My Brilliant Rohrwacher

While watching the two episodes of Season 2 of My Brilliant Friend that were directed by Alice Rohrwacher (who also does the voice-over narration for the Elena Greco character), I experienced flashbacks to the paintings of Antonello da Masina, who employed primary colors in his portraits. In at least two scenes, Rohrwacher arranges trios of actors clothed in a palette of muted primary colors. The framing of other close-ups reminded me of Picasso and Michelangelo. Whether or not the melodrama of the series engages you or not, it’s a blessing to see images like these in our frozen life sheltering at home.



COVID Journal: Malaise gives way to a kind of ease

It’s now week four of self-enforced staying at home. The daily and weekly routines have started to achieve a certain kind of structure, or at least a plate full of activities:

My wife and I have a scheduled one hour Zoom appointment with a Feldenkrais healer every Saturday morning, when we work off whatever kinks and stresses have accumulated during the week by making small movements and surrendering to the floor.

Twice a week we do exercise routines with weights.

Twice a week we clean parts of the house. I try to remember to spray cleaning solutions on most of the doorknobs and light switches at least once a week.

Two or three times a week, I obsess about keeping our food supply chain going, expanding the possibilities of different foods and connecting with different direct producers. These boxes arrive and must be unpacked with gloved hands, that must be washed thoroughly afterwards.

Each day we go for the same forty minute walk around our neighborhood, carrying our salted masks, but rarely using them, with perhaps a once-a-week outing to a place more foreign, in the next village over. The days are bright and getting warmer. The cherry blossoms are now gone, but the dogwood and wisteria are still in bloom.

Each day we cook breakfast, lunch and dinner, with food combinations dictated by the whims of our CSA box of fruits and vegetables on hand.

On weekends we allow ourselves one scary run to a local bakery or deli to pick up scones or a pre-made salad. Now I have more sympathy for the 1990s residents of Sarajevo who somehow had to get their groceries while under sniper fire for years on end.

Once or twice a week we Zoom with friends, and in one of these try to contact someone we have lost touch with over the months gone past.

Once or twice a week we set up an evening movie club offering with our kids or friends, as an excuse to stay connected and to monitor their and our wellbeing.

Each day I track Twitter, The Los Angeles Times, The Washington Post, The Syllabus, and The Atlantic, scanning for hopeful or distressing news on the pandemic, and the attempts to test, treat, or search for cures. I also swarm over the weekly newsletters from, and occasional blogs from the London Review of Books and The Yale Review.  I am learning what ELISA means.

Each day I answer emails and think about why I am not producing the software I probably should be, instead focusing on making software that gives me pleasure: understanding color.

Each day I think about doing art, or watching art from the National Gallery’s Twitter feed, or watching Paul Foxton paint live on Facebook. I am now down to only two or three active sessions of oil painting or pastel painting a week, much less than my pandemic resolution to myself would have it, but slow and steady nonetheless.

Two or three times a week, I will crack an article in the New Yorker, or read more of I promessi sposi.

Every day I report to the Stanford National Daily Health Survey that, so far at least, all is well. That prompts me to monitor myself with a thermometer, pulse oximeter, and blood pressure monitor.

Each evening I check the Marin County Health Department’s COVID website, wincing before reading the day’s counts of new cases, hospitalizations, ICU patients, and deaths. The results are not conclusive, but there have been no new deaths in the past two weeks.

To close each day, we watch an episode from a British crime series, or spend an hour with the TV dramatization of Elena Ferrante’s My Brilliant Friend.

Somehow, while I am feeling highly inefficient, my blood pressure is down, and my middle-of-the-night mortality nightmares have receded. So I will trade the efficiency for boredom and seeking little joys, juggling all these routines and observing how few hours there actually are in a day.

Tassel flowers

COVID Journal: Reduced-contact lifelines

Thanks to these suppliers, my wife and I are really trying hard never to enter a market or store:

Just before the lockdown order came down we signed up for weekly CSA deliveries from Capay Valley farms’ Farm Fresh To You program. Besides fruits and vegetables, we can purchase eggs, single origin coffee, organic yogurt, and some specialty items, although more of those (especially grains and meats) are appearing as sold out as time goes on.

After using Instacart to deliver groceries from local supermarkets like Mollie Stone’s Market, we have since switched to weekly orders of non-local farm produce, meat, fish, dry goods, and miscellaneous household items using United Markets online “UnitedToGo” curbside pickup system. At the beginning of the lockdown, there was a four day wait for orders. Because their order system became overwhelmed, you now have to place an order exactly at 9, 11, 1, or 3 o’clock to have it ready for pickup in seven days.

One of the few pleasures in shelter in place that my wife and I abuse is our daily cheese and crackers pre-dinner snack. While we can order sheep and goat cheese from United Markets, we found out that the world’s best gluten free crackers can be ordered directly from The Organic Pantry Co. in packages of 6 boxes.

To go with the crackers you can order two pounds of goat cheese from the wonderful Cypress Grove Cheese Company in Arcata with free shipping!

And when we do get the nerve to drive with windows rolled up through our neighboring towns, we plead with shopkeepers to bring items outside to our car, and they oblige, grudgingly or happily. This lets us have a couple of non-home-cooked treats each week–the ever-popular Chinese Chicken Salad from Comforts in San Anselmo, and the magically light polenta scones and fresh baked Italian bread from Emporio Rulli in Larkspur.

For emergency supplies like disinfectants, medical devices, and masks, that you cannot find in markets or Amazon (which we are pretty much boycotting during the pandemic), I have turned to Ebay and Etsy. So far, knock on wood, I don’t think I have been scammed, although price gouging is part of that experience.

A Road Trip Update

IMG_8116After six weeks of venturing no farther from my house than the next town where the curbside grocery pickups were available, I arranged for a food run. It seems as though a lot of vendors that are putting food supply chains together seem to have settled on Friday afternoons as the pickup time. So the past Friday I hit the road and breezed through the beautiful agricultural landscapes that straddle the Marin – Sonoma county line.

Add these producers to my lifeline once a month then:

Wildflour Bread in Freestone, California, for whole wheat sourdough bread that is as good as any I have ever tasted. They were set up with the standard six-foot tape marking in the waiting line, and luckily the walk-up service was fairly deserted at 2 in the afternoon, when lots of their sweets were already sold out. But the bread…

Piezzi Provisions, a pop-up store on Highway 1 in downtown Tomales. I don’t know the history of this set up. They share the same building as the Tomales Deli and Cafe. You order ahead on the web, and choose from products from their suppliers, Tomales Farmstead Creamery for goat cheese, True Grass Farms, Stemple Creek Ranch, and Rossotti Ranch for meats, and Daily Driver for breakfast goods. There was one customer ahead of me but the town was abandoned, save for a few bikers spread six feet apart in front of the town post office.

I headed back south with a couple of ranch chickens and some goat cheese, and made a final stop at Fast Food Français, a restaurant-turned-take-out-supplier on Caledonia Street in Sausalito. Even though Caledonia is off the tourist track, “F3” is one of those neighborhood go-to places, so there was not exactly a crowd, but several people hanging around at five o’clock. I paid a premium for a pre-ordered “baker’s box” including impossible-to-find flour, baking powder, chocolate, sugar and other essentials that had gone missing from my pantry.

James Turell's Twilight Epiphany at Rice University

COVID detection and contact tracing via smartphones

I’m currently fascinated in how people can contribute geographic and symptomatic data (wittingly or unwittingly) to aid science’s and government’s understanding of the spread and depth of the coronavirus outbreak. Someone somewhere in the echelons of government and/or Big Tech is going to have to convince Americans to start using the best of these so we have some good national data to inform public health decision-making going forward. In the meantime I’m collecting links and will add them to this post as they become available.


These are projects collecting (anonymous to what degree?) geographic information, either by GPS or just zip code

HealthMap – Up and running since 2009, this is built by a global data consortium that collects infection data from a very wide variety of sources. John Brownstein at Harvard is the project lead. Geo-tagged results are displayed on the HealthMap website and on a mobile phone app.

Kinsa’s US Health Weather Map – Sponsored by a digital thermometer company, these data maps have been up and running since March 2020, capturing fever data across the US. A collaborative effort between the company and Oregon State University. Anonymous data is collected using Kinsa’s free smartphone app. The app does not require you purchase one of their thermometers to submit symptom or temperature data. If you opt-in your “anonymous” (there is no actual explanation from Kinsa on how they protect your identity), geo-tagged temperature readings are collected by Kinsa immediately and the map is updated in real time.

COVIDNearYou – Also from Brownstein’s group, a daily people-powered survey that tracks the geographic spread of the outbreak, with a simple daily question of how you are feeling. Users can enroll their mobile phone to receive reminders to take the survey each day. Data collection and display are done on their website.

Stanford Medicine’s National Daily Health Survey – more daily data collection, available on the Stanford Medicine website. Data is collected in a chat window, and users are asked to give basic demographic information, whether they have been in contact with confirmed infected persons, and whether they are experiencing any of the COVID-19 symptoms:

  • Cough
  • Fever
  • Difficulty Breathing
  • Sore Throat
  • Head Ache
  • Muscle Aches
  • Loss of Taste
  • Loss of Smell

Users can register by email to receive daily reminders to take the survey.

Google’s COVID-19 Community Mobility Reports – Google is attempting to anonymize all the geographic data they collect to produce country-, state- and county-wide PDF mobility reports that chart how much the interventions to the virus has slowed down individuals’ mobility over time.

MIT has launched Private Kit, smartphone apps that store geo-tagged information users’ phones and lets users share them with researchers or not.

For-profit private GPS data harvesters X-Mode, LOTaDATA, Unacast, and others are also tracking this kind of data over time. These data points are being harvested by the CDC and fed out to researchers as part of an initiative called the COVID-19 Mobility Data Network. Of course the CDC doesn’t list the private companies supplying all this data, only the research institutions who will be analyzing it and giving reports back to governments. I bet the transparency of this kind of setup would be very different in Singapore or the EU.

Update: Facebook has developed sub-city grid maps of mobility, but only researchers get to see them, according to Bloomberg News.

Contact Tracing

These are projects that use privacy protecting Bluetooth proximity data to protect and alert users.

TraceTogether – Singapore government’s GPS-free proximity-aware smartphone app, released on March 20, 2020.

COVID Watch – From Stanford researchers, proximity tracing and other applications, currently in alpha, with expected rollout before the end of April. Details on their website.

DECODEproject – Privacy-protecting proximity tracing tools, described in a post on Medium.

Updates (April 12):

More Bluetooth tracing apps are now launching, as reported by Stacey Higginbotham.

The San Francisco Department of Public Health has commissioned app developer Dimagi to customize its CommCare platform into an app for COVID reporting, tracing and notifications.

Google and Apple have teamed up to produce specifications (and later develop these int iOS and Android toolkits) for proximity testing. They discarded the ETFL’s DP-3T suggestions and developed their own Bluetooth protocols. The DP-3T group responds.

The Sunday Times (UK) has reported today that the digital group within the NHS has been rapidly developing a mobile contact tracing app in collaboration with Google and Apple. The app is expected to be released shortly as a prerequisite for re-opening society after the current COVID wave has peaked.

And a British privacy and security group from Cambridge University has published the most cogent reasons why we should not rely on these apps, that can never replace person-to-person tracing systems and paper immunity slips issued by doctors.

A GitHub user is attempting to crowdsource a summary of all the activity around smartphone-enable contact tracing.

A scientist from USC has organized a more detailed document listing over 50 contact tracing projects.

Today, Frederic Filloux reports on why he thinks “radical” smartphone apps are going to hit the wall in western countries:

The chances of seeing such an efficient — while closely controlled — apparatus being developed collide with a critical factor unfortunately not limited to France, which is the mistrust of political leadership.

And for the last word, George Saunders has an Atwoodian vision of where tracing, labeling and quarantining will lead America after the “third election” (of Donald Trump Jr).

Spring maple

COVID Journal: Too Much Information, more time to think

It’s now almost four weeks since we started to check out from social society. This week I veered off a bit from obsessing on insecurities surrounding my attempts to learn to be an oil painter. Instead I devoted a bit more time to listening to experts in the world of the virus.

Some significant events of the past week (March 30 to April 5):

On April 2, I virtually attended the Stanford HAI Conference on AI and COVID-19, all five and a half hours of it. It’s all a blur now, but it was thrilling to watch one scientist after another describe how they have pivoted their research so quickly to respond to the pandemic. One of the most interesting technical responses to the outbreak was described by John Brownstein (Twitter: @johnbrowstein) at Harvard. He and his colleagues are collecting fever data from Kinsa smart thermometers and have an army of web scrapers (people, not bots) trying to assemble data from all over the world. The result is the realtime website COVID Near You. Now all we need is data from every hospital and every person who thinks she has the virus.

The next evening, I watched over an hour of the second COVID-19 Grand Rounds from UCSF’s Department of Medicine. This one was a followup of the the first one held two weeks earlier. While UCSF has a dozen or so COVID patients, they are ingesting daily peer-reviewed studies from China, Italy and the US, and are trying to figure out what to expect will be coming into their hospitals in the next months, and more importantly, how they can treat patients to reduce the mortality rate. But they seemed a bit stymied, because four months into this thing, there are still not enough data points. UCSF itself is starting up ten or so clinical studies for different treatments.

Meanwhile Dr. Matt Willis, the chief county health officer in Marin County has been at home recovering from his infection. He reported in the newspaper that he self-monitors his fever and blood oxygen level and reports it to his physician, so that they can make the decision together, if it comes to that, to check him into the hospital. Wishing him and all of the afflicted the shortest and least painful times with the virus.

The cheap cloth masks I ordered for our children and ourselves arrived from Etsy one day after the CDC buckled and admitted that wearing masks was not a bad idea, after months of concerted messaging from the Surgeon General and others discouraging mask use by non-medical workers (obviously in order to keep us all from trying to buy up all available supplies). Kudos to Zeynep Tufecki for starting the ball rolling on promoting masks three weeks ago. All the panels at Stanford and UCSF this week were asked about masks, too, and pretty much said we should all be wearing them. So this will be a new thing whenever we go into a populated area or market.

Based on the information from Brownstein, I scoured Ebay, and ordered a Kinsa thermometer, so I can contribute to their health maps. We’ll see if it arrives. And because I fear I may be hit like Dr. Willis, I also ordered a finger pulse oximeter from No shipping information yet, so I’m just hoping it will come before I need to use it. Add these to my app-enabled blood pressure monitor. Welcome to the age of personal digital health monitoring.

Cultural notes:

Before licensing issues ended their online runs, I was able to catch the last two American Conservatory Theater productions for this year. Both Toni Stone and, especially, Gloria were a joy to watch. They were taped in front of live audiences just a month ago. Hearing the laughter and applause from a crowd was bittersweet. One of the main subjects of Gloria has something to do with the futility of the 21st century “creative” workplace (in this case a print magazine in the internet age). Office spaces which have now disintegrated into everyone working from home.

From Twitter I swerved into a few discussions on the intersection of politics, philosophy and epidemiology from two sources, engaging articles in the Italian review Antinomie, and a post on the magazine Perfil by the Argentine writer Pola Oloixarac. They both are in the same circle of thinkers. Now I have to read and think a bit more also. Less coding, more thinking ahead?