Pandemic Diary, December 27, 2020: Spaghetti for Christmas

Today is officially Day 287 since I started working in self-isolation from home for my university library system. I am currently starting my second week of three weeks of vacation, not returning to my full-time paying job as a librarian until January 11th, 2021, and so far I have enjoyed a relaxing, quiet holiday.

If you haven’t seen the Christmas card I sent out this year to everybody, here it is. This wonderful animated card by Jacquie Lawson is set to the traditional German Christmas carol O Tannenbaum.

A screen capture from my animated Christmas card this year

Today is the day after Boxing Day here in Canada. Boxing Day is traditionally the day where Canadians go out to the Boxing Day sales, but this year the crowds of shoppers were mostly staying home (although quite a few shopped online and arranged curbside pickup of their consumer electronics and other bargains).

By and large, the majority of Manitoba have listened to the doctors and scientific experts, and followed the masking and social distancing requirements imposed by our code-red, province-wide pandemic lockdown. I know of very few Manitobans who shared their Christmas celebrations with people who were not members of their immediate household. Many instead dropped food and presents off at the doors of friends and family.

On the afternoon of Christmas Day, my extended family (including my sister-in-law’s family, who have kind of adopted me along with my brother) had a very chatty one-and-a-half hour meeting in Zoom, which lifted the time restrictions on its free version for the holidays:

And on Boxing Day, the members of my arts and entertainment group held a meetup in Zoom as well! Obviously, we have not been going out much to arts, cultural and entertainment events since the pandemic hit, but we still do keep in touch.

(Disclaimer: No, I do not have a house that looks like a Better Homes and Gardens spread, with all my books artfully arranged by colour! This was a Zoom background I downloaded this spring, to hide my messy man cave from Zoom meetings for work! I did fool a couple of people with it, though.)

I did not bother to fuss with a turkey for my Christmas dinner, which in a normal year I would have spent with my mother and stepfather at their seniors life-lease condo across town. Instead, I made a large pot of spaghetti and a tossed salad, which I quite enjoyed as I spent my first-ever Christmas dinner alone in my apartment.

Spaghetti for Christmas (photo by Carolina Cossío on Unsplash)

Truth be told, after 287 days, I am now so used to being alone that spending a Christmas in self-isolation in my apartment did not feel weird at all. Instead of real-world socializing, I have spent quite a bit of time socializing with people in various social VR platforms and virtual worlds this past month, including Sinespace, Sansar, Somnium Space, and Second Life!

I do not expect my situation to change significantly until enough people have been vaccinated to achieve herd immunity. Both the Pfizer and Moderna COVID-19 vaccines have already been approved by Health Canada, and the Pfizer vaccine has already found it way into the arms of 2,177 Manitoba healthcare workers at critical care, acute care, and long-term care facilities, plus COVID-19 immunization clinics and testing sites.

Map from the COVID-19 Tracker Canada website

Have a healthy and happy holiday season!

Pandemic Diary: November 19th, 2020

Today is officially Day 249 since I began working from home for the University of Manitoba Libraries due to the coronavirus pandemic. I am still on holidays this week; I “go back to work” on Monday (while remaining in self-isolation in my apartment).

Today, the Manitoba government added further restrictions to those already put in place on November 10th, when a province-wide, code-red pandemic lockdown was announced. The new rules ban any gatherings at private residences and restrict retail sales to essential items only.

What is considered essential? Well, according to the “enhanced restrictions” document released by the Manitoba government today, essential items are:

 food, beverages and food preparation products;
 personal care products such as soap and dental care products;
 health-related products such as prescription drugs and vitamins;
 mobility or assistive devices;
 baby and child-care accessories such as diapers and formula;
 household cleaning products, safety devices, batteries and lightbulbs;
 outdoor winter apparel such as jackets and boots;
 personal protective equipment for the workplace;
 pet food and supplies;
 postage stamps;
 cellphones and cellphone accessories;
 parts and supplies for all types of motor vehicles and watercraft;
 major household appliances;
 hunting, fishing and trapping supplies;
 tools and hardware;
 materials for home maintenance, repair or construction; and
 property maintenance products such as shovels.

Non-essential items refers to any good and products not set out in the orders. This includes jewelry, flowers, perfume, consumer electronics, sporting equipment, books and toys.

Also, the document takes great care to note that “liquor and cannabis stores may continue to open and sell products” (you don’t want to have to deal with people going through withdrawal on top of everything else that’s going on, I guess!). And it looks very much like there will be no Black Friday sales in Manitoba next weekend.

CTV News reports:

New restrictions in Manitoba will limit the number of people allowed to gather in private homes to further halt the spread of COVID-19.

The enhanced orders, announced on Thursday by Premier Brian Pallister and chief public health officer Dr. Brent Roussin, will take effect on Friday, Nov. 20th.

The orders come one week after strict public health measures were put in place to get Manitobans to reduce their contacts. Roussin has made repeated pleas for Manitobans to stay at home and has warned of stretched hospital capacity in the province.

“Despite that, we saw people gathering at rallies, we saw crowded parking lots at big box stores, we saw people continue to go out for non-essential items — so we are left with no choice but to announce further measures to protect Manitobans to limit the spread of this virus,” said Roussin.

Under the new orders, gatherings at private residences, including homes, cottages, and other vacation properties, are restricted, and nobody is permitted aside from the people who live there. There are some exceptions to allow for child-care, health-care and home-care services, tutoring services, construction, repairs, and emergency response services.

The new orders also prohibit people from gathering in groups of more than five people at any indoor or outdoor public space. This includes the common areas of a multi-unit residence with the exception of a health-care facility or critical business that adheres to public health measures.

The new rules also allow for people who live alone (such as me) to have one person from outside their household visit their home. If I were pressed to choose, that person would probably be my best friend John, but we communicate regularly using Face Time on our iPhones, and I am satisfied with that.

Yesterday, I went and did my grocery shopping on the Walmart website, and first thing this morning, I donned an N95 facemask, got in my car, and drove to the grocery pick-up parking spaces at the rear of the my neighbourhood Walmart store, where someone wearing a mask wheeled out a cart with bins, and loaded up the back of my car, and I drove away. Thankfully, the Shopping Cart Gods smiled upon me, and there was a wayward shopping cart in the vicinity of my apartment, which made for only two trips ferrying my groceries between my car and my home. I am now stocked up on enough food to last me at least two months. I have also just had all my prescription medications renewed for another three months and delivered from my local pharmacy to my doorstep.

I have zero plans to set foot outside my apartment, unless it is to throw out the garbage or to go for masked, socially-distanced walks in my neighbourhood. As I barely leave my apartment as it was, the latest restrictions will not affect me very much. It does mean that I not be able to visit my mother and stepfather in their seniors life-lease condo, but I did pay a visit to see them the day before the Nov. 10th restrictions came into effect, and it was good to see them (again, socially distanced).

My mother wants me to commit to coming over for supper on Christmas Day, which she considers an iron-clad tradition, but I only told her that we would have to wait and see what happens between now and then. The way things have been going lately, I will not be surprised in the slightest if I spend Christmas alone in my apartment. At our face-to-face last week, we discussed Christmas presents. Mom usually gives me gift cards, but she worries that she will land up buying me gift cards for stores that will go belly-up because of the pandemic. We agreed that cash would be an appropriate gift instead, which relieves my mother of at least that one worry.

At the moment, as I write this, I am sitting in a Zoom meeting, my microphone and video muted, listening to my faculty union executive report on the results of the most recent round of bargaining with my employer, the University of Manitoba. This virtual meeting will be followed by a ratification vote over the next 24 hours by the 1,200 union members: professors, instructors, and librarians (again, this will be conducted securely, remotely, and online). So the results of the ratification vote will not be known until late Friday evening. There exists the possibility that I will be out on strike come Monday.

I am learning—trying to learn— to become more comfortable with all the uncertainty swirling around me, and I am working, every day, all day, to make sure that I do not allow my circumstances to drag me back down into the bottomless black pit of clinical depression. Some days I feel as if I am drowning.

So I take naps, and go for walks, and sit cross-legged in obliging patches of warm sunshine on my bedroom carpet. I go hide out in Second Life, or Sinespace, or Sansar, and find places to visit, and people to talk to. I take my antidepressant and anti-anxiety prescriptions, and I talk with my psychiatrist on the phone, and chat with other safe, supportive people, both in real life and in my many virtual worlds. I binge watch shows on Netflix. I read books. I cook. I clean. When I cannot sleep, I brew a pot of black coffee, get up and sit in front of my computer, and I blog.

I do whatever it takes to get me through the day, one day at a time. That’s really all I can do, all that anybody can reasonably ask me to do.

Tomorrow will be Day 250 since I started working from home, and it will be a day much like today, with its uncertainties, fears, and worries. I will get through it.

Pandemic Diary, April 20th, 2020: Who’s Zoomin’ Who?

I wake up this morning, day 34 of my self-imposed isolation in my apartment during the coronavirus pandemic, feeling more than a little tired. I have been sleeping very badly these past two weeks, and struggling with insomnia and the resulting fatigue.

Today is a research day (we librarians get ten of them per academic year, to pursue “research, scholarly works, and creative activities” as our collective agreement states, because as members of the faculty union we have an opportunity and an obligation to pursue research). I plan to use the time to prepare for my Virtual Germany presentation on social VR, and edit the first draft of a journal article I hope to publish on the lessons learned from my earlier, suspended research project, a poorly-scoped, wildly overambitious plan to build a three-dimensional version of the Mathematical Atlas website, using Sansar as a platform.

Since Sansar’s near-death experience, which would have put that research project into jeopardy, I realize that I have to focus a critical eye on the financial stability, profitability, and long-term survival prospects of any future social VR platform I choose for any future research project. This is something that libraries have to do every day when choosing software such as integrated library systems (the software that handles things such as the acquisition, cataloguing, and circulation of books, etc.).

In Sunday afternoon, FROG*, my arts and entertainment group, which in the pre-pandemic days used to meet once a month in each other’s homes to plan outings to participate in Winnipeg’s vibrant arts, cultural, and entertainment scene, set up a Zoom meeting, just to have everybody get in touch with each other and see how everybody is doing:

We used the free version of Zoom, which automatically disconnects a group of three or more people after 40 minutes. We were having such a good conversation that our host generated and emailed out a second invitation, to meet for another 40 minutes! We also made sure to model our cloth masks to each other…

These women (I am the token gay male in the group) have been friends for over twenty years, and this Zoom meeting was salve to my wounded soul. I am an extrovert, someone who tends to get energy from other people, and opportunities for that have been sorely lacking over the past month. This was the first time I had ever used Zoom outside of virtual work meetings at my university, and we agreed that we would do this biweekly for the duration of the pandemic.

Sunday evening, I participated in a second Zoom meeting hosted by the Out There Winnipeg LGBT2SQ+** Sports and Recreation Group. One of the members had purchased sets of interactive online games from Jackbox Games, which uses Zoom on desktop, and requires a mobile device such as an iPhone as a game controller. We played a couple of lively rounds of Patently Stupid, which can best be described as a cross between Pictionary and Shark Tank:

We followed Patently Stupid with a round of Trivia Murder Party, which was very cleverly designed and programmed by Jackbox, with many “deadly” challenges for those who failed to answer the trivia questions correctly. This was my first time joining the Out There group in Zoom for their Games Night, and it was great fun, and it cheered me up immensely.

So, Aretha Franklin’s Who’s Zoomin’ Who? feels like a very appropriate theme song for yesterday.


*Yes, FROG is an acronym. No, I am not going to tell you what it stands for. The name’s origin is shrouded in the mists of time, and the members of my group prefer to keep it that way 😉

**LGBT2SQ+, of course, is an inclusive, umbrella acronym which stands for Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Two-Spirited (i.e. indigenous and gay), and Queer or Questioning. The plus sign at the end is for anybody that doesn’t feel they fall into any of the previous categories 🙂

Zoom Goes VR: Yet Another Remote Teamwork Virtual Reality App (Avatars? Who Needs Avatars?)

You might remember that I coined an acronym which I hope starts to catch on in the industry: YARTVRA, which stands for Yet Another Remote Teams Virtual Reality App. This is an emerging use for VR, and I have compiled a list of YARTVRA apps in this recent blogpost.

Well, it would appear that LearnBrite (which I have blogged about before), the company behind Zoom (the well-known, popular remote conferencing service) wants to embrace virtual reality, and hop into the nascent YARTVRA marketplace.

It looks like they are offering a couple of different ways to represent each remote participant. Take a gander at the following one-minute video, showing three men communicating via flat-screen video “avatars” in a 3D photograph of an office:

Watching this, I ask myself: why would anybody want to do this? What benefits does this bring? Sorry, but this is just weird. No avatars at all? Horse confetti?!??

Here’s another one-minute video showing you not only the flat-screen video “avatars”, but also a tantalizing glimpse of an actual, 3D avatar:

In the first part of this video, Zoom again eschews user avatars completely, choosing instead to have each participant displayed in a video screen in a 3D virtual conference room. However, notice at the 0:38 mark in this video, someone puts on an Oculus Quest VR headset, and you can then see his three-dimensional avatar standing in one corner of the conference room.

Here’s another one-minute video (no audio) that shows you a bit more of the setup for the Oculus Quest:

Now, it’s not clear to me if this is a real avatar that you can embody, able to move around the room, or if it is just a stationary object, a placeholder that merely represents the user. Unfortunately, there’s not enough in these videos to be able to tell!

In a page from the LearnBrite website showing you how you set up a virtual room in Zoom, the company states:

Why?

LearnBrite already includes tightly integrated WebRTC conferencing capabilities such as audio, video, VR presence and dial-in by phone.

In some enterprise environments it may be preferable to leverage the tools already in place, this helps with costs and also managing change in an organization. If everyone is already familiar with using Zoom, then adding VR to it can get better user “buy-in” than asking them to use a new or different solution.

But whether or not this is actually something that is going to be truly useful, something that adds a real benefit to remote work team collaboration, remains to be seen. So I’m a little skeptical, and frankly, I want to see more of this in action before I pronounce final judgement (especially how they implement 3D avatars).

As far as I can tell right now, this half-baked solution just gives LearnBrite the bragging rights that they now support Zoom in VR, without a lot of the features seen in competing YARTVRA products. Sorry, but I’m not impressed. This looks like a cheap gimmick to me.