Friday, 26 March 2021

After 52 weeks - the perils of lockdown come home

This week, the 52nd week of pandemic restrictions, the isolation hit me hard. I took a trip to the supermarket, looking for supplies I can't buy at the shop at the end of my street. Shuffling around the long aisles I encountered many strange, moving forms. Forms that I believed only existed in two dimensions on my screen. But no - here they were, moving in the real world. How had this happened? These "people" were out there, making sounds like speech and I was confused. But not as confused as when I realised I couldn't find the talcum powder. I searched the shelves,  yet nothing. 

Seeing my difficulties, one of the "people" wearing the logo of the place  (so "staff"? Kinda like an online chat bot, but walking and exhibiting intelligence and not completely useless) came over and asked if they could help. They stood at a pandemic-respectful distance and looked at me like they wanted something. A response, that was it. My brain lurched and jumped. How to communicate? What to do? Finally, my brain kicked to life after what seemed like an eternity of standing there.

I raised my hand; pointed at the shelf and just barked "talc". Then "talc?" Look of confusion from me. 


Not my finest moment.

Anyway, he was cool. I eventually found the power of Words to Peoples and apologised for being inarticulate and then together we failed to find the talc. It was amusing, but on reflection also weird and troubling. I have spoken to maybe five people in person in about a year and actually holding a conversation in person is surprisingly difficult. We were both masked and distanced, so I wasn't concerned about COVID (beyond the ongoing background concern of course) and I've certainly talked a LOT to people over Zoom and equivalents, but in person is different.

It made me think about what returning to normal is actually going to be about. Not the common stuff about whether we work in offices again, or when the pubs will open, but the smaller everyday changes. I remember walking around shops in thick crowds. I remember people standing like lemons in the middle of the street because they didn't see the need to consider where the people were around them. I remember people - oh that's it, I'm remembering people. Over the last year, there have been far fewer folk out and about, and those that have have by and large been aware of their fellow humans and taken them into account. I really hope this is something we can keep moving forwards.

I'm curious what else is going to come up as I look around? I imagine the first time I get on a train again will be a weird experience.

This post is from a series of shorter posts, written roughly once a week while the country is on lockdown to capture my feelings and reactions as we go. They are all tagged with coronavirus.

Saturday, 27 February 2021

Bots - a triumph of automation

I'm a bit lost on a website - they've been selling a particular bouquet of flowers for years and years and I'd like to reorder it. But it's not there! Maybe it's a pandemic thing, who knows. Still, at least there is a live chat function so I can ask this question. Live chat is a great way to get customer service, but unfortunately can be costly. Still, it looks like they’ve made the effort here.

Me: Hi there. I’m looking for a particular item <with sufficient description> that used to be on sale but I can't find it. Has it gone?

Ellie the Helper: Hi! Can I take your name please?

Sigh. It’s a bot isn't it? Can you imagine if this played out in an actual store.

Me: <repeats question>

Ellie the "Helper": Are you still there? 

Me: Yes…

Ellie the Definitely Human Helper: Hi! Can I take your name please?


I hate bots. I see a lot of them as a user, and also see a lot of requests for them as someone whose job is on the web. They are seen as a nice, positive way of finding information on a website without the user having to find things. Or, to put it another way, without the site owner having to spend money on a decent user interface, information architecture, design, etc etc. Then they can cheap out on customer service too by making it look like there is a real human while trying to fool the user.

The technology does not work that well.

Me: Bob

Ellie the Script Executing HelperBot: Hi Bob! Here is a close alternative! <link>

And I'm presented with a bouquet of flowers. On a flower delivery website. Literally the only thing in common with what I was looking for is "contains flowers". On a flower delivery website.

No attempt to answer the actual question, of course. Just "here is another thing you can buy". It's ok though - automation saved the day and provided another seamless bot experience!

Saturday, 16 January 2021

After forty two weeks - and the start of a new year

It's the start of 2021 and gosh, hasn't this pandemic been going on for a while. I'm not going back to writing weekly updates - this has been going on for far too long for that - but since it's the first post of the year I wanted to note the passage of time.

Looking back, this time last year I was writing about having a rough January and what I was going to do to make myself feel better. Then I wrote much the same in February - little knowing what the rest of the year had in store. This year, January is again rough going - I'm starting to think that maybe I just don't like January. Rather than trying anything clever to make myself feel better, I'm going to have a think about the good that is happening at the moment and put down three things I'm going to pursue above all others.

First, the good. After a thoroughly miserable year in 2020 we're seeing some actual positive change. There is now a deployable vaccine for COVID, it's going out and real people are getting immunised. We're in a lockdown again, but it's not a stop-gap to drop the numbers so we can build them up again on the other side - combined with the vaccine we should start seeing infection rates come down and stay down. The government has also declared we're going to have a slow re-opening, which frankly will be good for people to ease back into being social again as well as eminently sensible for disease control.

In America, President Trump is finally leaving office and might actually suffer some (potentially serious) repercussions for his actions. It's a horrible mess and I'm really pleased I don't live there, but from a distance it looks slightly positive. Similarly, while I don't comment on UK politics here, I'll also say that I feel more confident in the direction of the UK than I have for a while. Both these are relative, granted, but I'm looking for the sunshine.

On a personal level, many things are terrible as they are for pretty much everyone. So I'm going to focus on three things in the short term.

First, I'm going to do what I can to approach the next four weeks in as positive a mindframe as possible. I'm going to smile, I'm going to make jokes. I'm also going to take care of myself - I intend to work more sensible hours this year, and for the moment I'm also going to do a lot more to take the time I need when I need it. That thing I tell all my people to do, then don't do myself.

Whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable - if anything is excellent or praiseworthy - think about such things.

Philippians 4:8

Second, I’m going to focus on my physical health. This has really suffered during lockdown (again, like many people) and I need to do something sustainable now, not in six months when things will be (hopefully) far more normal. This means I'm going to eat better and exercise more and track my progress properly. Although I'm going to measure more often, I'm going to try to judge success at the end of each month, not each week.

Third, I'm going to cook a lot more. Hopefully this won't be too much of a contradiction with my second point. I like making things, I like cooking, and once upon a time I was pretty good at it. I want to get back into practice properly and it should be entirely possible while I have no commute at all. To cook in the evening (as opposed to "place thing in oven"), I have to finish work at a sensible time and that will help with both the other points too.

I've also got an idea for an app which should help me with recording recipes and cross-referencing ingredients for better ideas. I'll write about that another time, when I’ve thought it through properly.

Welcome to 2021 everyone. Remember that it's not 2020 again, even if right now it does feel like it.

This post is from a series of shorter posts, written roughly once a week while the country is on lockdown to capture my feelings and reactions as we go. They are all tagged with coronavirus.