The Canada Day 2020 holiday weather is perfect! It’s just that the parks will be fairly empty, and the few strollers should be individuals and family groups keeping a respectful distance from one another. Since mid-March, the whole year has felt like living the film Groundhog Day. As one of Andrea’s WhatsApp group friends observed, “In this stay-home time, what difference does it make if Sunday falls on Monday?”
The people who seem to be adjusting best are those who are comfortable in their own skin, who maintain a regular routine, see opportunity in the time to improve themselves, their home, or do things that normally stay on the perpetual back burner.
Mother Nature seemed to conspire to get Canadians to do the right things by providing spring weather that kept people inside despite themselves. Right into May, I’d get some fresh air in the back yard wearing my winter coat, scarf, gloves and hat. When, I wondered, would spring ever start? But it did. Andrea and I have planted, pruned and decorated the back yard garden, but in this bizarre COVID-19 year, its appreciative audience may consist of squirrels, birds, the occasional curious skunk, and our cat, Merlin.
With the start of the third decade of the 21st century came the rising realization that something was seriously wrong in China with a new virus that seemed to have no cure and spread rapidly. As the spring of 2020 rapidly dissolved into summer weather (at last), we almost forget that the news event of the new decade started with the central Chinese city of Wuhan, and then seemed to spread to cruise boats.
Andrea and I normally attend a round of Chinese functions at the time of the Chinese lunar new year. With Chinese restaurants and Chinese people unfairly avoided or shunned, and often worse, we resolved to show our support to the Chinese-Canadian community, and attend the functions to which we were invited in January and February of each year. And we did, without harm or effect. A few large Chinese social functions scheduled for February were cancelled: at least one of them normally serving upwards of 1,000 people. Back then in mid-winter, one wondered whether our Chinese-Canadian community was being overly cautious. With the perspective of a few months of hindsight, one can see they were being careful, responsible and prudent.
The shut-down begins
Just before the general shut-down, life was pretty busy. The first weekend of March began with a family funeral, at which Andrea and I did our best to minimize our contact and maximize what would, within days, become known as ‘social distancing.’ The following day, the Ontario Liberal Party Leadership Convention began at the International Centre in Mississauga. I picked up one of my Riding Association colleagues on the Friday. Our riding delegates registered, cast what would turn out to be our only ballot, and did a minimum of socializing with friends at the event with the virus in the back of our mind. We skipped all the receptions, and went home early on the Friday. We were not being anti-social at the time, but just careful. We went the next morning for the speeches and the vote counting of the first and only ballot. By this time, people were talking about COVID-19, but nobody knew anybody who had it, and the the phenomenon of the asymptomatic ‘super-spreader’ was then unknown. They announced that the Candidate we supported, Steven Del Duca, had won on the first ballot. My group bade a polite and expedient adieu to an event I would have otherwise enjoyed for a few more hours.
In the weeks that unwound, we are not aware that anybody at either the family funeral or the OLP Leadership Convention tested positive for the virus. They were close to the last large events of their type that happened before the world shut down in the following week.
For me, the shutdown happened after Wednesday hockey. As I was getting dressed to play goal, a few of the guys rolled into the dressing room talking about the ongoing Prospectors and Developers Convention in Toronto, and how a few people had tested positive. I asked if any of them had encountered anyone who was there. No, they said, they’d just heard it from others.
“Good,” I thought to myself, “I don’t need to run out of here and I’ll play this game.”
On the ice in goal, it occurred to me that a hockey rink was a pretty strong environment for any exhalation-borne disease to propagate. I was glad to be in goal, away from the players’ benches. After the game, one of the guys asked me if I’d be available for a game with his group that Saturday night.
“Well, two things,” I said to him. “Yes, I have nothing on Saturday night, which makes me available, but we’d better talk tomorrow or Friday, because I am not sure if we’ll be playing.”
Sure enough, when we spoke the following day, he told me that the City of Mississauga had called and cancelled all his ice time for the balance of the year. I said I was on one hand disappointed because I was in peak condition for hockey, and on the other hand, I was a bit relieved. The previous day, the stay-home period was mandated across Canada, and the country-wide shutdown began.
The family’s signature cats
Though not from COVID-19, we suffered our losses in the family. Our younger cat, Bebe, had developed a very aggressive form of cancer in early March, and she met her merciful end on March 23, 2020 with her human Mummy and Daddy at her side. She had always been a healthy little cat, and we were not prepared for her very quick passing. At least Andrea and I could be together and at home during the mourning period that follows the loss of a loved member of the family, whether they talk on two legs or four.
The house was, and remains, emptier without our little Bebe cat on patrol, checking her territory, cuddling with Andrea on and off all day, and talking to us at key points. Particularly when I was elected, people often remembered our two cats who adorned every Christmas card: Obi-Wan (Sep 1999 – Jul 2015) and Bebe (Apr 2005 – Mar 2020). Now they are both gone, though alive in spirit and memory. Merlin, who adopted me at Pet Valu in Meadowvale in late February of 2016, remained healthy.
The following week, Andrea’s older brother passed away, also suddenly, from heart problems in Guyana. The funeral had to happen quickly and without the family members from Canada and the USA. We participated by video.
The days that re-occur daily
Pandemic life settled into the stay-home pattern: shopping once every eight or ten days; no more in-person visitors; and the days sort of folded into one another such that one of Andrea’s relatives observed on their family WhatsApp chat group, “During this time, what difference does it make if Sunday should fall on Monday?” We started a blog page on Andrea’s family web site to record what was happening from week to week. We tracked what we had for dinner on each day, because the event of dinner seemed to mark the transition from the work day to personal time. We watched old movies on TV, learned how to use Zoom, called our friends and discovered we were all living more or less the same day each day, and took it one day at a time.
And it was cold! Well into May, I had not put away my winter jacket, gloves, hat and scarf. Merlin would go outside and wander about, and I would sit in the gazebo to keep him company and get a bit of morning air – cold morning air. My own theory was that Mother Nature was doing her part to help Canadians maintain social distancing by making it uncomfortable and inconvenient to be outside together. In May, when new COVID-19 cases in major Canadian cities began to rise again, it turned out that my theory held water: as soon as it was warm and sunny enough for people to congregate too close together, they did just that, largely without masks or other protection. We just stayed home.
The garden provides a ray of sunshine
From the plants that had moved indoors in the fall, and survived the winter, plus what we had in storage, much of the annual summer garden got started in April and May, when the weather permitted. It took a few careful visits to the Longo’s garden centre near where we live and to our favourite nursery (all suitably masked) to get the balance of the flowers and garden soil to finish the job. This year the garden was a bit more sparse and economical, but it was there, and in fact turned out gloriously successful.
As May drew to a close, and the first wave of summer heat descended, I gravitated to my summertime outdoor office again in the gazebo, where I had studied for my Canadian Securities Course in 2019. I bring out a portable table, set up the computer, and arrange a cordless phone, my cell, and all my books and notes. The Wi-Fi from the house can be a little spotty in that corner of the garden, so I bought an inexpensive Wi-Fi booster which worked perfectly. In 2020, the songs of the resident families of Robins were more evident due to the still-unearthly quiet in the neighbourhood. Merlin and I had not been able to get to the neighbourhood park for our walk as often during the pandemic lockdown. We seldom encounter anyone at the park, but because the park was either too cold or too wet to make the 600-metre stroll enjoyable for me or for 17-year-old Merlin, who remains a healthy, active and handsome cat, we stayed home more.
Andrea didn’t want to run the risk of grocery shopping, so we found a great substitute. Longo’s has high-speed Wi-Fi for its shoppers. After I have run down the list, I go over to the fresh meat and fish counters, plug my Bluetooth headset in, use the video function of WhatsApp, and let Andrea virtually shop with me for a few minutes. It has worked out perfectly.
At the stores, we never yielded to the compulsion to hoard at any stage. Sure enough, paper products were soon back in abundance in 2020, and also on sale. The same for such items as chicken and dried pasta. Our local Longo’s became a progressively weirder place to visit, as the shoppers increasingly were masked (as was I after the first two trips). On Twitter, I observed that if I had showed up at the grocery store pre-COVID-19 attired in the mask I now wore, I would likely have encountered a skeptical police officer by the time I got down the second aisle. Now, I am just another masked face pushing a shopping cart.
Flour and yeast were products that we had purchased a few weeks before the run on the stores began. Our yeast supply through held up through the spring. Flour supplies were sporadic for a while as the whole world seemed to start baking. Yeast vanished for nearly three months. At one point, Longo’s offered a 20 kg bag of unbleached flour for $18.79. One such purchase solved our flour supply for the entire year. It’s about equal to eight of the normal bags we buy. A friend of mine found yeast at their summer place near Niagara, and bought me some. The next day (as it always happens), we saw yeast also at Longo’s: in 450 gram packages, again nearly eight times what was in a single bottle we generally bought. Now we are good to bake anything we want for the rest of the year.
The summer of 2020 brought with it a chance to know our back yard and our garden as never before. The mid-summer highlight was certainly the baby bunny who grew up in the back yard and ended up taking pieces of carrot from our fingers whenever the bunny saw us. One day I was studying in the gazebo when I felt the gentlest touch on my left leg. It was our bunny, who had come to see if the people had any carrots for him. See some videos of the bunny taking carrots from our hands on YouTube.
And so life continued in the surreal world of 2020. We continued to be careful and to stay apart from the family, friends and other people we’d normally have over for dinner and visit. That part hasn’t changed from the year of the Spanish Flu a century ago. At that time, some 500 million people were infected, and that corona virus killed more people than the recently-completed Great War of 1914 to 1918.
In the beginning, there was a Windows application (“app”) called ICQ. It meant “I seek you.” It was, in its day, a novel concept, allowing the user real-time instant message (IM) dialogue with a circle of other users of the app. You could send short text messages back and forth, without cluttering up your e-mail Inbox.
With governments in Canada then supporting the Canadian-developed Blackberry, out of Waterloo came the next generation of IM app, Blackberry Messenger, or BBM. It was a better IM app than ICQ, and more importantly, encrypted at both ends, and sent device-to-device. This meant that servers and routers didn’t retain your message. What appealed to users was that you could keep an exchange between them secure. Moreover, when users deleted the exchange, it went away permanently, just like shredding a piece of paper.
As an MPP, we used BBM extensively. To send short messages back and forth between the Legislature and the Constituency Office, or when, for example, my staff would ‘message’ me to let me know they had arrived for our meeting to review documents. As Chief Government Whip, BBM helped me track down our Members and ensure they were doing their House or Committee duty.
BBM made itself very, very handy in business and government. When Wi-Fi bandwidth grew sufficiently, you could have a user-to-user BBM voice chat over Wi-Fi. Like a message, a voice (or later, video) chat was encrypted at both ends, and even better, was digital in voice sound and video quality. I used it on business trips to keep in touch at home, and with the office. Our long distance charges went to zero. BBM didn’t require giving out your cell phone number. It used a PIN. This meant that the app could be carried, or ‘ported’ from one device to another when you upgraded your smart phone.
Other such competing IM apps appeared, notably Facebook’s WhatsApp, and Skype, later purchased by Microsoft. We’ll deal with them in a moment.
When the nature of Research in Motion’s business changed, versions of the BBM app were written for major hardware platforms (Android and Apple’s iOS). Once Blackberry hardware itself vanished, BBM was then a niche Apple and Android app. Once outsourced in this fashion, a lot of ‘code bloat’ appeared in BBM, which filled up with such eye candy as stickers and ads quickly. It wasn’t as tightly-focused as its users had remembered and loved it for.
BBM’s global user base of about 55 million has been in decline for a few years. In April, 2019, BBM announced that the app itself would cease working after May 31, 2019. Farewell BBM.
So what of the alternatives? With the impending end of the free version of BBM, users have four principal alternatives: two popular apps (WhatsApp and Skype), and two niche-market apps (Signal and BBMe). As well, there are other niche IM products that we’ll briefly examine.
WhatsApp and Skype
If you are losing your BBM circle of friends, you are nearly certain to find them all in one or both of WhatsApp and Skype. For non-sensitive personal communications, you’re likely to use one or both of these.
WhatsApp is an IM and voice over internet protocol (VOIP) app linked to a user’s cell phone number. WhatsApp has more than 200 million users worldwide. If someone is in your WhatsApp network, they are going to know your cell number. If you view your cell phone as proprietary, and as a business tool primarily to enable you to make outbound calls, that could be a problem, or at least an annoyance. Being device-to-device, WhatsApp is end-to-end encrypted. Unlike BBM, you cannot ‘redact,’ or permanently remove, messages on both ends of the chat. Facebook has announced that WhatsApp will shortly be blended into a new app that will combine WhatsApp with Facebook Messenger and Instagram. That makes commenting on features and security of a product that will shortly exist in a completely different, and undefined form difficult. The app could lose its focus, as the expiring BBM did. The development process could also accidentally expose personal data to the outside, as Facebook has admitted happened numerous times in recent years. Teething problems are inevitable when such a major software release is unrolled;
Skype is another VOIP and IM app that does just about all of what the old BBM did. Skype is used by more than 300 million users worldwide, and is now a mature product. It allows the user end-to-end encrypted communication (with a warning proviso) between devices. It also allows a call to connect to a standard telephone, with the part connecting to the standard phone sent in the clear. Skype users have a Skype User ID, which could be your Microsoft user ID and password if you have other Microsoft products. Skype conversations are also portable across devices. If you start a Skype message thread on the bus to work, you can log into your laptop, and pick up where you left off, even going into voice and/or audio if you wish. Here is the warning: foreign and domestic governments, and police agencies, have the capability to eavesdrop on Skype conversations, and to have access to Skype users’ geographic locations. A simple request for information is usually sufficient, with no court approval needed. This ability was deliberately added for law enforcement agencies by Microsoft when they purchased Skype in 2011. Is it secure? Sort of. You are likely safe from rogue hackers. But don’t use it for important data or communications if, for example, you are doing business in another country where Internet traffic is routinely monitored by government agencies.
Signal and BBMe
When dependable security between users is an issue, you’ll need to leave the consumer marketplace. Two products built specifically for security offer users all the security they appear likely to ever need. If you are part of a government or a large corporation, and want to equip your people with a proven-secure IM app, you’ll want to test out and choose one of the following two:
Signal is everything good and secure that BBM started out being, and adds open-source to that. It is free, not cluttered with ads or other annoying eye-candy, encrypted end-to-end, it doesn’t track you, and offers text, voice , video, document, and picture communications. Signal has iOS, Android, Linux and Windows 10 versions. It is secure and fast. Signal is often used by journalists and others who need the security that Signal offers. So why would you hesitate before gravitating to Signal? Probably because you might be the only one in your circle that uses Signal. Otherwise, it is everything you will likely ever need;
The Blackberry Messenger Enterprise edition (BBMe) is similar in features to Signal, and most other IM apps. BBMe can be downloaded from the iOS and Android app stores. BBMe also has Windows desktop and Mac versions as well. BBMe is the very best of classic BBM, without the annoying parts and code bloat. It is free for the first six months, and $2.50 per six month period thereafter. If your organization and/or the people with whom you need to exchange sensitive information use BBMe, this is the IM app for you.
Other IM apps
SMS (aka Text Messaging) The lowest common denominator for sending text messages. We all have this on our phones. Depending on your plan, you can be charged for every text message; have a set number of text messages per billing period; or have unlimited text messages. Outside your cell provider’s service area, SMS messages likely cost you money to send, even if you are on a hotel or airport free or trusted Wi-Fi point. SMS messages are not encrypted or protected in any way. SMS messages travel in the clear through different networks and routers, can be read or recorded at any point along the way, and are the most vulnerable means of sending a message between two points. Other than your provider’s supported emoticons, that’s the extent of the functionality. In short, SMS is better than nothing, but not by much;
WeChat (Chinese for ‘micro-message’) is an IM app written by Tencent in mainland China. As of 2019, it reportedly has one billion users. If your circle of friends includes a lot of folks from Asia, you may want (or need) to connect with them through WeChat. The app has been subsidized by the government of the People’s Republic of China (PRC) since its creation in 2011. It is widely reported that PRC officials censor and monitor users. It’s been described as the ‘app for everything,’ as it is integrated tightly into e-commerce, allowing users to shop extensively, and make payments, through WeChat, a capability that differentiates it from western IM apps;
Viber was originally developed in 2010 by Israel-based Viber Media, which was bought by Japan-based Rakuten in 2014. Since 2017 its corporate name has been Rakuten Viber. It is currently based in Luxembourg. Viber is available as freeware for Android, iOS, Microsoft Windows, macOS and Linux platforms. Users are registered and identified through their mobile device number. Viber service is accessible on desktop platforms without mobile network connectivity. In addition to instant messaging, Viber allows users to exchange other media such as images. Viber has more than a billion registered users on its network as of 2019. Why would you install it? Because a critical mass of the people you wish to deal with use it.
Wikipedia lists dozens of other instant message apps, along with a side-by-side comparison of their features. As we bid adieu to the consumer version of BBM, we at least have a number of proven choices to move to in managing and organizing the short messages that would otherwise clog up e-mail systems.
My former MPP Constituency Office in Meadowvale closed in late June of 2018. We have returned the keys to our landlord. The Legislature has taken back its property. If you are looking at this site to reach the new Member of Provincial Parliament for Mississauga-Streetsville, the Constituency Office address and telephone number may have changed.
My former staff and I have, for the past 15 years, enjoyed the privilege and responsibility of serving our neighbours in Lisgar, Meadowvale and Streetsville. Life continues. We thank the many friends we made during our years of service for their contributions to making our northwest corner of Mississauga a better and stronger community.
I listened to suggestions, and am considering some options during a short breather after the hectic life I lead as the local Member of Provincial Parliament for Lisgar, Meadowvale and Streetsville.
Please do not send e-mail to our former Constituency Office e-mail addresses any longer. My former MPP e-mail address no longer works. I welcome your e-mails and letters. To get the postal address for personal mail to Bob Delaney, please request Bob’s postal address at the e-mail address below.