Pandemic Diary: April 19th, 2020 (Please Do Not Worry About Me)

This morning, I am reading a story from the Minneapolis/St. Paul Star Tribune newspaper, about an Ironman triathlete in his thirties (clearly healthy by any standard, and fitter than most people) who very nearly died from COVID-19.

Coronavirus survivor Ben O’Donnell (source)

If this is not a warning that the young and healthy are not immune to COVID-19, I don’t know what is. And, as someone who is not-so-young and definitely-not-so-healthy, it is worrisome. I cannot get this virus. I will not get this virus, even if I have to self-isolate in my apartment until there is a vaccine (which is estimated to take 12 to 18 months, if things move at hyperspeed).

Many of you who are reading this blog have reached out to me to express your concern. I want to assure everybody that I am coping as best I can under the circumstances. Yes, it means that some days I will not lie and say that everything is fine, because frankly, some days are rough.

But I will continue to do the best I can to take care of myself, and reach out for help when appropriate. I check in with my psychiatrist who prescribes my anti-depressant and anti-anxiety medications biweekly, and I have now entered into a second counselling relationship with a friend of a trusted friend, who has experience with peer counselling in a healthcare setting and has worked as a volunteer at a crisis hotline.

If things get bad (and by “bad”, I mean that my chronic clinical depression makes a serious and long-lasting resurgence), then I will do what needs to be done, go back on sick leave from work, and focus on getting better again. I know the drill; I’ve had it happen to me before and I will get through this. The last time I went on sick leave for depression, I was away for two-and-a-half years, but I fought my way back (with the help of virtual reality, which I firmly believe got my neurons firing properly again) and I have every intention of fighting just as hard if the blackness and bleakness descends upon me again.

Back then, I wrote:

I’ve been under a doctor’s treatment for depression since my mid-twenties, and I probably would have benefitted from seeking treatment even sooner than that. At times, my episodes of depression have been so severe that I have had to go on extended sick leaves from work. I’ve even been hospitalized twice when I was at my very worst. I have had to work very hard to crawl back from the edge of the black pit of despair, more than once in my life.

I first got my Oculus Rift headset back in January 2017, when I was on sick leave for depression from my job, and my life was feeling pretty bleak. Shortly afterwards, I also got the Oculus Touch hand controllers to be able to handle objects in VR.

I have no scientific proof, but I do believe that using that VR headset regularly—creating art using TiltBrush and Oculus Medium, using apps like Guided Meditation VR and Nature Treks VR, and interacting with other avatars and exploring new experiences in High Fidelity and the then-closed Sansar beta—was indeed a beneficial factor in my most recent recovery from depression. The best way I can describe it was that VR got my neurons firing again!

Some would no doubt argue that too much use of a VR headset is isolating, which I can understand if you are only playing solo games, or spending innumerable hours immersed in VR. However, in many games, and especially in most social VR spaces, you are often interacting with other people, which would counteract the isolation aspect somewhat. I also strongly recommend taking the time to build up your tolerance to VR, starting from sessions as short as 10-15 minutes, and building up slowly from that. I am a little concerned when I hear about people who boast logging 5, 6, 7, 8, or even more hours at one stretch in VR. Everything in moderation is the key here.

And when you’re too depressed to set foot outside your front door, it can sometimes be easier to slip on a VR headset to visit people and places! No need to get dressed up, or to put on your “happy face” to face the world. There have often been times in the past when I have felt extremely anxious, and I was able to load up the Nature Treks VR app in my Oculus Rift and relax on a calm, sandy beach lined with swaying palm trees, listening to the pounding surf, or just put myself within a mountain-ringed meadow of wildflowers, watching birds and butterflies. Much cheaper than an actual flight to a vacation spot! And you can revisit any time you like, with very little fuss.

I do find it ironic that the empty space I cleared in my bedroom to use my wireless Oculus Quest VR headset is now piled with canned goods and other pandemic preps! However, I still have my trusty original Oculus Rift VR headset, which I still use almost daily. In fact, I even brought home the Oculus Rift and Touch from my work computer (purchased for my suspended research project), sitting in its original box in the middle of my messy living room, and I can honestly say that I have an emergency back-up unit in case any part of my current Oculus Rift/Touch setup fails on me! (The cable attaching the Rift to my high-end gaming computer seems to be the thing that gives out first, according to various user reports.)

When I went to pick up my upholstered office chair last week to soothe my raggedy ass (link is quite safe for work), I also took home my work PC’s ergonomic keyboard and wireless mouse, in case either of those on my personal computer goes kaput on me while in self-isolation, Yes, I have worn through a couple of keyboards and mice in my day. At the moment, I have literally rubbed off the letters on some of the keys on my Microsoft ergonomic keyboard! Good thing I am (almost) a touch typist.

One final note. And I am going to put this is boldface type to make it extra clear:

I use this blog to vent.

In other words, this is an outlet for me. If I am having a bad day, you will most certainly hear about it. This does not mean that I am in any imminent danger of self-harm. It just means that I am complaining about things that are going wrong and how I am feeling, just the same as I would complain to my best friend or my Mom or my shrink about having a bad day.

Some people (in those oh-so-far-away pre-pandemic days) would go to the gym or to the bar and complain to their workout friends or their drinking buddies. I complain to my internet community: to my Discord server, to other Discord servers I belong to (and believe me, I keep bumping up against that 100-Discord-community limit all the time!), to the Second Life community forums (everybody knows Vanity Fair is Ryan Schultz, honey!), to my social networks like Twitter and Reddit…you name it. I have outlets, and I know how to use them. I’m sure you do too, if you think about it.

If what I share here on this blog concerns and worries you, and if you choose to reach out to me to check that I’m doing okay, God bless you for your thoughtfulness and kindness. But please, be assured that I know what I have to do to take care of myself. It’s been learned through 56 years of trial and error, sometimes the hard way, but I have learned.

So please don’t worry overmuch about me if I do vent here. It’s just steam and a whistle from a kettle, and the water has been boiling at quite a pace this past month.

Photo by John-Mark Smith on Unsplash

Stay safe and stay healthy!

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Pandemic Diary: April 18th, 2020

So I snapped a selfie on my way to the nearest garbage bin at my apartment complex this morning:

I am wearing one of the cloth masks that my Mom made for me (she also knitted the scarf I am wearing in this picture). I really miss going to my Mom’s for Sunday dinner.

It has now been a full month since I started self-isolation in my apartment, having received permission from my employer, the University of Manitoba Libraries, to work from home since Monday, March 16th.

How am I doing? Well, not well. But not badly, either. I’m still slipping back and forth between a few uncomfortable emotional states: anxiety, depression, anger. I am taking Lorzepam for the anxiety, but I know that I can’t keep relying on it when my nerves are bad, because I could become dependent upon it, and my psychiatrist tells me that I could suffer rebound anxiety as a result of using it too often. So I reserve the Lorazepam for when I feel especially anxious, which has happened a few times this week.

As for my depression, I can usually judge how bad things are by how many unwashed dishes I leave on my kitchen counter. At the moment, I have a week’s worth of dirty dishes piled up on the counter. It’s a sign that I am not doing so well, when I start to put off chores like that. So I need to pull my socks up.

I know that I am not the only person who is struggling. This week I read an article from SELF magazine, titled 17 Totally Normal Things to Feel Right Now, According to Therapists, and I could relate to a whole lot of them. Here’s the list, along with some quotes from that article:

  • I feel burned out. “Think about it: Every aspect of adjusting to a “new normal” demands energy from you, whether that’s the bandwidth you’re expending keeping up on the news or the weird learning curve of doing your job remotely. Meanwhile, so many of the ways we typically recharge are off the table right now: seeing friends, hitting up happy hour, going to the gym, or whatever self-care activity of yours that the pandemic has derailed. ‘There are so many more things draining us than things fortifying us right now…That’s a recipe for burnout right there.’”
  • I feel angry. “You probably don’t need me to tell you that there are a lot of things to be angry about right now, whether you’re frustrated at people who aren’t taking this seriously enough or have a lot of feelings about how the pandemic is being handled on a structural level.”
  • I am spiraling about what might happen: “The uncertainty of the pandemic—and the long-term impact it will have on both a personal level and a larger scale—is one of the most common themes the therapists I talked to have come across in their work. That should come as no surprise to anyone going through a ton of anxiety right now; there is just so much we can’t predict…’Anxiety rises due to the fear of the unknown, and right now, many things are not known…I have been hearing people worrying about running out of food or supplies. People are afraid that they will lose their homes or cars due to being out of work.’ The list goes on. The important part to remember is that most people are grappling with uncertainty right now, and it’s normal to feel terrified.”
  • I am struggling with working from home. “Transitioning from a typical work setup to working from home has caused a lot of stress, angst, and frustration for a ton of people.”
  • I am mourning canceled events. I miss my monthly arts and entertainment group meeting (although we are scheduling a Zoom meetup on Sunday). I miss the older gay men’s dining out group. I miss being at work and being around my coworkers and the students and faculty at my university.
  • I want a hug. As someone who is self-isolating alone in my apartment, I can’t even remember the last time someone touched me.
  • I feel guilty about my relative safety, security, and privilege. I was much more physically and logistically prepared for this pandemic than most people I know. I have a couple of months of food on hand, and 3 months’ worth of all my prescription medications. I don’t need to leave my home for anything except absolutely essential trips or emergencies. But I do feel guilty that other people, who wouldn’t, couldn’t, or didn’t prepare, are struggling, perhaps even suffering. Hell, there are people on this planet who are facing this pandemic without access to clean, running water.
  • I am grieving. “While it’s true some people undoubtedly are dealing with the loss of loved ones to COVID-19, therapists are noticing grief in other ways too. Most people are grappling with some kind of loss…whether that’s the loss of a job, your freedom, your feeling of safety, or your vision of how your life should be going. All of that can trigger a deep sense of grief, though many people don’t recognize it for what it is.”
  • I am feeling inadequate about my productivity. “‘One issue that I’m seeing is people feeling guilt about not being productive enough while at home in isolation..From day one after lockdown orders, many clients felt that they were wasting time and failing miserably at the transition to working from home. There is also pressure to learn languages, take courses, master finances, and do all the things. Productivity porn is very loud right now.’ That noise can be difficult to drown out, so don’t feel bad if this is something you’re struggling with. ‘We live in a nation in which many of us are accustomed to engaging in activities centered around thriving…Unfortunately, much of that focus must be shifted to surviving right now. Be kind to yourself as we shift and refuse to be guilty for not being productive.’
  • And sometimes, I just feel numb. “With everything going on, it might alarm you to wake up one day and realize you feel…nothing at all. That’s to be expected too. Even in the most chaotic of times, it’s impossible to be on emotional high alert 24/7. ‘I think of it in terms of adrenaline…You can only have adrenaline coursing through your veins for so long until the body has to reset and simmer down.’ Same goes for emotions, especially the longer this goes on.”

On top of everything else, I feel exhausted, and I have been struggling with insomnia. Once again, a night of restless sleep detached and inactivated one of my expensive LibreLink blood sugar sensors, so I have had to replace it before it was due to expire in 14 days. This is the second time this has happened since I started using this system, and it is frustrating.

Even just writing this blogpost seems to have brought me down, by making me realize just how much I am trying to cope with. Small wonder I am struggling. It would be overwhelming to anybody.

So I am just going to keep on keeping on, using this blog as my pandemic diary. I know that I have supports in place (anti-depressant and anti-anxiety medication, talk therapy, my social network) to keep me safe, grounded, and sane. We don’t know how long this public health emergency will take to pass. We don’t know when the restrictions that have been placed on all our lives will start to be lifted.

But we do know that this will not be forever. I have to hold on tight to that belief, putting my faith in all the doctors and scientists who are working to create a vaccine to end this nightmare.

Stay safe, and stay healthy!

My Answers to the Ask-Me-Anything (AMA) Questions!

It’s 2:00 a.m. and I have an absolutely wicked case of insomnia, so I decided to write up most of this blopost in the wee small hours of the morning, and answer the questions I received in my Ask Me Anything (AMA) blogpost.

You might find it interesting to see my recent daily blog statistics from WordPress. As you can see, there has been a slow but significant increase in my blog views and visitors within the past two weeks:

In the old days, last year, if I got over 500 views per day, I was quite happy. Now I am regularly getting over 500 views by noon, and well over 1,000 views per day! In the past week, I have even hit 1,200 views per day several times. The overwhelming majority of that traffic is my Second Life content, particularly my coverage of Second Life steals, deals, and freebies.

Despite this level of activity, you are still a rather quiet bunch: I only received three questions!


Andrew Heath asks me:

What features do you think Facebook needs to add to Facebook Horizons, to make it stand out to its rivals?

Well, Facebook has lots of money to throw around at things like advertising and programming talent. Facebook has also been buying up popular VR companies like Beat Saber, and will no doubt find ways to provide exclusive access to Facebook Horizon users, shutting out competing platforms who don’t have such deep pockets.

Facebook will ruthlessly use every tool and tactic at its disposal to ensure that Facebook Horizon stands out and gets attention. Expect massive news media coverage when the social VR platform does open its doors to the general public. Until then, they will be keeping a very tight lid on the alpha testing process, with very little information released.

Another point I want to make is that Facebook is not aiming at the traditional virtual world user community (the classic example being, of course, almost 17-year-old Second Life). Facebook is aiming Horizon at their social media users, the Facebook, Messenger, Instagram, and WhatsApp crowd, an estimated audience of over six billion individual accounts, which gives the company massive leverage.

Social Media Statistics as of February 2020 (source)

Whether they succeed at enticing these people to take the plunge into virtual reality remains to be seen, but sales of Oculus Quest in particular have been strong, despite supply chain problems due to the coronavirus pandemic. In fact, the coronavirus pandemic may give an advantage to Facebook, as millions of people around the world self-isolate at home and seek ways to interact and socialize in ways that feel more immersive than Discord, Zoom and Webex. The timing might be perfect.

However, your Facebook Horizon avatar will be clearly associated with your real-life profile, and you can bet that Facebook will advertise to you in a similar targeted fashion to what you now see in your Facebook social network feed. While this link to your real-life profile may well cut down on griefing, trolling, and harassment, it is also likely to be unappealing to many current metaverse platform users for exactly that same reason. I wrote more about it in an editorial here.


Chamberlain asks:

Has anybody had any commercial success with any of these ventures, other than Second Life?

Well, the only company that I know that’s generating a profit (and that’s because because I was extremely nosey, and I asked them) is ENGAGE, which seems to be doing quite well for itself in the educational social VR market. And, of course, Cryptovoxels is making enough money to enable its lead developer, Ben Nolan, to work on it full-time. The rest is a question mark. And that’s perfectly fine with me; metaverse-building companies are certainly under no obligation to tell me/us if they’re making money yet or not.

The key here seems to be: start small, grow organically and incrementally, and let things evolve and customers come to you. I do know that some social VR platforms and virtual worlds have seen an uptick in business because of the wholesale shift of things like conferences from the real world to the virtual world (in fact, one company I know is working lots of overtime dealing with all the extra business!).

From my vantage point, it seems pretty clear that the strategy of throwing years of software development work and millions of dollars of venture capital at platforms has not worked out well so far (e.g. High Fidelity, Sansar), mainly because the consumer market for virtual reality failed to ignite as predicted. However, the coronavirus pandemic is now a potential game-changer for a lot of metaverse-building companies. The longer the public health crisis lasts, and the more quarantines, lockdowns, and social distancing are imposed on restless populations, the more people will look at these platforms as a place to work, meet, rest, and play.

On the flip side, the mounting economic crisis will also cause some poorly-thought-out metaverse projects to fold due to lack of investment. I can see this happening for many of the start-ups in the blockchain-based virtual worlds, for example. Not the three front runners (Cryptovoxels, Decentraland, and Somnium Space), but the also-rans, many blockchain projects which seem to consist of nothing much more than: a white paper full of crypto-bafflegab; a .io website domain spouting senseless use cases; mystifying, vague promotional videos; and a tired Telegram group flogging a struggling ICO. Expect to see a lot of shutdowns in this market segment. Those who were lucky enough to get in at the right time might (might) make a tidy profit; the rest are doomed.

As for Sansar, I honestly fail to see how pursuing the exact same strategy that failed when they were owned by Linden Lab—a focus on live events to the exclusion of just about anything and everything else—will make the slightest bit of difference now that they are owned by Wookey, barring some miracle. I could very well be wrong; perhaps another year or two of runway, and Sansar will indeed take off in flight (my apologies for that rather mangled metaphor). But many of the world designers and builders who helped shape the early days of Sansar, and built many of their most popular worlds, now feel alienated by this pivot and have simply given up, migrating to benefit other platforms such as Sinespace. Many former Sansar users are now kicking the tires on Helios, a brand new social VR platform based on the Unreal game engine. Sansar’s loss is their gain.

Ironically, one or more of the three forks of the open-source High Fidelity code may yet take off in popularity, although there’s obviously still lots of work to do. However, there is an energy and enthusiasm I see taking place in these forks that is encouraging, and frankly infectious. I do wish these projects well, and I will follow them closely.


And finally, John has a longer comment and a question for me:

Not sure I have a question. But would very much like to say that the occasional glimpses into your ‘real self/world’ moments as opposed to the ‘virtual world’ moments/posts, are incredibly powerful and reassuring, reminding me that all of us are human, and these glimpses are what keep me coming back to your blog. They comfort me and reassure me. You are real. You are trying your best. And you help me (us) when you show us what is beyond the successful veneer of the top notch librarian/researcher. Just wanted to say thanks. Your blog is part of my morning ritual, along with the newspapers, and it is even more of a requirement now, in these difficult times. Oh yes, I might have a question. Can you keep this blog of yours going till the ol’ Internet fades?

Thank you for your kind words, John! I’m glad I can be a small part of your day.

I would like to thank, from the bottom of my heart, all my readers. Some of you have chosen to express your appreciation via my Patreon page, and that money now covers my blog hosting costs on WordPress, for which I am extremely grateful. Whether or not you are a Patreon supporter, your support means the world to me.

And yes, I do plan to keep this blog going as long as I can, and I’ve even thought a bit about having it archived in some way after I pass on, to create a sort of time capsule of an interesting era in social VR and virtual worlds. I am currently in the process of creating a will and a healthcare power of attorney, still waiting to hear back from the lawyer that my financial planner recommended. (I also plan on leaving many of my Second Life avatars to other people via my will. My lawyer is going to have a field day drawing up my will!)

In the interim, especially in these precarious days of pandemic, I will be writing up a detailed document to share with my friends and family, with all my accounts and passwords, making my wishes clear in the event of my untimely death. I will not leave you hanging!

But I don’t plan on going anywhere! I am just starting to hit my stride here.

Editorial: An Outrageous Price for Second Life Avatar Name Changes, Particularly for Non-Americans and Those Suffering from the Economic Shock of the Coronavirus Pandemic

The strength of the U.S. dollar vis-à-vis other currencies is making
the new avatar name change feature outrageously expensive
(photo by Sharon McCutcheon on Unsplash)

I have had a chance to do some serious thinking, now that I have gone through the process of changing the legacy avatar name on one of my alts in Second Life. It was an easy, painless process, for which I thank Linden Lab. They seem to have done a good job of implementing this much-requested feature.

However

I knew that it would cost me, but I am shocked at just how much it did actually cost me. This is an avatar whom I upgraded from Basic to Premium, both to take advantage of the new name change feature, and to snag one of those lovely Victorian Linden Homes.

But if I had just wanted to change my avatar name, how much would I have to spend at minimum? I would have had to upgrade from Basic to Premium for one month on the Monthly plan (US$11.99 per month). Then, I would have to pay a one-time name change fee of US$39.99 to be able to change my avatar’s first and/or last names. Then, I would have to cancel my Premium membership once I had changed my avatar name (at least, that’s how I understand it would work).

That works out to a grand total of US$51.98. Now, factor in the exchange rate between the Canadian dollar and the American dollar, and that works out to an eye-watering CA$78.99 (I used today’s exchange rate for the US$11.99, and added the CA$62.33 Linden Lab actually charged me for the name change fee.)

Yes, you read that right—ALMOST EIGHTY DOLLARS FOR A NAME CHANGE. That is approximately double what I was expecting to pay for such a feature. This is outrageous.

I spent TWICE as much as this to change the name on my avatar.
(photo by Michelle Spollen on Unsplash)

Because of the economic damage wrought by the coronavirus pandemic, many non-American currencies are losing value against the American dollar, which has traditionally been seen as a “safe haven” for investors (along with gold) during times of economic distress. The Canadian dollar has gotten hammered, and it makes everything I do in Second Life much more expensive than it would normally be: the cost of a Premium membership (I now have three), buying Linden dollars, etc.

In a recent interview on Lab Gab, Linden Lab CEO Ebbe Altberg was asked about those people who are experiencing difficulties in paying for sims due to pandemic-related financial difficulties (with Second Norway being a recent example, where the owner cited the failing Norwegian krone exchange as part of his problems making ends meet). Ebbe encouraged those users to call the Support team to discuss their particular situations, which would be dealt with on a case-by-case basis.

Well, that might be well and good for major landlords in Second Life who are struggling to make ends meet. But I rather doubt that the Second Life Support team is going to help me out by offering to lower the cost of an avatar name change because it’s so goddamn expensive in Canadian dollars

Obviously, Linden Lab is going to make some serious coin off this new feature. They have a decade of pent-up demand, after all. But non-Americans, whose currencies are suffering in comparison to the mighty U.S. dollar, are getting walloped. I really don’t see how many people around the world can afford this service.

I mean, for eighty Canadian dollars, I could outfit my avatar from head to toe in a new mesh head and body, and still have money left over to go shopping for new hair, clothing, and shoes. What’s the better use of my money in SL, my appearance or a name change? You’re going to have to have some seriously compelling reasons to spend that much cash, just to change what other people see when they look at you in their SL viewer.

And, at a time when many are facing mounting economic hardship, when people are losing hours of work, gigs, or even entire livelihoods during this pandemic, these fees seem particularly harsh, tone-deaf and out-of-touch.

And it’s not just non-Americans I am thinking about here; many Americans now face unprecedented economic hardship, too. A virtual world like Second Life is probably not going to rank too terribly high when people are more worried about how to pay their mortgage or feed themselves and their families.

Frankly, this just makes Linden Lab look greedy. Not a particularly good look at a time like this.

What do you think? Do you think these fees are outrageous? Should Linden Lab take into account that many foreign currencies are getting hammered, and make services like this less expensive for non-Americans? Should Linden Lab consider the economic shock of the pandemic in setting their fees going forward?

Please feel free to leave a comment below and tell me what you think, thanks.