Pandemic Diary: September 30th, 2020

Today is officially Day 199 of my working from home in self-isolation for my university library system, holding staff meetings in Microsoft Teams and conducting Libraries training sessions via Cisco Webex or Zoom, depending on the professor.

My work email routinely gets spam like the following (yes, we get librarian spam from publishers ALL THE TIME, but the pandemic has added a new wrinkle):

And, no, our university library system will not invest in a STERI-Book machine; our staff just handles all returned items wearing gloves and masks, and let them sit and air out until any potential coronavirus on the surface of the materials dies off, before they are reshelved or recirculate.

(You might be interested to know that REopening Archives, Libraries and Museums (REALM) is a research partnership between OCLC, the Institute of Museum and Library Services, and the Battelle research laboratories to create and distribute science-based information and recommended practices designed to reduce the risk of transmission of COVID-19 to staff and visitors who are engaging in the delivery or use of museum, library, and archival services.) 

Our physical collections are still off-limits to faculty, staff, and students (although they can search our online catalogue and request a book be sent to a hold locker for pick-up; most of our collections are online now, anyways), and all of our libraries are still closed. Two libraries have opened up only to provide study space for students, but only solitary studying (with proper social distancing) is allowed. Students cannot book the group study rooms, browse the stacks, or even ask a reference question in person!

All user queries are referred to our online chat reference system, which is staffed by Libraries employees throughout the day, into the evening, and on weekends, to get answers to their questions. I usually work one two-hour shift a week, safely ensconced at home, answering reference questions.

Our university president has already announced that, similar to our current Fall term, the upcoming Winter term (January-April 2021) at my university will be conducted online and remotely, with rare exceptions. What this means is that I will, once again, be working from home, much the same as I do now. I fully expect to reach Day 365 in my work-from-home odyssey! I remain grateful that I have the option to work at home; I know many people who don’t have the opportunity.

Even if we do discover viable COVID-19 vaccine candidates by the end of this year (which seems likely), there still remain the significant logistical hurdles of manufacturing sufficient quantities of any successful vaccine(s), and distributing them.

Additional, there will the fiendishly difficult process of determining policies and procedures for who gets the vaccine first, and who has to wait—which I fully expect will be politicized in some countries, with social-media-driven misinformation, disinformation, and conspiracy theories adding fuel to the fire. Throw in all the anti-vaxxer nonsense that was circulating even before the pandemic, and you’ve got a very disturbing situation. (I read somewhere recently that fully one-third of Americans will not get their children vaccinated for the flu this year, which is a basic, sensible precaution experts are recommending for everybody this year.)

I am very happy—nay, make that ecstatic!—to report that my new strategy of avoiding social media and the news media has been largely successful! For example, I have heard, only in the briefest of brief passing, that there was even a presidential debate taking place, and I remain blessedly ignorant of what happened, and all the resulting social media fallout. (Don’t tell me; I DO NOT WANT TO KNOW. I will be staying away from social media and the news media from now until after the U.S. federal election. I’d currently rather be ignorant than mired in anxiety, despair, and depression, triggered by whatever new low Donald Trump has managed to reach, thankyouverymuch kthxbai!)

The only exception to this rule are the Canadian and global coronavirus subReddits, where I can just pop in to get the latest headlines and then leave again, without getting tainted or infected by any other kind of news stories. So I will remain vigilant (as I have since this whole mess started in January) as to the latest developments in the coronavirus pandemic. (By the way, there’s also an excellent, science-based COVID-19 subReddit, which I can recommend to help you sift through all the latest scientific research articles.)

I will not lie; I am still struggling. With my underlying health conditions, I am still at a high risk of a severe case of COVID-19 if I should become infected. I worry about my brother’s family (all of whom work with the public), and my elderly mother and stepfather. I worry about my best friend John, who is in his sixties and still recovering from prostate cancer surgery.

But tomorrow, on Day 200 of my self-imposed exile in my apartment, I will wake up, and get out of bed. I will shave, shower and get dressed, I will brew a vat of black coffee (a 10-cup pot nowadays instead of 8!), and I will log in to my university email system and Microsoft Teams, ready to face whatever the day brings. I am choosing to focus on my work projects, which I have some degree of control over, and my blog, which I have complete control over, rather than continue to obsess about what is going on in the wider world that I have zero control over.

Stay healthy and stay sane! This will be a marathon.

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!