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Day 67 – May 22, 2020

Categories: COVID-19 Daily Report, The First 100 Days, Science of COVID-19, Philosophy, Art & Literature|Tags: , , , , , , , , , |

During high school, I came to the realization that there are two basic ways of learning. One is simply memorization. The other is actually understanding the subject matter and being able to apply it in a more generalized form, mappable to new situations. Some people are good at both. I’m really only good at the latter. And I suppose some people… neither.

Imagine someone who is awful at math, but memorizes the times-tables all the way to 99. You can ask them 73 x 96, and they know 7,008 instantly. But ask them 2 x 100 and they have no clue. Do they really know the subject matter? I worked with a lady once who told me how she’d missed the day they’d learned the seven-times-tables.

“Really? What’s 7×3?”
“I don’t know.”
“What about 3×7?”
“Oh, that’s easy. 21”
“Yeah… but… ok, what about 7×8?”
“I don’t know!”
“But 8×7…”
“56”
“You realize that if you just flip the numbers around, it’s the same… like 7 times anything is always the same as that anything times 7.”
“…. oh. OK, sure”.

I’m sure she didn’t quite get it, but kudos to her for finding a way to “learn” something, using the tools at her disposal. But that’s kind of the thing. I’m not sure how useful those sorts of math skills can possible be if you don’t really understand. Many animals can be trained memorize something, but it doesn’t mean they understand it.

Here’s a neat trick for you… quick, what’s 8% of 50? If that has you thinking for more than 2 seconds… flip it. What’s 50% of 8? That works for any percentage. You’re welcome.

One time, in grade 10, we had to memorize some Shakespeare. It was a long passage from Julius Caesar that starts with “I cannot tell what you and other men think of this life, but for my single self…. yadda yadda…” It goes on for a long time, and I struggled for 2 whole days trying to memorize it. I am genuinely in awe of Shakespearean actors… I honestly think it’d take a lifetime to memorize an entire play. The thing is though, once I “know” it, I know it forever. That long passage I just described, I guess you could say I “learned” it, as opposed to photographically memorized it. I still know every word of it, decades later, a parlour trick I’m happy to trot out on occasion… and it’s impressive how long it goes on. Usually till someone finally says, “Yeah, yeah… we get it.”

That passage was assigned on a Monday, for a Wednesday class where the test was simple: walk in and write out the passage. It will be marked out of 50, and every spelling or capitalization or formatting error will cost one point. We had to memorize not just the words, but their presentation. Like I said, I struggled tremendously. Memorizing anything is hard enough, but Shakespearean English? if 't be true thee bethink mem'rizing mod'rn english is sore, what doth thee bethink about this confusing mess?

English was the second class of the day. As we left math class on our way to write this test, I was walking with a friend, and reading through the whole thing again, for probably the 2,000th time. I asked him…

“So, you ready for this?”
“Ready for what?”
“This Shakespeare thing, did you memorize it ok?”
“Oh, shit! That’s today?”
“Uhhhh… it’s now.”
“Here, give me the book.”

It was a 3-classroom walk from math to english, during which time he scanned the text 3 or 4 times.

“OK, got it.”
“You’re kidding.”
“Yeah, no problem.”

We walked in and we wrote the thing. After school, I asked him how he did.
“Aced it”, he said.
Sure, I thought. And he also told me that 15 minutes after the class, he’d already forgotten the whole thing.

When we got it back a couple of days later, he got 50/50… 100%. It was perfect. I got 30/50 — 60%. I had mis-spelled some words, missed some capital letters, missed some punctuation and put some in where it didn’t belong. It was like every single line had one little thing wrong with it. All of those mistakes I would consider irrelevant, if you’re trying to capture he actual meaning, the actual spirit of the thing. What exactly was learned in that scenario? My friend didn’t learn anything. He just got to flaunt his photographic memory. I don’t call what I retained any sort of useful “learning”.

That high-school experience also provided two very different types of history teachers. One of the classes was all about taking notes, literally transcribing what the teacher said and regurgitating it during tests. Exact dates, times and places. The other one was about understanding what was happening, and what led to what, and how certain events affected future events. The tests were all about expressing opinion on historical events, not asking what date they happened. You can guess in which of those two classes I did better.

At the end of the day, everyone has a different way of learning… of capturing information, analyzing it and storing it. I’m usually not interested in learning anything that doesn’t involve some element of understanding… but, sometimes, you don’t need to actually understand it; just memorize it. Masks, good. Crowds, bad. Social-distancing, good. Enclosed spaces, bad. Outdoors, good. Hydroxychloroquine, bad. Etc, etc.

On it goes. For those who like learning about things, this pandemic has been offering ample opportunity. Endless, evolving research. Feel free to dive in, if you feel so inclined. And if you don’t, that’s ok too — just memorize the important stuff.

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Day 66 – May 21, 2020

Categories: COVID-19 Daily Report, The First 100 Days, Business & Economics, Science of COVID-19, Life in Vancouver, Humour, Philosophy, Art & Literature|Tags: , , , , , , |

As talented as I’ve been with computers from an early age, the dream out of high school was to become a rock star. It’s funny now, given the direction my life has taken… nobody looks at me and thinks, wow — that guy… total rocker. It’s not just tattoos and piercings and stories from the road that are missing… it’s actually the talent. The real reality check came in first year university, where my intention was to do a lot of music and a little computer science. It very quickly became evident to me that pursing a life of music would be tough. I was surrounded by people notably more talented than myself, and all of them were prototypical starving artists. This was going to be a steep uphill. So I switched, focused on computers… and decided to keep music around as a hobby, and perhaps one day down the road, figure out a way to be involved. Just not on stage. I am so happy to have recognized that I was, initially, wrong.

There’s nothing wrong with admitting you’re wrong. It’s a genuine sign of maturity. I’ve learned to enjoy being wrong, because I welcome the learning opportunity. It’s like… my entire life’s experience has led up to this point, where I just made a decision… and it was wrong. 50+ years of knowledge wasn’t enough to get it right; let’s figure out why. And the number doesn’t need to be around 50 — that applies to everyone, at every age. One day you’re a kid and one day you’re not, but still… maturity and taking responsibility and holding yourself accountable… is independent of that.

Do you remember the exact moment where you went from almost-adult… to adult? I actually remember mine. That old grumpy guy yelling at the neighbourhood kids to get off his lawn… at some point, way back when, he was that kid. When did it change? For me, I was on the seawall… somewhere between Granville Island and Stamps Landing. This is when I lived near Granville Island, so I was around 27. I was just standing there, minding my own business, watching the mountains or water or whatever, when some kid came flying by on rollerblades. Like, flying… and actually — well, he didn’t hit me, but he grazed me. Having been lost in thought, it certainly startled me. I looked up, but he was already long gone, racing toward the horizon. And I had two simultaneous thoughts… “Stupid irresponsible kid!” and… “Wow, that looks like fun!”. For that moment, I was both kid and adult, but after that… we all know in which direction time flows.

It gets more interesting when entire groups of people shift their opinion. Perhaps they were wrong, in hindsight… but it made sense at the time. Who is “they”?

Scientists, doctors, society in general. Sometimes, all of them combined. If you go to YouTube and search for “Flintstones smoking ad”, you will find the the Winston tobacco company used to sponsor the cartoon — yes, those Flintstones. In one of the ads, Betty and Wilma are seen being busy housewives, while Fred and Barney sneak out the back for a smoke break. It promotes a sexist version of marriage and that smoking is good — and it’s targeted to children. A trifecta of cringe… but there was a time when all of that made sense. It seems like smoking has followed this sort of evolution, as far as the general public is concerned:

Encouraged… accepted… tolerated… frowned-upon… limited access… banned.

In trying to come up with a current issue that might fall onto that spectrum… perhaps it’s eating meat. We’re somewhere in the neighbourhood between accepted and tolerated… but it’s heading quickly down the line towards frowned-upon. People quit smoking for a variety of reasons… health, cost, public opinion. And not everyone quits all at once, and not everyone stops entirely. And there will always be a place to go and smoke, and you can always smoke at home. There are many parallels.

One particular memory of SFU, as a student, was an argument I had with a computer science teacher. In arguing my case for having done a coding project a certain way, her counter-argument was, “I am right. This is the way it’s been done for 20 years”. In hindsight, I have to thank her. At the moment, I was livid… that has to be the most stupid argument imaginable when you’re talking about a subject where things change on a continual basis, and she was defending a methodology from 1970. The toolkits at our disposal were evolving almost daily, so to not embrace them because “that’s just the way it is” ? — don’t get me started on that again.

But I’m grateful that it showed me that there will be people all along the way who are set in their ways, who won’t admit they’re wrong… and whose attitude can have a profound effect on my life. I avoid those people like the plague these days, because they’re draining. They’re annoying. And in a pandemic, actually dangerous. It’s frighteningly easy to find a lot of people these days, in public office and/or with a big soapbox to preach from — saying “I am right and they are wrong” — who contradict the person next to them, who’s insisting the same thing.

This should be like the smoking thing, not the computer thing. And so, from that point of view, let’s let views evolve and let’s go with those who are willing to admit their mistakes. We’re not all always right, and listening to someone who insists they always are — can’t possibly be the right way to think about things.

The advice on masks, the advice on social distancing, the advice on treatment, the advice on what’s a safe place to congregate and what numbers are appropriate in all of those cases — this is knowledge that’s evolving, and there’s more method than madness to it, contrary to what some people think. “So-and-so said this, and it was wrong… therefore, everything that person has said is wrong”. That, in itself, is wrong. Very wrong. That just shows that said person is willing to admit, and learn, from their mistakes. As opposed to “So-and-so has never admitted to being wrong; clearly, they’re always right… right?” Wrong.

Trust the people that are wrong, once in a while… it’s the right thing to do.

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Day 65 – May 20, 2020

Categories: COVID-19 Daily Report, The First 100 Days, Life in Vancouver, Travel Stories, Philosophy, Art & Literature|Tags: , , , , , , |

Some years ago, I travelled down to Santiago, Chile, and stayed at a “W” hotel. I’d never stayed there, but it was in the area I needed to be, and why not try something new. I don’t usually do well in “W”-type hotels because it’s just not my scene. I get that there’s an entire demographic that loves that sort of stuff, but for me… being in a place that’s trying too hard to be hip and cool, it just comes across as pretentious, Bright purple colours, edgy art, a DJ during what’s supposed to be a quiet Sunday brunch, a lobby that feels like a nightclub and is full of people who aren’t guests — but just want to be seen there. In trying to emulate what they think is hip and cool, they lose the message. And when you couple that with cultural differences… what you end up with is what greeted me shortly after arrival, when I called down to housekeeping. They answered, and here’s how it went:

“Whatever”
“Umm… hello….?”
“Yes, Mr. Kemeny… what can I do for you?”
“Oh… hi. Yeah, do you have any extra coat hangers? Could you please send some up?”
“Whatever”
“Uhhh… sorry, what?”
“Yes, right away… someone will be up right away with some hangers.”
“O…K… great. Thank you.”
“Whatever”

She hung up, and I sat there thinking about it. I totally get where they think they’re coming from… it’s their “W” motto — “Whatever, Whenever”. It’s plastered all over the walls, as in, “Whatever you want, Whenever you want it”. That message is clear and appreciated and exactly what you’d hope for in a boutique hotel. But in trying too hard, and not quite getting it, it comes across as incredibly rude and dismissive.

Don’t get me wrong, I found it amusing, and completely embraced it for my entire stay. I’d get in the elevator, and someone from the hotel staff would say hello, and I’d say…. “Whatever!”, with a big smile. Walking out the front door, the doorman would wish me a good day and I’d reply, “Whatever!”, and give him a nice tip. It became my de-facto reply to everything, especially because it’s often what I’d feel like saying anyway. Still or sparkling water? Feather or foam pillows? Milk or Cream? Freshen the towels? Restock the mini-bar? Turndown Service? Whatever.

For those who grew up with that word and its more common use, you understand that hearing that word from someone doesn’t usually mean “Oh, absolutely, whatever you’d like”. It means something more like, “Your opinion is worthless to me, and while I heard what you just said, I couldn’t care less.” They say the opposite of love isn’t hate, it’s indifference. Indeed, what would be worse to hear back after telling someone you love them? It probably doesn’t get much worse than “whatever”.

As this pandemic goes on, that word and its implications are showing up, and not in the good way. Why aren’t you wearing a mask? Why aren’t you social distancing? Are you really heading out of town for the long weekend? Doesn’t it concern you? The “whatever” replies in this context are a bit more sinister than usual, because in a way, what they’re saying is not just “Your opinion doesn’t matter to me”, but also, “Your health or well-being doesn’t matter to me.”

The great success we’ve had around here fighting this thing… can have a bit of a downside, and that is people getting too complacent, too “whatever”. We aren’t through this yet; not by a long-shot. The idea was to flatten the curve, to be sure our medical infrastructure could handle things if they got a lot worse. Thankfully, that was achieved and things did not get too bad… but rest assured, they still could.

And if you weren’t going around saying, “whatever” a few weeks ago, you certainly shouldn’t be going around saying it now. There’s a big risk that things stay relatively flat, we all see that, and our “whatever” attitude starts taking over as the weather gets better than things open up. I hope we can all remember exactly where we’re at, not even halfway to the end of this. We keep hearing that the second wave can be a lot worse than the first one. As much as I loathe fear-mongering from the media — oohhh, here’s a scary story, click here to read it… this common house-hold item could kill you — click here to find out what it is! — I really dislike that crap, especially because I fall for it as often as you. But the one fear-mongering thing I welcome these days is what we’re being told repeatedly about what can happen if this thing gets out of control. And it will, in some parts of the world. How about we don’t let it happen here.

We all have a roadmap from 100 years ago… there was a first wave, things got better, restrictions were lifted… things went back to normal… more than they should’ve, people dancing in the streets rejoicing… including a huge, crowded parade in Philadelphia (among others)…and suddenly, things got very bad, very quickly. That was a whole lot of people saying… whatever.

So, ok… let’s use that word, but in the good way. When someone asks you to put on a mask, take a step back, move the discussion outside… you can certainly say “whatever” — as in, “Of course, whatever you’d like.”

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Day 64 – May 19, 2020

Categories: COVID-19 Daily Report, The First 100 Days, Business & Economics, Science of COVID-19, Life in Vancouver, Sports & Gaming, Philosophy, Art & Literature|Tags: , , , , , , , , , , |

These little walks down memory lane, like yesterday’s piece on Mt. St. Helens, always seem to stir up something else… that I likely haven’t thought of in ages. Indeed, yesterday’s piece started off about a Sunday morning, with me describing how I was just sitting there reading… and nobody has asked me what I was reading, but I will tell you anyway… it was the stock-exchange listings from the previous night’s Vancouver Sun. And if you’re wondering why is an 11-year-old kid was reading stock prices on a Sunday morning 40 years ago, I’ll tell you…

Our grade-6 teacher had created a very cool one-month project. We would all get to buy and sell stocks, all starting with a virtual $1,000, and he would track it on a big chart in the classroom. Every day, we would submit our “trades” — buy this many shares at this price, sell this many at that price. He would do the math and track everyone’s profit/loss. We would submit our trades every morning, along with where we’d gotten the price — The Vancouver Sun or The Province.

There wasn’t really much research that could be done on it… at best, you’d have day-old news to contemplate, and anyway, we were in grade 6… who’s doing any sort of real research, and even if we did, to what end… whatever we might come up with would already have been built into the stock price. But it was a fun exercise, and of course, it grew very competitive, watching everyone’s graph-lines wiggle up and down from day to day. For the most part, people were picking stocks by names that sounded good, or maybe familiar. By the end of two weeks, a few lines had started to separate upwards… and I wasn’t one of them, and it was bothering me. And it didn’t seem like lucky guesses. These guys knew something.

As it turns out, indeed they did; their fathers were stock-brokers or somehow involved in business where they had access to better information. My dad was a mining engineer, so at best he suggested a few mining companies that were exploring for gold… but they weren’t going anywhere in a hurry. I needed to find an edge.

Arbitrage is the simultaneous purchasing and selling of an asset, where the buy price is lower than the sell price, so the transaction generates an instant and risk-free positive return. The most common place where this takes place is financial markets, where, for example, a certain stock may be listed on multiple exchanges. If you have instant access to both markets and notice that shares of ABC are offered for $10⅛ on one and being bid at $10⅜ on another, you buy the cheap one, sell the expensive one, and deliver the cheap ones to the guy that bought the expensive ones. This all happens instantly, and while making ¼ on that transaction may not sound like much, it certainly adds up when you do it 1,000 shares at a time, multiple times a day. There are armies of supercomputers trying to do this continually, all day these days, and to some extent, that serves a useful purpose… it keeps prices in check. As soon as an opportunity arises, some arb grabs it instantly, and the advantage is gone.

And what I had stumbled upon a few days earlier was this… perhaps an opportunity for manual arbitrage, though at the time, I did’t even know that word… all I knew was that, on the same day, the prices listed in The Vancouver Sun were different than The Province. Why?

As it turned out… The Sun was an afternoon paper… it’d always show up around 5pm. The Province was an early-morning paper, always there by breakfast. In our home, we got both. And here was the thing…. by the time The Sun needed to go to print to make it for afternoon deliveries, the stock markets weren’t closed yet. The price listed in The Sun was the day’s mid-morning price, taken at… 11am? Noon? Not sure, but certainly well-before the 1:30pm market close. The Province the next morning had the closing prices from the previous day… and so, differences in price. And by scouring for prices that were higher in The Province, I could “buy” them with yesterday’s lower price and hope the upswing held long enough that I could “sell” them at a higher price. Not all stocks that went up in that last hour of trading stayed up, all through the next day, in time to sell them… but something like 80% of them did, which is staggeringly-high, well-beyond any typical financial wizardry from even the best analysts.

My wiggly line started heading north pretty quickly after that, much like the Mt. St. Helens ash plume… and with almost as much vertical force. Within a week, I’d caught up to the competition…. and just kept rolling… which led to the teacher asking me to stay after school that next Friday. “OK, what’s going on here?”, he asked. Of course, I couldn’t keep my mouth shut… I was so proud of being so clever and figuring out this loophole. I spilled everything. “Do you think that’s fair?”, he asked me… and my simple question back was, “Is it against the rules?”

From there, we had an interesting discussion about The Rules vs. The Spirit Of The Rules. What rules? The stock market is a game where you’re trying to win, and to win, you have to out-think someone else. Where in the rules does it say I can’t do this? Yes, I realize this isn’t possible in reality, but this is not real. It’s a game, and I found a better way to play it.

And after that, although I think he was impressed by my resourcefulness, he changed the rules. All trades must be submitted in the morning, using that morning’s quotes from The Province. End of advantage, and I ended up losing because one of those other guys sold everything, and put it all onto one particular stock which shot up on the very last day. Because asking daddy for inside information is ok, but figuring out how to play the game better… is not. Yes, I’m still bitter.

So… there are rules.… some rules, archaic and irrelevant, are meant to be broken. Some rules, for the greater good, need to be adhered to. Then… there’s that grey area of bending rules. Today, here in B.C., the rules have changed. We have had rules in place for more than a couple of months, and they have served us well. So well, that many people will insist we never needed them, and that is very wrong. Either way, as of today, with our rule changes, it’s one step forward towards a return to normal.

On the assumption that the people who make these rules know what they’re talking about — and, given their success, they certainly do — we should follow them. Indeed, our local rules and implementation thereof have become a model not just for Canada or North America, but the entire world. For populations of 5 million plus, we are number one. I would really love to see us stay there. Some people will break those rules. Some people will bend them… but I suggest, let’s try to stick to them. And if you think you can’t stick to the rules, at least consider the spirit of the rules. It’s not just about you. The stakes are a lot higher than those wiggly lines on a large paper chart from 40 years ago. Look at the wiggly lines on the charts attached to this post, especially the yellow one. Especially today. That is success. That is a win. Let’s all do our part to keep it there. Let’s keep rolling.

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Day 63 – May 18, 2020

Categories: COVID-19 Daily Report, The First 100 Days, Politics, Business & Economics, Science of COVID-19, Life in Vancouver, Sports & Gaming, Philosophy, Art & Literature|Tags: , , , , , , , |

Forty years ago, to the day… May 18, 1980, I was lying in bed reading… a lazy Sunday morning… reading, and listening to LG73. I had a window open, so the loud boom shortly after 8:32am was very audible. It rattled the windows. What the hell was that, I thought to myself? Nothing like a car crash, and everything else was silent outside. A distant bomb? Those teenagers across the back lane that always seemed to have a stash of firecrackers? I finally decided it must have been a big tree that fell over. Not that I’d ever heard a tree fall over near me… but then again, I’d also never heard a volcano 300 miles away blast 1.4 billion cubic yards of ash 80,000 feet into the sky.

But that’s what happened that morning, when Mount. St. Helens blew her stack. What’s interesting about it is that nobody was expecting it, and it came as a complete surprise. How could we ever have prepared for it?

Yeah, that’s complete nonsense. Experts from many disciplines had been well-aware of the strange rumblings around Mt. St. Helens for months… there had been a small earthquake on March 20th, the first of thousands over the next eight weeks. There had been 16,000-foot ash plumes. There had been fresh craters. There had been sightings of magma. While things got quiet again in late April and early May, there was an increasing bulge on the north face that was growing by 5 feet per day. On May 7th, things started firing up again, and the bulge’s growth became worryingly inconsistent. Geologist David Johnston, camped 5.5 miles away, dutifully kept measuring and reporting his findings. The last of those reports was at 6:53am. His last words, captured shortly after 8:32am by a nearby ham-radio operator were, “Vancouver! Vancouver! This is it!” — a message to his fellow USGS researchers, at the University of Washington in Vancouver, WA., that never made it. Two miles away, Gerry Martin, a radio operator tasked with observing the volcano for the state’s department of emergency services, saw what had happened and what was coming. His last words were, “It’s going to get me, too”.

There were only 57 deaths attributable to that eruption, and I say “only” because that number could have been higher — into the thousands. Indeed, it was scientists — I repeat, scientists — like Dr. David Johnston, an expert in volcanoes, and numerous other researchers… who pleaded with authorities to keep the area closed — an area very popular with campers and hikers and visitors to nearby lodges. For the most part, people listened.

One of those who didn’t was a man by the name of Harry R. Truman — not to be confused with former president Harry S. Truman — who refused to leave, despite numerous pleadings, suggestions and finally, orders — to do so. He owned and operated the Mt. St. Helens lodge, right at the base of the mountain, near Spirit Lake. For months, he was told to leave. He dismissed the danger and he dismissed the scientists’ claims. Even though he was being woken up continually by earthquakes and could see plumes of ash shooting up… he was heard saying things like, “the mountain has shot its wad and it hasn't hurt my place a bit, but those goddamn geologists with their hair down to their butts wouldn't pay no attention to ol' Truman."

By then, the state had set up a restricted zone well outside the perimeter of the mountain, and it infuriated them that people would ignore it, in many cases to interview ol’ Truman, putting themselves in significant danger.

Truman was alone in the lodge (with his 16 cats) that Sunday morning. It’s likely he died instantly, from heat shock… his body vaporized… before the lodge and everything around it was engulfed by 150 feet (half a football field high) of volcanic debris.

In the weeks preceding the eruption, there was a lot of noise from a lot of people… open the mountain, open the campgrounds, think of the economy, we need the tourism, we’re willing to take the risk, it’s our right as free Americans, etc etc. All too familiar words these days. The parallels between these two situations, 40 years apart, are many.

There are some notable differences too. At what point does the government’s (or society’s) role in trying to keep people safe… cross the line? That fine line is being tested these days — between freedom, and the perceived benefit of the greater good. History is full of people running towards impending disasters, like ignoring evacuation orders at the base of an impending volcanic eruption, or running to the beach to take some cool pictures of the expected tsunami, or visiting a tribe of cannibals to spread the word of Jesus, or thinking you’re ready to summit Mt. Everest because you can do the Grouse Grind in less than 45 minutes. More power to you, I suppose — as long as your narcissistic desire to show the world how invincible you are… doesn’t take others down with you.

If Truman wanted to die in his lodge (he was 83), perhaps it’s his right to do so. He wasn’t hurting anyone else (aside from his 16 cats). And perhaps that’s the biggest difference of all, the issue some people have a hard time understanding… that sometimes, it’s not just about you.

Looking at the numbers across Canada… lots of recent green days… and, especially here in B.C., it’s time to take things to the next level… bring on the openings… but where it goes beyond that is entirely up to all of us, collectively. This can be slow, steady and predictable… or not so slow, not so steady… and somewhat less predictable. The rules have served us well so far; let’s stick with that.

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Day 62 – May 17, 2020

Categories: COVID-19 Daily Report, The First 100 Days, Business & Economics, Science of COVID-19, Life in Vancouver, Travel Stories, Space & Astronomy, Philosophy, Art & Literature|Tags: , , , , , , , , , |

Queueing Theory is a fascinating branch of math that deals with the science behind… queues, as in line-ups. First of all, let’s take a moment to admire that word… queueing… how often do you see a word with five vowels in a row?

When it comes to line-ups, there’s more to it than you might think. The variables used in analyzing queues involve things like how often do new people show up to join the queue? How often is the person at the front getting pulled out of it? How long does it take to process and then get rid of that person? How long is too long? …because arriving people may see a long line and just say forget it.

The red velvet rope that delineates where to stand plays an important psychological role. If you arrive, and the queue extends past the end of the rope, you might think the line is too long, and bail….but if there’s lots of room and the rope extends way back… well — it can’t be too bad, right? Straight line vs snaking line? Should you be able to see the whole line, or should some of it be hidden?

Nightclubs play a balancing act… perhaps you’ve been to clubs where you wait outside a while, finally go in, and the place is half-empty. They make you stand in line to appear busy… to attract others to come…but, of course, if the line is too long, you may be dissuaded to wait… it’s a fine… line.

Some of it is fancy math, and some of it is just social engineering, but fundamentally, there are right and wrong ways to do queues. Like, what’s better… 6 independent line-ups for individual bank tellers, or one central line-up that sends the person at the front to the next open window? That one is a no-brainer… pretty-much everywhere that can support the latter has switched to that model. It’s not necessarily better for an individual who might luckily pick the fastest line, but it’s the fairest… and from a psychological point of view, that keeps everyone happy because it’s balanced. It’s very aggravating to be standing in a slow-moving line while everyone else is moving around you. And if you picked that line, part of you is thinking you “lost”.

I think about that whenever I’m stuck in a bank line-up… that this is the best way to do it, and it could be a lot worse. How much worse? Allow me to describe what’s possibly the worst way to do it…

In Copiapó, back in the day, here’s how it worked… one day, I was told to run to the bank… here are some papers, some forms… just go there and hand them over; they’ll know what to do. And go now, and hurry, it’s 11:45. Doesn’t the bank close at 4? Yes, but you need to be there before noon — go!! So off I went to the bank, a couple of blocks away.

There were four tellers open, and each with a few people waiting, each with its own line-up. I joined one with 2 people ahead of me… like, who knows, right? Go with the shortest line, of course. But as I’m standing there waiting, time is ticking and ticking… and the people around me all seem to be getting more and more agitated. Grumblings of “what’s going on” and “hurry up” and so on. Whatever, I’m up next, but as soon as the person ahead of me is done and leaving, the teller pulls up a “closed” sign. In fact, all 4 tellers do it at the same time. It’s exactly noon, and it’s lunch time. Much groaning from the people all around me… but nobody moved, so neither did I. And I watched, as she pulled out a paper bag. From it, a sandwich, an apple, an orange Fanta and a paperback. And I stood there, for exactly 30 minutes, watching her and her co-workers have their lunch, simultaneously. She ate her sandwich, she ate her apple, she drank her Fanta. During that, she read her book as if there weren’t a crowd of people, me at the front of it, staring at her during the entire time. And at exactly 12:30, she put all that way, removed the sign and it was back to business. My thought at the time hasn’t changed: there can’t possibly be a worse way to have organized this.

Most places that can afford the space have moved to the “single lineup feeding into multiple spots” model. In that model, it’s best to leave the decision-making to the very last minute… everyone is in the same queue, and as soon as a spot opens up, the next person, which by definition is the person who’s been waiting the longest, gets it. Sometimes, that decision point has to be made earlier, and that tends to unbalance things. For example, airport security… you’ll often be thrown into a single long line, at the end of which some person will look around for what looks more open, and send you to that security screening area (one of 6, let’s say) which will already have its own line-up. Depending on many things, you may end up 10 minutes ahead or behind the person that was next to you.

Line-ups have been around forever, but different cultures treat them with varying degrees of respect. And in some cultures…

Yeah, speaking of airports and speaking of Chile… when you fly down to South America from Vancouver, you have two choices… go through the U.S., or don’t. Which means either flying through L.A. or Dallas…. or flying through Toronto. From a hassle point of view, a no brainer. Avoid the U.S. and TSA and security line-ups and all of that. But there’s one part of the trip that you have to see to believe.

We’re all used to respecting queues, like when boarding a plane… Zone 1, Zone 2, etc. We all get into that little set of chutes and wait for our turn. But if you’re in Toronto, flying down to Santiago, Buenos Aires or Rio…. all bets are off. There is no semblance of respecting any sort of queue. It is an angry mob that’s standing, jammed and jostling, for an hour before boarding. Forget the children and families first, forget the elite status business class VIP whatever. None of it matters. But one thing those Latin American cultures do respect is the elderly… so what you will see in front of the mob are wheelchairs. One or two? No… try 30, most of them with surprisingly mobile people once it’s time to board… oh, don’t worry, they say as they miraculously rise from their front-of-the-line chair, I can take it from here. I’ve asked the gate agents about all of this, and it’s very simple, especially since it’s a late-night flight and they just want to get home: “We don’t even bother anymore”.

One thing we’ve all gotten used to these days is finding queues where we never had them… especially grocery stores. Queues that tell you where you can stand, and where you can’t. Big Xs on the ground and arrows to point you in the right direction. A visit to many groceries these days is a moving, one-way queue — first in, first out, no going back. It’s evident to me, that in some cases, not a lot of thought went into it initially, and that’s fair. Everyone is trying to figure things out as they go along, and most people don’t have an arsenal of queuing-theory formulas at their disposal. Even before all of this, the supply/demand for cashiers at Safeway wasn’t dictated by some supercomputer. The cashiers themselves see things suddenly getting busy and just page someone to come help. And when things get slow, that person disappears to the back. That “busy-ness” has now moved to the outside of the store, which in many ways is a better place for it.

Ultimately, that’s the way we’re all doing it these days; just go with what works, and course-correct it as needed. And for what it’s worth, as time has gone on, certain things seem to have improved… as you’d expect. People have realized when it’s “good” to go, which self-balances things. People have realized if they can make their shopping trip efficient, it helps a lot. No aimless wandering up and down aisles… plan ahead, know what’s where, and do it all at once. Far less time wasted. There are now many things in place that didn’t exist until recently, and will likely stick around when things are back to normal… just one more thin, silver lining to the big cloud of the day: this pandemic is making parts of our society much more efficient.

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Day 61 – May 16, 2020

Categories: COVID-19 Daily Report, The First 100 Days, Travel Stories, Sports & Gaming, Philosophy, Art & Literature|Tags: , , , , |

In 1966, a researcher (Gordon Stephenson) conducted an interesting experiment. He put 5 monkeys in a locked room. There wasn’t much in the room except a sort of ladder in the middle of it. At some point, he lowered a bunch of bananas within reach of the top of the ladder, and eventually, one of the monkeys noticed them and scampered up the ladder to grab them… as soon as the monkey touched the bananas, he (and all of the monkeys) were sprayed with cold water. This caused quite a frenzy, as you might imagine. Eventually, after they’d calmed down, another one of the monkeys decided to try his luck, ran up the ladder… and was met with the same fate. Cold shower for all of them. The disgruntled monkeys eventually learned that maybe it wasn’t worth it.

Then, one of the monkeys was removed, and a new one was placed in the room. And that monkey, as soon as he saw the bananas, made a move towards climbing towards them, but was quickly subdued by the other monkeys. He must have been confused, so he tried again, but again, was jumped by the others.

Then, another one of the monkeys was removed and a new one put in his place. As expected, the same thing happened. And, quite interestingly, the monkey that’d never even been sprayed joined in the ruckus, helping keep the new monkey away from the bananas.

And then this happened a few more times; a new monkey would be cycled in, and get beat up for trying to reach the bananas… by all of the others. Eventually, all of the monkeys that’d ever been sprayed had been replaced, but the behaviour continued. If you’re less than civilized, and just want to fit in… indeed, by virtue of needing to survive, you have to fit in… you just go with the crowd, even if you don’t understand the behaviour.

If monkeys could talk, and you’d ask them what’s going on… why aren’t you letting anyone reach those bananas… their answer might be, “That’s just the way it is”.

Apart from being a great song by Bruce Hornsby — a song that instantly comes into my head when I hear those words — those words, throughout history, have been used to “excuse” some pretty inexcusable behaviour. It’s not a far leap from there: “I was just following orders”.

Throughout my life, I’ve had a problem with those words, when things just don’t make sense. It’s a fallback for when someone doesn’t want to take responsibility, even if they know what they’re standing behind doesn’t make sense.

Off the top of my head, an example that I thought of when I was writing about Copiapó a couple of days ago… it sounds like the start of a joke, but here’s the question — how many people does it take to buy a box of band-aids in a pharmacy in Northern Chile? Here’s how it works….

You walk in, and go to the counter, where the pharmacist asks you what you want. Pretty much everything is over-the-counter, even things that around here you’d just grab. Interestingly, many things for which you’d need a prescription around here, like antibiotics, are also simply over-the-counter.

Anyway, he pulls out a box and shows it to you. You confirm it. But he doesn’t hand it to you. Instead, on a little piece of paper, he writes down “Bandaids 100 pesos”. You take that little piece of paper to the cashier, who is actually at the back of the store. While you’re going to the cashier, the actual box gets handed from the pharmacist to a runner, who makes his way over to an area called “packaging”, and hands it over. There, someone will wrap it up like a gift, with paper and tape. While it’s being wrapped, you pay for it, and the cashier will stamp your little piece of paper with “paid”. By then, the package (via runner) has made its way to the person near the front of the store, near the exit… in the area called “pick-up”. You show up with your “paid” receipt, they rip the corner off it and give you your wrapped package… and you’re on your way. Pharmacist, runner, wrapper, cashier, pick-up. It takes five people to sell you a box of band-aids. It’s ludicrous, infuriating and takes forever because inevitably, one of those stations is a choke-point. If the pharmacist is busy talking to someone, you wait… while the other people twiddle their thumbs waiting for something to do. Or someone is having problems paying… log-jam at the cashier.

But the one that really made me lose it once was when they jammed-up at the wrapping station, because someone was demanding separate packages for a number of things. There were people ahead of me, and my three items we back there somewhere, not getting any attention for a while. I tried to speak to someone, to tell them to just give me my toothpaste, soap and shampoo… but no, I’m sorry sir, it has to be wrapped. I don’t need it wrapped; just give it to me. Sorry sir, we can’t. Why not?! This is ridiculous!! “That’s just the way it is.” Aggghhhh.

Whenever we’re in a situation that’s new… unplanned… unforeseen… when people start making up their own rules — that’s when you start getting a lot of this. When people start behaving like uncivilized monkeys and falling back on the excuse that everyone else is doing it, so why shouldn’t I… well, great example from around here was the Stanley Cup riot of 2011. That event made criminals out of a lot of people who otherwise probably wouldn’t be. And I’m not talking about the handful of actual criminals who got things going; I’m talking about the teenagers caught-up in it, simple Canucks fans suddenly seeing a smashed-in window to one of their favourite stores… wandering in and stealing something… because, well everyone else is doing it and I don’t need to understand it, right? As long as we’re all doing this together, it should be fine, right?

No — not right. I’m saying this today because of what society may look like for a while, with people choosing what suits them personally, and falling back on just shrugging their shoulders. We all paid for the aftermath of that riot, and we will all potentially pay for being a little too individual and self-serving. If there was ever a time to think a little more “big-picture” than usual, it’s now. Your actions may affect a lot more than just you. Let’s remember, we’re all aiming towards the same desired outcome… it’s much easier to get there together, right? That’s just the way it is.

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Day 60 – May 15, 2020

Categories: COVID-19 Daily Report, The First 100 Days, Science of COVID-19, Travel Stories, Sports & Gaming, Philosophy, Art & Literature|Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , |

“Collect as much data as you can for now.” — this is a mantra that is common in many different disciplines, especially the ones where you’re not sure what data matters. One day, you’ll have a chance to look back on it and figure out what matters, but for the most part, especially initially, the thing to do gather as much as you can, and eventually learn from it.

“Eventually” could mean decades from now. It could also mean tomorrow. In fact, it could even mean 15 minutes from now. On that note, as you’re reading this, somewhere, on the periphery of your focus, there are ads and sponsored posts and other slight differences that are being thrown at you; an experience that will differ slightly for someone else. Some of it is based on your history, but some of it is just data collecting… like, does it work better to use this ad or that ad? Does it work better in red or green? Does it work better positioned here or there? This data is all being crunched, often in real-time — to deliver to you the most pleasant experience possible. Haha, sorry, not quite — to deliver to you the most profitable experience for someone… is the better answer. Facebook is worth $500 billion, and their revenue stream has to come from somewhere, since 99.999% of the people who use Facebook have never given them a penny… so, rest assured, those who are paying want to make sure they’re getting their maximum bang for the buck.

And, of course, an awful lot of data is being collected about this virus, and there are disagreements about what’s important. As per above, it’s always a good idea to gather it all and then figure out later what matters and what doesn’t. Sophisticated modelling techniques do this all the time. For example, a neural network. That sounds a lot fancier or scarier than it really is. It’s not some sort of artificial brain which can think for itself, become sentient and launch an attack on humanity… rather, it’s just software for taking a ton of data, much of it possibly unrelated, and grinding through it in such a way that it “learns” what inputs are relevant to outcomes, and which are noise. A properly trained neural network can be very useful for predicting outcomes that a person may not as easily see, because it’ll have filtered out the irrelevant aspects and focused only on what makes a difference.

A simple example would be trying to train a neural network to predict the outcome of horse races. This is a project that as been on my “to-do” list for about 30 years, and perhaps if enough horse racing returns soon, and I’m still locked up at home, I’ll finally have a chance to work on it. And I will tell you exactly what I plan to do, and what I hope to find. The first thing is to take tens of thousands of historical races and format the data in a way that it can be fed into a neural net. Then, it will grind away on it, “learning”… and I would assume it’ll find a high correlation for specific horses with respect to things like fractional quarter-mile times, weight carried, relative class of opponents and track-surface-conditions. It’ll find a low correlation with things like the name of the horse, what time the race was run and what day of the week it was. That’s the beauty of the neural network; just throw all of the data at it, and let it figure out what matters. It might figure out correlations for specific horses… that even the most astute handicapper or sharpest bookie might miss.

I know a lot of people reading this are thinking whoa dude, that’s pretty cool. Yes, it is… it would be. I’ll keep you posted.

More relevant to all of us are our local numbers, and there are many to look at. We are on track (haha!!) for opening things up soon, and, at least around here, it makes sense. It’s been a while since I’ve talked about “Time To Double”, so let’s look at that a bit. The graphs below don’t do justice entirely to where we’re at, because TTDs when presented in this fashion becomes a “lagging” indicator. Things are better than what those graphs imply, if you’re looking at the TTD lines.

Recall, back in the day… like back in March, which seems like it was 20 years ago… we were looking at some scary TTD numbers. The new-cases numbers were increasing by about 25% day-over-day, a TTD of about 3. Scary exponential growth.

If we take some averages of the last 5 days of confirmed new cases… the TTDs and percentages look like this:

B.C.: 130 (0.53%)
Ontario: 43 (1.63%)
Quebec: 37 (1.89%)

Canada: 44 (1.62%)

These are obviously very-flattened curves, compared to where we were.

I am well aware of the people standing up screaming that those numbers aren’t real. Have a seat, and let’s discuss the obvious. Of course not. There are more, and have been more, cases than we’ve “known” about. We will in due course know how “off” we were… like is the real number 10x that? 100x? 1,000x? I’d love it, if it were 2,000x because that’d mean we’ve all been exposed to this, and if you believe that gives you immunity (and that seems to be the case with coronaviruses in general), we’d be in great shape. That number is way too big, but while I’m here, in an effort to make numbers and guesses and projections more accurate for all of us, I urge you all to visit the bccdc dot ca site and take the survey. You may even get a serological antibody test out of it.

Inaccuracy of those particular numbers aside, there are some concrete ones which are indisputable… hospitalizations, ICU cases, “pressure on the medical infrastructure” and excess deaths… to name a few of the most critical ones. These numbers vary wildly around the world, but they’re the best indicators, along with new cases, to indicate how close jurisdictions are to phasing-in re-openings. At least around here, those numbers look good… good enough that we’re marching ahead to the next phase.

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October 24, 2020

By |October 24th, 2020|COVID-19 Daily Report, Follower Favourites, Our Dog|5 Comments

No local numbers today or tomorrow… so no speculative guesses either. If the last few days are any indication, things are going to get worse before they improve… but in the meantime, why don’t we just enjoy this incredible weather… it’s a beautiful day to be outside, and if you’re wondering where to walk, might I suggest your nearest polling station to go vote, if you haven’t already done so.

Instead of fully-updated numbers and graphs (the partial one is here, if you’re interested), here’s a video of my dog fetching a frisbee… with some spectacular views of blue skies and the ocean thrown in for good measure.

Words: of some value
Picture: a thousand words
This video: priceless

In the midst of “the worst is yet to come”, there’s always some beauty to be found.

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  • October 23, 2020

October 23, 2020

By |October 23rd, 2020|COVID-19 Daily Report, Politics, Science of COVID-19, Sports & Gaming|0 Comments

Last night’s debate was a lot more sane than anyone might have imagined. Kudos to the moderator, who did a far better job than anyone else has in previous debates.

Donald Trump, in poker terms, is down to the felt… the meager chips he has left were waiting for an opportunity to go all-in, and that’s what he attempted last night. Unfortunately for him, the hand he flipped over wasn’t too good. How it plays out remains to be seen.

Civility aside, the debate offered more lies than usual. Biden was off on a few points, but Trump was on a whole other level. We’re used to it from Trump, but that doesn’t mean we should let it slide. I’m not one of these people who usually screams at TVs or during movies, but I did find myself yelling “That’s bullshit!” or “That’s not true!” more than a few times.

Donald Trump doesn’t quite understand how ridiculous he sounds when he blames the high case counts on the fact that they’re doing a lot of testing… too much testing…more testing than anyone in the world, he claims… which isn’t actually true. On tests-per-million-of-population, the U.S. trails behind countries like Singapore, Denmark, Israel and Britain, to name just a few.

But that’s far from the point… because the logical conclusion of that nonsensical line of thinking would be to just not test at all – and then, like magic, no more cases… problem solved! In presidential terms, Mission AccomplishedTM – but it’s just not true, no matter how hard Trump claims it to be the case. It hasn’t just rounded the corner. It’s not almost gone. Things aren’t weeks away from being back to normal.

Indeed, his “It’s not so bad” claims are a little contrary to his “I’ve saved millions of lives with my actions” statements – neither of which are even remotely true.

Yes, it’s bad – how bad is it? Since the White House took over the numbers, it’s all a bit suspect. Case counts go down, but deaths (numbers not entirely in their control) don’t go down. Let’s ignore the case counts and go right to the guts of the matter.

Lies, damn lies, and statistics… The White House is reporting 229,000 deaths due to C19. Recent numbers released by those independent parties adding … [Continue Reading]

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  • October 22, 2020

October 22, 2020

By |October 22nd, 2020|COVID-19 Daily Report, Politics|0 Comments

A couple of days ago, Donald Trump gave an interview to 60 Minutes. A couple of people, just sitting down for an interview. One was articulate and well-prepared. The other was not.

It didn’t go well for Trump, because Leslie Stahl pressed him on questions to which she wanted answers, and his constant deflection, and then bringing up irrelevant topics, did not deter her. A couple of times, it devolved to “You’re lying, no I’m not, yes you are, no I’m not.” Trump wasn’t happy, and eventually stormed out, like the kid taking his soccer ball and going home, claiming nobody ever passes it to him.

A couple of hours ago, Trump posted the 37-minute raw footage of that interview onto Facebook. A couple of minutes ago, I finished watching it… and, while still fresh on my mind, here are a couple of thoughts about it.

First of all, there was nothing unexpected. Trump interrupted and deflected and made things up – his usual. It troubles me that a lot of people will see this as a “win” for him – Donald just being Donald, Donald not caving to the evil fake news media, and so on. What’s troubling is everyone who still thinks this is ok presidential behaviour. It’s far from it, but four years of it has jaded us all. Half of the people are like, “RahRahRah Go Trump MAGA!!!” and the other half are resigned to “This is just how it is, for now.” Neither should be acceptable, but here we are.

Tonight, it will be another couple of people who will sit down to “discuss”, when Trump and Joe Biden will sit down in the last presidential debate before the election. The moderator will have a “mute” button at their disposal, but I’m not entirely sure how that might play out. Trump’s mic might get cut, but that won’t stop him from continuing his extemporaneous (adj. spoken or done without preparation; impromptu) bullshit. It might be disjointed and difficult to watch, even more than last time. And let’s remember, this is his last hurrah. His last stand, his last opportunity to make an impression. This is the last round of a long and bitter boxing match, and Trump is behind on points. He needs a knockout, and he will come … [Continue Reading]

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October 21, 2020

By |October 21st, 2020|COVID-19 Daily Report|0 Comments

You’ll notice some new columns and a new graph today… please join me in welcoming Manitoba to the club.

Manitoba has had a bit of a different journey with respect to the pandemic. Like the rest of the country, things shot-up there in late March and early April… but then got flattened out very effectively. They flared up a bit again during the last week of August, but again they managed to stamp it down. More recently, in the middle of October, they had a pretty bad three days. Where it goes from there remains to be seen. After that spike, it looked like it was tailing off again… but the last couple of days don’t imply a good trend. Either way, now we’re keeping an eye on them as well.

Note to Saskatchewan, The Maritimes and everyone else… I hope you remain insignificant enough that you’re not worth mentioning here. Numbers are creeping up everywhere, including places that haven’t seen cases in a long time. The Yukon reported two new cases a couple of days ago; their last new case had been August 7th. And the Northwest Territories… one new case yesterday, two more today. It’s the first time since April that they’ve seen new cases.

Around here, B.C. saw more than 200 new cases today… the first time it’s ever been over 200 in a 24-hour period.

Similarly, in Alberta… but the number there is 400+. Ugh.

The top Canadian prize still goes to Nunavut… they’re still having none of it.

October 21, 2020

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  • October 20, 2020 Graph

October 20, 2020

By |October 20th, 2020|Politics, Life in Vancouver, Sports & Gaming|0 Comments

So, I did something today I haven’t done in years… I voted. It was as seamless and easy as I thought, and as I promised recently. In and out in five minutes.

Watching these two elections is like watching the same sport, but in two totally different leagues. Like, there’s FIFA – and their World Cup, every four years… and the whole planet stops and watches soccer for a couple of months. FIFA… with its controversies and corruption and racist scandals. And, as usual, every four years, there’s a U.S. presidential election… and the entire world is watching… and it’s also full of corruption and racism and controversy.

Then, there’s the B.C. Soccer Association. I’m far more familiar with that one, having participated in it as a kid… and, of course, also living within the jurisdiction. And every once in a while, B.C. has an election, and nobody outside of our provincial borders cares. The rest of the country pretty-much couldn’t care less. And it’s all relatively peaceful and harmonious, just like playing soccer around here used to be… with the exception of an elbow to the head once in a while.

FIFA and the BCSA have a couple of things in common… one, they’re both soccer, though at significantly different skill levels. And two, they were both founded around the same time – ages ago, in fact… in 1904.

The two elections have exactly one thing in common; they’re electing people into leadership roles. And that’s where the similarities end.

At the local community center, no armed militia. No 10-hour lineup. Nobody intimidating me. Nobody setting the ballot box on fire.

As I said, take advantage of it. We are living within a framework of peace and freedom that’s rare; history implies us to be in a bit of a bubble around here, and while it lasts (hopefully for centuries, but, as we can see… things can fall apart pretty quickly)… let’s take advantage of it. Set an example… for yourself, for your kids… and in honour of those who went through a lot to make sure we’d have this right… and vote.

October 20, 2020 Graph

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