The Music of Your (Work) Life

Well, yes and no …

I’ve been in business long enough that I can remember a time when it was pretty commonplace for the radio to be playing in the background in offices and other work settings.  Sometimes the result of doing so was a bit distracting – most especially during radio program commercial breaks, but also the general distraction of hearing the radio announcers.

These days, the only workplace where I hear the radio playing is at the office of my dentist.  Perhaps they think their patients don’t have any choice but to sit captive in the operatory chair, so it doesn’t matter if the “irritation quotient” is high or not.

On the other hand, one of the things workers can do today is craft their own streaming-service playlists, filled with the kind of music that they prefer to hear.  And with so many people working from home in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic, it’s little surprise that playlists have become increasingly popular.

One question we might ask is if the music we listen to while working helps with our productivity, or hinders it.

It’s a topic that’s of interest to companies such as OnBuy.  This UK-based online marketplace has conducted a study of ~3,000 people, enlisting them to complete ten short tasks with music playing in the background to find out how many of the tasks they could complete when various different songs were playing.

The research subjects worked their tasks while hearing a range of different songs – and as it turns out, there were significant differences in productivity based on the songs that were playing.

According to the OnBuy study, the most productive music to work or study by were these five songs:

  • My Love (Sia)
  • Real Love (Tom Odell)
  • I Wanna Be Yours (Arctic Monkey)
  • Secret Garden (Bruce Springsteen)
  • Don’t Worry, Be Happy (Bobbie McFerrin)
Don’t Worry, Be Productive: Bobby McFerrin

The research participants were able to complete an average of six of the ten assigned tasks within the duration of those five songs.

At the other end of the scale, these songs were determined to be poor for productivity, with participants able to complete just two of the assigned tasks, on average, while they were playing:

  • Dancing With Myself (Billy Idol)
  • Roar (Katy Perry)
The Pointer Sisters: Everyone’s excited, but productivity takes a beating.

And at the bottom of the barrel? Of the songs tested, I’m So Excited by the Pointer Sisters was the worst one for productivity.

More generally, the OnBuy study discovered an inverse correlation between a song’s beats per minute (BPM) and productivity levels:  The higher the BPM, the less productive people were in completing their assigned tasks.

This is probably why I’m much more productive when listening to music that has practically no BPM associated with it – whether it’s the ambient music of Brian Eno, piano preludes by Claude Debussy, or the nature music of Frederick Delius.

Of course, when it comes to work productivity, nothing beats complete silence.  That’s the surefire way to be the most productive – but it isn’t nearly as nice, is it?

How about you?  What kind of music appeals to you — and works for you — while working?  Please share your thoughts with other readers here.

Remembering international advertising executive Shirley Young (1935-2020).

The World War II immigrant from war-torn Asia became a pacesetting executive in the New York ad world before shifting to the corporate sphere.

As we begin a New Year, let’s pause for a brief moment to remember Shirley Young, the successful New York ad executive who passed away in the waning days of 2020.  She’s a person whose life story is as fascinating as it is inspiring.

Ms. Young may be best-remembered as a noted advertising executive whose career included a quarter century at Grey Advertising.  As president of Grey’s strategic marketing division, one of Young’s clients was General Motors, a company she later joined to help spearhead GM’s strategic development initiatives in China. 

Ms. Young moved in the worlds of business in the West and Far East with equal ease and poise.  To help understand how she could do so, looking at her early life helps explain her success. 

Born in Shanghai in 1935, Shirley Young was the daughter of Chinese diplomat Clarence Kuangson Young.  The family moved to Paris in the late 1930s and later to Manila, where her father had been appointed consul general at the Chinese embassy there.

In interviews later in life, Ms. Young would recount how soldiers had came to their Manila home when the city was overrun by the invading Japanese army.  Her diplomat father was arrested — and executed, as she later found out.  The occupiers sequestered little Shirley, her mother and her two sisters in a communal living space with other family members of jailed Chinese diplomats.  There, Shirley and her siblings helped raise pigs, chickens and ducks to survive wartime conditions in cramped quarters that were frequently left without electricity and basic water supply. 

Speaking of these early experiences, “I learned that whatever the circumstances, you can be happy,” Young told journalist Bill Moyers in a 2003 interview.

Following the Second World War, Shirley Young and her family emigrated to New York City, where her mother worked for the United Nations and later married another Chinese diplomat — this one representing the Chinese Nationalist government in Taiwan. 

Graduating from Wellesley College in 1955, Shirley had few concrete plans for the future.  Indeed, she considered herself more of a dreamer than a person whose heart was set on a business career.  But taking the advice of a friend to explore the emerging field of market research where she might be able to combine her natural curiosity about the world with gainful employment, after numerous job application rejections she finally landed an entry-level position in the field.

Learning the basics of market research at several New York employers, Ms. Young then joined Grey Advertising in 1959 where she rose steadily in the ranks.  As a senior-level woman in the then-male dominated world of advertising agencies, Young stood out.  In so doing during a time when major companies were just beginning to show interest in more diversified corporate direction, it’s little surprise that Young would be invited to join the boards of directors of several major companies.

Young’s field experience and keen strategic acumen drew the eye of General Motors, a Grey Advertising client that would go on to hire her as vice president of GM’s consumer market development department in 1988. It was an unusual move for a company that up to then had typically promoted senior managers from within the company’s own ranks.  Her key role at General Motors was in formulating and implementing the GM’s strategic business initiatives in China.

In the years following her retirement, Ms. Young slowed down — but only a little.  She founded and chaired the Committee of 100, an organization that seeks to propagate friendly relations between the United States and China.  Related to those Chinese/U.S. endeavors, a statement made by Ms. Young in 2018 was this memorable quote:

“We have to work together.  Given the intertwined relationship and globalization, it’s ridiculous to think we cannot work together.”

[These days, the jury may be out on that statement; the next few years will probably tell us if her view has actually carried the day …]

Looking back on Shirley Young’s life and career, it’s hard not to be impressed by her pluck and spirit.  A child born of privilege but who soon lost it all, she could easily have retreated into a world of “what might have been.”  Instead, she pieced together a new life that turned out to be “bigger and better” than she could have ever imagined in her early years.

One other facet of Ms. Young’s life and work is worth noting:  her love of the “high arts.”  She was a notable supporter of such musicians as the cellist Yo-Yo Ma, composer Tan Dun and pianist Lang Lang, and was also a tireless promoter of artistic exchanges between the United States and China.  One could certainly say that she was a significant catalyst in the burgeoning interest in Western classical music that has developed inside China over the past several decades. 

Acknowledging her contribution to the arts, Lang Lang’s organization wrote this epitaph about Shirley Young following her death:

“The Lang Lang Music Foundation mourns the passing of our director Shirley Young, a remarkable woman, patron of the arts, and a dear friend … she was unique and can never be forgotten.”

I think that sentiment is spot-on.

Saying “goodbye and good riddance” to 2020 with a bit of humor …

The year 2020 is one that many people would just as soon see well-behind us, and I’m sure that everyone hopes that 2021 will mark a major improvement, too.

This year has also generated more than its share of gallows humor – proving yet again that “making light of misery” has its place in social discourse.

Along those lines, several friends/colleagues who live and work in Europe and Asia have shared a bit of that humor, and it definitely elicited a chuckle from me. 

So with credit to these two gents, here are “Ten Things to Ponder” as 2020 draws to a close:

  • The dumbest thing I bought this year was a 2020 planner.
  • 2019:  Stay away from negative people.  2020:  Stay away from positive people.
  • The world has turned upside down:  Old folks are sneaking out of the house and their kids are yelling at them to stay indoors.
  • This morning I saw a neighbor talking to her cat.  It was obvious she thought her cat understood her.  Back home I told the dog – we had a good laugh.
  • Every few days, try your jeans on just to make sure they fit.  Sweatpants will have you believing that all’s right with the world.
  • Does anyone know if we can take showers yet, or should we just keep washing our hands?
  • We never thought the comment “I wouldn’t touch them with a 10-ft. pole” would become a national policy …
  • I really need to practice social distancing – from the fridge.
  • I hope the weather is good tomorrow for my trip to the backyard.  I am tired of the living room.
  • Never in a million years could I have imagined I would walk up to a bank teller while wearing a mask and ask for money.

What are your “imponderables” for 2020?  Feel free to share them with other readers here.

The COVID-19 pandemic and the future of telehealth services.

There isn’t a whole lot of good news that has resulted from the coronavirus pandemic, but we can look to the healthcare industry and see several positive outcomes.  One is the pace at which new vaccines have been developed, trialed and approved for use.  Considering how successful that initiative has been, It’s likely that we’ll never go back to the “snail’s pace” approach of yore in developing new pharmaceutical products — and few people are likely to complain about that.

Another positive development is the wholesale adoption of telehealth services.  Until the pandemic, telehealth was taking its own time being adopted by medical practitioners and patients, and it was little more than a novelty in many quarters. 

That’s all changed.  Telehealth has been a huge bright spot during the coronavirus crisis.  As regulator eased rules inhibiting its use, access to telehealth — and its affordability — have dramatically improved in a time when in-person doctor visits have proven impractical if not impossible.

Speaking personally, I have engaged in several telehealth sessions with my primary care physician since March of this year.  My experience has been nothing but positive — and so much more convenient than hoofing it to the doctor’s office while feeling under the weather.

Also important to the continuing adoption of telehealth services is how Medicare and other insurance programs cover and reimburse providers for telehealth services, and we can only hope that those newfound flexibilities won’t disappear once the public health emergency subsides.

Beyond the possible resurgence of regulations, there is another risk to the long-term viability of providing telehealth services to patients, and it comes in the form of “patent trolls.”  Those are the obnoxious non-practicing entities (NPEs) that scoop up obscure patents and then proceed to sue other companies that are unwittingly using the patented technology.

In nearly every case, the NPEs in question add no value whatsoever to the marketplace, but seek instead to line their own pockets by leveraging obscure patents to sue for infringement and seek massive financial settlements from the “offending” manufacturers just to keep their products in the marketplace.

Telehealth service providers are especially vulnerable to such extortion attempts since their products (including the smart devices that support them) involve highly complex operating systems utilizing hundreds or even thousands of patents. 

At the moment, two particularly egregious patent infringement cases have been filed with the International Trade Commission, the quasi-judicial federal international body that investigates and makes determinations about unfair trade practices.  Both lawsuits emanate from Neodron, an NPE based in Ireland which purchased a number of patents related to certain touchscreen features.  Immediately upon gaining ownership of the patents, Neodron proceed to file suit against Apple, Microsoft, Amazon and other tech companies that are in the laptop, tablet and smartphone manufacturing business.

A Neodron victory, if it happens, could block access to as many as 90% of the devices Americans rely on to access mobile health services, thereby crippling the platforms needed for telehealth functionality.

Unfortunately, the ITC has a history of siding with the patent trolls.  In fact, in more than 750 investigations conducted over the past 15 years, the ITC has never refused to issue an exclusion order based on the public interest.  One would think that telehealth functionality would qualify as being in the public interest, but the track record so far doesn’t bode particularly well for such a ruling.

Recognizing the threat, the U.S. Congress is now getting in on the act.  Bipartisan legislation has been introduced in the House of Representatives that would curtail the ability of NPEs to bring ITC complaints.  Let’s see if that legislation will actually become law — and in so doing help telehealth services maintain their forward momentum in changing the way that healthcare is delivered to patients.

Post-pandemic, will the office landscape ever be the same again?

Nearly every business or organization, regardless of thee industry segment in which it operates, has been at least somewhat impacted by the coronavirus pandemic. 

Existential forces have been responsible for quite a few businesses having to reduce staff working hours, either as a mandatory or voluntary measure. In a world of tough choices, often that action was the most reasonable way to cut costs while preventing redundancies and furloughs.

Months into the pandemic and with more restrictions being put in place again for the foreseeable future at least, what began as a short-term fix to weather the economic pressures of the COVID-19 outbreak now has some employers rethinking the possibilities of how they can restructure jobs to “work” effectively outside of the traditional work-week model.

In doing so, employers are responding to a growing appetite for part-time and flexible working as people re-evaluate their own work/life balance situations.

The economic benefits of allowing a higher proportion of staff to choose reduced hours on a more permanent basis could be beneficial for companies already operating on historically thin margins.  While it’s too early to see widespread policy changes happening, some companies are already actively planning to offer more part-time and flexible work to meet the desires of those who no longer wish to work a traditional 8-hour day/40-hour work week.

Among the numerous repercussions of the “coronavirus economy,” one may be the growing realization that office employees actually can take back some control of their time – that they can still do good work while structuring their work days, weeks or months differently. 

Any lingering stigma once associated with working fewer hours, working from home, or leaving the office early to pick up children has pretty much disappeared.  Employees doing any of those things are no longer the exception – and hence there’s no longer the guilt associated with bending or breaking the rules of attendance at the office.  And that’s before factoring in the economic attraction of saving thousands of dollars per year in commuting and other travel-related costs.

One chief marketing officer, Amanda Goetz of Teal Communications, goes so far so to declare that the 40-hour work week won’t exist in 10 years.  “The way companies operate now, there’s no need to ‘own’ someone’s calendar as long as you know they have very clear metrics and can hit their goals,” this manager emphasizes.

What are your thoughts?  How much will the recent changes be permanent going forward … or will we soon return to the paradigms of the pre-pandemic office world?  Please share your perspectives with other readers here.

Let the AP Stylebook explain it all to you …

For many people – not just journalists but also business and tech writers – the Associated Press’ AP Stylebook is something of a Bible when it comes to adhering to proper presentation of the written English language.

There are other style guides out there – FranklinCovey is another popular resource – but the AP Stylebook has been the “go-to source” for so many decades, it’s hard not to think of it as the ultimate arbiter of what’s considered “proper” in written communications.

This vaunted reputation is why so many people take notice whenever new revisions to the AP Stylebook are released.  The most recent ones, published within the past few months – all 991 of them – are in some cases eyebrow-raising.

Reading through them, it appears that the Associated Press has gone all-in on “keeping up with changing times” by tackling a wide range of sometimes-provocative topics.  Here are some examples:

  • AP is weighing in on environmental terminology, contending that “climate change” is a more accurate scientific term than “global warming.”
  • References to people with disabilities should now exclude descriptions that connote pity, such as “afflicted with,” “battling” or “suffers from.” Moreover, referring to a disability as a “handicap” is no longer appropriate.
  • The word “mistress” should no longer be used to describe a woman involved in a relationship with a married man (although rendering judgments about “paramour” or “kept man,” common references to the male version of the same, are noticeably absent from the guidelines).
  • On ethnic/racial topics, the term Black is now preferred over “African American.” What’s more, the term should always be capitalized whenever used.  (No similar pronouncement is made about capitalizing the word “white” in the same context.)
  • When it comes to age demographics, “senior citizen” and “elderly” are no longer appropriate terminology. Instead, the reference should be to “older adult” or “older person.”

But the most extensive new guidelines in the updated AP Stylebook are the 11 paragraphs and 22 specific examples presented under the heading “gender-neutral language.”

Banished are terms like “businessman,” “manpower,” “man-made,” “salesman” and “mankind.”  In their place are “businessperson,” “crews,” “human-made,” “salesperson” and “humanity.”

“Freshman” is now also frowned upon – but at least the replacement term isn’t the awkward-sounding “freshperson,” but rather “first-year student.”

While AP is to be commended for attempting to keep current on cultural changes, let’s hope that its efforts don’t devolve into the level of parody; some may think that it already has.

But I do have one question:  When will AP finally acknowledge that the entire world is using U.S. Postal Service abbreviations for state names – and has been doing so for well-nigh decades now?

These days, it seems that nobody other than AP is writing “Ore.” for “OR,” to cite just one example among 50.  Tenaciously holding on to outmoded state abbreviations — when no one else is doing so — seems almost like a nervous tic on AP’s part.  (Or is “nervous tic” yet another descriptor we can no longer use?)

What are your thoughts about the newest AP Stylebook guidelines?  Right on the money … or blunt overkill?  Please share your views with other readers here.

As the American workplace reopens, not all employees are onboard with returning to the “old normal.”

A new survey finds that nearly half of employees who are currently working from home want to keep it that way.

The forced shutdown of the American workplace began in mid-March. Only now, ten weeks later, are things beginning to open back up in a significant way.

But those ten weeks have revealed some interesting attitudinal changes on the part of many employees. Simply put, quite a few of them have concluded that they like working from home, and don’t much care to return to the “traditional” work routines.

It’s an interesting development that illustrates yet another manifestation of “the law of unintended consequences.” For decades, the opportunities to work from home seemed to be a realistic proposition for only a distinct minority of certain white-collar workers and top-level managers.

Reflecting this dynamic, prior to the Coronavirus outbreak just ~7% of the U.S. private sector workforce had access to a flexible workplace benefit, as reported in the 2019 National compensation Survey released by the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Suddenly, working from home went from being a rarefied benefit to something quite routine in many work sectors.

In late April, The Grossman Group, a Chicago-based leadership and communications consulting firm, conducted an online survey of nearly 850 U.S. employees who are currently working from their homes.  A cross-section of age, gender, geography, ethnicity and education levels were surveyed to ensure a reliable representation of the U.S. workforce.

The topline finding from the Grossman research is that nearly half of all workers surveyed (48%) reported that they would like to continue working from home after the COVID-19 pandemic passes.

The reasons for preferring work-from-home arrangements are varied. Certainly, the prospect of reduced commuting time is a major attraction, along with other work/life balance factors … and while some employees have found that setting up an office in their home isn’t a simple proposition, it’s also clear that many employees were able to adjust quickly during the early days of the workplace lockdown.

David Grossman, CEO of The Grossman Group, sees in the survey findings a clear message to employers:  Worker preferences have evolved rapidly, necessitating a re-imagining of traditional ways of working. Grossman says:

“A great deal has changed in employees’ lives in a short time, and if we want them to be engaged and productive, we’re going to have to be willing to meet them where they are as much as possible … that’s a ‘win-win’ for companies and their people.”

He adds:

“Many employees have gotten a taste of working from home for the first time – and they like it.”

Interestingly, the Grossman Group survey found practically no generational differences in the attractiveness of a work-from-home option; whether you’re a Baby Boomer, a Gen X or Gen Z worker, the attitudes are nearly the same.

Of course, not every type of work is conducive to working remotely. Many jobs simply cannot be done without the benefit of a “destination workplace” where mission-critical machinery, equipment, laboratory and other facilities are accessed daily. But the COVID-19 lockdown experience has shown that employees can be productive no matter where they are, and a “one-size-fits-all” approach to the workplace likely won’t cut it in the future.

This might be a little difficult for some people to hear, but employers will have to set aside concerns about potential slackening employee motivation and productivity in a remote working environment, lest they lose their talent to other, more flexible employers who are figuring out ways to manage a remote workforce effectively over the long-term.

As David Grossman contends, “More flexibility adds value to the employee experience, builds engagement, and brings results.”

Additional findings from the Grossman Group research can be accessed here.

What are your thoughts on the topic, based on your own experiences and those of your co-workers over the past 10 weeks? Please share your opinions with other readers here.

 

The (Very) Real Privacy Concerns Raised by Contact Tracing

Last week, I linked to a “guest” blog post about the challenges of contact tracing as part of the way out of the worldwide coronavirus pandemic.  The piece was authored by my brother, Nelson Nones, who heads up a company that has developed software capabilities to support such functions. One reader left a thoughtful response citing the personal privacy concerns that any sort of effective contact tracing regimen inevitably raises.

It’s an important issue that deserves an equally thoughtful response, so I invited Nelson to share his own thoughts on the issue. Here’s what he wrote to me:

The introduction of new contact tracing apps for smartphones has raised quite a few privacy fears around the globe. This is a very hot topic right now which deserves attention. However, to keep my original article about the ability to conduct effective contact tracing on point, I purposely sidestepped the privacy issue — other than mentioning privacy fears briefly in the ‘Technology Limitations’ section of the article. 

Here I’ll expand a bit. Naturally, the coronavirus pandemic has raised a lot of concern about Orwellian “big brother” surveillance and government overreach, but what many people may not realize is that it’s not about expanding “the target population of surveillance and state control” as the commenter notes. When it comes to public health, governments – including state governments in the United States – have possessed these powers for a long time. 

I first discovered this in my own personal life about 20 years ago. I was at work in Long Beach one day when I received a call from the California Department of Health, informing me that I was confirmed to have a highly contagious gastrointestinal infection and ordering me to submit regular stool samples until my tests came back negative. I was informed that if I did not do so, I could be forcibly quarantined — and fined or even jailed — if I refused to cooperate. 

My first question to myself was, “How the h*ll and why the h*ll did they target me?”  

I had recently returned from a trip to Thailand and started having GI issues, so I went to my doctor and gave a stool sample. They performed a lab analysis which confirmed a particular type of infection that was listed on the Department of Health’s watch list, so I was informed that my doctor was obliged by law to report my case to the Department of Health.  

The Health Department, in turn, was obliged by law to contact me and issue the orders given to me – and by law I was obliged to comply with their orders. 

The reason that nations, states and provinces have such powers is to contain and control the spread of infectious diseases. This means that governments have the power to forcibly isolate people who are confirmed to be infected — and they also have the power to forcibly quarantine people who are suspected (but not yet confirmed) to be infected.  

Whether or not, and how, they choose to exercise those powers depends on the nature of the disease, how it’s transmitted, whether or not an epidemic or pandemic has been declared, and whether or not proven cures exist. Moreover, rigorous protocols are in place to protect people against the abuse of those powers.  

But the bottom line is: in most countries, including the United States, if you are unfortunate enough to catch an infectious and communicable disease, you have no constitutional right to prevent the government from identifying you and potentially depriving you of your civil liberties, because of the risk that you could unknowingly infect other people. 

Think of it as a civic duty — just as you have no constitutional right to prevent the government from ordering you to perform jury service. 

Medical science is so advanced these days that most diseases can be contained and controlled without having to inconvenience more than a relatively small number of people, which is why most people have no idea that governments possess such vast powers. But COVID-19 is a once-in-a-century outbreak that’s so novel, so poorly understood, and so communicable that nearly everyone in the world is being deprived of their civil liberties right now out of an abundance of caution.  

Realistically, one could expect these restrictions to remain in place unless and until COVID-19 vaccines and/or therapies are invented, proven and made available to the public – at which time it will (hopefully) be possible to manage COVID-19 like the seasonal flu, which doesn’t require draconian public health measures.    

As for the new smartphone apps, have a look at this recent article that appeared in Britain’s Express newspaper which will give you a good idea of how “hot” this topic has become.  

The key question here is whether or not the database backend (which is the software that my company Geoprise makes) is “centralized” or “decentralized.” A “centralized” backend follows the Singapore model and contains personally-identifiable information (PII) about everyone who registers the app with a public health authority and/or is confirmed to be infected.  

Conversely, some researchers are proposing a “decentralized” backend which serves only as a communications platform, and only ever receives anonymized and nonlinkable data from the smartphones.  

This is the privacy and security model that Apple and Google are following, but there is no way that such a “decentralized” backend could ever serve as a contact tracing database in the traditional sense. That’s because a traditional contact tracing database, by definition, always contains linkable PII. (Incidentally, our Geoprise software could be used in either a “centralized” or “decentralized” manner.) 

The key thing to understand about even the most “centralized” of the smartphone apps, such as Singapore’s TraceTogether app, is that they contain numerous privacy and security safeguards. Here’s a short list: 

  • The data which is captured and retained on individual devices identifies a particular smartphone only by an encrypted “TempID” which changes periodically (Singapore’s recommendation is to change the TempIDs every 15 minutes). This makes it impossible for a smartphone owner or eavesdropper to reconstruct complete histories of encounters held on the devices in a personally-identifiable way.
  • As my original article states, the contact tracing apps don’t use or store geo-location data (i.e. “where your smartphone was”) because GPS measurements are too unreliable for proximity-sensing purposes. Instead they use the device’s Bluetooth radio to sense other Bluetooth-enabled devices that come within very close range (i.e. “devices that were near your smartphone”).
  • The apps are opt-in. You can’t be compelled to download the app or register it with the public health authority (unless you happen to live in Mainland China — but that’s yet another story!).
  • Only people who are confirmed to be infected are ever asked to share their history of encounters with the public health authority.
  • Sharing your history of encounters is voluntary. You can’t be compelled to upload your contact tracing history to the public health authority’s backend server.

Apple and Google appear to be taking this a step further by: 

  • Allowing smartphone owners to “turn off” proximity sensing whenever they wish (such as when meeting a secret lover during trysts, or for more innocuous occasions).
  • Allowing smartphone owners to delete their history of encounters on demand, and to erase all data when uninstalling the app.
  • “Graceful dismantling” – to quote one researcher:“The system will organically dismantle itself after the end of the epidemic. Infected patients will stop uploading their data to the central server, and people will stop using the app. Data on the server is removed after 14 days.”  

The bottom-line on privacy and government overreach, I think, is for everyone to step back a safe distance from one another, and take a deep breath …

Contact Tracing: The giant obstacle smack in the middle of the road to COVID-19 recovery.

… But we’ve got to figure out how to do it right.

In recent days, news reports about the coronavirus pandemic have gravitated from a shortage of ventilators and possible overcrowding in the nation’s hospitals to how best to reopen the economy (and society).

The challenge, of course, is how to “reopen” in responsible ways that don’t result in a new flare-up of COVID-19 cases.

Governors, medical professionals and governmental personnel have been cogitating about this issue for a number of weeks now, and it appears that some “baby steps” are starting to be taken in some states, with other jurisdictions to follow in the coming days and weeks.

One of the biggest obstacles in the way of bringing the economy – and life – back to some semblance of “normal” is being able to know who has, or has had, the coronavirus — and beyond that identifying who the people are that each affected person has interfaced with in the previous weeks.

There’s the old-fashioned way of doing contract tracing: undertaking in-depth interviews with patients to learn who they have interfaced with for 15 minutes or longer over a period of 2-3 weeks … and then interviewing those persons plus the people they’ve interfaced with … and so on down the line.

Those suspected of being exposed can then be directed to quarantine themselves for the requisite two-week period so as to arrest the spread of the virus.

This is a hugely costly undertaking.

Moreover, it’s labor-intensive — to the tune that a state like Massachusetts is attempting to hire 1,000 new workers to undertake these duties. And that’s just to get through Phase 1 of the recovery effort.

The other challenge with traditional contact tracing is that the data being collected is based on memory and recollections, which as we all know are prone to fallibility.

In our tech-savvy world, some giants are “on the case” – entities like Google and Apple that have teamed up to use cellphone tracking technology to “keep tabs” on people’s movements and thereby know what people may have been exposed to the COVID-19 virus.

Of course, this solution is also prone to gaps in coverage, as phones aren’t turned “on” at all times, not to mention that significant swaths of the population – particularly the elderly – aren’t using cellphones equipped with the types of location information functionalities that can be tracked.  (Surprisingly perhaps, smartphone penetration worldwide still languishes at only around 45% of cellphone users.)

And then there’s always the issue of “privacy” lurking the background – a factor which can’t be ignored in a world where many people are already suspicious of governments snooping into their private lives.

But there could be other methods to employ by which contact tracing can be made more efficient, and more accurate – and at a more reasonable price tag.

Recently my brother, Nelson Nones, whose company, Geoprise Technologies Corporation, specializes in encrypted data management, outlined just such a practical solution that can accomplish this trio of disparate-yet-important goals.

His article on the topic, titled “Call to Action: Recovering from the COVID-19 Pandemic,” has been published and can be read here.

I find the article as persuasive as it is understandable to a technology layperson like myself. Moreover, it seems as though the solutions proposed could become an essential software-as-a-service (SaaS) solution not just for government agencies but for private business organizations, too.

Action is already happening, but so far, the results have been somewhat mixed despite strong support from governments, private businesses and end-users. Functionalities need to continue to build.

But it looks like we may be on our way … and that’s extremely good news for anyone who has an interest in reopening the economies of the world – and going back to living life the way humans were meant to live it.

A small silver lining in the big, black Coronavirus cloud? Robocalls fall off a cliff.

There isn’t much positive news at all for businesses and consumers coming out of the Coronavirus pandemic — which makes one appreciate any glimmer of good news all the more.

One thing we’ve noticed at my company is a drop-off of those pesky robocalls in recent days. As it turns out, we aren’t the only ones seeing this.  My brother, Nelson Nones, who lives and works in East Asia but who also has U.S. personal and business phone lines, has noticed the same phenomenon.  And he believes that there’s a direct correlation to the COVID-19 outbreak.

What’s more, he has quantitative evidence to back it up. Here’s what he writes:

Within the past fortnight I’ve noticed a dramatic falloff in the number of robocalls I’m receiving to my primary landline. 

I’ve plotted the number of robocalls I’ve received so far during each day of March 2020, alongside the cumulative number of COVID-19 cases reported worldwide. Here are the results month-to-date:

What classifies as a “robocall”? I define a robocall to be an inbound call received from a phone number I’ve blocked based on reputations reported by the https://www.nomorobo.com website. 

As the chart above shows, the falloff began on March 11, 2020, just as the cumulative number of COVID-19 cases worldwide began to accelerate. Whereas during the first ten days of March I had been receiving two robocalls per day on average, since then I’ve received an average of just one robocall every five days.  

That’s almost a 90% drop. 

Is this just a happy coincidence? 

At first glance, maybe — because COVID-19 cases didn’t start to accelerate rapidly in the U.S. for another week or so, at about the same time as schools and theaters began to close, sporting events were postponed or cancelled, and many people began working remotely.  

If anything, one would expect the volume of robocalls to jump as scammers seize the opportunity to prey upon the growing number of people in the U.S. who are available to answer calls while cocooning at home.  

Most scammers use a technique called “neighbor-spoofing” to trick people into answering by displaying a local U.S. phone number. For a personal example, nearly all the robocalls I block appear to come from my U.S. area code (or from overlapping and adjacent area codes).  

But in fact, the vast majority of those calls originate from overseas. This makes them difficult to trace, but anecdotal evidence suggests that many of the calls originate from India and the Philippines, which already have well-established and legitimate call center industries owing to the local population’s English language skills.

As examples, Medicare scams involving the writing of fraudulent prescriptions for orthopedic braces are perpetrated in the Philippines, while sophisticated IRS scams have been broken up in India.

The scammers are criminal organizations that use personal computers, free software and ultra-cheap voice over Internet protocol (VOIP) connections to dial vast numbers of calls automatically. The tiny fraction of calls that are answered are put through to their human staff, who are reportedly packed elbow-to-elbow in call centers hidden inside the upper floors of nondescript buildings, under the constant watch of security cameras and even armed guards.  

In other words, the perfect coronavirus-spreading grounds. 

[What makes it possible for me to track this is thanks to the very same VOIP technology, which automatically routes callers who dial my primary U.S. landline to Thailand free of charge.] 

As you can see in the chart below, COVID-19 cases were already trending upward in India and the Philippines when my robocalls began to drop precipitously on March 11, 2020, about a week ahead of the U.S. curve:

I don’t think that this is a coincidence.

I suspect a lot of people in those concealed call centers got sick and went home. And now that India and the Philippines are in near-total lockdown, hardly anyone can show up for work to keep the scams running. 

We’ll see if the tsunami of robocalls resumes once the COVID-19 pandemic subsides. In the meantime, I’m happy to count the hiatus as a small Coronavirus blessing, alongside Italy’s passionate sopranos and tenors in lockdown and the many acts of human kindness now being reported in the U.S. media.