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.
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.
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.
The 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.
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.
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.
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.
Needless 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Recently 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.
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.
FaceTime 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.
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.
In 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.
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?
If I’ve learned one thing in life, it’s that most people are pretty resilient and adaptable. Bad things happen to us all, for sure, but generally people cheerfully bounce back — and, more importantly, they consciously find a way to bounce back.
I thought about this yesterday when the B.A. Jersey Girl started a text message chain for those of us who are working together on a particular matter. With the B.A.J.G. kicking things off, we all shared pictures of our home office set-ups to be used during this work from home period. There was a wide variance in the home office work spaces shown in the photos, with some people rigging up impressively elaborate arrangements with multiple monitors and printers. (My kitchen counter arrangement is decidedly at the spartan end of the spectrum, I might add.) And we got a peek at some dogs and cats that were intrigued that their human friends were home at times that they usually weren’t, and apparently decided to just check things out. It was funny and fun at the same time.
There’s a social element to work, whether it’s somebody ducking their head into your office to chat about the latest news or family developments, casual greetings in hallways. or friendly banter in the elevator or around the coffee station. When you work from home, obviously, you’re not getting those in-person encounters — but people are resilient and will find a way to make up for that. And with technology offering various alternatives, there are work arounds for just about everything.
My guess is that cell phone providers are seeing a real surge in text messaging, face timing, and phone calling to establish that element of human interaction during this period of social distancing. For office colleagues, it’s a way to make up for lost time around the proverbial water cooler.
For many of us, the primary impact of COVID-19 has been to move our place of work from an office building to home territory. The coronavirus has really driven home the message that modern technology allows white collar workers to enjoy a flexibility that prior generations just didn’t have.
Think, for a minute, about the impact of the kind of closure measures that were imposed during the 1918-1919 “Spanish flu” pandemic, or what the effect of workplace closures being imposed now would have had even 30 years ago when computer networks were in their infancy. The vast majority of people in those eras would have been thrown out of work because there was no option to work remotely. But now, thanks to the invention and proliferation of laptops, wireless technology, cellphones, and the internet, a considerable chunk of the American work force can turn off the lights in their offices, remove their laptops from their docking stations, go home, turn on the lights in their kitchens, studies, or dining rooms, log in, enter a password or two, and get right back to work. We’ve come to take this technology for granted, but it’s really pretty amazing when you stop and think about it.
When something as disruptive as the Great Coronavirus Crisis of 2020 hits, you wonder whether it will have long-term impacts on work habits, social interaction, and other aspects of American culture. Did the 1918-1919 flu — which was far more pervasive and impactful than the coronavirus, and which led to many closings in an effort to stop the spread of the infection — have such an effect? I’m not aware of any fundamental social changes that occurred. But I suspect that what we are doing now will simply spur a trend that was well underway before anyone heard of coronavirus: working remotely, without being tied to an office building.
Of course, not everyone has the ability to work remotely, and we should all be thinking about what we can do to help those businesses and workers who have been most affected by the closures imposed by authorities. Kish and I are going to be sure to get carry-out over the next few days, for example, to help support the restaurants and bars that have been shuttered and allow them to maintain some cash flow until things reopen down the road.
My old iPhone headphones gave up the ghost this week. Or, at least, one side of the headphones did. First the sound out of the right earbud became intermittent and filled with static, and then it stopped producing any sound whatsoever. That’s pretty annoying when you’re trying to listen to music in the morning and you can only hear one part of the total effort. Mozart orchestral works just don’t sound the same with only left ear input.
I attempted the tried-and-true method of repairing a broken, self-contained electronic device: banging it several times on a hard surface in hopes that something on the interior had become dislodged somehow and would be restored to its former working status with a few hard jolts. (Plus, giving the broken electronic gizmo a few brisk knocks makes me feel better and exacts a kind of revenge against the device for breaking down in the first place.) Unfortunately, that method didn’t work — although it was enjoyable, admittedly — so the only option was to go out and buy new headphones.
Surprisingly, the local cellphone store doesn’t sell earbuds that are connected to your phone by a wire anymore. As a society, we’ve moved beyond that benighted technology! The only options it offers are those little wireless ear fittings that look like shunts for a kid’s ear infection. I’ve got to have my music in the morning, so there really was no choice but to buy them.
I was a bit resistant to it, because I associate those wireless ear buds with consciously hip posers who strut around airports and other public places talking in overly loud tones, and I don’t particularly want to be associated with that ilk. This was an understandable reaction, but an odd one, because the ear bud cord could be a pain, such as when it gets snagged on something like an unexpectedly leaping dog’s paw, and yanks the ear buds out of my ears. At least I won’t have to worry about that any more.
No dog cord snags, in exchange for association with the consciously hip crowd. Life has a way of presenting choices like that.
Back in the ’70s, futurist Alvin Toffler coined the phrase “Future Shock” to refer to the mindset of many people in modern societies. According to Toffler, “Future Shock” occurred when constant technological advancements and other changes in the world produced a peculiar psychological state in which individuals were overwhelmed by experiencing too much change in too short a time.
Me, I’ve just encountered “faucet shock.”
That’s the baffled condition you experience when you go into a bathroom in a hotel where you’re attending meetings and the sink complex looks like the controls of a motorcycle, or maybe a video game, with nary a lever or handle or anything labeled with a C or an H in sight. So, what do you do here? Which gleaming device supplies water? Do you grasp the wings sticking out of the central column and twist or turn? Or just wave your hands around underneath the whole complex, hoping that there are photoelectric cells somewhere that will activate the water flow?
If you’re confronted with this bathroom set up, here’s what I learned after some embarrassing “faucet shock” trial and error. First, you stick your hands under the little unit to get a dollop of soap foam, then insert your hands under the central column to activate the water flow — with no option to change the lukewarm temperature of the water, incidentally. Then, after your hands are soaked, you place them under the wing pieces to have a Dyson unit blow-dry your hands.
Or, if you feel silly doing that, as I did, you just grab a few paper towels, briskly dry your hands the old-fashioned way, and back away from the whole enterprise.
Most Americans have been to the Smithsonian Institution museums on the National Mall in Washington, D.C. — whether it was on a family vacation, or on their 8th grade field trip to the nation’s capital, or because they lived or worked in the D.C. area as Kish and I did back in the ’80s. The museums are a great way to spend a Sunday afternoon and are filled with interesting things and insights.
But you can only enjoy them if you are on the National Mall. Until now, that is.
The Smithsonian’s release is part of a growing effort by museums to move their collections into the public domain, where they can be perused and enjoyed by anyone with access to a computer. The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City and more than 200 other museums across the world are part of the effort, although the Smithsonian release is by far the most extensive. The Smithsonian magazine article linked above explains that the materials in the Smithsonian on-line platform are now covered by a Creative Commons Zero license, which frees the items “from all restrictions, copyright or otherwise, enabling anyone with a decent Internet connection to build on them as raw materials—and ultimately participate in their evolution.” And the on-line platform is easy to use, with a simple search function. I like dinosaurs, so I did a search for an allosaurus, and downloaded the image above — which is now in the public domain.
I’m a museum lover, and can happily spend hours browsing through exhibitions, so I hope there is always a place for the quiet, thoughtful, in-person museum experience. But I also am a proponent of putting things into the public domain and increasing access, and applaud the Smithsonian and the other museums participating in the effort for taking a leadership role in making their collections accessible to everyone.