Thursday, January 13, 2022

Work From Home (again)

Omicron is spreading like wildfire in Japan as elsewhere, and Okinawa is hit by far the hardest. This is in no small part due to the American military bases, and the lax-to-nonexistent procedures they have had for entering the country from the US. 


COVID cases per day in Okinawa prefecture. That vertical wall at the right edge is not reassuring...

Okinawa is also the poorest prefecture in Japan, and has the smallest number of hospital beds per capita ("hospital bed" means not just the bed, but equipment, staff and so on). Even though the number of cases have been — and remain — low by international standards, there is a real risk that the medical system will be overwhelmed by the number of cases. If that happens, people that need emergency care would start getting turned away. That would be very bad.

Among other measures, the prefecture has now requested that businesses implement work from home policies to reduce the spread. And as OIST is really good about following regulations, and is taking COVID very seriously (my bosses' boss, Mary Collins, is a professor in immunology; the person in charge at OIST for this situation; and really good at getting things done), we are back to working from home again from today and for the next two weeks at least.

Naha harbor, and typical Okinawan winter weather.

I'm not going to dwell on the larger picture here — lots of other people have a better grasp of things than I do anyway — so I just want to jot down some notes on what has been working for me in this situation. I'll also add some random pictures because why not.

The greatest thing about working from home, for me, is my commute. Or, rather, the lack of one. Normally I spend 1 hour and 10 minutes driving to work, and 1 hour and 15-45 minutes going home. Now I spend about 5 seconds walking from the living room to my desk in the backroom. That's about 2.5 hours of my life I get back every single day.

Today I woke up at 6:30 as usual. I went for an hour-long run to Omoromachi and back, had a relaxed breakfast, and I still had enough time to do a bit of cleaning up and start a load of laundry before I logged in to start my day.

It's also really convenient to be at home of course. I can make good coffee and make a real lunch, and eat together with Ritsuko when she's at home. She can use the car when she needs to. And I can do stuff that isn't really possible when working at OIST, such as playing music while I work, or noodling on my ukulele while thinking.

The worst thing is the lack of face to face meetings. We have a good group of people at SCDA, and working together with them is part of the fun. But my job also involves a lot of interaction with the researchers. I teach courses on using HPC systems and how to program cluster computers. I also have daily meetings to help them get started on the cluster, give advice about how to best run things, and work with them to improve their code to run faster or better on our systems. This is the best part of this job and a large reason I took this job in the first place.

But that's of course no longer happening. I do use Zoom for one-on-one meetings and classes but it's a pale imitation of the real thing. It's doable, and it sort of works, but it's nowhere near as frictionless, social and satisfying as meeting in person. I miss that.

Fishing is insanely popular here. I've never tried it myself; I worry that I'd get hooked (sic) and have to deal with fresh fish every weekend.

Technically, working from home works OK. I have an improvised  standing desk and a wooden high stool to sit on, but this setup was never intended for using all day long every day. If working from home became a regular weekly thing I would need to get a real desk and a proper chair.

I connect my work laptop to my monitor. It's a largish 32" 4K LG monitor that's perfect for my desktop. The laptop, with its pokey integrated GPU does struggle a bit with the size; it can only drive the monitor at 30Hz, and while fractional scaling (at 150%) works surprisingly well on the Gnome desktop the combined result is a slight but noticeable delay or hesitancy to everything. For work I only use an email client, a browser and a pile of terminals open to remote machines, so it's not a big issue.

The other technical problem is our network. We do have fiber at home that's technically 1GB/s, but as we live in a mixed building with lots of businesses, and in the middle of the city, the connection is horribly oversubscribed in practice. We sometimes get no more than 20-30Mb/s and even less at night. It's doable but not ideal, especially when I need to talk with people over Zoom.

My ideal for Work From Home would be to do it at my own discretion about 1-2 times a week (you know, when we're not in the midst of a raging pandemic). That would give me a break from my commute, give me some alone time to work — for all that I like people, I'm basically an introvert — and still get the frequent personal connections that makes this job so rewarding.

I'd have a proper desk, perhaps one that can be raised and lowered as needed, and a real desk chair. We'd have an internet connection that sucks a little less. That would make for a nearly optimal experience.