First Days

Sandy brushed crumbs off her skirt. Or at least she thought that’s what she was doing. She could see crumbs clinging to her new outfit. It was the first day of school. She wanted to make a good impression. New outfit, new grade, new friends? Sandy didn’t know yet. First grade seemed like a big deal, but she hadn’t ever been.

“Everything ok, Sandy?” her father asked. “I saw you fidgeting with your skirt. Does the headpiece feel ok?” He leaned over his daughter to adjust the halo of technology encircling her smooth, shiny hair.

“I guess,” said Sandy.

“I guess so, too” replied her father. Nobody really knew what to expect.

“I never sent a kid to VR school before,” he continued. “I’ve never even been to VR school myself. I’m afraid I really can’t be much help, Sandy, except for helping you get your equipment fitting right. And of course I’ll be close by, if you need anything.”

Sandy nodded. She adjusted the headpiece and squinched her eyes tight. She knew when they opened, she would be at school. Well, still at home, but also at school. Weird.

Some years ago, a virus spread across the world. Sandy was just a baby so she didn’t remember the early years. Since then, there had been too many waves to count. Constant lockdowns. Lots and lots of masks. No touching. Playing together, but separate, always outside. As a final solution to keep schools open, the district had decided to go completely virtual. Not just online classes, but everybody and everything would be online too, virtually, attending, learning, and playing together as avatars. This way they could get close, “touch,” not wear masks, and stay safe.

Of course Sandy was one of the lucky ones. She was able to stay at home to attend VR school. Some of her classmates had to go to the actual school. Once there, they remained in an air-controlled cube all day. The cubes were big enough to move around in. They all contained a desk, chair, and some hooks for coats and stuff. Bathroom breaks had to be coordinated.

Sandy opened her eyes. First day. The air felt crisp. The sky shimmered a brilliant, cerulean blue under the gleaming sun. She brushed her skirt again, for real this time, and skipped towards the door.

Mommy Marsupial

The continuation of Jasmine at the Baby Designer Studio, mulling over post-pregnancy options.

Jasmine heard her name called. She rose from her seat and glanced around. In the middle of the room, a large fish tank bubbled gently. Multi-colored fish lazed around brightly-hued anemones wiggling gently. One mom bent over revealing she had chosen the “eyes in the back of the head” option. Another used her third arm to riffle through her purse, while holding her baby with the other two. Jasmine shuddered slightly. Maybe she should stick with what she had naturally.

She entered the Doctor’s office. They reviewed Jasmine’s preliminary selections. Leaning slightly over the desk, hands clasped, the Doctor said, “You know, we have one new option. We’re looking for new moms to test it. There could be a discount…”

The Doctor paused letting the phrase linger in the air. Jasmine squirmed slightly in her chair. Was that gas, she wondered, or the baby pressing on something vital inside, she could never really tell the difference. She could vaguely hear the Doctor continue rambling. Jasmine caught the tail end of the offering… a marsupial pouch.

“A what?” asked Jasmine. “A marsupial pouch? You mean like a kangaroo? You want to graft a dead animal’s pouch to my body?” Her arms crossed tightly over her body.

“No,” the Doctor replied. “Not an animal pouch, a pouch made out of your skin. If you go with the front pouch option, you can probably carry the baby in it up to 4ish months. However, if you go with the back option, you could probably manage until the baby was about a year, or more. Naturally all this still needs to be confirmed,” the Doctor slipped in.

“A marsupial pouch,” Jasmine repeated. “Huh, interesting.” But was that interesting? Jasmine didn’t know. What she did know was that she desperately needed fresh air.

“Definitely,” said the Doctor, a gleam in her eye. “Trust me, when that baby is born, you’re going to want him, or her, strapped to your body at all times. The pouch offers you that ability without anything other than your own body. Totally natural. Just a thought. Looking at your selections, it seems like you prefer the natural route.”

“Um, ok,” said Jasmine. “I’ll think about it. Thanks.” Her head spinning, maybe from the appointment, or low-blood sugar, she could never really tell, Jasmine left the Doctor’s office.

Outdated Tech References

I’m reading a book published in 1998. In the early part of the book, some characters were fumbling with how to use a VCR. It instantly transported me to my middle-school and high-school years. I have strong memories of watching videos on a VCR in class. The teacher would roll in a giant cart containing a TV, the VCR, and a whole bunch of wires. From our seats, we would watch the teacher fumble to connect the VCR to the TV, plug everything in and hit the buttons in the right order. Usually there would be a few helpful tips from the students such as “press the button with the triangle on it – just one triangle.”

This book is full of old tech references. The VCR, the poor quality video with grainy images, and my favorite, the fax machine. Even that strange, fragile fax paper that curls is part of the book. Incidentally, that fax paper doesn’t last a long time. I know from experience because I used to find it a lot when I was cleaning out old files. What feels even weirder to me is how we used to function without cell phones. The book only references old-school car phones. I also couldn’t help wondering how different the story would be with updated technology. Or if parts of the story couldn’t, or wouldn’t, happen if the characters had smart phones.

I often have this thought thinking about Seinfeld. Even today, Seinfeld references are still valid, though I wonder how many episodes wouldn’t exist because of today’s technology. A few that come to mind are the episodes when:

  • Elaine has to save seats in the movie theater
  • they all miss the movie because there’s confusion about which theater to go to
  • they wait for a table at a busy Chinese restaurant

I’m sure new episodes with modern technology would take their place, but it’s still fun to think about.

Technology advances quickly and we adapt to incorporate it into our lives. My generation was the last to grow up with both analog and digital. It’s fine for me to read older books with outdated tech references. I know what they mean. However, I wonder what that will be like for the newer generations. Will it make these books unreadable for them? Or will they fumble through the books using their smart phones to Google all the outdated tech references?

The Facebook Whistle Blower

For years, discussion has centered around whether or not social media companies should be held accountable for the content on their platforms. After the testimony of the latest Facebook whistle blower, the conversation might be shifting. The switch is to hold social media companies accountable for the content they show us. This instead of being accountable for the posted content.

As I’ve blogged before, social media companies need two things from us, their humble users. They need content we create. Secondly, they need hours of our unwavering, absorbed attention. They accomplish this through myriad ways.

Creating, sharing, and interacting with content is an easy sell for most users. This is seemingly a win-win scenario. Users gain benefit from the social media sites by creating, or ingesting, content. Alternatively, the social media sites have content that attracts people. However, that’s where the second part of the equation comes in. Social media companies needs us to want the content on their sites, more than any other place. There’s a lot of competition for our attention. Beyond devices, we also have competition from everyday life like jobs, hobbies, families, etc. But Facebook wants to make sure that when we’re online, it’s synonymous with being on Facebook.

One of the ways Facebook, and other social media companies, accomplish this is through algorithms. They use algorithms to make decisions for us about what content we should, or shouldn’t see, in our feeds. It’s based on many factors, one being what content is most likely to elicit a reaction. When we react to content, we’re more likely to engage with it. This means we’re staying on the site longer.

Another factor considered is how we will react to the content. According to the whistle blower, Facebook determined content generating negative reactions is more likely to keep us engaged. The quality of that engagement, however, is what the discussion needs to be focused on. By constantly showing users content that encourages a strong, negative response, such as anger or outrage, Facebook has figured out how to keep us on the site longer. YouTube employs a similar tactic to continually show viewers “more of the same.” In reality, the content progressively gets more extreme. This leads the viewer down one path, or another.

So what’s the solution? More regulations? More transparency? Who knows. It’s a story in progress. We’re all guinea pigs.

Productivity Tip: The Mini-Prep

A long time ago I learned the value of prepping ahead. Lately, I’ve started wondering how much prep is really necessary to make a difference.

Some evenings I’m too tired to do anything that would help me get a jump start on the next day. On nights like this I always promise myself I’ll go to bed early. This never happens. In the same breath I promise myself that I’ll wake up at least 15 minutes earlier than usual to catch up. This also almost never happens. If it does, it’s accompanied by a lot of snooze-button pushing. As a compromise, I developed the mini-prep, small things that are manageable on these tired nights.

To develop the mini-prep, I analyzed my morning routine. While no one task took me a long time, each one comprised lots of little steps. For example, I use an old-school stovetop percolator for my morning coffee. This requires me to:

  • fill the base with water
  • put the filter on top
  • remove coffee from the cupboard
  • fill the filter with coffee
  • screw the pot on top
  • place pot on stove
  • turn on the heat

Then I remove a mug from the cupboard over the stove, move across the kitchen to get milk from the fridge and prep my mug. All in all, not a big deal. Minus the time it takes the coffee to percolate, the whole process probably takes less than 2 minutes. But it’s a lot of small steps.

I don’t prep my moka pot the night before because that can cause it to rust. However, for the mini-prep I do a couple really tiny things to save me a few steps. The two tiny things are removing the coffee grounds from the cupboard and placing them next to the percolator. I keep a measuring spoon in the grounds so that helps. Then I place the mug next to the stove so it’s ready. Not overly ambitious, but manageable when I’m tired.

I’m also a huge oatmeal fan. Another mini-prep is to place the pot I’ll use with pre-measured water on the stove before bed. If I’m feeling really ambitious, I might pre-measure the oats and leave them in a bowl next to the pot.

These are all small steps that would hardly qualify as “prepping,” but I find they add up and make the morning experience just a little bit smoother.

The Merits of Attending a VR Conference

In last week’s post, I described my experience of creating my conference-attending avatar. Once created, and once I figured out the keyboard commands, it was time to explore. Here are a few of my thoughts about the experience.

The “campus” was beautiful. It included a lighthouse lookout point, speed boat rides, tables and chairs for “private” conversation areas, conference rooms, and a very realistic expo hall. Even things like background sounds were provided. On the beach I could hear birds chirping, the soft shushing motion of the waves, and a gentle breeze blowing. For someone who’s barely left my neighborhood since the pandemic started, this felt really special.

My avatar on Day 1 in front of the beach view.

At the sessions we could sit, or stand. Though it didn’t matter since I could zoom in the presentation. I often did this because just like in the real world when someone tall sits in front of you, the name of the avatars near me were floating above their heads obstructing my view. Still, more fun than uploading endless zoom presentations.

A “go to” with a list of all the different places on the campus made it easy to get around. The regular style presentations were fine to attend. However, I didn’t enjoy the panel discussions as much. Without watching actual people engage and exhibit some body language, I didn’t find them appealing. It was odd listening to people speak animatedly, combined with a motionless avatar on the stage.

I did try to converse with a few avatars. Again, because body language was lacking, it was difficult to join in a conversation. I managed a few conversations, but there were technical challenges. Since I didn’t have headphones in, it was causing feedback on the other end. When I put in my headphones, I could hear, but nobody could hear me. “Private” zones helped because then I could just hear the person I was speaking to.

My avatar on the beach in front of a “private” conversation area, the ring in blue behind.

On day 2 I figured out how to take a ride on the speedboat. At the last minute, two other avatars jumped in with me. One of them started driving. They popped out at the end without a word. I couldn’t decide if that was creepy, weird, or something to be expected in the VR world.

All in all, a fun, new experience. Though I’ve learned I’m definitely not ready for the meta-verse yet.