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.

Like Showering In A Phone Booth

I enjoyed our brief trip to San Antonio, but it’s good to be home.  Why?  Among other things, I confess that I have grown accustomed to the everyday amenities in our house.

IMG_4195Take the shower, for instance.  Our bed and breakfast room had a bathtub shower with an overhead nozzle and a square metal apparatus from which the shower curtain was hung.  You turned on the shower, climbed in, and pulled the curtain closed around you.

It had a distinctly continental look to it, and was very quaint and charming — but it felt precisely like showing in a telephone booth.  My head stuck out of the top, making me feel a bit like Gulliver in Lilliput, while at the same time, the clingy shower curtain established an ever-present physical boundary.  It was tough to maneuver soap, shampoo, and washcloth in such tight surroundings, and good luck to you if you dropped the soap while lathering and had to sink down inside the shower cubicle to try to retrieve that slippery item.

So forgive me if I’m looking forward to this morning’s visit to the familiar shower stall here at home, where the shampoo bottle and soap dish are in their expected places and a little elbow room may be found.

The Keystone Pipeline And Lilliput

Today President Obama rejected a proposal to build the Keystone Pipeline. It is one of those decisions, I think, that carries a deeper message about our country, its leaders, and where we are headed.

The proposed pipeline would run 1,700 miles, carrying oil from Canada to the Gulf of Mexico.  It was opposed by environmentalists, who hate the idea of a pipeline crossing the heartland and argue that it would invade sensitive environmental areas in Nebraska.  It was supported by business and labor unions, who say it would be like a colossal public works project — except the $7 billion cost wouldn’t be paid by the government, but by the company that wants to build the pipeline.

The pipeline issue posed a difficult political choice — so the Obama Administration punted and blamed Congress.  The State Department said that the denial was due to Congress imposing an unreasonable 60-day deadline on the Administration’s decision on the project.  Congress, of course, says the 60-day deadline was necessary because the Administration was dithering and proposed to delay any decision until after the 2012 election.  The story linked suggests that the Administration’s decision today was motivated by various carefully weighed political considerations.

The deeper message, I think, is that we increasingly seem to be a country that can’t get things done.  In my view, approving the pipeline makes sense.  It would create lots of jobs during these tough times.  It would inject huge sums into our economy.  It would allow us to get more oil from a safe source, rather than relying on oil from more volatile areas of the world.  Given Iran’s latest saber-rattling talk about closing the Straits of Hormuz, the latter point may be the most important point of all.  (And don’t talk to me about focusing on alternative renewable sources of energy — the reality is that we need oil now and will need it for the foreseeable future.  Our energy needs aren’t going to be met by the magical ministrations of Tankerbelle, the petroleum fairy.)

Obviously, environmental issues must be considered in deciding where the pipeline should go — but why should they quash it altogether?  It already is designed to run through the sparsely populated  central region of the United States.  We need to remember that we live in a country that is criss-crossed and tunneled through with pipelines, power lines, generators, underground storage tanks, highways, railroad, and other delivery systems.  I’m confident that the experts can find an appropriate location for this pipeline and install the protections needed to make it as safe as is reasonably practicable in an uncertain world.

America used to be fabulous at this type of massive project, like the transcontinental railroad, the Hoover Dam, the Panama Canal, or many others.  Those projects had broad political support because they promoted development and commerce.  Does anyone doubt that Democratic Party icons like Franklin Roosevelt, Harry Truman, and Lyndon Johnson would approve this pipeline?  Conversely, does anyone think the interstate highway system could have been built so speedily if the current regulatory morass that has grown up around consideration of environmental issues existed in the ’50s and ’60s?  Consider that, the next time you drive on our interstates and see the hills that have been sheared off or tunneled through so that you can get from point A to point B at 65 mph.

So now we’ll wring our hands, and hire consultants, and do impact studies for months and years more — all the while leaving people without a job unemployed when they could be working, leaving our economy moribund when it could be helped, and leaving our reliance on energy from volatile regions unchecked when it could be reduced.  Does any of that really make any sense for our country?

America has become like Gulliver, the slumbering giant tied down by thousands of Lilliputian restraints and political considerations and regulations and standards and policies and statutory notice and comment requirements, to the point where it is unable to move.  We need to break those ties and start moving again.