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health

Odd Lots

Three Coins 9-20-2020 - 500 Wide.jpg

  • The old pennies appear to be back. (See my entry for November 7, 2019.) Over the last two weeks, at least 75% of the pennies I’ve gotten at McDonald’s were pre-2000, some of them very pre-2000. Yesterday alone I got three pennies, two from the ’90s, and one from…1962. This morning I actually got a parking-lot nickel. (Left, above.) It’s from 1999 in case you can’t make it out, and it’s lived a very hard life. The nickel on the right is 80 years old. The penny, a trifling 38. I wonder if, with new coins in short supply, McDonald’s is again getting them from the people who run networks of supermarket coin exchangers. I was getting shiny new pennies for a couple of months, and then suddenly I wasn’t. We’ll just have to see how it goes.
    • “How did I come into the world? Why was I not consulted? And if I am compelled to take part in it, where is the manager? I would like to see him.”
      –Soren Kierkegaard, Edifying Discourses in Various Spirits (1847)

      (Hmmm. Maybe “Soren” is German for “Karen”.)

    • There’s an excellent COVID-19 stats dashboard maintained by the Arizona Department of Health Services that as best I can tell is updated daily. It covers new cases, hospitalization rates, daily death rates by date of death, demographics, and lots of other useful stuff. The daily death rates for the disease have been in single digits since September 10, and the peak death day was July 17, when 97 people died. Seeing the graphs and digesting the numbers, it’s pretty obvious that the pandemic is burning out in Arizona.
    • The older red wine is, the less trans-resveratrol it contains, and thus the fewer beneficial health effects. I’m not a wine snob, and most wine I drink these days is 2017 or 2018. I’ll open old wine now and then (we have some) when the occasion demands, but not for daily consumption.

    • Put this on your calendar: On December 21 there will be a “grand conjunction” of Jupiter and Saturn, which will be the closest conjunction of the two giant planets since 1623 AD. The planets will be separated by only 6 arc minutes, which is one-fifth the width of the full Moon. With a decent scope and good eyepieces, you should be able to see the disks of both planets in one view.
    • This is a good year for planet spotting. On October 6, Mars will reach its closest approach to Earth during its 2020 opposition. (The opposition itself refers to Mars with respect to the Sun, and is on October 14.) The Red Planet will reach magtnitude -2.6, and on that date will be brighter than Jupiter. It won’t be this big or bright again until 2030. So put it on your calendars.
    • Great fun: Sixty Seconds of Stella Leaf Jumps. (I remember leaves, heh.)
    • We’ve been hearing that Vitamin D enhances immune function for respiratory infections for quite awhile. It’s also true that many of the people who die from COVID-19 are significantly and often severely deficient in the vitamin. Here’s a scientific paper correlating Vitamin D levels with SARS-CoV-2 test results. Short form: The more deficient you are, the more likely you are to be infected after contact with the virus. Take some pills. Get some sun. Don’t just cower in your spare room waiting for a vaccine.
    • Twitter can be so worth it sometimes.
    • Check out the first graph in this article. Countries that treat their COVID-19 patients with hydroxychloroquine have far lower case-fatality rates than countries (including ours) that has banned or discouraged the use of the drug.

    More on Masks

    I realize that I should have made the masks portion of yesterday’s wander its own post. What was supposed to be a casual collection of odd impressions of current events and what I’m up to turned into a mildly angry rant. That’s just how things work in the back of my head sometimes.

    Anyway. I ran into some links this morning that are worth mentioning. The first one is a must-read: “Aerosols, Droplets, and Airborne Spread.” It didn’t answer all of my questions, but it answered a lot of them. It’s a very long, dense article. (I think it was intended for medical professionals.) Read it anyway. Yes, it’s almost three months old, but I sure don’t get the impression that we’ve learned much since that time. The big takeaway is that SARS-CoV-2 spreads via aerosols; that is, naked virus particles or droplets so small that they remain suspended in the air for a long time. (A lot of supposed experts deny this.) Ever watch cigarette smoke? It doesn’t drift toward the ground. It gradually spreads out until you can’t see it anymore. But take a whiff of the supposedly empty air, and you’ll know it’s still there.

    Most droplets fall to the ground fairly quickly. But it’s true (as I mentioned yesterday) that in low-humidity environments, droplets evaporate quickly, and what may have been exhaled as a droplet large enough to fall can shrink to aerosol size before it hits the ground. We’re having a cool day here to close out June in Arizona. It won’t even break 100. The humidity is way up, at 16%. Tomorrow July comes in like a toaster oven (by most people’s standards) at 103. The humidity will be 10% or less. Even a 100┬Ám droplet will likely give up its water long before it hits the ground in that kind of humidity. After that, it floats for what may be 30,000 hours; i.e., indefinitely.

    People are still getting into fistfights about whether there are enough viral particles in airborne aerosol droplets to cause infection. It’s not a yes/no kind of question. Like a lot of other things associated with health, it’s about probabilities. I’m thinking that if you spend an hour in a crowded bar where everybody is talking loud, laughing, and drinking, you’re likely to get enough virus to become infected, even if everybody in the bar is wearing a mask. If you pass somebody in the baking aisle at Safeway, probably not. Why do I say this? Two things:

    1. There is something called “time in proximity.” The longer you spend close to an infected person, the more likely you are to get sufficient viral load to come down with COVID-19. I don’t go to bars much for the bar experience, but my writers’ workshop took place in a sports bar for over three years. When there were important games, people were draped all over each other, talking loud and cheering when their side made a good play.
    2. You can catch this thing if you get enough viruses in your eyes. A couple of droplets is all it takes. Masks don’t protect your eyes. Nor do I think masks eliminate all exhaled aerosols. Sit in a bar for an hour with hordes of people cheering into their masks, well, you’ll probably get enough of the bad guy in your eyes to come down with it. Why? Badly fitted masks allow exhaled air to flow out the edges. I tried singing with a mask on to see if they leaked out the edges when I sang forcefully. They did.

    I’m sure I’ll get yelled at for my contention that masks don’t help us anywhere near as much as our supposed health experts claim, but I’m past caring. Which leads us to another and probably more controversial link, which is one MD fisking a rah-rah hurray-for-masks post by another MD. This is a guest post on Sarah Hoyt’s blog, and you’re free to dial it down if that makes a difference to you. I don’t agree with all the points made, but there are some solid numbers and good explanations about some of the downsides of wearing masks, few of which ever come up in the current debate.

    Something else that I knew but forgot to mention yesterday: A real N95 mask filters inbound air only. N95’s have one-way exhalation ports that remain closed until pressure in the mask indicates that the wearer has exhaled. Then it opens and releases the wearer’s breath through the port. No filtering of exhaled breath is done. None. N95’s exist specifically to keep patients from infecting medical personnel. They protect no one but the wearer. The tiresome bleat that “You wear a mask to reassure and protect others” simply doesn’t apply for N95 masks.

    So where do I sit in all this? I’ll give you a list:

    1. We do not know a lot of things, particularly involving viral load, antibody generation, asymptomatic carriers, etc. Everything we know about SARS-CoV-2 and its effects (COVID-19) must be regarded as tentative. We’ll learn more as we go, but right now there is a lot of arguing and handwaving over significant issues.
    2. Wearing a mask is no guarantee that you won’t catch the virus, nor infect others. Everything is a matter of probabilities. The type of mask matters, some being worthless (handkerchiefs & bandanas etc.) and some a lot better. But none are any guarantee, especially if you wear a mask the wrong way. (I’ve seen a lot of that in grocery stores.)
    3. Time in proximity matters. It’s the crowded bar thing again, or any dense meeting of bodies talking, laughing, or lor’ ‘elp us, cheering. Spend enough time cheek-by-jowl with virus carriers, and you will almost certainly get the virus, mask or no mask.
    4. Masks can be overwhelmed by strong exhalation. I’ve tried this myself, as I said before: Cheering or singing into a mask will just force air out the sides when the material of which the mask is made can no longer pass the volume of air presented to it. That air is not filtered.
    5. Masks don’t protect your eyes. This should be self-explanatory, but it’s rarely discussed. Getting droplets in your eyes is apparently less likely to lead to infection than breathing them in. However, after enough time in dense gatherings, your eyes could put your viral load over the top into infection territory.
    6. And my conclusion: Put as much distance between yourself and others as you can. Even that’s no guarantee. Furthermore, for some people it may be all but impossible. But for people in my age bracket (I turned 68 yesterday) it could become a life-or-death issue.

    Carol and I wear masks, and we stay home a lot. We certainly don’t go to bars or political rallies or protests or anywhere else you have screaming crowds. If you pin me down on it, I’ll express my opinion that masks don’t protect you anywhere near as well as ten feet of clear air. But as with almost everything else about the virus, your guess is as good as mine.

    Odd Lots

    Boy, writing this entry just felt good. I gotta do more of these…

    • People are asking me what’s happening with Dreamhealer. (First chapter here.) I’m working with an artist on a cover. The ending needs a hair more editing, but after that it’s an afternoon’s work to lay out the ebook in Jutoh. I had intended to introduce it at LibertyCon mid-June. Lacking a LibertyCon, I’m now just intending to get it out as fast as I can.
    • Are any of my ham friends (general or higher) interested in an experimental sked on the low bands? If so, where have you heard Phoenix? I usually try 20M before anything else, but if anybody’s got any heuristics, let me know somehow.
    • Everybody (ok, every nerd) knows about the Carrington Event. Even I didn’t know that we had another one of those in May 1921. Although Carrington is more famous, by strictly objective measure (the disturbance storm time index, or Dst) the two solar storms were almost exactly alike. In both cases telegraph stations caught fire from currents induced in the wires, and a lot of telephone equipment (which wasn’t deployed in 1859) was destroyed in 1921 by the same induced currents. Damn, like I needed something else to worry about.
    • I’ve backed a number of technologies before. Risky business. I backed Wi-Fi back in the early oughts and won big.I backed WiMAX and watched it swiftly and silently vanish away. I backed Powerline networking (now gathered under the umbrella term HomePlug) and lost but still use it. Here’s a good article on what happened to both WiMAX and HomePlug.
    • One technology I haven’t backed yet is 5G mobile, which is finally getting some traction in the marketplace. My LTE phone works just fine, and I don’t stream video to my phone. (I have a big honking TV for that.) Where I think 5G is most promising is as competition to the mostly monopolist residential broadband providers. We have cable Internet here, and it’s…ok. If 4K (or God help us, 8K) video is to have a chance, it will be through the benefits of 5G, and not otherwise.
    • Neil Ferguson’s computer model of the COVID-19 pandemic caused the UK’s lockdown. Now it comes out that the model was a good design with a trash implementation. (This from a computational epidemiologist, who just might know a crap pandemic model when he sees one.) Imperial College refuses to release the original model’s code and is making stupid excuses why not. A fragmentary and much-jiggered source code suite is now available on Github, and includes things like a global variable struct with 582 fields. (And lots more global variables.) Uggh. Her Majesty should demand her people’s money back.
    • A San Diego County supervisor stated that only six of 194 recorded coronavirus deaths were actually caused by the virus. The others died with the virus, but according to the supervisor, not of it. Yes, yes, I know, it’s not either-or. COVID-19 can push an elderly heart or cancer patient over the edge. Still, we need solid numbers on how deadly this thing is, and for that we have to back out the count of people who were already dying of other things.
    • Here’s a good example: A Colorado man died of alcohol poisoning. (0.55%, when the supposedly lethal threshold is 0.3%.) He was tested for coronavirus and found to be carrying it. So he was listed as dying of COVID-19. He had no comorbidities, beyond enough booze to kill a middling elephant.
    • The county I grew up in now has more COVID-19 cases than any other county in the US. Good ol’ Cook County, Illinois. I guess we got out in time.
    • In good news locally, Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Co. is announcing plans to build a $10B plant in Arizona. Is it possible that those jobs are coming back? (Sorry, Steve.)
    • Now that we’re all obliged to wear masks, it was inevitable: Gait recognition technology is in development. It uses deep learning and sensors in the floor. This is more than a little creepy, granting that we once said that about face recognition as well. I recall a friend (now deceased) telling me in 1976 that “You walk as though you’re on your way to kill something.” (That was partly ROTC marching and partly the need to walk fast from one busted Xerox machine to another in downtown Chicago.) Maybe I should buy a scooter.

    The Numbers Game

    COVID-19 is a numbers game. Trouble is, we don’t know what any of the numbers are. Yes, we can tote up test positives and deaths, but that tells us surprisingly little about the things that matter in this case: How contagious is the virus? How many people are infected but don’t know it? How many people had it but thought they had the flu? All of that matters.

    None of it is known.

    We’ll learn more as new tests are devised, particularly for antibodies. Knowing how many people have caught the virus but threw it off would put a number of things into perspective, especially the critical issue: How close are we to herd immunity? That’s the most important known unknown in a big greasy sack of mixed unknowns.

    In the meantime, people worry. I’m one of them. I’ve read others online. The worried ones tend to be older folks. And yeek! It was a little disorienting to internalize that I’m an older folk. I’ll be 68 in two months. I don’t care if 60 is the new 40. We have decent stats on whom the virus is taking out. And that curve heads for the sky at age 60.

    As an aside, there’s the complicating factor in that anybody who dies with the virus in their system tends to be counted as a COVID-19 fatality, even if they had heart disease or stage 4 cancer. Sometimes the corpses aren’t even tested for coronavirus. If it looks like the virus, coughs like the virus, or kills like the virus, then…they write COVID-19 on the death certificate. That may be unavoidable in some cases, but it certainly does not help in our current numbers game.

    This may all seem obvious, but I’m not done yet. The country has to open up soon. People are burning through their savings trying to keep the lights on and food on the table. (Alas, the people who are keeping us under house arrest never miss any paychecks.) Businesses are failing. My local art supplies store has closed forever. A lot of restaurants are not going to make it. Smithfield closed its ginormous pork-packing plant in Sioux Falls, SD, and the firm is supposedly working with the CDC to determine how and when the plant will reopen. Too much of that and we’ll have food shortages.

    We’re not there yet. My local groceries have fresh meat again, at least. My hunch is that the hoarders have already filled their chest freezers, at least those hoarders who can find their chest freezers behind the mountains of toilet paper piled up in their basements.

    I recognize that there will be a cost in letting people go back to work, particularly in monster cities like New York and Chicago where getting around is mostly done on jam-packed buses and subway/commuter trains. More people will be infected. Additional people will die. Those numbers can’t be known yet. (Computer models riddled with unknown parameters are utterly worthless.) Being my ever-hopeful self, it looks like the numbers won’t be nearly as bad as early models suggested. The big upside is rarely mentioned: Herd immunity happens because people catch the virus, develop antibodies, and throw off the virus. Some of that has happened already. It’s happening. More needs to.

    We’re a ways off from a vaccine, though one will happen. In the meantime, we need to consider any drug or drug combo that shows promise through clinical experience. The media seems…peculiarly…opposed to hydroxychloroquine plus zinc and an antibiotic. Still, observational studies are being ramped up as quickly as possible, and early clinical experience looks good. If I suddenly got hit hard, I would ask for that first. When you’re looking death in the eye, you may not be as insistent on bureaucratic niceties.

    People like me will probably have to stay home for awhile longer than those younger and not yet retired. I’m willing to do that…to a degree. Carol and I walk in local parks. If we need something at a store, we mask up and go. How effective are the masks? Nobody knows. But it’s worse than that. No matter how much you wear your mask, a virus or seventeen may land in one of your eyes. The mask reduces the likelihood of catching it. But it never reduces the likelihood to zero. The same goes for cleaning surfaces, which is harder now because the hoarders have snapped up all the cleaning supplies. Miss something with that soapy rag (you’d use alcohol if you could find some) and you could pick up the virus. Less likely, but possible. No matter what measures you might take, your chances of catching COVID-19 will never go to zero. And your chances of dying will never go to zero. We do not and cannot and will never know. Carol and I have had our family trust and wills together for awhile. We take whatever protective measures we can. That’s about the best we (or anybody) can do.

    Irrepressibly perky gonzo optimist that I am, I do see something to be optimistic about: Evolution is a thing, and it works. Viruses that immobilize/kill their hosts quickly eventually lose out to related strains that infect and cause fewer and less severe symptoms. Over time, newly discovered viruses mutate toward more innocuous forms. It worked that way with HIV. It will work that way with our current coronavirus. It’s already working that way, even if we can’t measure it. How long will it take? No one knows. Get over it.

    It comes down to this: Whether you like to gamble or not, you’re damned well gambling, and you will never know the odds. Come May 1, if we don’t begin opening up our economy, the virus could well become the least of our worries. Those odds are greater than zero. Greater, in fact, than you may think.

    Hamsterin’

    Hamsterin-500 Wide.jpg

    Well. The Great Toiler Paper Famine of 2020 may be subsiding. We got a package of six rolls (one package only!) this morning, and we should have enough now for a couple of weeks.

    We have the stores to thank for that. Both Fry’s and Safeway are now limiting quantities on hoardables and even non-hoardables like milk. One per household is the general rule. We know that Fry’s usually gets a truck on Monday nights, so we were there first thing in the morning. Like many other grocers across the country, Fry’s reserves the first hour for people over 60. We got there at 5:50, and there was already a considerable line. At 6 AM sharp, they opened the doors, and everybody made for the toilet paper aisle at a dead run. And lo and behold: Piles and piles of toilet paper! And paper towels. And baby wipes. And rubbing alcohol.

    Alas, no bratwurst. What, they’re hoarding bratwursts now?

    So we got our one package of TP and one package of paper towels. Carol got a bottle of rubbing alcohol, and a few other things before we ran through Mickey D’s drive-thru for breakfast. All in all, a good and useful morning.

    Oh–and at 5:45 AM when we backed out of the garage, I remembered that this morning is Mercury’s maximum elongation, so we jumped out of the Durango and searched for that most-difficult planet. Even at max elongation, the little snot is unholy hard to spot, but spot it we did. (It helps to have few trees and no two-story houses in our neighborhood.) Jupiter, Mars, and Saturn were in a tight little group much higher in the southeast.

    The lockdown here in Arizona has been cordial and mostly voluntary. Local government is not harrassing people who walk for exercise. My barber shop closed last Thursday, but others are still open, so if I get a little too pointy-haired, I have options. The Jewish Community Center is closed, so we’re not doing our usual weight training every Monday. I’m going to buy an 18-pound ketttlebell if I can find a store still selling 18-pound kettlebells. You can do a lot with an 18-pound kettlebell. We had to cancel our writers’ workshop because restaurants can’t provide indoor or patio seating. We meet in a biggish sandwich place, so we’re out of luck. We’re trying to figure out a reliable teleconferencing system for the interim.

    We no longer go to Costco. That’s a shame, since I like their frozen blueberries, but with conventional grocery stores limiting quantities to stop hoarding, all the hamsterin’ is now being done at Costco. People line up around the block to get in and buy truckloads of TP and cart-sized bricks of plastic bottled water. I’ve seen photos. It’s surreal.

    We’ve learned the secret: Go to small stores. I don’t mean convenience stores. I mean specialty stores, like the little Polish/Russian grocery down in Mesa. We bought six bags of their excellent hand-made pierogies a few days ago. They had a lot of other stuff I couldn’t quite identify, since I don’t read Polish, much less Russian. But nobody was hoarding pierogi.

    Our days are heating up. It’s still snowing in Colorado Springs, but in Phoenix our daily highs are beginning to creep up into the 80s. We’re about to engage in an interesting experiment: Warmer temps slow down most viruses. There’s a debate raging about whether or not that’s true of COVID-19, but we’re going to find out. Arizona is not a virus hot zone by any means, with only 326 cases and 3 deaths. (New York has 26,000+ cases and 271 deaths.) Is it the warmer temps, or just good clean livin’? Nobody knows…yet.

    One thing I’m pretty sure of is that UV light can kill viruses, and we lead the nation in the production of UV light. In fact, when we get a package from Amazon, I put on gloves and take it out to the backyard, and set it down on the pool deck. I turn it a couple of times to make sure all surfaces get a dose, but if 15 minutes of Arizona sun can cause sunburn, it will damned well kill viruses.

    So here we are. I read books, or write them. I program. I tinker in my workshop. I throw the ball around the yard for the dogs. I cook. And I wash my hands. Hoo-boy, do I wash my hands. So life goes on. Don’t let the panicmongers mong you any panic. We don’t know how bad COVID-19 will ultimately be, but it will almost certainly not be as bad as the media are insisting. I see a lot of people on Twitter trying to stir up panic, and they sure sound and act like paid operatives. If you catch them with a question they can’t answer, they vanish. If you ask them for their credentials, they vanish. Do whatever you can to discredit such screamers. And carry on. This too will pass, perhaps sooner than we think.

    Life in the Time of Quarantine

    “Social distancing,” heh. It’s basicallly what Carol and I consider ordinary life. We’re retired, we’re home a lot, and don’t have the energy to cope with huge events like concerts, parades, political rallies, and so on. We don’t go to bars. Ok, my writers’ group used to meet in a sports bar, but then they repurposed their party room and we had to move to a sandwich shop across the street. (Yelp now reports that the sports bar has closed.) But that weekly writers’ group–with at most ten or eleven other people, usually fewer–is most of the social anything that I do these days.

    So we’re doing our part by basically keeping on keeping on. I’m working on different techniques to avoid using my hands as much in public places. If I’m going through a door that simply pushes open, I push with my shoulder. When I take a drink from a water fountain, I press the bar with my elbow. (This is easier than it might seem, if you’ve never tried it.) After I wash my hands in a men’s room, I dry my hands on a paper towel and then grip the door handle through the towel. If my nose itches, I scratch it against my upper arm. I’m going to use Michael Covington’s technique to keep rubbing alcohol with me while I’m out in public: Fill one of those little eyeglass-cleaner solution push-spray bottles with ordinary drugstore isopropyl alcohol. Squirt a little on your palm, rub it around for a few seconds, and it dries without stickyness. You can buy little belt-holsters for pepper-spray cans, and I suspect an alcohol spray bottle might behave a little better if it’s alone in a holster than in my pocket wrestling with my car keys and pocket change.

    Although the locusts are still out there, the stores are starting to get wise by placing limits on purchases of certain popular items, like toilet paper, paper towels, eggs, bread, milk, etc. Fry’s set this up over the weekend. We went to Safeway yesterday and whereas there are still a lot of empty shelves, there weren’t as many locusts and their carts weren’t especially full. (We haven’t braved Costco yet.) My guess is that everybody who intended to fill their chest freezers has already filled them. We bought two packages of boneless pork chops, some dental floss and a tube of Pepsodent. The supply chain is still out there, and once people realize that civil order isn’t going to collapse, they may return to their accustomed shopping habits.

    Then again, there’s another possible explanation for hoarding, which occurred to me once I began hearing about municipalities shutting down restaurants, bars, libraries, concert halls, movie theaters, and so on. People may be afraid of government-enforced quarantine. This is happening in other countries, especially Italy. How far the feds could take it here is an interesting question. I don’t see federal involvement as a likely option, especially now that the decisions are being made at the local level. Rumors have it that Phoenix will shut down restaurants here in a day or two. If it happens, it happens. We go out to eat on average once a month anyway.

    Nobody’s suggesting that we shut down grocery stores, nor prevent people from shopping for groceries and prescriptions.

    The real issue with shutting down “non-essential” businesses, of course, is that businesses without customers will go under. I don’t know what the solution to that is. Restaurants that do drive-through and carry-out will get a lot better at it, and restaurants that don’t do it will learn how in a big hurry. Government isn’t always behind such things; just yesterday McDonald’s announced that it would close seating areas in all company-owned restaurants. What bars are going to do is far less clear. I’m all for flattening the pandemic curve. What I don’t think is a good idea is flattening the economy.

    Another question occurred to me last night: To what extent can a CPAP machine sub for a medical ventilator? The adaptive kind (like mine) may be less useful than the ones where you dial in the inches of pressure you want, and that’s how much the machine pumps. (There may be a setting on APAP machines for fixed pressure, and I’ll investigate that later today.)

    So we’re kicking the beachball around in the backyard for the dogs to chase, reading, writing, working on the garden, pulling weeds, and so on. Life continues. I’m less worried about the virus itself than about government screwups that make things worse. Government is incompetent because there are no penalties for incompetence. If the penalty for screwing things up were a jail term or a $100,000 fine, I’ll bet that government would work a lot better.

    It is to dream, alas.

    Odd Lots

    • Amazon is selling hand-made (in Latvia) steampunk thumb drives incorporating copper pipe caps and a Soviet-made pentode vacuum tube. LEDs light up the glass from the bottom of the tube when there’s power available at the USB connector. (Thanks to Bill Meyer for the pointer.)
    • Tonight would be a good night to see Mercury. It’s never easy because the planet never gets too far from the Sun in the sky, but with smartphone apps like Sky Map (on all Android phones by default) it’s certainly easier than it once was. Start by finding Venus in the west, immediately after the Sun goes below the horizon. (You can’t miss Venus.) Mercury lies roughly on a line between Venus and the Sun. There are no bright stars in that part of the sky, so if you see a star near that line, it’s not a star but ol’ Merc himself.
    • Speaking of the Sun… Here’s a solid overview of the history of solar science. It’s a long piece, and even if you choose not to read it, the photos and diagrams are worth the visit.
    • Betelgeuse continues to dim for unknown reasons. It’s fallen from 10th brightest star in the sky to 24th brightest. Orion is the first constellation I can clearly recall seeing, and these days, it just looks…off. This may mean it’s about to go supernova…for large values of “about.” (Hundreds or more likely thousands of years. Stars are never in a hurry.)
    • I’ve been following the coronavirus epidemic using a dashboard maintained by Johns Hopkins. Who knows how accurate it is, but one does get a feeling that China is currently in a world of hurt. I got the link from my friend Charlie Martin, and he’s got a good article about the issues involved.
    • This is a little weird, but it’s one more telltale that the technical publishing industry I loved for so long is no longer with us. I went searching for a book on installing, configuring, and customizing the MediaWiki software, and found…nothing. There’s plenty online, but I’m talking about book-length treatments. If you know of one let me know. My longstanding heuristic is that if it’s not on Amazon, it isn’t available.
    • How to turn a waterway into wine. At least it wasn’t a Zinfandel.
    • Ah, but this was a sweet, sweet hack: Some guy wandered around downtown Berlin pulling a little red wagon full of smartphones, all running Google Maps. Wherever he happened to be during his wander, Google Maps reported a traffic jam.
    • If politics bores you as much as it bores me, here’s a solid distraction from all the tiresome yelling and screaming: The economics of all-you-can-eat buffets. Eat quick: My instincts tell me that as a category buffets are not long for this world.
    • Finally, you’ve heard me say that there’s funny, there’s National Lampoon funny, and then there’s Babylon Bee funny. This may be one of the Bee’s best pieces yet–given this season’s nonstop nonsense.

    A Year and Change on APAP

    A year ago this past May, one of my doctors suggested that my lack of energy might be due to sleep apnea. Carol verified this; she has heard me stop breathing numerous times while lying beside me in bed. The doc prescribed an at-home “headband” sleep study, which at least verified his suspicion of apnea. The device (which was just that: a headband with electrodes) recorded an AHI of 33. Basically, I would stop breathing 33 times an hour. This seemed excessive and still does, for reasons I’ll explain a little later. But the next step was obvious: He handed me a prescription for an APAP machine. “APAP” is an adjustable pressure CPAP. The machine senses your breathing, and sends enough air through the hose to keep you breathing, no more.

    I shopped around online, and got an NOS (new, old stock) ResMed S10 Auto. It was half the price of a new machine, even though it was still sealed in its original packaging. I bought a couple of different masks, and gave them all a good shot.

    At first it made me nuts. I have never been a strong sleeper, and having this thing strapped to my face all night kept me awake. The full-face mask that most people use was a non-starter. I used a few other types of mask, and finally found that I could actually sleep a little using a “nasal pillows” mask, which has these two little soft silicone pads on a single strap that goes behind your head. The two pads each has a tube protruding from the middle, and those tubes go into your nostrils, while the soft pads keeps a good seal. Ok, a reasonably good seal. I still have problems with leaks around the edges of the pads, but that doesn’t negate the machine’s effectiveness.

    It still kept me awake. So the doc put me on a new sleeping pill called Belsomra (Suvorexant) which, rather than sedating you, helps neutralize stimuli that prevent you from sleeping–like an APAP mask. And damn, it worked! I slept better than I had in a long time, with no interruptions but my two canonical bathroom breaks.

    With the machine in operation, I was throwing just a few “events” every night. There are several kinds, and I don’t have the space to describe them all here. My personal favorite is hypopnea, which is shallow breathing, not airway obstruction. The doc said it doesn’t interrupt sleep. Some of the others I’m still not sure I understand, like Cheyne-Stokes Respiration; but that’s ok, as I think I’ve had it exactly once in thirteen months.

    The S10 records everything it senses during the night on an SD card. You can pop the card out and read it any time. My correspondent TRX put me on to a free app called Sleepyhead, which takes the data from the card and throws up all kinds of graphs for Windows, Mac, and Linux. The damned thing literally graphs the shape of every single breath you take. You can see when you stop breathing, along with the following spike in pressure to open your airway again.

    Ok. Now it gets a little odd, and a little disappointing. For the first six months I recorded AHIs of .5 to 7, which isn’t bad, especially compared to where I was starting from. The problem is, I still felt the profound lack of energy that’s been dogging me now for several years. I felt a little better, but I wonder if that was just the sleeping pill keeping me from reacting to dogs yipping in their sleep chasing archons in the akasha, or the drip system cranking up in the middle of the night. I stopped using the machine for a week. I didn’t feel any worse, nor better.

    I’m still using it. I’ve worked out the optimal sleeping position through a year of trial-and-error: On my right side, with my head on a firm pillow, leaning back just a little to keep the mask from smooshing off my face due to pressure from the pillow. The data the S10 gives me showed me a few significant things: My AHI goes through the roof when I sleep on my back; something like 7-10. Oddly (and so far inexplicably) my AHI also goes up sharply when I sleep on my left side. Nobody can tell me why. So I sleep on my right side. I have to prop my right knee on a second pillow, but it works.

    And now it gets more interesting still: I had been slowly putting on some weight for a year or two. So in February I cut my carb intake to as close to zero as I could manage, without starving myself. (Starving yourself doesn’t work. Really. What you might lose, you then gain back after the diet stops, and then some.) My weight went down from 163 to 148-150. It took a couple of months of this for me to notice, but eventually I saw it: As I lost weight, my AHI imploded. At the end of March I had my first perfect night: The S10 recorded no events at all, nothing. As spring continued, I saw my record improve even more: I started having perfect nights regularly, and then two or three (and once, four) in a row.

    Carol mentioned something over breakfast one morning: I had lost weight in my face and my neck. I’ve never been seriously overweight, but I’ll be 67 in a week or so, and I’m trying to keep my A1C down to avoid Type 2. I was actually trying to eliminate visceral fat around my waist as much as possible. I didn’t even think I had fat in my face to lose.

    I still haven’t regained my energy (which is one reason you don’t see as many Contra entries as you used to; I’m pouring most of what energy I have now into my fiction) and that problem remains unsolved. Maybe I’m just old. I don’t know. Coffee helps some. Beyond that, I’m out of things to try.

    My only remaining theory is this: That headband sleep study was bogus. I suspect it was interpreting me jerking around in my sleep as apnea events–I’m an “active” sleeper and always have been. So although I did have sleep apnea, it wasn’t nearly as bad as the headband claimed. That said, I think the S10 has improved the quality of my sleep, which is beneficial in many ways beyond personal energy. This is why I continue to use it. My point here is that quality of sleep is not behind my energy deficit.

    I’m still trying to figure that out. In the meantime, if you think you have apnea (spousal reports are good, and even a bad sleep study will give you some broad hints) I recommend two things:

    1. Get yourself a recording APAP machine like the ResMed S10. Download Sleepyhead and watch your data, daily if possible. Development on the app has stopped, but it’s still available and works fine. You will learn a lot about how your sleeping position (and weight) affect your breathing.

    2. Lose weight. This is good for lots of reasons (Type 2 being most important) but I’m pretty sure at this point that facial and neck fat are huge amplifiers for a tendency to apnea.

    I’ve gone on long enough here for this busy morning, but if what I’ve experienced this past year will help my readers, it’s well worth it. Good luck. Cut carbs. Animal fat will not hurt you. (Certain vegetable oils will.) Sleep as much and as well as you can, even if it takes a machine to help you get there. Even (Gasp! The horror!) go to bed at 9 PM if that’s what it takes to get eight hours in before you have to go back to work or school. And pills; Belsomra is something entirely new in the human pharma cabinet. It is utterly unlike the nenzos or Z-drugs. Look into it if you have trouble sleeping.

    More as I learn it. Let me know how you do, if you happen to be on this path as well.

    Odd Lots

    • Our pool cover kept the pool at tolerable temps (mid-high 70s) until a few days after Halloween. Then the nights got cold fast, and we finally removed the cover, cleaned it off, rolled it up, and put it in the shed. Water temp is now 62 degrees. I’m sure I’ve been in water that cold, but as a successful retired person, I reserve the right not to do things I did gladly when I was in seventh grade. As for when it goes back on in the spring, well, I’m working on that. We’ll see.
    • QBit is still with us, though he’s a little grumpy and not moving as fast as he used to. He does not appear to be in pain, but we’re having the mobile vet check him again at the end of the month.
    • We’ll be watching fistfights about this for years still, but ongoing research is pushing consensus strongly toward the hypothesis that low-carb high-fat diets accelerate metabolism. This happens to me almost every day: Twenty minutes after my nearly zero-carb breakfast (two eggs fried in butter, coffee, sometimes bacon) I feel warmer and start to sweat under my arms.
    • From the Things-Are-Not-Working-Out-As-We-Were-Promised Department: When we bought our house here in Phoenix in 2015, we immediately replaced nearly all the interior lighting with LED devices. Three years later, they’re dying like flies. (Several died within the first year.) Probably half of the incandescent bulbs we had in our Colorado house survived for all the 12 years we lived there. More efficient, yes. Long-lasting, well, I giggle.
    • The Center for Disease Control warns Americans not to eat Romaine lettuce in any form. A particularly virulent form of e. coli has been found in lettuce sold in 11 states, but since the CDC doesn’t know where all the infected lettuce came from, it’s advising consumers not to eat romaine at all.
    • The Dark Ages began with real darkness: In the year 536 a massive volcanic eruption in Iceland covered Europe in volcanic smog. Crops failed, famine was everywhere, and soon came Justinian’s Plague, now thought to be bubonic plage. By the time the plague faded out, half of Europe was dead. I find it fascinating that we can identify periods of prosperity by looking for lead dust in ice cores, meaning that people were mining precious metals. After nearly vanishing after 536, lead levels didn’t reach the norm again until 640.
    • “Reading is like breathing in and writing is like breathing out, and storytelling is what links both: it is the soul of literacy.” –Pam Allyn
    • Statuary in ancient Greece and Rome was not always blinding white, but was often painted and sometimes gilded, and restorations of the colors are startling to moderns. Here’s an excellent long-form piece on how old statues likely appeared when they were created–and why many historians reject the idea of painted Classical statuary.
    • Too much caffeine triggers the release of cortisol, which in large quantities over a period of time leads pretty directly to heart disease. Modern life is cortisol-rich enough enough without downing 6 cups a day!
    • Some ugly stats quoted by Nicholas Kristof: “38 colleges, including five from the Ivy League, had more students from the top 1% than from the bottom 60%. Over all, children from the top 1% are 77 times more likely to attend Ivy League colleges than children from the bottom 20%.” Legacy admissions have got to go.

    Odd Lots

    • In response to numerous queries: QBit is still alive, and still pretty frisky, considering that our vet suggested he would be gone by now. Yes, his lymph nodes are still swelling, and we won’t have him for a whole lot longer, but he’s fighting lymphoma pretty well. We’re giving him a supplement called Apocaps, that supposedly accelerates apoptosis in cancer cells. I’ll keep you posted.
    • A new study involving more than a million patients pretty much drives the last nail into the coffin of cholesterol alarmism. Cholesterol doesn’t cause heart disease, and therefore statins don’t do people any good. This is a very very big deal. It’s not enough to ignore government-issued nutrition advice. I’d recommend doing the opposite.
    • There are 18 volcanoes in the US considered “very high threats.” I have never lived close to any of them, and that was (mostly) deliberate. Arizona has two volcanoes with a threat rating (one “moderate” and one “very low”) but neither of those is within a hundred miles of me. Click through to the PDF; it’s excellent, and will tell you what volcanoes in your state have threat ratings.
    • Good article on life expectancy. (Thanks to Wes Plouff for the link.) As I read it, the US is doing pretty well compared to the rest of the world. I wish there were data on life expectancy plotted against habitual hours of sleep per night. My intuition is that people who short sleep die younger.
    • 2018’s tornado count is the lowest in 65 years. STORMY, are you still at it?
    • Merriam-Webster will show you what words were coined the year you were born, or any arbitrary year from 1500 to the present. On the list for 1952 are stoned, global warming, deep space, modem, nonjudgmental, softcover, field-effect transistor, plotline, sonic boom, and Veterans Day. So what are the cool words on your list?
    • We don’t hear much about polar bears these days, in part because they’re thriving, in spite of any changes in the climate that may be happening. Three recent papers cited at the link.
    • Our pool water is still at 84 degrees, almost certainly due to a warmish fall (it hit 90 in our neighborhood today) and especially our pool cover. We were in the pool today, and luvvin’ it.
    • Best webcomic I’ve seen in some time. Carol and I just finished a whole box of pumpkin spice K-cups, and that may do us for another year. We think that coffee should be light, sweet, and spicy, like life. Goths we are not, evidently.