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Plague diaries, Day 400

Saturday evening.

Another anniversary, eh? Honestly, the thing that impresses me the most, anniversary-wise, is that I’ve logged over 300 consecutive days on DuoLingo. My Spanish is still quite broken but it’s definitely better than it had been before the pandemic.

Another day of the forever quarantine: reading, waiting, hibernating. It’s been six days since my mini-war with Switch Health’s video chat system, and five days since a courier picked up my test kit. Their portal says tests get processed within 3-5 days… After spending 20 minutes in their online chatroom, a customer support representative agreed that this is, indeed, weird, and assigned a special priority to get my kit located and processed.

I spent a couple of years processing escalations from Amazon’s FBA sellers: all in all, I processed 25,000 of them. (Why yes, that was indeed hell.) I’m getting some serious déjà vu from this system: it sounds like their backlog is huge, and processing things in FIFO order still takes more time than their service-level agreement, which means waiting and escalating is the only way. Today is day 16 of my quarantine (day 15 if you exclude the travel day), and I’m pretty sure no one has ever reported an incubation period that long. At least the weather is grey and chilly and miserable, or I would’ve been even more tempted to just run outside and, I don’t know, speed-walk around the block like a Canadian outlaw? It’s literally in my dreams at this point.

No Man’s Sky still has some gameplay-breaking glitches, even after all these years, so I’m going to cheat on it with Dying Light, which has just finished downloading…

In covid news, Ontario’s government faced severe backlash from absolutely everyone after their new restrictions got announced. They’ve managed to unite absolutely everyone, which is sort of touching and beautiful in its own way. Business owners, cops, doctors, people who hate lockdowns, people who don’t hate lockdowns but like intelligent measures, etc… This front page from a local newspaper should give you some basic idea of just how upset people are. In the past 24 hours, a lot of local police departments tweeted that they will not stop random pedestrians and drivers to ask for their papers, followed by an official statement from the Ontario government backtracking that particular order.

In addition to that, a lot of parents got righteously pissed off that new restrictions shut down playgrounds without doing anything about factories or warehouses. (Latest research claims that most cases come from industrial workplaces.) Guess what? The playground ban got reversed too. If all these local back-and-forth events I describe are confusing to you, try and imagine what it’s like for 14.6 million people to live this way, day by day. The whole thing stinks of some random backroom compromises: it doesn’t look like any doctors or scientists had been consulted at all. It’s good and right that they’ve reversed the course on this, but in doing so, they made themselves look like even more of a joke.

While I was typing all of that up, I got a text from Switch Health – looks like they found my test kit after all. Not gonna lie, I was concerned that the results page would say the test was inconclusive, thus sentencing me to another week of house arrest, but nope – I’m free! Wooooo! I don’t know why the PDF was in French, but I’ll take it. It’s almost 9pm here, and dark, and chilly (49 degrees Fahrenheit) but I’m off on a celebratory walk around the city, if only to get some exercise after 16 days of doing absolutely nothing. Wooooo! Woooooo, I say!

Oh, and Alaska has become the first state to offer vaccines to tourists (starting June 1) after also being the first state in the union to offer them to any resident 16 or older. Vaccine distribution kiosks will be in airports, just outside the secure area. Way to go, Alaska!

Sorry, brand new zombie game – I’m off to stalk the dark and empty streets of Toronto for exercise and brain-oxygenating purposes.

Good night, y’all. Stay safe.

Plague diaries, Day 399

Friday night.

This ends in seven days. I finally made it through my last normal workweek and started my two-week vacation, and then… Wait until next Friday, drive to Ohio, get a test and my second shot, drive back. Send a two-week notice to my boss. Cash in the remaining personal time for the last week, then work (from home, as always) on the first week of May, while waiting two weeks for the second shot to fully settle. And then… Freedom. Early retirement, immunity, no more rat race, just pure exploration, and doing whatever the hell I want. (Within the latest public health guidelines, of course.) This is it, this is the final stage at last – at long, long last.

Exactly 168 hours from now, I’ll be back home, likely experiencing some side effects as the second shot of Pfizer does its job. So soon. So very soon…

As promised yesterday, I switched to a pizza-based diet. Heh. The delivery guy handed it to me from around the lobby door, with both of us masked. I’m pretty sure I didn’t jump on this strange novelty (my first pizza in at least three months) like a ravenous beast, but it probably wasn’t pretty. I feel the way a python likely feels after devouring a medium-sized mammal: at some point, I’ll have to throw something else in my piehole, but that point is very far away. (And there’s plenty left for tomorrow.)

Another sign that things are looking up: a girl I went out on two dates with, well before the pandemic, texted me out of the blue. We’re not relationship-compatible, but it’ll be great to start building a local friend circle again. In fact, that’ll probably be my biggest project this year. And meanwhile, as I spend all this time in lockdowns and quarantines, I might go ahead and install Dying Light – a zombie game that I somehow completely missed, even though it came out in 2015. How weird is that? Steam really ought to offer discounts to people living in covid disaster areas, but fiiiine, I’ll pay the full $60 CAD for the enhanced edition. It’ll pay for itself if it keeps me from going mad with this house arrest business.

In covid news… There is a lot of covid news. After rescheduling his press conference multiple times this afternoon (presumably to reach some consensus on new measures), Ford told us that Ontario will not get hit with a curfew, but we also won’t be getting paid sick days. Without them, the rest of this giant restriction list is really rather pointless. I simply don’t understand political conservatives who oppose paid sick days: yes, it costs them some money to institute that, but it costs even more money if a sick employee infects their colleagues and customers. I get that it’s a one-way door: once they offer it, it’ll hurt them a lot politically to take it away later on. But, you know, pandemic? People dying? Full ICUs?.. I guess that doesn’t phase them.

One of the weirder new restrictions is the travel ban. Unless you have a good reason to drive into Ontario from Quebec or Manitoba, you might get turn around at a checkpoint. More disturbingly, the police have been authorized to pull over any car or stop any pedestrian, ask for their ID, and write them a ticket if they’re not traveling for an essential purpose. (Groceries, pharmacy, medical, exercise, or work.) An awful lot of civil rights groups are mighty pissed off about this. I hope that the sheer laziness of Ontario’s cops will be our salvation. They do nothing about people who drive 30% over the speed limit (or 20% under, for that matter) on highways. They did nothing about the BBQAnon demonstrations in November. (No fines were issued to any of those morons, as far as I know.) They stood there and watched as international travelers walked away from airports and said they’d rather get a fine than quarantine in a hotel. It’s possible we’ll end up under a miniature dictatorship with cops gone wild, but I think it’s more likely that absolutely nothing will happen. We’ll see.

Perhaps the weirdest part of it all was Ford asking other provinces for help (500 nurses, 100 respiratory therapists, etc) while declining Justin Trudeau’s offer of sending Red Cross to Ontario to help us out. (That is literally what Red Cross is for.) Trudeau is Ford’s political opponent (or so Ford thinks), and this is yet another in the long series of remarkably counterproductive decisions that keep extending our pandemic here in Ontario. The one thing they couldn’t restrict was air travel: that belongs to the feds, not provinces. People online are already joking about Ontario ordering a shipment of surface-to-air missiles… Oh, and the state of emergency/stay-at-home thingy got extended by two weeks. Now it’ll last until May 20th. It’s so extremely strange (not for the first time, nor the last) to consider that I’ll be fully vaccinated and living in an empty, locked-down city: my post-pandemic life will overlap with a full-on emergency order for weeks. That’s gonna be so strange…

Meanwhile, elsewhere… Things are getting much worse in India. Yesterday, they had 217,000 new cases, more than anywhere else in the world. That’s less scary per capita, but those numbers are growing and getting worse. This article describes (and shows in its video) the horrific hospital situation in New Delhi, with two patients per bed, and with dead bodies being placed outside the ward before they’re taken to the mortuary. A coworker of mine casually mentioned today that he just lost two relatives in India. Small world… India is capable of great logistical feats, but it also has well over a billion people, and it might not be possible for them to keep following social distancing rules. I hope things get better there, but if they don’t… That will get ugly.

Good night, y’all.

Plague diaries, Day 398

Thursday night.

One thing I’ve definitely accomplished during this pandemic: I got several of my local coworkers to start saying “Happy Thor’s Day.” They might be doing that just to humour me, but I want to believe that this one-man meme will take off. Today, Ontario. Tomorrow, Canada. Next week, the world! mwahaha

(Why yes, I am indeed quite bored.)

In my virtual world, No Man’s Sky, I ended up adopting a brontosaurus-looking dinosaur, and now I have a giant pet merrily running around when I explore new worlds. (I know “brontosaurus” is not the preferred nomenclature but hey, I was grandfathered in, so I get to use it forever.) The imagery and the overall feel of those virtual worlds is downright amazing, even though I know it’s a lie. This is, at best, a shoddy substitute for real travel, for real discovery. I remember, back in August, when I returned from my giant roadtrip where I explored abandoned mines and collected lots of shiny minerals. After all that, the virtual world of Elder Scrolls Online seemed like a flat cardboard cutout, though it boasted some amazing graphics. This is a little bit like Matrix: can I truly enjoy the incredibly detailed and beautiful virtual worlds when I know that I’m literally unable to explore the real world?..

Online, the Vaccine Hunters group has expanded its arsenal: now there’s a twitter account that sends out notifications as soon as we learn about a pop-up clinic. Those started going up within the last two weeks: they’re not announced in advance, they target hot-zone neighbourhoods, and they just set up and give out several hundred doses to everyone who lines up. The twitter account spreads the message as soon as we learn where the new pop-up clinic is located that day. This is so cyberpunk… A ragtag group of cyber-volunteers using the worldwide web to send out immediate notifications to people’s handheld mini-computers, telling them the locations of pop-up clinics distributing the rare vaccine against a highly dangerous virus that’s killed three million people. And as in any decent cyberpunk novel, the government is utterly useless and held hostage by giant international corporations. Heh. What a world…

Due to work and the general lack of know-how, I don’t have the time or the ability to help locals find their vaccination appointment slots. That said, by now I’ve consulted quite a few Canadians (about 15-20) on the logistics of getting to the US to get vaccinated. It’s hard to believe that driving to another country is easier than finding a vaccine here, locally. I’m sure at least a couple of the people I talked to will heed my advice. If a person that helps smuggle people across the southern border is called a coyote, does that make me a moose? Gonna have to change my online nickname from Platypus Prime to Major Moose if this keeps up!

In more prosaic and down-to-earth news, I’m kinda running out of food. I’d planned to buy enough groceries to last me two weeks in quarantine: even with my bread going moldy and with the eggs getting frozen solid in this ridiculous tiny refrigerator, I still have some stuff left to munch on, but not a whole lot. Today’s lunch was a can of tuna, two apples, some muesli with honey, and a cup of green tea. I’ve still got a big box of cereal, an untapped jar of peanut butter, and a block of cheese, Last night, I devoured the last two cups of Ramen noodles and the last of the tortilla chips. (They make a fun, if sad, meal if you microwave them with some cheese on top. Sad but delicious.) Protein is gonna become an issue soon.

Today is my 14th day of quarantine, and you’d think I’m free to go. Unfortunately, the official rules state I must wait for the results of my 10th-day covid test. A couple of issues with that… The courier company they use doesn’t work weekends, so they picked up my sample on the 11th day instead. (And if your 10th day falls on a Friday – congrats, your quarantine is now three days longer just because of the pickup delay.) And given the utter chaos and all the bottleneck issues of their mandatory video chat on Sunday, I’m going to assume they’re quite overwhelmed and might have a backlog of tests to process… As always, I hope I’m wrong. I really, really want to go for a long walk outside: if all the streets are empty and I don’t pass any other people, then how am I a danger to everyone else? It’s been two weeks since my last human interaction, and I have no symptoms, so in a way, I might be the safest person in Ontario right now. I’m going to stay put for two more days (at least in part because the weather forecast is pretty bad) but if there’s still nothing by Saturday… I’m honestly not sure what I would do. On the one hand, I want to be a law-abiding Canadian. On the other hand, not all the laws are meant to be obeyed. If their lab is so overwhelmed that it’d take them, say, two weeks to process the results, are people really expected to spend 24 whole days indoors? (27 days if their test happened on Friday.)

If I do choose to be a blindly rule-following shut-in – well, that right there is a perfect opportunity to go full-on bachelor and live off pizza delivery. I do need my protein, and I just don’t trust the grocery delivery people to keep meat cold enough while they’re delivering it. That’d also make for a weird party story at some point in the future – how I was a patriotic Canadian by spending my staycation locked in a small studio, eating pizza, and playing video games – all for the sake of public health! If I do that, I’ll be living my teenage dream: for my 13-old self, that would’ve been a perfect lifestyle. How strange this life is…

In covid news, things are getting even worse here in Ontario. Ontario’s population is 14.6 million. The latest projections show that we’ll get 12,000-18,000 new cases per day by the end of May. The province’s 2,300 ICU beds could also become overwhelmed, with 1,600-1,800 of them going to covid patients. Every option is on the table right now: ugly options such as triage, as well as riot-inducing options such as mandatory curfew. (Quebec has had it since January, but when they tried to lower it to 8pm, people literally rioted.) I wonder if one of Ford’s many advisors will finally convince him to institute paid sick leave. He doesn’t seem like the kind of person to back down and admit he was wrong, and his stubbornness is making this pandemic even longer.

Meanwhile, there are some bad logistical delays. Moderna’s shipment of 1.2 million shots was expected to arrive next week. Instead, it’s delayed, and might not get here until the first week of May. With everyone and their dog being terrified of AstraZeneca (thanks, media) and refusing to take the AZ appointments, that leaves just Pfizer. With no domestic vaccine manufacture of its own, Canada depends on other companies and other countries for all of its supply, and this is just one of the possible scenarios that unfortunately materialized. (Other, worse scenarios include the EU banning all exports. That would be bad.) Because of the delay and the uncertainty, the entire country’s vaccination scheduled is up in the air. Some of the local clinics have already stopped offering new vaccination slots… So fragile, this vaccination timeline of ours. The big ambitious goal of giving each Canadian at least one shot by Canada Day (that’s July 1st for all you outsiders) might be in serious danger now. As always, once again, I really hope I’m wrong…

Stay safe, y’all. Enjoy some fresh groceries and lovely walks outside on my behalf, eh? I’ll just be here, munching on patriotic pizza and playing patriotic video games.

Plague diaries, Day 397

Wednesday evening.

A longer-than-usual workday filled with several big fires to put out, and edumacating my trainee (who would’ve been my boss if I weren’t quitting). That two-week vacation can’t come soon enough. Just two more workdays…

It’s been a while since I mentioned GameStop: its saga still continues, and it’s fascinating. After reaching $483 at one point in late January, it crashed all the way down to $38.50 by February 19th. Of course, it helped that Robinhood, a popular and accessible trading platform, disabled the “Buy” button, thus generating a sell-off… A lot of shady stuff happened, and the congressional hearing held weeks later didn’t clarify a whole lot. Here is where it gets interesting, though: after falling by more than 90% at bottoming out at $38.50, GameStop spiked up again, by 805%, all the way to $348.50 by March 12th. That’s a fine return in less than a month.

Since then, it’s been going down in price while holding on to some key resistance levels. Today, for example, it jumped by 18.1%, from $140.99 to $166.53. They’ve hired several experts from major tech companies, installed Steve Cohen (co-founder of Chewy and a fan of GameStop) as their chairman of the board, paid off their debts, and started the search for a new CEO. That alone is impressive, but the mighty suspicious selling pressure also hints at the fact that the major hedge funds that shorted GameStop twice before might be doing that again. I could be wrong, but it sure looks like there’s another short squeeze incoming (maybe they’ll learn their lesson then?..), and fairly soon. And yes, I have some of my own money riding on that. Heh. My prediction: at some point between today and New Year’s, it’ll reach $250 again, and might go even higher than that. That stock alone will be the bright memory of this pandemic era for millions of people…

In covid news, good news/bad news. Good news: the Vaccine Hunters group I’d joined earlier is growing at an impressive pace. Our Ontario Discord channel alone has grown from 43 people to 473, and it’ll keep on growing. The local media ran several news pieces and interviews with the group’s cofounders and leaders, which you can find here and here. I’m not nearly as proactive as some folks in the group, but I did help my landlords find out about their postal-code-based vaccinations (which may or may not materialize), and I’ve advised about 10 or so Canadians about the fine points of driving to the US to get your shot. I like to think I helped, eh.

In bad covid news, there’s yet another new variant of covid19 – this one was found in Tanzania, and was designated A.VOI.V2. It has more spike protein mutations than you’d expect, and while there’s no way to tell yet how that would manifest in the real world (more contagious, more deadly, etc), that’s still concerning. It’s so strange these days… There’s an overabundance of covid-related news. Some of it is likely just overhyped rhetoric from attention-starved media outlets. Some of it, though, appears insignificant at first and then goes on to become a major issue later on, as if the first appearance were just subtle foreshadowing. In the months to come, will the A.VOI.V2 variant end up conquering the world? Or will it fade away, leaving its trace only in a few news articles and in this blog entry? Only time will tell.

And almost forgot: there are 100 days left until the Tokyo Olympics, which has already been rescheduled once. The event is still on, but there are lots of hurdles. Less than 1% of Japan’s population have been vaccinated so far. Only 0.4% have received both doses. International fans won’t be able to attend the games in person. There will be, however, over 11,000 athletes from all over the world. Statistically speaking, it’s inevitable that at least one team from at least one country will come bearing covid. I suspect they’ll probably continue on with the Olympics, but it might be the strangest, emptiest Olympics the world has ever seen. We’ll find out in July, I suppose.

Good night, y’all. Stay safe.

Plague diaries, Day 396

Tuesday night.

That Old Man’s Sky game never ceases to surprise me. One random planet I just landed on is filled with dinosaurs. It’s also highly radioactive, so good luck to all the promo-mammals out there. You’re gonna need it, little dudes. Oh, and the overabundant flying killer robots aren’t helping either, but hey – it’s a planet full of dinosaurs, and that makes up for a lot of things. I’ve established my latest base (conservatively named “Dino World!!!”) out there, and just the sheer entertainment value will be enormous as I explore that new world.

That game came out five years ago, and it’s still amazing – at least to me. It would’ve been the height of science fiction just 20 years ago. And 15 more years from now… I can’t even imagine. We might not get holodecks, but what fascinating new directions will the video game industry take, I wonder? Haptic-feedback bodysuits, as featured in Ready Player One? More versatile and less bulky VR headsets? Something entirely different? Between advances in small drones, 3D printing, and gaming, we’ll probably get a lot of really cool stuff in the coming decades – assuming we don’t get more pandemics and get out of the semiconductor bottleneck. (Oh yeah – if you’re reading this in the future, the supply lines for high-tech components have pretty much collapsed.)

My impromptu (and entirely self-imposed) house arrest is made mildly more bearable by the crappy, chilly weather outside my window. The occasional person coughing their lungs out just underscores that the outside world isn’t really all that great right now. Still, I look forward to being able to go on a long walk, or partake in my usual Tim Hortons meal… It’s really minor, considering all the huge societal changes that have occurred during the pandemic, but wow, I’d never thought that fast food, of all things, would become the meal I’ll look forward to the most. After my second vaccine, and after yet another two-week house arrest/quarantine, and if they allow restaurants to reopen… I can’t wait to have the first proper meal in well over a year. I fetishize the sensation of holding a menu and contemplating the overabundance of choices that won’t come from my instapot. I salivate even now as I imagine the crunchy, juicy, texture-filed sensation of a cheeseburger…

This line of thought is not helping my house arrest blues.

In covid news, there’s an interesting interview with Dr Michael Warner, the head of critical care at a nearby Toronto hospital and a formidable social media presence. His stories are chilling… More importantly, he claims the ICU shortage is so severe that they had to clear out their pediatric department to make more space for sick adults. He claims the exponential growth is turning Toronto into the same nightmare as New York and Italy a year ago. When an expert of his caliber speaks, we should all listen. One of the factors he explicitly mentions is Doug Ford’s refusal to even consider paid sick days in Ontario – as if it were some political issue and not a vital necessity. Ford is a college dropout and an idiot, but other people aside from him, around him, ought to have realized how exponential growth works. There are more low-key headlines about Ontario potentially switching to triage when ICUs completely run out… It’s tempting to say that we should let mathematicians run things to prevent future nightmares like this one from happening ever again, but that’s not a perfect solution either. Robert McNamara was a great mathematician, for example, but he had zero understanding of psychology or politics, which is why he failed to win the Vietnam War despite clear numerical superiority. Will we as a society ever be able to find a good compromise between electing idiots and nerds?

In other news, the US is recommending a “pause” for the Johnson&Johnson vaccine. That follows six cases of blood clots in women, one of whom died. The CDC is investigating that, while the FDA is claiming the pause would probably last just a few days. More than 6.8 million doses of J&J have been administered in the States, which means the odds of blood clots are less than one in a million. Even so, when people realize that mRNA vaccines have no such associated risk (as far as I know, at least), they’ll likely rush toward them instead. Scientists can – and do – change their minds as they get more data, but average people are far less flexible. The media is having a field day with this… If you listen to their reporting, you might walk away thinking people are dying of blood clots left and right. This is a shiny new story for them, and they’re squeezing it for all it’s worth, all the while generating vaccine hesitancy and prolonging this pandemic as a byproduct. If they’d spent nearly as much energy and enthusiasm to describe how horrifying it must be to die of covid and never wake up after getting intubated… Well, we might have had far fewer cases, let’s put it that way.

…it’ll be so bizarre to be among the few fully vaccinated Ontarians if the local healthcare system gets overrun… Like a time traveler going back to some medieval plague outbreak. I really, really hope it doesn’t come to that.

Good night, y’all. Stay safe out there.

Plague diaries, Day 395

Monday night.

Just nine more workdays left until I’m fully out of the workforce: four more this week, then five more three weeks later, on my final week. Feels so strange… I’ve set it up so that my last week of work would also coincide with the end of my second and final quarantine. Strategy, eh. Keeping that in mind, even the routine humdrum of creating a lot of written bridges (think TPS reports from the Office Space) on Mondays didn’t phase me. At this point, it’s a collector’s edition sort of event: it’ll only happen one more time, and that’s it.

Aside from the occasional outbursts of rage at inefficient, impotent, and incompetent bureaucracy and its designated contractors, I can’t stop marveling at lucky I am, and how fortuitously all of this worked out. There are so many ways things could’ve gone wrong… I’m not going to be one of those white dudes who, in the face of all the evidence to the contrary, would say they achieved everything through their talent and hard work. Nah, luck was a major factor. I did many things right, but there are plenty of alternate universes where things played out rather poorly for me.

On a meta level, I find that my life got a lot calmer after I stopped visiting that politics blog I mentioned a few months ago. (Lawyers, Guns & Money.) At this point, I have no idea what’s happening with the US politics, and I love that. There’s some noise about yet another politician being caught in yet another sex scandal, but I have no idea about the specifics, I have no one in my life telling me about that, and I’m perfectly happy with that state of ignorance about the things I can’t change anyway.

…outside my window, someone is coughing their lungs out. I don’t think I’ll open it up for fresh air tonight. Microscopic odds, but why risk it?

In covid news, our Vaccine Hunters group is going. The Ontario chatroom on Discord has grown from 40-ish people to 100 to almost 200 as of today. (And that’s not counting the 10,000 Twitter followers.) Some of the stories people share, though… Some of the local clinics are empty, either because no one wants to sign up for the AstraZeneca vaccine, or because they made their criteria so narrow that most people can’t get in. Someone made an excellent analogy: this is just like the plane boarding process when they invite the platinum members to board, followed by gold, silver, ruby, kryptonite, etc. And then, when they finally announce it’s time for general boarding, everyone goes in all at once. Likewise here.

What’s worse is that there are lots of anecdotal accounts about people refusing to sign up for the AZ vaccine at all, even when that’s the only option available. It’s a fascinating paradox: vaccines are a scarce resource (at least here in Canada), yet the existence of choice between vaccines turns people into picky eaters, whereas the only logical reaction should be “OMG yes, yess, yassssss, give me, give me give me give me!” Some of my fellow vaccine hunters are claiming that some of their over-the-hill friends and relatives who refused the AZ vaccine are now in the hospital with covid… Many more are claiming are that after the initial refusal to sign up for an AZ slot, their loved ones haven’t been able to find any slots at all. Heh. So spoiled. So very, very spoiled. The other day, there was a local news story about a woman who actually burst into tears when she found out her vaccine appointment was for AZ, not Pfizer.

Also in Ontario; that big initiative to vaccinate everyone 18 and older in the postal codes with the most covid cases? Yeah, that was a lie. Doug Ford announced that on television with his health minister standing right behind him, but did not actually authorize the health ministry to do anything about that. Now there are thousands of people calling their local hospitals, demanding their vaccination slots, and (I imagine) very depressed hospital workers telling them for the thousandth time that no, there is in fact no way for them to get vaccinated. This is such a dumpster-fire. An absolutely, utterly self-inflicted wound.

It’s so strange to try and reconcile all the covid-related news coming from every direction: there are some amazing breakthroughs in technology and vaccination campaigns, all the while cases are rising all over the world. (And here in Canada as well.) For example, Canada has just performed its first double-lung transplant for a guy with covid. (Only 40 of those have been done for covid victims worldwide.) But at the same time, Japan is setting up 2-week quarantines for travelers from Spain, Finland, and specifically Ontario. (Not Canada, just Ontario. Ever feel like the universe is just picking on you? Heh.)

The head of China’s CDC has admitted that the efficacy of his country’s Sinovac vaccine is so low (perhaps as low as 50%) that they’re considering mixing vaccines to try and boost the odds. The fact that he actually went on record with that is remarkable. And Slovakia is claiming that the shipment of the Sputnik V vaccine from Russia is very different from the vaccine that got a glowing review in The Lancet two months ago. Russia is claiming that’s all fake news and demanding its vaccine shipment back. That’s the same country that submitted fake urine samples to try and hide the proof of doping among their top athletes… I’m biased here, I know, I admit it – but they’re really not going out of their way to help clarify things. Oh well.

Just 11 more days until my second drive to Ohio… Can’t wait.

Stay safe, y’all.

Plague diaries, Day 394

Sunday evening.

Well, that was interesting… As per Canada’s travel restrictions, travelers must take a covid test at home (using the kit they get at the border) on the 10th day of their two-week quarantine. (For some reason, they counted the border-crossing day as day one. That’s a bank error in my favour, even though I crossed the border around 7:30pm.)

I checked the instructions first thing this morning. They seemed easy enough: open the kit, get everything ready, don’t touch the specimen collection tube thingy, and log on the SwitchHealth site to have a nurse walk you through the process during a video chat. You’d think it’d be easy. You’d think wrong.

I went so far as to wash my hair, actually put on some clothes, and arranged my chair so it’d get the best lighting available in this single-light-bulb studio. And then… When I logged on at 10:20am, it said I was #1,456 in line. It also said “The nurse will be with you shortly.” Heh. It moved fast, but not fast enough: approximately 400 people per hour, so it would’ve taken over three hours to get to me. I set my phone down and did some light gaming on my PC, all the while making sure the phone didn’t fall asleep. About three hours later, I got to #360 in line, and then it just died. The error message said the connection timed out. Their site’s FAQ claimed that if there are connection issues, you can just refresh the page and get back to your spot in line. That claim was incorrect.

It was 1:45pm, and now I was #2,231 in line. It was moving faster – about 500-600 people per hour were getting either helped or disconnected. By 5pm, I was once again #360 (or thereabout), when it kicked me out again. When I refreshed, it said my new spot in line was approximately #1,400 or so. Their site said there was an option to do the testing over the phone if I had no computer or no Internet connection. (The fact that you needed Internet access to read that on their site was pretty ironic.) I then spent 45 minutes on hold without encountering a single human being. I did, however, get blasted with an annoyingly cheerful and loud little tune. Remember that Walking Dead episode where Darryl got tortured with the “Easy Street” song? It was a little bit like that.

Finally, after I posted an angry thread on Twitter, I got that company’s attention. After a lot of back and forth, they called my cellphone and walked me through the process: all voice, no video. That was a simple nasal swab test where you swab your nostrils, not the brain-poking test that people hate. I scheduled the courier pickup for tomorrow.

…I am not proud of my reaction, but there’s no point in lying on my own blog. I felt rage. Passionate, incandescent, I-want-to-destroy-something-beautiful rage. They had one job. They literally had one and only job: to help people with their take-home test kits. And yet they still managed to fuck it up. Every single step of the way was a failure: their process (with about 50-100 nurses, I think) didn’t scale, their site didn’t restore your place in line, their customer support lines weren’t staffed…

But that was a third-party company that somehow won the contract. (I hope it was through nepotism. If they are indeed the best tech/health company out there, we’re all in deep trouble.) The local health authority was supposed to send people to check up on me and make sure I was actually staying at home. Today is the 10th day, and all I got was three robo-calls that asked five incredibly simple yes/no questions. I could’ve answered them from anywhere. The threat of enforcement, of home visits, of everything else, was just so many empty words. The paperwork they gave me mentioned large fines, too, but if the way US tourists who strayed from the road to Alaska got treated last year is any indication, there’ll be no fines, either. (At no point during the pandemic did they actually enforce the rules or use the power the rules granted them.)

A couple of years ago, I used to co-manage a giant fee program that affected 200,000 people and had the annual revenue of several hundred million dollars. There were only two of us running it (with some colleagues who owned separate, adjacent pieces), and we had to make sure everything was flawless. All our customer support people were provided with the latest FAQs and manuals. The customer-facing pages on our site were modified, proof-read, made crystal-clear, and had multiple examples. The communications were sent out several times, in several languages. The data on the projected fees was available in multiple places. All that work, for a single (though large) recurring campaign at a single corporation. And here we have a prosperous industrialized country that tried to roll out a quarantine procedure (which they had a full year to brainstorm) for all of its residents and visitors, and this bureaucratic nightmare was the best they could come up with. The very fact that this could be done over the phone and not by video means that a sufficiently long (and slow-motion) YouTube video could’ve done the trick. Instead, they got thousands of people spending an entire day hoping they don’t get disconnected.

At first, earlier this morning, I tried to cheer myself up by thinking how cool it was that over a thousand of my fellow travelers were waiting with me – all of us, separate but united, doing our part. (The whole “waiting in line” thing also reminded me of the Soviet Union, much like the book I’m currently reading.) Now I’m just angry. I know that it’s basic human nature to look the other way until some calamity (in this case, incomprehensible level of incompetence) affects you personally. I know all that. I tried making excuses when Canada failed to set up any sort of quarantine for international travelers. Or when the quarantine was so inefficient that people could literally walk away from the airport and the police did nothing to stop them. Or when so many provinces put unqualified generals in charge of their vaccine efforts. Or when it turned out there were no vaccination plans aside from “um, maybe we’ll vaccinate every last person over 80 first before giving to any other ages or high-risk groups?” Every step of the way, I tried to rationalize it, to assume that was just a coincidence, over and over and over again. Until that bureaucratic hell hit me personally. Heh.

Let’s be honest: most countries fucked up in their pandemic response. Very few did most things right. But even with that in mind, Canada’s efficiency is closer to Brazil than to New Zealand. So many perfectly avoidable mistakes. So much basic incompetence. So few effective leaders. So little planning, especially since they’d had so much time… Not even the year-long prep between the first cases and the first vaccines: Canada never implemented the recommendations in its own official report after bird flu outbreak over 15 years ago. At some point in the future, there might be yet another full-scale postmortem analysis of all the things that went wrong. It’s possible but unlikely that anyone will lose their job. It’s possible but unlikely that the report’s recommendations will get instituted for the next pandemic.

I still like Canada. I’m still glad I moved here. But ye gods, what a shitshow. Lessons learned: next time you start seeing sporadic online reports about some mysterious new virus that seems to be very good at killing people, go ahead and jump on the first plane to Taiwan, New Zealand, or Vietnam. It’ll be a bloody mess everywhere else, same as it has been.

I’m quite certain that today’s rage shaved off at least a few days from my life expectancy. The bad news is that I’ll have to deal with the same bureaucratic stupidity three weeks from now, when I finish my second and final quarantine. The good news is that after that, I’ll hopefully (toes and fingers crossed!) be free of bureaucrats for the foreseeable future. I’ll never be a self-sufficient handyman like Ron Swanson from that Parks & Recreation show, but I’m starting to think that by the end of this year, I’ll share his incredibly cynical attitude to all things government. I guess it takes a pandemic to break a political science major’s faith in the system, eh.

Stay safe, y’all. I hope your Sunday was more pleasant than this mess.

Plague diaries, Day 393

Saturday night.

The highlight of my week: a clandestine run to the backyard to take out the garbage. The bread I bought just before my big trip had gone moldy – I guess humidity is objectively high and it’s not just me, eh. Instead of enjoying artisanal locally grown mold spores for several days, I obeyed the spirit but not the letter of the law when I ran outside and threw away my accidental science experiment. It’s pretty funny: my studio’s door got jammed in place due to misuse, and I actually had to give it a good shove to get out. Heh.

The highlight of my day, aside from that: chasing wild animals in No Man’s Sky, feeding them treats, and digging through their virtual alien poop to find the right chemical (cleverly called “faecium”) to advance my mission. Alas, they kept giving me alien milk and eggs instead. That did result in my making alien cream and churning it into alien butter, but it took a while to find a replacement formula to synthesize artificial alien poop the mission required. Ahhh, the glorious quarantine life…

I’m getting giddier with every passing day. Just 13 more and I’ll get my second shot. This feeling is a lot like the anticipation you get as a long-wished-for vacation draws ever closer. You know it’ll be a major change of scenery, and you’ll experience something new, and your life will, in some small but measurable way, be a little bit different afterwards. For me, this will be a ticket to freedom, at least as far as this goddamn pandemic is concerned. I know I’m lucky and most folks in Canada won’t get to experience the same… In our Vaccine Hunters group, those who finally got their first shots are saying their second-shot appointment is in late July, more than three months from now. Only time will tell if NACI’s nationwide experiment with long gaps between the shots will be successful. If it fails… I’ll be in a very bizarre position of being a very rare person with both shots in their system, while whatever new variant will rage all across the country. Hopefully it’ll never come to that, but the odds are greater than zero, as with all things.

In covid news, this is an interesting article from a few days ago. It profiles three different Canadians who traveled to the States (temporarily or permanently) to get their shots. It’s not just me, then: to quote a great old show, “There are dozens of us! Dozens!” Heh…

In more serious covid news, India is kicking ass: it holds the world record for getting to 100 million administered vaccine doses faster than anyone else. They accomplished that in 85 days, whereas it took the US 89 days; it took China 102 days. That’s a huge logistical accomplishment, though it’s mildly tarnished by the fact that 100 million isn’t even 10% of India’s population. (Or, to be fair, China’s.) Still, though – the race is on, and here is hoping other countries will try to beat that record.

Good night, y’all: may your bread stay fresh and may your virtual aliens produce all the poop you want.

Friday night.

I wrote a few times that I measure my life in vitamin bottles: a preordained length of time encapsulating within it a slice of chaotic uncertainty. I also wrote that when several key things happen, everything will move fast. And here we are: now everything is measure in mere weeks, not months.

Two weeks from today, I’ll get my second shot of Pfizer in Ohio. Four weeks from now, the second hit of the mRNA goodness will finish its highly specialized work, and I’ll be as covid-proof as anyone possibly can be. That’s also when my second post-travel quarantine will end. (Heh: 28 days later.) Five weeks from now will be my last day at Amazon, and the beginning of my lean-FIRE journey…

Almost eleven months ago, I liquidated all my company stock and moved it into a handpicked portfolio of companies that had been particularly hard by covid: banks, oil, retail, cruise ships. I’d researched them for quite a while, using everything I’d learned about investing by reading and listening to every last word Warren Buffett ever said. (I went so far as to write an e-book analyzing his biggest blunders.) Now, 10 months and 26 days later, my portfolio is up by 199.5%. No, that’s not an arithmetic error, and no, my Gamestop windfall in January wasn’t responsible for most of that. (Though it certainly helped.) Some of the stocks I bought recently aren’t doing so great, but they’ll straighten out before the year is done. (Fairly sure Blackberry will hit $13, if not higher, by the end of the year, and likely much sooner.) What I did wasn’t impossible, but it required a bit of luck (Amazon’s stock was up while everything else was down), a lot of research, and very high stress tolerance: there were five months between June and November when my stocks fell from their early-June peak and took five months to recover. (They rallied 19% the day Pfizer’s trial results got announced.)

The point of all this isn’t to brag – just to explain what happens next, especially since this blog series will end a fortnight from today, when I receive my second shot… My five-year plan will end six months ahead of schedule: I’ll be a permanent Canadian, and with enough money in the bank to live forever on a grad student budget – or for quite a bit as a normal person until I have to get another job to fill the piggy bank back up. It’s… indescribably bizarre and strange to sit here, typing all of this up, summarizing the end result of the wild and audacious plan I first put in writing on November 15th, 2016, right after that disastrous election, and when all seemed so glum. It’s morbidly ironic that it took a worldwide pandemic for my investments to get to the point that used to be just an out-of-reach fantasy. How strange, this world we live in…

And meanwhile, I’m just sitting here and plotting, here in my Studio of Solitude, halfway through my first two-week quarantine. It’s tempting – so very, very tempting – to run to the grocery store a few blocks away and load up on fresh fruit or salmon, or drop by Tim Hortons (which is even closer) and treat myself to something delicious. And yet… First of all, there’s still a microscopic chance that maybe I did get infected during my roadtrip, and maybe it has a longer-than-average incubation period, and maybe I’m actually covid-positive and contagious, and would start a super-cluster that would wipe out all of downtown Toronto. Highly unlikely, to put it mildly, but not impossible. But secondly, I feel like being a good Canadian and following this quarantine, even though I suspect quite a few people break theirs. Not just because of the threat of large fines and/or jail time, but because, well, I’m not a dick. I’d known the price when I made the trip: the two weeks of house arrest without ever going outside. It was well worth it. The upside is that I’m halfway done. Hooray… It’ll be pretty intolerable to stay inside for my second quarantine starting two weeks from now, though, after my second shot and with all that beautiful May late-April weather outside. That’ll make me plan my summer trip to the US even harder, I suppose.

In covid news, there’s more and more spotlight on the giant pile of AstraZeneca vaccines just sitting there looking pretty in the US. They have 20 million doses now, and the grand total will be at least 80 million doses when all is said and done. AZ hasn’t even requested the FDA’s authorization yet, so it’ll be weeks if not months before Americans can even use that two-shot vaccine. Trumps’s “America First” policy resulted in rather flawed contracts signed with all the major pharmaceutical companies last year: the agreements prohibited any exports outside the United States. The only possible loophole, one which allowed the export of 4 million doses to Mexico and Canada, was that the vaccines could be loaned, with some hypothetical expectation of repayment later on. (Words like “gift” and “donation” were deliberately not mentioned.) That happened once, and that can happen again – if not to America’s neighbours, then to literally any country out there that would agree not to hold the vaccine manufacturers responsible should anything go wrong. (Keeping everything within the US is a great way to avoid legal liability.)

I haven’t been keeping up with the barrage of AZ news – who is approving or banning or shrugging about it, etc. It seems, though, that the EU’s drug regulator found a “strong association” between AZ and blood clots in folks under 30. With everything that’s happened, it seems unlikely that AZ would get approved in the US – not impossible, but unlikely. For all its flaws, it still protects against covid (though maybe not against every variant), and there are lots of countries who could use those millions of doses… Bureaucracy in the time of plague, eh?

Good night, y’all. May your weekend be sunny and free of self-imposed house arrests.

Thursday night.

I love it when I’m proven right in something that actually benefits me. Almost two months ago, I researched and invested into FNMAT – a T-series issue of Fannie Mae’s stock. It had a sizable market cap and was selling at a significant discount off its 52-week high while the rest of the market was booming. Just like every other Fannie Mae stock, it was in a slump and waiting for the outcome of a Supreme Court case (Collins v. Mnuchin) that would decide if the government’s conservatorship of Fannie Mae would end, whether it’s finally paid for its sins leading up to the housing bubble. The case is still pending (the verdict will be out by the end of June) but meanwhile, the stock I bought has jumped from $4.74 to $6.10, a 28.7% increase in less than two months. Feels good, eh.

At the time, I shared my analysis with a group I’m in: mostly tech employees, all of them obsessed with investing. I already got messages from two of my colleagues who said they owe me a dinner and a cider. I’m going to keep holding instead of cashing out: I could get a guaranteed 28.7% profit now, or a chance at a 100% profit in just a few months… Even if fails, I’ll still make a few percentage points.

Such a strange hobby, investing: it takes much longer to master than most hobbies out there (and for many people, that mastery never comes), but then it literally pays off. Heh.

In other news, it turns out being under a 2-week quarantine lockdown/house arrest and choosing to forego pants does, in fact, have disadvantages. My jeans would’ve absorbed most of the bump when I hit my hip against the kitchen counter, but nope, now I’ve got a pretty gnarly-looking gash there. Nothing that requires stitches, but with all the dried blood that’s one impressive-looking medal in my one-man war against pants. (I think “Down with pants!” would make a pretty catchy slogan.)

In covid news… Our little Vaccine Hunters group is growing. There are 88 now, from all walks of life: a guy who got his shot because of his obesity, a few young and healthy people like myself (aka in the back of every line), some who feed the latest news and developments to an awesome local journalist, and at least one more American like myself who drove to get his shot in Ohio. We share stories as well as updates: even in our small group, two people got turned away by hospital gatekeepers even though they had valid appointments. One was told that her mental health issues didn’t qualify and that she should not come back. The other one was told, just earlier today, that epilepsy is not on the list high-risk conditions (it is) and that it had been removed just earlier that morning (it hadn’t been). After 20 minutes and two escalations to supervisors (who also called a security guard for some unknown reason), she finally got her vaccine shot. That was two people out of 88, right here in Ontario. A tiny sample size, I know, but if 2.3% of those who sign up get that kind of treatment… Abhorrent. Absolutely abhorrent – petty bureaucrats power-tripping with their life-or-death power. Not every place is like that: in fact, there appears to be no universal standard of any sort. It’s all just chaos…

In more official covid news, Canada is about to overtake the US in cases per million, which would make for a strange reversal, given all that happened in 2020. The CDC has issued its highest-level alert warning for Canada, saying no one should travel here, even if they’re vaccinated. Jerks. In Brazil, they had the deadliest day yet, with 4,249 covid deaths in 24 hours. (I believe this might be the world record…) Hospitals all over Brazil are starting to run low on oxygen, and this could become even more of a disaster than it already is. And 34% of work-from-home employees said they’d rather quit than return to a full-time office job. After more than a year without commuting, without annoying office neighbours, without paying for parking (aka for the privilege of getting to work), a lot of people have become a bit radicalized, it seems. I’m definitely one of them. This will be one of the more interesting changes of the post-covid world to come… Some companies will try to snap back to full-time office-only operations. Some will set up hybrid arrangements, where their employees can work from home fairly often. Some companies promised they’d give their employees the option of full-time work from home. It’ll be interesting to see if that sticks. This will be just one of many, many social changes once we finally get through this (even though the world won’t get through this at the same time at all), and there’ll probably be some that we can’t even anticipate at this point. What will the future bring?..

Good night, y’all. Stay safe out there.