Anti-maskers vs. double-maskers

There are few groups that have been as widely mocked and vilified in the media during this COVID-19 pandemic as anti-maskers: angry gangs of ignorant yahoos and assorted scofflaws who decry the pandemic as a Chinese hoax and who just want to party or go to church without Big Brother telling them to wear a “face diaper” or in any way limit their freedoms of speech and association.

Much of this sneering contempt for the unmasked is well deserved, though I have some sympathy for those among them whose lives have been more than just disrupted by the impact of serial lockdowns. I find much less has been said, however, about a group I think of as the double-maskers: the officious and righteous who use the cover of fear as an excuse to act like idiots and jerks.

A lot of blame has to be laid on the media, which gets the currency of attention by beating the drum of fear. Every day begins with  reports of new risks we can’t afford to ignore and new precautions we need to take. The latest of these has been the call to double mask. This struck me as overkill, a feeling I had no reason to change after hearing Dr. Fauci on the subject: “if you use common sense and say, until we get the data, if a physical barrier with one mask works, it makes common sense that two layers or three layers — and you should have a double layer mask in one mask anyway — but if you want to put an extra mask on, there’s nothing wrong with that. . . . We can’t formally recommend it because we don’t have the science behind it. But I would not hesitate to tell someone if they want to wear two masks.” Hm. So no science, but it can’t hurt. Fauci himself wears two masks, but only because he likes the way they fit.

Another example of overkill are the social distance police in grocery stores. If everyone is wearing masks already and there is no physical contact, what are the chances of your getting infected by just walking past someone? And yet I’ve seen people yelling at other people to “stand back six feet!” Or getting angry because you walk down an aisle the wrong way. Most grocery stores now have aisles for which directions are indicated and I’ve never understood what the purpose of them is. I mean, in the first place there’s usually only two or three people in an aisle anyway, most often stopped and turned toward one or the other side. Second: what difference does it make if someone passes you in the aisle from behind as opposed to passing you going in the opposite direction? Why do people get exercised over this?

I’m sure there’s a common-sense middle ground. Every day I walk through a park where a group of people meet so that their dogs can run and play together. There’s usually anywhere from 5 to 10 people, including a couple of small children. People stand a little bit apart. Maybe six feet. Nobody wears a mask, though I’m sure they all do whenever or wherever one is required (as do I). And everyone is friendly and sociable. I know most of them and have never heard of any of them getting sick. Meanwhile, the people who (literally!) run away from you on the street, or who go into fits in the grocery store just strike me as so many bitter and anti-social assholes. A month or so ago I was walking toward one woman on a sidewalk and she scrambled in a panic through a snowbank to get away, tripping and sprawling awkwardly into the street. I was amazed and disturbed at the performance. People like this are deeply disturbed. I also suspect most of them are total hypocrites and don’t follow “the rules!” nearly as strictly as they expect other people to. Then again, a contractor I know told me that at one house he’d been hired to finish a basement in the owner had refused to allow his assistant to enter, which resulted in a doubling of the quoted price for the work to be done. Why? Both workers would have been wearing masks and gloves when in the house, and the contractor and his assistant shared a “bubble” so allowing the one in the house but not the other made no sense. But like the woman falling into the street, panic and anger had taken over.

The depressing conclusion I’ve come to is that between the anti-maskers and the double-maskers, and I know people in both camps, I actually like the anti-maskers a little better. They’re crazy (one of them I’m friends with honestly believes COVID-19 was developed by Bill Gates as a method of population control), but you can at least talk to them about other things and they seem, on balance, to be a lot less angry than the people who are going into hyperanxious, paranoid meltdowns and looking to phone the police every time they look out the window. The anti-maskers may be a bigger health threat, hating government and the medical establishment, but the double-maskers strike me as hating their neighbours, which I think is worse. Put another way: anti-maskers are nuts, double-maskers are nasty.

The other depressing thought I have has to do with the oft-asked question of what things will be like when people start getting vaccinated. How will these double-maskers ever get back to “normal”? Their special reality now seems rooted so deep in anger and fear I don’t think they’ll ever be able to pull back out. They’re mean and sad, and there’s no vaccine for that.

What happened to Amazon?

I used to buy quite a bit of stuff, mostly books, on Amazon. Mainly for the convenience, but also because they had the cheapest prices and free shipping. In the past year, however, as their stock price has gone through the roof and they’ve solidified their position as king of online retailers during the pandemic shutdown, I think I’ve only ordered a couple of things. And at this point I can’t see myself ever shopping there again.

Two reasons for this stand out. In the first place, their prices for almost everything have gone up, to the point where they are no longer even close to the best deal available. I’ve had conversations with friends who shop in other departments that back this up. They have similar complaints about how there are “no longer any deals on Amazon.”

I don’t know if this is because the pandemic has placed their operations under extra strain or if they are only using that as an excuse. Or perhaps it’s just the natural next step in their dominance of the marketplace. Since they really aren’t in competition with anyone, why not jack prices up? Even this year’s Boxing Day sale prices were double, or in some cases triple, what they were for the same product just five years ago.

The second big thing I’ve noticed is the huge number of sponsored products, or ads, that come back with every search. There are now as many of these as there are regular search results, and none of them have any bearing on what I’m looking for. Shopping on Amazon has become like searching for something on Google: not just a crapshoot, but a very unpleasant experience.

I doubt this matters much to Amazon. Nor am I sure if it even has any bearing on their game plan is now, their next step on the way to establishing a global media and retail monopoly. But they’ve lost me as a customer. Not for any political reasons (of which there are a few that are serious) but because they suck. There are better places to shop.

Super keto fail

As you know, I’ll watch or read anything that has to do with zombies, so I’ve been working through The Walking Dead at a very sedate pace for several years now. I’m still only up to the fifth season. Among the many things that get me about the show (I’ve mentioned another already) is the way that nobody seems to be losing any weight. Given the survivors’ diet and lifestyle it seems like they all should be emaciated by now. But they’re all carrying a few extra pounds. Even the hefty Tyreese hasn’t slimmed down a bit.

I guess it would be impossible to expect an entire cast to get extra-skinny and keep the weight off during the course of a multi-year project like a cable series, but it’s another one of those things (like the ability of all the survivors to kill every walker with effortless head shots every time, like the most expert marksmen) that makes the zombie apocalypse seem like not such a bad thing. Nobody ever gets cold and there’s lots of snack food lying around.

Buzzwords

I find it interesting when certain words and concepts get picked up by the media, who then ride them to the point where they become ubiquitous, sometimes with their original meaning greatly expanded or radically transformed. Why does this happen? Where does it start?

One example that became very popular during the Trump presidency was “empathy.” It got a lot of play because Donald Trump was seen (I think correctly) as someone lacking in it. But I suspect its mainstream adoption goes back to George Lakoff’s 2008 book The Political Mind, which popularized the idea that there are progressive and conservative modes of thought, with the latter characterized by authority and the former by empathy. At least the timing seems right.

The other big example, and one that I find a bit grating, is “existential.” Let’s face it, until recently the only time you would have heard this word being used would be in a discussion of developments in nineteenth- and twentieth-century philosophy and literature. Today, however, it is used all the time by people who may have never heard of Kierkegaard or Dostoyevsky, Sartre or Camus. What it means now is, simply, “a matter of life and death.” That is, any situation where one’s existence seems at stake. I’m not sure where or when this took off, but it has the feel of a fad that’s likely to burn out pretty soon. It just seems stupid to talk about a business having to make an existential decision, or if dining out at a restaurant during a pandemic might involve such a choice.

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.