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.

Fool-Free

To the extent that the pranksters among us are tempted, I’ve got a very strong suggestion:  please, no April Fools’ Day jokes this year.

fof-the-fool-action-shotI’m not much of a prankster, myself.  As a kid I tried a few of the time-honored classics, like the well-placed Whoopie cushion on Uncle Tony’s chair, or the salt in the sugar bowl gag, but mostly my jests involved convincing a credulous person about some far-fetched story.  At the office, I’ve participated in a few jibes, too — including one incident that involved constructing a wall of boxes to block the door of a fellow attorney while he was in his office with the door closed for a telephone call.  This year, though, I’m not much in the mood for gags of the April Fools’ Day variety, and I don’t think that anyone else is, either.

It’s not that I’m opposed to pranks, in principle.  But there’s a time and place for everything, and pranks just seem kind of pointless and childish given the current circumstances.  Part of the idea of the April Fools’ Day jest is that the target will laugh at it, too — which doesn’t seem likely right now, no matter how well-crafted and humorous the scheme might be in a normal setting.  Plus, who are you going to pull the prank on — that person you’ve been spending 24 hours a day with for the last three weeks?  It doesn’t seem like a wise course when you’re going to be spending every waking hour with that person for the foreseeable future, does it?

So, I’m hoping that all of the pranksters among us hold their fire, and let this April 1 pass in a blessedly fool-free fashion.  Next year, perhaps, we all can let our inner pranksters loose.

Breaking The Bad News

We’ve been seeing a lot of our nation’s governors lately.  In Ohio, Governor Mike DeWine has been on TV so much with afternoon announcements about COVID-19 developments that some people are timing their first cocktail with the news conferences and enjoying “Wine with DeWine.”  We’re getting a living reminder of lessons learned during our junior high school civics classes and the fact that we live in a country where the states have significant powers and duties.  When a once-in-a-lifetime crisis like the COVID-19 pandemic hits, governors are put front and center in dealing with all of the issues.

img_2632Unfortunately for the nation’s governors, a lot of what they’re doing right now is breaking bad news.  They’re announcing shutdowns and “shelter in place” edicts and other orders and showing small-print graphs and charts that make people upset and anxious.  Nobody except introverts and hermits wants to be cooped up in their houses indefinitely.  But the time durations of these shutdown orders varies widely, from state to state.  In Ohio, I think the initial “stay at home” order covered the period until April 6.  In Virginia, by contrast, the governor just announced a shutdown until June 10 — more than two months longer than the initial Ohio order.

The current situation squarely raises the issue of the best way to break bad news.  Put yourself in the shoes of the governor of your choice.  If you were issuing a shutdown order, would you give your citizens the worst-case scenario — which seems to be the technique used by the Virginia governor — so that they can start to get adjusted to the prospect of being at home for two months?  It’s a kind of “rip the band-aid off” approach, isn’t it?  And, if you take that approach, you can hope that future developments might allow you to shorten that time period and give the residents of the Old Dominion a pleasant spring surprise.

Or, do you proceed in a more incremental way, issuing orders that have a shorter duration, acknowledging that this is a fast changing situation where you need to be responsive to new information?  Of course, all the while you would understand that you might well have to extend your shutdown, perhaps multiple times, and disappoint people who were hoping the current deadline would stick?  In that scenario, you’re doling out the bad news in bite-sized chunks, hoping it might go down easier.

I don’t think there’s any right or wrong answer to this, necessarily.  Some people are band-aid rippers, and others prefer to remove them a fraction at a time.  I’m normally a band-aid ripper, but I think if I were governor during this period I’d take the incremental approach.  We’re still gathering information about the coronavirus and its trajectory, and an incremental approach allows that information to be analyzed and addressed as it comes in, giving the governor the chance to keep the citizens of his or her state updated and abreast of the latest news.  The incremental approach seems a bit more humble and nuanced than the two-month thunderbolt edict issued from the executive.  And who knows?  There may be something to this “Wine with DeWine” thing, too.

Stay-At-Home Cookies

Normally I don’t do much baking after the holidays end, but if a pandemic isn’t a reason to depart from the norm, what is? We’ve taken our daily walk and want to be safe and respectful of social distancing and sheltering in place, and cookies seem like a good stay-at-home activity.

But what to bake? Unlike the holidays, I haven’t gone on a special shopping trip for unusual supplies — and an extended trip to the besieged grocery store for random baking supplies doesn’t seem wise under the circumstances. I’ve examined the cupboards with care, and figured I could make what we’ll call “Stay-At-Home cookies” in honor of our fight against the coronavirus.

Stay-At-Home Cookies

Ingredients: 1 1/4 cup margarine; 1 cup regular sugar; 1 cup brown sugar; 2 eggs; 1 tsp vanilla, 2 cups all-purpose flour; 1 1/2 tsp cinnamon; 1 tsp baking soda; 1 tsp salt; 3 cups uncooked oatmeal; 1 cup chopped nuts; 1/2 cup peanut butter

Combine margarine, sugar, and brown sugar and cream until well blended. Add eggs and vanilla and beat until smooth and creamy. Add in flour, cinnamon, baking soda, and salt; beat until combined. Add in oatmeal, nuts and peanut butter and try to keep your spouse from eating the batter. Try some yourself and admit it is pretty tasty. Drop heaping spoonfuls onto a cookie sheet covered with parchment, then bake at 385 degrees for 12 minutes. Have some more of that tasty dough. Drink a beer or other adult beverage of your choice while baking; preferably while listening to ‘60’s music. Let cookies cool on baking sheet while you enjoy another beer and find yourself dancing to Woolly Bully.

How many cookies this generates depends on how much dough you consume during the batter/beer/Woolly Bully steps.

Changing Lyrics

As I prepared to take my walk this morning, I had to make my music selection.  I decided to go with my “UAHS Rock” playlist, featuring songs from my high school years.  The songs on it are old, obviously, but they are still great favorites.  Who doesn’t still relish the songs from their youth?

When I walked down the steps to the sidewalk, the first song on the playlist began:  Paul McCartney and Wings’ Band on the Run, which was a huge hit during my high school days.  For those who can’t remember them, the lyrics begin like this:

band-on-the-run-labelStuck inside these four walls,
Sent inside forever,
Never seeing no one
Nice again like you,
Mama you, mama you.
If I ever get out of here,
Thought of giving it all away
To a registered charity.
All I need is a pint a day
If I ever get outta here
If we ever get outta of here.

It’s safe to say that I reacted to  those lyrics in a different way this morning, squinting into the bright sunshine as I carefully maintained my “social distance” from everyone else who was walking and jogging outside,  than I did hanging out in the basement of the family home, with the cheap all-in-one stereo unit down there cranked up to intolerable levels, in 1975.  And a few songs later Stevie Wonder’s Superstition came on, and I had a similarly different reaction to this line:  “Very superstitious; wash your face and hands.”

One of the great things about music is that the listener always brings something to the experience, with songs reminding you of high school prom or hanging with your college chums or making you think about this or that.  I wonder how many other songs are going to be thought of differently, forever, as a result of the Shutdown March of 2020?

Into Full Dispersion Mode

Kish has been in touch with our neighbors up in Stonington, Maine.  Stonington, as you may recall, is a tiny lobster village located at the far tip of Deer Isle, jutting out into the Penobscot Bay.  It is a remote location, to say the least.

img_8663In their communications, our neighbors have mentioned something interesting:  many of the seasonal property owners are coming up earlier than ever before to open up their Stonington residences.  Normally, only permanent residents would be in Maine during this time of year, in what the locals jokingly call the “mud season.”  Typically, the summer residents wouldn’t show up at their Deer Isle places until late May or the beginning of June, at the earliest — and yet, this year, here they are already, up from New York City and Boston and Washington, D.C.

Can you blame them?  The big East Coast cities are COVID-19 hot spots, where many of the U.S. cases of coronavirus have been identified and there are concerns about how the medical facilities will handle the caseload.  In contrast, one neighbor told Kish that there are no reported COVID-19 cases in Stonington, on Deer Isle, or indeed anywhere in the surrounding county.  (Of course, nobody up there has been tested, either.)  According to recent news reports, there have been 155 cases of coronavirus in all of Maine, with most of those clustered in Cumberland County, where Portland is located, which is about three hours away from Stonington by car.

I would imagine that the dispersion from NYC and Boston to places like Stonington is being seen throughout Maine, New Hampshire, and Vermont.  It’s mind-boggling to think of how difficult it must be for Manhattanites living on a densely populated island to achieve meaningful “social distancing” during this time.  If you’ve got to work remotely, and you’re fortunate enough to have the option of going to a faraway location where you aren’t cheek by jowl with other people as soon as you step out your front door, why not take “social distancing” to the max and head out to the remote, less populated areas and wait until the COVID-19 virus burns itself out?

Many of us wonder whether this coronavirus pandemic will result in lasting changes to American culture and society.  I think that one possible result is that more people will become interested in exploring, life outside the big cities, where there’s some elbow room to be had when the next epidemic hits.  They might just find that they like it.  And with the technological advances that allow people to work remotely, why not go into full dispersion mode?

Trying To Make Sense Of The Data

One of the frustrating things about the coronavirus is the lack of a meaningful context in which to make sense of the data.  Statistics are breathlessly reported by the news media without any way to assess what the statistics actually mean for those of us out in the world at large.  It’s a good way for news sites to increase their clicks and visits — the New York Times has reported that news sites have experienced significant usage surges, as readers seek the latest information about COVID-19 — but what’s the right takeaway from the flood of information?

article_24febbraio_2014Consider the reports about increases in the number of confirmed coronavirus cases in the U.S.  Are reports about the number of confirmed cases in a particular location doubling in a week, for example, bad news . . . or just a product of the fact that as tests become more available and more people are tested, we’re inevitably identifying more people who have the virus?  We know that many people who are infected with coronavirus experience only mild symptoms, and increased testing is going to identify an increasing number of those mild cases.  And, as we identify more people who are walking around with the virus, we’ll inevitably see a decline in the mortality rates, because we know from fifth-grade math that an increase in the denominator of confirmed cases, by adding in more newly discovered mild cases, will necessarily result in a decline in the overall death rate percentage.

And speaking of the mortality rate, is reporting on people who have had the coronavirus and died really a meaningful measure, in the abstract, or does it tell us something only if we know more about the circumstances of the deaths?  Take Italy, for example.  The reported mortality rates in Italy are among the worst in the world — worse, even, than the reported rates in China (and I emphasize “reported” for a reason).  But as this article from the Telegraph points out, the high Italian death rates appear to be the product of several factors that seem to undercut the ability to draw meaningful inferences from the Italian statistics.  For example, Italy has one of the oldest populations in the world, the  vast majority of the individuals who have died have been older and dealing with other health issues, and Italian doctors record coronavirus in the cause of death records even if the individuals were suffering from other, significant health problems that contributed to their death.  Given those factors, how should we react to Italian statistics?

And finally, I’ve seen reports that China has closed the hospitals it built to deal with its coronavirus cases, and is reporting a decline in coronavirus cases.  But, should we credit anything China has to say about COVID-19?  It’s pretty clear that China wasn’t exactly transparent with the world when the coronavirus was first discovered in Wuhan province, and I’m skeptical about trusting anything that government says about COVID-19 at this point.

The need to put some context to the data is important not only for those of us who are scratching their heads about how to deal with the issues presented by the coronavirus, but also for the decisionmakers who are weighing when to open businesses, schools, and restaurants.  Our daily lives always involve some form of risk calculation, and most of the risks — whether it is the risk of death in a traffic accident, from a choking incident, from a falling tree limb, or from an operation gone bad — are risks that we are willing to accept.  If the increased testing produces a surge in the number of reported cases and a correspondingly steep drop in the mortality rate, at what point do the authorities conclude that it is okay for us to leave our houses and go back to work?  If the death rate from COVID-19 is twice that, or four times that, of H1N1, and we compare that risk to the damage that would be done to the economy and to individuals who live paycheck to paycheck from a prolonged shutdown, do we accept that risk?

And finally, how do the publicized cases of sports and entertainment figures who report having the coronavirus affect the public perception of the risk equation?  If all of the NBA figures, football coaches, and movie and recording stars who have contracted COVID-19 survive the experience, will that put pressure on authorities to let us get on with our lives?

When you are talking about data, context is so important.  Mark Twain was right about lies, damn lies, and statistics.  I feel that the news media is letting us down, and focusing on the sensational, click-bait headlines while forgoing the nuts-and-bolts reporting that really would be useful during this period.