Quarantine Diaries: Chapter 13 — The Machine Stops

When I was seven or eight, in 1951 or 1952, my father took me to an estate sale.  I’m not sure what he was looking for, probably tools, since he was starting his own refrigeration repair business. I, having never been to an auction before, didn’t know how it worked, but browsed around during the pre-auction inspection phase.  I found a book among the piled library boxes, apparently intended to be sold as a lot.  My father spoke to the auctioneer, and he agreed to sell me the book outside the lot, for a nominal sum of, I think, a nickel, no other bidders.

The first Sci-Fi anthology that carried the E.M.Forster 1909 classic “The Machine Stops.” I had a copy of this, but not sure I still do. It was my first “adult” book, bought at auction when I was 8, and the start of a life-long SciFi habit.

The book was The Science Fiction Galaxy, edited by Groff Conklin, paperback size, but with a hard cover, published in 1950 by PermaBooks, $0.35 cover price.  It was an anthology of science fiction short stories, and the first of many more I would collect through my teenage years and beyond.  I don’t know what fascinated me about the genre at the time, but it was an exciting concept.  Speculative fiction.  The first story in the book was a 1909 story by E.M. Forster, more famous for his novel A Passage to India. The story, The Machine Stops, was of a distant future, where people lived in isolation, each in their own room, maintained by The Machine, a universal automation system that provided all the needs, where the people communicated electronically.  Much like the current state of affairs during the Plague Years of the 21st century.  The quest for speed and excess had ruined much of the earth for human habitation with pollution.  Does this sound familiar?  We are living in Forster’s 1909 vision of The Machine in 2020.  I have never forgotten this dystopian paradise (that–spoiler alert–ends very badly), such an impact on my 7-year-old vision of what could be and might, if we gave ourselves over to technology instead of using it wisely, and how it could rob us of our humanity.  I kept getting reminders over the years of this classic story, which was the inspiration for George Lucas’ (Star Wars) debut 1971 film THX1138, and the original story concept for the 1967 novel Logan’s Run (later adapted to cinema)

The precocious reader, taking a lunch break on the original Parkins Refrigeration truck. The phone number (not visible) was 237. That’s it, 3 digits, no area code, no exchange prefix, no dials. Thinking about the future and The Machine, not dreaming it would come in his lifetime.

So, now it is 2020, and we are sustained by The Machine.  We hunker down in our houses, dependent (in many places, thankfully not ours) on air conditioning to keep the dwelling habitable in summer temperature highs that hover between 40 and 50 Celsius, sorely taxing the Machine that powers our civilization.  Because of the pandemic, food and supplies are delivered to our doorstep, lest we encounter crowds in stores or expose ourselves to contagion in public eateries.  We converse with colleagues, friends, and family in tiled windows on our computer screens, and even consult with our physicians via email and phone.

…Until The Machine Stops.

For several weeks now, we’ve encountered slowdowns and outages in our Internet service.  Sometimes the WiFi bogs down when our neighbors compete for radio frequency bandwidth, but this was different.  We had to reboot the router, and still had slow service.  A power surge one morning tripped one of the battery backup devices on our network, and it didn’t come back up. So, using The Machine (at least the Internet part of it), we ordered a new router and a new battery backup device, close to $400, more than double the last time we replaced these, eight or nine years ago.  Our income, of course, has not gone up in that time.  This is the last hurrah we can afford, to keep The Machine running for us.

The router arrived first.  It was, as our early 20th-century forebearers used to say, “Newfangled.”  We discovered that, in order to use any “modern” piece of technology, you can’t just turn it on and configure it with switches and keys on the panel, you have to use your phone, first downloading an application to talk to the new device, all of which requires you to have some sort of connection to the Internet through the telephone, which is now a complex computer in its own right.  People our age who continue to insist on using a plain old landline telephone or a simple hand-held mobile instrument that is just a device to talk to other people remotely, are unable to incorporate any other new technology into their lives, including replacing any vital pieces of tech that have broken down.  Our phones are getting old, too.  The Machine is a hungry master.

So, armed with the phone app, the new device was duly installed and fired up.  Since the simplified interface on the phone didn’t allow fine-tuning of the system, some of our other devices needed to be turned off so as not to interfere with the new device, which duplicated some of those functions in an as-yet to be determined manner, including turning them off to use our existing network tools.  Progress was slow.  Finally, it came time to hook up the non-wireless elements of the network.  But, when I did that, everything stopped.  The network was no longer connected to the Internet.  I tried putting the old router back in service, but it wouldn’t connect, either.  Slightly different symptoms, but no connection to the modem, which is a fancy name for the bridge circuit between the router and the cable company.  So, I used the Internet chat link on the cable company web page, with my phone, now switched to get Internet access through the phone company rather than the cable company.  Do we find it strange that you have to use the Internet to get help troubleshooting your Internet connection?  Yes.  One needs at least two different ways to talk to The Machine.

The chat, like most things these days, started with talking to a robot.  I’ve programmed artificial intelligence since the 1980s, when it was rather limited and “brittle,” as we call things that quickly reach the limits of their ability and can’t improvise.  It’s still brittle, the interface has just gotten a bit more conversational beyond the ELIZA chatterbot that’s been around since the 1960s, and the voice interfaces (about which, more later) have gotten a bit more natural inflection in speech output and the voice recognition and comprehension is comparable to an actual human assistant.  After the usual “Is the cord plugged in,” and “try rebooting the system” played out several times unsuccessfully, I got an actual human technician on the other end of the text chat.  We worked through a few things that robots aren’t allowed to do, to check to make sure the modem was operating.  It was, but the technician declared it was “too old” and needed to be replaced, anyway.

So, using the phone, I ordered a new modem online, finding out which store nearby had one in stock and would hold it for me.  We hopped in the car and drove 75 km to the store, masked up, collected the device at the front desk, and raced home.  Another $200 into this episode (the last one was $85).

The modem is the one part that needs to be blessed by the cable company, so back on-line we go with the Internet browser on the phone.  This time, it’s a web application that cheerfully fails to connect with the new modem after getting our account information.  It says, call the toll-free number–an anachronism from the days of long-distance calling, when phones were anchored to your house by wires to a mechanical relay bank downtown: the world is a local call now, with no extra tolls, just an exorbitant monthly fee.

The friendly-voiced robot on the other end gets all the information it needs, asks me to reset the modem (i.e., power it down, count to 10, plug it back in, etc.).  I do that, and call back, getting the same script (remember, limited options, brittle intelligence).  I know this won’t work, because what I need is to register a new modem, which requires talking to an actual human, something the robot hints at, but insists I try resetting the modem yet again.  I refuse, and then again refuse three times before the robot reluctantly, after chiding me for possibly wasting a human employee’s time, agrees to connect me with an actual human.  It then announces that there will be 30 minute wait, would I like a call back.  Yes, that’s much better than being on hold with distorted too-loud bad elevator music blaring in my ear for 40 minutes.

30 minutes later, the phone rings.  Another robot cheerfully asks if anyone is there?  I say yes, but this robot isn’t listening.  It’s waiting for a keypad tone, any key–I can’t find a key marked “Any,” so press ‘*’.  the robot didn’t hear it, decides I’m not responsive, says it will try later, and hangs up.  Fuming, I wait another 10 minutes.  This time, I immediately press ‘1′ which is magic: the robot accepts that as the correct “Any” key, verifies my identity, and connects me with a real person.  After a struggle, the modem gets programmed, but still won’t connect with the new router, or with the old router, either, though the light flickers dimly when I plug in the old one.  The nice person on the other end keeps on about “low voltage,” which I, as one schooled in these things, assume she means “low signal strength.”  Now I know that when you have a low WiFi signal, the WiFi adapter will connect but not actually let you login, so the obvious conclusion here is that the problem is on the cable side of the modem, which I don’t have the ability to check, other than stringing new cable to the other end of the house where the cable box is located.  But, she did ask me if the cables were tight, and I answered, “yes,” without actually checking other than with eyeballs.  Big mistake, as we shall see.  Meanwhile, we’re fixated on the “signal strength” theory.

So, the next step is an in-home visit from a technician, for which we set up an appointment.  So far, we’ve been “off the air” for nearly 12 hours, and it will be another 24 before the technician arrives.  The Machine has Stopped.  I’ve spent the day frantically beating a dead horse.  There’s no dinner, I’ve been on the phone, driven 150 km to the store and back, on the phone, and swapping hardware instead of cooking: Judy orders takeout, puts on her mask, and braves the virus to fetch it from across town.

It’s rather pleasant without Internet.  Oh, it hasn’t gone away entirely: we turned on cellular data for everything and kept using our phones, and I’m able to do some more setup internally in the network while we wait, though I’m using the old router (offline) so the machines can still talk to each other with their old addresses even if we’re not connected to the Internet.  I’ve converted some, but with dual networks so I can talk to them from either one.  But, we’ve downsized our cellular data plan since we don’t travel during the Plague, so we’re frugal with our data and skip some Zoom teleconferences to which we’d been invited, and I informed my client that I was offline but would be available for voice and text support over the phone.

To make a short story long, the technician arrived, not much later than promised, and a quick check revealed that the new router cable had become dislodged, but still attached, when I had plugged in the other network cables: the failure to connect the old router was because the old router had actually finally failed completely during this exercise.  Major embarrassment for the old codger who had been pulling other people’s fat out of the fire, fixing their computers and plugging in loose cables, for the past 55 years.  Oh, the ignominy of it all.  At least the new generation of techs is sharp enough to carry on.

The Machine is Up.  While this was going on, the new battery power supply arrived.  Everything got plugged in, and the network went wonky after the technician left.  This time, I figured it out.  I had disabled the address assignment service on my internal server, but forgotten to actually turn off the running instance, so it was handing out the wrong network addresses to our devices.  Sigh.  I’m not entirely happy with the way the routers handle this, since it doesn’t do its own internal name service to match machine names with addresses, so I will need to reconfigure the little network device to use the new addresses and old names and put it back on line, and disable the address service on the router, which I seem to be able to do from one of the browser menus, though it is obscure.

Meanwhile, the news creeps back in, of heat waves, unstoppable fires, horrific storms in tandem, unrest in the cities, government breaking with tradition and breaking down, propaganda building toward a contentious election, jobs still disappearing, the death rates and infection rates continue unabated, another polar ice shelf disappeared.  The Machine is grinding to a halt.  Look around, come out of your cell, take action.  Let us pull ourselves together, together, before it is too late.

Quarantine Diaries, Chapter 12 — The Night of the Bat

.The Plague rages on across the U.S., with no relief in sight.  People have apparently abandoned all social distancing and personal protection for the summer, and businesses have reopened.  We, on the other hand, have hunkered further down to avoid the crowds.  We continue our walks around town with masks at the ready, despite the heat, and still confine our shopping to once-a-week trip to the supermarket and another trip to the farm store.

Our first bicycle outing of the summer, at the airport industrial park, for a 10-km trial run.

Recovery continues: physical therapy has been downgraded to a biweekly schedule.  After I had several 20-25 minute sessions on the stationary bikeat home, we finally ventured out to the airport, our usual winter cycling venue: it’s relatively flat, and has a number of short loops so it’s possible to park the van in a central location and put in a 10-km ride without ever getting more than 1500 meters from the van.  Despite warnings to keep the first outings to 3-5 km, the rush was just too delicious, and we had a photo op to catch skydivers on final approach, so we pressed on to nearly 10 km.  Had a bit of sore hip afterwards, but a few home PT/yoga sessions and a 5-mile (8 km) walk around the north end of town, from home, worked out the kinks.

Judy enjoys photographing flower plantings in the yards around town, this one in the Mountain View neighborhood on the north side “alphabet streets”

Until early Wednesday morning, the day I was scheduled for PT.  Judy woke about 3:20 am: “Larye!  There’s something in the room.”

I was dozing, came awake to see a shadow flit across the ceiling.  I jumped out of bed and rushed around the end of the bed in the direction the shadow had gone.  Mistake.  A twinge, but not the searing sciatic jolt I had experienced in mid-June that put me down, unable to walk for weeks.  We turned on the lights.  Nothing.  Out in the hall.  Turned on the light. A winged shape fluttered down the hall and swerved around us, a leathery delta with pointed wingtip.  Not a bird.

“It’s a bat,” I said, as it disappeared behind me in the direction of the craft room.  I turned on the light there.  Nothing.  I checked the windows.  Our house is 90 years old, with the classic 6-over-1 bungalow sash windows.  In summer, we open the window and put an expanding screen in.  Usually, I put them in the top in this room, but Judy put them in while I was confined to the lower floor, and it was in the bottom.  This arrangement leaves a gap between the sashes about the same size as the opening to the bat house we have up in the eaves above the window.  That’s where the bat got in.  But, it obviously wasn’t going to find it to get out, so it was in the house somewhere.

We closed the doors to all the rooms to contain the beast.  When we closed the door to the craft room, Judy spotted the bat, perched near the lower hinge on the built-in storage cabinet behind the craft room door.  I pulled the screen off the nearest window,  grabbed a plastic container Judy keeps craft tools in, and emptied it.  Putting the open box over the bat, I slid the lid down to make it let go of the hinge.  It buzzed angrily, but let go, and was in the box with the lid closed.  I leaned out the window and dropped the bat onto the roof below, then replaced the screen.  Problem solved.  The bat lay on the roof, but when Judy went to check later, it was gone, so it hopefully didn’t come to harm, and we managed to handle it without danger of a bite or exposure to some zoonotic plague.  I rolled up a couple of hand towels and stuffed them in the gaps between the sashes in the two windows in which we had screens.

By SMBishop – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=53580349

By now, it was barely past 3:30 am, but we were still adrenaline-charged, so went downstairs.  I stayed up, with an ice pack on my hip, but Judy went back to bed eventually.  The ice pack seemed to help.

Later that morning, we went through my PT exercises and in the afternoon, I went to the clinic for my session, where all went well.  But, the sudden movement earlier during the bat attack and the soreness after bicycling was a wake-up call that I’m not completely healed and still susceptible to further injury, something my primary physician warned me about.  So, dreams of quick recovery and taking some longer bicycle rides later in the fall are dashed.  We’ll have to be content with short rides.  It’s hard to ride from home, with the steep hills, so it’s a pain to have to drive somewhere to ride.  But, there’s the airport nearby, and maybe a trip to the county park where we based our spring rides, but do the shorter loop instead of the usual 15-25 km figure-8 route we usually take, and the relatively quiet loop around Island Lake north of town that we’ve also ridden before.

Quarantine Diaries — Chapter 11: Bankruptcy Looming. Reorganization of the Known World

We’re well into August, a full five months into the not-so-brave new world of COVID-19.  Much of the world has settled into a new routine, coping with the pandemic sweeping the planet.  A few countries, notably the U.S., Brazil, and India, are in various states of denial, while the disease and its economic consequences rage on.  The outcome is not yet clear, but it will take doing something different than the current course.

In our personal lives, we’re holding our own.  The government hasn’t stopped our monthly retirement stipend yet, and most of our medical bills are still being paid.  We found out in July that our trips to the chiropractor for early treatment of my sciatica symptoms were denied: our provider was no longer on the preferred list.  We did, in July, finally get our semi-annual dental checkup.  The new rules apply:  arrive at the appointed time, phone from the parking lot, after which the hygienist comes to the car, takes the patient’s temperature and asks the usual screening questions about travel, contacts, and health, after which the patient is led through the empty waiting room to the treatment room, removes the mask, gargles with disinfectant (a dilute H2O2 solution), and the exam proceeds more or less normally, with extra precautions, and the financial arrangements are handled in the exam room.  Mask back on, and out the door.

Yoga and PT exercises on the porch. This was early on, while I still needed the walker to get around.

My physical therapy treatments are progressing, and should conclude soon.  The homework exercises are very much like our yoga practice had been, though much more intense, with 40 repetitions instead of two or three.  We have resumed or normal practice, on the porch or in the living room, with the added moves.  The weekly visits to the clinic add new tortures every week, but most now proceed without pain, except for the strain of using muscles correctly and strengthening neglected ones.  I’ve progressed from hobbling along with my second (third, fourth?) hand walker on the paved pathways between the college and the high school to jaunts around the neighborhood, and, lately, to using our trekking poles to tackle the steep hills of the neighborhood.  Which, of course, tempts us to wander off-road into the steep and loose forest trails.  And, we did.  Judy puts up with me, to an extent.  So far, we’ve managed to not get injured a long way from the road, but I’ve come to an understanding that some of these adventures are not wise.  The walks started out 1 km, 2 km, progressing to 4 km, and up to 7 km.

One of the trails in our neighborhood. This one winds down to Goldsborough Creek, from Bayview Ave, then climbs up to then end of Turner Ave. In rainy times, water flows down this steep part of the trail.

I’ve even progressed to driving again, though grateful for cruise control, as my throttle foot is the one that’s damaged, and this period of infirmity has affected range of motion on my ankle, the legacy of an old (1955) leg injury that healed while my bones were still growing.  Ten years of stretching in yoga gained back a few millimeters of motion, which are now lost again.  There is some residual pins-and-needles numbness that is persistent, but getting better week by week.  We’ve been cautiously visiting with our son and his family every few weeks during this period: they’ve come to us, and we sit on the porch.  This last time, we went to them, visiting on their patio.  Having the opportunity to go to “the big city,” we decided to try shopping in person at our warehouse chain (Costco), to pick up some items not offered through the on-line shipping service.  We’re not used to crowds, anymore, so it wasn’t an entirely pleasant experience.  Unlike the local grocery, the aisles have not been make one-way, so dodging for distance is a chore. Everyone is required to wear a mask, but many pull them off immediately on exiting the store.  We stopped at a Starbucks for the first time in five months, using the drive-through, a new experience also, as we prefer to go into the store with our own reusable travel mugs.  The touch-less transaction with a phone app makes it seem a bit more sanitary and safe.

Nearing the end of my physical therapy, I had a followup visit with my primary physician.  New rules as the pandemic surges in our state, and–alarmingly–particularly in our rural county, brought back more stringent rules on family accompaniment, so I got dropped off at the doctor’s office and called for pickup at the end: I would have driven myself, had we known.  The rules change day to day, depending on the statistics.  Same with the physical therapy.  We’ve been used to having the person not being treated take notes so medical visits have always been a family affair: no longer, again.

But, with the medical ordeals nearing an end, I’ve gotten permission for light bicycling.  Judy insists I do some test runs on the stationary bicycle before breaking out the tandem, so I’ve set up my old 1979 Fuji on the porch.  It’s the only one that fits on the wind-trainer stand, but it’s fine for that purpose.  Workouts are normal, without the traffic or hills of actual road work, but boring.

Birch Bay,Washington, sunset, incoming tide.

Having had limited excursions before my unfortunate confinement, and two months of very limited movement, other than trips to medical services and our recent walks, Judy decided we needed a road trip, which took us to our resort club facility in Birch Bay, near the Canadian border, where we spent two nights, taking advantage of the greatly-reduced tourist season to walk to the nearby state park on the bay, and, later, an excursion by car to the border, where we saw the impact of the border closing: the International Peace Park divided in half, with the Canadian side closed entirely and the Iconic Peace Arch, with its inscriptions of “Children of a Common Mother,” “Brethren Dwelling Together in Unity” and “May These Gates Never Be Closed” covered up, the entire 20-meter-high monument shrouded in construction plastic and fenced in [ostensibly for “normal maintenance”], and the common area between the approaches to the border checkpoints surrounded by construction zone tape.  The border is closed, for the first time in over 200 years since the 1814 Treaty of Ghent ended the War of 1812.  The U.S. Border Patrol kept a close eye on us through the darkened glass of their patrol vehicle as we retreated through the State Park parking lot back to our car, parked on the street outside the park.  On the other side of the parking lot, an electronic surveillance truck continually scans the fence-less section of the border, six meters across the grass from the curb on ”0“ Street in Surrey, BC.

U.S. Customs, Blaine, WA. in pre-pandemic times, all lanes were full, and traffic backed up several hundred meters into Canada, with a one-to-two-hour wait.
Approach to entry point to Canada, Surrey, BC. The color change in the roadway marks the actual border: 30 km/hr is 20 mph. This, too, is normally full of cars, though the Canadians are a bit more efficient in processing entry. Americans are not welcome here now, and the Provincial Peace Park is closed. The Peace Arch State Park on the U.S. side is still open, but with limited facilities and heavy Border Patrol presence.

On Saturday morning, before checking out, we drove up to the Semiahmoo Spit and hiked the trails through the county park, out to the resort and marina and back.  Other than three drive-through trips to coffee shops, and the seemingly obligatory review of our ownership status with the resort staff, we had no contact with others.  On our walks, mask-wearing appeared to be a political statement, though we didn’t linger to ask the affiliations of those we steered clear of, masked or not: most people crossed the street or stepped off the trail to maintain the required distance.  We had a properly-distanced conversation with a woman from Florida who, with her remote-working husband, are thinking of relocating permanently to western Washington, as a “safer” option to Florida.  Most shops and some restaurants remained closed even in the height of the summer vacation season.  Birch Bay, close to the border, normally enjoys visitors from both countries, so the lack of our Canadian cousins in residence was certainly a large part of the slowdown, in addition to the reluctance to travel among a large segment of the American population.

At home, we settled in, glad to be back, and probably won’t venture out again beyond our county until the meager tourist season comes to an end in cooler, wetter weather.  We continue to go on our walks, which have been averaging 5-7 km (3-4.5 miles).  We thought we would hike the Goldsborough Creek Trail near the Senior Center, and explore further up the old Simpson Railway, but the trailhead lot was full and there were a lot of people visible at the trail entrance, so we drove west up the highway, turning off on a side road to the rail line, then hiked down the rails back toward town.  We were surprised by a group of pedal rail cars from Vance Creek Railcars that passed us.  We hadn’t known they were back in business this year.  The four-passenger pedal cars were spaced apart, with family groups sharing cars.  We continued on, stepping off the tracks again as they returned later.  We turned around at the railcar turn-around point, as the weeds weren’t mowed past that point, for a  total of 6 km.  Now that we know the pedal cars are running, we may take in that outing before the end of summer.  It’s a 13-mile (22 km) round trip, should be OK within the guidelines for easing back into bicycling–I’ve been cleared for walking as much as I can, but restricted to short bicycle trips until completely healed up.

Simpson Railway, Goldsborough Creek bridge #3, near Milepost 3. Until 2015, this railroad carried logs from log booms on Oakland Bay to the scaling yard and Mill #5 at Milepost 9, and brought green lumber back down to the drying kiln at the waterfront. Sierra Pacific, the new mill owners, operate exclusively on the waterfront in a new modern mill.

So it goes.  The organizations to which we belong are adapting to the no-meeting, no-contact rules, planning video-conferencing meetings and programs to keep the spirit going.  On a trip to the hospital laboratory for a blood draw last week, the receptionist, typing with gloves and enunciating through a mask, expressed exasperation, wishing for an end to the precautions. My response was, “We’re not going back, at least not for a long time.   Things will be different in the future, but probably never the way they were.  Meanwhile, we need to live the life we have.”

Chapter 11 of this journal series struck me as an analogue of the bankruptcy rules for reorganization.  That’s where we are now: restructuring how we live our lives and interact with others.  The season for hunkering down in isolation is over, an unsustainable situation.  We need to restructure and reorganize, decide what parts of our lives and our economy we can do without and what parts need to be done differently.  We’re in both a medical and an economic crisis.  The country needs to pull together to reinvent ourselves, with a new “New Deal” to put people back to work, safely.  It’s a chance to rebuild our infrastructure, with real public works, not a giveaway to keep people in place, and, despite popular opinion, it’s not socialism, either.  Our current administration isn’t being realistic about what is necessary or possible: it’s time everyone realizes we are at the beginning of a long recovery that will take hard work and cooperation, not just an inconvenient temporary disruption.