Friendships, Change and Memories

Sometimes I think about all the good friends I made online over the years, ever since I first got on the internet in 1996. A few of them I’m in touch with, many others I lost all traces of. Most of those, I have no way of reaching: I may not know or remember their full name, or they may have moved, or not be very active online. Most importantly, they may not even remember who I am, or may not care. So I don’t even try to contact them: what would the point be, anyway?

But I do think about them, especially when I’m feeling low, or around the time when people start feeling festive. Most of those friends I never met in person, or I may have only met them once, yet those friendships did matter to me. They were never just “names on a screen”. They were real people, with whom I shared a part of my life.

And so, as yet another year goes by — a year during which so many things in my own life have changed, yet so many other things could not change despite my plans and hopes — I can’t help but wonder: how are they doing? are they alive and well? has life treated them fairly? did they make the right choices for themselves? I think about them fondly, even those with whom I had disagreements or whose friendship ended abruptly, not just because we simply drifted apart as life got in the way.

It’s amusing, in a way, how we never know whether we’re going to speak with someone again. When I think of all the people I lost, I try to remember when I last spoke with them, and what we talked about. I really can’t remember any such conversations, as much as I would love to, because we weren’t even aware that we would have never spoken again. Maybe we just stopped using the same software or the same server, or perhaps we kept postponing going back indefinitely, and just never did.

One thing I learned is that sometimes we — I do, at least — feel the need to take a break from everything, collect our thoughts, and focus on more urgent matters. We strive to put the world on hold, while we do what we must to handle whatever life has thrown at us. But it doesn’t work like that: we can’t tell the world to wait. It’s not that we’re not important enough: nobody really is, and that’s the point. We may delude ourselves into thinking that the universe is on our side, that we’re somehow special, but the truth is that life is a video game that you just can’t pause; at most, you can mark yourself “afk” (away from keyboard) but everyone else is going to keep doing their thing. And when you come back, well, things may not be the same. The world may have changed. People may have left, or moved on. And when that happens, accepting the new status quo is tough: was I selfish to take some time for myself? why didn’t they wait for me?

For those of us who are not blessed with an innately social disposition, it can be disheartening. Memories pile up, coated in nostalgia, hand in hand with an ever-growing sense of guilt: it is our fault, we did want to put the world on hold. We should have known better, but we were selfish; and that is why we ended up ruining everything. But did we?

It is only human to feel overwhelmed, and we all have a different threshold for tolerance. Further, we are not all on the same page. Not only we react to things differently, but we also go through wildly different experiences, ever since the day we are born into the world screaming, till the day we draw our last breath and fall forever silent. To think that two people would react the same way to the same events is naïve at best, hypocritical at worst. Assumption, after all, is mother of all mistakes. And we make many mistakes, especially when it comes to dealing with ourselves, even before considering our relationships with others.

Daniel Sloss, a Scottish comedian, talked about how we approach others and how rare it is for two to “click” for real on a deep level, since we all have different sides that most often do not match, and require reaching a compromise. His shows are on Netflix, and I urge everyone to watch them. While he mostly refers to love and couples, I believe that the deeper issue remains true for all sorts of relationships, even among friends. It is not exactly rare for long-term friendships to eventually die out, often spectacularly, under the weight of seemingly minor issues. Whose fault is it?

Our mistake is expecting that others will never change, yet everyone changes all the time. I’m not the same person I was a year ago, let alone ten years ago; nobody is, and that is just the way it is. We simply fail to notice it, much like we don’t realize how much our pet is growing because we live with them, yet someone else immediately notices and surprises us when they point it out. We only see the change in others; and we find that unsettling, because we are blind to how we change ourselves.
Even the mightiest buildings come crashing down when they’re built incautiously, without taking into account how external forces may and shall affect them over time. Constructions ought to be strong to withstand hurricanes, yet flexible to survive earthquakes. And even those that seem destined to rise above the horizon throughout the ages may fail and be destroyed before we have time to blink. Strong foundations, while absolutely necessary, are never enough on their own.

The same goes for friendships, and indeed all relationships. Some may only last a short while until circumstances change very slightly, others may thrive despite long periods of absence and apparent carelessness. Others yet may just run their course, however brief or long that may be, but that doesn’t make them any less important for the parties involved.

And so I think back on all the people I met over the years, mostly but not only online, whose current whereabouts are unknown to me. I think about them, and I do indeed wonder: how are they doing? are they alive and well? has life treated them fairly? did they make the right choices for themselves? Whatever the answers to those questions may be, and whether our paths will ever cross again, I’m glad that we got to walk side by side, at least for a while, along this insane road that is life.

A Few Personal Thoughts about the War on Ukraine

As I mentioned in my previous post, I haven’t been on social media much ever since September 2021. Personal issues just took priority, and I decided to take a break from all the negativity I was subjecting myself to. I will talk about that in another post, as I still want to resume writing more or less regulary; it’s just that I’ve been quite busy with everything, so I haven’t had much of a chance to do so.
Still, if anyone who had me on social media is wondering how things are around here, with the war in Ukraine and everything: I’m fine, we’re fine. Sort of.

I’ve always considered myself European first and foremost, much more so than I’ve considered myself Italian. For me, “here” means Europe. And to get news about war taking places “here” is scary, concerning, disheartening. It’s also disappointing to see that the choices made by the European Union during the past decade with regard to the eastern situation were, well, pretty much wrong, to put it mildly. Then again, how should have that been played? Should sanctions have been applied when Russia invaded and claimed Crimea? Should fighter jets have been shipped to the area? I honestly don’t know, I genuinely have no idea. And “ifs” and “buts” can’t change history.

The fact remains that war is here and it’s something that I would have never expected. This may come as a shock to USians but we’re not used to wars, and most EU countries not only don’t even have conscription anymore, we also don’t have a fetish for the military. See, when your whole continent is wrecked by two destructive wars in the span of three decades, you realize that maybe that’s not best approach to things.

Back in 2015, this graph was shared by the European Union itself:

Yes, that’s a bit simplistic and self-celebratory. Yes, we did have the Yugoslav wars, which had their fair share of war horrors including genocide. Those were terrible, there is absolutely no denying that, and I will write about my own memories of those in a subsequent post. However, it’s worth pointing out that the whole idea of Yugoslavia was always complicated, and it was probably inevitable that it would end like that. Still, we also very recently had countries splitting up quite amicably, such as Serbia and Montenegro in 2006.

For many of us, especially those from my generation who grew up with the idea of Europe being united, seeing those images from Ukraine evokes a sense of uneasiness. We feel powerless, and we think about all the documentaries we saw of our own countries looking like that less than a century ago. Comparing Putin and Hitler is a futile exercise: they’re different in many ways, yet their actions are similarly wicked; if not in scale, for their effects.

It’s honestly difficult to explain how I, and many others, feel. It seems like history has sped up considerably. Lenin, of all people, famously said that “There are decades where nothing happens; and there are weeks where decades happen”.

Countries like Germany and even Switzerland have abandoned their traditional pacifism to back sanctions. Several eastern countries, that is Ukraine, Moldava and Georgia, have formally applied to join the European Union. Ukraine’s own president regularly posts heartfelt appeals to the international community to do more. Meanwhile reports of war crimes keep coming: Russian tanks crushing civilian vehicles, shooting on supposed humanitarian corridors, bombing cities despite an alleged ceasefire, and shelling children’s hospitals.

And amidst all of that, regular Russian citizens, the vast majority of them, people like me writing and you reading, are jailed if they dare protest. And many people, the older generation especially, doesn’t know or believe what’s happening; and that’s not just in Russia, it’s happening even in Ukraine.

One word I’ve seen mentioned time and time again in these last few days, in posts and tweets and reports from and by people living there, is “brainwashing”, or even “state brainwashing”. It seems surreal at a glance, but think about all the fake news and hoaxes that people believe where you live. Think of how much easier covid could have been handled if only dangerous hoaxes hadn’t swept the planet worse than the virus itself. Think of Orwell’s “1984”. Think of Fox News in the US, or Mediaset’s newscasts in Italy. Is it really that hard to believe that people can be brainwashed when a single entity controls the media?

When I was in high school, the topic of media control came up. I can’t even remember the context, or even the teacher; I think it may have been the last Electronics teacher I had, because he was prone to going off on a tangent and talking about technology’s role in society (during my final state exam, he asked me about how the invention of transistors changed warfare; he didn’t even ask me about transistors themselves, he just wanted me to go philosophical.) Well, he said something about the media that I had never thought about. He asked: when a coup d’état takes place, what’s the first thing they try to seize control of? In our naïve teenage innocence, we confidently replied: the parliament. It makes sense, right? He shook his head, smirked, and said: no, they seize the media. The TV towers, the radio stations, the newspapers. Again, look at how wildly different narrative is in your native country, depending on which newspaper you read or what newscast you watch. People consider the media as inherently authoritative, so if you’re taking control of an area, you want to make sure that the only authoritative voice is yours.

And yet, while new technologies inherently promote the diffusion of fake news, they can also provide a way for information to spread when everything else seems to fail. It takes a lot of effort to tell what’s real and what isn’t, especially when time is short, people are literally dying, and it’s very easy to fall prey to emotion.

I don’t know how long this war will be. It’s clear that Russia expected this to be quick, and it didn’t go as well. This video explains some of the reasons, but keep in mind that things are happening very quickly and nothing is always as easy as it seems. Even “Putin is just crazy” doesn’t work, as a former Russian minister clearly explained.

I don’t know if the war will expand west, which is almost certain if a no-fly zone is declared in Ukraine. I don’t know what will happen if nuclear weapons are used by any party involved (or not yet involved). I don’t think anybody knows and, again, to know that this is happening “here”, in Europe, is scary at such a subconscious level that it’s hard to explain.

And — forgive me if I’m going to be more direct from this point on — what’s even harder to explain is how stupid it all seems when you take a step back and look at the bigger picture. Everyone’s got their arguments, and everyone’s right from some point of view or another. But then you see pictures of a woman in labor being evacuated because a maternity hospital has been bombed and there are dozens of children and newborns feared dead under the rubble, and pictures of dead people being buried in a trench turned into a mass grave, and you realize that we’ve just fucking failed as a species. Homo sapiens, human’s scientific name, means wise man. Sapiens my ass.

We talk so much of colonizing the universe, of tuning our bodies to rid us of disease, of living forever, and we can’t even be decent to one another. We hate on one another just because they were born on this or that side of a line on a map, or because their skin is a different shade, or they speak a different language. Hell, we hate on one another because they keep putting their garbage half a meter away from their designated spot and that just pisses us off and we want to strangle them for that. We are fucking stupid. All of us, collectively, as a species.

I saw a report earlier that thermobaric weapons have been used by Russia in Ukraine. I didn’t even know what that was, but I’ll spare you the search: it’s a bomb that uses fuel differently from a traditional one, so it causes more damage. A true feat of engineering, honestly. But then I read that their usage is only illegal if it’s against civilians. That made me laugh. I swear, I started laughing when I read that. How do you even enforce something like that? How do you apply rules to war? Seriously, how do you even do that? Even a declaration of war allegedly has rules, but if you’re attacking someone, why would you even care in the end?

It’s all very surreal, and overall stupid. Absolutely stupid. If we truly put our collective brains to good use, we would be doing truly great things. But we’re just a bunch of talking apes taking themselves way too seriously, so we just bomb the shit out of one another because we woke up angry.

Back in 1990 — Yugoslavia and the Soviet Union were still around — we got a picture from Voyager 1, a little spacecraft that had been floating in space for 23 years at that point. It was 6.4 billion kilometers away. There’s a tiny little spot on the right side of the picture, right through that vertical streak:

Astronomer and cosmologist Carl Sagan famously described it as follows, and I have been thinking about this a lot during the past few weeks.

Look again at that dot. That’s here. That’s home. That’s us. On it everyone you love, everyone you know, everyone you ever heard of, every human being who ever was, lived out their lives. The aggregate of our joy and suffering, thousands of confident religions, ideologies, and economic doctrines, every hunter and forager, every hero and coward, every creator and destroyer of civilization, every king and peasant, every young couple in love, every mother and father, hopeful child, inventor and explorer, every teacher of morals, every corrupt politician, every “superstar,” every “supreme leader,” every saint and sinner in the history of our species lived there–on a mote of dust suspended in a sunbeam.

The Earth is a very small stage in a vast cosmic arena. Think of the rivers of blood spilled by all those generals and emperors so that, in glory and triumph, they could become the momentary masters of a fraction of a dot. Think of the endless cruelties visited by the inhabitants of one corner of this pixel on the scarcely distinguishable inhabitants of some other corner, how frequent their misunderstandings, how eager they are to kill one another, how fervent their hatreds.

Our posturings, our imagined self-importance, the delusion that we have some privileged position in the Universe, are challenged by this point of pale light. Our planet is a lonely speck in the great enveloping cosmic dark. In our obscurity, in all this vastness, there is no hint that help will come from elsewhere to save us from ourselves.

The Earth is the only world known so far to harbor life. There is nowhere else, at least in the near future, to which our species could migrate. Visit, yes. Settle, not yet. Like it or not, for the moment the Earth is where we make our stand.

It has been said that astronomy is a humbling and character-building experience. There is perhaps no better demonstration of the folly of human conceits than this distant image of our tiny world. To me, it underscores our responsibility to deal more kindly with one another, and to preserve and cherish the pale blue dot, the only home we’ve ever known.

As we once again fear for our collective demise, it’s impossible not to wonder: will we ever learn, before it’s too late?

Next week will be less busy

I’ve been meaning to start writing again for a while now, but I felt like I never had the time. In a sense, that’s the truth: I never felt like it was the right moment, so I kept waiting and postponing.

There is a joke that says: adulthood is thinking “next week will be less busy” until you die. It’s funny because it’s true — but it’s also quite sad. And it’s not only about work, because life gets in the way in many other ways.

I’m not going to go into details, but the last few months have been a rollercoaster as a close family member has been dealing with a medical situation. It involved a lot of driving, seeing multiple doctors, a one-week stay away from home while a complicated surgery was performed; and amidst all that, all the practicalities of day-to-day life with the constant background of the pain and issues that comes from them. I even stopped posting on social media, something that (perhaps not surprisingly, but that’s another story) most people didn’t even notice.

At every step along the way, I kept telling myself: I’ll start writing again when this next milestone is reached and I can breathe. Yet no milestone ever coincided with being done, quite the opposite. Suffice it to say that the surgery solved one problem, but opened up a whole new Pandora’s box. We’re now looking at weeks, or likely months, of more appointments with doctors, therapies, and whatnot. And of course, other things in life don’t stop. I still have to work, buy groceries, walk the dog, and handle everything else as it comes along.

As I bookmarked the millionth webpage I will never have time to properly read through, I realized one thing that should have been obvious all along: the perfect conditions may just never come together. Let’s be realistic: all these family issues aside, it’s extremely unlikely that every single piece of the puzzle of life will fall into place at the same time. And even if it did, it probably wouldn’t last long enough for me to be able to write all I have in my mind, or take all the photos I have planned, or whatever it is that I eventually want to do.

It seems clear in hindsight, even trivial. But it’s one of those things that’s easy to lose track of. Chalk it up to my being a perfectionist, maybe, or to an innate (and pointless) sense of guilt whenever I do something I enjoy. Even then, though, I know that I’m not ignoring what ought to be done for others, nor am I putting pleasure before duty. So if I do enjoy myself in a rare moment of downtime, where’s the harm? Besides, who knows how things will be in the future? We tell ourselves that next week will be less busy, but it never is. By extension, I may only have a little time for myself now, but at least I do have that little time. Why postpone enjoyable things indefinitely, if it doesn’t harm anyone and doesn’t distract me from what I’m supposed to be doing?

Furthermore, and I’m perfectly aware that this is a little morbid and fatalistic but bear with me here, who knows what the future will bring. These last few months have really gotten me thinking about how little time we have in general. It’s another cliché, of course it is. But the thing about clichés is that they are true, and sometimes you need to figure them out for yourself.

I’ve always been one who saves up, be it money in the bank, ammo in a video game, or projects to work on. Saving up, at every turn, because it’s better to have it for later if you don’t need it now. It’s a good approach and it’s served me well in times of emergency. But I’ve also denied myself many things and experiences in the name of “this is not the right time”. Yet, how do I know when the right time is? There’s no discrete amount of rightness, rather an infinite spectrum. And you get used to it, so it’s harder and harder to let go and loosen up.

I sometimes joke that “at any rate I have to die” when I do something somewhat hedonistic, whether that’s eating another chocolate croissant or buying a drone. It’s a joke, but lately I’ve been giving it some serious thought. I don’t mean this to be creepy, but then again it’s my stream of consciousness, so who cares? The point is: it’s exactly like that, at any rate I have to die. Again, it’s a cliché, but it’s a whole different experience when you reach that conclusion independently, instead of just reading it on a motivational poster.

I do have a finite number of days left in my life. I did start dying the moment I was born. Those are facts, and they apply to everyone, like it or not. Now I do not dwell in the delusion that I’ll accomplish something great that will change the course of humanity, nor that my own life is special to others in any way. But it is true that I only have so many moments to do something I enjoy, or something good, ideally both. It’s not even a matter of “I just wanna live while I’m alive” (Bon Jovi), because “there [are] worse things than dying” (Eric Bogle).

I’ve wasted many useful moments so far, and have no doubt, I will be wasting many more. Dealing for many years with certain things I don’t want to talk about is part of the reason, and I’m working on that. But my congenital sense of guilt? Well, I’m working on getting rid of it entirely. I may not be popular with others, and that’s fine. I just need to be popular with myself. I’m the one who’s always with myself (Max Pezzali), and I’m the one who needs to take care of myself. That means also taking the time to do something for myself, whether it’s writing, or taking photos, or recording a podcast. Even if time is limited, even if I can’t do it as well as I wish. A little is a slightly better than nothing, better than waiting for the perfect time, and much better than regretting the wait.

I look back at the things I was doing a few years ago, and I feel like I slowly lost track of those creative endeavors. Life got in the way, that’s for sure, but I also progressively distanced myself from them, as if growing up — or perhaps growing old — meant sacrificing myself in the name of some greater good. “I’ll do them when things get better” is a honest-to-god approach, but it also ultimately leads to nothing. And I can’t afford to lose myself even more.

I want to write, take pictures, record podcasts, try painting, make a movie, hack machines, create things. Not to be popular or famous, or god forbid rich; rather, just because I enjoy doing those things. And that’s all the reason I need, really, especially as I become more and more aware that time may be infinite in the universe, but is extremely scarce for a person.

So here’s the plan. I’m making no commitments, because life can and will get in the way. I’m not even giving myself a tentative schedule. But I’ll try to at least start writing more often, and hopefully post whatever I write on here. They may my thoughts and streams of consciousness, rather than “articles” or something useful. They may be rants. They may be politically incorrect and extremely biased. I don’t know and, to be completely honest, I don’t even care. Nor do I care whether one or a million people will read them, or even nobody. That’s not the reason I’m doing it. I also want to start picking up my photography again and doing a million other things I’ve put on hold until now, but that’s a whole different story.

And if the end result is not perfect, then who cares? I’ll try again and fail better: “I know the streets are cruel, but I’ll enjoy the ride today.” (Dream Theater)

Reflections on the Second Wave of COVID-19

As we head towards the so-called “second wave” of COVID-19, Italy is no longer at the forefront of the disease. Indeed, while back in March we led the sad tally of infections and deaths, we were also the first to enforce a country-wide lockdown. That, coupled with the shock from what we were seeing, made people accept and follow the rules. This is not something anyone took for granted: Italians have a strong tendency to disregard authority, but the worst that happened at the time was that couch potatoes claimed they needed to go out for a run, or something to that effect. We didn’t even hoard toilet paper, undoubtedly thanks to the ubiquitous presence of bidets, however we did hoard flour and baker’s yeast; pizza and bread were made and eaten, for if life is short, then carbs are the way.

The serious lockdown worked wonders for Italy, but then came the summer. As businesses slowly reopened and people were let out of their alleged houses-turned-cages, many forgot that the virus was still going around. I remember the day we had less than a thousand new cases: it did feel like victory, and I recall writing something like “Can we not mess this up, please?” on my personal Facebook profile; heart reactions only. We had made it. We had beaten the virus, scores of deaths notwithstanding. It felt good. Almost too good. People started traveling, meeting up, partying. Yet that dreaded word we had learned during the lockdown, assembramenti, echoed and lingered. It means gatherings, but with an ominous undertone of a shapeless mass of people all clustered together, the kind of thing that could turn into a stampede in the blink of an eye.

But it felt good to be out, and life was good. We had won. We watched the news reporting from other countries, and we felt good about ourselves. Look at the United States, how they managed to politicize even something as basic and obvious as face masks in the middle of a planet-wide pandemic. We conveniently forgot that several of our own politicians had been politicizing everything about the pandemic as well, but hey, we had won. Look at Brazil, how many people are getting infected because they believe the lies that Bolsonaro spreads. Look at the United Kingdom, bet they didn’t see this mess coming on top of Brexit, now did they? Look at Sweden, with their crazy plan for herd immunity. Why doesn’t everyone else enforce a full lockdown? We did it, and we won. It’s so easy. Campioni del mondo, campioni del mondo.

Then the summer season did that annoying thing that it’s been doing for time immemorial: it yielded to autumn. A few countries in Europe began counting more and more cases. Spain and France, especially, but not just them. They had all entered lockdown after us back in March, and in some cases left it earlier. Of course they’re having more cases, many of us thought: they didn’t learn the lesson. They didn’t win like we did. To tell the truth, they didn’t lose either: they did manage to flatten the curve, unlike other countries where the first wave effectively never ended. But they were falling for it again. That surely won’t happen to us, we told one another, to reassure us that the newly-rediscovered “old world” would not be taken away from us once more. After all, we won. We had won.

Come September. Schools reopened. People went back to work full time. Buses and trains and subways and trams were ridden. Like the first few snowflakes that slide over one another before eventually turning into an avalanche that destroys anything along its way, we dismissed the early signs. It’s inevitable, it’s expected. It’s physiological, a word we commonly use in Italian to describe something typical and unsurprising, completely oblivious to the irony of using it in this context. But as more and more calls for caution came from experts, louder and louder grew the complaints from both leaders and everyday folk. We can’t afford another lockdown, some said. We can’t let people die in the name of the economy, others replied. If we don’t die from the virus, then we’ll die from starvation, others still interjected. Those who had been pushing hoaxes and conspiracy theories, whether through ignorance or malice, or perhaps both, were having a field day spreading uncertainty and fear.

All the memories about the reasons behind the spring lockdown suddenly seem to have been forgotten by most. Many only remember that we went through that, and that it was difficult. But they forgot why we did that in the first place. They now feel that they were the true heroes for staying home watching Netflix all day, yet at the time they cried for the front-line doctors and nurses who risked their own lives to fight the actual fight. They now feel sick at the thought of being stuck inside for a few weeks again, yet at the time everyone’s biggest fear was for a relative to be hospitalized, because that meant not being able to even say goodbye if things were to take a turn for the worst. They now want their old life back because they had one more taste of it, yet in March they dared not even think about the future, as the news on TV mercilessly showed military trucks carrying the dead from hospitals to cemeteries.

As I’m writing this, Italy has had just below 20,000 new cases a day for two days in a row. Certainly a far cry from France and Spain’s situation, but these numbers double every week or so. Restrictions are coming, and a Christmas lockdown cannot be entirely ruled out. A few politicians are already going for it, which I personally find baffling — I have long given up any religion, but I distinctly remember being taught that God is everywhere (for better or worse), so that not being able to go to church really makes no difference if you’re a true believer. But that is beyond the point. The point is that things are going to take a turn for the worse soon, as more cases in general mean more serious cases, and more serious cases mean more hospitalizations, and more hospitalizations means more people in intensive care, and more people in intensive care means that eventually someone will not find a spot, and not having enough spots means that choices will have to be made about who gets to take those available spots. Some readers will undoubtedly be thinking that I am perversely enjoying writing such things, but believe me you, I find absolutely no enjoyment in saying these things, and indeed am extremely concerned about my own family. There is nothing I wish I could do more than reboot this timeline. But I learned long ago that pretending that everything is fine when everything is actually on fire only prevents proper planning and action. It’s just how it is, and me not liking it won’t make one iota of difference.

It would be easy to blame the young who want to meet their friends, or say that schools should have been reopened more carefully, to explain the current situation. But there’s no single cause of fault here. The simple fact is that the world has changed, and that until a vaccine comes out, things are going to be different. And that is assuming that a vaccine does come out and is effective in the long term. It’s not the first time that something comes along and changes everything for everyone. The World Wars, the fall of the Berlin Wall, 9/11 and more all come to mind. Yet those were all things that we, humans as a species, brought on. This is different, this is us that we were all collectively forced to deal with, and we don’t even know how long it will take. That’s what makes it hard to accept. (I won’t even entertain the concept of this virus being made in a lab, any more than I entertain the idea of airplanes leaving “chemtrails”: just like all pilots must eventually land, so has this virus hit everywhere.)

It is only natural to crave and pine for what we lost. Yet what needs to be done is to look ahead, even though it may not be easy, and it certainly is not. Had we accepted all of this sooner, had we not deluded ourselves into thinking that the worst was behind us, we may have avoided this. We thought that we had won, and we had; but we mistook the battle for the war, and cheered way too soon.

What concerns me is that, even as the numbers climb, many are still acting cocky. Just one example: a rule was made here for businesses to close at midnight, to prevent those alcohol-fuelled gatherings that are more likely to happen at night than during the day. A few businesses owners shut down at midnight as expected, and then opened again at five minutes past midnight. Perfectly legal, for sure, since the decree did not set up a time for reopening, but what does that accomplish beyond a few headlines and pats on the back for “standing up against the system”? What these people fail to see is twofold: that this is not a game of force, rather a game of strategy; and that this is about everyone, not just them individually.

Things are going to get worse before they get better, and if history has taught us anything, is that any pandemic’s second wave is usually worse than the first. We do have one huge advantage, however: we have statistics, science and data on our side. That’s unprecedented, and could make the difference in getting this disease under control more effectively and quickly than any other. We could coordinate efforts on a global scale. All it takes is to look beyond petty interests and disagreements, and work together on all levels: from governments sharing information and planning responses and reactions, to all of us wearing masks and practicing basic hygiene, if we really cannot avoid going places.

This virus, this enemy, this thing that we cannot see yet has managed to overthrow our sense of normalcy, it can only spread if we physically stay within reach of one another. That is its strength, for losing that makes us feel like we are not ourselves anymore; we are social animals, after all. And even thought our global, small world has sped up the spread of this virus, it also means that we have our cumulative, global knowledge to use against it.

Let us not fool ourselves: this winter — or summer, if you’re south of the equator — will not be easy. During the (first?) lockdown, Italians loved saying and writing “andrà tutto bene”: everything will be alright. It will, eventually. But they also kept saying “io resto a casa”: I’m staying home.

This is not something that the governments, the powers that be, the big guys can handle on their own. Our very actions can and do make a difference.

So I’ll ask for a favor once again.

Can we not mess this up, please?

Covid, Work, and Life: An Update

Those of you who follow me on social media may remember that I had mentioned resuming the podcast. That is still on the table, and it will eventually happen. However, life’s gotten in the way and the podcast, as much as I’d love to jump into it, is not a priority.

The current covid situation in Italy is decent enough. There have been outbreaks here and there, and there’s concern with younger people infecting one another as they enjoy their summer in a somewhat careless way. Schools will finally reopen mid-September, so whether that leads to a mess that requires another lockdown remains to be seen. In the meantime, I’ve already begun purchasing flour to make bread at home. Not kidding.

The economy is what is: a mess. I used to have my hands into a bunch of cakes with online gigs of various kinds, but most of those are gone. When I tell people, they’re usually shocked: “I thought you were safe, working online for foreign companies.” Yeah, well, not really. Those companies depend on having clients bringing money in, and especially with the US being the disaster zone that they are right now, that’s just happening less and less. It’ll take a while for things to bounce back, but yours truly ain’t no idiot and has been saving and planning for years. I’m not rich, but I’m not sinking in a month either.

And while a few gig have gone, a few others have come. I’ve begun collaborating with a neat gaming site called SideGamer, writing articles (you can find them here) and helping the boss with some behind-the-scenes stuff. Due to time constraints I don’t play games much lately, alas, so it’s been an interesting excuse to do that (“it’s for work!”), and a way to get words on paper screen again.

Indeed, writing those articles definitely rekindled my desire to write “my own stuff”, though you obviously wouldn’t be able to tell, since I don’t post here much. Then again, perhaps I’m writing something else and some announcement shall be made in the future, for all you know. The same applies to photography: not much to see, but lots of plotting and planning are happening, so stay tuned if you’re interested.

In the end, many things are changing all around us, and that may require us to contribute to those changes, or facilitate them. The thing is that leaps of faith are scary at the best of times, and downright terrifying at a weird moment in history like the one we’re collectively going through. It reminds me of this song, and the irony of that, I’m quite sure, won’t be lost on a small group of people who are probably grinning right now… (Never mind if you have no idea; that’s for the best, believe me.)

To quote Marvin: “Life! Don’t talk to me about life!”

Toward Phase 2 in Italy: thoughts and reflections

I haven’t posted in a while, and for that I apologize. Many people have been asking me how things have been going here in Italy, but the truth is that there’s been little to talk about. We mostly stayed inside, mostly followed the rules, and the curve was mostly flattened.

Over the last few weeks, however, a certain sense of restlessness took over the country. Politicians began complaining about the government’s rules still being too tight, which in itself is a glimpse of normality, which in turn both echoed and triggered people’s complaints. Many were expecting the 4th of May to bring a broad start to the so-called “Phase 2”, that is a wide removal of restrictions, but the government is still very cautious: starting tomorrow, a few people can go back to work, mostly those who work in manufacturing, and a few restrictions will be lifted, such as those currently limiting where individual sports can be practiced. Further restrictions will be lifted in one and two weeks, with even more (notably allowing hairdressers and beauty centers to reopen under certain conditions) in early June.

All of this, of course, provided that the numbers don’t go back up; if they do, we’re back into lockdown, and who knows for how long.

Getting here hasn’t been easy and there were certainly mistakes in how the whole thing was handled. The healthcare system in Italy has been severely underfunded in many areas for decades, and the fact that each Region handles healthcare separately also prevented a swift response; a few memos also leaked showing that the risk was known, but apparently ignored. Furthermore, in some areas more than others, proper testing is still not at scale, and many retirement homes have an almost 100% fatality rate, either because non-critical covid patients were moved there to make room in already overwhelmed hospitals, or just because all it takes was an asymptomatic visitor to have it spread like wildfire in an area where everyone is at risk. Still, time — and courts of law — will tell who is responsible for what.

While waiting for the upcoming slow reopening, a few governors (aka Regional presidents) and mayors have begun overridding the rules set out by the government. Depending on the area, restrictions may be tighter or looser. It makes sense on theory, but in practice it has led to the point where nobody has figured out what is or is not allowed. Many online newspapers are scrambling to post and update bullet point lists on that very topic, with readers being more and more confused.

The problem is that the latest decree on this reopening used very ambiguous verbiage, such as saying that people can now go and visit “congiunti”, a somewhat unusual word in everyday Italian that originally meant “relatives”, but can be intended to more broadly refer to “loved ones”. The immediate reaction was that it ignored non-standard relationships (such as civil unions as opposed to marriage), then people started wondering if that would include boyfriends and girlfriends in general. And what about friends? Or friends with benefits? How do you even certify that, anyway? A memo about that was posted by the government late last night: “congiunti” refers to relatives, partners and significant others as long as a “stable emotional bond” is in place between two people, explicitly excluding friends. I jokingly asked on Facebook: does that include people I’ve hated for the past twenty years? That’s a pretty stable emotion, if you ask me…

Then you have catholic bishops claiming that, since catholic mass is still not allowed except for very small funeral services in the open, this is an attack on religious freedom. Even the Pope himself said that health comes first and that there’s no such attack on anything, but in a country like Italy, where most people claim to be catholic despite not really caring until it’s about showing off crucifixes everywhere, that quickly snowballed into a few politicians demanding that churches be reopened in spite of the still pretty big health risks of putting together a bunch of people in small quarters.

In his speech outlining the provisions for early Phase Two, the Prime Minister said: “If you love Italy, keep your distance from others”. That also means following all the requirements that are still in place, such as wearing masks when inside shops and the like, avoiding unnecessary travel and contacts, and so on. And yet, the early and very cautious opportunities to go out granted by a few mayors were welcomed by hordes of people acting like not only this is were all behind us, but like it was never an issue in the first place.

Inevitably, all of this has split people’s opinions on what to expect in the next few weeks. Many are giddy and excited about Phase Two, about being able to go out again and resume their lives, and moving on. Others hope to be wrong but fear that in two weeks’ time we’ll back to another long-term lockdown.

Personally, I’m sorry to say that I lean more towards the second camp: I’m old enough and I’ve seen enough that makes it impossible for me to trust people on such a grand scale. I’m not necessarily anticipating another full lockdown, but I do think that numbers will go back up at least a little bit and, most importantly, I do not share the delusion of things going back to “normal” any time soon.

In fact, and this may sound gloomy to some but I just call it being pragmatic, I think that the world has already changed, whether we like it or not. I’m not saying that we won’t ever go back to being shoulder-to-shoulder with strangers, or to packing stadiums to the brim for concerts, or to boarding a plane like it’s no big deal; but it’ll take a long time until we’re reasonably sure that this thing is not a risk anymore.

Contact tracing systems, despite all the privacy concerns surrounding them, could be very helpful if developed reliably and used properly, but would still only be a temporary stopgap. Until a vaccine is found, provided that this virus does leave a trace of immunity, this is going to shape our daily lives and, in a sense, force us to reconsider our role in the grand scheme of things, both individually and as humans as whole. It is scary, and it is perfectly normal to feel uneasy. Going through the five stages of grief is pretty common, if you ask people around. Sky News UK has posted an article about how the country generally feels, and it’s well worth a read.

I honestly don’t know if the original hashtag of this thing, #andràtuttobene (i.e. #everythingwillbealright) still applies. Two people I know have lost their fathers to this disease, and that was a slap-in-the-face reminder that the daily numbers tell stories of thousands of family tragedies, as I was mentioning in my other post. But I do know that overall, maybe not individually but as a species as a whole, we’ll get through it and, hopefully, learn from this. Just think about how many things seemed so fundamental for every single one of us just two months ago, and how everything has changed now. It’s scary, it really is. But maybe it’s also a very rare opportunity to change things for the better.

It’s up to us.

Making sense of the Covid19 Italian numbers

As promised on Facebook (for the few who follow me there), here’s a look at the latest numbers coming from Italy about Covid19.

Those numbers are being used as a reference in many countries to warn people: look at how badly Italy is doing! And yes, it’s a mess, but not for the reasons that may seem obvious at a glance. Numbers mean nothing without some context, and that’s what I’ll try to provide here. Keep in mind that I’m not a statistician and this is all my own work, so any mistakes you may find are to be blamed exclusively on me.

First of all, this table in the official GitHub repository by the Prime Minister’s Office is updated daily, so it’s worth a bookmark. The field names are in Italian, so for those who don’t speak the language:

data date (Italian time zone)
stato country (always ITA)
ricoverati_con_sintomi hospitalized with symptoms
terapia_intensiva in intensive care
totale_ospedalizzati total hospitalized
isolamento_domiciliare isolated at home (under medical surveillance)
totale_attualmente_positivi current total positives
nuovi_attualmente_positivi new total positives (compared to yesterday)
dimessi_guariti discharged and recovered
deceduti deceased
totale_casi total cases
tamponi tests

Let’s first look at what we have. At the time of writing this, the latest data is from 21 March. There’s a handy table for that, further split by Region. We’ll only look at the bottom line, which looks at the country as a whole.

Covid19 Italian data as of 2020-03-21

  • The number of active cases is 42,681, of which:
    • 22,116 (~51.8%) are isolated at home, likely because they show mild or no symptoms
    • 20,565 (~48.2%) are hospitalized, of which:
      • 17,708 (~86.1%) are not in intensive care, likely because they show mild or non-life-threatening symptoms
      • 2,857 (~13.9%) are in intensive care

What the data doesn’t immediately say is that 6.6% of current registered cases (2,857 out of 42,681) is currently in intensive care, while the 93.4% does not require that. We clearly cannot tell how many currently in intensive care will die, or how many will worsen to the point of needing intensive care.
Let me put that another way: over 9 out of 10 registered cases are not in intensive care, and indeed half of them are not even hospitalized. Of those who are, about 1 out of 7 requires intensive care; if that’s scary, flip it into hope: 6 out of 7 people hospitalized do not need intensive care.

The total number of registered cases is 53,578, meaning that 10,897 cases are “closed”. Out of those, 6,072 recovered and 4,825 died. That is admittedly scary, and this is the part where people generally get upset, because it seems insensitive. So, before I even present some data, let me preface that by saying that I mean no disrespect to anyone, and that I have many relatives (including my parents) who are approaching the demographics I’ll discuss, so of course I am personally worried. With that disclaimer, let’s look at the numbers.

The National Health Institute keeps daily statistics here, another page worth bookmarking. The latest infographics shows that the average patient age is 63, with 36.2% of all cases being over 70 and 37.5% being between 51 and 70. Let’s flip the numbers again to get a better picture: confirmed patients of any age between 0 and 50 are 26.3%, while cases over 50 are 73.7%. That’s three times as much. And before we look at what that means, let’s throw in some other numbers: the extended report, last published 3 days ago, shows that the percentage of deaths by age group is less than 1% for each range up to 40-49, increases slightly to 2.7% for ages 50-59, grows to 10.2% for ages 60-69, then jumps to 35.8% for ages 70-79 and becomes a whopping 40.8% for ages 80-89. It then decreases to 9.4 for people over 90+, most likely because there aren’t as many people that old to begin with.

Before we make sense of all those numbers, let’s look at the general demographics of Italy. We only really need one dataset, that is the population pyramid. This is from the UN’s World Population Prospects:

Italian population pyramid for 2020

The median age in Italy is 47.3 years, but that alone doesn’t say much. You really need this graph to realize that there are more elderly people than young people. Italy is pretty old, and Covid19 attacks older people more easily. That is one of the reasons why our numbers are so high: it’s simply more likely for our aging population to be affected, and older people are also more likely to have pre-existing medical conditions — technically called “comorbidities” — that are exacerbated by Covid19 and ultimately lead to death.

If that weren’t enough, there are also some social and cultural factors coming into play: the “sense of family” is pretty strong here, and many people here live with their parents until they’re in their 30s or even later. Even if they don’t, family gatherings are a common ritual, so there’s a lot of inter-generational mingling. Other countries may have a more “compartmentalized” society, which may help reduce the risk of infection across different age groups.

One last factor complicating the Italian situation doesn’t affect just the numbers themselves, but also all the percentages being thrown around. Many people who test positive to the virus are completely asymptomatic, and testing centers across the country are already at capacity. As a consequence, in many areas only people with serious symptoms are tested, in order to move them to the newly created “Covid hospitals” (i.e. hospitals or parts thereof that have been dedicated exclusively to Covid19 patients, in order to aid in containment). Many people with mild symptoms are being told to isolate at home under medical surveillance, but are not counted as positive, simply because they are not tested unless necessary. Furthermore, it’s unclear how many people are dying at home from Covid19 complications, and those are not officially counted among the infected either, for the same reason: they were never tested.

Note that I said “many areas”. That’s because the healthcare system in Italy is run independently by each Region, so the choice on whom to test varies in each location. The decision is usually based on how dire the situation is, how many testing labs are available nearby, and ultimately how much money is available. As a side note, and I’ve said this before, it’s almost a blessing in disguise that the worst affected areas are in the north; had the epidemics started in the chronically underfunded south, things would be way, way worse.

Still, the net result of all this is that the numbers you see are making less and less sense as we go forward. Ultimately, we have no clear idea how many people are effectively infected, with some estimates saying that for each confirmed case there are at least five unconfirmed ones; we don’t know how many people are dying from Covid19 complications, because some may die before being tested; and, consequently, the mortality rate is also meaningless, since both the numerator (deaths) and denominator (infections) are unreliable.

So, is it just total mayhem? Sort of. As someone who’s living through this on a daily basis, I think that the best thing we can do, and I believe that this should be the case in other countries as well, is not to focus on the numbers. I know it sounds like borderline blasphemy, but hear me out. We saw this above: even in an old country like Italy, over half of all confirmed patients have symptoms so mild that they just ought to stay at home, and out of the other half that’s hospitalized, 86% is not in intensive care. And most of those who are more seriously affected and die are either older people, or those with serious pre-existing conditions. Once again, I am not dismissing that are mere statistics, and I’m well aware that each unit in those numbers is actually a personal tragedy and a broken family; really, I am not dismissing that in the slightest, but I think it’s important to look at the bigger picture if we want to get through this without going crazy.

The combination of being locked inside and being constantly exposed to growing numbers, especially as those numbers are thrown around by the media without absolutely any context or explanation, are freaking people out. It’s probably hard to explain to non-Italians right now, but it will start happening elsewhere as well. You can’t leave the house unless you have a valid reason due to the pandemic (something that’s been abused so much by some people that last night the government tightened that requirement even further), and all you hear about the pandemic is how every day more and more people are catching and dying from it.

It’s not just the evening news on TV, it’s the online news as well, that you can read in real time whenever you want; it’s the Google alerts, it’s the posts on Facebook, the tweets, the group chats and chains on WhatsApp. Italians in particular were hit like a freight train by the social media revolution in the last few years, but were not prepared for it. Most people simply fall for clickbait and fake news, often spreading it further in good faith. Even I struggle to make sense of all this, despite being quite well versed into reading through the lines and not taking raw numbers at face value, and with over six years of experience as a search engine evaluator. I find myself reassuring my parents that things are not as bad as the numbers suggest, and urging them not to fixate on the numbers they hear on TV, or the absurd titles such as “It’s a global war”. Is it really surprising that people feel hopeless?

Just yesterday I had to help a relative through figuring out whether an “call for action” she had gotten from a contact via WhatsApp was real or not, and it took me over 40 minutes of sifting through web pages to tell her what to do; and again, I’m someone who evaluates web pages for a living, and who’s been online for the last 24 years, long before Google even existed. Most people have no such tools or skills, get overwhelmed by all they hear, have no idea whom to believe, and either get depressed, or panic, or both. And they can’t be blamed.

But, once again, and this is for all my foreign friends who keep reading those numbers with even less context on their own national media: take them with a grain of salt and keep in mind that there’s always more to things than raw figures. Don’t let that freak you out. The situation is serious, and it will likely get serious in other countries as well. There’s no point in hiding that. But rest assured that, as bad as it is in some areas, this is not the apocalypse. There are no corpses piled up in the street, there is no shortage of groceries, and most people at home are simply bored at this point.

Do your part to prevent this thing from spreading. That’s the best thing you can do. You’ve heard this a million times but I’ll give a quick recap:

  • stay at least one meter / three feet away from others, even if you share an apartment… you can never be too careful
  • don’t go out unless absolutely necessary and always following your local regulations
  • wash your hands regularly and thoroughly with soap, or use hand sanitizer as an alternative
  • don’t touch your face unless you’ve just washed your hands
  • only wear a mask if you are showing symptoms, otherwise it’s useless or even counterproductive
  • keep in mind that the virus is not airborne
  • in case you develop symptoms, follow your local regulations on what to do; as a rule of thumb, call your doctor (don’t just go!)
  • when buying groceries, buy a little more than you normally would but for the love of all that’s holy, do not hoard anything! doing so simply prevents others from getting their fair share of things and is causing more trouble than the virus itself

And, if I may add one personal suggestion: stay away from social media and from the news, or at least don’t spend too much time on them. It changes absolutely nothing about what’s going on, yet it alters your perception and fuels the sense of gloom and doom and impending armageddon, and that’s really the one thing we should avoid. Mass hysteria never led to anything good. Things will get worse before they get better, but — and this is the one key takeaway — the more we stick to doing our part, the sooner that will happen. That’s really all there is to it. We’re in this together.

On a lighter note, the forced lockdown is pushing many social gathering to become streaming events, and that includes religious functions. However, not everyone is completely at ease with technology yet. For instance, this catholic priest accidentally celebrated his Sunday mass with face filters on, and the result is quite amusing…

Concerned, not panicked

I’m being asked by many people to post a follow-up to my previous post, especially as most news outlets abroad keep mentioning Italy as the place with most covid19 cases, without explaining in detail what’s going on. This is hardly surprising, considering that at this point most countries in Europe and beyond are starting to have their own considerable amount of positives and the media attention inevitably shifts to the local situation.

I will try my best to post more often, and to provide some additional information “from the inside”. I’m not committing to any posting schedule, however. As I said in the previous post, I’ve been working from home for years now, so at this stage nothing has changed for me; if anything, there’s actually more work than usual with one of the companies I work for, as the virus itself has become central to what we do. Time for writing, therefore, is limited.

A recap about the numbers themselves. As I’m writing this, at 11 pm on 19 March, the official figures report a total of 41,035 positives, with 4,440 recovered and 3,405 dead. The vast majority of positives (that includes those who recovered) are in Lombardia with 19,884, followed by Emilia-Romagna with 5,214 and Veneto with 3,484. For those who ask about me specifically: my Region, Abruzzo, has 385 positives.
The curve is still climbing, with the steepest 24-hour increase so far (4,400+ for the whole country). I’m not going to explore the numbers in depth, but anyone wishing to do so can use this official recap or even access the full dataset in this GitHub repository. Another source is Worldometers but keep in mind that day-to-day numbers across various sources may vary, as each dataset is updated at a different time.

To be clear, I do not have any new first-hand accounts of what’s going on around the country, or even in my town. Since I went to buy some groceries for both my parents and myself last Saturday, I haven’t gone anywhere other than for brief walks with my dog. As some know, I live in the outskirts of my town, where it basically turns into a countryside, so it’s hard to even tell that anything is different at all. Fewer cars on the road, sure, but you almost have to pay attention to notice that. The only thing that’s distinctly different, and kind of odd, is that after sunset someone blasts loud music, allegedly to cheer people up. I’m not sure how long that will keep happening because at some point someone is bound to force them to stop doing that — I can hear that from half a kilometer away, and I can’t imagine what it must be like to go through that every day when it’s coming from your same building. Especially as it’s terrible music.

Many asked me if it’s true that everything is descending into chaos. No, not exactly, but I suppose it depends on what your definition of chaos is. As the numbers show, there is a wild disproportion of infections across various parts of the country. It is worth pointing out that the big issue with this disease is not how much it kills, but how many people are hospitalized. Especially in a country full of elderly people like Italy, the situation can quickly become dire. Remember that hospitals always work on the assumption that only a certain amount of people will require a specific kind of medical care, and while there’s some wiggle room in terms of reorganizing wards, moving beds and acquiring more equipment, there’s only so much that can be done. What would happen if everyone withdrew all their money from the bank? The whole banking system would collapse. That’s pretty much the problem with this virus, and why everyone’s telling you to try and do your best to flatten the curve.

So, it is true that the healthcare system, especially in Lombardia, is at its wit’s end. New intensive care units have been built from the ground up, and temporary hospitals have been set up as well. The problem is that the actual medical hardware equipment needed to treat these people, namely ventilators and other similar tools, are simply not aware. There has been talk about the central government — each Region runs its own healthcare system — taking over at least for procurement, but I am not entirely sure how that effort is going, or whether it’s actually been implemented. As much as I love to stay informed, there’s a threshold beyond which even the best-intentioned brain just shuts down and everything turns to white noise. I’ll provide updates in upcoming posts. For now, the silver lining is that the most cases are in one of the best-equipped Regions, as things could have been much worse if the infection had started from the other side of the boot.

Some provinces, in particular Bergamo and Brescia (both in Lombardia), are doing pretty badly, objectively. The outbreak has flared up, and there have been several things that are just hard to stomach. Not only patients have to be moved across the country because hospitals are running out of bed, but the Army had to pick up coffins and move them elsewhere because the crematoriums just can’t cope. As I said many times, I live quite south of that, but seeing those images is suddenly making the whole thing a lot more real. There have also been specific gut-wrenching instances of people not being able to do anything about relatives dying inside their house, as was the case of actor Luca Franzese, whose 47-year-old sister died in Naples and he had to resort to calling for help on social media, since funeral homes were lacking specific instructions on how to handle potentially dangerous cases like that and were refusing. Ultimately the situation was resolved with a waiver, some hazmat suits and whatever else was needed, but that’s definitely not the kind of thing anyone should have to deal with right after a loved one passed away.

Still, that also made the whole virus more real, because while we patiently wait for the daily press releases or look for updates online, it’s sadly easy to forget how each unit in those numbers is a real person with a history, a family, a past and, unfortunately not always, a future. So, am I concerned? Yes. But am I panicking? No.

I know I described a pretty bleak situation, but then again, if I am going to do this, I’ll just be honest. And in all honesty, despite that subconscious sense of uneasiness which I dearly hope it’s not really just denial, I’m not panicking, not at all. I’m doing all I can to protect myself and others, and I keep telling my parents to do the same; it’s obviously them that I’m concerned about, more than myself, as they’re older than me. But panicking, what is it good for? There are no zombies in the street, food and water are available, and this is not the apocalypse.

Yes, the numbers are going up, and yes, it’s a little scary because people keep defying the lockdown, to the point that the government is considering even tighter restrictions. Thousands of people have so far been questioned and reported by police for being away from home without a valid reason, and more keep being caught every day (it’s an exponential curve of its own, the logarithmic graph of idiots). With the end of the lockdown nowhere in sight, I wouldn’t be surprised if all the edge cases that had been allowed are eventually cancelled and this were turned into a full-blown curfew.

This is why we can’t have good things, as the saying goes, but then again, it’s worth keeping in mind that the numbers we know about are only the confirmed cases. And a case is confirmed when a test was done, and tests are only done when symptoms show up. That means that there is likely a huge number of people carrying the virus with either no symptoms, or symptoms so mild that they may not even be aware of it. While completely asymptomatic patients are only slightly dangerous to the community, as they are unlikely to cough or sneeze, it’s those very mildly symptomatic patients who have the potential for spreading it further: a tiny sneeze here, a little cough there, and it turns into a mess. Sure, if we all stayed home and, when we absolutely must go out, kept our distance from one another, then it wouldn’t be an issue. Always keep in mind that this is not an airborne virus, so you can’t get it just by walking around. You either have to be sneezed or coughed on, or pick it up from some surface where someone had sneezed or coughed, and then touch your face. It would be easy to stay safe, it just requires us just staying home and limiting our exposure to others. Yet so many people are defiant, and come up with all sorts of excuses to just stay outside.

I really don’t get it, I mean— yes, it’s easier for me: I’ve worked from home for a long time now, and I’ve never been a particularly social animal. But is it really such a horrible hell to spend a few days at home, when you have running water, electricity, broadband internet, access to free video games, free books to read, free things to watch (Youtube, RaiPlay and Mediaset Play are all free; and most people have Netflix, Amazon Video and/or Sky on top of those), and there’s even free multi-way video calling available if you feel lonely. Is it really such a terrible nightmare to put up with it even for a few weeks? Especially when the alternative is the risk of spending weeks or months in a hospital with a pipe down your throat, potentially leading to life-long complications if not flat-out death? I honestly don’t get that kind of attitude, but that’s just how it is. As far as I and everyone I know are concerned, thankfully, we’re doing our best to control what we can, and just hope for the best for the rest.

The peak is expected to hit in a few days; don’t ask me why it’s been moved ahead, probably due to all these idiots thinking they’re being smarter than others. Keep in mind that “the peak” refers to the daily increase in new cases. After that, we’ll still have to be careful to avoid turning the descent into another climb. That likely means that the lockdown will continue for quite a while. Schools were supposed to reopen on 4 April, and it’s a given that it won’t happen. In fact, as I was mentioning, is likely that the rules will become stricter for the time being, and in general things will likely worsen a little more before they start getting better. It’s just the way it is.

So there you have it, a new recap on what’s going on. I realize the mood of this post is darker than the previous one, but to be honest I’m not that worried (yet?) and this would have been less bleak if I had written it during the day. I always become a little gloomy at night, and I have for as long as I can remember.

We ought to remind ourselves that in the end it’s a game of numbers: there have been 41 thousand confirmed cases so far, sure, but there are well over 60 million of us who are just fine. We all plan to keep it like that.

Stay strong, wash your hands and to my foreign friends: for the love of all that’s holy, stop hoarding toilet paper! After all, you can always do headstands in the shower. 😉

Tales from a country in lockdown

As everyone on this planet probably knows, Italy was put into lockdown as an attempt to limit the diffusion of SARS-CoV-2 (“coronavirus” for friends), and the related COVID19 infection.

As I write this, in the evening of March 14th, there have been over 21,000 confirmed cases in the country, with almost 18,000 active ones. The daily increase in new cases is still exponential and so far there seems to be no sign of hitting the inflection point yet, though the peak is expected to be around March 18th; that’s because the lockdown was enforced on the 12th, and the incubation period is 7±2 days according to most estimates. An increase especially in the South is also expected in the next few days, because the news of the impending lockdown last week led a bunch of idiots many people from the South who work or study in the heavily affected North to flee back to their hometown, taking the virus on a cross-country trip with them.

It is an interesting social experiment, that’s for sure. A few people are having a hard time adjusting to the new forced routine (or lack thereof), and are already struggling; personally, I’ve been working from home for years now, so the disruption isn’t as bad as it is for others. Others still seem defiant, but police forces have been stopping and fining anyone who’s out and about with a valid reason. And most people seem to be completely oblivious to the fact that the virus is not airborne: aside from the fact that masks and gloves often do more harm than good as people have no idea how to use them effectively, they only make sense if you’re around others. Yet you see people walking in the middle of nowhere wrapped up mummy-style as if they were trudging on through a haze of dark matter particulate.

Generally, though, people seem to be discovering novel ways of doing things online: the amount of catholic masses being broadcast via Facebook is starting to approach the amount of catholic saints on the calendar, actors of varying levels of fame have started live-streaming shows from their living rooms, and “flash mobs” events are encouraging people to “make noise” from within their houses… which makes sense if you live in a populated area to encourage others to stay strong, but at the same time sounds absurdly creepy if, like me, you live at the edge of town and someone suddenly starts clapping their hands or screaming at the top of their lungs.

It is also eerie to see so few people around. I went to buy groceries earlier today (and brought my signed self-certification with me, as required by authorities) and even though there were a few other cars here and there, it was strange to see virtually nobody on foot. The average age in my town is about two million years old, which generally translates to stopping at almost every zebra crossing to let the elderly crawl to the other side (I am allowed to joke about that because I plan to never become old). That didn’t happen today, and it just felt odd. Ironically, on my way home I had Siri play random music and the first thing she came up with, while I was still pulling out of the parking lot, was a live rendition of Dream Theater’s “Afterlife”, which seemed darkly coincidental. Being the cynical person that I am, I obviously raised the volume to eleven (cit. Scottish lift) and sang along on my way home.

In all seriousness, everyone I know is fine so far. So far there have been 112 cases in my Region (what Americans would call a “State” and Canadians would call a “Province”) and 25 in my Province (what Americans would call a “County” and Canadians would call an “Eh, not all our provinces have those”). I’ve not been following social media much as I’ve been dealing with a few personal things, but I’m in touch with people from all over the place and nobody I know is even panicking so far: some are more concerned than others, yes, but we know better not to give in to panic. It’s just a matter of waiting it out and doing our best to protect ourselves and prevent spreading it further to protect others.

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An easy fix for missing exercise minutes on Apple Watch

The Apple Watch is a nice little device, and it’s known to have motivated even lazy people into taking better care of themselves through the “gamification” of exercise.

However, it can happen that the Workout app doesn’t properly track exercise minutes (and, to a lesser extent, burned calories), and while Apple provides an official checklist for improving workout calibration, sometimes the issues persist.

TL;DR: If you wear the Watch low on your arm, move it higher. Seriously, that fixed it for me.

One very peculiar problem I had myself was that indoor walking workouts were not always being recorded properly: calories mostly worked, but I could walk half an hour and yet only a few minutes would be recorded as exercise, even if I walked fast. (Yes, I do walk around he house when it’s too cold to do so outside; a book or a friend on the phone are great reasons not to sit still!)

The weirdest thing was outdoor workouts generally worked much better, and rebooting the watch usually fixed the indoor workout problem… for a while anyway, which ruled out a hardware problem. Recalibrating fitness data didn’t seem to help in the long term either. Definitely annoying.

I knew that Apple Watch calculates exercise by applying some sort of “mathemagics” (did I actually write that?) to sensor data, especially the heart rate monitor and the accelerometers, so I started going through the heart rate graphs of my indoor walking workouts, and I stumbled upon stuff like this:

Notice how there are considerable gaps in the heart rate graph, especially considering the time scale at the bottom. That made me think: I do keep the Watch “not too tight, not too loose” as per instructions (and, honestly, as per comfort) so I knew that was not the issue. I also have zero tattoos, and while I do sport a little hair on my arms, I’m definitely not furry. Yet something was occasionally preventing the Watch from recording my rate, and I was determined to figure out what it was.

In the coming days I started paying attention at the monitor: at a glance it worked just fine, however a pattern started to emerge as I looked more closely. I noticed that whenever I brought the watch up and screen turned on — I have a Series 4 so the screen is not always off — the heart icon was not solid, but rather just showed an outline. Only after a second or so did it become solid and started pulsating, while the number itself started updating again. That was consistent with the lack of recording, but why? Was it some kind of bug in the software that put the heart rate monitor into sleep mode when the screen was off? Yet the green lights at the bottom worked just fine. That couldn’t be it.

Source: u/nilsej on Reddit.

At this point, I must confess, I was a little disheartened — pun fully intended. A few months ago I had had another issue with the heart rate monitor in my Watch, and in that case it was indeed a nasty software bug: for some reason, it just wouldn’t update the label in the Workout app. It was perfectly functional in the Heart Rate app, and the graphs were perfect. Just the Workout app, during the workout itself, wouldn’t let me know how my heart was doing. No amounts of reboots helped and I ultimately had to unpair the Watch and re-pair it again. Thankfully a restore from backup didn’t carry the bug over, so it was just a matter of wasting some time.

This was different, though. It worked fine, just not always. And looking at the screen would always fix it. I felt like Bilbo playing riddles with Sméagol, until it dawned on me: what if I’m wearing it wrong? Not in terms of how tight the strap was, rather where on my arm the watch was. So I did what a man of science would do: run an experiment.

I normally wear the Watch quite low on my wrist, quite close to the hand. It’s actually comfortable for me, but I thought it might indeed interfere with the readings, especially if my wrist is bent inwards. So I moved the Watch a little higher, away from the hand, and off I went. Lo and behold, it worked perfectly, and so far it has kept working perfectly for over a week: I just move it a little higher before starting a walk, and bring it back to where it’s more comfortable for everyday use later on. Also, it looks like this simple fix has made the Workout app more sensitive even for other kinds of workouts: now my full Outdoor Walk Workout is recorded (except when I stop because my dog goes forensics on some blades of grass), whereas before it would often only records the minutes I spent walking uphill, burning more energy. I had assumed it was due to the Watch “learning” what was more or less straining for me, but it turns out it just didn’t have a good view of my veins.

What is weird about this is that a reboot did seem to temporarily fix the problem. I wouldn’t be surprised if there was something in the software that sort of adapts to compensate for different readings over time, even though in my case it was actually causing problems. Still, moving the Watch seems to have fixed it for good. I noticed that I still get the outline heart occasionally, but that stays on screen for a shorter time and sensor data is recorded just fine; perhaps that’s just a way for watchOS to avoid refreshing the display framebuffer until it’s actually needed to be shown on screen, though it also seems to happen with the always-on Series 5.

Does anyone want to, ahem, chime in?