31 March 2020

Tracking the spread of coronavirus in Romania

For better or (mostly) worse, 2020 is shaping up to be an extraordinarily eventful year. I’ve missed writing about some of the more important recent themes, and now they all seem to be dwarfed by the emerging coronavirus pandemic sweeping country after country. I couldn’t resist tracking its spread with hard numbers instead of coincidental tweets, so I turned to the data compiled by the website Our World in Data. I imported their daily file in Excel and did a couple of simple calculations and graphs.

For the time being, my own country Romania hasn’t been hit very hard by the pandemic, compared to other European countries, but that may well change in the months ahead. I was curious whether the measures implemented here, fairly early, had a measurable impact on the spread of the virus. I’m not going to post my own graphs in this article because they are too heavy with data points to look nice, but I will share other good online resources, including interactive visualizations. With the obvious caveat that I’m by no means an expert, and individual country data may be hard to compare because of different reporting methodologies, here are some of my observations.

22 March 2020

Altered Carbon (Netflix, season 2)

in Bucharest, Romania
Altered Carbon season two poster

After travelling the Known Worlds for decades in search of his former mentor and lover Quellcrist Falconer, Takeshi Kovach finds himself back on Harlan’s World, where the Quellist Uprising began, hired – against his will – by one of the Founders as protection. It may have been one of his shortest assignments, because as his consciousness finishes decanting into his new, military-grade sleeve, he wakes up in the middle of a carnage. The Meth who hired him is dead, along with his staff and bodyguards, and Kovach is forced into hiding, now the prime suspect in the killing. He soon realizes the real murderer is none other than the woman he chased after for so long, and that she possesses a weapon far deadlier than any other, a method of delivering ‘True Death’, wiping both the stack and its backups. The value of this unique weapon is soon discovered by the ruthless governor of Harlan’s World, Harlan’s daughter Danica, and by Colonel Carrera, charged by the Protectorate with containing the Quellist Uprising, who is left without purpose once the Governor announces a cease-fire with the rebels.

In the past months I’ve become a frequent user of reddit, so as I started watching this season, I had already seen many opinions about it, mostly negative. Unfortunately, my own impression after finishing leans in the same direction: it’s inferior to the first season in every aspect, loosing almost everything fresh, unique and thought-provoking. The discussion on the social implications of immortality, on the astronomical inequality between Meths and everyone else, is largely absent. Instead we get an off-hand remark from Danica about how her father never realized her potential because she was a woman – it’s a stretch to think gender inequality plays a significant role in a setting where anyone can re-sleeve into another sex. Not to mention, coming from someone vastly richer and more powerful than the overwhelming majority of humans… I’m having a hard time sympathizing.

The plot itself is largely predictable, filled with tired tropes such as fueling a fake rebellion to stoke fear into the public, or alien being hell-bent on revenge on the people who murdered its kind – this in particular makes the story feel like a cheap horror show. The concept of a sleeve that can magically attract guns to its hands felt pretty ridiculous in this context, an idea most likely picked up from a video game without much consideration. There are some nice touches along the way, from a fireworks display showing how ruthless Governor Danica can be – one of the few moments when this season came close to the quality of the first – to Carrera reviving an old Kovach backup, from before he met Quell – a copy who promptly switches sides, just like the original.

07 March 2020

Vox: “My own private Iceland”

My first stop after Keflavik is the Blue Lagoon, a short, sparsely filled bus ride away. It’s recognizable from photos: a luminous pool of bright-blue water, like an aqueous latte, set amid jagged black volcanic rocks. But rather than the idyllic natural hot spring it resembles on Instagram, it’s actually a kind of giant artificial bathtub filled with wastewater from a nearby geothermal power plant. The Svartsengi power plant opened in 1976 and its superheated liquid and steam bubbled up through the surrounding lava field; one psoriasis patient bathed in it and saw an improvement and thus a business began.

Blue Lagoon built a cement-bottomed pool that spreads out in a faux-organic layout and a clutch of modernist spa buildings. In 2017, the site accommodated 1.2 million visitors who buy timed entrance tickets and pay extra for bathrobes and drinks at the lagoon’s float-up bar. “Can you imagine how many people have sex in it?” the Icelandic politician Birgitta Jonsdottir later asks me. The 240°C water that gets pumped from deep underground is so mineral-heavy, however, that no bacteria can survive, even after it gets cooled down to bathing temperature for visitors to soak in.

Kyle Chayka

Last year I visited Iceland for the second time, after my city break in Amsterdam, and still many of the stories and facts from this article were unknown to me. Compared to the spring of 2016, I’ve noticed how tourism changed some of the popular sports we visit as photographers, which now had fences to keep people from walking too far in dangerous places, or to step on delicate flora. As the article discusses at lengths, the massive inflow of tourists has been a double-edged sword for Iceland. But, no matter how much locals complain about it, the country has benefitted from an tourist-induced economic boom for the past decade. It will be interesting to see how recent travel restrictions – and wide-spread fear – caused by the coronavirus epidemic will impact Iceland’s popularity as travel destination. I for one am certainly planning to return!

01 March 2020

Max Gladstone – Full Fathom Five

in Bucharest, Romania
Max Gladstone - Full Fathom Five

Deși au trecut decenii de la devastatorul război între Zei și Magicieni, repercusiunile lui se fac simțite în continuare în cele mai izolate colțuri ale lumii. Departe în mijlocul oceanului, insula Kavekana își păstrase independența față de Zeii Vechiului Continent, dar la izbucnirea războiul, Makawe, alături de cortegiul lui de zeițe-surori, pornește pe mare să se alăture, din păcate, părții care urma să piardă. Locuitorii și preoțimea au așteptat în zadar glorioasa lui întoarcere profețită cu zel. Din rămășițele cultului său, foștii săi preoți au construit în schimb o afacere prosperă, profitând de neutralitatea insulei: ca Elveția (dacă Elveția s‑ar fi mutat în arhipelagul Hawaii), ei gestionează în sanctuarul din vârful vulcanului Kavekana’ai volume uriașe de contracte și tranzacții cu energie magică. În locul conturilor și garanțiilor bancare, ei au dezvoltat un sistem de idoli, zeități minore lipsite de conștiința de sine și voința modelelor lor reale.

There are many worlds, and one. A shadow cast is real, and so’s the caster, though each is of a different order. Cast a shadow complex enough, and one day it will look up. One day it will tear free from the wall to seek the one who gave it form. What might such a freed shadow feel, tumbling through spaces of greater dimension than its own?

Siguranța acestui sistem care a devenit popular în toată lumea, atât în vechile teritorii controlate de zei, cât și în Noua Lume liberă, este pusă la îndoială atunci când Kai încearcă să salveze un idol pe moarte, și rămâne cu impresia de nezdruncinat că acesta i‑a vorbit, deși așa ceva ar trebui să fie imposibil. În concediul forțat de recuperare, întâlnește în barul ei preferat un bard străin care‑și declamă admirația pentru o nouă muză, în versurile căruia recunoaște ultimele cuvinte ale idolului; mai apoi o fată a străzii susține că a întâlnit noi zei, unul dintre ei semănând cu același idol defunct – și astfel suspiciunea lui Kai capătă consistență.