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Get yourself a pandemic crush

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During the lonely month of April, the most thrilling news I could anticipate came in the form of weekly updates on my friend Kenny’s pandemic crush. An intense and somewhat unrealistic infatuation had managed to rear its head in Kenny’s life, right when the virus made it dangerous to be in close contact with others. It was a second-degree-removed crush on my end, but I still felt invested; a crush is a torturous delight, even in normal times, and even when it’s happening to someone else.

Kenny was introduced to his crush, whom we’ll call Arthur, virtually on a Discord group chat for gay League of Legend gamers. “I had nothing to lose,” Kenny later recounted to me. He had just ended a three-year relationship, and quarantine heightened his sense of loneliness.

In reality, the relationship “really wasn’t going anywhere,” he admitted, despite the constant messaging and back-and-forth flirting.

Arthur, who lived about 40 minutes away, was working as a nurse and interacting with at-risk patients, and their online courtship hadn’t progressed enough to risk an in-person meet-up. Over time, the mutual feeling gradually faded, and Kenny found himself preoccupied with yet another crush from the same Discord group.

2020 has been a big year for yearning — for crowded bars, cozy family gatherings, tight hugs, and mask-less interactions. That has translated into a deep, unattainable longing for all sorts of people, experiences, and destinations. Developing a pandemic crush, therefore, is a sort of emotional coping mechanism, even if romance isn’t necessarily the goal.

It’s a silly yet socially non-consequential obsession a person can safely cultivate in the confines of their head and home. Plus, crushes are indiscriminate — they’re definitely not just for young, single people. Older adults and those in committed relationships (monogamous or polyamorous) can harbor these feelings as well. “Crushes have more to do with fantasy than with reality,” argued psychologist Carl Pickhardt. “They tell much more about the admirer than the admired. It’s because they usually prove unrealistic that in a relatively short time they soon wear off.”

In pandemic times, the stakes are different when it comes to pursuing a love interest. For some, having a crush is a noncommittal hobby, in which brief feelings of attraction are directed toward a mutual friend, a cute neighbor, or a friendly grocery store cashier with good vibes. Meanwhile, others are wading into romantic entanglements (often long-distance) that have become much more serious, akin to that of a long-distance relationship, while the uncertain nature of the pandemic hangs in the background.

Particularly for the many single young people who’ve found themselves living alone or with their parents, and socializing at arm’s length with a handful of familiar acquaintances, it’s a pleasant, time-worthy distraction. The type of romantic yearning that comes with a crush is a form of escapism, an act that’s arguably as productive as (if not more so than) doomscrolling through Twitter.

“Quarantine basically feels like I’m in high school again doing homework at my family’s dinner table,” said Dorian, a 25-year-old graduate student in Minnesota, who began crushing on his high school ex-girlfriend in May. After emotionally extracting himself from this one-sided affair, Dorian developed another crush, this time on Zoom while he was helping a coworker prepare for a presentation.

“Given that all my social and physical contact has become so infrequent and short-lived, there’s almost extra emotional salience that normal interactions are given,” he explained to me. “And that can easily be confused by my lizard brain as being romantic, instead of a desire to spend time with literally anyone.”

Given the lack of anticipatory excitement in our lives, crushing on someone — whether that’s an old friend or a social media mutual — is seductive and oddly satisfying. So why stop?

Crushes are a result of one’s brain chemicals acting up, releasing dopamine (the feel-good hormone) and oxytocin (the love hormone) to create a sense of euphoria and fuzzy excitement. One clinical psychologist told Bustle that by virtue of having a crush on someone, “our brain has a stimulus that is different from our daily experience, and that novelty keeps us engaged.”

Novelty feels sacred nowadays, even if the nature of a crush is fickle. Love in the time of coronavirus — as described to me by the many young people I spoke with — is “pure” yet “emotionally devastating,” “thrilling” but also “exhausting.”

“It’s been a very lovely and indulgent way to exercise my hopeful, imaginative, and romantic muscles,” said Sarah Kissel, a 26-year-old master’s student in Massachusetts, of her pandemic crush.

The two connected in September through an Instagram matchmaking setup for queer women run by the account @dykeblanchett. Within minutes of having her Instagram handle shared on the account’s Stories, Kissel received a deluge of messages from women across the world, but her strongest connection was with, as she described to me, “the most unattainable babe of all time” named Rachel, who is a Rome-based filmmaker and screenwriter.

Their flirtations, which started on Instagram messages, have been “languid and longing,” according to Kissel, and moved immediately past small talk into questions like, “Do you believe in fate?” and “What was your most painful heartbreak?” They’ve set up Zoom dates for Kissel to brush up on her Spanish and Italian (Rachel speaks both fluently), but in light of the international travel restrictions, her budding feelings are “a real problem,” Kissel joked. “Will I go to Rome as soon as it’s safe to meet her? Absolutely.”

But not all crushes are made equal. There are the long-haulers, like Kissel, who are developing intense emotional attachments with their crushes (who are likely reciprocating this interest). Then there are the more casual crushes, like Kenny’s, usually directed toward mutuals on social media or vaguely familiar acquaintances.

The parameters of a crush doesn’t always fall neatly within these two categories; there are also quarantine Hinge boyfriends, Trader Joe’s employee crushes, and thirst trap reply guys. “I’ve had quite a few crushes that would just randomly slide into my DMs and give me some attention after I post a thirst trap,” said Isshani Desai, a 25-year-old creative strategist in Brooklyn. “These conversations are not getting any deeper, which is why it feels unattainable for me.”

Over the past six months, Desai has developed surprising, brief crushes on people who randomly flirt with her online. None have expressed interest in texting her more consistently, but that noncommittal factor keeps Desai grounded. “People want to meet up right away, and they’re not willing to make conversation to really get to know you,” she said. “I don’t know if they’re as great as their social media or what I build them out to be, but in quarantine, the only thing you have is your mind and your own fantasies.”

There is, though, the growing thrill of scoping out in-person crushes at local bars, parks, and grocery stores — something Desai never really used to do before the pandemic. Most people are masked up, which makes the search more exciting. “Nowadays when I go to Trader Joe’s to get groceries, I’d dress up and wear something really nice,” she said. “Because seriously, like, where else am I going to meet the love of my life?”

These crush scenarios all maintain an element of ambiguity, since the majority of them are sustained virtually. Attraction toward one’s interest could be “a potent mix of idealization and infatuation,” as Pickhardt, the psychologist, described. “It doesn’t require knowing another person well at all.”

It’s much easier to project emotions or character traits on another person when they are physically distant, which is a concern Andrea, a 27-year-old advertising strategist in New York City, has when it comes to her pandemic crush Jacob, who is based in London.

“I feel like I know him through the glass on my phone, through an app,” she told me. “I have projected things on people before, but I don’t think that’s an entirely fair assessment of our relationship since we talk so much.”

Jacob was only supposed to be a one-night stand for Andrea when she was vacationing in Los Angeles in January. They sporadically kept in touch over the next couple weeks when he flew to New York City and she to London for work, but it wasn’t until the pandemic that they began texting every day. Yet Andrea is uncertain whether Jacob is equally invested in her or even knows who she is as a person.

Their relationship is now in a weird “no-man’s land territory,” where there’s no timeline for defining the relationship or demanding exclusivity. “I’m not going to stop this person from dating, and I shouldn’t stop myself either,” she said. “But that doesn’t mean I can’t be crushing. I have the most disgusting crush on this man. It’s horrific. And I don’t know what to do because he’s in London.”

Like Kissel’s situation with her pandemic crush, international travel isn’t currently an option for Andrea. She is curious about the blurry nature of their virtual relationship, but the reality of her crush — and her burgeoning feelings for him — is something she’s only considered in the abstract.

“I’ve kept him to myself selfishly in a way,” she told me. “I want to preserve these feelings that I have, this relationship that feels so unmarred by the politics of friendship or day-to-day life. In my head, it’s just a pure connection between us.”

This sense of emotional purity and deep connection is, perhaps, more salient for most people in quarantine than ever before. For most of this year, we’ve lived in closed-off clusters, interacting primarily with those we already know and trust. Developing a crush is a naive act of hope. While it is an act of emotional projection, it’s also one of self-redemption — allowing yourself to pine after an unattainable dream, in spite of all the terrible, mind-boggling events that have occurred so far.

According to my own pandemic crush, “there’s something obviously a bit fantastical and romantic” about this moment and the feelings people are developing. “It came about largely because we’re in these glitch-in-the-matrix circumstances,” he texted me, “but because the emotions involved are legitimate, it also feels just as committed as a full-fledged relationship.”

What is the risk, then, of putting your feelings on the line for someone in another country or someone you might never meet, when all the systems we depend on are in crisis? Crushes come and go, but the feelings that accompany them, however fleeting, are legitimate and a reflection of what we desire. A pandemic crush is simply a chaotic byproduct of these chaotic times.


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Trump’s misleading tweet about changing your vote, briefly explained

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Searches for changing one’s vote did not trend following the recent presidential debate, and just a few states appear to have processes for changing an early vote. But that didn’t stop President Trump from wrongly saying otherwise on Tuesday.

In early morning posts, the president falsely claimed on Twitter and Facebook that many people had Googled “Can I change my vote?” after the second presidential debate and said those searching wanted to change their vote over to him. Trump also wrongly claimed that most states have a mechanism for changing one’s vote. Actually, just a few states appear to have the ability, and it’s rarely used.

Twitter did not attach a label to Trump’s recent tweet.
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Trump’s claim about what was trending on Google after the debate doesn’t hold up. Searches for changing one’s vote were not among Google’s top trending searches for the day of the debate (October 22) or the day after. Searches for “Can I change my vote?” did increase slightly around the time of the debate, but there is no way to know whether the bump was related to the debate or whether the people searching were doing so in support of Trump.

It was only after Trump’s posts that searches about changing your vote spiked significantly. It’s worth noting that people were also searching for “Can I change my vote?” during a similar period before the 2016 presidential election.

Google declined to comment on the accuracy of Trump’s post.

Trump also claimed that these results indicate that most of the people who were searching for how to change their vote support him. But the Google Trends tool for the searches he mentioned does not provide that specific information.

Perhaps the most egregiously false claim in Trump’s recent posts is about “most states” having processes for changing your early vote. In fact, only a few states have such processes, and they can come with certain conditions. For instance, in Michigan, voters who vote absentee can ask for a new ballot by mail or in person until the day before the election.

The Center for Election Innovation’s David Becker told the Associated Press that changing one’s vote is “extremely rare.” Becker explained, “It’s hard enough to get people to vote once — it’s highly unlikely anybody will go through this process twice.”

Trump’s post on Facebook was accompanied by a link to Facebook’s Voting Information Center.
Facebook

At the time of publication, Trump’s false claims had drawn about 84,000 and 187,000 “Likes” on Twitter and Facebook, respectively. Trump’s posts accelerated searches about changing your vote in places like the swing state of Florida, where changing one’s vote after casting it is not possible. Those numbers are a reminder of the president’s capacity to spread misinformation quickly.

On Facebook, the president’s post came with a label directing people to Facebook’s Voting Information Center, but no fact-checking label. Twitter had no annotation on the president’s post. Neither company responded to a request for comment.

That Trump is willing to spread misinformation to benefit himself and his campaign isn’t a surprise. He does that a lot. Still, just days before a presidential election in which millions have already voted, this latest episode demonstrates that the president has no qualms about using false claims about voting to cause confusion and sow doubt in the electoral process.

Open Sourced is made possible by Omidyar Network. All Open Sourced content is editorially independent and produced by our journalists.


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Nearly 6,000 civilian casualties in Afghanistan so far this year

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From January to September, 5,939 civilians – 2,117 people killed and 3,822 wounded – were casualties of the fighting, the UN says.

Nearly 6,000 Afghan civilians were killed or wounded in the first nine months of the year as heavy fighting between government forces and Taliban fighters rages on despite efforts to find peace, the United Nations has said.

From January to September, there were 5,939 civilian casualties in the fighting – 2,117 people killed and 3,822 wounded, the UN Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA) said in a quarterly report on Tuesday.

“High levels of violence continue with a devastating impact on civilians, with Afghanistan remaining among the deadliest places in the world to be a civilian,” the report said.

Civilian casualties were 30 percent lower than in the same period last year but UNAMA said violence has failed to slow since the beginning of talks between government negotiators and the Taliban that began in Qatar’s capital, Doha, last month.

An injured girl receives treatment at a hospital after an attack in Khost province [Anwarullah/Reuters]

The Taliban was responsible for 45 percent of civilian casualties while government troops caused 23 percent, it said. United States-led international forces were responsible for two percent.

Most of the remainder occurred in crossfire, or were caused by ISIL (ISIS) or “undetermined” anti-government or pro-government elements, according to the report.

Ground fighting caused the most casualties followed by suicide and roadside bomb attacks, targeted killings by the Taliban and air raids by Afghan troops, the UN mission said.

Fighting has sharply increased in several parts of the country in recent weeks as government negotiators and the Taliban have failed to make progress in the peace talks.

At least 24 people , mostly teens, were killed in a suicide bomb attack at an education centre in Kabul [Mohammad Ismail/Reuters]

The Taliban has been fighting the Afghan government since it was toppled from power in a US-led invasion in 2001.

Washington blamed the then-Taliban rulers for harbouring al-Qaeda leaders, including Osama bin Laden. Al-Qaeda was accused of plotting the 9/11 attacks.

Calls for urgent reduction of violence

Meanwhile, the US envoy for Afghanistan, Zalmay Khalilzad, said on Tuesday that the level of violence in the country was still too high and the Kabul government and Taliban fighters must work harder towards forging a ceasefire at the Doha talks.

Khalilzad made the comments before heading to the Qatari capital to hold meetings with the two sides.

“I return to the region disappointed that despite commitments to lower violence, it has not happened. The window to achieve a political settlement will not stay open forever,” he said in a tweet.

There needs to be “an agreement on a reduction of violence leading to a permanent and comprehensive ceasefire”, added Khalilzad.

A deal in February between the US and the Taliban paved the way for foreign forces to leave Afghanistan by May 2021 in exchange for counterterrorism guarantees from the Taliban, which agreed to sit with the Afghan government to negotiate a permanent ceasefire and a power-sharing formula.

But progress at the intra-Afghan talks has been slow since their start in mid-September and diplomats and officials have warned that rising violence back home is sapping trust.

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Classic toy tie-up: Etch A Sketch maker to acquire Rubik’s Cube

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Spin Master Corp., the company behind the Etch A Sketch and Paw Patrol brands, has agreed to acquire Rubik’s Brand Ltd. for about $50 million, tying together two of the world’s most iconic toy brands.

The merger comes at a boom time for classic toymakers, as parents turn to familiar products to entertain kids stuck in lockdown. Like sales of Uno, Monopoly and Barbie dolls, Rubik’s Cube purchases have spiked during the pandemic, according to the puzzle maker’s chief executive officer, Christoph Bettin. He expects sales to jump 15% to 20% in 2020, compared with a normal year, when people purchase between 5 million and 10 million cubes.

By acquiring Rubik’s, Toronto-based Spin Master can better compete with its larger rivals, Hasbro Inc. and Mattel Inc. All three companies have pivoted to become less reliant on actual product sales, diversifying into television shows, films and broader entertainment properties based on their toys. Spin Master CEO Anton Rabie said he wouldn’t rule out films or TV shows based on Rubik’s Cubes, but he was focused for now on creating more cube-solving competitions and crossmarketing it with the company’s other products, like the Perplexus.

“Whoever you are, it really has a broad appeal from a consumer standpoint,” Rabie said in an interview. “It’s actually going to become the crown jewel; it will be the most important part of our portfolio worldwide.”

Hungarian inventor Erno Rubik created the Rubik’s Cube in 1974, a solid block featuring squares with colored stickers that users could twist and turn without it falling apart. It gained popularity in the 1980s and has remained one of the best-selling toys of all time, spawning spinoff versions, international competitions of puzzle solvers, books and documentaries.

The toy has been particularly well-suited to pandemic conditions. During lockdowns, parents have sought to give kids puzzles that boost problem-solving skills useful in math and science careers. Normally, toys tied to major film franchises are among the most popular products headed into the holidays, but studios have delayed the release of major new movies because of coronavirus. So classic products are experiencing a mini-renaissance.

“The whole pandemic has really increased games and puzzles,” Rabie said. “But whether the pandemic existed or didn’t exist, we’d still buy Rubik’s. It’s had such steady sales for decades.”

Rubik’s CEO Bettin said it was the right time to sell the company, with the founding families behind it ready to move on. London-based Rubik’s Brand was formed out of a partnership between Erno Rubik and the late entrepreneur Tom Kremer, while private equity firm Bancroft Investment holds a minority stake in the company.

Early on, Bettin felt Spin Master was the right home for the puzzle toy, he said. Spin Master, which was started by a group of three friends in 1994, has expanded through the purchase of well-known brands, including Erector sets and Etch A Sketch. Rabie says he works to honor the “legacy” of those products, which Bettin cited as a key reason to sell the brand to Spin Master over larger companies that were interested.

“It was important for us to not be lost in the crowd, and to be sufficiently important and cared for,” Bettin said. “And there’s a balance between being with someone large enough to invest, and agile enough to ensure you are key part of their plans.”

Spin Master won’t own Rubik’s Cubes in time for the holiday season – the transaction is expected to close on Jan. 4. At that time, the company will move Rubik’s operations from a small office in London’s Notting Hill neighborhood to Spin Master’s new games operations center in Long Island.

Some of Rubik’s Brand’s 10 employees will be part of the transition, but they won’t stay permanently, Bettin said.

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