Sonnet to recite while washing your hands

March 29th, 2020

When I think of all this outbreak changed
And how our lives have been so rearranged
There is certain knowledge that we need
To keep us safe, specific rules to heed:
“Keep your distance” there can be no doubt,
“Don’t touch your face,” “Remember — don’t go out!”
I wonder though, when all of this is through,
And normal daily life begins anew
What will have been altered from before
A reminder of this time forevermore?
Well, I think there’s one rule, it is clear,
That will be in our lives from year to year
      For everybody now just understands:
      Count to twenty when you wash your hands!

HTML lite

March 28th, 2020

I thought it might be nice for a change to veer away from the topic on everyone’s mind, and talk about something really nerdy instead. In particular, I want to talk about how I take notes on my computer.

I love to be able to type in plain text, with my hands always on the keyboard. That’s why I don’t like to take notes using tools like Google Docs, which ask me to keep moving my cursor to a menu bar and click on stuff every time I want to format something.

So I’ve developed an (admittedly very nerdy) technique for note taking. I just type in plain text into an HTML file.

I do it using my favorite text editor, vi (I told you I was nerdy). But right at the top of the file, I put a <pre> tag.

What that does is tell the web browser (where I will later review my notes) not to do any formatting at all. Everything gets spaced out precisely the way I typed it, just as it would in a plain text file.

Except, since this is HTML, I can still type things like <b>, <i>, <u>, <li>, <hr>, <font …> and all of the other useful stuff HTML lets me do. So I can still create bold, italics, underlines, lists with bullet points, horizontal lines, tinted text and all that cool stuff. But it never gets in my way.

Yes, I realize that unlike Google Docs, it’s not WYSIWYG (“What You See Is What You Get”). But that doesn’t bother me, because I have no trouble reading my own mark-up while I am typing my notes.

The important thing is that I never need to take my fingers off the keyboard. That means I am never distracted by from whatever else is going on by searching for things in menus on my screen.

I suspect there are text editors out there, like Emacs, which would let me use macros to do all this by hitting hotkeys as I type. But then I’d need to learn a whole new editor.

And I don’t want to do that. Because at the end of the day, I am very lazy.

Lots of kitchens

March 27th, 2020

Today I had multiple meetings with people in multiple time zones. Some of the people I met with were in NY, others in California, one or two in Seattle, and a few more sprinkled lightly across the U.S.

In pretty much every case, behind my colleague was a kitchen — except in one case where the colleague was just outside a kitchen. But kitchens were definitely the reigning motif.

The big exception to this were students. In nearly every case, students were in bedrooms.

Based on the available evidence, there is a definite pattern: When you work from home, you work in the kitchen. When you study from home, you study in the bedroom.

I really have no idea what this means. What I do know is that I am getting to see lots of kitchens.

Social distancing

March 26th, 2020

I know that it’s a very apt term for a very useful practice. Responsible people are doing it everywhere, and lives are being saved as a result.

And yet, there’s something about the term “social distancing” that keeps nagging at me. I don’t know, maybe it’s just me.

Somehow the phrase reminds me of the term “conscious uncoupling”. Am I the only one?

Tugging on my ear

March 25th, 2020

I just heard from an old friend who lives in another part of the world. Needless to say, many old friends are contacting each other in this very difficult time, just to check in and see if things are ok.

In this case, my friend explicitly mentioned reading my blog posts every day and thereby knowing that I am alright. I hadn’t really thought of this blog that way, but now I shall.

In a way, a daily blog is a way of signaling “I’m ok” to the people you know in the world. In a way it’s the modern version of tugging on your ear at the end of the TV show, just to say hi to grandma.

So here I am, tugging on my ear again. And wishing good health and safety to all the grandmas (and grandpas) out there.

Political calculation

March 24th, 2020

The President says we should get back to work
This outbreak is boring he thinks
He just doesn’t care if we think he’s a jerk
To him this whole crisis thing stinks

The experts all tell us that millions could die
But that isn’t floating Trump’s boat
It’s all too much bother, and why should he try?
The man knows the dead cannot vote

New tools for a new era

March 23rd, 2020

After all of this is over, I suspect we will not be going back to the same world of work. A new and more sophisticated generation of digital tools for remote collaborative work will be developed, and people will start to widely adopt them.

We may very well be entering into a new era in which telecommuting will become more the norm than the exception. That may end up being a very good thing, both for us and for our planet.

Zoom wedding

March 22nd, 2020

Today I attended a traditional Jewish wedding via Zoom. It was originally supposed to be a large gathering, but that plan was scuttled for obvious reasons.

So instead they gathered just the immediate family, and the rest of us joined via Zoom. It all went very well.

It turns out that the very same tools that make Zoom good for business meetings and academic lectures also work beautifully for social gatherings. Those of us who were remote guests could clearly see who else was “attending”.

In addition, the chat feature provided a lovely running commentary on the ongoing proceedings. My favorite moment was when the Rabbi’s spiel went on a little too long, and various people on the chat channel chimed in to tell the cameraman to just forget about him and point the camera toward the bride and groom. Which he did.

After today’s experience, I am feeling more positive about remote social gatherings. Folks, I think we’re on to something here.


March 21st, 2020

Generally speaking, we don’t expect most meetings to be recorded. So for better or worse, what we say in a meeting does not become part of the permanent record.

Yet we have discovered that remote meetings follow different rules. Not everyone has access to a high quality internet connection. And some of our colleagues (or in my case, my students) may currently find themselves in a very different time zone.

Which means that, as a practical matter, we end up recording our remotely held meetings. And that means that there will be a permanent record of what we say in our meetings, whether we like it or not.

I wonder whether this will start to change the etiquette of what is said in a meeting, and how it is said. I also wonder whether that change will be a net positive or will be something that we will all come to regret.

I guess we will find out.

Putting limits around the virtual work world

March 20th, 2020

All meetings have gone virtual. So now we can meet anytime we want. Yay.

But doesn’t that create a problem? If everyone knows that you can meet at any time, then they expect you to meet at any time.

Which means we need to develop a new set of skills: Putting strict limits around the new virtual work world.

I have started instituting some strict rules. There are clear times of the week when I don’t spend any time on line doing work. Those parts of the week are strictly reserved for personal time.

I am also going to encourage the people I work with to do the same. I think it’s the only real way that this brave new world is going to work, without all of us ending up being driven totally crazy.