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Notes on the plague year

Sun 7 Mar 2021 by mskala Tags used: , ,

I don't remember exactly when I made a specific decision to start serious anti-COVID precautions, but it was very close to one year ago today. I work from home and I don't take all that many trips elsewhere anyway, so it's hard to say that a given day is exactly when I started "staying home" if I normally wouldn't have gone out the day before or after it anyway. I started keeping a near-daily journal on March 10. Here are some notes, going month by month.

March 2020: This was when most people around me started to take things seriously, though it still took a while before any kind of necessity for personal action really sank in. The stock market crash was basically March 9. I owned some stocks that took a beating, but I was sure they would (and they did) eventually recover; I felt a bit bad for others who had lost money in ways that hurt them more seriously, and to be honest, I also regretted not being able to take much advantage of the buying opportunity that the crash created.

March 13 was the day it seemed like all the businesses were sending email saying that they were doing things. I think nobody wanted to be the first or the last to email their customers, so there was strong incentive to all do it at once. But exactly what they were doing varied a lot - from full shutdown (though at this point that was uncommon) down to "we're sanitizing surfaces and otherwise carrying on as usual."

I cut my external exposure to basically nothing but a weekly grocery trip starting in early March, but I didn't start wearing a mask on those trips until near the end of the month, and for the first couple I was using a bandana or an improvised paper-towel mask. Soon after that point I would get some proper sewn cloth masks. It wasn't until near the end of the month that I saw any significant number of other people using masks.

A lot of my own focus, in March 2020 and ever since, has been on what I can do for others. I have lived very much on the margins of society for most of my life and this is a rare situation where doing what I'm good at - staying home and not interacting with people - is actually a thing I can do to make a positive contribution. Although I personally am not really in any of the high-risk groups, there are many people I care about who are, and other people don't necessarily have the same discipline and tools to cope with isolation that I have. I took it as my commitment to do more than necessary both to set an example encouraging others, and to simply help with directly reducing the number of transmission opportunities.

There's an image that occasionally makes the rounds of an isolated cabin in the woods with a caption saying, would you be willing to live here for a year and have no contact with the outside world for $50,000? My joke response is that I can't afford to pay $50,000 for that but I might be able to go as high as $20,000. And there's a lot of truth to that: because of the life I have had, not all of which has been pleasant but it has brought me to where I am today, it is now the case that I'm really good at handling isolation. I know I can survive alone for as long as it takes. Not everybody can; and I should be doing the things someone must do, I can, and others can't.

I posted an item on Facebook in early March describing where I stood. I also made the offer that people could phone me for emotional support (and included my number in the friends-only posting). I think the posting made an impression on a lot of people, although the only people who did phone me presented themselves as worried about my own stability more than their own. And I don't think many, if any, readers made a commitment to take things as seriously as I was doing - as shown by later behaviour. At this point I thought, and most people seemed to think, that the disruption of our daily lives would last a few months. My expectation was that enough people would stay home - either voluntarily or through being forced - that we could get the reproduction rate Rt enough below 1.0, and keep it there long enough, to get the number of new infections small enough they could all be traced and the numbers would go to zero.

Also in March, I posted my novel Shining Path for free public access. This was a project I've poured a lot of effort into - including taking about half a year off from other career plans to work on the novel full-time - back around 2009. I wasn't able to sell it, it became clear that even if I could sell it, it wouldn't be worth further sacrifices needed to do so, and so I set it aside. But now it seemed like I could further contribute to helping people stay home by giving them something to read, and it also might be my best remaining chance to have a lot of people read the book - which was always the biggest motivation for me to write it in the first place. I was really hoping it could go through some kind of "viral" propagation, in a time when there was a lot of viral propagation going on.

April 2020: Early April was when grocery shortages really hit in Toronto, and because of the safety measures stores were enforcing, there were also shortages of shopping time. My journal shows a bunch of instances where I went out hoping to buy food and then turned back when I saw there was a long slow-moving line-up of people outside the store waiting to get in, and other safety precautions not being followed. I shouldn't blame people too much for not wearing masks at this point because our officials were still lying to us, telling the public "masks don't work" in order to preserve supplies of masks for our betters. It's a lot to expect the average person to apply basic common sense, and to choose to do something uncomfortable and inconvenient for themselves, when authority figures are loudly telling them it's a bad idea. I was inclined to take this point in particular personally, though; maybe because I grew up in the 1980s and I have vivid images in my memory of grocery lines in the USSR. It really upset me to know I was now living in a place where lining up for toilet paper was actually a thing. And it also felt like even though I was doing my bit, and going beyond, I was being punished myself (not to mention many people dying) because others couldn't show the same discipline as me.

In April I did a fair bit of work on development of the Middle Path VCO, which at the time was my planned next product. My business was struggling, with low sales not really enough to stay in business if they didn't improve, and my savings available to use as "runway" gradually running out. I felt that if the Middle Path was not a fair bit more successful then my last couple of new products, I probably couldn't afford to launch any more new products and I'd have to look at closing up and finding a new career path. I was also facing a lot of pandemic-related business issues. My suppliers (a few of whom were in China, and many have upstream connections to China) were not able to fill my orders as fast as I'd normally expect, and I had quality and shipping problems. The April journal chronicles a lengthy dispute I had with a prototype manufacturer in Ohio who sent me a bad batch of circuit boards, and then I had to argue with them about getting a refund while at the same time trying to order replacements elsewhere, and a package got long-delayed in the mail, and so on. This put a big dent in my schedule for developing the Middle Path.

For various reasons I did not qualify for any of the government financial assistence programs that were being rolled out, but I picked up some remote consulting work during April that helped a lot with paying the bills, and once I was able to source all the parts, the Middle Path prototypes actually turned out to work really well, so that meant the month wasn't a total disaster. And at this point I was still hoping and expecting that we were only looking at a single wave of disease in Ontario; that transmission-limiting measures would stay in place until we had aggressive tracing and could realistically expect to drive the infection numbers to zero.

John Horton Conway died on April 11, of complications of COVID-19 at the age of 82. He was one of my heroes. Really, a lot of my own efforts on the academic career path in the past had at their root a desire to be like him, and my unwillingness to give up on that until it was obvious I could never do it, was a big part of why it took me so long to decide to leave academia.

May 2020: Case numbers in Ontario were steadily declining through the month and I still thought we could have an end to the epidemic in Summer. I got some wholesale orders for my synthesizer products, which helped on the money side, and I basically finished the Middle Path development and produced the first batch of them, aiming for a launch in June.

By May it was clear that I couldn't call the release of Shining Path a success. There was an initial burst of interest when I first posted it, and there were a couple of small bursts subsequently associated with people on Tumblr reading it and posting comments there, but the big thing I'd hoped for, that people who read it would find it interesting enough to share, just didn't happen enough for sustained readership.

June 2020: I launched the Middle Path VCO and it was quite successful! Enough of them sold, quickly upon launch, to give me some confidence that I wouldn't need to shut down my business soon. Case numbers continued to decline, and I thought the end was in sight; but it's clear that others, both at the institutional and personal level, thought the end was here already, and acted accordingly. My view was that I'd consider the epidemic in Ontario over when we were at consistently less than 100 cases per day with a credible expectation that the number would continue decreasing all the way to zero. We almost reached the 100-a-day number in June, and we would in July, but low numbers meant relaxation of countermeasures (both at the institutional and personal levels) and destroyed any possibility of expecting continued improvement.

June was when I repeatedly started finding myself in the position of having to say "no" to people. No, I won't attend your event because I'm committed to help bring this all to an end and we are not there yet. It's really hard to do that especially when the person I'm saying it to is someone I'm close to and care about. I can't preach at people what they should do, beyond setting an example. I can try to help create resources to make it easy for people to do what I think they should. But (and this is something that has dogged me all my life, on various other issues) my setting an example and trying to help, seldom has much effect on anyone else's real behaviour. Even those who admire my taking a stand don't actually do it themselves; at worst they purport to emulate me but make exceptions that defeat the purpose. And I feel it keenly with the COVID-19 epidemic in particular because it's so easy for a few people to break a few little rules, create a superspreader event, and set us all back a whole lot, erasing the benefits of months' worth of my own sacrifices. Why do I even bother?

July 2020: Sales at North Coast Synthesis continued pretty well, and infection rates in Ontario continued to decrease, to the point that by the end of the month I was starting to think we were very close to reaching my criterion for saying the epidemic in Ontario was over. Remember, I said case numbers under 100 per day and a credible expectation of continuing to decrease all the way to zero. One of my big spare-time projects in this month was to get a Kryoflux device (basically a forensic floppy-disk controller with a USB interface on it) and scan and recover my old floppy disks from years ago. I wasn't able to find a few that I remembered and had wanted to extract the data from (old Mac disks containing Hypercard stacks, in particular), but I had pretty good success with the disks I was able to find. I'm not sure there's any really important data there, but at least I now do have it on more recent and secure media, so there probably won't be any further loss.

A good friend of mine had a fairly serious mental health crisis during this month; I don't know if it was related to the pandemic but at the same time it seems hard to believe that wasn't a factor. And even though I was a long way away from him geographically, it came to pass that I ended up becoming involved in it. Other friends didn't experience anything quite as spectacular but were clearly experiencing ill effects from the long isolation. As I knew from the outset would be the case, I was still holding up pretty well myself.

August 2020: In August I started to feel some ill effects from lack of exercise, and I changed my routine to include going out for a walk in High Park every day. Enough of my fellow Ontarians were also changing their behaviour that the case numbers turned around and after a few days under 100 at the start of the month, by the end we were back in the range of about 300. I really felt betrayed. After all this, now we'd be looking at probably another half-year and thousands more deaths, at least, just because people couldn't hold on a few more weeks and institutions couldn't implement the complete contact tracing, travel restrictions, and so on that we always knew would be needed in order to prevent a resurgence that quite possibly would be (in hindsight now: was) even worse than the first round.

Around this time there were issues that had to be dealt with in my apartment involving the air conditioning (for the whole building), the outside lamp, the clothes-washer, and so on. Some of these I managed to resolve for myself, some required the involvement of the landlord, and a couple just seemed to fix themselves after a while. But it was a reminder that although this built world we live in can go without maintenance for a while when necessary, it can't do it forever and things catch up to us.

I started development on my next product, planned to be my first digital product. This raised some issues with the development tools and I soon found myself pretty much setting it aside to do other work-related stuff.

September 2020: The second wave of COVID-19 in Ontario took off again and the idiots in power insisted that keeping the schools closed was out of the question, with predictable results, even as they reluctantly implemented much more onerous and less effective measures - also too late and only as they were absolutely forced to do those things. THIS ORDEAL COULD HAVE ENDED IN SEPTEMBER AND WE CHOSE TO THROW THAT POSSIBILITY AWAY.

I continued development on the digital module, and continued filling orders on North Coast Synthesis. General sales seemed to be up, but heavily skewed to DIY kits. I had the impression that people around the world were having a lot of time at home for hobby projects like building synthesizer kits; and I was grateful for the business.

Back in July I had gotten a call from the dentist saying I was due for my next check-up and I told them I was avoiding external trips and would like to wait a month. At that time it had seemed a reasonable plan - no immediate necessity to go in and reasonable to expect things to be almost over in August. Well, it was two months (thus, September) before they called me back again, and by that point the situation was a fair bit worse than it would've been in July, and clearly going to become much worse yet soon, so I went ahead and did the appointment, and a couple of follow-ups that resulted.

October 2020: Things went pretty smoothly this month for me personally, as the epidemic situation got worse and worse around me. I had a lot of orders to fill and kept busy filling them; this took time away from my product development work.

It became clear to me during October that my days of using Facebook would be numbered. At that time Facebook was trying harder and harder to force me to use "the new interface," which just doesn't work for me, and although by means of browser extensions and other things I was at this point still able to access the system in a way that did work, the writing was on the wall. I'd also been finding more and more instances of interactions on Facebook that I wish I didn't have to have - former friends I was discovering I could no longer think of as friends, and that kind of thing. No doubt the stress people were experiencing as a result of the ongoing pandemic, didn't help. Looking back at the original things I'd hoped to accomplish by joining Faceook, and how many of those things Facebook had actually helped with, there was a striking gap and little hope of it getting better.

Really, I had been aware for years that I would eventually leave Facebook. I almost did leave in late 2015, but that was near the end of the life of my friend Axel, who in his last days was only able to communicate at all through Facebook. At that time I committed to stay on Facebook as long as he did. But that was long past in October 2020, when I made a posting letting my friends know that they couldn't expect me to stick around forever and telling them how to find me in other places. I really hoped I'd be able to keep my social connections alive in other places.

Facebook's unfortunate political turn was not actually obvious yet in October and wasn't a big part of my decision to recognize that I would soon be leaving.

November 2020: During this month the weather got bad enough that I basically phased out my daily walks in the park. Sales continued pretty strong and work went reasonably well.

There was a strange episode in November where someone took a bag of non-recyclable garbage that I'd put in the appropriate bin, opened it, and dumped the contents loosely into the recycling bin - removing actual recyclables to make room and dumping those on the ground nearby! I really don't know why anyone would do that; best guess was to make room in the (small, often overfilled) non-recyclables bin for a bag of their own. I left a note for my neighbours saying, hey, please don't do that, and maybe we need a bigger non-recyclables bin for this house (which would cost money, but not really very much); phone me if you want to talk about cooperating to get that. There was never any response, and the incident hasn't been repeated. I don't even know that it was one of my neighbours in this house who did it. It could easily have been one of the people who come by to go through the recycling looking for deposit-refundable bottles, though that still doesn't explain what their motivation could have been.

Mid-November I deleted my Facebook account. That means there are a number of people I'd really like to stay in contact with, whom I no longer can through the means I'd been using. For years I have begged my friends to use email as the preferred means to contact me, and I issued a specific warning in October of my likely imminent departure from Facebook, mentioning not only email but also Twitter and the federated network as places to stay in touch with me. But almost nobody has moved to make contact with me off of Facebook. People in one of my pagan circles, when I did connect with them in a Zoom meeting months later, seemed baffled that "we haven't seen much of you lately" when it was no secret what had happened to me. It sure looks like there are a lot of relationships that will just be lost because of this.

Toward the end of the month I started weekly live video streams through Twitch. Live video streaming is something I've wanted to do for a while, and in a perfect world I would be using systems of my own instead of a commercial service. However, audience discovery is really important. It's worth doing if and only if people watch it. And being on Twitch helps with that; it was always a problem, and would continue to be, getting people to really watch the streams if I used homegrown technical resources.

December 2020: December ran a little slower, but still pretty well for me personally, as the epidemic in Ontario continued to get much worse and everybody insisted that the schools had to remain open at all costs, even the cost of hundreds of deaths. The live streaming was moderately successful, but viewership reached a sort of plateau and didn't increase. Christmas shopping and online "visits" with my family and a couple of friends (my initiative, still nobody reaching outside the Facebook walled garden without prompting from me) went pretty well.

The idiots in power announced the highest level of anti-infection measures for Ontario ever... to take effect starting December 26! It was entirely predictable the effect of doing that. It was taken as a "wink-wink nudge-nudge" message to the population that Christmas wouldn't be ruined, we could have social gatherings on December 25 before the new restrictions took effect, even though all social gatherings were already forbidden under the previous level of restrictions anyway. It's been a common pattern, especially during the second wave, that the general population will start finally really doing the things they were told to do at one level of alert, when an alert two or three levels beyond that is announced - like following the "bubble" advice from when the case numbers were like 100, when the case numbers are in the multiple thousands and the official advice has become "no contact at all"; and then they'll make exceptions that destroy its effectiveness anyway. And the results were entirely predictable. I'd written before this that the virus, not being human, would make no exceptions for special or sacred occasions - the virus wouldn't respect a Christmas Truce - and, sure enough, it didn't.

January 2021: January 4, ten days after December 25, was the day of the highest single-day case count in Ontario ever. No big mystery why. Fortunately, the numbers did get a lot better over the course of January. I think the (grudging, absolutely last-resort) closure of the schools helped a lot.

Sales at North Coast Synthesis declined a little in January but were still high enough I didn't feel worried about my own future the way I had in early 2020. I spent some money on computer upgrading and R&D for future projects - both money I'd received at Christmas, and some of the profits from the few recent months of good sales in the business. I noticed some of the same supply-chain issues that came up in the first wave: suppliers unable to meet the schedules they had in the past, and in one case, an item where my usual suppliers were all unexpectedly out of stock and the backup I went to ended up shipping me counterfeit parts. I haven't had that happen before.

February 2021: The restrictions remained in force, at least in the hardest-hit areas (including Toronto, where I am), and they seemed to continue to work. It seemed reasonable that this could be over within a couple more months, even with the hiccups in the vaccination program that by this time had started. But we've heard that story before, and by the end of the month there were enough restrictions being removed - and efforts to reopen the damn schools, in particular - that it seemed the pace of improvement would slow and maybe we'd even be in for a third wave. Just like in mid-Summer we face a choice: we could finish the job, or we could throw it all away and have to start over just as it looked like we were getting close. And it seemed clear which choice we were going to make.

I continued running my business, with sales lower than in late 2020 but still decent; and running my weekly live streams, with viewership again decent but not growing as I'd hoped. There were some more maintenance issues in the apartment, having to do with plumbing issues in other units that required work to be done in the mechanical room attached to mine.

A lot of chickens came home to roost with respect to politicization of media in February. I don't know if it connects with changes in the political administration of the USA; I actually think it probably is more to do with the general time in history and the dominance of the Democratic Party is more an effect than a cause. (As I wrote years ago, I also think Donald Trump was more an effect than a cause of the unfortunate trends people associated with him.) Anyway, the political control, algorithmic interference, shadowbans, and so forth on Twitter have become much more evident than ever before. I'm hearing of much the same thing happening on Facebook and I'm glad to have the opportunity to miss out on that because I departed from there in November. The New York Times sacrificed its remaining credibility in a couple of spectacular incidents in February. Post-February, but now in the first few days of March we have this ridiculous Dr. Seuss business. The incidents are ramping up as fast as if they were an uncontrolled virus themselves.

It is on my to-do list to put together a list-of-links article here, on political invasion of formerly neutral spaces. I don't know how long it will take me to really do that; it is somewhat hard to stay motivated on it knowing how it is certain to be ignored wherever it's not attacked. But in the mean time you might like to re-read my piece on bringing in the idols, which seemed especially relevant in February.

It seems interesting to me that when I did a Google search to find that article just now, I could find other things on my site that mention it, but no hit for the article itself. Google's "search console" says it is eligible for indexing, and not indexed. This entire Web site seems to be much harder to find now than it used to be; no hits for my name point to ansuz.sooke.bc.ca on the first page of results, when this site used to be right at the top, and the top hit is now to my LinkedIn profile, of all things. Of course there is no way of knowing why, because The Algorithm is secret, but I have my suspicions.

March 2021: Here we are in early March. I'm watching the infection numbers for Ontario turn toward increase again, heading for a third wave as, again, we stop doing what we have found to work before it has finished working. There is some hope in the vaccination program as it steadily ramps up, but it will still be several more months before that covers enough people to really make other measures unnecessary. What comes next remains to be seen. I am still sure that I can survive this as long as it takes, but there are enough cracks around the edges in society that I really don't want to watch what will happen if we go through a third wave. And I don't want to still be writing this kind of update in March 2022.


Thanks for posting this. I haven’t read your novel but I haven’t read any fiction in a year or more; I’m not sure why.
Mark. Gooley - 2021-03-07 15:39
On the topic of quitting facebook, I'd be willing to bet good money that the reason no one really responded to your post by reaching out to maintain contact, is simply that the feed algorithm hardly showed it to anyone. I'd be willing to give decent odds (outside of the difficulties in adjudicating the outcome of the bet) that at some point someone inside facebook wanted to use the feed algorithm to limit the visibility of posts that might lead to abductions, harassment, or other creepy/awful outcomes, and decided that if a post contained, or got a lot of replies containing non-fb contact information, the there was too high a chance of a liability event to show it to many people at all -- and that if anyone ever raised the possibility that such an exchange was far likelier to be someone announcing that they were quitting facebook than it was to be a kidnapper, the response was roughly "well we don't want to promote that either, do we".

My own quit message a couple of years ago didn't get much of a reply, so I actually cut and pasted all the names in my flist to another file, and then sorted them out into people I knew I had other ways to stay in touch with, people I didn't particularly care whether I stayed in touch with, and people with whom I should make other arrangements to stay in touch. As I reached out to the people in the third category, a remarkably large number of them had never seen my quit message. (A remarkably large number also moved to other lists as I got exhausted by reaching out to people individually, and did things like deciding that having contact information for a mutual friend was good enough to move someone into the first group, and that maybe a bunch more people belonged in the second group after all).

Regardless, congrats on getting out of that particular attention-trap (even if I'm a bit late to offer them).
kiwano - 2021-03-07 17:47

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