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Day 68 – May 23, 2020

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

Imagine a good old-fashioned campfire. The kind where you roast old-fashioned marshmallows and sing Kumbaya. Much like the kind many of you will be enjoying around here soon… as long as you’re a B.C. resident. Works for me… a policy I very much agree with, especially if we’re all being told to not leave the province. Here’s a great advantage to living in Beautiful B.C. — we have world-class everything at our disposal.

But imagine you’re sitting by that campfire, and you have an old-fashioned 1,000-page phone book that you want to burn entirely. There are right and wrong ways of doing that. For example, you can tear out one page at a time, scrunch it into a little ball, and throw it into the heart of the fire. What will happen? That little ball of paper will burn to a crisp 100% of the time. And if you do that for every page, you will have a 100% success rate if the intent was entirely burning that phone book.

But what if you throw the whole phone book in there? It’ll catch on fire, for sure… the entire brick of paper will be burning.

But eventually, when everything has gone out, what will be left? Chances are, that phone book will not have been entirely consumed. It’s a big thick block of paper, and oxygen probably couldn’t reach the very center of pages 470 to 530. There will probably be some fragments of paper that’ll still have some legible print on them.

Would it be fair to say that this particular fire was only 99.8% effective in burning this phone book? No… it’s not the fire’s fault. It would’ve done the job just fine if you’d given it the opportunity.

Similarly, we’re told hand washing is 99 point whatever percent effective in disinfecting your hands. Well, not quite — it’s actually 100.0% if you do it right. As it happens, COVID-19 is pretty fragile… and to make a long chemistry story short, the virus is wrapped in fat, and soap annihilates fat. Whatever armor the virus had while trying to hop from host to host — is gone. Common soap is as effective as alcohol in wiping out this virus — perhaps better — unless you have the necessary concentration, like what is found in hand sanitizers. If you wash your hands properly, ie. you get soap on every surface of your hands, the virus can’t survive. There is no tiny fraction of super-protected virus balls that make the percentage less than 100, just like there’s no magical page 567 of that phone book that, when crumpled alone, will survive burning.

And so… masks. Yes, masks. Dear, lovely, sainted masks. Let’s talk about masks one final time. Haha! Yeah, you’ll be hearing a lot more about masks, whether from me or numerous other people. One thing you might hear is that they’re not 100% effective, so why bother… and the simple answer is that if you need to burn the phone book quickly, getting all the edges and most of the pages is better than nothing. A lot better.

The arguments you hear against wearing masks are many, but they all have a common denominator. Me, me me… my rights, my freedoms, you’re free to wear a mask and I’m free to not wear one. Sometimes coupled with the “scientific” reasons to try to justify that… they cut off oxygen, they hurt your lungs, they’re bad for the immune system. Come on.

The truth is… me wearing a mask helps you more than it helps me. Conversely, you wearing a mask benefits me more than you. There’s that old parable… religious/inspirational/team-work — whatever the set-up is, I’ll go straight to the punchline… it’s the one were everyone’s arms are suddenly frozen, sticking straight out. Suddenly, people can’t feed themselves and are starving. But of course, those that learn to cooperate… feed each other, and humanity is saved, yadda yadda, It’s not a difficult lesson to understand… the kind you can wrap your head around; no need to memorize. Also works for me.

I was amused with a Facebook ad that popped-up on my feed; an ad for masks, but they’re all branded Trump and MAGA and “It’s my choice not to wear a mask” and “U.S.A” and all the rest of it. For those whose intellect is incapable of indulging in the delicious irony provided, great! Wear them as your protest…. “See this mask I’m wearing?! Well, I don’t have to be wearing it!! It’s my choice, and I’m showing you how much I’m against them and how you’re trampling my rights… by wearing it!!”. I love it — more power to you. Just wear the mask. Yeah… works for me.

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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…”
“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:

“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?”
“Uhhh… sorry, what?”
“Yes, right away… someone will be up right away with some hangers.”
“O…K… great. Thank you.”

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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October 31, 2020

By |October 31st, 2020|COVID-19 Daily Report, Science of COVID-19, Life in Vancouver|17 Comments

Halloween on a Saturday night – that used to be the ideal as a young adult… get all dressed up in outrageous costumes and party all night and have Sunday to recover. So much so, that when Halloween fell on a weeknight, it was always a dilemma… which weekend, before or after, for the “big” party?

Well, 2020 sorted that out nicely… number one, the parties are tonight, and number two, there are no parties. Or, there shouldn’t be. Or, they should be outdoors, if anything. Fortunately, it’s a beautiful day, and turning into a beautiful evening, around here; gather outside (safely) to your hearts’ content. This will be the last year to enjoy fireworks (legally) – I’m tempted to go out and load up on some serious artillery, perhaps one last gasp of memories from many years ago when we’d do epic fireworks… the sort where, with a friend, we’d have them all laid out, with a synchronized sequence and Pink Floyd blaring in the background; fireworks so epic we’d be finding remnant litter (those little carton tubes and pieces of plastic) 6 months later in the garden somewhere.

Here’s my bold prediction…. by this time next year, it’ll all be back to normal. But I will throw in a little caveat that’ll be sure to bother some people… it *could* be back to normal *if* everyone buys into the solutions, both present and forthcoming.

As I find myself discussing these solutions, these days often with strangers, I’m going to throw out there a few questions… and if you can answer “that’s me” to any of these, I’d genuinely like to hear from you – because I’m gathering opinions and their origins… and I’d like to try to understand your mindset.

Are you anti-vaxx but think masks are a good idea?

Are you pro-vaxx but think masks are unnecessary?

Have you and/or your kids been vaccinated, but you’re considering not taking the C19 vaccine when it becomes available?

Have you never been vaccinated, but would consider the C19 vaccine when it becomes available?

Feel free to reply publicly and/or feel free to PM directly. Neither I nor anyone else will ridicule or belittle you; quite the opposite. I am really interested in hearing diametrically opposed opinions, and I’d like to discuss them.

The more “out there” these writings … [Continue Reading]


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October 30, 2020

By |October 30th, 2020|COVID-19 Daily Report, Politics, Science of COVID-19|9 Comments

You’ll notice below that I’ve added Saskatchewan to the numbers and graphs. While their absolute numbers aren’t looking too bad, their trend isn’t great… and, unfortunately, they’ll soon be a relevant part of the national picture. But what’s worse is that they’re sandwiched between Alberta and Manitoba, and looking at how things are going in those two places, it’s starting to turn that corner from concerning to frightening.

Let’s recap a bit, starting with the fact that a Covid-19 infection takes up to two weeks to kick in, and that Thanksgiving in Canada was a couple of weeks ago. What effect was there from everyone who somehow thinks they’re above getting sick or being infectious or “having their freedom taken away”? To hell with this hoax, it’s just a flu, it’s just the government trying to control us, etc etc. Let’s get together and celebrate; it’s no big deal.

Listen… I don’t mind being that guy, the one that you consider to be nagging or preaching or whatever. Standing on my little soapbox, inciting panic by spewing the government lies. Telling you what to do like I’m holier than thou. Maybe that’s the way you see it.

I really don’t care how you view this message… but, to be clear, I’m no different than you – I can get just as sick and infectious as anyone else. I’m trying hard to avoid becoming either of those things, but, evidently, many of you are not trying as hard. Here it is again, in the plainest English possible: if you don’t wear a mask when you should, and if you don’t socially distance, and if you don’t wash your hands and sanitize and do everything you’ve heard 1,000 times from everyone around you that understands the implications of not doing so, this thing will spread. And it will spread exponentially. And we will *all* suffer as a result.

Last three days in Alberta: +410, +477, +622
Last three days in Manitoba: +169, +193, +480

Winnipeg will soon be starting a full-on lockdown; shutting it all down till this can once again be brought under control. The tipping point is unfortunately near, with ICUs at over 90%. When you spill past 100%, that’s where you have patients in hallways, in lobbies and out in the street, dying. Listen … [Continue Reading]


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October 29, 2020

By |October 29th, 2020|COVID-19 Daily Report, Politics, Interesting Words, Movies, Music & Entertainment, Philosophy, Art & Literature|7 Comments

An excellent scene in one of my favourite movies, “The Princess Bride” involves one guy continually using the word “inconceivable” … and another guy eventually saying to him, “You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.”

But the word we’re going to discuss isn’t that one… the word of the day is “freedom”.

Americans seem to think they have a monopoly on “freedom”. Hey guys… up here – we’re free too, you know. In fact, of the 206 recognized sovereign nations, the vast majority are also free.

On the list of countries that are not so free, you’ll find places like China, North Korea, Cuba, Syria, Venezuela… places that are perpetually in the news, often for the wrong reasons, and that’s why perhaps we never hear about the rest of the world. Uruguay? Bulgaria? Mongolia? They all have their own problems to navigate, like any other sovereign nation… but their people are free, by whatever definition you want to apply. But perhaps since the U.S. isn’t meddling in their affairs, you never hear about them.

Somewhere along the line, the meaning of “freedom” has lost its way, especially by those who’ve never experienced the lack thereof. Anyone who’s been born and lived all their lives in the U.S. (and Canada), no matter how old they are, has never lived under a government that didn’t offer them freedom. Yet even today, more than half the world’s population lives without the basic freedoms we all take for granted.

It’s hard to put it in terms for people who’ve never experienced it, so let’s compare it to something relatable.

I’m old enough to remember well when smoking was ubiquitous. Ten-hour airplane flights so full of smoke you couldn’t even see the screen of the movie playing 20 rows ahead. Tiny no-smoking areas in restaurants, if any. Everyone smoked back then, whether directly or second-hand.

When smoking bans were proposed, there was a huge uprising… and the word freedom was thrown around a lot. It’s my right, it’s my freedom, all the bullshit arguments you can imagine. And it goes back to what I said yesterday; nobody wants to infringe on anyone’s rights. You want to smoke at home? As long as the smoke doesn’t bleed into someone else’s space, go right ahead. … [Continue Reading]


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October 28, 2020

By |October 28th, 2020|COVID-19 Daily Report, Politics, Science of COVID-19, Life in Vancouver|16 Comments

Many years ago, I was standing on the southwest corner of Georgia & Burrard, waiting for the light to change so I could cross the street (to the east) towards the Hotel Vancouver. There was a car sitting next to me, on my left, waiting to turn right, onto Burrard.

And while I was standing there waiting, the woman in the passenger seat contemptuously flicked out her still-smoldering cigarette, which landed right next to my foot.

The sheer disregard and selfishness of that action got to me in that instant. I simply reached down and threw it back in the car, helpfully adding, “I think you dropped this.”

Just as I did that, the light turned green, so I proceeded to cross the street, without even looking back. The car was stuck there, waiting for the stream of pedestrians to cross, so it didn’t move. But I did hear her shriek from behind me. I heard the driver screaming at me, too… “Hey!! What the f#@&!!”

The guy blared his horn a few times too, no doubt scaring and upsetting the pedestrians in front of him. I heard more yelling, but, as I said, didn’t turn around so didn’t really see what else may have happened. There was no sudden explosion, so I suppose it all turned out ok.

If that happened today, I’m not sure I’d do the same thing… it seems reckless. On the other hand, the blatant selfish entitlement displayed by that woman deserves some sort of response. “I’m going to smoke right next to you, I’m going to litter right in front of you, I’m going to throw something on fire at your feet… and I couldn’t care less about what you or anyone else thinks.” It’s brutal.

The usual saying is “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you”, but I prefer a slightly different version: “Don’t do unto others as you wouldn’t have them do unto you” – it’s a subtle (but very important) difference… which is that as long as what someone else is doing doesn’t affect you, leave them alone. You don’t want people telling you what to do when it’s none of their business, right? So respectfully… do the same for them. Either way, don’t impose your actions or beliefs on those who aren’t … [Continue Reading]


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October 27, 2020

By |October 27th, 2020|COVID-19 Daily Report, Politics, Humour|5 Comments

The unfortunate truth these days is that there’s just too much to write about. Around here, numbers spiraling upwards. Down south, in a week, they go to the polls… and, to a great extent, just in time. I had a quick look at the headlines-du-jour, looking for something appetizing that I could sink my teeth into… but you know, never bite off more than you can chew… and for some reason, today… it just looks overwhelming. Some of it looks tasty, but there’s too much, and after eating so much of this over the last little while, I think I’ve had enough for now. Here’s a news story that looks as appetizing as a plate of nachos, the melted cheese still steaming, the salsa… the chilled sour cream… and a frothy Guinness sitting next to it… but I’ll pass.

The exhaustion leading up to this final stretch… and now, this last week… looks like the last 100 yards of a marathon… and I’m not talking about the Kenyan guy who just ran it in 2:09 and could probably go another 10 miles… I’m talking about the guy who decided 3 months ago to train for a marathon… and managed to survive running 15 miles last weekend, and now just decided to go for it… you know that look, the middle-aged over-weight guy, bald but with a headband anyway, wobbling his way over the finish line in over 6 hours and collapsing in a heap… that’s the way we’re all going to look and feel in a week. And that’s just us Canadians… our poor American friends to the south… well, it’ll be a long recovery.

And anyway, we have ourselves to worry about. This country just went over 10,000 in C19 deaths. As bad as that sounds (and, it is) – that’s less than how many people have died in the U.S. since Oct 14th… and those are the curated numbers; the reality is unfortunately higher.

There’s a one-week finish line to the U.S. election. There’s also a more-distant finish line to this marathon of a pandemic… and we’re definitely on that last, killer hill. Eventually it plateaus and there’s a nice, gentle downhill to the finish. Unfortunately, like the marathon guy whose face is so drenched in sweat that not even the … [Continue Reading]


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