Pandemic diary: August

I’ve decided to write up my experiences and thoughts during the COVID-19 pandemic. I’ll focus on Toronto because that’s where I live and on Ontario because medical data is more reliable on this level and some policies come from Ontario. Canada is another superset but there are large regional differences within Canada.

I’m going to start from now, because if I start from the chronological start I will probably never get to a publishable state. This is as of August 28, 2020:

August was calm in Ontario. New confirmed cases and new deaths seem flat, with about 8 confirmed new cases and about 0.1 to 0.2 deaths per day per million people. Testing is flat but appears sufficient with around 1500 to 1750 tests per day per million people having around a 0.5% positive rate. (HowsMyFlattening dashboard seems to be a good place to get useful figures.) There is the tension of “is it coming back”… there are nervous glances at British Columbia, at Alberta, at Germany, at Spain, for examples of second waves or wavelets.

We hope that the relative downtime is used to strengthen and prepare for next wave. But we’re also skeptical and apprehensive, not least because of the experience of wasted relative downtime in February when it should have been clear this will be serious.

But overall we’ve managed so far. Ontario has had less deaths than any of our geographical neighbours except Manitoba. The health system was not overwhelmed, there was no scary triage and no refrigerated trucks supplementing morgues.

But at the same time, that’s not a very high bar. We’ve had many more deaths than comparable regions like British Columbia or New South Wales, less similar regions like Germany or Norway have also clearly done better, and we are very far behind global leaders Taiwan or Vietnam. Initially, Ontario and Toronto were confident that we will be ready, that we’ll be really good because we’ve had the experience of SARS. That turned out to be a completely false confidence. Our PPE stocks were low; our testing was extremely low; our tracing was underfunded and likely underprepared.

There were decisions that in retrospect are clearly wrong, and some that were probably suboptimal. If mandatory masks make sense in July then why didn’t they make sense in April? Maybe the science wasn’t 100% clear, but its use as a precaution – reducing respiratory contact to reduce a respiratory disease – seems extremely obvious, yet Toronto and Ontario didn’t even strongly advocate it let alone mandate it until July.

After a record-hot July, we’ve got a normal-hot August. A lot of people are outside. We’re not really, due to Reasons; though we did go down to the lake a couple of times and I spent some time trying to tend to our garden.

But what is coming? Fingers crossed…

Toronto leaders: We need more space. Please open up the streets to people

I sent this letter to Mayor of Toronto and the Councillor for the ward I live in.

Dear Mayor Tory, dear Councillor Cressy,

I was upset at reports of crowding in downtown parks over the weekend. The reports and images highlight the need for more space for people in our city. Health leaders have said that being outside, active and exercising, is important for everyone’s health – but there is no room for that in too many parts of Toronto.

On Saturday it was simply impossible for pedestrians to cross the street at Queen and Strachan while maintaining a safe distance from others. It remains impossible for many to reach the waterfront or a park while safely distancing. The sidewalks and crosswalks are too narrow.

Most people living downtown do not have the option of spending time outdoors in backyards or rooftop terraces.

If downtown Toronto is to remain a vibrant place to live, we need more public space.

We need wide-ranging action extending ActiveTO Quiet Streets program to close more streets to all but local traffic, and enforcement of those regulations.

We need connections between dense downtown neighbourhoods like Queen West, King West, Liberty Village, nearby parks like Stanley Park, Garrison Common, and yes, Trinity Bellwoods, and the lakefront parks. We need serious action to provide more space to those who need it.

At a time when most non-essential businesses are not allowed to be open and some of those allowed to open are choosing not to for safety reasons, it is unreasonable and short-sighted to provide space for cars (going where exactly?) at expense of healthy outdoors options for people.

Toronto’s recovery from this crisis will not be led by cars.

I am calling on you to implement lane closures on streets like Queen, King, and Dufferin. I am calling on you to close Strachan Avenue to through traffic, as it is simply too narrow. I am calling on you to close Bathurst Street south of the bridge, taking advantage of bridge construction which will anyway block through traffic to create an avenue for people to reach the lake. Portland Street and Dan Leckie Way could become an active transportation spine overnight.

There are many more locations that should be improved – these are merely those I’m most familiar with. It behooves us to ask of every street: is Toronto best served by reserving it for cars?

Thank you.

Android apps I use, March 2019

When I got my Moto G5 in January 2018, I didn’t sign it into my Google account. That’s generally worked well, but there’s been catches when it comes to getting apps. Here’s a few notes.

I’ve been trying to limit my use of my smartphone, including to avoid vendor lock-in to Google/Android. I also have a bit of a problem compulsively checking for updates and news, so as much as possible I try to not have many apps. But so far I’ve felt I need a few.

I previously made lists of apps I was using in November 2016 and in January 2015, and this post is sort of an update to those.

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  • Berlin summer was sunny and unseasonally hot. It was dry, which took off the edge when temperatures touched 40, but was not kind to forests. Brandenburg wasn’t nearly as bad as British Columbia, but there were a couple of forest fires, one of which we smelled in the middle of the night. Is that a campfire? No, it’s climate change. It was good ice cream weather, less good for nature.
  • We moved to Toronto in November. More on Toronto in a three-month post around February, but briefly: south; sun; cold; lake; asphalt; concrete; food.
  • In January we travelled to Vietnam and Hong Kong, which was nice and busy and warm. In June we stopped briefly in London on the way to travelling around Ireland, which was very scenic and green and warm. In July we went to Gdynia and then had a sightseeing trip back via Malbork, Toruń, and Bydgoszcz. In October we stopped over in the Azores on the way to Toronto, and that was also green and mountainous and warm and pleasant. We had a couple of day trips, to Buckow (Märkische Schweiz) and Brandenburg an der Havel in the summer, and to Kitchener for a fairly German Christmas market in December. Overall it felt like we travelled less than last year, and we were happy with the amount.
  • I continued my involvement with Electricity Map, and got increasingly into OpenStreetMap later in the year. It helps that there’s a lot of mapping to be done in Toronto.
  • I read 32 books (Goodreads). I’m particularly pleased with reading some books in German (admittedly mostly translated novels — it’s easier when there’s a plot to follow, doubly so if I’ve read the book in the past). I managed my third-highest-ever number of books (32) and pages (11612) read. Noteworthy series: Rivers of London, Chmielewska’s autobiography, and two-thirds of His Dark Materials in German.
  • Music: still not much live. looks better because it includes a mini-festival and openers; the actual shows were The Rural Alberta Advantage in Kreuzberg in February; then the next was Dream Serenade in November (The RAA, Owen Pallett, iskwē among others); then Stars in December. With three shows, I equalled the low result of 2012, and it would have been lower if I didn’t move to Toronto in November. The two RAA shows were the fifth and sixth time seeing them in last 7 years, and the Stars show was my ninth Stars show in 10 years.
  • Recorded music: more now! ( Having decent speakers helped. Particularly enjoyed: FM Belfast’s Island Broadcast, finally giving Broken Social Scene’s Hug of Thunder something resembling its due, and continuing with You Say Party, Boards of Canada, Cocteau Twins, and Röyksopp. I made a conscious effort, enjoyed music, and scrobbled second-most tracks since 2012: 3758, average of about 10 a day. My next goal is 5000 tracks, which would be best since 2012; stretch goal is 7500 (20 per day, equalling my long-term average including university days). I didn’t really listen to much new stuff though, that would be nice to change.
  • I learned some German. I got to a decent intermediate level. Sometime around the middle of the year something unblocked and I started to get it and at times think in German. Credit where credit’s due: my employer paid for 1.5 hour weekly private lessons and that helped a lot. Of course I left Germany soon after. Next year I’ll be looking for ways to keep my skills somewhat alive — or at least get a certificate — but there are also so many other languages to learn.
  • Hardware: I continued using my Thinkpad X220 with broken internal screen plugged into an external screen, until the move to Toronto (without the external screen) brought the issue to a head and I moved the hard drive into a T420s borrowed from my partner. I still have rather too many computers in various states of dysfunction (the X220, a T60p, an X200, and at least one Socket AM2 tower at my parents’ house) and hope to fix that soon.
  • I bought a new phone (I wrote about my first impressions) and didn’t connect it to my Google accounts, which I feel slightly proud of. But I didn’t do anything new in terms of moving away from Google, and rather little in terms of cleaning up data online and offline.
  • Before the Vietnam trip I bought a used Canon S120, replacing the S100 lost in 2016. It has excellent ergonomics, a good lens and sensor that can do decent low-light pictures (I’m not afraid of 1/30 s exposures), but the 2013-era legacy-camera-company software is very visibly lacking compared to what Google can do on phone sensors for backlit subjects.
  • My Nikon D60 DSLR suffered a possibly fatal shutter misalignment during the Ireland trip. I wasn’t able to repair it when I tried in October. I’ll try again, but it might be time for a newer bigger camera.
  • I continued with my diary. My paper notebook isn’t seeing as much use. Still it’s nice.
  • I am making slow progress on digitizing, but progress nevertheless. Moving continents helped push the line on some old stuff, but not all. We had a nice moving-contents list which detailed much of what we owned. It was a lot.
  • The skyline waits for the world.

Reconstructing transit usage from Presto records

Public transit in Toronto area can now be paid with Presto fare cards. As part of an online registration functionality, one can access their card activity history. I was curious to what extent it would be possible to use that data to automatically reconstruct trips I’ve taken. I was most interested in distance travelled and mode (bus, subway, streetcar, train).

Useful data available is:

  1. Time of tap
  2. Transit agency operating the vehicle or station tapped
  3. Location of the tap – with some limitations, sometimes inaccurate
  4. Amount paid

The data isn’t quite perfect for my purposes. There are a few problems:

  1. Taps are not required everywhere
    1. Most trips do not require tapping out when leaving, including when leaving the subway. In many cases, a 2-stop trip can look the same as a 12-stop trip.
    2. Particularly in City of Toronto there are many in-station transfers for transferring between subway and buses that do not require taps
  2. The location of the tap is sometimes wrong (perhaps due to malfunctioning GPS)
  3. Sometimes a location is recorded specifically (“Square One GO Bus Terminal”), sometimes generically (“Zone 20”)
  4. Taps can take a few hours or days to arrive in online history (particularly the bus card readers seem to be uploaded nightly), though it does come in eventually
  5. There is a “discount” field which doesn’t actually show discounts as publicized in official fare schedules and is, as far as I can tell, useless

(Presto online interface also has a “Transit Usage Report” view, but it seems to only include fare payments, and none of the free transfers. As I understand it, it’s used for claiming tax credits.)

The exports are straightforward enough: it’s a simple CSV file. It is in reverse chronological order (latest taps first), but that’s easy to reverse.

Given the data, here’s what’s possible:

  1. Calculating the minimum number of trips taken, by only counting trips that had a fare charged
  2. Calculating the minimum number of trips involving the subway, by only counting entering subways with no in-station bus or streetcar transfers (these are mostly downtown Toronto)
  3. Estimating, with fairly high probability, at least one of modes of transport (bus, streetcar, subway, train) involved in a trip
  4. Estimating, with better than chance probability but not close to perfect, the number of logical “trips” taken and some of the modes involved

Here are some less obvious samples of actual data, commented to note what I was actually doing. I switched the order to earlier taps first for easier reading.

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