Thursday, March 19, 2020

Keeping the Curve Flat

Much of the Bay Area, including Berkeley, is under "shelter-in-place" guidelines at least through early April. It's basically semi-compulsory social distancing: we're not locked in our houses, but we're only supposed to leave for grocery shopping, medical services, or to go on a walk (six feet distant from any fellow pedestrians).

The goal of all this is to "flatten the curve" of new coronavirus infections. It won't stop new infections, but it will spread them out so the medical system isn't overwhelmed.

I'm supremely lucky in that shelter-in-place isn't a huge burden on me -- I work from home anyway, and I'm enough of an introvert that I frankly don't leave the apartment as often as I should even under the best of circumstances. But society-wide this sort of living arrangement will be tough to maintain over a long period of time. Yet I don't have a clear sense of what sorts of conditions would signify it's safe to lift the guidelines and let public events (anything from sports to school) proceed again. Even if the guidelines work to flatten the curve, wouldn't it get pointy again the moment people started congregating in masses again?

Put differently: shelter-in-place and social distancing rules are a holding pattern. But it's not clear to me at least what we're holding for. Anybody have an answer to that?

Tuesday, March 17, 2020

Should I PlagueWatch It?: Jelle's Marble Runs

This is a YouTube series -- several of them, actually -- featuring marbles racing against each other in a variety of competitive events. The current season is "Marbula One" -- a Grand Prix where sixteen marbles go down MarioKart style tracks (first in qualifying heats, then in a free-for-all multi-lap race). Prior seasons have featured the Marble Olympics, with various teams ("The Green Ducks", "The Rojo Rollers", etc.) competing across events ranging from the 5 meter sprint to a giant maze to a rafting course.

It's brilliant. It's got high production values complete with time splits, medal podiums, stands filled with (marble) fans, inspired courses, and an announcer who makes it sound exactly like you were watching the Olympic games. Much like LegoMasters (which is or will be another PlagueWatch recommendation), it sings because brings to life our childhood imagination -- these were not the tracks and events you actually built, these are what you had in mind when you were building but never could reach because you were nine and time is limited.

It's a perfect filler for the sports void we're currently going through, and is just the right mix of competitive and silly to serve as an antidote to these anxious times. Pick a team (I'm partial to the "O'rangers" -- pronounced "Oh Rangers" and chanted "Ohhhhh Rangers!"), settle down on the couch, and prepared to have your heart leap surprisingly high in your chest as two marbles criss-cross for first place on the final home stretch.

Should I PlagueWatch It?: Avenue 5

If there's one thing I do a lot of, it's binge-watch television. And that is a skill that is suddenly in high demand, as we all hunker down indoors (you are doing that, right?) and hope that the 'rona doesn't take us.

So -- in what may but hopefully won't(?) become an ongoing series -- I'll offer you some quick thoughts on some of the shows I am, or have just recently finished, watching with an eye towards answering the question: Should I PlagueWatch it? First up: HBO's Avenue 5.

So first -- this a show with a stellar comedic cast, many of whom turn in standout performances. Hugh Laurie is great and it's a ton of fun watching him switch accents from scene to scene or even sentence to sentence. Zach Woods brings great Jared-from-Silicon-Valley energy (Advertising the bar on-ship: "Do you like to drink? I know my dad did."). Suzy Nakamura scratches an I-didn't-know-I-had-it-but-makes-sense itch for "what if Melinda May from Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. was every bit as scary, but entirely in the service of being an enabling corporate sycophant?"  And new-to-me Lenora Crichlow is perhaps my absolute favorite as the only truly competent member of the crew (who nonetheless is by no means perfect).

I also like that the stakes are weirdly kept pretty low given the core premise (a space cruise ship is knocked off course and a two month cruise now is projected to last several years). It's only vaguely alluded to but the ship appears to be somewhat self-sustaining with respect to supplies, so the main "threats" are panic and idiocy among the crew and passengers. Which certainly quickly becomes threatening, but it's a comedic threat, not an existential "death inevitably bores down upon us" type of threat. I prefer that greatly.

That said, given the comedic talent on the show and the great individual performances, the whole does feel like less than the sum of its parts. Many of the individual episode plots never quite gel, and so one ends up watching for one-off moments of great comedy rather than an overarching story. Meanwhile, quite a few of the characters are (intentionally) very grating, and there isn't a ton of effort expended on why they're indulged so much. We've seen Josh Gad's character (the pampered idiot rich kid owner of the cruise line) a million times before, and -- no disrespect to Gad's performance -- I've never once found it anything but aggravating.

It's also fair to wonder whether "we're trapped indefinitely in a defined enclosed space with a vague but certainly real threat of doom hovering around us" is the vibe you want to run with at this particular moment in time.

Still, it's a relatively quick nine episode season, so it's an easy binge. Overall, I give it a qualified recommendation -- not a must-see, but can definitely fill a gap in your schedule if you're running low on more satisfying fare.