Pandemic Diary, September 27th, 2020: Bridge Over Troubled Water

After an early, home-cooked dinner of spaghetti, with a large glass of red wine, I went to bed for an early evening nap (having been up since 4:00 a.m. due to insomnia, once again), and I slept like a baby.

And woke up with one hell of an earworm running through my head—Fancy, by Reba McEntire: Here’s your one chance, Fancy, don’t let me down…Here’s your one chance, Fancy, don’t let me downnnn…. (there, now it’s yours, too; you’re welcome!).

Which gives me an excuse to replay this beautiful, classic song that gives me chills:

Yes, I am one of those people who gets a tingling sensation throughout my body, but especially up my spine and neck and the back of my head, from certain pieces of music (I get the exact same reaction from Céline Dion’s rendition of Oh Holy Night). At its most powerful, it is a dopamine rush which engulfs me, a veritable ear-gasm.

A recent news article on this phenomenon reported:

[Do] you feel chills, a lump in your throat, or perhaps a tingling sensation on the back of your neck? Then you might have a more unique brain than you think.

study, carried out by Ph.D. student Matthew Sachs at the University of Southern California, has revealed that people who get chills from music might have structural differences in their brain.

The research studied 20 students, who listened to three to five pieces of music. Ten of the students admitted to feeling shivers, while the other ten didn’t. The researchers then took brain scans of all the participants.

“[The ten who felt shivers] have a higher volume of fibres that connect their auditory cortex to the areas associated with emotional processing, which means the two areas communicate better,” Matthew told Neuroscience News. These ten participants also had a higher prefrontal cortex, which is involved in certain areas of understanding, like interpreting a song’s meaning (Quartz).

The blog Mental Floss goes into more detail, and gives a good description of what happens to me with certain songs:

When your playlist strikes all the right chords, your body can go on a physiological joyride. Your heart rate increases. Your pupils dilate. Your body temperature rises. Blood redirects to your legs. Your cerebellum—mission control for body movement—becomes more active. Your brain flushes with dopamine and a tingly chill whisks down your back.

About 50 percent of people get chills when listening to music. Research shows that’s because music stimulates an ancient reward pathway in the brain, encouraging dopamine to flood the striatum—a part of the forebrain activated by addiction, reward, and motivation. Music, it seems, may affect our brains the same way that sex, gambling, and potato chips do.

Strangely, those dopamine levels can peak several seconds before the song’s special moment. That’s because your brain is a good listener—it’s constantly predicting what’s going to happen next. (Evolutionarily speaking, it’s a handy habit to have. Making good predictions is essential for survival.)

But music is tricky. It can be unpredictable, teasing our brains and keeping those dopamine triggers guessing. And that’s where the chills may come in. Because when you finally hear that long awaited chord, the striatum sighs with dopamine-soaked satisfaction and—BAM—you get the chills. The greater the build-up, the greater the chill.

I find I have been turning to music to comfort me more and more often during the pandemic. I bought a subscription to Calm Radio, and I keep a tab open in my Web browser while I work during the day, listening to the various musical streams (the Spa one is a new, relaxing favourite). You can listen to Calm Radio for free if you don’t mind the advertising, but I enjoyed it so much that I decided to pony up.

The shorter days up here in Canada as winter approaches, combined with the continued social isolation as I work from home and the lack of external stimulation, have tipped me over into full-blown hibernation mode. I am a grouchy bear. I have a bad case of brain fog sometimes, and a distinct lack of creative juices, and it can be difficult to motivate myself at times to work or to clean my apartment. I sometimes sleep 10 to 12 hours a day. And after a six-month period of losing weight (the one silver lining of the pandemic), I now find that I am gaining weight again—time to hit the brakes on those large helpings of spaghetti!

Photo by Ashley Byrd on Unsplash

As for my vow to avoid social media and the news media until after the U.S. federal election, well, I have been partially successful. I pop into a couple of subject-specific subReddits for the latest Canadian and global coronavirus news, and I steer clear of any other news websites (as I mentioned before, I do not have a television set). I have found that even a momentary dip into Google News or The Globe and Mail tends to send me into a spiral of anxiety and depression, and I do not need that now. For the next six weeks, I will just keep up-to-date on coronavirus pandemic news; the rest I choose to ignore. Donald who? 😉

My wish for you is that you find the comfort and support you need from the places, people, and routines that matter to you—your bridge over troubled water—during these stressful and unpredictable times. Stay sane and stay healthy!

Pandemic Diary: September 12th, 2020

It is now Day 181 since I started working in isolation from home for my university library system.

One hundred and eighty-one days since I last worked in my office at the University of Manitoba Libraries (although I have popped in once or twice to use the printer and pick up a few reports). One hundred and eighty-one days since I have set foot in a retail establishment of any kind (I order my groceries online at Walmart, and have them load everything into the back of my car, and I get my prescriptions delivered). One hundred and eight-one days since I ate a meal inside a restaurant (although I have dined outside on a restaurant patio five or six times this summer, something I soon will be unable to do with autumn fast approaching).

Photo by Edwin Hooper on Unsplash

I apologize for the lack of blogposts this week; I just haven’t felt much like writing “news and view about social VR, virtual worlds, and the metaverse” lately.

Yesterday, game designer Jennifer Sheurle tweeted something that I could utterly relate to, as I near the six-month mark of working from home, lacking in external stimulation and close human contact:

She wrote:

Does anybody else feel like the quarantine has influenced their creative prowess negatively? I feel like my creative energy is at an all-time low with so little external stimuli, rarely going outside, seeing people…. It’s making me feel very sad.

Turns out for me, having time is not the main aspect of making creative things happen. If I have time but no external stimuli, travel, good conversations, food, etc… my creative energy takes a HUGE nosedive. Who knew.

In the office, I love doing brainstorming sessions with colleagues, lock ourselves in a room, whiteboard scribble things out, go for lunch to think and so on. I feel like all my creative strategies have lost all meaning.

Her tweet went viral, and was liked by almost 800 other people, dozens of whom commented that they, too, were struggling to find their creativity, zest, and joy in their work. I responded:

I can completely relate to this, and to many of the comments people have made here. The lack of external stimulation has pitched me into full-blown hibernation mode, and I am struggling just to keep my head above water at work, at a time when I have hard deadlines to meet.

And it’s true: I am struggling. I admit it. All of my energy is going towards work, and my productivity and creativity have been significantly impaired. I find myself sleeping 10, 12, even 14 hours at a stretch, and I often feel exhausted, fighting to get out of bed in the morning and face the day. I have gotten up, set the alarm to sleep another two hours, and gone back to bed, unable to face the challenges of the day without a little extra sleep. I am like a grumpy (gay) bear in hibernation mode.

I got myself a subscription to CalmRadio.com, and I find myself listening to soothing music all day, every day. And I keep working away, a vat of black coffee on constant standby. I was hoping that the official start of the academic year this week would help to kick-start my energy and motivation, but I still find myself pushing myself to get things done.

I don’t kid myself; I know that this is the “new normal”, and that things will likely stay this way for at least another six to twelve months, probably well into 2021. Even if good vaccines are found among the first batch that are currently being tested, it will take a long time to manufacture and deliver sufficient quantities to bring society back to some semblance of normality. Canada has already signed major deals with four vaccine producers, and I read in the news that they are close to signing other deals. The pandemic is going to make some people very, very rich and, as usual, the poor (and those without universal healthcare or health insurance) will be screwed.

This week, bowing to public pressure, the provincial health authorities have started breaking down COVID-19 cases by Winnipeg city neighbourhoods:

While the overall numbers are still low compared to many areas in the United States, we have still seen a recent surge in daily cases in Manitoba:

I vacillate between wanting to stay informed on the latest progress in the fight against COVID-19, glued to my newsfeed, and getting so disgusted and demoralized by how some thoughtless, selfish, ignorant people are responding to the crisis that I avoid the news media for days at a stretch. I still don’t have a TV set, but I am spending a lot of time binge watching various Netflix shows on my iPad.

My Valve Index is still on back order, and I don’t expect I will receive my shipment of a complete kit until November at the earliest. I am toying with the idea of throwing out the worn, old sofa in my living room, and completely rearranging the space to set up (for the first time ever) a full-room space devoted to virtual reality. We’ll see.

Stay healthy and stay sane! I will continue to keep you posted on how things are going with me.

Pandemic Diary: August 26th, 2020

My subconscious is starting to rebel against social distancing in new and creative ways.

This morning (on day 164 of working from home in self-imposed isolation due to the pandemic), I dreamed that I was participating in a full-blown, pansexual orgy. (No, you are not getting all the juicy details. But it did take place in a glass-walled house.)

Sebastiano Ricci – Bacchanal in Honour of Pan (circa 1716; source)

I will be honest; I am finding it very hard to stay motivated working from home, even though I have lots of work projects to keep me busy. All the days and times of day—weekdays and weekends; morning, afternoon, evening and night—tend to blur together. I find myself responding to work emails on Sunday morning, and working on PowerPoint slides late into the evening. I don’t seem to have any boundaries between work and non-work life anymore, a common complaint of those of us who find ourselves working from home during the coronavirus pandemic.

The news here in Manitoba has been not so great, with the number of COVID-19 cases increasing, rising infections in some Hutterite communities, and a serious outbreak in the western Manitoba city of Brandon, leading to new social gathering restrictions being imposed:

I feel a general sense of unease about the current pandemic situation and our response to it. To give you an idea of how little I am leaving my apartment during the pandemic, I filled up my gas tank on March 15th, 2020, and I still have a quarter tank of gas five months later. I have been making an effort to get outside during our all-too-short Canadian summer, though, just to get some external stimulation and some exercise. I need to do more.

I still haven’t decided what to do about my hair, so I am letting it grow out. I am toying with the idea of just growing it long and rocking a ponytail, something I have never done before in my life. Either that, or just shave it all off (unfortunately, I have a distinctly pear-shaped head, and I look horrible in a brush cut).

I am continuing to lose weight; my clothes fit looser, and I am now wearing a belt that I haven’t been able to wear for well over a year. I chalk it up to not eating out at restaurants (not even drive-through or take-out), cooking all my own meals and shopping for all my groceries online via Wal-Mart. I haven’t set foot in a grocery store since March 15th, where I could be tempted by store displays and sales, and I refuse to buy junk food when I am shopping online: no chocolate, no ice cream, no potato chips, no white cheddar popcorn (the crack cocaine of junk food). If I feel hungry before I go to bed, I heat up a can of soup or make some Kraft Dinner.

I have been bingewatching Netflix on my iPad since my TV set died. My taste lately veers towards sci-fi, dystopian and pre/post-apocalyptic fare to match my mood: the televison series The Umbrella Academy, Lucifer, Snowpiercer, Hard Sun, Dark, The Rain, 3%, and movies like The 5th Wave, Io: Last on Earth, How It Ends, 3022, and Only (which depressed the hell out me). I don’t watch the TV series in order; I skip forwards and backwards, and even watch episodes out of order (I did that a lot for Dark to figure out what the hell was going on).

And I have been camping for Lindens in Second Life. Yes, I know a couple of secret spots; no, I am not telling you where they are (most of them I have discovered by randomly searching for keywords under Places in Search, when I was bored). But I did share one tip with you previously, which I will mention again:

I took my alt…over to Escort Oasis, plunked her down on one of the animated burlesque dancer chairs, signed into the tip jar, and let her dance among all the other working girls.

By the way, if you ever do have an avatar short of Linden dollars, this is one of the better spots in Second Life to park yourself on an animated chair, platform, or dance pole, dance your little heart out for a few hours or a half day or so, and take a chance on winning a small mount of Linden dollars (L$2 to L$9) if you are randomly selected when the sploder gives away cash every fifteen minutes.

Of course, it’s an inducement to increase traffic to the Escort Oasis sim, but it is very effective. As long as you don’t have any moral qualms about hanging out in an Adult-rated sim which is meant to be a place where virtual johns meet virtual hookers, why not dress up, go dancing, and maybe earn a few Linden dollars to spend on more fabulous dollarbies and other bargains and deals in SL?

Since I wrote that, Jenwen Walpole, the owner of Escort Oasis, has bumped up the sploder to award between L$5 and L$20 randomly to someone dancing on one of the chairs, stools, platforms, and stripper poles, every fifteen minutes, 24/7/365.

I must confess that at times I have been so bored in the late evening, that I have plopped 5 or 6 anonymous male, female, and transgender alts into Escort Oasis, just to win a few Linden dollars. You do have to check the sessions every 10-15 minutes to answer the anti-camping bot correctly in order to stay perched on your furniture, however (see image above).

You can throw on a nice outfit, dance your little heart out, listen to the music stream (sometimes they have a live DJ), and chat with the working girls or the customers (I have found that a bit of witty banter can sometimes lead to a nice tip). Of course, you do NOT have to escort, despite the name of the sim. Remember, “no” is a very appropriate response to anyone who actually tries to hit you up for pixelsex 😉

Oh, and I forgot to mention: every so often Jenwen will start a round of 30 trivia questions. Be the first to type in the correct answer, and you win L$5 per correct answer!

So if you are flat broke in SL, to the point where you can’t even buy Lindens on your credit card, you might want to consider this as an option, provided that you only need a small amount of Linden dollars. (You ain’t gonna earn that pricey Catwa head you’ve been eyeing this way, honey. Now, watch as the Escort Oasis get inundated with new avatars, like so many other spots with an active sploder. I should have kept my big mouth shut.)

I don’t even know why I am hanging out in Second Life anyway; some days it feels like only a slightly more engaging alternative to playing Solitaire on my computer. I feel brain-dead, like my neurons have been replaced with cotton wool. I just haven’t felt much like putting on my Oculus Rift VR headset to use any social VR apps, and I still can’t use my Oculus Quest because the empty space I had cleared for it in my bedroom is now piled high with pandemic preps like rice, canned soup, and toilet paper.

And frankly, I’m still feeling supremely pissed off at Facebook. My online order of a Valve Index has been confirmed by email, but manufacture and shipping delays due to the coronavirus pandemic mean that I will be waiting at least right weeks or longer to receive it.

I have heard through the grapevine of many other people who are so angry at Facebook that they are also jumping ship, planning to sell or give away their Oculus devices to protest Facebook’s announcement that, henceforth, they will have to set up an account on the Facebook social network in order to use them. (One wag on Reddit commented, “This is an odd advertisement for Valve Index.”)

Oh, and by the way, Oculus is now officially known as “Facebook Reality Labs”.

(No, the eye is not part of the new logo, but it may as well be there;
this modified image was posted to Twitter by LokiEliot)

I am reminded of the ancient Chinese curse which says, “May you live in interesting times”. 2020 has been such a perverse, dumpster-fire year, and it looks like we are going to have an…interesting fall and winter.

Stay safe and healthy, we’ll see you in September!

UPDATED! Pandemic Diary: June 29th, 2020

Today is Day 106 of my self-imposed isolation, since I started working from home for my university library system since March 16th, 2020. The weekend before last, while taking out the garbage to the nearest bin at my apartment complex, I was surprised to find a dragonfly stubbornly perched on the outside door frame of my apartment:

I leaned forward to peer at its closely, and it did not fly away. Ironically, that is the closest that I have come to another living being in three whole months! (Although I have visited with my elderly parents and my best friend, practicing the proper social distancing guidelines of 2 metres/6 feet.)

We up here in the Canadian province of Manitoba (population 1.272 million, the majority of whom live in and around the Winnipeg area) have dodged a bullet so far: only 324 cases of COVID-19 in total, no individuals currently in hospital or intensive care, and only seven deaths so far in the entire province:

Manitoba has been spared the worst of the crisis (so far)

Compared with the absolute clusterfuck that is currently happening down in the United States, we Manitobans have been truly lucky (the following image comes from a recent New York Times article that outlines the spread of the coronavirus from its first cases, documenting how the U.S. has fumbled its response to the crisis):

Newly-confirmed cases of COVID-19 in the United States, June 9th to June 23rd, 2020 (source: How the Virus Won, The New York Times)

The border between Canada and the U.S. has remained firmly closed to all except essential workers such as nurses and truckers hauling goods, although a few incredibly selfish and stupid American tourists have been let into the country by using the “Alaska loophole” (if they lie and tell the Canadian Border Services agents that they are driving through Canada to Alaska, apparently they cannot be forbidden from entering Canada). The RCMP has already issued tickets to U.S. tourists discovered in places such as Banff, Alberta.

I have settled into some sort of a regular daily workday routine: getting up at the same time each day, having a shower and applying deodorant (even through there is nobody around to smell me), getting dressed, brewing a large pot of black coffee, and settling down in front of my home computer to sign into my work email and my university’s virtual reference desk software, to face the day. Committee work continues despite the pandemic; some days I have as many as three or four back-to-back virtual meetings using Microsoft Teams or Cisco Webex.

I have decided to take a “vacation” from blogging, except for sponsored blogposts for Sinespace (although I find that I have started backsliding on my resolution, making more blogposts lately about Second Life, which has become my preferred means of escape from the pain, suffering, tragedy, and farce of the real world).

And, as someone who routinely went out a restaurant at least once a day for meals, I have discovered the joy of cooking for myself as a result of the pandemic. I keep things pretty simple: pots of homemade Weight Watchers zero-point vegetable soup, baked potatoes with salsa, Hamburger Helper lasagna, Kraft macaroni and cheese, spaghetti, brown rice with a can of heated-up Campbell’s Chunky cream soup poured over top (Butter Chicken and Corn Chowder work well for this). I have even made my first attempts at baking (homemade biscuits, which turned out not too bad with some margarine and honey).

And I have actually lost weight! I have taken in my belt at least two notches over the past three months. I credit two things: not eating any fried, overly-processed restaurant fast food since mid-March (no French fries!) and deliberately not buying junk food as part of my pandemic preps: no popcorn, no potato chips, no chocolate, no ice cream. (I had bought a bag of chocolate chips as part of my pre-pandemic shopping in February, in order to bake cookies, only to stress eat the entire bag one evening. I simply cannot keep away from it if it in the house, so I simply don’t buy it.)

I had bought three large bags of skin milk powder as part of my pandemic preps, and I have discovered I quite like the taste of reconstituted skim milk powder. The taste somehow reminds me of a milkshake, so I mix a large beer mug of this milk with a teaspoon of vanilla extract and three teaspoons of sugar to make a “milkshake”, the only “junk food” treat I permit myself sometimes in the evenings.

I have not set foot in a retail store for three months (except for one early-morning visit last weekend to my local Starbucks, wearing a cloth mask as required and following all the social distancing protocols, to pick up a tall blonde roast, which I enjoyed on the deserted patio outside, where each table was clearly demarcated by tape on the concrete to indicate isolation zones). I order my groceries online via Wal-Mart, drive to the store to have the back of my car loaded up by the staff there, and drive home without entering the store. I call in my prescription renewals and have my medications delivered to my door. I have absolutely zero need to go shopping, or set foot in a store or mall.

And so it goes. I don’t expect my situation to change significantly until there is a viable vaccine, and that is going to take at least another twelve months, if not longer. Everybody knows that, given my underlying health conditions which put me at risk of a severe, possibly lethal, reaction to infection by the coronavirus, that I will be among the very last people to return to working on my university campus. And, by and large, I have accepted that social distancing and all the other precautions are going to be a constant part of my life for the foreseeable future.

My university has already announced that all September classes will be conducted remotely online. An information literacy course for undergraduate science students, which I and my librarian colleagues will be team-teaching, will also be done completely online. It’s the first time we have ever offered a for-credit course as opposed to shorter, in-class orientation sessions for students. I expect that I will be very busy over July and August, working with another librarian on three weeks of content for this fall term course, as well as other projects to which I have been assigned.

I have been enjoying my self-imposed vacation from the blog. It’s been great to just give myself the permission not to obsessively write about every single piece of news about social VR and virtual worlds that comes my way (and, quite often, I don’t even have to go looking for it; it often comes to me now!). I have been reading through my backlog of murder mysteries, exploring Second Life, and venturing outside to enjoy Canada’s warm, all-too-brief summer.

My avatar standing next to the dance floor at Frank’s Jazz Club, listening to the music stream

UPDATE 11:17 p.m.: Well, I suppose I asked for this. One of the regular members of the RyanSchultz.com Discord, itoibo, cheekily posted the following picture:

LOL! Come to think of it, that could indeed be why he was hanging around!