How Many Microcovids Would You Spend on a Burrito?

Relentless tabulators often come off as zealous, maybe a little paranoid, and certainly no fun. Luckily, Olsson shares a house with fellow tabulators. She and her five housemates needed to find a way to live safely together. So they decided to adhere to a collective risk model of their own design. Any model is only as good as the data that goes into it, and the virus was too new for anyone, even experts, to have perfect information. Olsson and her housemates knew this, but they weren’t going to make the perfect the enemy of the good. They wanted to protect themselves, and by extension others, by making responsible choices. But they also wanted to be more free to actually live. Maybe math would make that possible.

That day at the taqueria, as the minutes ticked by and her risk tally rose, Olsson abandoned her burritos.

Olsson’s friends call her Catherio, after the email address she was given while studying computational neuroscience at MIT. Two and a half years ago, at 28, she was living with her partner but missing the days when she could step out of her bedroom and instantly encounter a variety
of other minds. It so happened that a friend from college, Stephanie Bachar, was in the process of “forking,” like incompatible software, from a communal living situation that no longer felt homey. So one June day, they and four friends decided to join forces and move into a beige, hacienda-style townhouse in San Francisco’s Mission District. Their new home, they decided, would strike a better balance. It would be like a bash’—a type of chosen family described in Ada Palmer’s science fiction novel Too Like the Lightning as a radical “haven for discourse.” They named it Ibasho, the Japanese word from which bash’ is derived, which means “a place where you can feel like yourself.”

“Being yourself” in Ibasho meant being “slightly alternative, but professional,” says Rhys Lindmark, one of the residents. He had founded an online school for “world-class systems thinkers” after a stint researching blockchain ethics. The household was “high IQ, high EQ,” as Sarah Dobro, a primary care doctor who wears a septum ring and fauxhawk, describes it. Nerds, proudly, but socially aware nerds. They were well networked within a larger community of similar group houses around the Bay Area. It was like belonging to a more grown-up version of MIT dorms. Everyone seemed to know everyone from some salon or startup or quirky coding project. The social graph was dense.

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From the start,the friends had choreographed a sense of independent togetherness. They had a communal fridge and a private one. Everyone had a different diet: paleo, vegan, gluten-free, bread lover. Every two weeks they gathered for a house meeting around a big wood-slab table, made by one of Olsson’s friends, in the room they called “the hearth.” They made decisions by consensus, following a detailed agenda with minutes and a time limit, lest the debate wear on too long. When things got a little raw—say, after two housemates moved Dobro’s pottery and Olsson’s trinkets from the fireplace mantel into a box and texted the two about the “clutter”—the group would move over to a big couch and bean bag chairs, where they could better speak with feelings, rather than logic.

Logic, however, usually ruled the day. The residents of the house were all, to varying degrees, adherents to rationalist modes of thinking and sought to reduce human biases in their day-to-day lives. As Olsson put it, the emotions they discussed on the couch provided important data, but they would return to the table to make any final decisions.

three people sitting at a table in a living room with a person reading a book on a couch behind them

Residents of Ibasho at “the hearth”: Catherine Olsson, Josh Oreman, and Sarah Dobro.

Photograph: Gabriela Hasbun

They were certainly people who could easily grasp the implications of exponential growth. So last winter, as the novel coronavirus hit far-off places, the residents of Ibasho girded themselves. In late February, at their biweekly Tuesday night open house called Macwac (milk and cookies/wine and cheese), visitors cycled through a sanitizing station by the front door, and Olsson’s party trick was a roving demonstration of proper handwashing technique, using ultraviolet gel. After that, Ibasho hunkered down. The following week, so did the rest of San Francisco.

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