Of Bugs, Terror, and Weird Art

Jeff Powell
9 min readApr 16


A typical Vancouver Morning, Plus a Helicopter

Clearly I have no control over my life.

As regular readers may recall, I am working full time at a job that I didn’t go looking for. It’s fun, but it’s not what I expected to be doing. And as I have previously mentioned, it shows no sign of stopping. I’m supposed to be retired (for the fourth time!) and yet again I get dragged back into working. My mom reads these posts, and perhaps she can tell me if I was dropped on my head as a baby. That could explain my erratic behaviour in this regard.

Anyway, the excitement at work this week was all on Thursday. The term is rapidly coming to a close, and students are vanishing as their projects finish. As of Friday there were only two of them using the laser cutter, and no one needed a 3D printer.

But Thursday was weird. On that day I experienced both the most frustrating and (completely separately) the most terrifying events I have had so far while working in the Makerspace. Allow me to explain.

The Frustrating Event

In the early afternoon, I spent at least 30 minutes trying to help a student with a simple file export from Adobe Illustrator. He was exporting into DXF format (which is something that 3D modelling programs know how to read) but every time he opened the resulting file in RhinoCAD it was ridiculously tiny. Something that was supposed to be about 65 mm in size was reduced to under 3 mm. There was no obvious reason for this, and I spent a lot of time trying different options and looking for underlying issues, but I found nothing at all.

Eventually I gave up and asked the instructor — Philip — to help. I didn’t want to waste more of the student’s time and I had to be missing something really obvious. After 15 more minutes of poking around Philip was also at a loss, but then he did something that looked utterly pointless. It should not have mattered, but it did. He changed the units the ruler was displaying. It had defaulted to points and he changed it to millimeters. This changed nothing about the object the student had — it did not resize or scale in any way — but when he exported it after that, the resulting object was the correct size when imported into the CAD program.

There are many things about Illustrator that drive me crazy. In my opinion, Illustrator has the single worst user interface of any program I have ever used. But that bug — and it is obviously a bug — took my annoyance to a whole new level.

At least I know how to get around it in the future, I guess.

The Terrifying Event

Not an hour after the Illustrator ruler fiasco… wait. I should set the stage first.

As stated, use of the Makerspace is dropping, so the number of students in the room at any time is generally small. And the space is a pretty large room. It was a formerly a chem lab, full of benches and Bunsen burners, so it is not tiny. Another oddball point is that I have no office, so when I eat lunch I do it in the Makerspace itself. I go down to the cafeteria, grab a salad, and return. Nice and simple. But of course, I can’t eat while wearing a mask.

This combination of factors — low number of people, large room, and no other place to eat — has led to my mask discipline slipping a bit. And so it happens that on Thursday afternoon I was not masked. At that time there were exactly three people in the room, and we were well spread out.

OK, back to the story… about an hour after the Illustrator ruler fiasco, someone enters the door saying he’s got a group of high school students and he’s giving them a tour of the campus. Could they come in? At this point I’d completely forgotten I was maskless. Philip and I both said yes, and they started streaming in.

There must have been 40 kids in this tour. 40! And by the time my brain clicked onto the fact that I was not wearing a mask the room was full and I was not exactly near my PPE. I did some mental gyrating:

  • Was it too late? Probably.
  • Would I get sick? Who knows, but my understanding — at the time — was that COVID infection rates in our area were pretty low and reasonably stable.
  • Did I want to run across the room and look like an idiot, trying to put on a mask at that point? Not really.

So for 15 minutes or so, 40 kids heard Philip’s extemporaneous explanation of the Makerspace, and we all shared air. Then they left.

Afterwards, Philip turned to me and said he wished they’d give him warning about these sorts of events so he could prepare. I looked back at him and said something like “Philip, that was 40 disease vectors! 40 human Petri dishes!”

The upshot? That was the most exposure I have had to my fellow humans in ages. And for several days now I need to be more careful. Current COVID variants typically have a 1–4 day incubation period, though it can take up to 14 days to appear. And also, the best estimate for how many people get COVID and show no symptoms at all — they are completely asymptomatic, but still can be contagious — is 30%. So for my own safety — as well as everyone else’s — I need to be much more diligent about my mask for a couple of weeks at least.

I have no symptoms yet. Fingers crossed.

But that’s not even the worst of it.

On Friday, I did something I usually do weekly, but didn’t do last week thanks to the holidays (both Easter Friday and Easter Monday are observed in some places here). I updated my “COVID virus in wastewater treatment plant” charts.

Backstory: ages ago they started testing wastewater in our area for the COVID virus, and they publish those numbers. But the charts they provide are idiotic. There are at least five treatment plants that serve the Metro Vancouver area, but they put the data for each plant on a separate chart, and let them scale differently. They were visually impossible to correlate, and that drove me nuts.

So I did what any reasonable engineer would do: I screen scraped all their accumulated data into a spreadsheet and made my own charts. That way I could get a real comparison. Is COVID in Vancouver more or less common than it is on the North Shore? At a glance I could answer that sort of question.

And so it was that on Friday evening I got the COVID wastewater numbers for the last two weeks and added them into my sheet. Uh-oh.

What you see there is not good. Yes, I know the chart is tiny… sorry about that. You can see the full sized charts in all their glory here if you want:

(Wow… that’s not a pretty way to show that. But you can click on it and get to all the charts and data if you want to.)

It turns out that the wastewater COVID virus numbers were low back in early to mid February. On February 25th they changed the testing protocol, and the new tests are more sensitive. (That’s the vertical note in the chart.) After that the numbers get higher and noisier (both thanks to the new testing regime) but they stay relatively flat until the end of March. Then things go bad. The last two weeks worth of data show a clear trend upward at all plants. It’s most obvious in the blue and red lines in the chart above, but there is an upward trend to some degree in all five plants in the last two weeks. You can see it better in the detailed charts available in the link above if you want.


And the day before I learned this I’d spent 15 minutes unmasked in the presence of 40, possibly plague carrying kids.


I know a lot of people are done with COVID. They want it gone and act as if the pandemic has ended. But it’s not over, and the disease is definitely not gone. Estimates on how many people get Long COVID vary quite a bit, but 20% is in the middle of the range. Long COVID can in some cases be completely debilitating, and it seems to strike almost at random. Some people who were very sick get it while others won’t. And some who were not particularly ill wind up with it as well.

I’m a bit upset with myself for letting my guard down. I hope all goes well, but no one can predict these things.

Oh, and I am informed that most (if not all) of an entire family of friends down in California just contracted this damn disease. I hope they all recover quickly and without mishap. (Hi Kevin! My best to everyone!)

Anyway, on to happier things.

Art, Overthought

For a couple of weeks I’ve been promising a new art piece. Last time I said I had done the research but I had not created the art itself. Well, that’s now changed.

But first, yet another story. (Sorry!)

A while back, Anne and I got into a sort of pseudo-pun war. This is a family thing, and we were throwing around words that all contained the letters ORT in them. We’d gone to bed as this was winding down and I had a very funny thought. Anne suggested I make it real and share it here, so I give you:

The Ort Cloud

To be honest, that’s only a verbal pun. The actual spelling is “Oort Cloud”, since it is named for the Dutch astronomer Jan Oort.

For the curious, the Oort Cloud is a large group of very distant objects orbiting the sun. How distant? Try 2,000–200,000 AU out. (An AU — or Astronomical Unit — is the average distance between the earth and the sun.) That’s so far out that the Oort Cloud is actually in interstellar space, past the heliopause (which is where the solar wind encounters the interstellar medium). It’s thought to be the source of many long period comets in our solar system.

The artistic problem here is that there aren’t all that many words containing OORT. So I think the first version is funnier, if less accurate. On the other hand, this does have something going for it:

The Oort Cloud

And there you have the actual Oort Cloud, which is slightly more worthy as a pun, but is less impressive in terms of the linguistic choices available. That said, the words containing OORT are definitely weirder and farther afield than those containing just ORT, which goes with the nature of the Oort Cloud itself.

Now, while that is great, I’m not yet done. There are other considerations.

  • I discarded a bunch of words containing OORT that are proper names (mostly Dutch, and mostly cities and towns, or gates).
  • Also, because of the limited choices available, I included words where the pronunciation of “oort” didn’t sound like the astronomer’s last name. As an example, “hypoorthocytosis” contains “ortho” which is definitely not pronounced like “ort”.
  • I did the same sort of elimination in the first version as well. Should “worth” be a part of the “ort cloud”? I don’t think so, but you might.
  • Oh, wait! All the words containing OORT also contain ORT, obviously, but none of them turned up in the original search. (That is definitely odd, and a possible indication of yet another programming bug, but I won’t go there.)

The end result of all that is a rework of the first version that includes those OORT words that pronounce in the proper manner. I give you:

The Ort/Oort Cloud

And with that I have spent more than enough time at this strange task. I hope you found it entertaining! Please let me know if you have a favourite, or if the sources I used missed an “ort” or “oort” word that should have been included.

I hope you are all happy and healthy, and that you stay that way!



Jeff Powell

Sculptor/Artist. Former programmer. Former volunteer firefighter. Former fencer. Weirdest resume on the planet, I suspect.