Notes From a State Of Emergency

Portugal is in a (mild, but official) state of emergency since Wednesday. Borders and shops are closed, people are required (but not yet coerced) to stay indoors, limit their outings to indispensable errands, etc.

My mindset this week has been somewhat random, partly because the kids are home and they need feeding, support and whatever little guidance we can provide1 while schools try to get their act together and partly because everyone else we work with is undergoing the same transition, so schedules have pretty much gone out the window.

Productivity and focus are, obviously, on the low side, and a lot of time was spent chatting with friends regarding tech, ways of working and other non-epidemologic concerns (and yeah, we’ve been plotting simulations left and right, but I’ve given up on those given the small amount of samples and wide regional variation).

So here are a few tech-related notes on some odds and ends that surfaced in those conversations throughout the week.

Bandwidth

We’re good. Portugal has always been much better off than, say, the UK in terms of broadband connectivity, and most of the streaming/video call issues people had earlier in the week were really back-end stuff and not carrier/last-mile related.

And knowing how things are laid out across the land (which isn’t that big, and with very few carriers I’m quite familiar with), if anything were to break or clog up, it would have done so by now.

But regardless of root cause, I expect any future outages are going to take longer to fix than usual, and we’re just going to have to be patient with it.

Online Shopping

We also still have food, and working supply chains–the borders are not closed to cargo.

Online stores have buckled under the load (most notably supermarkets). Not just logistically, but also technically (502 errors for hours, funky online queueing systems, etc.), and to the point of rambunctious parody:

Parody illustrations courtesy of David Ramalho.

Technically, I blame years of outstanding technical debt–never mind if this is an unpredictable situation. But they are also experiencing an utter failure to communicate with customers and change existing processes.

Something as simple as putting up a big NO DELIVERY SLOTS UNTIL X banner on the home page (for instance) would save people the trouble of spending hours trying to log on and glacially adding items to their shopping cart (sometimes 15 minutes at a go) only to give up in utter frustration upon reaching checkout.

There’s a lesson here in terms of UX and scalability, I’m sure, but I’m also sure it’s going to be lost on some people.

Collaboration Tools

I’ve been in the game since ISDN video calls (worked on video over ATM in the 90s and 3G video calling as well, which effectively rates me as an expert in animated postage stamps), and it’s surprising how little things have changed from a cultural perspective–many people have never done so much as an “old school” Skype call and businesses are still very new to the whole thing despite all the cool new tech we’ve had for years.

The way I see it, one of the biggest risks right now (for companies and users alike) is wasting time switching between multiple platforms. That just confuses people and wastes precious time for the IT folk that have to support them (because even if it’s free, that support time also comes at a cost).

Don’t panic. Think about what you need, pick one or two solutions, and stick with them. If you’re not in charge of deciding, don’t waste people’s time with random suggestions either. People have better things to do right now than try $RANDOM_SERVICE, there’s too much change going on–don’t add to the chaos even if you mean well.

Think about how people will coordinate, how things integrate with calendaring and e-mail, how well it works on smartphones and tablets, how to run meetings/lectures with the number of people you really need and (something many people forget about until it’s too late) if you can control access to screencast/conference call recordings and easily share them only with participants after the fact.

Don’t be lax on security. Just sending out links for people to join with one click works great, sure, but you really want to plan ahead and make sure you don’t have more headaches down the line.

At this time I have four or five different solutions on hand, and it’s all WebRTC underneath. You might prefer a specific client or service over another based on arbitrary features, user experience or sheer bias, but they are all 95% the same where it regards the videoconferencing features. The other 5% are what matters.

On a personal level, just use what makes sense. We use FaceTime and WhatsApp (because Android…) for family calls. The kids are using Zoom (which we also use for the podcast) because they don’t have phones, and pretty much all my friends are on Slack.

But I set up a free Teams workspace so that we could keep tabs on kids’ homework (files, checklists, e-mails, etc.), and we’re fully in control of who accesses it and what data is stored there.

Your mileage (and awareness of pitfalls) may vary. Me, I have to spend my days inside Teams anyway (granted that I don’t like either the aesthetics and the UX of the chat bits, but we do run the entirety of Microsoft’s business on it).

For workspaces, video calls and screen sharing, it’s been rock solid (especially on iOS and macOS), and I’m utterly fed up with people shunning it for no good reason2.

Gadgetry

Holding on to old hardware has paid off somewhat, as has having lots of knick-knacks around. There are now two permanent home offices in the house (besides a shared workspace), and old gear has been pressed back into service:

  • I dug out an AirPort Express to improve coverage (and good thing I had already gotten an Extreme from eBay a few months back)
  • My two ancient P2270 monitors are back in service, as are multiple dongles of various descriptions
  • I’m really glad I had an extra USB-C to HDMI adapter lying around (I got this one on a whim to play around with Samsung DeX, and had the foresight of spending an extra €5 on something that was Mac-compatible).
  • I’m also turning a Raspberry Pi Zero W into an AirPlay display using RPiPlay, which works quite well even if Apple has kneecapped the protocol to 1080p.

And there’s a bit more audio and music gear around (which I’ll write about separately).

I just hope nothing critical breaks in the meantime (our toaster gave up the ghost the other day, and it was a sobering reminder that these days even the dumbest possible appliances have unrepairable digital circuitry in them).


  1. Which, of course, is never quite enough. ↩︎

  2. Okay, so you don’t like purple. I get it. ↩︎