Weekly Head Voices #205: Real-time sometimes, asynchronous most of the time

This edition of the Weekly Head Voices looks back a the week from Monday September 14 to Sunday September 20 of the year 2020.

Figure 1: Scene from a work get-together. It’s really nice when you can get into these mountains any day of the week!

Figure 1: Scene from a work get-together. It’s really nice when you can get into these mountains any day of the week!

For the first time in months, this post is exactly on time. Whatever else happens in the rest of the post, timeousness is in the pocket!

The uninformed vs privacy-preserving COVID tracking

(I would like to warn you that in this section, I get saltier than I’ve been in years.

People who were reading this blog more than 10 years ago will have noticed that I used to be salty a whole lot more often back then.

Hopefully, this specific episode doesn’t move this decade’s dial by too much.)

During his address of September 16, president Ramaphosa announced the further lifting of the national lockdown to level 1.

Because I had been following the surprising collaboration between Apple and Google on the anonymous disease exposure tracing functionality in Android and iOS, my ears perked up when he requested that South Africans with smart phones install the COVID Alert mobile app:

I want to make a call this evening to everyone who has a smartphone in South Africa to download the COVID Alert mobile app from the Apple App Store or Google Play Store.

The app has been zero-rated by mobile networks, so you can download it without any data costs.

Using Bluetooth technology, the app will alert any user if they have been in close contact with any other user who has tested positive for coronavirus in the past 14 days.

The app is completely anonymous, it does not gather any personal information, nor does it track anybody’s location.

I immediately checked it out on my iPhone, and was gratified to see that the app was well put-together, and made use of the privacy-respecting official infrastructure designed by Apple and Google.

(Some countries wasted millions of euros trying to build this by themselves, and then later had to switch gears, instead of just using Google and Apple’s functionality from the get-go.)

Because effective contact-tracing requires as many people as possible to install the app, I let a number of private chat groups know, and I even got back on twitter quite briefly to tweet:

Imagine my surprise when I noticed a bit later that there was a bit of a furore online with people being openly suspicious of the app, up to offering all kinds of conspiracy theories as to how exactly the government was going to use this to monitor and/or control people.

Interestingly, there appeared to be a pretty strong inverse correlation between technical know-how and level of suspicion.

(Ironically, a large subset of the highly suspicious camp will experience difficulty understanding the above sentence. Probably also this sentence. Not sorry.)

It is exasperating to me that when the SA government takes on a project like this (the tracking app), does it by the book and does a really good job of it, people respond this badly.

While it is unfortunately true that the government has been doing a terrible job in terms of engendering confidence in its abilities and especially in its honesty, even going so far as to disappear millions of ZAR intended for personal protective equipment (!!), using that as an excuse to actively spread misinformation, and thereby prevent contact tracing from getting off the ground, is pretty hard to defend.

(More than one of my mom’s acquaintances (a term that is pushing the definition) have warned her that if she were to install the app, she was to remove them from all other contact media. I told her that this is a great way to cull her contacts list selectively, rendering a much more erudite address book.)

Sorry folks, but when real scientific and technological progress is held back by this level of ignorance, I can get really salty.

What would have been much better, would have been for said people to get the frick informed. It can’t be that hard to find someone with the relevant know-how in any social circle.

Fortunately, some local folks have been doing their best making good information accessible:

One could blame this on lacking education, and on the government not doing their best either, but a large part of the responsibility comes down to normal people, with no excuse not to have educated themselves, simply letting their primitive instincts absolve them of any critical thinking.

I welcome your thoughts in the comments.

The future of work, episode 23

Just like thousands of other companies, we went from “yeah, we’ve read about remote working and we should look into it more when we can make the time” to “100% fully remote what is this office-thing you speak of?” from one day to the next when our hard lock-down started back in March.

A few months in, and it seems that most of the whole 70-person company would not be surprised if we remain fully remote.

I think that many of us, especially the engineers, really appreciate this new mode of operation where we have a substantially larger part of the day to work, and where it has become theoretically (ahem) easier to cordon off blocks of focus time.

Some of us are thinking about ways to further improve and streamline our remote working process.

During one of my research sessions (or was it me aimlessly browsing because I had become distracted during a particularly long afternoon…), I ran into the following post by the BaseCamp company, previously known as 37signals:

Group Chat: The Best Way to Totally Stress Out Your Team

As is typical for BaseCamp’s writing, this is a really great article, in this case looking specifically at the drawbacks of real-time company chat.

In our case, we migrated from Google’s GSuite to Office365 (because much more bang for the buck) right when COVID hit, and so we found ourselves in the wonderful world of Microsoft Teams.

So far, we have had a pretty stellar experience.

As a company-wide real-time chat and video meeting platform, Teams does its job well.

However, real-time chat has a number of fundamental problems, most of which are super recognizably (and humorously) discussed in the linked post.

For example:

Group chat is like being in an all-day meeting, with random participants, and no agenda.

Does this ring any bells for any of you?

I hope that you can make time to read the article, but an important part of their answer to the real-time chat problem is:

Real-time sometimes, asynchronous most of the time.

At BaseCamp, they implement this idea with message boards where people post longer form messages that can be responded to with longer-form replies. These threads are attached to the object where they are most relevant, for example a project, or a to-do, and so on.

The word “thoughtful” also stuck in my mind.

Instead of the rapid-fire, often glib, responses you see in real-time chat, BaseCamp tries to encourage thoughtful, considered messages and replies that are accessible to anyone who might need them (unlike email) when viewing the project, to-do or issue in question

The post further talks about changes both to one’s conventions, but also to one’s tools, as the latter can be effectively used to guide the former.

In this light, it’s interesting to note that many of my most pleasant online interactions have recently been taking place on github issues, whereas the real-time chat platforms I spend time on sometimes have the tendency to cause anxiety.

I have not yet read and measured enough, but I am very curious as to whether some of these techniques could be implemented in my workplace, and how they could contribute to a constructive and effective communication environment.

Please let me know in the comments if you have experience with any of this in your environment!

In a while crocodile

Friends, have a great week!

I wish you an abundance of calm, and of effective communication.