In these times when the entire world is under a cloud, one looks for the silver lining. When you’re stuck at home, and maybe getting a little bit stir crazy, you start looking for things to do.

Today I realized I can finally take a little time out of every day to memorize all of those poems I had always been meaning to memorize. It’s something I’d been wanting to do for years, and now, with the strange rhythm of these stay-at-home times, I can do it.

One thing you realize — something I guess stage actors know — is that you can memorize things a lot better than you think you can. If you practice saying something aloud multiple times, and focus on what you are saying, your brain just sort of picks it up.

There are few things more satisfying than being able to recite an entire poem aloud without needing to peek at the text. I recommend it highly.

Just make sure to start with short ones.

Text editor with robot

I am thinking of implementing something when I get the time. It will be a text editor that collaborates with you.

You can type stuff into it, just like an ordinary text editor. But on the other side of the screen, as it were, a software robot is always running.

The robot looks for certain things you might type, and responds in smart ways. For example, you might type “make a table of this year’s Google monthly stock price.” In response, your robot collaborator will replace the text you just typed by the appropriate table.

A text editor with that sort of capability might be useful in many fields, including art, science, music, engineering and the humanities. The possibilities are endless.

Now I just need to find the time to implement the darned thing. If only I had a really smart text editor to help me out…

Sonnet to recite while washing your hands

Each time I think of all this outbreak changed
And how our lives have been so rearranged
I think of certain knowledge that we need
To keep us safe, specific rules to heed:
“Keep your distance,” can there 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
Just what will have been altered from before
Reminding us of this 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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.