The Pleasures Of Paper

Earlier this week I went to the office. I was working on comparing and organizing and incorporating the contents of two different documents, and I decided that would be easier and more efficient if I would print them out, bring them home, and do the comparison and organization work on paper, where I could lay the documents out side by side.

It’s the first time I’ve actually worked with paper in months, rather than editing and moving things around and cutting and pasting from one document to another on my laptop. When I was working from the office before the shutdown occurred, I was paper-oriented, although I was trying mightily to become more electronic, so as to minimize the need for paper files and storage boxes. But when the shutdown occurred, working on paper really was not an option, so I went full electronic of necessity.

Working with physical documents made me realize that I miss paper. Creating and editing documents on a computer is fine, of course, but there is a tactile element involved in working with paper that you just don’t get with a computer. Writing on the paper, drawing brackets and arrows to shuffle content around, crossing out duplicative sections with a definitive flourish, using an actual highlighter with that unique freshly opened highlighter smell, and then crumpling up and discarding the paper with a set shot at the recycling container when the work is done — each act has its own little satisfactions. If I had a spindle, I’m sure I would enjoy folding, spindling, and mutilating, too.

I suppose that, at heart, I’m a Dunder-Mifflin guy.

My return to paper was enjoyable, but it will be brief. The reality is that paper, for all of its pleasures, is just too bulky for remote work, and it’s easier, cheaper, less wasteful, and more environmentally friendly to do everything on the computer screen. But I did enjoy my brief return to the paper days.

Bottom Phishers

The IT Department at our firm periodically sends out notices about the latest email phishing scams that are making the rounds. “Phishing,” for those of you who are unfamiliar with the term, refers to the efforts of fraudsters to send out emails that purport to be legitimate — like, say, a notice from a reputable bank. The phishers hope to get you to click on a link that either allows them to inject malware into your computer system or asks you to provide personal information, like Social Security numbers or bank account information, that they can then use to defraud you.

In short, phishers are fraudulent scum.

But they are creative, and they make efforts to try to keep up with what is going on in the world. Yesterday, for example, the notice from our IT Department concerned a new phishing email that tried to get the recipient to click on a link that purported to provide information about COVID vaccine scheduling. Like many phishing efforts, this one was oddly phrased and not written in the King’s English and wouldn’t fool most people — but all it takes is a few credulous or concerned people clicking on the link and the fraudsters are off to the races.

As I read the notice from our IT folks, I wondered about what kind of low-life loser would try to take advantage of a global pandemic that has killed hundreds of thousands and the interest in being immunized in order to commit fraud and steal money from worried people. If phishers are low-life scum — and they are — then any phisher who would based a phishing effort on coronavirus vaccine distribution is the lowest of the low. You might call them the bottom phishers, which is apt because the fish that live at the bottom of the ocean are typically the ugliest fish of all.

Don’t be deceived by bottom phishers. If you get an email about a vaccine, don’t just click on a link — call your doctor instead.

Let Your Fingers Do The Tapping

The other day I saw a plumbing truck drive by with a company name that started with “AA.” “There’s a Yellow Pages” name, I thought.

Then I wondered: are there even “Yellow Pages” any more? I can’t remember the last time I saw that thick softcover book with the flimsy yellow pages.

For those of you who are too young to remember the Yellow Pages, it was the household sources that you used to consult whenever you needed a plumber or electrician. The Yellow Pages came to you every year, along with your regular White Pages phone book. Both were made with the cheapest, thinnest paper you can imagine, but the Yellow Pages tended to be a lot bulkier than the White Pages. The White Pages listed the phone numbers of people and businesses, listed in alphabetical order, while the Yellow Pages was reserved solely for businesses, and was organized functionally, by type of business or service offered. If you wanted a plumber, you turned to the plumber entries of the Yellow Pages and all of the local plumbers were listed there, in alphabetical order — which is why the Yellow Pages caused a lot of plumbers, roofers, and electricians to come up with company names that started with “AA” so they would be among the first entries in the listing. They figured, correctly, that people would start at the top of the list and wouldn’t go much beyond the first few names.

The idea was that you were supposed to let “your fingers do the walking” through the Yellow Pages, rather than roaming around town yourself to find the right trademan for the work you needed to have done. Of course, nobody does that anymore. We’ll do a Google search for a plumber, or post a Facebook message to friends to get a recommendation for a painter, and therefore nobody really needs to start their business name with “AA” these days.

But the Yellow Pages, cheap and ponderous as it was, was a kind of precursor to the modern way of shopping for goods and services. Our fingers may not do much walking, but they still are the way we get information.

The Ceiling Perspective

I’ve seen more of ceilings this year than I’ve probably seen in my entire life. In fact, it seems like every day, somebody’s office ceiling, or home office ceiling, or family room or dining room ceiling, is there in front of me, begging to be studied and analyzed.

It’s because of video conferencing, of course. It seems like there are three common video conference perspectives. There’s the straight-ahead perspective, where the camera is roughly on the same level as the person’s face, and the big issue is head size in the frame. Then there’s the setting where the camera is above the participant, looking down, and the person ends up looking sort of small and pathetic and overwhelmed by it all. (Not a good look if you’re interested in power dynamics during the call, obviously.) And then there is the ceiling perspective, where the camera is below the person, looking up, and you end up seeing the top half of their head and a whole lot of ceiling.

I’d never really paid much attention to ceilings before this year, finding them intrainsically uninteresting. I mean, after you determine whether or not the ceiling has crown moldings, what is there of interest? But I was wrong. On a boring video call, you can learn a lot from thoughtful ceiling examination. If you can see more than one smoke detector up there, for example, that tells you something meaningful about the person — or perhaps the fire trap status of their place. Is there a dream catcher or anything else hanging from the ceiling? Do they have a fan? Any spider webs up there? Are their light fixtures simple or elaborate, and what kind of lighting do they provide?

And if somebody is dancing on the ceiling, you’ve inadvertently called Lionel Ritchie.

2020 has changed my perspective on ceilings, as on so many things.

Spam, Spam, Spam, and Spam

Our days often begin with a review of our email boxes to delete the spam. The other day, as I was performing this mindless chore, I wondered: why are random, unwelcome emails (and now, phone calls too) called “spam”?

Even though the internet and email are recent developments in the arc of human history, the true origin of “spam” to refer to unwanted emails seems to be lost in the mists of time. “Spam” apparently is not an acronym, nor is it some kind of direct slam on the canned meat of the same name that is produced by the Hormel Foods Company and is evidently beloved in Hawaii. Instead, the most plausible explanation I’ve seen is that, in the very early days of the internet, undesired email was called “spam” as a reference to the Monty Python spam sketch, in which a diner menu recited by a waitress features multiple dishes made with spam, a gang of Vikings sing a song about spam, and a fed-up British matron is forced to confess that she doesn’t like spam.

Some claim the term “spam” was first used to describe email in 1993, when an early email user mistakenly sent multiple copies of the same email message; others say it dates back to the ’80s. In any case, the fact that there is a lot of spam email (like the spam-oriented dishes on the diner menu) and the spam email is not appreciated (like the diner patron who doesn’t like spam) seems to have been the connection that gave spam email its name.

Language is interesting, and “spam” email is a good example of why. In this instance, some early email user was a Monty Python fan who thought of the connection to the sketch and attached the name, it stuck and was used by early internet users, and then it spread to become the common term used by your iPhone, the filters on your computer, and the world of email users at large. It’s short, it’s as good a name as any, and if you’ve watched that classic Monty Python sketch, you know it’s apt. Like the high-pitched, purse-clutching English lady, we all “don’t like spam“!

Refrigerator Envy

On Thanksgiving, everyone could use a large, empty refrigerator that is about twice its normal size. You know — a refrigerator that is large enough to allow you to retrieve a can of Diet Coke without risking knocking over multiple aluminum-foil covered bowls, serving dishes, and gravy boats that have been carefully stacked and balanced to consume every square inch of scarce refrigerator space?

Why can’t somebody invent an expandable refrigerator that you could use for the holidays? Like dining room table manufacturers did years ago, when they figured out that you could design tables to be extended so as to include an extra leaf or two when needed? Ideally, the expandable holiday refrigerator would include a special pie storage area, a beer bottle rack that would project out when the door is opened, and an extra large storage area to carefully secure all of the leftover turkey that will be used over the coming week.

Pavlov’s Snippets

This morning I woke up, walked downstairs, and turned on my JBL Flip 5 device to listen to some music. When I hit the on-off button, I heard the familiar chord and saw the button light up that tells you that you’ve got power, and then when I hit the button that syncs the device with my iPhone, I heard the happy-sounding, rising three-note snippet that told me that the syncing had worked and it was time to make my selection–which I promptly did.

Then I went to my computer, turned it on, and went through the steps of the multi-factor authentication process. When I completed the process, I heard another bright three-note snippet that confirmed I had successfully connected to the system, and I mimicked the tiny fragment of music as I started to look at my email.

These are just three examples of the little snatches of music that often accompany the basic electronic activities of our lives. Virtually every device–from computers to smartphones to refrigerators to video games–uses some combination of music, lights, and text as multi-factor messaging to tell us about our successes or failures. We want to hear the three happy notes that signal accomplishment, rather than the thud of notes that tells us we didn’t do things right. What’s more, we get to the point where we react to the musical cues without a conscious thought. Play the right sequence of notes for me and, like some modern combination of Pavlov’s dog and Nipper, the RCA pooch hearing his master’s voice, I’ll immediately feel the urge to go to Outlook and open up my email.

I like these little snippets of music, which add a little welcome color and dash to our rote daily activities, and I salute the unknown composers who came up with them. I guess I don’t mind that these brief tunes have burrowed into my brain and are effectively urging me to take steps A, B, and C. I do wonder, however, whether the unconscious reactive impulse on hearing these sounds is permanently imprinted on my synapses. I haven’t played Tetris in years, for example, but I can still distinctly remember every note of the Slavic-sounding song that played while you were trying to position the blocks correctly. When I’m in my dotage, if I hear the right three notes, will I still think “it’s email time”?

Aspirational Screensavers

Our firm’s computer system recently changed to a new approach to screensavers, taking another quantum leap forward in information technology. When I first got a desktop computer back in the early ’90s, the big screensaver development allowed you to create a message that would scroll from left to right on your screen when your computer went into “sleep” mode. (Mine was “parturient montes, nascetur mus.”) A later upgrade allowed the technologically adept to upload a favorite picture of your kids as your screensaver.

With our firm’s latest advance, we get an ever-changing menu of beautifully framed photographs of evocative faraway places, ancient towns carved into mountainsides, colorful wild animals, and balloons drifting over rugged, exotic scenery under a clear blue sky. I always have two reactions to every one of the screensavers: (1) I wish they would tell me where this picture was taken, so I could try to go there one of these days; and (2) boy, that place looks a heck of a lot more interesting than the scene out my kitchen window.

I’m curious about the psychology (if any) behind the new screensavers. Did anyone do any kind of survey or testing to determine the impact of the wondrous photos on workplace morale and motivation? Did they attempt to determine how many people are just going to stare dreamily at the latest photo to pop up on their laptop, wishing they could be wherever that photo was taken rather than getting ready to start another day of working from home during a pandemic? Or is the thinking that we worker bees will be incentivized by the beautiful photos to work even harder and become more successful in hopes of being able to travel to those fabulous places one of these days?

On balance, I guess I like the screensavers and their depiction of a gorgeous, tranquil world. I wonder, though, whether it wouldn’t be smart to put into the mix some real-world photos of abandoned factories or Chernobyl to remind us that it’s not all puppies and cotton candy out there, and we need to put our noses back to the grindstone.

Back To Kindergarten Rules

We’re all still getting used to video conferencing and Zoom and Teams calls, but I’ve decided there are things I like about them. In a way, they take us back to first principles, and the basic, threshold lessons in interpersonal conduct that we first learned back in kindergarten.

Take the “raise your hand” feature. When was the last time you raised your hand to be called on for anything? But you learned about the importance of raising your hand from your kindergarten teacher — mine was named Mrs. Radick, by the way — who got you to understand that if every kid in the class tried to talk at once it would be chaos, which is why there had to be some mechanism to allow order to prevail. Of course, the same concept applies to a multi-party video call, which would quickly devolve into bedlam and gibberish without a method of organization. That’s why I like the “raise your hand” feature, and the fact that it reminds me of grade school days doesn’t hurt, either.

Other kindergarten concepts apply to video calls, too — like taking your turn, and trying not to interrupt the person who is speaking, which means waiting a decent period after the speaker appears to be done to account for potential technological glitches. These rules are essential to making video technology work, but they also embody core concepts of politeness and civility. I’m sure there are video calls that turn into unfortunate shouting matches, but I’d guess that, on the whole, video calls are more well-mannered and the participants tend to be more deferential and well-behaved than in direct, in-person interaction. The use of the mute button, to make sure that the discussion isn’t interrupted by barking dogs of the garbage truck rolling down the street, is another form of courtesy.

Mrs. Radick would approve of all of this.

Savoring The Small Stuff

So much of what goes on in the world these days is vast and sweeping and far beyond the capability of normal people to control. It can make people feel overwhelmed and helpless.

That’s why I think it’s important for us to step back and focus on the small stuff. We may not be able to determine when the coronavirus pandemic will end, but there are bound to be little things that we can change to make our lives incrementally better. If we focus on those little adjustments, we can accomplish something that we can feel good about.

Here’s an example of what I mean. We use a Roku device to get access to Netflix and Amazon and other streaming services. It worked like a charm . . . until one day a service called Crackle appeared on the Roku menu and immediately made using Roku an unpleasant annoyance. Ever time we tried to access Netflix or one of the other services, we’d hear a “bee doop” sound and the screen would take us to Crackle —which we didn’t want and will never, ever want. Whether by glitch or design, we were unwillingly routed to Crackle multiple times every time we tried to use Roku. It made what was supposed to be the pleasant diversion of watching TV into a frustrating exercise in high blood pressure irritation.

This week I decided to take action. I actually watched a Roku tutorial to see how to delete a channel, followed the instructions, and successfully deleted Crackle. Obviously, I should have done that long ago. But last night, we were able to use Roku and watch shows without seeing the hated Crackle logo or feeling the blood pressure soar. It made for a very pleasant evening.

It’s a small victory, but I’ll savor it nevertheless. And I’ll be on the lookout for more of that small stuff to change.

Capturing The Moment — Good And Bad

Lately I’ve been thinking about how much cell phone cameras have changed our lives — and the world — for good, and for bad, too.

The good is pretty obvious. Cell phone cameras are easy to carry around with you, so you’ve always got a camera at hand if you want to capture a moment in space and time — like this picture of boats at Burnt Cove, silhouetted against the dying glow of the sun just after it had plunged below the horizon, as we were returning from a boat trip to North Haven with Dr. Science and the GV Jogger in early August.

I like having a camera at hand because you never know when those special moments might occur. (I like it so much, in fact, that UJ calls me “Snappy” whenever I haul out the phone to take a picture.) Taking these kinds of photos helps me to really lock those special moments into my memory bank. And, of course, there have been instances where people have used their cell phones to capture real news — natural disasters, police misconduct, public officials behaving badly — that wouldn’t have been preserved or come to light otherwise.

But there’s obviously a dark side, too. Selfie obsession — to the point where people are injuring and even killing themselves walking backward to get the perfect framing of their face — is an obvious issue. But there is more to it than that. If you go to your news feed page, how many “news” stories are really nothing other than one person’s bad day captured by a cell phone camera?

So much of what is presented as “news” these days consists of random private people misbehaving in their own worlds, in ways that would not be “news” at all if there weren’t a camera at hand to capture it. The exhausted mother lashing out at a misbehaving toddler, the delivery driver who wouldn’t stop to help a senior citizen who had fallen, the pilot who asked a woman wearing a revealing outfit to cover up — all of these are examples of stories that wouldn’t be stories at all without the salacious picture or video footage. People look at these kinds of stories because it’s always interesting to take a peek at other people’s lives, but they really aren’t “news” in any meaningful sense. And I wonder if, in this way, the cell phone camera has helped to knock real news off the public radar screen and contribute to the trivialization of public discourse.

Cell phone cameras truly are a double-edged sword.

Computer Grading

We have lots of software programs that we use at work, and it seems like new ones are rolled out every day. Recently, I’ve noticed that some of the newer programs that have been have a very annoying feature: they presume to grade you on how well you use the program.

Gone are the days when the computer world was fresh and friendly and new computer programs always featured a little paper clip guy with a squeaky voice or some other anthropomorphic icon that was supposed to help you master the new software. Sure, they quickly became incredibly irritating and were promptly disabled after their “helpful” badgering and unwanted “tips” got on your last nerve, but at least they were trying to help us. They’ve now been replaced by some hectoring schoolmarm who gives you grades because she can’t rap you on the knuckles with a ruler.

The other day I checked my dashboard on one of the programs and found that I had been given a C-. I have no earthly idea why I got a C-. Seriously — I swear that I did what the program requires me to do, in timely fashion. And yet, there it was, for all the world to see: a C-. I’ve never been given a C- grade on anything in my life (that I know about, at least). Now my record has been shattered by some soulless computer that assigned me an embarrassing grade based on wholly arbitrary and unknowable metrics lodged somewhere in the semiconductors and chips and RAM. And what’s most annoying about it all is that I actually care that I got a C-. I don’t think anyone logs or pays any attention to these grades, but still . . . it bugs me. Decades after my last formal schooling ended, I still care about grades, even if they are totally meaningless. Of course, that’s why the computer does it. The American educational system has trained me to be like Pavlov’s dog, except instead of salivating at the sound of a metronome I’ve been conditioned to respond to arbitrary grades.

Thank goodness that I’m not assigned grades in other areas of life — by family, or friends, or colleagues, or neighbors. The fact that I respond to grading, even now, is an Achilles heel of sorts. Don’t tell anyone, will you?

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.

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.