Setting The Rules

Recently, after I wrote about getting a cast iron skillet as a gift, I was invited to join the “Cast Iron Cooking” group on Facebook. When I clicked on the link, I was asked three questions: why did I want to join, did I represent that I had read the group’s rules, and did I agree to abide by the rules? I explained that I was interested in learning about using a skillet, read the rules, answered yes to the latter two questions, and was pleased to be allowed to become a member.

I was intrigued by the group’s rules.  What was rule number 1?  “No politics, PERIOD. No drama, PERIOD.”  And to make that point crystal clear:  “ABSOLUTELY no political, “healthy vs unhealthy” posts, medical advice, requests for sympathy or attention, or “cute little games” with the rules. NO POLITICS.”  Rule number 4 is “Rudeness is not tolerated,” and adds:  “If you don’t like it, move on and read something else. Comments about how *you* dislike someone else’s cooked food will be removed. Profanity will get you banned. Arguing with admins is not advised. Puke emojis and GIFs will get deleted.”  Rule number 9 is “No viral videos and funny meme pictures,” and Rule number 10 reads “Accts posting Spam, scam, porn = immediate ban!”  Other rules include things like no selling of items and agreeing that administrators may delete posts.

These rules work pretty well.  The Cast Iron Cooking group is a very pleasant, positive group where you see a lot of pictures of delicious-looking food in cast iron cookery and are motivated to try things like cooking fried chicken in your skillet.  I’d say the administrators who came up with the rules did a very good job.

The group’s rules made me think about the rules that you might impose if you were setting up a group that members of the public might be allowed to join or a website where random people might make comments.  Some people might welcome political chatter and harsh denunciations of this candidate or that, or the posters who voice support for them.  Some might want to see the latest cruel memes.  As for me, I would definitely adopt the Cast Iron Cooking Rules 1, 4, 9, and 10, quoted above.  You can get a bellyful of politics, discourteous comments, and general misbehavior on just about any website that allows comments, or for that matter on the general Facebook page.  It’s nice to have a little oasis where civility reigns.

The Bane Of The Reminders

We’ve been working remotely for a while now, and with the coronavirus refusing to go away peacefully and quietly, it looks like we’ll be working remotely for a while longer.  That means technology will continue to play a key role in our ability to earn our living, and on a regular basis, new programs and applications will be rolled out for us to use in the remote working space.  And then we’ll have to learn them, and figure out how to incorporate them into our work days.

I accept all of this — really, I do.  I’m grateful for the tech geeks and programs that have kept the ball rolling during the shutdown period.  But there’s one thing about these new software applications that really, really bugs me — the reminders.

Here’s what always happens.  The new application is rolled out.  You sign up for it . . . warily.  And then the onslaught of reminders begins.  At first the reminders are somewhat friendly, like “Hey, we’re glad you’ll be using McGuffin.  Learn how!”  But quickly they become increasingly insistent.  “The McGuffin will help you collaborate seamlessly.  You can be trained on it through this free webinar!”  “Follow this link to take your McGuffin training!”  “Don’t forget your McGuffin training!”  “Hey, buddy boy — nice little remote working arrangement you’ve got here.  Be a shame if something happened to it because you didn’t take the McGuffin training.”  (OK, that last one is a bit of an exaggeration.) 

And if you do take the training, the emails don’t stop.  “Please rate the McGuffin training.”  “We’ve made great new  improvements to McGuffin.  Click here to find out about them.”  “We noticed you haven’t been making full use of McGuffin.  We’re monitoring what you’re doing, in case you have any doubt about that.”  (OK, that last one is a bit of exaggeration, too.)

The constant nagging quickly reminds you that you are up against a soulless computer program that will never tire or falter in its relentless quest to get you to click on the links and complete the stupid training.  You can’t ignore it.  It will keep bugging you to do its bidding and filling up your inbox with totally unwanted reminders.  It’s like an annoying, whining kid constantly tugging at your pant leg and asking you to buy it an ice cream cone.  Its need for immediate attention and responsiveness on your part becomes unbearable.   

There’s probably some new application out there that could stop the never-ending flow of reminder statements.  But if I sign up for it, the whole process will start over again.

A Profession In Search Of Itself (Cont.)

I’ve been thinking about the journalism world since writing my earlier piece on what the move away from “objectivity” means for the world of the newsroom.  I think there are some other forces at play that are making the world of daily newspapers very difficult right now — some unavoidable, some self-inflicted.

A Man Reads A NewspaperObviously, the main unavoidable problem is . . . speed.  People expect to get things faster and faster, and we’ve gotten so spoiled by instantaneous speed that we now groan at even a few seconds’ delay as our browser calls up a website.  The daily newspaper simply can’t compete with that — there are too many steps in the process.  By the time the newspaper lands on your doorstep, it will therefore likely be viewed as “old news” already.  It’s been all over the internet for hours — so who wants to sit down and read it again?  And how many people want to sit down and actually read something, as opposed to flipping through content on their cell phones as they head out for a jog or wait for an elevator?

Another unavoidable problem is cost. Newspapers of the past had large payrolls — from the reporters and columnists to the editors to the photographers to ad salesmen to the people who laid out the pages and the guys in the print shop running the presses.  How many labor-centric businesses are thriving these days?  And, as cost-cutting has occurred, newspapers cut into the muscle of daily journalism — the people who made newspapers different from and more reliable than bloggers, like experienced editors who would send stories back for additional fact-checking, or investigative reporters who might take weeks to produce a big, carefully constructed and rigorously tied down story.

But there are self-inflicted errors, too.  I think many newspapers have botched the inevitable move to digital delivery.  If you look at many news websites, they are a riotous mess from a presentation standpoint.  There’s no front page or above-the-fold organization that tells you what the lead story is.  Print newspapers may be old-fashioned, but there was a clear organization at work that was comforting, dependable, and helpful.  If you wanted to feel reasonably informed about what was going on in the world and your town, you read through the front page and the national, state, and local news sections, and then you could turn to the business section, or sports.  You knew that some intelligent person had made some thoughtful decisions about the relative importance of the stories.  Does anyone feel that way about most news websites on-line?  Hard news is mixed up with celebrity news and “sponsored content” that doesn’t look materially different from the “news.”  What do you need to read to truly feel informed?

And that brings me to a final point:  the trivialization of what is supposed to be news.  How many of the stories on a basic news website — say, msn.com — are what we think of as actual news reporting, and how much of what we see featured is content about celebrities being out with their boyfriends or clickbait articles about why a particular sports figure should be seen as a bad guy?  We’ve reached the point where somebody’s context-free cell phone video of a delivery driver who didn’t help an old guy who fell to the ground is featured as prominently — and perhaps more prominently — than an article about a foreign conflict.  And there are opinions, on stories large and small, everywhere you look.

In their quest to keep up with the times and be hip and edgy, newspapers have lost the sober, thoughtful perspective and reputation they once had, and have elevated the inconsequential.  It may appeal to some people, but it doesn’t appeal to people who remember newspapers as they once were.

An Old Guy’s View Of New Technology

There is no doubt that — for some people, at least, including me — there has been an inverse relationship between age and receptivity to new technology.

Once, as a callow youth, I was dazzled by new technology.  Of course, the Mercury and Gemini and Apollo space programs made everyone interested in new advancements in computers and technology as a point of national pride, and that carried over into home life and school.  When our family signed up for a crude early version of premium cable TV called Qube, I wanted to know how it worked and what it offered.  And I was excited when Dad brought him one of the first Atari game systems, so UJ and I could play Pong in our family room.  I even took a computer course in high school and learned some of the basics of FORTRAN programming using punch cards, and thought it was fantastic that the computer did what my carefully arranged stack of punch cards commanded.

This happily open-minded approach to new technology continued through college and into law school.  In college, I learned how to use video display terminals (“VDTs”), one of the first forays into stand alone word processing units, and spent hours in front of a VDT, with its greenish glow.  I believe that is where I first learned the word “cursor.”  And my friends and I happily enjoyed every cool new video game that appeared in our favorite bars, whether it was Tron or Pac-Man or Ms. Pac-Man or Asteroids or Galaga.  And in law school I learned to use computer legal search engines, and even took on a job where I had to “back up” the hard disks on a computer system that crashed regularly.

angry-old-man-with-computerBut at some point, my receptivity to the new technology changed, and I can’t quite put my finger on when it happened, or exactly why.  Some of it might have been repeated experience with technology that overpromised and underdelivered, or that focused on bells and whistles — “look, you can program your own individualized message to appear as your screen saver!” — without meaningfully improving the basics, like word processing capabilities, that were the meat and potatoes uses of the system.  Some of it no doubt was brutal experience, where one false key stroke, or one ill-timed system crash, caused hours of work to maddeningly vanish and have to be recreated.  And with each glitch and crash, skepticism began to replace receptivity, and fear of disaster began to replace eager interest.

The pace of technological change didn’t help things, either.  With new computers, search engines, phone systems, cell phone systems, remote access fobs, security systems, constant annoying password changes, and other developments being introduced all the time, it seemed like things were never really set — at least, not for long — and there was always some overwhelming new training to take.  And that reality caused another reaction to enter into the mix:  “why can’t things just stay the same for a while?”

I had that kind of jaded reaction to new technology — but then the coronavirus pandemic hit the world, and everything changed again.  For many of us, technology saved our butts and allowed us to keep working remotely in a way that really wouldn’t have been possible even 5 years earlier — much less 20 or 30.  I’ve learned how to use a number of new programs and applications, and have been grateful for the opportunity.  And whenever I talk to one of our IT people these days, I thank them and acknowledge just how crucial this wonderful technology has been.

I wouldn’t say I’ve quite returned to the wide-eyed fascination I had as a kid, but this current experience has definitely moved the needle back by a lot of years.  The next time you hear me fulminating crotchety old man views about technological advancements, just remind me of COVID-19 and 2020, and I’ll shut up.

Brainstarters And Timewasters

I’d guess that most of us have at least one app on our phone that we tap when we want to get our brains working in the morning, or to give us something to do to fill those random ten-minute snippets of the day that happen while, for example, we are waiting for our spouses to get ready to go out.

230896There are some crucial requirements for these brainstarters and  timewasters.  First, they need to be sufficiently interesting to actually get your brain working and allow you to fill the time you’re looking to occupy.  If the app is so boring that you lose interest and would rather sit there drumming your finders on the arm of your chair, it has failed in its essential function.  Second, at the same time the app can’t be so riveting that you can’t promptly stop when your spouse comes downstairs and is ready to go and would be offended if you gave her the one-minute sign and kept tapping your phone.  It therefore needs to be a game, or puzzle, or challenge that you can readily put down and pick up again at your leisure,  And third, if the app is going to have staying power on your phone, it’s got to be set up so that you’re always facing a new challenge.

Me, I’m a Spider Solitaire guy.  I picked up the free version from the app store, because I just wasn’t willing to pay for a timewaster, so before I can play a game I have to sit through the snippet of an ad for a new game, a new car, or something else — but reacting to that helps to get the brain started, too.  I come from a card-playing family, so a card game appealed to me.  There are thousands of different variations of how the cards can be dealt, so there’s no real worry about repetition.  It’s easy to put down mid-game and pick up later, and trying to figure out different approaches to how to win a game when the cards are really working against you keeps my interest.  And some appropriately triumphal music plays when you win a game, so you feel a certain sense of accomplishment with each little victory.

Brainstarters and timewasters aren’t the most important things in the world, of course, but they serve a crucial role in deflecting utter boredom and minutes that seem to stretch on for hours.  We’ll appreciate them even more if we ever get to the point of waiting at the gate for an overdue plane flight again.

Video Etiquette 101

Video conferences have become such a big part of the work day during this coronavirus pandemic period.  For me, at least, video calls emerged abruptly, and went from a once-in-a-while thing to a routine, several times a day occurrence.  And now, nobody seems to use regular phone calls anymore.

video-conferencing-01-as-rt-200327_hpmain_16x9t_608But the thing about video calls is that they don’t seem to have a standard, accepted etiquette yet.  Their sudden burst onto the daily work scene means we’re still thrashing around and trying to figure out how to behave.  As a result, you wonder how you are supposed to deal with certain issues that are presented by videoconferences.  With people having heightened sensitivity during this whole weird period we are in, you don’t want to unwittingly be rude, crude, and socially unacceptable, or otherwise give offense.   And muddling through doesn’t seem like a really wise, viable option.

For example, when you get a video call, do you always answer with your video enabled?  Is it considered rude or a kind of affront not to do so?  What if the person who calls turns out not to have their video enabled?  Should you immediately conform to the video-enabling practices of the caller, or is the act of disabling, with no apparent technical reason for doing so, itself considered impolite?  And if you don’t have the video enabled, is the well-mannered course to explain why — or is that just wasting people’s time?

The fact that these video conferences are occurring from people’s homes adds another layer of potential faux pas to the mix.  Is it acceptable to ask where the person you are talking to is, or comment on the background, or is that considered really intrusive?  If kids, spouses, or pets appear in the picture, are you supposed to comment, or act like you haven’t seen them?  If someone is totally backlit and you can’t see their face, do you say something or hold your tongue?  Is it considered appropriate to ask somebody to move to a different location or adjust their screen so that their face is more visible, or is that unforgivably untoward?

Where is the modern-day Emily Post, ready to instruct us on the dos and don’ts of the new situations that are being created by technological advancements?  It sure would be helpful to have somebody give us some instruction on this stuff.

 

 

A Future Of Dancing Robot Dogs

Sports franchises across the globe have struggled with how to deal with the coronavirus pandemic.  In some places, like the United States, sporting events for the most part haven’t occurred at all.  In other places, like Japan, the games have been going forward, but without any spectators due to contagion concerns.  And that raises a question:  what do you do, if anything, to substitute for the fans in the stands?  Do you play the games in eerie, empty, silent stadiums?  Or, like some Korean teams have done, do you put cardboard cutouts of fans in the seats?

A Japanese team, the Fukuoka SoftBank Hawks, took a different approach: dancing robots and robot dogs.

The YouTube clip above shows a recent performance of the choreographed moves of jersey-wearing robots and a number of ballcap-wearing, four-legged, black-and-yellow machines (which are supposed to be dogs).  The annoying song they are “dancing” to is apparently a kind of theme song for the Hawks, and the moves they are performing are normally performed by human fans.  The whole thing comes across as pretty creepy to me.  Is the future of live sports a future of dancing robot dogs?  And I thought furry mascots like Slider were annoying!

One good thing about this:  after watching the robots and robot dogs cut a rug, I’ll never feel embarrassed to dance at a wedding again.

Skullcandy Indy

I don’t often plug products on the blog, but it’s such a pleasure to find a well-conceived, well-designed product that delivers what it promises that I feel I need to say a few words about my Skullcandy Indy wireless headphones. 

I like listening to music when I take a morning walk or work in the yard.  Previously, I used the standard iPhone earbuds that would connect to my phone with a cord.  After a while they started to bug me, for two reasons.  First, it was hard to keep them in your ears.  And second, if wasn’t unusual to snag the cord on something and yank the earbuds out of your ears, which was supremely annoying.  And don’t even talk to me about the issued posed by cord connection with you’ve got a leaping, oblivious dog in the vicinity.

So I decided to go cordless and wireless.  But, what to buy?  I’d heard good things about Skullcandy products, so I decided to buy their “Indy” product.  It turned out to be a great decision.  It’s easy to sync the earbuds with your phone, even for a technophobe like me, and the product delivers great sound quality.  You charge up the earbuds in a little charging station and remove them when you are ready for use.  They turn on automatically — with a great, authoritative “Power On!” statement delivered by a female voice with a faint accent that I inevitably try to mimic — and have a kind of foam insert that allows you to place them securely in your ears to prevent slippage.  And best of all, there is no cord to be tangled.  They are ideal for walking, gardening, or otherwise sitting outside and listening to your favorite music.

I admit it:  I’m a Skullcandy fan.

For Want Of A “Touch Pad”

Yesterday we had to buy a new washing machine, which is being delivered today.  I’m not real happy about it.

The “old” washer came with the house.  As near as we can figure, it was bought new about five years ago.  In prior years, it’s proven to be a perfectly good, front-loading washer, and it’s got all of the high-end washing options and settings you could possibly wish for.

But when we arrived this year, we could not turn the stupid washer on.  Instead of a clunky, old-fashioned button you can physically depress to start the wash cycle, it has a sleek, more high-tech “touch pad” button.  You put your finger on the “touch pad” button, and sensors are supposed to detect the action and start the machine.  But try as we might — including disconnecting and reconnecting the machine to electrical outlets, applying various degrees of pressure, cursing, pleading, and trying knuckles, thumbs, and index fingers — yes, even middle fingers — we couldn’t get the touch pad button to engage, even though every other light and button and lever and dial on the machine seemed to be working just fine. 

We had a repairman come out, he used his testing equipment, and he told us that the “touch pad” would have to be replaced.  When he checked on the cost of that one part, he determined to his apparent astonishment that it would cost as much as buying a brand-new washing machine.  So why buy a replacement part for an old machine that now has had a serious problem when you can buy a new machine for the same price?  Our decision was an easy one.

This whole episode really bugs me.  At our house in New Albany, our washing machine was a 23-year-old top-loading Maytag.  It was decidedly low-tech, with only a dial and a row of black buttons, but it worked perfectly and was as dependable as the day is long.  I bet that machine is working still.

Since we bought that Maytag back in the early ’90s, appliance manufacturers have fallen prey to the notion that their devices need to be as high tech as cell phones, so if you try to buy a washing machine these days you’ll get a smorgasbord of “smart” options that look great.  But who cares how your washing machine looks?  It’s not typically prominently displayed in the American household, but instead is tucked away in a basement or a cubbyhole where guests don’t go.  And isn’t reliability what you are really looking for in a washing machine?  And, perhaps, simple replacement parts that don’t (ridiculously) cost as much as a new machine?

Our current washer, sleek and high-tech as it is, will be hauled away, probably to a landfill, even though its essential washing machine parts seem to be perfectly fine.  It’s a waste, and all because the machine has a “touch pad” rather than a simple button.  Sometimes, “high tech” is a curse.

A Time For Dragons

In a year where good news has been incredibly scarce, here’s a ray of sunshine:  two astronauts were successfully launched into orbit yesterday from the Kennedy Space Center in Florida.  The two veteran astronauts aboard, Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley, are currently orbiting the Earth and will dock with the International Space Station today.

49927519643_b43c6d4c44_o.0The successful launch yesterday marks two milestones.  It’s the first launch of human beings into space from the Kennedy Space Center since 2011, when the last space shuttle mission occurred.  More significantly, the launch is a huge step forward in America’s entire approach to spaceflight and space exploration and development.  The launch vehicle and “Crew Dragon” capsule carrying the astronauts were designed and built by SpaceX, one of the many private companies that are working to make spaceflight a successful commercial venture.

It’s difficult to overstate how significant this step is.  For decades, the space program proceeded on a model where launch vehicles were designed by governmental employees and then built by contractors under “cost plus” contracts.  The SpaceX venture represents a radically different approach, in which NASA describes what it wants, says what it will pay, and then leaves it to the private company to design and build the vehicle that complies with the NASA requirements.  The decision to yield some of the governmental control, and trust private companies to do the job, is an interesting story, and one for which the Bush and Obama Administrations deserve significant credit.

The new approach has several consequences.  For one, it is unquestionably cheaper for taxpayers.  In addition, the interplay between private companies looking to control costs while delivering the required product and governmental engineers who have long experience with spaceflight issues is producing innovation and new perspectives on how to solve problems.  And finally, the successful launch of SpaceX’s Crew Dragon, atop a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket, demonstrates that commercial spaceflight works.  SpaceX is one of many private companies that are making space their mission, and yesterday’s triumph will undoubtedly spur other companies to look to space as a new frontier for investment and commercial activity.  If, as many of us hope, spaceflight is to become a routine activity, with expansive space stations and lunar bases and the exploration of Mars as the next steps, the involvement of private investment and private capital will be essential to making that dream a reality.

Yesterday’s launch marks the Era of the Dragon in spaceflight.  It’s the first time in history that equipment built by a private company has carried human beings into space.  It won’t be the last.

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.

(Phone) Storage Wars

The last few days I’ve gotten a few of those annoying messages saying that I was nearing the maximum storage capacity of my iPhone.  Of course, I shrugged and ignored them.  Don’t you just hate getting those little pop-up notices?

And then this morning, my phone froze up and one of my apps crashed.

iphone-manage-storageNeedless to say, this was a cause for more than mild concern and some significant regret that I hadn’t responded to those irritating notices.  In the Great Coronavirus Shutdown of 2020, what the hell would you do if you didn’t have a properly functioning smartphone that you desperately need to successfully work from home?   So I immediately launched into full frenzied phone fix-up mode.  I restarted my phone, then went to settings, navigated to my iPhone storage icon, and found that I was at about 63.6 GB on a phone that can store no more than 64 GB.  That’s obviously cutting it too close.

Mass deletion was called for.  And as I started that process, I discovered things like this:

  • I had messages going back to 2015 that had never been deleted.  These included messages from my periodontist and optometrist reminding me of appointments that have long since occurred and “meet you at the coffee shop of the hotel”-type messages from business trips I had taken years ago.
  • Apps that were taking up significant storage capacity that I had never used, or hadn’t used in years.
  • A bunch of duplicate photos.
  • Lots of music that I haven’t listened to, and don’t really need to have on my phone.

All of this was stuff that was useful and helpful and wanted at one point in time, which is why it was on my phone in the first place.  But my guess is that, when the Coronavirus Crisis occurred, the new texting threads and groups that have been created, and the other increased uses of smartphones in an effort to stay connected despite the stay-at-home edicts, have caused many phones like mine to march inexorably toward their maximum storage capacity.  And what would you rather have access to right now — COVID-19 memes that your friends are sending that give you a chuckle during this difficult period, or that Ticketron app that you downloaded and last used to get some tickets to a concert in 2018?

So, I deleted about 10 GB of random stuff.  It was a productive use of my shutdown time, and I felt better after I cleared out some of the debris.  Now my phone is coronavirus meme-ready again.

If you’re twiddling your thumbs wondering what the hell you might do on day 45 of the shutdown, you might take a look at your storage settings.  And be sure not to ignore those annoying pop-up notices.

Five Essential Inventions For A Tolerable Quarantine

We’ve been self-isolating for more than three weeks now, and while many people are complaining about being cooped up for so long, I think it’s important to recognize those things that have made our collective bout with quarantine more tolerable.  I’ve come up with a list of five things that I think have been essential, listed in reverse order of their first invention.  Two of them are about as old as civilization, interestingly.

  1.  Alcohol — Where would we be without wine, beer, and other adult beverages?  At the end of a hard day of working at home, a glass of wine or a cold tumbler of suds sure make the graphs showing how curves can be flattened and the news about ventilator production go down a bit easier.  Liquor sales spiked after the shutdown was announced, and it quickly became clear that Americans put alcohol on the same exalted level as toilet paper when it comes to being absolutely certain of having a more than ample supply.  As somebody said, it’s not clear that people are drinking more during the work-at-home period, but they’re sure not drinking any less, either.  As for the invention of adult beverages, humans have made both wine and beer for so long that their dates of creation have been lost in the mists of time.  Scientists recently discovered earthenware jars containing wine residue that indicated humans were guzzling fermented grape juice more than 8,000 years ago, and beer is the subject of the oldest recorded recipe in the world — instructions that were found on ancient Egyptian papyrus scrolls that date back to 5,000 B.C. 
  2. Soap — You’ve got to give people something to do during a pandemic to make them feel like they are pitching in, and for Americans the instructions are clear:  wash your hands, thoroughly and repeatedly.   As soon as we get back from our allotted exercise walks we head dutifully to the sink for our required 20-second bout with lathering, scrubbing, and rinsing.  It may not sound like much, but those constant 20-second scrubbings add up and help to pass the slow-moving quarantine time, and they make us feel good about doing our part.  Soap also dates back thousands of years, with historians believing that the Babylonians invented the first soap, made from fats boiled with ashes, about 5,000 years ago.
  3. Canned food and crock pots — It’s probably safe to say that people are cooking more at home than they’ve done in the last 50 years, and because there’s an interest in trying to minimize trips to the grocery store, people are trying to stretch their food stores and leftovers farther than ever before.  That’s where canned food and crock pots really strut their stuff.  In fact, I think it is safe to say that no single device is more adept at converting aging leftovers into tasty meals than the crock pot.  Whether it’s stews made of random items hauled from the cupboard, or last night’s chili made with leftover meat loaf, leftover sausage, a can of black beans, some chopped onions, and liberal doses of Texas Pete’s hot sauce and sriracha sauce, our crock pot has been a high-producing kitchen item during the last few weeks.  The smells coming from the crock pot also help to make the quarantine household a happy place, too.  Canned foods were first invented more than 200 years ago, and the first slow cookers — the precursors to the crock pot, which was first call the “bean pot” — were invented about 80 years ago
  4. PCs — Where would we be without personal computers and laptops?  For many of us, they are the one, essential device that allows us to work from home, and without them the unemployment statistics in America would be much, much worse.  They also allow us to get the latest news with a few touches of keyboard buttons, and to catch up on our friends and check out the latest coronavirus memes and political rants on social media websites.  The laptop PC is the fulcrum that has moved the working world, and the COVID-19 quarantine is the singular event that will probably change our approach to how people work and do business, forever.  The first personal computer — the Altair 8800 — was invented in 1975, and the first laptop — which weighed more than 30 pounds, incidentally — was released in 1981.
  5. Netflix and other streaming services — One very popular topic among friends on social media these days is swapping information about nightly viewing options.  Everybody’s got an opinion, because we’re all watching a lot of TV during this shut-in period, and we’re running through viewing options faster than ever before.  (The ten episodes of season three of Ozark, for example, flew by far too quickly.)  Netflix and other streaming services allow us to pick from an enormous array or TV shows and movies, old and new, and then advise our friends on whether options like Tiger King or Messiah are worth checking out.  What would we do without constant entertainment?  Netflix first started streaming content in 2007 — just in the nick of time, relatively speaking.

So there you have it — millennia of human invention and creativity, all combining to make the Great Coronavirus Crisis of 2020 a bit more tolerable for American shut-ins.  Thanks to the ancient winemakers, the Egyptians and Babylonians, and the techno-geeks and food canners.  We owe you a great debt of gratitude.

And now, it’s time to check out a few websites and think about what we’ll be making for dinner tonight.

Close Talkers (Video Conference Version)

I’d say that I have participated in more video conference calls over the past three weeks than in the rest of my extended work life, combined.  And, as I participate in the calls, I realize I’ve got a lot to figure out.  Other people do, too.

forehead man wrinkles before and afterRecently I was on a multi-party video call with one of those split screen set-ups.  One of the participants was positioned too close to his camera.  His oversized eyes and forehead, positioned in the upper left corner of my computer screen, loomed over the other talking heads like he was Gulliver among the Lilliputians.  It made me think that, if there was a Seinfeld about life during the coronavirus pandemic, one episode probably would be about close video conference talkers.  (And I expect that, in the COVID-19 Seinfeld world, Kramer would undoubtedly violate all social distancing requirements and still barge into Jerry’s apartment to eat his cereal.)

The gigantic forehead incident made me realize that I need to think carefully about my  video conference presence.  Am I too close to the little glowing dot at the top of my computer screen, or too far away?  Is your video conference head supposed to pretty much fill the screen, or is the proper dimension three-quarters of the screen, or one half?

And the position of the head is important, too — especially for the older guys like me.  If your head is tilted forward, you’re giving the unfortunate viewer a huge dose of your forehead, receding hairline, and thinning scalp.  If you lean back, on the other hand, you’re forcing the viewer to focus on the multiple chins and the vibrating neck wattles.  Either way, it’s not exactly a pretty picture.

There’s also the issue of what kind of attitude you’re projecting with your video position.  If you’re leaning in, you look earnest and engaged, but also perhaps hard of hearing.  If you lean back, your look “cooler,” but maybe uninterested.  And if you’re somebody who uses his hands to accentuate the point you are making, as I do, how can you be sure that the screen is capturing those carefully calibrated gestures?

It’s all pretty confusing for the novice video conferencer who doesn’t want to assume the Gulliver position in the upcoming conference calls.  It makes me think that the picture element adds a really significant dimension to the communication that requires you to give some careful thought to these issues before the calls start, and position yourself accordingly — and deliberately.

The Boys And Girls In The Bubbles

Ohio has been in shutdown mode for some time now – hey, can somebody remind me how long it’s been, exactly? — and I feel like we’ve adjusted pretty well.  Human beings are good at that; genetically, we’re hard-wired to assess new situations, figure them out, and come up with new strategies and approaches.  In only a few days, changed routines have been established, new daily patterns have become the norm, and what was once unusual has been accepted and incorporated into our lives with a kind of resigned, collective shrug.

aidan2bin2ba2bbubbleFaceTime and Zoom and Microsoft Teams and countless other video applications have gotten a workout.  What used to be simple, voice-only calls have morphed into video calls as a matter of course, not because video makes the calls more efficient, but because it’s incredibly nice to see other human faces from time to time, to get a smile or a laugh and hope that you’ve lifted someone’s day as they’ve lifted yours.  Thanks to the miracles of modern technology, we’ve had virtual coffees and virtual beers after work and virtual cocktail parties with friends and family and colleagues to keep that human touch and to know that everyone looks okay and seems to be hanging in there.   Seeing faces turns out to be pretty darned reassuring and uplifting, when you think about it.

When we go outside for walks, we maintain that assured clear distance of six feet to the extent we can, veering into the street or onto the grass at Schiller Park to respect that buffer zone.  Social distancing is a physical concept, though, and it doesn’t mean we can’t maintain non-physical social contact with the people we see, through a smile and nod and a cheerful greeting and a brief chat as we stand appropriately apart.  People seem to be more consciously outgoing, as they steer clear of each other.  Maybe it’s just the fact that everybody is at home all day long where they used to be at their offices for most of the day, but it sure seems like there are lot of people out on the street at any given time.  Perhaps that’s because it’s another way to get that human contact — even if it’s remote contact.  That’s another element of this new paradigm that seems to have been adopted and incorporated without too much trouble.

During this shutdown period, we’re all living a kind of virtual life, but of course it’s our real life.  We’re all like the boy in the bubble, living in our little zones.  It’s a fascinating social experiment, and I hope people will remember this instinctive need for contact with fellow humans when this isolation process ends, as it will.  I, for one, will never take walking into a friendly restaurant or bar for granted again.