Sines and Cosines

My friends, thank you for joining me here. Geeks that we are, we all know, that as surely as the derivative of sine is cosine, the point of maximum darkness is the point at which it starts getting brighter. (If it keeps getting darker, then that wasn’t the point of maximum darkness, now was it?) We’ve hit that bottom, and started our climb back into the light. I’m glad you’re along for the ride. Here’s what I’m working up for this coming year:

I want to get the Assisted Computing movement really clicking. I stumbled on its principles last year, trying to help my parents with their tech after their assisted living unit locked down for Covid. Assisted Computing means designing not just for seniors’ physical needs, but for their cognitive needs as well. I spun up a website for it, www.assistedcomputing.org . I expanded on it in my Advanced UX Class at Harvard Summer Session. (Which I’ll be teaching this summer as well, website coming up later this month. I hope you’ll join me there as well.) Now I’m looking to really spread it.

What I need now is more working apps. My Zoom launcher test is going extremely well, as I wrote in my December issue here.  And I’m on the track of a simplified Spotify experience. What else would help you take care of your senior loved ones? When I get some more, I’ll start a publicity campaign to bring them to the attention of the big players, and start an avalanche.

I’ve found from my first tests that installing and supporting code on multiple platforms is more than a little tricky. My Zoom launcher app became far easier to handle when I switched from native apps for each platform to a cloud-based, browser-hosted architecture. I encountered far fewer compatibility problems, although I still ran into some. (Apple’s Safari browser doesn’t support large buttons on the MacBook, though it does on iPhone and iPad. Who knew? And hey, Apple, that’s a really funny place to draw a line.)  

In other action, we just keep on keeping on. My father, in his New Hampshire assisted living unit, is scheduled to get his first Covid vaccine in a week.  That state leads the nation in percentage of Covid fatalities occurring in senior  residential care facilities, at  80%.  I sure hope this works, so I can visit him in person once in a while. Zoom calls only go so far.

Still, the virus was first sequenced last February. To go from, “Hey, here’s a virus,” to “roll up your sleeve for the vaccine” in 10 months blows my mind completely. My hat is off to the people who did it. Now the far-less-sexy task of getting it into people’s arms is proving tricky.  That figures. Think about your software designs. When was the last time you were actually CPU-bound, that you were thinking as fast as you could and it just took too long? Probably never. Performance problems are almost always due to bottlenecks. And so it is here. I hope we can quickly find an architecture that dynamites the logjam.

We’ve still got a ways to go before we’re done with Covid. And now the virus is striking back by mutating for greater transmission. But we’ll get it. We’re at the turning point, just now starting to climb out. As Churchill said after the Battle of El Alamein: “This is not the end. It is not even the beginning of the end. But it is, perhaps, the end of the beginning.” Amen. And that’s all I’m going to say about this damned virus in this post.

My daughters put some packets of seeds in my stocking this year – muskmelons for sweet summer eating, beautiful pink and blue delphiniums to attract butterflies. There is no more hopeful gift in the world than a packet of seeds. I now offer that hope to you, my friends. Let me know how you’re keeping on keeping on.

Here We Go

Ladies and Gentlemen, I am delighted to announce the first of my Assisted Computing apps that you can actually use today. Think of your senior loved ones – always suffering from isolation and loneliness; now exacerbated by Covid. They either are, or wish they were, participating in several different  Zoom meetings. But it’s very hard for them to keep track of the different emails containing those links, especially when meetings come and go and the emails move around in their mailboxes.

So I built the solution. Instead of sorting through emails, whose positions change, and then dealing with intimidating, opaque hyperlinks, the users see a panel of large buttons with easily understood captions (Figure 1). “Mom, just go to your buttons, and you’ll see one labelled ‘Marissa’s Birthday Party’. Click that, and you’ll be on with us.” How much easier could it get?

Figure 1
Button Page

Here’s how I did it: I wrote an ASP.NET server app, hosted on Azure, storing each user’s button captions and links in Cosmos DB. Each user gets a web link to their collection of buttons. You, the assistor, put a shortcut to that link on their desktop or home page. It’s a web page app, running in a browser, so there’s no code to install. It runs on laptops, desktops, phones, and tablets.

How do these buttons get configured? You do that, remotely. At signup time, you receive links to both their button page and their configuration page (Figure 2).  You enter the button labels and web links, which are then stored in the database. The next time the user opens their button page, they’ll magically see your changes. How much easier could it get, for either of you?

Figure 2
Configuration Screen

In fact, it’s even more powerful than this. My original use case was for Zoom meetings, but once I’d written the app, I realized that it’s not tied to Zoom at all. You can put in any web link for the button to invoke. An early test user entered a YouTube video link, so Granny could enjoy the concert of her musical grandson. Think of this as a general-purpose bookmark tool, that is 1) more obvious to the senior user than the regular bookmark bar of a browser, and 2) easier for the senior user to understand and use, with large text and buttons, and 3) easy for you to administer remotely.

How do you get it? Just send me an email. I’ll reply with a document containing the links and instructions. One day I’ll automate it, but for now I want to be in touch with each user. I’m limiting it to 100, with new users signing up daily. Don’t miss yours.

Here are a few notes from the first test users. First, getting a link onto the desktop of the senior user, especially with a name that they’ll recognize, can be tricky. It’s difficult to coach a user through that process on the phone . They will generally need some help. Any self-respecting teenager could do it in 30 seconds. But many seniors have no visitors because of Covid. Fortunately, the staff in most assisted living units contains teenagers, or recently-teenagers. For seniors aging in place, the local senior support organization could provide one.  If all else fails, try a remote program like Team Viewer.

Authentication on the site to which the link points can be problematic.  The links for Zoom meetings typically contain the password, but links to other websites may not.  A senior confronting an unexpected demand for a password may get confused and feel frustrated. We ran into that problem with the YouTube music video. It was on a private channel, so Google demanded a password, which  Granny didn’t know.  The assistor (her adult daughter) hadn’t told her about it, probably because she logged into Google so long ago that she forgot it was required. She solved it by making the YouTube video public, and saying, “OK, Gran, try it again.”

Finally, for some reason, the Safari browser on the MacOS desktop does not support large buttons. Don’t ask me why. All the other browsers on that platform do, and so does Safari on iPad and iPhone. So for the MacBook Safari case, I use a hyperlink in the largest type I was able to get. Go figure.

Please give this a try, and let me know how it works for you.

Plattski Saves Halloween

We’re rapidly approaching Halloween, the second most popular holiday in the US after Christmas. But in this time of Covid, how can kids reasonably trick-or-treat? (For those of you unfamiliar with that American custom, kids dress in costumes and go door-to-door in their neighborhoods, extorting candy by threatening vandalism.)  Never fear, Plattski’s got it all figured out.

I don’t want to get close to a bunch of rug rat strangers, walking petri dishes in the best of times. Covid doesn’t appear to hurt them very much very often, but I sure don’t want it for myself.  I considered installing an Amazon Blink video doorbell by my driveway, so I could pre-screen the kids.  I’d allow only those wearing safe costumes to approach my house – masked surgeons, astronauts with sealed helmets, maybe deep sea divers.  Shouting cheerleaders or serenading opera singers would have to stay out by the street, and I’d deliver their treats via slingshot. It sounded like a whole lot of work.

And then it came to me – everything is virtual these days. Why not a virtual Halloween? I’d write an Azure web app called “Halloween Saver”. The kids would specify their home addresses. The app would show them a map, and they would choose their routes. Information about the kids’ age and physical condition, pulled from their social media posts, would determine the distance they’d be allowed to virtually travel.

Meanwhile, the hosts would specify the types of treats they’re dispensing – Snickers bars, Three Musketeers, that awful Good and Plenty, or (even worse) healthy celery sticks – and kids could see these while choosing their routes. I initially worried that such transparency might lead to gaming the system, concentrating on the houses with the best treats, but my daughter reports that kids already share this intelligence over their phones. Maybe a smart geeky kid could figure out an algorithm to maximize each kid’s utility, given their preference for specific types of candy and the availability within their traveling distance. That’s the classic traveling salesman problem, a great project to put on a college application.

Hosts could specify their spending limits. But if they run out, they could instantly sign up for more, and avoid unpleasant tricks. Of course, that means they wouldn’t have huge bags of leftovers to enjoy afterwards. Bug? Feature? You tell me.

After the kids specify their routes, and the hosts their bribes, a central processor will tally the haul for each kid – two regular-size Snickers and a fun size, four Reese’s cups, and so on. Amazon will do the  fulfillment.  The kids could choose either home delivery (free overnight for Prime members), or specify an Amazon storage locker where they could pick it up after midnight.

Halloween Saver would also support automated trading of candy.  I’ve always hated licorice Good and Plenty, but love fruit-flavored Mike and Ike. My friend Russell had the opposite preferences, so we’d swap, making both of us happier in the classic free market way. Each kid could specify what they’d be willing to give up, and what they wanted in return. Halloween Saver would use AI to implement a matching algorithm between bids and offers, like the spot market for electric power (see https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S1110016816303192). We’d establish a market clearing price for each type of candy (possibly through a universal reserve currency such as jelly beans), settle all the trades, and the results would appear in the final tally.  Easy-Peasy.

And that’s it, my friends. Our fall ritual proceeds unimpeded, perhaps even enhanced. Now if I can just figure out what to do about Thanksgiving …

Waterfalls

(No, not the bad software architecture; real wet ones)

When my state of Massachusetts locked down for Covid in March, we unconsciously assumed that the epidemic would be over when the lockdown ended. Hopelessly naïve, I now realize, but we couldn’t get our brains around the reality then.  It is now obvious that we’re in a marathon, not the sprint we initially perceived.

In my May column, I discussed the thought that the epidemic and its consequent quarantine, while awful in many respects, had nevertheless led to certain improvements in our lives. I now want to continue that discussion.

Years ago, I went on a hiking trip with my then-girlfriend, now-wife. We enjoyed beautiful fall New England weather on Saturday, but rain started Saturday night and continued into Sunday morning. Many of the hikers said, “Heck with this, I’m headed back to Boston.” But the leader, a guy named Gene, said, “Wrong answer. Let’s go out and look at waterfalls. They’ll be at their absolute best right now. I know a couple of great ones nearby.” And so indeed we did, and so indeed they were.

I’m thinking of Gene’s example right now, looking for things that are better now than they were pre-Covid. They’re a little hard to find, no question. And in no way am I saying that Covid is a net positive for the world. But we’re stuck with the bad stuff, so let’s look for what good stuff there is. Because it does indisputably exist. Here are my examples. Please post yours in the comment section.

Telemedicine visits continue to please me.  I just had another one, for vertigo caused by a new set of progressive lenses. I didn’t have to drive an hour each way, deal with traffic, sit in a waiting room full of sick people. The nurse practitioner was attentive, and undistracted. Yes, there were things she couldn’t do, but none of them were key. It won’t replace every visit, but I can easily see it replacing perhaps half of them.

Reconnecting with old friends via Zoom is great. An old friend who lives in Brooklyn. My cousin, currently on England’s Isle of Wight. My geek friends throughout the world, like you, dear reader. Of course I’d rather be doing it live, but virtually means that it gets done, instead of not. I’m going to keep this one going after Covid as well. Ping me for a virtual coffee if you’d like.

I wrote in my January column about borrowing e-books online from my public library. Pretty much everything published in the last decade or so is available this way. But so many masterworks were published before e-books existed – like Why Software Sucks. Almost all of Harvard’s library collection has been scanned to enable online searching, allowing you to find paper books to borrow. But because of this emergency, Harvard now provides online access to the full text of almost everything. It’s really, really useful. I’m betting that when the time comes to take it away, the parties involved say, hey, look, here’s some money and let’s keep it. Sort of like Spotify. That would be a big step forward.

My daughter Annabelle, now a rising sophomore at the Olin College of Engineering, reports similar gains. The restrictions on her locked-down campus are so stringent that few students are living there. Annabelle has rented (through AirBnB) a farmhouse in Vermont with some of her classmates, to hunker down in their own bubble. She’d always wanted to try off-campus living, and this is her chance. Remote access also allows her to take an elective course at another college, which would have been logistically infeasible otherwise.  She just completed a highly successful summer internship doing UX at OnShape,  in which she worked completely from home. She wasn’t all that happy to stay in the house all day with her cranky old fart parents (and annoying younger sister, before that worthy got a job working with special needs kids at the YMCA) , but the 3-hour daily commute to Boston’s Seaport wouldn’t have been great either. It worked out well for her.

Tell me about yours, my friends. What’s better now for you? And how will we continue those good things, when we’ve licked this damn virus? Because we will. By this time next year, I’ll bet you.

Let me leave you with one of the most inspiring songs ever: Dame Vera Lynn, singing “There’ll Be Bluebirds Over The White Cliffs of Dover.” (Never mind that bluebirds don’t live in England; that’s poetic license for you.) She released that song in the dark days of 1942, with the outcome of World War II still in doubt. See, times have been worse, within living memory, and we’ve come through. She died just a few months ago, June 18, 2020, at age 103. Not of Covid.

Zero Signal-to-Noise, or WT-Actual-F?

As I’ve written in my two most recent articles, my father continues in Assisted Living. Technology which we consider normal is extremely difficult for him. We’ve seen how actions that we consider simple are difficult for him, such as listening to music via Spotify and participating in video meetings via Zoom. Here’s another case for you.

My Dad likes to watch TV now and then.  When I was a boy, our TV only received three channels, which we selected with a stiff clunky knob. His cable company now offers hundreds of channels, plus on-demand streaming and DVR capability, but he doesn’t care about any of this crap.  He just wants to watch a little tube to relax him and distract him from the current lousy state of the world. (It’s either that or booze, and he’s only allowed one glass of wine with dinner.) 

But these seemingly-basic operations are extremely difficult for him to discover, remember, and execute. Here’s a picture of his Comcast remote. How can even a teenager, let alone a senior, use this piece of crap? The signal-to-noise ratio approaches zero. I mean, WT-Actual-F?

He knows how to press buttons for a channel, number 44. Unfortunately, this is CNN, which doesn’t help him (or anyone) relax. We gave him a printed card, with large type showing his favorite channels, (2 is WENH, New Hampshire PBS, 67 is History Channel, etc.) But he still has to find the sheet, and hold it in one hand while he presses the tiny, barely readable buttons with the other. One slip and the remote dumps him into weird modes that he can’t get out of.  This control makes complex, sophisticated operations possible, but simple things aren’t simple. That’s a cardinal sin. If one of my Harvard students did this, I’d flunk his sorry ass so fast he’d change his major to Egyptian hieroglyphics  (for which this design would clearly demonstrate that he has an aptitude.)

So I set out to make a program that could help my Dad easily select his favorite channels without all the rest of the crap. He’s already successfully using his iPad to select music channels, as we saw previously. I leveraged that design to make one for selecting TV channels.  Here’s a screen shot of it:

The power and volume controls are the same that he’s used to, being cut-and-paste identical to those in the music remote. The channel selection buttons are likewise similar in appearance. His iPad mini has room for about 8 of them.  

I do the configuration of the channel buttons remotely. The list of buttons and channels resides in a simple text file on my Google drive. The iPad app checks this file at startup time. I’m ready for when he says, “I don’t care about History anymore, but I want to watch Robert Irvine’s Restaurant Impossible on the Food Channel.”

The Comcast cable box uses infrared, which the iPad does not natively support. But I found an intermediary box from Global Cache that accepts commands via Wi-Fi and emits infrared codes.  The company provides the IR codes used by most standard remote controls. I quickly got the box to emit the commands I needed.  It costs $115, somewhat pricey for a commodity item. But that’s about a single month of his cable, which he will now be able to use, instead of getting frustrated with settling for CNN.

I’m getting this out to him ASAP. When someone is 85 years old, you don’t want to delay getting the MVP into their hands. 

And since we’re talking UX, I’m pleased to announce that registration has now opened for my fall class CSCI-E34, User Experience Engineering, at Harvard University Extension School. This year we will be emphasizing UX as a critical component of startups and entrepreneurship. Bring your idea, and you’ll have a full UX portfolio of it by December. We’ll also examine my new design paradigm of Assisted Computing™, and hear from exciting guest speakers. All classes are taught via Zoom, and are recorded for you to watch at your convenience. We start Monday August 31, at 7:20 ET. Information and registration at https://www.extension.harvard.edu/course-catalog/courses/crn/14557 .  I look forward to seeing you there.

Assisted Computing: Keeping On Keeping On

Last time you remember, I laid out my vision for Assisted Computing™. It’s been going fabulously. Here are the most recent developments.

I installed the smart speaker in my father’s assisted living apartment, and gave him the iPad Mini with the AC remote control app. I wasn’t sure he’d actually use it. If he perceives tech to be too complex, as he did with the original Bose user interface, he just puts it down as says to hell with it. But this one is rock solid simple. Just tap a button, the music plays. Tap another one and it stops. That’s it. So he’s actually using it. I passed the first and biggest hurdle.

I’m finding out interesting things about his usage pattern. I put radio stations on three of the buttons (“Classical”, “Jazz”, etc.) figuring he’d run them as background music. But he rarely does that. He likes button 4, which says, “Call Dave”.  He calls or emails me with the music he wants, and I from my own computer, I put it onto that button’s Spotify playlist.  He’s been going back over his favorite musicals, like Paint Your Wagon.

It’s not just, or even mostly, having music.   It’s what specific pieces of music mean to him. “I believe Paint Your Wagon was one of the first shows mom and I saw together, if not the very first,” he wrote me. She died about 6 weeks ago, and this helps him feel her still near. That, my friends, is the major benefit of AC: the human connections it enables.

Of course, I’m constantly being reminded that neither I, nor you, nor anyone else, gets anything right the first time.  After first listening to PYW, Dad replied: “Not to look a gift horse in the mouth, but I think you have the soundtrack of the movie version, and I wanted the original Broadway cast.”  Picky, picky. I found the OBC for him and replaced the ersatz version. Now we’re moving on with old favorites like South Pacific, Fanny, and Company.

My next AC target is Zoom. Seniors love Zoom video calls. But they find Zoom hard to use (albeit light years ahead of Google Hangouts or Skype). They have to keep track of the meeting access link, which typically arrives in their email, and hence moves around as more emails come in. And they find the meeting controls cryptic and confusing.

Zoom has an API that allows programmatic access to its capabilities.  I wrote a Zoom launcher app for Windows (Figure 1, below). Instead of having to search emails for a cryptic URL link, the user launches a desktop app that and sees pictures of the people he’ll talk to. The Zoom meeting room for my siblings and me is on the left. The one on the right belongs to the family of his sister, my Aunt Saretta.  In accordance with the First Principle of AC, the Assistor sets these up, using a separate screen (not shown).

Figure 1

Assisted Computing Zoom Launcher Screen

Senior users don’t need or want most of Zoom’s meeting controls. They find Speaker View confusing (“Wait a minute, where did Jenny go?”), so I automatically start the meeting in Gallery (“Brady Bunch”) View. They don’t care about the chat window, or the recorder, or muting the audio or stopping the video – they just want to talk with their grandkids. The only control they really NEED– the irreducible essence, as per the second law of AC – is the red Leave button. And when they need it, they shouldn’t have to hunt around for it. So the meeting screen should look something like Figure  2 below: full screen at all times, gallery view at all times, Leave button shown at all times, and never anything else.

Figure 2: AC Zoom Meeting Screen

Full Screen Gallery View With Leave Button Visible, and Never Anything Else

( I think we were celebrating National Dorky Hat Day on this call.)

But wait! I hear you say. What if the user wants to mute to take a cell phone call, or stop the video to take the spinach out of their teeth? Anyone wanting those features can use the regular Zoom app. Simplicity, and hence usability, matters more.

I was able to programmatically control the Zoom window mostly as I wanted. But I still had trouble with a few pieces. If anyone knows of a Zoom API guru who could guide me through that, I’d appreciate if you could refer them to me.

If you’d like to hear more about AC, or just see me live and in concert for the sheer pain of it, I’m doing a Zoom presentation for my good friends in Greece, the Thessaloniki .NET and UX meetups. It’s happening on Thursday July 16, starting at 1930 Greek time (1230 US Eastern time), and will be given in English. Information and registration is online at https://www.meetup.com/Thessaloniki-NET-Meetup/events/271606985/  .

And I’m already gearing up for my fall class at Harvard University Extension School, CSCI E-34 User Experience Engineering, starting Monday August 31. Live lectures happen 1920 – 2120 US Eastern time, and they’ll be recorded for on-demand viewing if that time’s not convenient. I’ve got a lot of great new stuff lined up – a class on Assisted Computing, another on Repairing the World, interesting guest speakers. Information is at https://www.extension.harvard.edu/course-catalog/courses/crn/14557 , and registration starts July 20.  Be there! Aloha!

Assisted Computing: Enriching the Lives of Those Who Need It Most

As I watch my parents in their senior years, I observe their struggles with today’s technology. It could enrich their lives so much, but instead, its complications leave them angry and frustrated, as I’ve written here before. I’ve decided to do something about it. 

I’m founding a new movement in software design. I call it Assisted Computing™, patterned after assisted living. Assisted Computing rests on two fundamental principles:

First Principle: A technologically savvy person, whom I call the Assistor, assists the user with the portions of technology that the user is unable to handle for themselves. 

Second Principle: Apps and operations are ruthlessly simplified so that the user can access the app’s primary functionality without assistance.

For example, my father loves music. The user interface of Spotify (Figure 1) is far too complicated for him to use. I have trouble with it myself. Even if I set up some playlists and write out detailed instructions for playing them, it will remain too confusing for him to use, and too easy for him to inadvertently break my careful setup.

Figure 1 Spotify PC App
Way Too Complicated for My Dad
Tricky Even for Me

My Dad can use an iPad if the apps are relatively simple. He reads the New York Times in the Safari Browser, and reads books in the Kindle and Libby apps I set up for him. Using Xamarin Forms, I wrote an iPad app that allows him to play pre-configured Spotify playlists through a smart speaker.  Figure 2 shows this app:

Figure 2
Prototype Assisted Computing™ Remote Control iPad App

I acted as the Assistor, setting up the Spotify account, configuring the streams, connecting the app to the Wi-Fi in his assisted living community. I’ve ruthlessly, brutally, simplified the function of this app. He can play the four streams (three of them are Spotify radio stations, so he won’t always hear the same songs) that I’ve selected. He can raise or lower the volume. And he can turn them off. Nothing else.

He can’t make playlists. He can’t rearrange the songs. He can’t send likes or dislikes to the playlist selection AI. He can’t even skip tracks or repeat them. I’ve deliberately not surfaced those capabilities in this app.

What he can do is listen to music without thinking about it. And that’s something he didn’t have before, something that he really likes.  

And one of the best features is this: I can change his music selections remotely. You see button #4 says “Call Dave”.  When he calls me, I can put anything he wants on that button’s list. The benefit is not so much having the music that he wants. It’s the human connection that it encourages him to make. It helps to alleviate one of the biggest problems with senior living today:  loneliness. “Loneliness has the same impact on mortality as smoking 15 cigarettes a day, making it even more dangerous than obesity,” said a recent report from health care company Cigna.  Assisted living residents don’t see many other people, and those they do see are as old and creaky as they are. This button gives him a reason to reach out and talk to me.

I’ve written a full report on this case study and the AT Movement, which you can download here.

I’ll be continuing to design and prototype AT applications.  The next one I’m targeting is Zoom. My dad enjoys video calls with Zoom, but the complicated UI gets in the way. He doesn’t want to schedule meetings, only to attend meetings scheduled by others. He doesn’t care about the chat room, or sharing his screen, or anything like that. The AT app won’t have these distractions. And the Assistor will configure the links to the meetings he regularly attends, so he doesn’t have to mess with his email.  It’ll be night-and-day easier.

My  Harvard Summer School class,  CSCI-S36, Advanced User Experience Engineering, will be working on Assisted Computing projects. We meet live online, Mondays and Wednesdays at 3:15 ET, starting June 22. It’s project-based, hands-on, and open to the public. I hope I’ll see you there.

What’s kind of funny is that I’m already getting calls from non-seniors, from middle-aged people like my daughter’s teachers, saying “Can we have simple apps too?”  I might be on to something even bigger than I thought.

What do you think? Use the comment form to send me your thoughts.  Thanks.

After the Deluge

Dear Friends

I’m glad to see you alive and well. How do I know that? Because you wouldn’t be reading this column if you were dead, now would you? (Although if you’re reading it while sick, I hope it brings you some comfort, and wish you a speedy recovery.)

Social distancing for the corona virus pandemic has forced our everyday behaviors regarding technology to evolve. Which of these changes will we keep when it’s over?

The first major evolution I see is the rise of telemedicine. Before the pandemic it was limited to a few small trials. Now it’s become mandatory for all non-emergency care.  We’ve been forced to solve the problems that previously held it back – streamlining state licensing issues, providing insurance reimbursement, and so on. Some things work well in the new model – I recently had a good discussion with my own doctor about some long-term planning. It was better than an in-office visit in some ways: she wasn’t distracted by multitasking, and she didn’t turn her back on me to type data into her PC. OTOH, some things won’t work as well – the digital prostate exam that men over 50 get with their routine physical is going to be tricky.

Now that medical visits have become remote, I foresee the rise of a standard instrumentation device for patients to keep in their homes – sort of a medical tricorder. It could measure and transmit blood pressure, temperature, oxygenation, stethoscope sounds, maybe high-resolution pictures.  These devices always suffered from the chicken-and-egg problem – who would build the devices without the online visits, but who would start the visits without the devices? Now that remote doctor visits have been forced on us, I expect these devices to pop up as a high-end Christmas gift this year, with rapid commoditization to follow.

Online education will continue to grow. Almost all colleges switched to remote instruction for the second half of the spring term. Harvard recently announced that all of their summer sessions, including mine, will be remote. They are gearing up to run the fall term online, while hoping they don’t have to. The public schools have been trying to run online this spring, but according to my daughter, haven’t fared well. That doesn’t surprise me. The prison-industrial-complex of the modern public school was always more about baby-sitting than teaching anything, and that’s harder to do online.

Online shopping will skyrocket.  Despite all the hoopla about e-commerce killing brick and mortar stores, it has only about an 11% market share today (source), so there’s a lot more to get. Half of that belongs to Amazon (source).  Grocery shopping, especially, hadn’t moved online very much. But once you experience the convenience of having everything delivered to your door, or at least picked out and loaded into your car, you won’t go back. I defy you to show me a single person who will miss in-store checkout lines.

The same applies to public libraries, as I wrote just a few months ago. Most of my readers replied that they preferred paper books. But with libraries now closed, they can’t borrow them. Their choice is between borrowing free e-books, or paying for paper books. I’ll bet that they’ll at least try the free e-books, and then I’ll bet they’ll like them better. In particular, anyone over age 40 who bumps up the default font size by even a point or two will be instantly hooked.

Online connections will shape our family and social interactions too. My parents recently moved to assisted living, which is now locked down, with no visitors in or out.  So we brought all the generations together over Zoom for a maple sugar party (Figure 1 below). Is this as good as live in-person? No, but it’s perhaps 60% as good with 5% of the effort. I think we’ll keep doing these, even when we don’t have to. I’m really loving these virtual coffees I’ve been having with you and my other friends. I intend to keep these going.  I should have done this before.

The pandemic is forcing us to evolve. The sooner we recognize this, and choose the adjustments we want to keep, the better.

PS #1: I hate to say it, but readership of this column has been declining since my final MSDN column last November. If you’d like me to keep writing, please do this right now: forward this column to 5 people who you think would enjoy my warped view of the world, as you do, and encourage them to subscribe. I thank you, and I hope that they’ll thank you.

PS #2: I’ll be teaching two courses at  Harvard Summer School: Developing Cross-Platform Mobile Apps with Xamarin starting June 23, and Advanced User Experience Engineering starting June 22. Both are project-based, hands-on, live on-line, and open to the public. I hope I’ll see you there.

We Are All Fools

My friends, these are the times that try our souls. Just last month I was writing with a light heart, and today yours and mine are heavy. I’m glad you’re here to share this with me.

On this April Fool’s Day, my favorite column of the editorial year, I want to speak of what fools we are, and always will remain. I’ve written previously about My Biggest Misteaks, #1 of which has to be my prediction that the iPhone would be the “biggest flop since Ishtar and Waterworld combined”. What can I say? “Often mistaken, never in doubt.” That, and “oops”.

I remember thinking recently that we’d conquered infectious disease, at least in the First World. That most modern Westerners now died of self-inflicted diseases, stemming from our affluent diets and substance usage. My undergraduate classmate, now an infectious disease doctor, had chosen a specialty as moribund as newspaper journalism. Oops again.

Last September, many young people held large rallies ahead of the UN Climate Summit. My daughter enthusiastically joined in, along with most of her engineering school classmates.  Brimming with righteousness, they hiked 4 miles to the trolley station to travel to the rally. “We only have 10 years to reverse it, or we’ll all dead,” she later told me.

If that’s true, we’d better start planning funerals, because it ain’t gonna happen. But the cynic in me can’t help but wonder: who wants to bet that within my lifetime, we’ll be worried about the planet becoming too cold? Nuclear winter from a [hopefully limited] India – Pakistan nuclear exchange, maybe?

But of all reversals in popular wisdom, the biggest has to be the role of nuclear-generated electric power. I remember the No Nukes concert in 1979 – “Split Wood, Not Atoms”, was the slogan. Check out the video of John Hall’s song, popularly called “The Warm Power of the Sun” . Now many of those very same people want to grow more trees to store carbon instead of burning them for heat, and to expand nuclear power as a carbon-free source of electricity. If we’d kept building nukes 40 years ago, we might not be in this climate crunch now. (We’d have other crunches probably, like the Chernobyl and Fukushima meltdowns, but not that one.) Double oops.

You can feel the waves of sanctimony radiating from the stage, the self-righteousness that we hold the One True Truth, that none other is possible, that we are Right and those who disagree with us are Wrong. I knew a guy that summer who’d made a bumper sticker reading “Split Wood AND Atoms.” He was roundly reviled by both sides. The louder we shout that the other guys should shut the heck up, the more likely it is that we’re wrong ourselves.

As we shelter in place on this dark April Fool’s Day, cowering before a submicroscopic virus, I remind us once again: you can fool some of the people all of the time, and all of the people some of the time, but you can make a fool of yourself anytime. And that the biggest fools of all are those who think they aren’t.  

You want the true warm power of the sun? Here are my lyrics for that song today, sung to the tune of the original:

Just give me the warm power of the sun
Give me the beauty of nuclear fusion
Give me the helium that used to be hydrogen
Just give me the spooky dancing of the quarks
Give me the nuclear strong interaction
But please take all your polluting carbon power away

Everybody needs some power I’m told
The best is fusion whether hot or cold
It drives the sun, and all the other stars too
That electrical repulsion’s so strong
It takes heat and pressure inside a star
To squeeze those nuclei close enough together
That good old Heisenberg can tunnel ’em through

Just give me the warm power of the sun
Give me deuterium-tritium fusion
Give me the pions carrying the field as they come in range
Just give me the curve of binding energy
Give me the spin of an antineutrino
But please take all your polluting carbon power away.

One more thing: Let’s meet for virtual coffee, you and me. Message me here or via email, and we’ll pick a convenient time. It has almost certainly been too long since we’ve sat down together. How about it?

Any Functioning Adult

I’m writing this on Leap Year Day, February 29, which means we’re in a presidential election year. This sticker expresses my feelings about it exactly:

I don’t know about you, but I still have a monster case of politics fatigue left over from 2016. As National Review columnist Ian Tuttle wrote then, we had “two small groups of extreme partisans fighting on behalf of horrible candidates, and a sea of voters in between disheartened by two miserable options.” We don’t yet know whom the Democrats will nominate, but I’ll bet you anything that Tuttle’s statement will remain true throughout this election as well.

I see that Raskolnikov’s strategy of inciting Democrats to fight each other, leaving the party broke and exhausted and unable to take on Trump, seems to be working, though US intelligence is finally catching on, obviously in response to my warning. Where Plattski and DGMS lead, the federal government eventually gets around to following. If Microsoft had let me run that piece when I first wrote it, for April Fool’s Day of 2017, we might have avoided all this of trouble.

I have to admit that I loved watching the giant clusterfuck of the Democrats tallying up the Iowa caucuses. Even several days after the event, the party couldn’t report all the results, and even after reporting them, couldn’t guarantee their accuracy, in fact STILL can’t at the time of this writing. Hysterical! I can’t wait to see what they do with the general election.

Technology has drastically changed political campaigns since my younger days. Listeners who followed the 1960 Kennedy – Nixon debates on the radio (beta-level wireless audio streaming, for you millennials) scored it as a draw.  But viewers who watched on the brand-new medium of broadcast television (sort of an early YouTube, OK?) overwhelmingly favored the younger, charismatic Kennedy over the older, saggier Nixon. The shift in technology caused a shift in voter responses, which one side recognized and exploited, while the other did not. Teddy White’s excellent book  The Making of the President 1960 describes this campaign in fascinating detail.

Political organizations now recognize the importance of technology. But that leads to saturation and resultant fatigue on all communication channels. I sat next to a guy from Alabama in an airport bar in the fall of 2017. He complained that the special election to replace Senator Jeff Sessions had attracted all kinds of money and resources from outside the state, and now both parties were ruining his life.  He was getting spammed around the clock – home phone, cell phone (illegal, but still done), email, snail mail, Facebook, human door-knockers; everything. I suggested he file an absentee ballot, buy a burner phone, and flee to Miami for the duration. But that’s harder to do for a presidential election.

Social media platforms have to decide how to operate in today’s environment.  I want to applaud Twitter for banning all political ads – goodness knows I don’t want to see them – but that denies the choice to any user who is interested. (I’ve yet to meet this person, but I deduce that they must exist.) Perhaps that setting should be made configurable, as I suggested in my October 2016 plea for a political content blocker, “A Technical Solution to a Political Problem“?

Facebook has said they won’t be vetting political ads for truthfulness. I have no problem with this either, though a configuration setting would be quite interesting: “Political Lies: Off/On”. Is this something AI could detect? What kind of data set would you train it on – “Here’s a video of my opponent eating live gerbils”? And do you tell the AI that one is true or false? If you set Political Lies = Off, do you get any political content at all? Although let’s face it: even in fields other than politics, if you are depending on Facebook to shield you from falsehoods, I have this bridge in Brooklyn I’d like to sell you.

I cannot close this column without renewing my eternal election-year call: Lie to the exit pollsters. In fact, lie to any and all pollsters, anywhere and everywhere. The control they exercise over our society is revolting, but it’s easy to disrupt. If you voted for X, say you voted for Y, and vice versa. If you made up your mind a long time ago, tell them you just made it up today, or the other way around. If they ask your age, add or subtract five years, whichever you think you can get away with; it might push you into another bracket. If they ask your gender, you’d probably better tell the truth; it might be a control question. If everyone does this, we’ll have a delightful election evening of watching the prognosticators fall on their faces—the funniest night of political foolishness since Henry Kissinger won the Nobel Peace Prize, even funnier than the Iowa caucuses. Now let’s go to it.