Sunday, April 26, 2020

Corona, The Work From Home Multimedia Experience

I've now worked from home for three weeks. During this period Japan and Okinawa predictably went from "I'm sure somebody is taking care of it" to "Oh wait, this is actually really bad!".

We're on semi-voluntary lockdown and telework until the end of May at this point. It's not that Okinawa has so very many cases yet, but it's increasing far too rapidly for the rather limited hospital resources to cope if it continues. And Okinawa is home to some of the oldest people in the world, who would be very vulnerable if they got infected.

An empty shopping mall in Osaka, from last time I visited. We were going back to Osaka again over Golden Week. That idea has been well and truly scuppered.

I save almost 3 hours every day from my commute. We still get up at the same time as before, so now I can go on a long morning run everyday. It feels great!

On the other hand, I no longer have car-time for my podcasts, so I'm running with earphones instead. It would be fine if my earphones — got for free with my phone — didn't kind of suck. I've got a pair of bone-conduction headphones on the way.

Sunset beach in Chatan, last year. This year the whole place is closed.

Surprise: I'm more productive at home.
It's quiet; I have fewer meetings, interruptions and random requests; a standing desk and a nice, big second screen helps a lot.

But also, we've long had access to Microsofts online collaboration tools, including Teams. This situation has forced us to actually start using them, and relying on them for collaboration and information sharing. We're now getting up to speed and they really help improve our workflow a lot

Teams is really surprisingly good. And — major surprise! — they even have an app for Linux. Sure, it's mostly the website wrapped into an Electron app, but everything works fine, including phone and video calls. Microsoft has a  tendency to have two or three confusingly similar tools for everything; a document describing when to use what would be helpful.

Cafe 21 in Shinsaibashi, Osaka. We're teleworking but we're not allowed to work from just anywhere. It's work from home or not at all, basically; channeling your inner hipster from a neighbourhood cafe is a no-go.

Anyway, we're all getting fairly used to meet over Zoom, talk about issues in Teams channels and chats, track tasks in Planner and so on. There's even a modestly active social channel for the IT department; we'll see how that one evolves.

I'm pretty sure we will continue to use these tools after this is all over. It's a lot more efficient to raise minor issues over chat than through email, and it's very convenient to meet without having to traipse across half the campus.

I drink coffee without my co-workers. But I do drink much better coffee, now that I have access to our own kitchen with a proper grinder, beans and so on. 

I'm productive, but I'm also bored. I do miss meeting other people at work, walking around campus, running in the beautiful hilly area over lunch and having coffee breaks with a view.

Two kinds of home-made gyoza, with fried goya and shiso leaves. 

On the other hand, I have time to cook! I'm made most of our dinners and half of the lunches over the past three weeks and I've enjoyed every second of it. As we stay at home and cook by ourselves we're eating way healthier than we used to. I've lost a bit of weight and I feel a lot better overall.

As a side effect we're spending a lot less money. The car sits idle most days, and we're not eating out, going to cafes or anything like that. Good for us; a disaster for the economy. So we do try to spend a bit of that money, on takeout, coffee beans and so on from shops we like.

It's never not time to bake cinnamon rolls! And now I have enough time in the evenings to do so whenever I like.

Restrictions are voluntary,
but people and businesses mostly do understand the situation and at least sort-of follow the recommendations. Except Pachinko parlors. The Osaka mayor tried to shame them into closing by naming them, but a few still stay open, with a flood of gamblers looking for a place to play. If you ever needed proof gambling is an addiction here you go.

Oh, and the Japanese Olympic committee president, Yoshiro Mori, has stated that there will not be a second delay of the Olympic games due to the pandemic, because "The prime minister has determined that one year is sufficient."  I'm happy somebody is keeping their crystal ball well polished...

The fishing pier in Suma, in western Kobe. It was damaged in a typhoon two years ago, and never re-opened. It would be a shame if they let it rot; it's a fun place to visit even if you're not into fishing. For now it's a nice illustration of loneliness.

Saturday, April 4, 2020

More Corona

It's been a month and more, and here on Okinawa we're still doing well. Japan was one of the earliest countries to get infected, but until recently they've managed to curtail the spread. We've mostly had isolated clusters of outbreaks around the country, but no real uncontrolled spreading. The reason has been a lot of voluntary closures of events, people taking "social distancing" measures, and testing of people around confirmed patients.

People are still pretty chill about this on Okinawa. Nobody is panic-buying toilet-paper for instance, so there's plenty to go around for everybody. More and more residents are using masks now - it used to be only tourists - but most seem to wear it just to make other people feel safer.

Here on Okinawa we had three cases right at the start, all connected to a visiting cruise ship. We didn't have a single case for over a month after that. Two weeks ago we started getting new cases; it gradually rose to 12, with all but two infected abroad or on the mainland. There has been little spread on the island, but just today another six cases appeared, three with unknown source. So now we have it spreading on the main island as well.

The local economy is fairly dependent on tourism and the loss of travellers has hit that sector very hard. Many hotels have special deals for Okinawa residents, so a couple of weeks ago we spent a weekend in Yomitan near Cape Maeda. We supported local business and got a relaxing weekend getaway.

Japan in general has been lucky so far — Japan at large has been doing something right, or our hospitals would be overrun with patients by now. But now the infection rate is increasing rapidly in Tokyo and Osaka. The political response has been anemic; there's a sense that the government has been slow to react, and more interested in protecting its own image and the economy than trying to keep on top of the disease.

The weather was sunny and warm. We took a walk along the beach, and the sea was warm enough to swim in already. Here a washed-up coconut on the beach that's become shelter for a group of hermit crabs.

They announced yesterday that every household will be given two cloth face masks. This sounds ridiculous on its face (sorry); cloth masks don't really help much at all, and the whole thing sounds like an pointless empty gesture. However, more than a few people think this is the precursor to declaring a state of emergency with self-quarantines, and the cloth masks would be a key element of that.

A Common Rose Swallowtail butterfly.

The Japanese central government doesn't have much constitutional power (they have bad historical experience with powerful governments) so, for instance, they simply can't force people to stay at home or businesses to close. Even a state of emergency enacts only limited powers, and mostly to the prefectures, not to the central government.

But they could require people to wear a mask when entering public areas. As every household has two of them, nobody would have an excuse not to wear one. And as a household only has two, that would directly limit the number of people that could be out and about at any one time. Even though you could substitute another mask, it would establish a general pattern of not going out unless you have a valid, specific reason to do so. Don't underestimate the psychological effect.

If they combine it with semi-voluntary closures of non-essential businesses, this will effectively create a similar lock-down state as we see in other countries without having the legal resources to enforce it directly.

Fishing harbour in Maeda. This sure beats winter in Osaka.

Okinawa still has only a few cases, so I would not be surprised if the local government greatly restricts travel to the islands if or when the state of emergency is declared. As all cases so far have been around Naha and one of the US bases, I would also not be surprised if travel between the islands is suspended or curtailed as well.

My workplace OIST is still operating, but with heavy restrictions. People are increasingly working from home, or are preparing to do so. If you have any cold symptoms at all you need to stay home for 14 days. Most in-person meetings and teaching has been suspended, no visitors are allowed on campus, and we are discouraged from gathering in groups. We are not allowed to travel for any but the most dire reason, and if you do you must self-quarantine for two weeks.

And as of this week, if we meet with anybody travelling from the mainland we need to self-quarantine at home for two weeks. This impacts me directly, as Ritsuko has been in Osaka for the past week or so (for good reasons) and will return tomorrow. I will need to work from home for the next two weeks.

Going outside and getting exercise is usually allowed, and always a good idea. Do it alone and stay outside, and you'll be safe. This is from my usual lunchtime run around OIST.

We have been preparing for this of course; I can do all my current work online, and some colleagues already work from home part time. Working from home for a few weeks won't impact my job directly. Hopefully OIST will still be open in two weeks time.

"There's a swallows nest; please watch your head". Life goes on.