The Mask Factor

I realized the other day, as I was checking my messages while waiting for a doctor’s appointment, that my iPhone facial recognition software doesn’t work when I’m wearing one of my coronavirus masks.  Like a character in a Lone Ranger TV show, the phone was left dumbfounded and asking:  “Who was that masked man?”

This shouldn’t come as a surprise.  The mask covers a significant portion of your face, including some noteworthy recognition-triggering features — namely, your nose and your mouth.  Our identification of a person’s face is based on the eyes, nose, and mouth working in combination, and the masks are covering up two of those three features.  We’ve been trained since birth to pay careful attention to the facial features of the people we talk to and notice any changes.  And think about how much attention you pay to the mouth, in particular, as you interact with people.  Are they smiling?  Frowning?  Grimacing?  Does the combination of the mouth and eyes indicate that they’re angry?

I thought about the blocking effect of the mask when I went to get a haircut yesterday.  Both my stylist and I were masked — of course — after I had gone through a doorway vetting procedure that included having my temperature taken and answering some COVID-19 exposure questions.  As we talked during the happy haircut, she mentioned that she was trying to be more expressive with her eyes, because people couldn’t tell whether she was smiling or not.  It was true, and I realized that she also couldn’t see my smile.  After that, I tried to be more expressive with my eyes and eyebrows, but the eyebrows especially are not designed for nuanced non-verbal cues.  You’ve got knitted eyebrows, and raised eyebrows, and that’s about it.  Trying to communicate much with your eyebrows is like mugging for a camera.

Masks definitely change things, but we’re just going to have to get used to them because they are going to be a requirement for a while.  I’m going to have to work on adding some additional, unmistakable eye and eyebrow communication techniques to my facial repertoire.

And I guess Apple is going to need to come up with a masked and an unmasked version of the facial recognition software.

Now Among The Tested

The United States has dramatically increased its testing for the coronavirus over the past few weeks.  According to the CDC website, nearly 11 million Americans have now been tested for COVID-19.  Yesterday morning, because I have a medical appointment coming up and getting tested was part of the pre-appointment checklist, I became one of them.

The testing was quick, easy, and efficient.  They’ve set up a drive-through testing facility in one of the rear parking lots of the administration building of the sprawling Mt. Carmel East hospital complex.  Your doctor puts your name on a list and writes you a prescription for the test, and you drive up and wait in your car for your turn.  As people are tested, the car line moves through two lanes of testing that occurs under tents, like cars moving through a toll booth on the Pennsylvania Turnpike.  When I arrived shortly after the testing facility opened at 8 a.m., I was probably tenth in line, and all told, I think it took me less than a half hour to make it entirely through the process.

When it was my turn I donned my mask and drove through the tent, which was manned by four nurses who thoroughly disinfected themselves after each encounter with someone being tested.  A pleasant and professional nurse who was fully clad in protective gear — helmet, face shield, gown, and gloves — took down my information and then conducted the test.  It was one of the viral tests to determine if I currently have coronavirus, and it consisted of sticking a long Q-tip swab pretty deep into my nostrils, gathering some mucus, and putting it into a plastic bag.  I was told that the sample tested positive for coronavirus, I would be notified, and if the test was negative I wouldn’t be called and should just show up for my appointment.  I never got a call, so I’m apparently currently free of COVID-19.  (The viral test is different from the antibody blood test, which would tell you if you had the coronavirus at some point in the past and have developed antibodies against it.)

News reports on coronavirus typically report raw statistics on how many people have the illness.  Expect to see significant increases in the numbers, simply because more mobile testing stations like the one I used are springing up everywhere.  Given what I saw, I’d guess that my testing facility probably processes several hundred tests each day, and there are similar testing facilities in Columbus and across the country.  We’re going to start to get a lot more data on the coronavirus as a result.  

Reopening . . . One Step At A Time (Cont.)

Ohio continued on its deliberate path back to a fully functioning economy over the weekend.  Restaurants and bars were permitted to begin serving patrons at their outdoor areas on Friday, and this week indoor service can begin — with appropriate social distancing.  

Fortunately for the restaurants and bars that wanted to get back to business, the weather cooperated for the most part, with some warm weather and only a few thunderstorms rolling through.  I walked to downtown Columbus over the weekend and passed several venues where people were enjoying the chance to get out.  Yesterday Kish and I walked past another popular spot, Lindey’s patio, where you could hear the happy babble of chatting people, just like old times.  

There were news reports of some Short North bars that had seemingly overcrowded outdoor areas, but I didn’t see anything like that.  What I saw, instead, were businesses that wanted to get going again, and customers who wanted that, too.  People seemed to be respecting the social distancing rules for the most part — both at the restaurants and otherwise.  But there is no doubt that things are loosening up.  Soon we’ll start to get some statistics that will allow us to assess the impact.

Demise Of The Inner Long-Haired Kid

My last haircut was on February 24. The calendar tells me that means I’ve had a three-month, state-enforced hiatus from barbering. Even with three months of unimpeded hair growth, though, my hair now is still much, much shorter than it was in high school or college — which tells you something about how short I have been getting it cut these days, and how long it used to be during the ‘70s.

It makes me wonder about my teenage self, and how in the world that person could possibly have put up with long hair. I’ve discovered I really don’t like the feeling of hair brushing against my ears, or on the back of my neck. In fact, right now my whole head feels like I’m wearing a kind of clammy coonskin cap. It’s not a pleasant feeling — but I don’t remember having those kinds of reactions during my my shaggy early years. In fact, I’m pretty sure the opposite is true.

And now I think longer hair is a pain for other reasons. I’ve had to break out my comb again to part it and try to arrange it on my head. You can’t just towel it dry — and I’m not going to start using a blow dryer, either. This reality makes me think that I spent a lot more time in front of the mirror in those days, fiddling around with things I just don’t have the patience or inclination to do these days.  Back then I obviously had a lot more time on my hands than I do now. 

I get my hair cut on Tuesday, and I’m looking forward to it, masks and all. In fact, this whole experience makes me wonder how much my current self and my 20-year-old self would really have in common — beyond liking the same music and reruns of Star Trek.

Passing The Smell Test

You may have referred to the “smell test” before.  I know I have.  If something seems fishy or sketchy, I’m likely to remark that it just doesn’t pass the “smell test.”  I presume that the phrase, in its original usage, referred to assessing whether food was fresh or not.  If you detected a smell from the meat at the open-air market in your village, for example, it failed the freshness “smell test” and was best left unpurchased.

Little did I know, when I casually used that phrase in the past, that one day I would live through a global pandemic where a “smell test” would be relevant — and the test would be applied to me, besides.

How do you know if you’ve contracted coronavirus?  The CDC website lists a bunch of potential symptoms, like a cough, shortness of breath, sore throat, and “muscle pain.”  Some of these are pretty ambiguous.  How do you know if that random cough is sufficiently “dry” to be a potential sign of COVID-19, or whether it is just the kind of cough that strikes every spring because your sinuses are reacting to your seasonal allergies?  Is that coronavirus “muscle pain,” or just the creaking bones and joints of somebody in their 60s?  And don’t even bring up weird new symptoms like “COVID toes,” because I don’t want to examine my feet under any circumstances, anyway. 

But there’s one symptom on the CDC website — “new loss of taste or smell” — that seems like a pretty easy test to self-administer.  So every morning as I take my walk I unfailingly take deep whiffs of the air and try to detect the odors on the breeze.  I enjoy the scents of the flowers, but I also feel a sense of reassurance.  If I can appreciate that lovely lilac fragrance, I figure I’m probably okay.