One Year Later…

A beautiful morning in Florida, even here in tropical climates there is seasonal change, however small compared to the northern/southern extremes. The sun feels stronger, warmer, the sky a lighter blue than the thicker, deeper sky of winter. The windows are open, I have a vase filled with a generous bouquet of daffodils. I’ve always welcomed spring, time for rebirth and newness.

It’s been a year since the COVID-19 pandemic uprooted our lives. On March 11 2020 the World Health Organization declared it a global pandemic. At work I was in a weeks of uncertainty about working remotely, there was a company-wide email from the CEO a few days earlier about this, some team managers interpreted this as an immediate directive, other teams (like mine) met to discuss options and preferences.

All of us were thinking this would be a matter of weeks or a couple of months; we all expected to be back in the office by May. We quickly threw together shared “checkout” spreadsheets for office items taken home (monitors, chairs, docking stations…), work schedules since some parents now had to balance their children’s at-home school, and guidelines on remote tools (like chat), meeting protocols and daily team standup meetings.

In any case, March 12 2020 was the last day in the office for everyone at Illumina — worldwide. I packed my bags for the bike ride home with as many of my personal items that would fit in my backpack. I made a trip by car the next morning to get my electronics and belongings from by bike locker (shoes, belts, workout clothes).

It was all very sudden and a bit surreal — in January there were scattered news reports of a new virus in Asia of the SARS and Ebola strains. But those past epidemics, while severe in localities where it struck, didn’t travel. Soon there were reports of cases in France, a surge in Italy, next Iran. But the “problem” seemed so far away — until it wasn’t. Soon there were cases in the Pacific Northwest as it spread like wildfire through retirement homes and the first U.S. death was reported in Seattle. It was upon us, and it felt different.

Continue reading “One Year Later…”

Corona-rama Diaries: Week 4

Friday, April 3

The US Bureau of Labor Statistics reported a loss of 701,000 jobs in March, the first monthly decline since 2010. Unemployment rose from 3.5% in February to 4.4%, although this is certainly far below reality due to lagging government reporting methodology. The New York Times reports today that the unemployment rate is likely near 13%, the highest since the Great Depression.

I fear this is just a prelude to far worse economic devastation in coming months. With the abrupt shuttering of most of our service economy, fundamental industries are in shock: restaurants, entertainment, hotels, airlines, retail, energy. Pretty much any business that interacts directly with humans.

In March, retail stores and restaurants took a huge hit, more than twice the Great Recession and four time the Dot Com Bomb. We simply haven’t seen anything like this in many generations.

Of course, some industries will benefit from the pandemic, at least in the short term. The New York Times presents an interesting analysis of how the spending habits of Americans have changed in the past month.

Not surprisingly, supermarkets and food delivery have replaced dining out. And has replaced retail shopping. Netflix has replaced movie theatres. Home repairs have replaced weekend getaways. And people are drinking more alcohol.

Despite all the social disruption and economic pain, there are some silver linings. There will be lower carbon emissions, thus decelerate global warning. Material consumption will ebb. Parents will spend more time with their children. Crime is also down: the media report a 21% drop in the UK and 84% in Peru. Drug arrests in Chicago are down 42%. In March, killings in El Salvador have fallen astoundingly to only two per day — down from a daily peak of 600. Reported rapes in South Africa have declined 86%.

This is certainly welcome news. So there is an upside to everyone staying home. But some fear the rise in domestic violence and the consequences of prolonged confinement — and when restrictions are lifted in a world scarred by severe economic decline. Time will tell.

To close out the work week, I scheduled a happy hour with my team. It’s important to maintain as much social contact as possible during these weeks (and possibly months) of adjustment. In our wider team meeting earlier this week with my boss, we all gave our best guesses for “return to office” pool. The earliest was June 1 and the latest after Labor Day in September (my guess is July 13). We’re all very hopeful for a “V-shaped” recovery… we’ll see!

During our virtual happy hour, we all shared photos of us with long hair, all from our younger days. Rakesh sported a Fabio-esque mane from university, Krishna a teenage pompadour doo, Paul H sent a photo of him in drag! Mine was the year I let it grow, wow was that unmanageable in the final months!

Uncut 2011: My unshorn year
Continue reading “Corona-rama Diaries: Week 4”

Corona-rama Diaries: Week 3

Friday, March 27

I “returned” to work today after three days of bereavement leave. It was a relief to have a new focus, since I felt so crappy yesterday and nothing grabbed my attention. My colleagues were so sweet with their condolences, and even created an internet card with dozens of personal notes all created virtually since everyone’s working from home. Illumina is a special place and I consider many of my co-workers as friends. So it was good to get back to this sort-of family and get my mind off my sadness.

Team meetings… through the looking glass.

The apartment confinement is starting to get to me. I have a whole list of “things to do” in my free time (read more! practice my ukulele! solve the Rubiks’ Cube! meditate! play board games! skateboard!) but I don’t seem to have the time or motivation to methodically tackle any of those.

The truth is I still work during the week at that takes pretty much most of my day, there’s no getting around that. I just thought I’d have more free time without the commute. But there’s more cooking and cleaning and sleeping (yes, we all are doing more of that).

Yet we have abundant food and I’m still getting out for daily fresh air and exercise. Paul made a delicious vegetarian Shepard’s pie with the last of the fresh produce. We’re doing surprisingly well with still a jam-packed freezer. We haven’t been to the market in nearly two weeks.

To cheer me up yesterday, Paul made this third batch of Corona Coping Cookies which I must admit are healthy and delicious.

Paul’s Corona-Coping Cookies: wholesome goodness to help battle any contagion! Full recipe here

For my daily exercise I did my “Gira de Soledad” loop which takes me on part of my commute to work up the Rose Canyon Bike Trail (along the I-5), through the University Town Center neighborhood, into the deserted UC San Diego campus, and back home along coastal La Jolla. It’s a really good workout ride of about 18 miles and takes about an hour, with some gradual climbing (just under 900 feet).

The closed-up campus of UC San Diego
The closed-up campus of UC San Diego

I stopped to quickly visit Krishna since my route went right past his house. It was good to see him in person (but at a safe distance since I had been in a hospital emergency room earlier in the week). His wife Sandhya is a postdoc fellow at the Scripps Research Institute specializing in viral immunology and specifically the coronaviruses. So very timely for her area of study, most of her lab does HIV research which is not deemed essential right now so she’s the only employee who must work from the office (she reports it’s fairly lonely there). Krishna says she works 12-hour days and because her work is so critical, they are doing all they can to keep from getting the virus so she can remain focused on her research.

A remote work break with Krishna

Today Congress passed the $2 trillion economic stimulus bill, the largest emergency aid package in US history. It had strong support from both parties after Democrats insisted on more oversight measures to prevent the funds to corporations from going to stock buyback and executive compensation, as well as stronger unemployment measures for those directly impacted with job loss. And the $1200 checks sent directly to most Americans are grabbing the most headlines obviously since 60% of Americans cannot cover a $1000 emergency with savings.

There was even a loud kerfuffle over a lone Republican who insisted on a roll call vote (rather than a voice vote) which would require all House members to be present in Washington  the largest emergency aid package in US history — which had West Coasters tweeting angrily as they hopped on red-eye flights last night. But the drama was soon over as Trump signed the bill late Friday and now everyone just wants their checks.

Continue reading “Corona-rama Diaries: Week 3”

Corona-rama Diaries: Week 2

Friday, March 20: Trump Slump

The financial market “Trump Bump” is gone. The DJIA closed at 19,174 an implosion of 35% from its all-time high last month and erasing all the market gains since he took office. Yesterday I read that some economists expect a 12 percent decline Q2 (which would be the biggest quarterly contraction on record), yet today Goldman Sachs estimate a 24 percent drop in Q2. It’s becoming clear this will devastate the economy.

And even worse, the Trump Bump-on-a-Log is not gone. Yesterday he asked states not to report exact jobless claim figures since they are expected to be crushingly high. Goldman Sachs predicts unemployment filings to rise to 2.25 million next week. While the “Fake News” president tries to suppress the facts, no one will be able to hide from those if true.

Congress still is scrambling to cobble together a $1 trillion economic stabilization package. Already the federal aid is well over $2 trillion. By comparison, Obama’s 2009 economic stimulus package was $787 billion ($948 billion in today’s dollars). Not a single Republican in the House voted for it and only three in the Senate. That’s not Fake News.

And it was the Republican’s reckless stewardship that led to the Great Recession. The Recovery Act then was major catalyst for the fiscally conservative (and socially nutty) Tea Party movement and the retaking of the House in 2010 after winning 63 Republican seats, the largest mid-term loss of any party since 1938. The 2020 election is right around the corner and right now it’s anybody’s guess how that will turn out but I’d be sweating if I were a Republican.

We started the day with 10,000 confirmed cases in the United States, and at bedtime it’s well over 19,000. Nearly doubled in a day. Today more states issued “stay at home” orders (New York, New Jersey, Connecticut and Illinois) which affects about 1 in 4 Americans.

Meanwhile on the home front (i.e. my apartment), we’re settling into the routines of confinement. I doing YouTube yoga almost daily and most lunch hours I get outside for either a run or bike ride, which is not only allowed but encouraged.

Today I rode around Mount Soledad on the Rose Canyon bike path, through UC San Diego campus (pretty vacant) and along the La Jolla coast. 18 miles at nearly 18 m.p.h. I worked up a good sweat, cleared my mind and relished the outdoors. And absolutely beautiful weather with sunshine dancing upon the wavy Pacific Ocean.

I was surprised to see so many cars out on the roads since most of the stores and offices are closed; I suspect many are just tired of being cooped up at home and need to go for a drive. And a good number of cyclists and runners, too. We’re Southern Californians so fitness is part of our DNA. Yet everyone seems to be taking social distancing seriously with wide berth as we pass on sidewalks and fairly empty beaches.

It’s alarming how different it is in Florida with reports of large beach gatherings and packed bars for Spring Break. Paul’s mom Liz says that life has been normal all week — the pool is full of kids on break, her friends are playing cards daily, and yesterday 30 went to a restaurant for a “Ladies Luncheon”. Paul has been trying to talk serious sense into her and stay home unless absolutely necessary (she’s 84). He did the math and estimates that 75 people in her park could die from this based on current trends.

I’ve been trying to get a good night’s sleep but lately I’ve been more restless as this continues to weigh mentally. We’re eating healthfully, with lots of home-cooked meals, vegetables and natural snack foods. I’m definitely eating better than before the virus (I’m doing a weekly weigh-in to see how my weight trends during the pandemic). Yet our large dinner salads may end soon as it’s getting riskier to go out and buy fresh produce.

Gallo pinto con huevo y picante… que sabrosura!

At work we finished our week with a virtual happy hour — four of us on a video conference, beers, and no office talk. A poor substitute to actually being together in a bar but a start. It’s good we did this, and we’ll need to make more efforts in coming weeks.

Continue reading “Corona-rama Diaries: Week 2”

Corona-rama Diaries: Week 1

Friday, March 13: Putting it all together before it all falls apart…

Toilet paper aisle at Vons, prelude to a coronavirus kiss…

Friday the 13th, a contrary start to this new chapter in my work and social life. Due to the COVID-19 virus (aka “foreign virus” per our germophobic xenophobic fat orange president, as if disease has a passport), all workers at my company are to work from home for the next six weeks. As I end the day, the current global tally stands at 145,267 confirmed cases with, sadly, 5413 deaths (over half in China). The US currently stands at 2084 infected and 47 deaths. Curiously, the site reports 696 cases in the region of “Cruise Ship” which holds an impressive 16th place among most infected countries.

Paul and I did our stockpile shopping at local supermarkets, it was super busy. Checkout lines down the aisles. Most of the expected items sold out (pasta, toilet paper, frozen vegetables). Even Sprouts was completely out of bulk goods (beans, rice). But we managed to get most of what we think we need to survive 3 weeks.

We’re expecting an eventual lockdown: no leaving the house except for medical or food purposes (provided there are provisions in the markets). It’s already happening in Europe. We have a friend in Madrid; he reports you can’t go out except for food and there’s none in the stores anyway, and if you do the fine is €600,000. It’s a bit crazy. I’ve never experienced anything like this in my lifetime. Not sure what to expect here. San Diego has 8 cases – all confirmed today. But they’ve only tested 145 people so far. I fear it’s going to get far worse…

It’s not the virus so much I fear – most healthy people experience mild to moderate flu-like symptoms and most casualties are the elderly and those with underlying conditions. There’s still a lot to learn about this virus, it’s clearly highly contagious and can live in the air for several minutes and on surfaces for three days. It’s not yet known if it fares worse in warmer climates (spring is fast approaching in the northern hemisphere) – but reports from Singapore and Australia are not encouraging. There is also some question whether it can reinfect, apparently some recovered patients in China have fallen ill again. All this will be known in time, of course.

But the social upheaval is enormous: stock market down 28% and yesterday the DJIA fell 2,352 points (nearly 10%) , the biggest one-day drop since Black Monday in 1987. All major events are cancelled (the NBA, Coachella, SXSW, Broadway…). Flights to/from Europe are stopped, cruise lines are cancelled for 60 days, mainline airline carriers in the USA are reducing domestic capacity by 40% – almost half! Yet Trump blames Obama for some vague “rule change” which his own administration and Republican congressional leaders can’t clarify – while his own administration eliminated the Pandemic Response Team charged with dealing with such a crisis that we now face. Today the pandemic was declared a national emergency. Yet Melania tweets the unveiling of the White House tennis pavilion. Nero fiddles while Rome burns.

Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain!

So last night in the rain (another oddity: southern California is in the middle of a 10-day rainy period – yes, 10 DAYS), I schlepped my two laptop monitors and docking station from the car to my apartment. Paul was still sleeping at 8:30 AM, which I think we need to address since my work day starts at 8:00 AM and I work from the bedroom (not many choices in a 749 ft2, 2-room apartment). But Paul eventually awoke, I brought him his tea, and promptly I set up work station. Our small desk doesn’t fit the larger monitor well and I spent the day trying to adjust the closeness. It’s not quite working out as comfortably as I expected.

Continue reading “Corona-rama Diaries: Week 1”

Peter’s Picture Show: Tirolesas en las Barrancas del Cobre

Here’s Paul and I flying high on the ziplines at the Adventure Park from the rim of the Barrancas del Cobre (Copper Canyon) in northern Mexico’s Chihuahua state. Comprising seven adjacent canyons, this area is estimated to be many times larger and at least twice as deep than the Grand Canyon in Arizona.

It’s a majestic and scenic area rich in greenery which resembles oxidized copper, hence its name. The indigenous Tarahumara inhabit the cliffs and valleys and continue to practice a traditional nomadic lifestyle. They are still a visible feature of the entire region. Refreshingly little visited by tourists, Mexico’s Copper Canyon is a traveler’s delight with endless opportunities for hiking, mountain biking, horseback riding and exploring picturesque pueblos mágicos.

And if the Adventure Park’s seven ziplines, two rocky suspension bridges, and a 2-mile long gondola ride back to the rim aren’t enough to get your adrenaline rushing, in a couple of weeks the park will inaugurate the longest zipline in the world: a thrilling 8,350 foot (1.5 mile) drop from the canyon rim. We’ll surely be back for that.