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Not great, not terrible

Started: 2020-03-29 21:57:51

Submitted: 2020-03-30 00:51:34

Visibility: World-readable

Let's escape to a nuclear disaster

The HBO miniseries Chernobyl opens in the control room of the eponymous nuclear reactor immediately after the nuclear disaster that made the reactor a household name. It's clear something went wrong, but it's far from obvious what precisely went wrong. The control room operator refuses to believe that anything is especially wrong, despite readings to the contrary. All of their radiation meters report 3.6 roentgen -- "not great, not terrible". It soon emerges, though, that 3.6 roentgen is the maximum reading of their equipment -- the needle is pegged, and the real reading is several orders of magnitude higher than that.

Watching the response to COVID-19 felt like watching Chernobyl: the presidential administration steadfastly refusing to acknowledge the crisis bearing down on us and denying all of the evidence to the contrary. The president is mercurial and erratic in the best of times; this crisis shows how fundamentally unfit for office he is, and how irresponsible everyone who put him in this position is. (Last year, Chernobyl was the bleakest show on television. Today it feels like lightweight escapism.)

On Monday morning last week, Google closed all of its US offices to non-essential employees: even if I wanted to go to my office for a change of scenery and to escape the distractions of my children, I was no longer allowed to do so. This official change in policy didn't actually change my behavior: I remained exiled from the office, saving myself the commute to the office (and paying for parking, and feeling vaguely guilty about driving to SLU) while having to feed myself and make my own coffee, trading the distractions of the open-plan office for the distractions of my household. (To be fair, my children are only responsible for about 25% of my distractions while working from my house. The rest is the looming uncertainty about the course of COVID-19, whether millions of people are going to die because the idiot in the Oval Office was too vain to recognize the true magnitude of the threat in time, and whether I'll be able to escape Seattle as I had carefully planned.)

The next shoe to drop, on Monday afternoon, was Washington Governor Jay Inslee ordering all "non-essential" businesses closed and ordering everyone to stay home in a desperate attempt to reduce R0 and reduce the spread of the novel Coronavirus. We were still allowed to go out for groceries and for exercise -- as long as we kept six feet away from everyone else.

I bought a crochet Coronavirus on Etsy, because I wanted something cute and the Post Office was still functioning. And then I wondered how paranoid I ought to be about the potential for virus transmission on the packaging. (I assumed the contents were safe because it had spent several days in transit.)

Crochet coronavirus
Crochet coronavirus

By the end of the week we had all been away from our work and school for two weeks, suggesting that none of us had caught COVID-19 at work or school, so at least we didn't have that to worry about.

The biggest thing that surprises me in this current crisis is how I don't feel like I'm handling it very well -- especially because I feel like I can handle emergencies well (a trait that helps me succeed as an SRE). I have a long list of incidents I've managed as an SRE at Google, including a pair of global App Engine outages in 2017 and 2018, that I handled not because I knew how to solve the problems, but because I could concentrate on the problem at hand and I knew what to ask and I had the rest of the team at my back.

Every time I took the pager for App Engine I wondered, in the back of my mind, what fresh new hell I was going to experience this time. Every time I had some weird new page I'd never seen before, but I (mostly) figured it out and kept the service running -- and when everything went to hell there was a War Room I could commandeer to organize the response, and no matter what happened I could hand off the incident when my shift ended and I could go to sleep and it would probably be better in the morning.

None of that safety net applies to the current crisis. I don't know how to articulate what I need from my support system, and all of my coping mechanisms don't work: I can't go for a hike or skiing or on a tactical weekend vacation to Joshua Tree because everything is closed or nearly closed. (Seattle is closing the parking lots at "destination parks" around the city, so I can't even leave my neighborhood and go anywhere outdoors for a change of scenery.) I literally cannot get on a plane and fly somewhere warmer and sunnier and drier because everything is closing. So I am trapped in my house, in an alien city I don't want to live in that doesn't fit me and does not feel like my home (a cruel linguistic irony that I feel every time I hear "work from home" or "stay home"), with no end in sight.

Maybe I'd be able to cope with this crisis better if it didn't feel like an existential threat to the one thing that's kept me going for the past year: the promise that I can move back home to the Bay Area this year.

Meridian Playground closed during COVID-19
Meridian Playground closed during COVID-19

The best I can hope for right now is that, maybe, my three-weeks-and-counting exile from the office has succeed in bending the exponential curve. There's some evidence that, maybe, the growth in new cases in Washington is not accelerating as fast as it could be, though there's enough uncertainty in the number of tests being performed (still several orders of magnitude less than we need to really get a good handle on the true breadth of the virus) that it's still unclear where the crisis is going. And in a few more weeks, if we've bent the curve far enough to avoid overwhelming the medical system (at least in Washington -- I'm less optimistic about the progress of the pandemic elsewhere in the country and the world) we still have to maintain the same level of lock-down to avoid another outbreak, until we manage to bring massively more testing capability online.

Hope is not a strategy, but it's literally all I have at the moment so I guess I'll have to take it.

Modern mobile phones make my head hurt, and I speak as the owner of a
sheepskin that proclaims me to hold a degree in computer science.
- Charles Stross, What I want for Christmas