Pandemic Diary, May 20th, 2021: Hello, iPad

My shiny silver, 10.2-inch, 8th generation iPad arrived via UPS this morning, and I am busy setting it up today: connecting my email account, installing Kindle, Netflix, and Amazon Prime, etc.

Although it is much the same size as my trusty old iPad 2, it is so much thinner, and the screen is slightly larger, too! This is going to take a little bit of getting used to. But it will be nice for streaming movies and TV shows, reading novels, and following Reddit, Twitter and Discord (I will continue to use my iPhone for Clubhouse).

I decided to splurge and buy a model with both WiFi and cellular capabilities. However, I discovered that the sim card from my iPad 2 is slightly too big to fit into the slot on the new model, so I will need to upgrade that, once I feel safe venturing out to the cellphone store at my local shopping mall. Then again, I so rarely use cellular because I am so infrequently in any space where I would need to use it! Ninety-five percent of the time, I am within reach of a public or private WiFi network, and anyways, at present I am still stuck within the same four walls of my apartment while Manitoba is in pandemic lockdown. Still, I decided to get cellular in the rare times that it would come in handy.

I also decided to go for 128GB of memory, since I expect I will be using this model for quite a while (my iPad 2, which I used nearly every day, lasted a whole decade and then some, before dying on me). That’s plenty of space for music, photos, videos, what have you. I’d rather have that extra space than rue not getting it down the line.

After my iPad 2 died, living without an iPad for two whole months was an interesting experience. My iPhone did double duty as both my cellphone and as a mini-tablet, and while I did get used to it, I do appreciate having all that real estate again! No longer will I have to squint at the screen to watch a movie or read a book!

I am still taking a break from most social media and from the news media, in order to get some respite from the doom-and-gloom headlines (the transfer of some patients from Manitoba’s overloaded healthcare system to Ontario, and further pandemic restrictions are to be announced before the long weekend). I don an avatar and hang out in my favourite escape spot, Second Life, or I pop into various discussion rooms on Clubhouse, and that’s about it for me this week. I am feeling very tired and anxious, and I am sleeping a lot this week, another sign I need to recharge my batteries and take care of myself.

Stay safe and stay healthy!

Pandemic Diary, April 18th, 2021: Time to Rest and Recharge

People, I am having a rough week, while the coronavirus pandemic is raging here in Manitoba. I feel as if I am on a runaway train on a track heading straight off a cliff.

I have decided to step back from social media and the news media, and just focus on taking care of myself. So if you don’t hear from me for a little while, that is why.

I will still pop into Bray’s Place in Second Life, and maybe drop into a room on Clubhouse every so often, but that’s about all I can handle for now. I just need to rest and recharge my batteries.

Pandemic Diary, May 17th, 2021: Living in the Epicentre

It’s official: as of yesterday evening, Manitoba has the highest per-capita incidence of COVID-19 in Canada, even beating out Alberta. We also have more infections per capita than any of the 50 states in the United States. Three-quarters of those cases are my home city of Winnipeg. I am now living right in the epicenter of the coronavirus pandemic.

Manitoba now has the highest COVID-19 case rate in the country, more than twice the national average. Manitoba just passed Alberta. Manitoba’s rate is double Ontario’s. This was entirely avoidable, had the government followed the science and implemented the right public health measures last month (image source: tweet by Tom Brodbeck, Winnipeg Free Press)

Manitoba’s healthcare system is stretched to the limit, despite promises from the provincial government that this would not happen again. CBC reports:

In the middle of April, when COVID-19 case counts were rising exponentially in Manitoba, the deputy public health officer promised this province wouldn’t allow the third wave of the pandemic to get out of control.

Dr. Jazz Atwal pledged Manitoba would not suffer the same fate as Ontario, which failed to enact measures early enough to prevent its own case counts from rising to the point where Toronto intensive care wards struggled to treat record numbers of COVID-19 patients.

Ontario, you know, when you look at how the case numbers went up, they likely waited much too long,” Atwal said at a news briefing on April 16. 

“We’re not going to go down that road, I could assure you that.”

One month later, Winnipeg intensive care wards are struggling to treat record numbers of COVID-19 patients. A record 71 COVID-19 patients are being treated in Manitoba ICUs. Hospitals are now doing everything they can to divert patients of all sorts from intensive care.

Some of the more stable COVID patients have been sent home, where they’re given oxygen and monitored remotely. Others have been sent to long-term care homes, most of which are no longer death traps, thanks to vaccinations.

Hospitals are placing acute-care beds anywhere they can, knowing the number of COVID-19 patients that require intensive care is expected to keep rising until sometime in June.

“Right now, it’s fair to say that from a physical capacity, we’ve expanded dramatically to all kinds of corners of the hospital and we’re almost working one bed at a time. Where’s the next patient going to go? Where can we move?” said Eric Jacobsohn, a Winnipeg ICU physician and anesthesiologist.

“We are sort of just running day by day, expanding where we can. And from what I’m told is … we’re going to make physical space, we have the equipment, but the issue is human resources. Where do you find the people, particularly nurses, other front-line staff, physicians, to look after these patients?”

All of this could have been avoided if Brian Pallister and his government had listened to the experts, who warned that this was coming. They ignored that advice, yet again. It could be that the third wave of COID-19 infections and deaths will be even bigger than the second wave in November and December last year. Hospitals will face an unprecedented crunch for space, resources, and staff over the next month.

This is NOT the time to get sick…any kind of sick. Don’t get into a car accident, don’t fall off a ladder, don’t have a heart attack. And above all, don’t get infected with COVID-19.

My anger at my incompetent government is percolating higher every day. I dearly hope that Manitobans remembers this absolute clusterfuck when the next provincial election rolls around in 2023. Pallister has to go, and the sooner he leaves, the better.

A Slippery Slope? Sony Files Patent for Shadow Banning Misbehaving Social VR Users

Shadow banning: the practice of blocking or partially blocking a user or their content from an online community so that it will not be readily apparent to the user that they have been banned.

—Source: Wikipedia

Much has already been written about the behaviour monitoring system in the upcoming Facebook Horizon social VR platform, used to prevent inappropriate behaviour, such as this RoadtoVR article from last August:

First, all the users in Horizon are involuntarily recording each other. The last few minutes of everything that users see and hear is recorded on a rolling basis. Facebook says this recording is stored on the headset itself, unless one user reports another, at which point the recording may be sent to Facebook to check for rule violations. The company says that the recording will be deleted once the report is concluded.

Second, anyone you interact with can invite an invisible observer from Facebook to come surveil you and your conversations in real-time to make sure you don’t break any rules. The company says this can happen when one user reports another or when other “signals” are detected, such as several players blocking or muting each other in quick succession. Users will not be notified when they’re being watched.

And third, everything you say, do, and build in Horizon is subject to Facebook’s Community Standards. So while in a public space you’re free to talk about anything you want, in Horizon there a many perfectly legal topics that you can’t discuss without fear of punitive action being taken against your account.

But Sony has filed a patent for a similar way of monitoring users in social VR, where you won’t necessarily be notified if you run afoul of the rules. The abstract for the patent reads as follows:

Shadow banning a participant within a social VR system includes: receiving and forwarding an identity of the participant, who may be shadow banned; recognizing and tracking inappropriate behaviors including inappropriate language and comments, inappropriate gestures, and inappropriate movements; receiving and processing the recognized and tracked inappropriate behaviors of the participant; generating a safety rating based on the processed inappropriate behaviors; comparing the safety rating to a threshold value; and outputting a signal to label the participant as a griefer and shadow ban the griefer when the safety rating is greater than the threshold value.

So, it sounds as though, if somebody makes an obscene gesture towards another avatar in a future social VR platform where this system is implemented (e.g. flips them the bird, or grinds up against them in a sexual way), that they would then be shadow banned, perhaps even becoming invisible to other users. What sets this proposed system apart from Facebook Horizon’s is that it would be triggered WITHOUT input from someone who reports the griefer.

Stop and think about that for a moment. Who is to decide what is inappropriate gesture, or inappropriate behaviour? The rudeness of various hand gestures varies by culture around the world; will American rules and codes of conduct take precedence over those of, say, Italy or India, which might differ? Can you be flagged just for staring at another person for longer than a few seconds? What is the dispute mechanism if you discover you are shadow banned, and will it be similarly automated? This is just a slippery slope, people.

An article about the patent by Jamie Feltham on UploadVR states:

Interestingly, one proposal for this solution includes “a system configured entirely with hardware” that specifically mentions tracking the user’s movement and even their gaze. Presumably, these would be features included in the headset itself. Another suggestion mentions using an “agent” placed within the application to judge any possible offenses.

While features like these may be necessary as VR expands, it also calls into question the security and privacy of any user’s actions within that social VR experience. Figuring out that balance will no doubt be a challenge for social VR app makers in the future.

It’s also interesting to note that Sony filed this document after PSVR’s release in 2016 and that the company doesn’t really have any big social apps to its own name on the platform. Could this be an indicator that Sony is indeed planning to launch a more robust social VR feature for the upcoming PS5 VR headset? We did report last month that the company had renewed the trademark for its PS3-era social VR service, PlayStation Home, so anything’s possible.

So perhaps Sony has a future social VR platform for PSVR users up its sleeve?

Another question which arises is: if Sony’s patent is awarded, will they be able to go after platforms like Facebook Horizon, which might use similar enough features to institute patent infringement? The mind boggles at the possibilities.

One thing is clear: the social VR marketplace is evolving so quickly that laws and regulations are struggling to play catch up. Facebook, for one, is collecting all kinds of personal data about your use of Oculus VR devices such as the Quest 2 (here’s the complete list, just for the Oculus app on your iPhone).

The more data collected and analyzed, the greater the chances that you could be branded a griefer and shadow banned!

In the future, if you look at another avatar the wrong way, you might land up shadow banned! (Image source: What Is Shadow Banning? on imge)

Thanks for Rob Crasco for alerting me to this patent!