More thoughts (in isolation)

As pandemic life continues I thought I’d offer up some more random thoughts on how things are going.

Much as I disliked it the first time, shouldn’t Ontario be in lockdown again? Our numbers are as bad as they were when this took off, and experts say they’re only likely to climb as the cold weather hits. So why are gyms still open?

Is there some rationale behind rendering it COVID-19 instead of Covid-19? I see both used, but I’m not sure what the principle is. The “CO” stands for corona, “VI” for virus and “D” for disease, so it should be CoViD-19 or CoviD-19 (“Coronavirus Disease”). This is the way the virus that causes the disease is written (SARS-CoV-2).

Face masks have become our new plastic bags. You see them everywhere now. Even hanging from trees. I don’t imagine they’re very environmentally friendly either.

When we first entered lockdown it seemed like Amazon was one of the big winners. I’m sure they still are, but I think I’ve only ordered from them once since this started. Their prices for everything are higher and their delivery times (unless you’re on Prime) are slow and unreliable. I don’t even bother with them anymore. But then Costco is no fun either since they stopped giving out samples. The golden age of retail may be over.

So many small local businesses are going under. And where are these people going to go? Time for a Universal Basic Income, whether we like it or not.

Is every “milestone” a “grim” milestone? It seems no other adjective works, at least when it comes to the death count in a pandemic.

Why do so many people drive around with their masks on? People alone, in their cars. I’m all for wearing masks, but only when I go into some public place. Driving with a mask on seems overkill.

Schoolkids are getting screwed. I’ve been talking to a lot of teachers over the last several months. Public school and high school students aren’t even getting a second-rate education. I guess if the kids are really motivated they can still be doing the work and learning something, but I strongly suspect that many of them are basically taking the year off while still picking up their credits. In university I’ve heard that small classes work, since you can run them as Zoom seminars. But again I suspect a lot of students in larger, introductory classes are just floating along and not learning much. In programs involving lab work the amount of lab time is getting cut back. Again, it’s a second-rate sort of education.

And I think it’s even worse than that. With more emphasis being put on online learning we’re pushing young people into taking on even more screen time as a substitute for direct human interaction. Kids in Grade 2 are having to learn to navigate their school’s class portals. Which is a useful skill, I suppose, but I feel like we’re embarking on a giant social psychology experiment whose results we already know are going to be disastrous. Things have come to a sad pass when you start feeling sorry for young people, but I really do.

Up for renewal?

As the COVID-19 pandemic lockdown loosens but remains in place, thoughts have begun to turn not so much to when things will return to normal but what the “new normal” is going to look like.

Some things, I think, are going to be lost forever, while others, like the dead animals buried in the Pet Sematary, are going to come back changed. Here’s a partial list.

Handshakes and hugs: I’ve read some commentators already bidding a not-very-fond “good riddance!” to these forms of expression. Given our current state of feeling toward social distancing it’s hard to see them making a comeback. A hand stuck out at us today might as well be holding a gun, and a hug be interpreted as a form of assault. I’m not sure we’ll be seeing them again anytime soon.

Malls: the “retail apocalypse” has been a slow-motion extinction event for the past decade-plus, mainly due to the shift to online shopping. This is a trend that has only been accelerated. These properties are going to have to be repurposed.

Mass travel: I think people will go back to filling up cruise ships and airplanes again if only because for a lot of older, better-off people this is all they have left in life. But I don’t think the industry is ever going to return to pre-pandemic levels. Which is a good thing.

Hotels: connected to the collapse of the travel industry, but high vacancy rates are only part of the story. There are no conventions being held and hence no need for convention centres either, which are a big part of the hotel economy, especially in big cities.

Cash: a lot of stores have stopped taking cash, even for very small purchases. And those that still do have signs up saying they’d prefer you to use a card. This is another change that has been in the offing for a while now and it’s just been hastened along by recent events. We’re moving toward the cashless society. I don’t like this, if only because it means that every transaction will now be recorded somewhere. Which, in turn, means that we will more and more come to be identified and defined by our purchases.

Libraries: I think I read somewhere that 2014 was supposed to be “the end of tactile media.” That hasn’t happened yet, but I guess it’s another change that’s been taking place at its own speed. How eager are people going to be to sign out books that have been touched by other people’s hands, and been in other people’s homes? See above for what’s happening to cash.

Cinemas and theatres: I’ve only been to see a couple of movies in a cinema in the last ten years. It’s just not worth it (for my notes on one of these outings, to see Blade Runner 2049, see here). As for live theater, it’s been at least fifteen years since I’ve gone out to see a play. According to official statistics these are businesses that have recently been experiencing hard times, with higher ticket prices making up for declining sales. So this constitutes another sector of the economy that was already distressed, with this latest downturn likely to push it over the edge. I don’t know how the industry is going to respond. Are digital/streaming platforms going to make up the difference?

Restaurants: I assume restaurants will re-open and people will go back to dining out at some point. But many restaurants, especially those independently owned, are going to go under before then and I think it’s going to be a difficult way back to financial sustainability for those that survive, especially if they can only operate with restrictions on how many people they can seat. It’s a business where profit margins are thin, and who’s going to want to eat meals served by waiters wearing gloves and face masks? The experience of eating out isn’t going to be any fun for a while. As for buffets, they may be well on their way to extinction.

Gyms: Tough one. My routine was always to go to the gym in the wee hours of the morning when the place was almost empty. So I’d go back tomorrow following the same schedule. But most people, by definition, go to the gym during peak hours (just before and after work). And they take classes, which I don’t. Are those people going to come back? Some of them, but probably not enough for many gyms to stay in business. And how many personal trainers are going to be able to make a living out of Zoom fitness sessions?

It all adds up to a different world we’ll be living in. More than that, however, I’m afraid the long-term consequences of this lockdown are going to be staggering. Just recently I’ve been reading some books on the 2008 financial crisis and its fallout (Crashed by Adam Tooze, The Shifts and the Shocks by Martin Wolf) and it’s interesting to see how the repercussions from that were still playing out a decade down the line. Indeed, we’re still living in its shadow, if you count Trump as being one part of the fallout.

Well, the effect of this pandemic, on the economy and people’s lives, is going to be much, much worse. The bill that’s going to come due (and I’m not just speaking literally here) is something I don’t think a lot of people appreciate yet. But some are taking notice. A recent piece by Annie Lowery that ran in The Atlantic, for example, is headlined “This Summer Will Scar Young Americans for Life.” The damage, Lowery writes, “could last forever.” And this is for a cohort that aren’t losing their jobs because most of them haven’t entered into careers yet. Their parents may be in worse shape, and if their grandparents are in long term care . . . well, that’s another horror show. This may never be truly over.

I suck at chess

Finding myself with some free time on my hands recently, I’ve been playing a bit of chess online against a computer. I don’t think I’ve played chess in over twenty years. I am no good at it.

I wasn’t even sure I still knew all the rules, and as it turned out, I was wrong about how castling works. But even after getting back up to speed I soon discovered that I am not only no good at chess, I’m terrible. As I understand it, the key to the game is being able to think ahead, seeing possible combinations long in advance. I can’t do this. I’ve tried, but the furthest I can get in my grand plans and strategies is to think one move ahead. I play the computer on skill level 2 (out of a possible 10). I only win about half the time, and only then when the computer makes a staggering blunder.

I’m truly impressed at how rotten I am at chess. Though I don’t think this is the result of any big mental decline. I don’t remember ever being any good at chess. As it is, even when I get ahead I don’t try and get to checkmate as soon as I can (which I think is the point). Instead I like dragging things out when I’m in an advantageous position, and see how many of my pawns I can turn into queens. This is what my endgames look like (yes, I’m playing white):

GM Alex shutting things down.

I am not a chess player. A real chess player doesn’t do things like this. But I find it relaxing.

Isolated thoughts

Three weeks in to the pandemic lockdown, some aspects of the experience, mostly negative, are coming in to clearer view. The following aren’t reflections on the broader impact of the crisis, which I’ll probably have a lot more to say about as this goes on, but rather things I’ve noticed at ground level. The loss of lives and jobs is a human disaster that will, I believe, have a profound impact on the way we live for years. What I’m talking about here are more mundane matters, along the lines of how to get a haircut (something I luckily haven’t had to deal with yet).

I find the saddest thing isn’t keeping social distance between myself and other people. That’s been pretty easy. No, the sad part is not being able to pet or play with the dogs that come running up to me in the park.

I’m not really scared of getting sick. The thought of getting COVID-19 isn’t something that bothers me as much as it probably should. What concerns me more is the possibility of finding myself in need of medical attention for some other reason while we’re stuck in this crisis. Already the system is overwhelmed, with non-essential services (a disturbingly elastic term that includes a lot of surgeries), being postponed indefinitely. There have also been numerous COVID-19 outbreaks in hospitals, including more than 20 cases reported in my own local General. This is not a good time to have to be dealing with any kind of health emergency. I also can’t imagine the backlog that is building up for some procedures.

The biggest personal disappointment has been my lack of productivity. You’d think enforced isolation would lead to getting more stuff done, but instead it has thus far mainly resulted in feelings of lethargy. Perhaps I need to make some “to do” lists. I hear that this helps with kids.

The worst thing is the shopping for groceries. This is an experience that has become very unpleasant. The grocery store is always packed, with long lines inside and sometimes outside, leading to the ironic conclusion that the most annoying part of the lockdown is that there are so many people around. My usual habit has been just-in-time grocery shopping, at hours when the store is only lightly attended. Now there are no such times, meaning I have to buy as much as I can at once since I don’t want to go the store as often.

This has, however, led to at least one positive result.

Because I’ve been a gym rat ever since high school, one of the biggest and least welcome changes to come with the COVID-19 outbreak has been the closing of my neighbourhood athletic complex. This immediately made me wonder just how out of shape I was about to get. I mean, I have some exercise equipment at home, but aside from the odd walk around the neighbourhood, where was I going to get a real cardio workout? I don’t jog.

Further reflection made me wonder about other possible outcomes. No doubt my cardio is going to go to hell over the next several weeks (or months). But was I going to turn into a full-blown couch potato? There were reasons to be pessimistic. I’m not going to be getting as much good exercise (with nearly everything closed I’m not even walking as much), and I’m likely to start eating a lot of snacks (comfort food) to go with all the increased screen time.

On the other hand, I also won’t be eating as much fast food, even of the take out or delivery variety. I can’t stress enough how important this is. As I pointed out in my notes on how to lose weight, eating at restaurants is a huge factor when it comes to keeping the pounds off. There is no healthy way to eat out. Meanwhile, another thing I said in that earlier post is that exercise, as a method of losing weight, is highly overrated. There are plenty of good reasons to exercise, but losing weight really isn’t one of them.

So by this calculation alone I was coming out ahead. Add in the fact that I’m not going to the grocery store as often, and trying to get in and out as quickly as possible, and the results have been better than expected. I am actually losing weight while in lockdown. I’ve been disciplined about not stocking up on crap on my grocery store runs, and I haven’t eaten fast food in a couple of weeks. I don’t know if this is sustainable, but it may lead to  some lasting changes.

People often talk about when things are going to get back to normal. This may be wishful thinking. I think normal is going to look different than it used to. And unfortunately I don’t think it’s going to be something better.

Lockdown

The coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic continues to dominate the news.

It really is remarkable, and a bit depressing. Every day is like Sunday, with the streets nearly empty and most of the stores closed or only open for reduced hours. School has been suspended and I wonder what the kids are doing. Are they all online? I think they must be.

I don’t know if all of the precautions that are being taken actually work. My sense is that they’re less effective than we’re led to believe. For example, I had to go the bank yesterday. They had cut back the hours of service so it didn’t open until 10 (the other bank I had to go to opened at 11). In addition, people were only being let into the bank proper one at a time. The waiting area was the vestibule with the ATM.  Because of the reduced hours and the one-person-at-a-time rule a bottleneck was created so that more people were packed together than usual, in a smaller space, waiting for longer just to get in. I couldn’t see this as being helpful except as a way to discourage people from coming to the bank in the first place, which really wasn’t helpful at all.

I’m not that worried about catching COVID-19 myself. What does worry me is the amount of damage this is going to have on the economy (meaning people’s jobs) and how long it is going to last. I had a dentist appointment this week that was canceled and they asked if I wanted to reschedule in three weeks’ time. I asked, in some amazement, if they really thought this would all blow over in three weeks. They could only respond that this is what they’d been told. The public library system has also said that they will be closed for three weeks. I think it’s going to be a lot longer.

Angry voters

Over the last few days I’ve been watching the ESPN Films documentary O.J.: Made in America. All of that craziness went down nearly twenty years ago and I can still remember it clearly. I think if you are of a certain age it will always be with you. It’s hard to imagine another media event capturing the world’s attention to that degree again. Nearly 100 million people in the U.S. watched the highway procession (not a chase) in the Ford Bronco. And then there was the trial. Or trials. I was actually in Los Angeles during the civil trial. I waited outside the courthouse but there was a lottery to get tickets to go in and my number didn’t get called.

The documentary is a solid bit of reportage, and kept me interested throughout it’s almost 8-hour running time. The only part where I turned against it a bit was at the very end, when Simpson is given the last word, pleading with his fans to remember the good O.J. This struck me as being false, or at least ironic, since O.J. seems to have never changed. So what was the good O.J.? The football player? The celebrity? The idol? However you slice it, I didn’t get the sense that the good O.J. was the real O.J.

What I found most interesting though was the way the politics played out in ways that really foreshadowed the rise of today’s anti-elite populism, only from a different perspective. From interviews with jurors it’s clear that sides were taken early on, and that no amount of evidence was going to change anyone’s mind. African-Americans in Los Angelese saw themselves, with justification, as a group oppressed by the system, leading to feelings of cynicism and even nihilism. The game was totally rigged and no facts presented by the Man, no matter how clearly demonstrated, could be believed. Acquitting O.J. would even be “payback” for a history of racist law enforcement.

Today we usually associate this kind of attitude with Trump voters, so it’s instructive to see how it has played out in other contexts. Either way, people were voting angry. The results speak for themselves.

Highs and lows

Every year I go to the annual Friends of the Guelph Public Library Giant Used Book Sale. Three years ago I posted some thoughts on the experience where I referred to the sale as “both fun and a bit depressing.” That was my feeling again this year.

The fun part was the same. It really is heartening to see so many people, especially so many young people, lining up to buy books. I know that in the grand scheme of things these crowds don’t add up to much, but they still give one hope.

The depressing bit was something new. For a while now I’d been hearing of cellphone apps that allow you to scan the bar code on a book and pull up prices, either from some online bookseller or price aggregator. This year’s book sale, however, was the first time I’d seen these in action. At the table where I was spending most of my time there were three individuals simply going through everything: pulling a book out, scanning the bar code with their phones, looking quickly at the screen, and then either putting the book in one of their boxes or tossing it back on the table. They worked very quickly, able to do all the scanning and scrolling functions on their phones with one hand while pulling the books with the other.

I get that the used book trade is a business and that this is what apps are for: making things quicker and more convenient. Still, the way these guys worked a table, like the filleters working on the line at a fish processing plant, was depressing. Here was the digital economy moving in, jackal-like, to further cannibalize the remains of our culture. Its foot soldiers were robotic. Quite obviously they didn’t have any interest in the books they were methodically scanning. I’m not sure they could have told you what section of the sale they were working at the time. They were just doing data entry.

But while whatever program they were using to get a quick price check might serve as a rough guide, the fact that they didn’t really know the merchandise meant they were probably missing out on a lot. A couple of years ago I found a book at this same sale that I picked up for a dollar. I later saw it advertised online for over $800. And it wasn’t a copy in as good shape as the one I got! (By the way, it really was just curiosity that led me to check out what it was going for online. I didn’t resell it. I still have it sitting in my “to-read” pile.) The thing is, I found that book on the third day of the sale, after the book scouts and used-book buyers had already been through.

The same thing was happening this year. I thoght the book scanners were missing a lot, whatever their app might have been telling them. This made me think of something David Mason, a veteran used-book seller, had to say in the most recent issue of Canadian Notes & Queries:

Supposedly the great equalizer, the internet is in fact the worst offender against informed judgment . . . An experienced dealer looking at internet entries nowadays often finds five to ten copies of a book offered by dealers they’ve never heard of before they see names they know and credible prices. It takes just one ignorant fool putting a ludicrous price on a book to give other ignorant fools something to copy. They usually price their own copy ten percent or so less, assuming they’re being clever, when what they’re really doing is adding to the general ignorance. The blind lead the blind into the bog of imbecility, all of which makes the internet a dangerous cesspool.

Sadly, I don’t think anyone cares about the internet being a cesspool as long as it’s a profitable cesspool. The question is how well, in a business like this, such an approach really works.

Like hell

France, 1916.

One of the most common comparisons you’ll hear made by reporters and commentators on news programs is that some natural or human disaster is “like something out of Dante’s Inferno.” I don’t think the people invoking Dante like this have actually read the Inferno, or are familiar with the illustrations by Gustave Doré that have done so much to shape the way we visualize the poem. Instead, what is usually meant is something hellish. Meaning lots of flame, and possibly dead bodies. This despite the fact that the lowest levels of hell in Dante are actually frozen over.

It was not always thus. In World War One, during the battle of Verdun, an American aviator could be more precise:

During heavy bombardments and attacks I have seen shells falling like rain. Countless towers of smoke remind one of Gustave Doré’s picture of the fiery tombs of the arch-heretics in Dante’s “Hell.”

Now this is the way a classical analogy is supposed to work. Dante’s Inferno actually varies quite a bit between its different levels, in terms of the landscape and the punishments meted out. Here, however, the comparison being made is exact: to the sixth circle and the flaming tombs of the heretics. If one knows Doré’s illustrations one can understand, can see, what the airman is talking about.

Today hell is just hell, whether Dante’s or Doré’s or whoever’s. It’s become more generic. This is both a cultural leveling and a leveling of the imagination. We’re poorer for it.

What is womanhood?

As this year’s federal election draws nearer I’ve been receiving campaign literature in the mail. This week I got something from the Christian Heritage Party candidate that was all about protecting women from various forms of “insidious abuse.” It includes an essay written by the candidate himself where I found this: “I will work to strengthen the dignity of females of all ages and womanhood through offering courses to empower women.” I have to say I pulled a total blank on what he means by womanhood here. It’s hard not to think he has something specific in mind, but what? What are the degrees of womanhood?

Don’t know much geography

Whose flag?

It was an oft-repeated criticism of American involvement in Vietnam that the U.S. was waging a war in a country that few of its citizens would be able to find on a map. That was a zinger, then and now, though, in the American public’s defence, at the time Vietnam was only twenty years old (it had most recently been French Indochina).

I was thinking of this recently when preparing my notes on the movie They’re Watching, which was set in Moldova. This threw me. Before finding out this little tidbit of information, if you’d asked me if there was a country of Moldova I would have said there wasn’t. I associated the name with a province in the former Austro-Hungarian Empire and thought that the filmmakers were invoking it as an imaginary place like Ruritania or the Duchy of Grand Fenwick. But actually Moldova is a sovereign state, having been one of the Soviet Socialist Republics and gaining independence when the Soviet Union collapsed.

This was humbling. I thought I knew enough of the basics of world geography that the existence of a European country I didn’t know of came as quite a surprise. But as I went flipping through a pocket atlas recently I found other examples of my ignorance of how the world is divided up. Just as surprising to me as the existence of Moldova was the discovery that there’s a part of Russia that isn’t connected to any other part of Russia (what’s called an exclave). This is the Kaliningrad Oblast, the old Prussian Königsberg. Who knew? Well, probably a lot of people. But I didn’t.

Political boundaries are often in flux, which justifies the printing of new atlases. I found several such boundary issues in my browsing. Suriname, for example, claims big chunks of both Guyana and French Guiana (the countries to its west and east respectively). I have no idea how valid these claims are, but on a map they look significant. Meanwhile, Western Sahara has been administered since 1979 by Morocco, but is still considered a (huge) disputed territory. I knew nothing of this.

The upshot is that I don’t have the right to make fun of anyone else’s ignorance of geography. There are plenty of places I not only couldn’t find on a map but that I’ve never even heard of. I guess I’m not a man of the world.