Lullaby

I never considered myself to be much of a singer, but all that changed the first time I heard my baby cry (and cry and cry). Without thinking or any hesitation, my mouth opened and I started singing. At first it was whatever tune popped into my head, in some kind of desperation to stop the crying. At times even making up lyrics to instrumental music. Other times I sang the same song over and over again.

Gradually, from some deep, primal part of my memory, I started to resurrect the songs that I remembered my father singing to me. I was a little surprised, but not completely, to discover that I manipulate all the songs the same way my father used to. I change lyrics, add verses, replace names, and jazz up the rhythms.

Like songbirds, we pass down songs to our young. Patiently sitting with the new generation, teaching them the melodies, rhythms, and rhymes that we inherited from our parents and close loved ones. And with each exchange, something new is added, enriching the experience for all involved.

Some years ago in my orchestra, we played a piece of music composed by ICOT, a group of Iranian composers in Toronto. At first, we were challenged to play the unfamiliar rhythms and pacing of the pieces because they were so different from what we were used to. I spoke with one of the composers about his piece. He explained that in his culture they are taught these rhythms and patterns from a young age, the kind of thing that is passed down from teacher to student.

There’s a reason why lullabies are universal (or nearly universal) in every culture around the world. It’s an accepted tradition to sing to babies as a way to comfort and soothe them. Music combines so many powerful elements like the use of calming tones, vibrations, and all the deep breathing required to carry a tune.

In addition to being soothing, lullabies are a way to form bonds, strengthen connections, and create new memories, or just have fun making up silly lyrics. The best part about singing to babies is that they are very forgiving when you’re out of tune or can’t quite remember all the words.

Happy Mothers’ Day!

Misinformation in the Time of the Pandemic

Even before the World Health Organization (W.H.O.) declared Covid-19 as a pandemic on March 11, all kinds of information about the new virus was spreading, making the term going “viral” a literal reality. In fact, even before the pandemic was announced, the W.H.O was already working on strategies to combat what it called an “infodemic.”

According to a Situation Report issued by the W.H.O. in February 2020, an infodemic is “…an over-abundance of information – some accurate and some not – that makes it hard for people to find trustworthy sources and reliable guidance when they need it.” (W.H.O., “Novel Coronavirus(2019-nCoV): Situation Report – 13,” 2 February 2020.) Since the new virus appeared, tracking how the disease is being reported on has become as important as tracking the disease itself.

The virus has been moving fast around the globe. Misinformation and disinformation about the virus has been spreading equally fast through social media, news outlets, and other channels of communication. It seems every day at least one new thing is discovered about the virus. At at time when it’s critical to know what’s going on when and where, it can be difficult to discern which information sources to trust. There’s nothing new about these issues in the digital age, but the consequences could be more severe.

In some instances, people are intentionally posting sensational headlines about Covid-19 to attract an audience and drive traffic to their sites. In other scenarios, people are re-posting myths and rumors, or broadcasting poor quality or outdated information. And sometimes people (unfortunately sometimes those in influential positions) are just plain ignorant. For example, many major news sources and influential people promoted the benefits of a drug called hydroxychloroquine without any controlled testing having been done. Demand for the drug increased dramatically before interest in it waned.

It’s amazing to me that with so much information available at our fingertips, I’ve heard and read about people who think Covid-19 is a hoax. It seems crazy but it is possible to find places on the internet to support this idea.

At all times, but especially during a pandemic, maintaining your information hygiene is as important as proper hand washing and social distancing. Find a few trustworthy sites, such as the W.H.O. or another recognized and acclaimed health institution, and get updates directly.

For more reading including a link to a guide on evaluating information, check out my post on “Disinformation Misinformation.”

Privacy in the Time of Pandemic: Video Calling

Last week I attended my first virtual birthday party. Through technology, we joined six different households in three different countries and three different time zones. I have to admit that our virtual party captured the essence and feel of a family gathering. Of course I would have preferred to see everybody in person, but for now it was better than nothing.

Due to social isolation requirements, many of us have been resorting to video calling more often. It can be a great alternative for connecting with people when you can’t be there physically.

However, since the pandemic requirements happened rather suddenly, it meant that things like convenience, and ease of use with video calling, were primary considerations. Sometimes they were even prioritized over things like privacy, quality, security, etc.

I love many aspects of video calling, but some features make me leery about using it. For example, the ability to record calls easily is something interesting to consider. For personal calls I wouldn’t be too worried about it, but in a business setting it could take on a new meaning.

As someone who manages information for a living, recording calls becomes a whole new type of medium that needs to be saved, managed, organized, described, etc. And in many cases, unless a transcript is available for the call, searching audio for content later can be tricky.

Another easily remedied hesitation I have is the video part. Once PCs started coming with built-in cameras, I started covering mine with heavy tape. I had read too many stories about cameras being turned on by spyware. Or of cameras accidentally being left on when they really should have been turned off. Covering the camera and setting options to default the camera to “off” are two strategies I employ.

My last hesitation has to do with the security. Ever since I read about a security flaw with Zoom last year that it would secretly reinstall itself on Macs and turn on the camera anytime, I’m extra careful about connecting to video calls. Also, a lot of articles were recently written about “zoombombing,” essentially when hackers were joining Zoom calls uninvited. I like that Zoom has made video calling so easy and uncomplicated, but this is a perfect example of when convenience and ease of use were prioritized over security and privacy.

Staying safe also means protecting yourself digitally while socially isolating.

Privacy in the Time of Pandemic: Contact Tracing

I’ve been reading about the various methods for contact tracing being used in an effort to manage Covid-19. Some Asian countries have been using technology to track where a person infected with Covid-19 has been. This data is then used to identify who else was in the area around the infected person within a certain time frame. People are instructed to quarantine and the government continues to track them to ensure they are compliant.

In the United States, humans are being trained to do contact tracing. Essentially this involves speaking with people recently diagnosed and getting a list of all the people they’ve interacted with in the preceding 48 hours. Then each person on the list is called and informed by the contact tracer that they may have been exposed to the virus, along with actions to take.

Recently, Google and Apple announced an alliance to create software that would enable governments to track (and hopefully prevent) the spread of Covid-19, “…with user privacy and security central to the design.” (https://www.apple.com/covid19/contacttracing/) The idea is that people would be able to opt-in to the system. If infected, the person would have to disclose voluntarily. Then other users in the system would be alerted whenever they were close to or interacted with the infected person.

As someone who lives in an urban area, I’m wary of something like this without understanding how it would work in densely populated areas. How much contact would I have to have to receive an alert on my phone? Would I get one alert, or many? In urban areas, people would probably be getting alerts non-stop. Sounds stressful.

The real challenge is that measures like this often start out as voluntary and end up being compulsory. Usually in the rush to get these initiatives going, silly things like confidentiality and how this massive volume of highly sensitive and private information would be managed, gets overlooked. It seems with technology we’re always giving up our control for convenience, or in this case, public safety.

Even though everybody is eager to do what they can to stop the virus, it’s hard to predict how people could potentially be stigmatized for having had the illness. Or maybe those who haven’t yet had it. Either way, it makes a strong case to protect our sensitive health information before we start divulging it or trusting tech company giants with it, for any reason.

Purging in the Time of Pandemic: Electronic Stuff

Last week I posted about two key areas in your home, the kitchen and bathroom, where you can purge (or use up) stuff while maintaining social distance. The stuff in these two rooms can often be handled without the need to make a lot of donations, or selling items, activities strongly discouraged at this time.

This week I’ll be providing tips on how to get started purging your electronic stuff. By electronic stuff I mean everything, such as digital photos, documents, emails, contacts, bookmarked links, cookies, third-party storage apps, podcasts, etc. Purging electronic stuff can be done in your home and doesn’t require any special effort to donate, unless you’re planning on getting rid of actual hardware. Another perk is that some of it can be done while binge watching Netflix.

Sometimes it can be difficult to motivate to work on purging and organizing your electronic stuff because there’s so much of it. And many of us never feel the pain of having too much electronic stuff the same way we do when we run out of closet space, or can no longer close our drawers.

Even though you may not feel physically bothered by your electronic stuff, it’s still a good idea to go through it. Keep it current and reduce as much as you can. Know what you have. These are all good strategies if/when disaster strikes. Plus it makes activities like backing up, restoring, or migrating your electronic stuff easier and cheaper in the long run.

To start, pick something easy. Break larger tasks into smaller ones. Develop some guidelines and criteria for what you want to keep or delete. For example, bookmarked links. I have folders and sub-folders to store my links, plus random one-offs. One strategy could be to go through the stash folder by folder. And then attack the one-offs. Deletion criteria could include broken links (obviously!), ones related to outdated projects, or links I never accessed.

Or if you decide to start with contacts, go through them one letter at a time. Eliminate duplications, make sure the information is up-to-date, and delete any contacts of people you can’t remember.

For more tips and tricks, check out my earlier posts on Deletion and start with the post “Digital Decluttering“. Or order my book, which has a section on “Digital Decluttering” and another one on “Email Management.”

Purging in the Time of Pandemic: Physical Stuff

Typically when I write about purging and provide how-to tips, I always recommend trying to sell, donate, or gift unwanted items. However, in the time of pandemic, these types of interactions are being discouraged for safety reasons. While it may be tempting to do some spring clean purging, unless you have space to store items for donating/selling later, extreme times call for a different and more adaptive approach.

So what can I purge? I’m sure some of you are thinking right now.

First of all, electronic items can be purged, organized, and “spring cleaned” any time without leaving your house or sharing anything physical with anyone. I’ll blog more about strategies to get started with electronic stuff in next week’s blog.

Regarding physical stuff, which is typically what people think about with purging, I recommend cleaning out the kitchen and bathroom. These are two areas of our house where products expire. It’s always a good idea to make sure bathroom and kitchen stuff is getting used up before it goes bad.

Since the pandemic guidelines encourage us to limit trips to the grocery stores, this is a perfect opportunity to do a full inventory of the kitchen. Now is the time to pull out those emergency cans of food and dust off the old boxes of pasta. Assess your spice collection. Get creative with what you find. The internet offers a wealth of recipes for whatever ingredients you have on hand.

Learn how to finally cook that bag of hard beans that’s been sitting in your cupboard for way too long. Consider using your available free time to master some new bean recipes. I’m a big fan of refried beans myself. And if you have an Instant Pot, hard beans can been cooked in 35 minutes.

And if cooking isn’t your thing, the bathroom is always a great place to do inventory. Go through all your bathroom stuff and assess what you have. Designate a place to put all the things you want to use up. For example, I found a number of face masks people gave me that I’ll be using for some impromptu spa days in the next few weeks. Inventorying and organizing your bathroom stuff may also save you a trip or two to the drugstore and some money.

I’ve saved lots of money since I re-organized my bathroom. Turns out I was a bathroom hoarder!

Happy purging!