Covid confessions

It’s Monday January 17th. It’s 2022. Since my previous covid confessions a lot happened. I celebrated Sinterklaas, I spent a full weekend with my parents, I celebrated Christmas, I went to Switzerland to celebrate New Year. Those were the good bits. The backdrop of these celebrations was a country where total infection rates went down, but got in lockdown nonetheless. For the first time during this pandemic my government decided to be on the safe side, with Omicron on the rise and lots of uncertainties about this variant’s destructive power.

Everything was closed again, except for essential shops. Schools closed a week earlier, leaving me and the Man slipping back in working half-time mode in a week when both of us should have worked more than full-time to finish stuff before our two week long vacation started. I was livid when my government announced this extra week off for Daughter. Supposedly to prevent viral spread to the elderly (read: grandparents) over Christmas dinner, since the last day in school was originally planned for December 24th. Guess what I heard parents discuss mostly the last few days before school closure: how many days the grandparents would come and watch the kids while they had to work.

At that point in time we didn’t know yet whether we would be going to visit our friends in Switzerland. What I was looking ahead was three weeks of rainy and cold winter days without any variation one could otherwise rely on. No surprise visit to the cinema, no cosy lunch at Bagels and Beans, no visit to a kid friendly museum. I felt very sad and stressed during the week before Christmas. Luckily we could make that trip to Switzerland. Two days in a car for three days there. It was worth it. It saved my vacation.

Now it’s mid January already. Daughter’s school reopened according to plan. This Sunday we received our first ‘kid in Daughter’s class has covid’-message. That took longer than I anticipated. My bet was to receive such a message Thursday at the latest. Three of such messages and the class needs to go in isolation. I count each day we can bring Daughter to school as a blessing.

Shops reopened last Saturday. I refused to order things online these past weeks, except for the things I would normally buy online. There’s no need to overstretch delivery people by buying stuff that I don’t need immediately. I didn’t go shopping though. Not buying stuff is always the better option.

Hairdressers also resume their business. The Man seriously needs a haircut, but most hairdressers are solidly booked already for the next two weeks.

Such is Covid Life. Stumbling through boring life with a bad haircut, every now and then able to escape to pre-Covid lifestyle. It could be worse. But I long for a lot better.

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Read: The Very Nice Box

The Very Nice Box, written by Laura Blackett and Eve Gleichman

I bought this book at Shakespeare and Company in Paris last August. It is written by two authors and something about their picture and the front cover convinced me to buy it. Only after finishing reading the book I searched for the authors. They turn out to be neighbours, living in Brooklyn, New York.

I wish I had a neighbour I could write a novel with.

It was a pleasant read after the somewhat depressing end (understatement) of the previous book I read. You could call The Very Nice Box a love story. Or a story about dealing with traumatic loss. Or a satire on modern office life. Or a critique on white male privilege. Or a novel about relationships in a 21st century queer friendly environment. The combination of all these elements made it fun to keep reading. It’s not deep, but it’s a story filled with current themes as a backdrop. And they even managed to squeeze in a turn of events right near the end of the story that kept me turning the pages until I finished it. I recommend it for light reading.

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Covid confessions

Last few nights I dreamt weird and scary things. I think that is the result of yet another surge of covid infections, which leads to a lot of anxiety inducing reports on the news. Due to the raised infections rates, especially around Daughter’s school, she and Man got infected with Covid-19, pretty much at the same time. Despite being on the younger and vaccinated side of statistics, I worried about Man’s health. He developed a fever and stayed in the (spare)bedroom for a nearly a week. Call it a severe cold, or a mild flu. Generally speaking people end up in hospital a week after first developing symptoms. Therefore I kept checking in with him whether he was feeling worse or better. Current state of affairs: he fully recovered.

Last week I talked to two women I work with. Both of them in their twenties and both their vaccinated boyfriends tested positive. One of them developed a mild flu that kept him in bed for five days. It somehow comforted me to know that men in their twenties can react the same as fifty plus Man. Interestingly, all three of us women didn’t test positive while being in close contact with covid-19. I suspect my defence mechanism did come into action as I had one day with a slightly elevated body temperature around the days that both Daughter and Man first tested positive on the home tests, but I’ll never know for sure. My PCR test after five days came back negative.

As has been the case since the beginning of this pandemic, Dutch government is responding too little, too late. They are talking about introducing the 2G variant of the corona pass, already implemented in other EU countries, meaning you only get access to social life outside your home when you’re either vaccinated or officially recovered from covid-19. I don’t think that will help the current situation at all, except to handing over toxic fuel to right-wing covid denying politicians and those willing to believe the narrative of government taking control over people’s personal life indefinitely. It won’t convince people to get vaccinated and it surely will not decrease hospitalisations short term or increase critical care personnel long term. The reality is that in this country we have even less beds available than before, due to staff quitting and getting overworked. A process that was going on before the pandemic and now being amplified.

To give you an idea of current rules, we are restricted to a nine to five corona pass social life. Restaurants, bars, non-essential shops, gyms, theatres and cinemas are closed after 5PM. Working from home should be the norm again, but Google’s recent mobility statistics show too little change after previous advise to work from home. Schools at all levels keep running. As a parent, especially being a parent of a kid who got immune in recent weeks, I’m thankful for that. The virus applauds this decision too, as it can freely spread like a bog fire: underground, ready to resurface in unexpected places. Face covering indoors is mandatory again. Late June this year, the outgoing Minister of Justice and Security improvised lyrics on a children’s melody to announce we could trash the face covering. That sort of sums up the long term vision the (still outgoing) Dutch leaders have. They failed to apply proven methods from crisis communication and social behaviour handbooks. Every. Single. Covid. Surge.

And now there is Omicron waving its altered spikes.

At least my household is over and done with covid-19 (variant: Delta, most likely), so we can live life again. For now. I wrote this while enjoying coffee at Bagels and Beans. For me personally nothing changes. Still working from home (and sometimes a cafe). Still enjoying life during the day. Still going to bed early. Still taking walks. Still planning to meet family next weekend for dinner and Sinterklaas. Still planning to see our friends in Switzerland at the end of the year.

To keep anxiety at bay I will unplug myself from the news as much as I can. I’m not an ostrich, I just need to keep focusing on things I can influence to keep sane. For that I need to stop worrying about things beyond my control. I’ll read more books instead. That’s a good strategy even without the pandemic. Climate change would otherwise dominate the news. Just as depressing.

Wherever you walk our wonderful planet, keep on walking. Sending you warm hugs from my tiny corner of earth.

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Read: Het Smelt (The Melting), Lize Spit

It’s rare for books to leave echo’s in my head after finishing reading them. This one did though. For a number of days.

The book’s setting is a small village in rural Flanders (Belgium). The plot narrates from the perspective of a woman growing up there. Only three kids were born in the village in her year of birth, the woman and two boys. They formed a class of three and bonded due to lack of others. The woman looks back on the events during one summer while returning to the village years later to visit a birthday reunion for a lost brother of one of her friends.

I read a reader review of the English translation of this book and the title of that review was ‘Just another coming of age story.’ It’s not. It’s about parental neglect. It’s about siblings dealing with that reality in their own pre-adulthood way. It’s about loneliness. It’s about adolescent play that unexpectedly can turn into something far beyond play. It’s about the long term consequences of living through all those things combined.

It took me a while to finish this book (480 pages). The first half seemed to drag on forever, especially since I had to read it in small instalments. The lonely quarantine evening hours on the couch while both Daughter and Man were already in bed gave me the opportunity to finish the second half more quickly. I can now conclude that everything written does have a point to make at the very end of the book. Just keep on reading when you think you want to quit. My advise: read this book when you have plenty uninterrupted time to immerse yourself in it.

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Begrijpelijke brieven schrijven is toch echt een vak

Dochter mocht voor het eerst naar de schoolarts voor de standaard groeicheck van de GGD. Je weet wel, gewicht, lengte, gehoor en zicht worden gemeten. Dit is het eerste bezoek zonder ouder/verzorger erbij, dus kreeg ik een brief bezorgd met de resultaten. Toen ik de brief las moest ik af en toe een beetje gniffelen. De vormgeving en inhoud van de brief is namelijk een mengelmoes van vaktaal en informatieverwerking enerzijds en een poging om het begrijpelijk te houden anderzijds.

In een tabel met titel “0 – Contactmoment 5-6 jaar DA (registratie, dinsdag 26 oktober 2021)” zijn de resultaten van de onderzoekjes vastgelegd. Dikgedrukt zie je de kopjes “Groei“, “Oogonderzoek verzien” en “Gehoor“. Dat is goed te begrijpen.

Onder het kopje “Groei” staan gewicht in kg, lengte in cm en BMI in kg/m2. Ik moest lachen om het noemen van kg/m2 voor de BMI. Technisch gezien klopt het, je rekent een BMI uit door het gewicht in kilo’s te delen door het kwadraat van de lichaamslengte in meters, maar de eenheid van BMI gebruikt verder niemand. Er staat overigens bij het getal geen verdere uitleg wat gezonde waarden zijn. Pas verderop in de brief kan ik concluderen dat er geen reden is voor een vervolgafspraak. Haar BMI zal dus wel goed zijn.

Na de BMI volgt het volgende onderdeel, de ogen. In de omschrijving staat “Conclusie visusbepaling“. Ik heb genoeg kennis van taal om te interpreteren wat ‘visus’ zal betekenen in deze context, maar zelfs ik struikelde met m’n ogen over dit woord.

De laatste regel in de tabel gaat over het gehoor. “Uitslag drempelonderzoek” staat er bij de omschrijving. Nou associeer ik drempels niet meteen met horen, maar het zal voor de ‘insiders’ volstrekt logisch zijn welk onderzoek gedaan is.

Onder de tabel staat een nieuw kopje “Vervolg:”. Er volgen vier korte alinea’s/lange zinnen. De eerste twee zinnen beginnen met een O, de laatste twee zinnen beginnen met een X. Na het lezen van de eerste twee zinnen die gaan over het maken van een vervolgafspraak, in combinatie met de twee keer “prima” die er in de tabel staan over Dochter’s gehoor en zicht, begrijp ik dat er geen alarmbellen af gegaan zijn bij het onderzoek bij Dochter. En inderdaad, de alinea waar de eerste X voor staat begint met “Er is geen vervolgafspraak nodig.” Helder. En meteen daarna brengen ze me toch weer in verwarring: “Het vervolgonderzoek van groep 1-2 vindt plaats in groep 7 en het vervolgonderzoek van de 10/11 jarigen vindt plaats in klas 2 van de middelbare school.” Ik herlees de zin twee keer. Hoe vaak volgt er nog een bezoek aan de schoolarts? Aha! Ze bedoelen te zeggen: het volgende onderzoek vindt pas weer plaats in groep 7, dan is uw kind 10 of 11. Op de middelbare school is er nog een (laatste?) controle, als ze in de tweede klas zit.

Dan eindigt de voorpagina met een X voor “Zie extra toelichting”. Blijkbaar staat er op de achterkant van het papier ook nog wat. Ik draai het blad om en zie in een kader “Opmerkingen en/of toelichting:” Ik lees “Gezellig, vlot meisje!”. Daar ben ik het natuurlijk grondig mee eens. Fijn dat de arts nog een teken van persoonlijke interactie geeft op deze plek. Nu maar hopen dat er ooit een collega van de communicatieafdeling op het idee komt de hele brief een begrijpelijker (en warmer) tintje te geven.

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Lessons learned while researching data to find an answer.

Yesterday I published a data story on this blog. That was a first of its kind for me. Of course I’ve used graphs before in posts, but that was always reusing other people’s work. This time I did the data work myself. Here is an unstructured list of the things that I learned while doing it.

  • You start with downloading one dataset, but you’ll always need more data. My starting point was to find data on total houses in the country. The institute CBS has plenty of data available on their Statline website. I quickly found a data set with exactly what I needed: ‘Voorraad woningen; standen en mutaties vanaf 1921’. But of course, when you’re trying to find an answer to the question why housing is so expensive, you’ll need to compare it to population size. Therefore you need to download other data sets as well. For instance population growth;
  • Statline doesn’t always give you all the data available. In my exploration I first downloaded a dataset with numbers on population size starting in 1950. I used this mostly for compiling the graphs, only to find out later that there is another data set available that provides population data starting in 1900. My lesson here is to always dig for more when it comes to using CBS’s data;
  • Exploring data becomes messy rather quickly. I downloaded several data sets and used PowerBI to create a dimension table for ‘year’ and added this column to all tables, so that I could use all data across the tables. This phase is needed to discover what’s happening, but it gets more difficult to keep track of which columns you used from which table with each data set you add;
  • PowerBI is a very handy tool for exploring and combining data sets;
  • After the exploration phase, when I discovered the story the data was telling me, I created a new data set only containing the data that I needed. This way I couldn’t pick the wrong column when making the visuals;
  • To create relationships between the tables I used a ‘Year’ dimension table but only used it as a whole number column. I should have created a proper date dimension table to make it even easier to create relationships between the tables (as my teacher already told me to do with every new data model);
  • PowerBI Desktop is not the best tool for creating output outside the Microsoft PowerBI sphere. PowerBI is mainly meant for building ‘live’ dashboards used inside companies via PowerBI service, the online platform accompanying PowerBI. You can publish a report to service so that others inside your company can look at it. However, I want to publish the visuals on my blog. The only thing I can use from PowerBI Desktop is a PDF export. Luckily I know how to use Photoshop and was able to transform each PDF page in a PNG rather quickly, but that means extra steps between producing and publishing. Rather annoying when you have many graphs;
  • It’s easier to create new columns using a simple calculation in a spreadsheet than to use PowerBI’s DAX formulas to get the same result. In PowerBI I only succeeded doing calculations on columns within the same table, not across tables;
  • You need reflection time on what you’re doing with the data. I started exploring the data more than two weeks ago and only after I showed someone my unpublished post I discovered a flaw in my thinking. In one of my graphs I plotted three lines, two of which were a cumulation of population and houses and the third line was a yearly count of migrant surplus. I was comparing apples and pears to make a point. I corrected this and created a new graph comparing births, deaths and migrants, all accumulative since 1950.
  • I want to learn how I can create interactive SVG-plots on my website so readers can see the actual data behind the graphs.
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