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!

UPDATED! The Lost World and Lost Horizon Music Festivals Take Place July 3rd and 4th, 2020 in Sansar: A First Impressions Review of the Events

Please note that I am taking a vacation from the blog for the next two to three weeks, except for sponsored blogposts (with the occasional exception, like this review).


This morning, I paid a long-overdue return visit to Sansar, to check out both of the two-day music festivals that are taking place on the platform this weekend (July 3rd and 4th, 2020):

  • The Lost World event, held by an organization called Global Music Festivals, is being held in a specially-created world called Lost World, based the Incan architecture of Machu Picchu in Peru (here’s the entry in the Sansar Atlas):
  • The Lost Horizon Festival, which is associated with the real-world Shangri-La event at the Glastonbury Festival, a five-day festival of contemporary performing arts that takes place in Pilton, Somerset, in England every year (which, like many other events, was cancelled due to the coronavirus pandemic):

According to the Lost Horizon event page:

Two days. Four stages. Fifty-plus performances from a star-studded global lineup, including Fatboy Slim, Carl Cox, Jamie Jones and more. Welcome to Lost Horizon, from the team behind Glastonbury’s Shangri-La – the world’s biggest music and arts festival in virtual reality! Join us from wherever you live, across desktop PC and VR here at Sansar.

These are extraordinary times, and we know fans everywhere are hurting. Which is why we’re thrilled to offer a FREE TICKET to any and all affected by this current crisis.

If you can contribute, we’re also offering a PREMIUM TICKET that helps benefit two important causes – Amnesty International and the Big Issue – and includes some amazing goodies: an exclusive piece of art from Lost Horizon creatives, Instruct Studio; a virtual shirt from Instruct Studio; and more.

While you have to buy a ticket (a free one, or the US$10.00 Premium ticket) to get into the Lost Horizon events, anybody can pop in to visit the Lost World event, which is smaller and feels more intimate.

Lost World (by Global Music Festivals)

The Lost World event features more than 20 live DJs performing sets over two days. The two 12-hour streams will be live broadcast on Twitch and into the Lost World in Sansar especially built for this event. Deejays will play EDM, Trance, Goa, Techno, Psy, House, and Nu Jazz.

When I dropped by this morning there was an appreciative crowd of about 20 avatars gathered, dancing in lockstep to the light show. I found that if I stopped playing my own dance animations and stood still, eventually I, too, would start dancing with the rest of the crowd! I’m not sure how comfortable I feel about a world imposing its dance moves on me, though. (I would have preferred a choice!)

Saturday Night Fever moves in front of an Inca God!

Unfortunately, there is no lineup of artists on the Global Music Festivals rather bare-bones website, but there is a poster located in the stone building to the right of your spawn point. with the day’s lineup (there’s also a quest you can do as part of the festival):

Lost World Festival Schedule and Quest Giver

Lost Horizon Festival (by Glastonbury’s Shangri-La)

It’s clear that most people in Sansar this weekend are here for this festival, as this snapshot of the attendance figures (taken from the in-world Codex) indicates:

When I visited, the Gas Tower had over 100 avatars present, while the Freedom Stage and the Landing Zone had about 60 each, and the Nomad Stage about 40.

The Landing Zone makes a great first impression

This being Sansar, I expected the visuals would be top-notch, and they certainly are! You can use your Codex to hop from stage to stage, or start off at the Landing Zone, which features teleporters to take you to the various stages and exhibits:

The Info Booth at the Lost Horizon Festival’s Landing Zone
(I think the woman in the pink fringe boots is trying to steal my wallet!)

In addition to the stages, there is an art exhibit called ShangrilART, and a television studio called SHITV, broadcasting films and videos relating to the event. Both spaces were less crowded, giving you the opportunity to take a breather from the much busier music stages.

A documentary on transgenderism at the SHITV studio

At the Freedom Stage, the performers were a flat projection onto the stage rather than embodied avatars (the organizers used a green screen to erase the background). While I was a bit disappointed (I was really hoping for some sort of full-body tracking suits on the performers, like the one that electronic violinist Lindsey Stirling wore to animate her avatar in her awesome concert in Wave last August!), I do think that this was a best choice under the circumstances, and it worked well, especially when viewing the show from the back to the middle of the room:

It was only when you got right up to the stage that the illusion was shattered, as you can see from this shot I took of the deejays behind the booth at the Nomad Stage:

The only problem I encountered was the audio quality, which was consistently choppy and extremely poor while using a VR headset, and better but still a bit choppy while in desktop. I left and revisited several Lost Horizon stages where musical performances were taking place, listening while wearing my Oculus Rift and just on desktop, and there were definitely problems with the sound quality, especially in the Rift. If you are planning to participate in this festival, you might be better off setting your VR headset aside and just using desktop.

One very odd thing that I noticed was the dozens of animated bots that were placed in various spots near the periphery of all three music stages, or under the raised platforms provided for better viewing. You could tell they weren’t other “real” avatars because when you clicked the trigger on your hand controller and looked at them, an avatar name did not appear over them. Most were uniformly dressed in drab, grey colours, and they all cycled through the same dances. It was strange, to say the least.

Lots of animated bots under a viewing platform at the Freedom Stage…but why?

In an event that was already packed full of avatars, why did the organizers feel that they needed to add dancing bots to pad the audience? Were these bots included in the user concurrency figures in the Codex listings? I found myself wondering if the poor audio quality would be improved a bit if they were shut down and removed (I mean, having to render all the real avatars in a crowded world is adding enough to the load on my computer’s graphics card as it is; why on earth would you deliberately choose to increase that load by doing something like this?).

So, if you attend either or both virtual music festivals this weekend, be advised that you might have some sound problems (which will be more likely if you are using a VR headset). These are likely not events that users on lower-end hardware, or more restricted internet bandwidth, will enjoy.

There are schedules of the performers at each of the stages, with the times in BST when they are performing, information which is unfortunately missing from the official Lost Horizon Festival website (which just lists the artists at each stage alphabetically and provides links to their Facebook pages):

The schedule of performers at the Lost Horizon Festival’s Freedom Stage

Aside from the sometimes-poor audio quality and the creepy dancing bots, I’d encourage you to pay a visit to Sansar this weekend (perhaps your first ever?) to check out the dueling music festivals and experience the platform yourself. Sansar is, still, the most beautiful social VR platform in my opinion, and it lends itself well to events such as this. I’m quite sure that Wookey (the company now running Sansar) wants these festivals to bring many more new users to Sansar—and entice them to pay return visits.

It is now somewhat out of date, but back in April 2019 I did write up a step-by-step guide for newbies to Sansar, which you might find helpful. (I do know that Wookey has updated the selection of starter avatars.)

Have fun! I will be popping in an out of these two music festivals in Sansar all weekend, so say hello if you see me!

UPDATE 1:52 p.m.: Well, I signed out of Sansar and signed back in again, and there is a crowd of 188 avatars at the Lost Horizon Festival’s Gas Tower Stage:

While it is so good to see such a large crowd in Sansar having fun (I assume they are spread among multiple instances of the stage), the audio quality is still very poor, especially in VR, but also on desktop at times. For a music festival, I consider this to be a pretty serious problem. Let’s hope that Wookey can find a way to fix this before the Lost Horizon Festival ends tomorrow!

UPDATE 2:08 p.m.: There are now a total of 287 avatars at the Gas Tower Stage, and the sound on desktop is still choppy (I have given up trying to listen in VR). And just now, my Sansar client crashed completely. It would appear that the Sansar platform is experiencing some serious scaling-up problems as more and more people join (it’s evening now in the U.K., where I would expect the bulk of the audience is from). Signing in again, crossing my fingers…

UPDATE 2:21 p.m. Back in again, and I do have one piece of advice for people experiencing audio and/or visual glitches in Sansar: make sure that the Sansar client is the only thing that is running on your computer! I just checked and it is using well over 90% of my CPU just to render the Gas Tower stage and process the sound. Normally I have WordPress open in a browser window, but even something as simple as that brings the whole experience to a crawl, and garbles the music stream.

Now at 315 avatars at the Gas Tower Stage for Fatboy Slim‘s set, and rising…

UPDATE 6:41 p.m.: Well, I decided to pay one last visit today to all three music stages at the Lost Horizon Festival, and I am very happy to report that the music stream quality is much better in my VR headset! I’m not sure what Wookey did (or even if they did anything), but for the first time, I could stand in the middle of a virtual mosh pit in the front of the stage, feel fully immersed in the colorfully and creatively-dressed crowd in my Oculus Rift, and actually enjoy the music.

However, it’s clear that other people are encountering audio problems too. One person in the crowd near me posted to the chat at the Freedom stage:

Is there a www audio stream? I’m still clipping, even in desktop mode and low render; I’ve been trying for over 2 hours now.

Once again, the minute I opened up WordPress in a browser tab to report on this, everything went bad again. (So even if that person were to open up a livestream of the concert to get better audio, his performance in Sansar would take a hit.) It would appear your sound quality is a factor of three variables: how fast your internet connection is, how powerful your computer is, and what other programs you may have running simultaneously.

Your best bet might be to catch the Lost Horizon Festival via Twitch: the Beatport Twitch channel (which gives an overview of several stages at once), or the Lost Horizon Festival channel (which was offline when I checked this evening). There are also, new mobile apps for Sansar, which I will be writing about in another blogpost.

And, as I said before, it just felt right to see so many people in Sansar. Here’s hoping that the attendance at the music festivals this weekend met Wookey’s expectations, and that there are more such events in future.

Super Bad Transmittable Contagious Awful Virus! A Selection of My Favourite Pandemic Parody Videos (So Far)

My television died today.

Good-bye, old TV set…
(photo by Gaspar Uhas on Unsplash)

I should hasten to add that it was an ancient, 20-inch, cathode-ray-tube TV set which I inherited from my grandmother when she passed away back in 2004, so this was hardly an unexpected development. Late this afternoon, it started giving off quite a hideous buzzing noise while I was watching various 24/7 news channels, and after turning it off, I discovered later this evening that I could no longer turn it back on. It’s gone.

I should also hasten to add that I pretty much gave up watching any sort of broadcast television years ago. I much prefer consuming TV and movies on my iPad, using various apps such as CBC Gem, Netflix, and YouTube. So really, this is not such a big loss. And it’s a sharp reminder to me, to cut back on the relentless onslaught of coronavirus news coverage.

And, speaking of YouTube, a minor cottage industry appears to have sprung up overnight: coronavirus parody videos of popular songs. I blogged about one parody video a while ago, but the trend has definitely continued, with more creators jumping on the bandwagon! So I thought I would share with you a few sterling examples of this strange but entertaining recent phenomenon.

First up is this straightforward, simple message from Robert Emmett Kelly:

Next up is singer Chris Mann, who has released a similar message to Robert, but in a much more stylish fashion! (He’s got a number of coronavirus parodies on his YouTube channel, including a cover of Adele’s Hello which is also quite funny.)

Next up is another favourite of mine, courtesy of the very talented Daniel Matarazzo:

But I have saved the very best YouTube parody video for last: a British family that has released an updated version of a very well-known song from Les Misérables, which is absolutely genius, in spite of a few flat notes near the end!

Honestly, the level of creativity all of these people have is truly inspiring!

Editorial: Somewhere Down the Road (Finding Comfort During a Coronavirus Pandemic)

Vince Gill and Amy Grant on last night’s Opry Livestream

I grew up listening to Amy Grant. I owned all of her vinyl albums in those halcyon, pre-compact-disc days, and my church youth group would always head out to see her perform whenever she came to Winnipeg. Even though I now consider myself an atheist, I still turn to her music for comfort in times of stress and anxiety, depression and despair. Her soothing alto voice in well-known songs is still a respite, an oasis, a retreat. Despite my change in circumstances, I am still an unabashed fan.

Many LGBTQ people, like myself, have complicated, convoluted, and contentious personal histories with organized religion. For example, I met my wife through that same Lutheran church youth group and, like the two well-raised Transcona Lutherans we were, we followed the dictates and strictures of our church and got married (I was 24 and a virgin). After a painful short marriage, and our separation and divorce, we both came out of the closet. (The dress my ex-wife wore for our official engagement photo was later donated to a Toronto drag queen.)

Last night, in an empty Grand Old Opry, Vince Gill and Amy Grant and their daughters put on a livestreamed performance (which you can watch here, the show starts at the 30:00 mark).

And I must admit I got chills down my spine when Amy sang her song Somewhere Down the Road, to which I know all the words by heart:

So much pain and no good reason why
You’ve cried until the tears run dry
And nothing here can make you understand
The one thing that you held so dear
Is slipping from your hands
And you say

Why, why, why
Does it go this way
Why, why, why
And all I can say is

Somewhere down the road
There’ll be answers to the questions
Somewhere down the road
Though we cannot see it now
Somewhere down the road
You will find mighty arms reaching for you
And they will hold the answers at the end of the road

Amy Grant, Vince Gill, and their daughters perform to a deserted Grand Old Opry

I hope that you also find some comfort in these difficult days, wherever that might be. Reach out to your friends and family, via FaceTime or Discord or Skype, to support each other. March has been a hard month, and April is going to be even harder.

I have kept my list of mental health resources during the coronavirus pandemic up-to-date as I find new items to share.