Pandemic Diary, September 17th, 2021: COVID-19 Worry and NFT Insanity

Well, folks, it’s been a week.

I delivered no less than seven different training sessions (online and remotely, either from my office at the science library or from home) to various classes of agriculture students. I have been fighting with computer hardware and software problems all week, starting on Monday when I couldn’t get my microphone to work, to yesterday when I got unceremoniously booted out of the the online class I was teaching using Cisco WebEx—TWICE. I am exhausted.

To add to my overall bad mood, the most recent data on breakthrough COVID-19 cases here in Manitoba are somewhat worrying. According to this report from CTV News, while fully vaccinated people are not being affected nearly as much as the unvaccinated, breakthrough cases are happening. And even more worrying, 16 fully vaccinated Manitobans have died of COVID-19 so far. That is not good news.

Mark my words: COVID still has the ability to throw some curveballs at us. For the love of God, if you have not already done so, GET VACCINATED! And please do everything you can—handwashing, face masks, social distancing, etc.—to stay safe and healthy. You do not want to catch this virus if you can avoid it!


However, I can still laugh at the continued silliness in the hothouse of the NFT (Non-Fungible Token) market. Everybody seems to be leaping on the get-rich-quick bandwagon.

I am currently blocking and deleting spam direct messages on Discord (people shilling for one blockchain-based scheme after another), at the rate of about one per day now. It would appear everybody and their dog has come up with some sort of harebrained NFT project to try and part you from your hard-earned dollar.

Today, I got the following spam direct message via Discord (blurred to avoid giving you his name and link addresses):

Hi. A new project Mint will begin in 7-9 days. There will be 10000 Covid themed NFT’s in total. Don’t miss your chance to get in on the start of an incredible cool project. FUCK COVID

Clicking through to the website (and no, I am not going to bother to link to it), and behold!

OMG!!! There’s only ten thousand NFT facemasks, supplies are limited so act now and get that rare collectible!

NOT.

Which reminded me of the following message I received recently via the feedback form on my blog:

Hello there, I’m David from Next Earth – we are the only blockchain and Earth map based metaverse 🙂 We’ve launched in the end of July and now only a few hours left until the end of land pack presale.. By now, more than 150.000 Dollars worth of land tiles has been sold and it’s increasing day by day, just like our community, so we are really excited about our future. It would be awesome if you could help us with spreading the word, and since you have quite a lot followers I can easily offer you a referral code with a fair amount of commission.. I’d be extremely interested in what you think and how we could collaborate, so please get back to me and let’s discuss our opportunities! Best regards, David

Image taken from the Next Earth website (no, I am NOT giving you a link)

Dear David:

NOT!!!

I wrote about what I think about Next Earth, Earth 2, and all the other “buy a virtual piece of earth” scams here.

And I swear to God: the next person who tries to get me to buy into their harebrained, lame-ass NFT scheme is gonna get bitchslapped into next Thursday.

Pandemic Diary, September 13th, 2021: Back to School—Welcome to the New Normal

Today, for the first time in several weeks, I am working from my office in the science library. Our library opened September 7th, 2021 to students, faculty, staff, and the public, offering individual study space only (no access to the print collection on the upper floors). Everybody still has to wear a 3-ply facemask and comply with social distancing regulations, although I can take off my facemask when I am in my own office with the door closed.

On August 19th, 2021 the University of Manitoba announced that all faculty, staff, students, and even visitors to campus will be required to be fully vaccinated against COVID-19. Individuals aged 12 and over are required to have their first dose by September 22nd, 2021 and their second dose by the end of October 2021. It’s not clear what penalties those who refuse to get vaccinated will face; they might be required to undergo weekly testing, or they may be barred from classes (in Manitoba we have implemented a proof of vaccine immunization system, both a cellphone app and a plastic card). Access to restaurants and other public spaces has been restricted to vaccinated people only.

Over the next few weeks, instead of standing in front of a classroom of students to give presentations on how to use the University of Manitoba Libraries effectively and efficiently, I will once again be delivering my slides online and remotely, via Microsoft Teams, Cisco WebEx, or Zoom, either from home or my office. (I am going to have to schlepp my portable webcam and my microphone headset between locations.)

I spent an EXTREMELY frustrating hour and half this morning trying—in vain—to get the microphone on my work computer to work, going through two different webcams (my own and a colleague’s) plus my microphone headset. Nothing worked. Finally in desperation I rebooted my computer, and finally it worked! If it hadn’t, I would have had to drive back home and do today’s training session for some food science students from home instead of the office.

Welcome to the new normal, folks.

The good news is that nearly 80% off Manitobans are fully vaccinated:

The bad news is that there are pockets (mostly within Manitoba’s Mennonite Bible belt) where vaccine uptake remains stubbornly low. Some Low German Mennonites have even moved from Canada back to Mexico and Central America, just to avoid vaccination! (Winnipeg Free Press; the website has a paywall, so here is an archived version of the article).

Even worse, anti-vaccine protestors at hospitals in Winnipeg and across Canada are impeding access to healthcare services. I have completely lost all patience with these people, and I sincerely hope that the Winnipeg Police Service arrests and charges these COVIDiots. ENOUGH ALREADY. I am so angry.

Because I am so busy with training requests this September, my pace of blogging will slow a little bit this month (I will try to blog in the evenings and on weekends, but no promises!). Stay safe, stay healthy, and GET VACCINATED if you have not already done so.

person getting vaccinated
Photo by Gustavo Fring on Pexels.com

Pandemic Diary, August 3rd, 2021: Delta Blues

Well, it is now been a month and a half since my second vaccination, and I am heartened by reading recent research reports which show that the AstraZeneca/Pfizer combination is highly effective against the coronavirus!

I am happy to report that I have been able to visit my mother and stepfather in their seniors life-lease condo across town, give them big hugs, and even stay for supper! And last week, I finally went and got my hair cut, something I have not done since January of 2020! Yes, I am no longer rocking a ponytail!

Things are slowly, very slowly returning to something closer to normal. I’m still working from my apartment four out of five days of the week, however, and my library remains closed. My university is planning to offer a hybrid of remote and in-class learning come September (classes with fewer than 20 students will be held in person, with face masks and social distancing, while larger classes will continue to be held online and remotely).


Unlike Alberta and Saskatchewan to the west, which have already lifted their mask mandates and essentially all restrictions, Manitoba is still operating under a series of partial restrictions after a disastrous third wave of COVID-19 infections and deaths which, for a time, was the worst hotspot in all of North America.

However, the Manitoba government will begin to lift some restrictions starting next Saturday, given that our vaccination program is proceeding swiftly, indeed ahead of schedule! CBC News reported today:

As of Tuesday, 80 per cent of eligible Manitobans ages 12 and up had received one dose of a COVID-19 vaccine, the news release said. The province expects to reach 75 per cent with two doses within the next week.

Those numbers were set out in the province’s reopening plan as targets for the Labour Day long weekend in September.

Contrast Manitoba with the truly lamentable and avoidable situation in the U.S., where only half the population has been fully vaccinated, and the highly-contagious Delta variant of the SARS-CoV-2 coronavirus has led to a surge of cases, hospitalizations, and deaths among the unvaccinated in places such as Florida.

It’s clear that COVID-19 still has the capacity to throw a few curve balls at us. Stay healthy, get fully vaccinated, stay home if you can, and stay safe!

Photo by Hakan Nural on Unsplash

UPDATED! Nanome: A Brief Introduction to a Social VR Platform for Exploring Chemistry

Nanome: “The Future of Molecular Design” (VRFocus)

Virtual reality is finding application to many fields, and among them is chemistry. For example, in the spring of 2020, Harvard University used Oculus Quest VR headsets in an undergraduate-level biochemistry class to help students to observe, manipulate, and build molecules and explore the shapes of proteins and drug compounds. (Here’s a link to the recently-published paper in the Journal of Chemical Education. Unfortunately, you’ll have to buy the full-text article, or get a copy via your local public or university library. Remember, librarians are your friends!)

VR use in chemistry is not just for students learning about the basics of chemistry, however; it also has application to research scientists working in the laboratory. A good example of how social VR can be used in cutting-edge, collaborative chemistry research is Nanome, a startup co-founded in 2015 by some engineering students at University of California San Diego, who saw a need for 3D visualization tools to help medicinal and computational chemists and structural biologists reduce their time to market and increase the efficacy of new drugs (a process that can cost billions of dollars per drug).

Nanome recently announced the closure of a successful funding round raising $3 million from several venture capital firms:

“Since our founding, we’ve had a compelling vision about what scientific collaboration should look like and a goal to equip our real-life superheroes — scientists who are discovering ways to combat disease, address climate change and improve people’s lives — with an intuitive virtual interface where they can experiment, design and learn at the nanoscale,” said Steve McCloskey, Nanome CEO and Founder in a statement. “We made huge strides toward realizing that vision in 2020, and this funding gives us firepower to increase our impact, support more research initiatives and continue to revolutionize biotech and scientific research.”

Initially starting as a visualization tool to facilitate research and development by medicinal and computational chemists and structural biologists, Nanome has grown as an open platform for virtual collaboration. During the pandemic organizations have used Nanome’s platform “to assess candidate molecules’ ability to bind viral proteins in 3D,” the company notes.

In fact, Nanome became the first American company to join a coordinated supercomputing project funded by the European Union (EU) Commission to screen chemical libraries for potential activity against SARS-CoV-2, the coronavirus that causes COVID-19! (Here’s the press release.)

Nanome is being used in the search for drugs to fight COVID-19

And the best part is, you can try Nanome out for free! Nanome is free to download for personal use via Steam, Viveport, SideQuest, and the Oculus store, supporting the Oculus Rift, HTC Vive and Valve Index headsets. For academic or commercial use there are various licensing structures; for more details, visit the pricing page on their website.

For more information on Nanome, visit their website or follow the company on social media: Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, LinkedIn, or YouTube. I will be adding Nanome to my ever-expanding comprehensive list of social VR and virtual worlds.

UPDATE July 9th, 2021: Here’s an interesting article about Nanome, from a website called LabCompare: VR for Science: Drug Discovery and More in the Virtual World, with some great illustrations!

UPDATE Oct. 14th, 2021: A Spt. 7th, 2021 Wall Street Journal article by Sara Castellanos titled Virtual Reality Puts Drug Researchers Inside the Molecules They Study (original; archived version) is a highly recommended read if you want to learn more about Nanome and how it is being used in research.