely). this is a consequence of far too many politicians baying for the end of restrictions as soon as the graph starts to dip, and a compliant media who amplify those voices at the expense of reason. By the way, there’s great data visualisation on lots of data related to Covid-19 developed by Travelling Tabby, which is a great way to view what can be some quite complex data (although why it takes a student-run travel blog to do this, rather than official sources, I’m not entirely sure).

There’s been worry in the UK that some people have ignored requests to self-isolate if they’ve been in contact with someone who might have the virus. And although it’s not something I can condone, I can understand it. The UK has an insanely low level of statutory sickness benefit (this report shows the UK had the 2nd lowest level of sickness benefit in the EU in 2016), and because of that, there are many people who just can’t afford to not work. This would have been the perfect time to do a large-scale pilot of a universal basic income, or even to raise sickness benefit to a sensible level, but, well, that’s expecting the Tory government to see beyond their own nose.

The most exciting development of the Covid year was probably the speed at which multiple vaccines were developed for it, some using an exciting new technology (mRNA). I’m so excited both by the development and prospect of getting my own jag (although I fully expect that to be some months away yet). That very speed has caused some consternation amongst people worried about just how fast these vaccines were developed (although I think of it the other way around – why are most vaccines so slow to develop?). But everything I’ve read suggests that safety hasn’t been stinted upon, just the long gaps between stages while the developers desperately try to scrounge up some more funding to continue development. If nothing else, lack of money hasn’t been a factor in the development of these vaccines.

The rollout of the vaccine(s) in the UK has been a surprising (to me) success, although I’m not the first to point out that this was the bit they left to the NHS, without outsourcing it to private consultants and/or mates of the governing party. I’ve been watching the number of vaccines given on the Travelling Tabby page and it’s so good to see that number going up and and up. My parents and most of my extended elder family have already had their first dose and I can’t wait to level up my immune system.

After a year of being at home I’m almost dreading returning to the office, and not just because we’re going to be kicked out of our small offices in the beautiful Gilbert Scott Building to open plan working in the awful Tay House. The idea of sitting in an airless meeting room with too many people makes my skin crawl, and much as I’m looking forward to going back to the theatre, I don’t know how well I’ll cope in such a crowd. I already look at films and TV shows from the Before Time and shout at the telly that everyone’s standing too close together and not wearing masks. I imagine we’ll adapt fairly quickly, but the transition will be weird.

So, it’s been a hell of a year. I might have been mostly fine, but an awful lot of people haven’t. Whether it’s through being afraid to leave your home for fear of the disease, losing your job, being furloughed, being a key worker and having to be out in public, having to home-school children, or any combination of those and more, this past year has been difficult. I hope that this shared experience will make us kinder and more compassionate towards each other. I can’t wait to get out and hug my friends and family again, when it’s safe.

Monday, 1 March 2021

Podcast recommendations: Science

In what should be the penultimate post in this series, I talk about podcasts about science. Sorry, I mean about Science!


How to Vaccinate the World

Tim Harford, of More or Less fame, started How to Vaccinate the World on BBC Radio 4 in the middle of November 2020 to talk about the then-exciting new possibility of vaccination for Covid-19, and how to get it into as many people across the world as possible. This is a very fast-moving subject and it’s gone from theoretical to actually happening very quickly. That has brought a number of controversies with it, from vaccine nationalism to the gap between doses to how to transport and deliver it. Like More of Less, it’s calm and collected and gets to the nub of whatever matter they’re discussing. There isn’t always a clear answer, the real world is messy like that, but it’s great for breaking through the hysteria that the 24 hour news cycle generates. Episodes are half an hour long.

The infinite Monkey Cage (science)

Combining science and comedy, The Infinite Monkey Cage from the BBC brings together presenters Robin Ince and Professor Brian Cox with world-leading scientists and comedians to discuss subjects ranging from space archaeology to the science of cooking to whether or not time actually exists to that ultimate question: are strawberries alive? The tone is usually light, but there’s real science, coming from experts in the field, with Ince ready to jump in with a quip if things get too heavy. The podcast episodes tend to be longer than the broadcast ones, running up to about 45 minutes.


And that’s it for podcasts that I listen to regularly. Next up, I’m going to talk about podcasts I used to listen to but don’t any more and why you might want to listen anyway. You can find the other posts in this series below.

Monday, 15 February 2021

Podcast Recommendations: Culture and Ideas

Podcasts are all the rage right now. I listen to a fair few, and I’ve got opinions about them. Opinions that I’m happy to share with you. You can read the first post in the series, where I talk about the SF podcasts that I’ve enjoyed here, and read on for my opinions about podcasts in the hand-wavey category of culture and ideas.


99 Percent Invisible

99 Percent Invisible (99PI to its friends) is a very difficult thing to describe. Nominally it’s a podcast about architecture and design, but their actual remit is so much wider than that suggests. Recent episodes have included stories about Santa Fe’s Pueblo Revival architecture; the history of movie novelisations; and how the US Government released almost the entirety of Enron’s emails (the episode on city flags and why they’re awful is a classic and was later turned into a TED talk). It’s always fascinating, and they’ve been going for over a decade now, with over 400 episodes in the archive, and an incredibly detailed website that expands on the stories in the podcast. Episodes are released weekly and are usually between thirty and forty minutes long. The only downside is that so much of my conversation these days starts “Ooh, I heard something really interesting on 99PI the other day…”

It’s hosted by Roman Mars, whose smooth West-coast tones are very easy on the ear, and from whom I learned to “always read the plaque”.

More or Less

More or Less is a BBC Radio 4 programme about statistics in the news and in life, presented by Tim Harford (aka the Financial Times Undercover Economist). So many of the numbers we get bombarded with in the media are either only superficially true, based on a misunderstanding, or are just outright lies. More or Less has been gallantly standing up for the truth and to improve public understanding of numbers and statistics for years now.

It’s an excellent show, usually talking about the stats that have come up in the media the week prior to broadcast, and they take listener questions too. They try and get to the original source of statistics, delving into the scientific literature and talking to the experts (experts! Remember them?). Obviously the last couple of series have been pretty focussed on Covid-19, but they occasionally still find time to talk about other things (butterfly decline in the UK in a recent episode, for example). Episodes are half an hour long.

Reasons to be Cheerful

Reasons to be Cheerful, a podcast about political ideas, completely rehabilitated Ed Miliband for me. Released from the shackles of having to be bland and media-friendly (not that that really worked for him), he’s surprisingly passionate and funny. This podcast was started in the wake of the 2015 general election and consists of him and radio presenter Geoff Lloyd discussing ideas in the political and cultural sphere and finding reasons to be cheerful. From universal basic income to improving public transport to the four day week, they cover a broad spectrum of ideas. And they do it in reasonable depth too. They interview a series of experts, and are generally happy to let them talk about their expertise, without that horrid macho interruption so common in media political interviews. They do sometimes make the usual mistake in “UK” politics of thinking UK = England, which can be a bit frustrating at times, but there’s more than enough more general conversations that make up for it.

They’ve got great chemistry together and are obviously good friends off-mic. At times, I feel I listen to it for the the banter between them as much for the ideas.

Episodes are released weekly and there’s over 175 episodes in the archive. The episodes tend to be about an hour long.

Reply All

Reply All, aside from being a function that you should think very carefully before using in your email client, is a podcast about the Internet: about the people who shaped it and how it shapes people. This is another podcast that interprets its remit broadly. They’ve featured episodes on feelings of impotence in the face of the climate emergency; trying to explain QAnon; finding out about the story behind JenniCam, (a blast from the past for Internet users of a certain age); and looking at the story behind spam recordings that sometime briefly take over American government phone numbers. It’s a fascinating insight into the underbelly of the Internet, and the feature where they explain some of the weirder memes floating around the web/social media to their boss has shown me parts of Internet culture that I wish I could unsee, but it’s really interesting from an anthropological point of view.

In tone, it’s often quite light, and the hosts mock each other mercilessly, but they’re not afraid to share their feelings and to go into quite dark places at times. There was, for example, a multi-part story where one of the producers talks to a man in prison for murder, having discovered him because he wrote a blog from the inside (on paper, that his mother took away and typed up for him).

The show is normally released fortnightly, but the schedule can sometimes be vaguer than that, and they always take some time off in the summer where they run reruns. There’s over 170 episodes (including reruns) in the archive and episodes started off at running under half an hour, although these days they’re closer to between forty minutes and an hour.


So there’s the second set of podcasts, the next set will probably fit whatever the theme the post will be about a bit better. You can find the other posts in the series below.

Wednesday, 13 May 2020

Life in the Bunker

Something important that I missed from my last post about life in lockdown is The Bunker. Right at the start of the pandemic, before official lockdown happened, my friend Morag (finally) joined WhatsApp and set up a small group of friends to keep our mutual morale up in the uncertain times that were to follow. This group quickly grew into a much larger support group of friends that I don’t always see very frequently in person.

Particularly right at the start, when we were still trying to adjust to the new rules, The Bunker (as the group quickly became known) was vital. In the very early days, it was a chance to worry about what was happening in a safe space, and also to take our minds off the outside world. It’s since become my go to place when I feel a bit low and just fancy hanging out with some friends, knowing that someone will be around with some geek chat, stupid memes, or gifs (all the gifs!), possibly all at the same time.

The Bunker was the first thing that came out of this for me that wasn’t wholly negative and I hope it continues well after Covid-19 is crushed by the advance of medical science. It’s like the old Io group of years gone by, reconstituted (Morag compared it to one of my parties, which is also where old Io types tend to congregate, but only a couple of times a year).

So thanks to Morag for both the idea and for inviting me to shelter in The Bunker. I look forward to lots more esoteric geek chat and many more gifs in the weeks, months, and, indeed, years to come.

Tuesday, 12 May 2020

Life in Lockdown

We’re now into our eighth week of lockdown. And, to be honest, I feel fine. I’m actually surprised by how fine I am about it. Preceding lockdown, I was just back in the office after nearly a month of staggered strike action, so it felt odd to be out of the office again almost immediately.

Work in lockdown

We started working from home the week before full lockdown, when the government was just encouraging us to work from home, and the day before I left the office, I was talking to a colleague, saying how I wasn’t looking forward to working from home and how I’d probably drop into the office a few days a week. And then, bam, we’re all told to stay in our houses, except for essentials.

In just a few weeks, I’ve grown to thoroughly enjoy working from home, especially since I pulled out a second monitor and discovered that (despite what Google says), you can Remote Desktop from Windows 7 Professional to Windows 10 Enterprise Edition and make the RDP session stretch across both monitors. I had been very much missing my second monitor (#FirstWorldProblems, I know) and this resolved that issue (at the expense of a cluttered desk). I am thoroughly enjoying not having to commute into work every day, and I’m also finding that, for the most part, I have fewer meetings as well, which is fantastic. My work are awful for unnecessary meetings (how often have I walked out of a meeting and thought — or, indeed, said out loud — “that could have been an email”), so anything that discourages that can only be a good thing.

I’m lucky in that I can work from home pretty easily. My team quickly adapted to using MS Teams chats to replicate conversations in the office and after some trial and error, I eventually settled on the best way to do video calls (my workstation is a desktop PC so didn’t have a webcam, although I got one later, so video calls were done with a tablet balanced on a pile of books to start with).

I think even after this is over, I’ll try and work from home several times a week, if I can. I don’t know viable that will be; at the moment it works because everyone is doing it, but if most people are in the office and you’re the only one who isn’t, then it might be harder. But I think it’s worth trying.

I do, very much, appreciate that I’m in a very privileged position to think this way. I don’t have any children or dependants. I think my colleagues and my friends who have kids are finding it much harder than I am, and some would welcome a return to the office.

I settled into a routine fairly quickly. After we started working from home, but before lockdown, I was walking as far as the bus stop and back every morning, to get myself going, heading out at lunch time and again in the evening. Lockdown put a stop to that, but I kept a long walk after work, usually along the canal and back (although I did still take a quick spin around the block in the morning to start my day, but don’t tell anyone).

One thing I do still miss is someone else making lunch for me. I’ve always made my own dinners, but for a long time now, I’ve tended to have lunch in cafes and restaurants when I’m at work. I miss that, although I do enjoy sitting to read after lunch and only having a few steps to get back to my desk afterwards, which gives me more time to read.

Play in lockdown

That first week, all my weekly social interactions were canned, but it wasn’t long before we started to use Google Hangouts for a virtual pub meet, and virtual roleplaying, and using Discord and first Vassal and later Tabletop Simulator for Friday board games night. Soon, my regular social life was back in full swing. It was hard not going for dinner with friends and several long-planned theatre-trips were cancelled, but the regular stuff was back.

Initially, though, even that was difficult as every time I had a video call, I was reminded that I was apart from my friends and couldn’t hang out with them. That’s got easier as time as gone on — humans are pretty adaptable — but I still miss just being in the same room as my pals.

Like everyone else, I’ve been baking quite a lot during lockdown. The only problem is that I live on my own, so I have to eat everything I bake on my own. I can’t even give any to my upstairs neighbours (which I did at the start) as they’re Muslim and it’s Ramadan. That hasn’t stopped me though, with bakes including potato and cheese bread, cream-cheese filled banana bread and peanut-butter brownies. I definitely think I’m eating more during lockdown!

Leaving the house in lockdown

Apart from my daily long walk, the only other time I leave the house is to go shopping. I’m not vulnerable or a key worker or anything, so I’m happy to leave the online shopping slots to people who need them and just walk to the supermarket once a week as usual. For the first few weeks, there were long (although fast-moving) queues to get in, and lots of empty shelves. The queues are now much shorter, and almost all the shelves are full again. This is the only time when I’m in close proximity to anything resembling a crowd, and at the start, I was so starved of human contact, I even broke my cardinal rule and chatted to the person at the checkout!

Getting my parents home

The one big thing that I did worry about for a long time was my parents. They went on holiday to visit family and friends in India in February, long before Covid-19 was a major worry. They were due to be back at the start of April, but India closed itself to commercial air travel long before that. For a while, they thought that their commercial flight would just be delayed by a few weeks, but after the second cancellation, I got them registered on the wait list for the British Embassy’s repatriation flights (which only started after a degree of public pressure was put on the Foreign Office). Then there were several weeks of agonised (for my sister and me) waiting. My parents were safe with family and in no danger, but it was stressful at this end.

Eventually, a flight did come up, and the embassy arranged transport to the local airport and I was able to watch them leave the country in real time on Flight Radar. The Foreign Office only arranged for them to come into Heathrow, but there were still some flights back to Northern Ireland, and I got them on to one of those, and arranged for my uncle to collect them from Belfast. Watching the the flight, along with my sister on WhatsApp, was the only thing that kept me going through a dull Zoom meeting that was going on at the same time.

Also, can we take a moment here to appreciate the fact that I can, sitting at my desk in Glasgow, watch pretty much any commercial flight in the world with sensor readings, altitude, direction, current location and much more, in real time. Sometimes living in the future is actually pretty cool.

Human contact in lockdown

So, week eight and I feel fine. At this stage, I think I could work from home indefinitely, but I would really love to see my friends and family again. One issue with living alone is that I haven’t touched another human being in that long. And while I’m not necessarily the most touchy-feely of people anyway, the fact that I can’t pick up my nephlings or hug a friend is emotionally hard, even if in practice I might go weeks or months without doing so.

Politics in lockdown (or why Nicola Sturgeon is still awesome)

Finally, I can’t go through a post about life in a pandemic without talking about the political aspects. While we might applaud the UK government for the largest employment support scheme ever seen in the UK, their handling of issues like PPE for front line staff and the shambles of their handling the end of the lockdown has been disastrous. I’m very glad that in Scotland, we’ve got a consistent and clear message coming from Nicola (not to mention Janey Godley giving us the uncensored version that Nicola’s thinking but isn’t allowed to say 😉 ).

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