Friday, February 19, 2021

Vaccination Vexations

With the approval of Moderna and Pfizer's vaccines for emergency use in December it was time for the state governments (and health care players) to get people scheduled for their two doses. This was hardly a big surprise - the Trump administration had said back in the summer that it was targeting late 2020 or early 2021 for them to be available, and the companies more or less supported that claim. Yet if the web sites out there are any indication the effort to register people to get their shot was a quick throw together. I speak from experience of trying to use them.

First up we have Baltimore County. I filled out the online form and hit submit, hoping that the next screen would let me pick a time, if available. I certainly expected that I'd get a confirmation email that registration was successful. But no, nothing. Crickets. A few days later on NextDoor I see a thread that apparently some people are getting an acknowledgement, but usually only after multiple attempts. Which I'm sure has led to multiple registrations by now, and likely making it challenging to determine just how many people are ready to get vaccinated. You have no way to see an estimate as to when you'll get it, nor any way to unregister should you manage to get the shot at some other venue. Overall a glitchy and not well thought out implementation.

The next award goes to Giant Pharmacy's attempt. Often when you click on their link to schedule an appointment you receive a screen telling you that you are in a queue. They're nice enough to given you the estimated time you'll be taken to the page to register for an appointment (anywhere from a couple minutes to half an hour in my experience), and your anticipation grows that you'll be able to set up an appointment. 

However, in all the times I've done this over the last two weeks, once you leave the queue you're told there's no vaccinations slots available and to please check back later. Clearly there were none available to begin with, so why make the person wait with false hope of being seen? Query your database and if OpenAppt == null, say that right up front. That's basic user experience design.

Then we have RiteAid's effort. The start page has you fill out a form to verify whether you are eligible, about 5 questions. Not a big deal except that you have to do that every single time, every day that you want to check. That's what cookies are for RiteAid - you can save some information on the user's browser so that they have a better experience. Look it up.

Once you get the display of stores that are participating in COVID vaccinations you select one. And then it depends on your luck as to whether the "Next" button will be enabled. Some days it is, some days it isn't. On the days that it was enabled it always yielded an apology that no vaccines were available. So, like Giant, maybe do that check right after I give you my zip code? Or maybe use the ability to access my device location and warn me immediately that there's nothing available in my area right now? 

"Next" is disabled with no explanation of why

And, to complete the experience at RiteAid, if you do get the "sorry, try again later" message then they don't want you to navigate away, posting a warning alert that you may lose data. What data? That you don't have any vaccination appointment to offer me?

Having been a developer for a couple of decades now I know it can be challenging to get it right. It does require attention to detail and patience/perseverance at times. That's why it drives me nuts when you hear talking heads nonchalantly offer the advice that someone whose job has become archaic "learn to code." 😠 Horrible advice! Unless that person has an affinity and some passion for coding they will be terrible at it and hate their job - and their mediocre code will only serve up more end user pain. 

But beyond the slip ups of the developers - and we all mess up occasionally - this poor experience reflects that testing was completely inadequate. These are not subtle, hard to reproduce bugs. They're a cockroach strolling across the kitchen floor during your afternoon tea party bugs. Hopefully the management team responsible for these snafus will get the appropriate feedback and adjust their process to include better testing. Until then, good luck scheduling your COVID-19 vaccination appointment!

Saturday, October 31, 2020

Masking the Problem

 We go to the polls in a few days to decide whether to give Trump 4 more years or Biden a turn at bat. The key talking point for the former VP has been how he'd lead us through the pandemic far better than DJT. He's always seen with a mask in public (even when it is not necessary) and constantly holds one up and says by wearing it we can save thousands of lives. He's stated repeatedly that he wants a mask mandate as a way to fight the Covid-19 virus.

Sounds good - and, in fact, he's right. If we all wear masks when we cannot socially distance then the spread of the virus will plummet. We have South Korea as a good example of that. Unfortunately it ends up being a lot of malarkey in this country, and while well intentioned and scientifically sound, it's not going to move the needle here. Here's why.

Unless he is going to go the route of Martial Law to enforce mask wearing, it is up to the governors to enforce his mask mandate. As we have seen, a few governors have been willing to go there (looking at you, Gov. Whitmer) and the populace is not happy about it and push back. American DNA is quite different than South Korean DNA - we are not going to abide long standing and autocratic edicts from the overlords. So it is pretty safe to say that getting significant mask compliance by having the governors enforce it is a pipe dream. Governors whose states are not seriously impacted have no reason to do so, and those with Covid cases run the risk of significant backlash and legal overturn.

OK, forced compliance is out. But then let's at least lead by example and use the bully pulpit to get everyone doing their civic duty to not kill grandma. Biden clearly believes that setting a good example on mask wearing is important - at least when he knows the camera's rolling. I fully agree - one of the things I criticize Trump over is not setting a better example in this regard. But having the guy at the top setting an example is not going to be a game changer. Here's why.

Maryland is a pretty blue state with a fairly educated citizenry. We also happen to have a Republican governor who has absolutely done the right thing in terms of setting a good example to encourage Marylanders to mask up and keep six feet apart. Despite this, Maryland, like much of the nation and the world, is experiencing a significant uptick in Covid cases. According to WBAL radio, health officials announced Saturday that we recorded 145,281 cases of coronavirus, and increase of almost 1,000 cases in one day. We, like almost everywhere else, are trending up. 

From an anecdotal standpoint I can corroborate the general ineffectiveness of getting people to wear masks by leadership example & exhortation. I live near Towson University and in a pretty blue neighborhood. When I routinely go for my 3 mile walk around the campus or my community I encounter people on my way - students, neighbors, and Baltimore County employees. I'd estimate perhaps 30% are wearing a mask, resulting in me giving them a wide berth when passing by (if I can). It was probably 60-75% back in June when we were all more fearful, but the trend is definitely down. This environment is probably as ripe as it gets for being attentive to messages from the governor, the CDC, and PSA promoting mask usage. Despite that, we're way short of compliance. Do you really think in this set of circumstances that the problem lies in Trump not wearing a mask, that if he did the folks not wearing one would suddenly don one?

To be clear, I believe that the media and the leaders (both sides) failed us. They found benefit in making mask wearing a political statement rather than a unifying symbol to save our neighbors and our economy. But if you think Joe Biden's promise to significantly control the virus by his "wear a mask" campaign is going to succeed, you're indulging in magical thinking.

Friday, August 31, 2018

An Exigent Pay Freeze?

So Donald Trump's has decided that the 2% pay raise for Federal workers is on ice. He has the authority based on responding to a "national emergency or serious economic conditions affecting the general welfare”. I'm personally a little conflicted about it (full disclosure, as a government sub-contractor I am feeding at the trough so to speak).
GSA Employee in Hot Tub
One part feels that somehow we have to do something. The deficit is not being addressed (yet again). Yes, the tax cuts have done a great job stimulating the economy, but if I was not happy with the Obama spending stimulus then I cannot be happy with this increase in the debt (albeit this one actually achieved some of the objective). Like an addict, no one in DC seems capable of breaking the spending habit, loath to tell constituents that we cannot afford all of this. And the really scary part is an increasing number of younger Americans who want even more, totally uncoupled from economic reality.
But I am suspicious that this really boils down to another way for Trump to give a back hand to a group that does not support him, and some in fact may be actively trying to sabotage his presidency (let's set aside for the moment the stellar job he does on that front without any assistance). Yes, the stereotype of the unmotivated and unproductive government worker has come about due to there being plenty of anecdotal examples of it (see above). But there are lots and lots of worker bees doing the job of serving us consistently and effectively. Trump touts the pay raise for the military, which seemed appropriate, but are they more worthy of a pay raise than the fire fighters battling these blazes out west? Or the other non-military professionals who keep us safe?
At the end of the day it probably boils down to having to apply these raises with a broad brush. If they were more merit based there would probably be more of an outcry to this punitive action by the president. Unfortunately we can only provide these raises across the board, rewarding the diligent along with the negligent. To lift a line from our tweeter in chief "Sad!!"

Thursday, May 11, 2017

Ice Trays & Work Ethic

Increasingly the humble ice tray is becoming an anachronism. Most home refrigerators have an automatic ice cube maker, robotically churning out ice so the human always has a chilled beverage. However, in the interest of cost savings there are still some bastions of ice trays, where one has to actually fill the tray with water, let it freeze, and then break the cube free from its form. Most often we encounter this at work where we are glad just to have a refrigerator.

But this simple happenstance actually presents an interesting social experiment in terms of the work ethic of one's co-workers. I respectfully submit:

The full ice bin and full trays: The optimum state - here we have proactive worker bees who take it upon themselves to assess the level of ice in the holder, taking on the job of cracking & refilling the trays. You can bet these are the sort of folks who will also be proactive at their real job for the company.

The empty bin but full trays: The glass is half full. Here we have "just in time" staff who'll rise to the occasion but only when it bubbles to the top. Could be that the company has promoted this by chronic shortage of human resources so that people become accustomed to dealing with something only when it's immediately confronting them.

The empty bin and empty trays: Now we're straying into tunnel vision, not willing to think down the line in order to help others. You see a problem but because it's not your problem it is ignored. Not a great sign for your corporate culture.

The empty bin and partially full trays: This is terminal - you're surrounded by coworkers who are dedicated to doing the absolute least amount of effort to accomplish the job. Better get that resume in order.

Saturday, March 18, 2017

The Gift of a Troubled Soul

“No great mind has ever existed without a touch of madness.” 
― Aristotle

Decades ago when email was unheard of and books reigned I joined an astronomy book club. One enticement was the 3 volume set of Burnham's Celestial Handbook. I had heard others speak highly of it as a reference and so it seemed like a sound choice.

What I got was an amazing piece of work, an encyclopedia of astronomy presented by way of in depth information about each constellation. It was like having this remarkable guide to the homes of the Hollywood stars, detailing every juicy detail of their abode. While it had a couple of chapters at the start to introduce the newcomer to some of the terms and concepts of astronomy the beauty of this work was you could jump in anywhere - just pick a constellation to begin your journey. Constellations are a marvelous creation - they are ancient and derived from the lore of our ancestors. Just as people today are still drawn to a good story about mythological beings, amateur star gazers often take a fancy to a particular constellation for an observing session. "Cassiopeia is returning to the sky again, maybe I'll go check it out tonight!". With Burnham's book you could open up to Cassiopeia and get lost among the wealth of information about that corner of the universe. It was so...complete!

It was both interesting and painful to come across an account of the author, one Robert Burnham, Jr. of Arizona. Here was a man who clearly was afflicted with painful shyness, tenacity, inability to interpret the true nature of his situation. Beloved and yet unrecognized, wanting recognition yet refusing to grasp it. As the article puts it, "He led an extraordinary, but ultimately tragic, life. He also was a bundle of  contradictions". His quixotic nature probably explains why it has never been updated or duplicated because you'd have to be a bit crazy to rise to that challenge. It truly was his life's work.

The article is long but well worth reading to understand the perfect storm that gave us Burnham's Celestial Handbook. 

Sunday, February 26, 2017

Social Media Values Clarification

There's little doubt that the Internet and social media in particular has changed our culture. And while there are some up sides I am pretty sure that it has helped to replace reasoned discussion for ranting and demagoguery. It did not do it single-handedly of course - it has had a big assist from our politicians and conventional media. We talk at each other rather than with each other. Media tries to tell us what to think rather than provide us information and a variety of viewpoints.

My wife has recounted times in her career where a patient requested to enter the "quiet room" when they felt they were edging out of control. Following the 2016 election I felt compelled to take a break from Facebook because of the rancor and just crazy talk that folks whom I had otherwise judged as rational people were engaging in. I needed some time apart lest I start to respond in kind and then later feel embarrassed by my words. It gave me time to reflect on social media in general and how to keep it as a more positive than negative force in my life.

So before logging back on, some notes to myself:

Time box it. This stuff gets addicting - seriously. You mindlessly scroll and refresh to see the latest affirmation of your life, of you as a person. And it's not like there aren't better things to do with your time. Read a book, balance the checkbook, write an email to a friend, figure out a new recipe to try, maybe write a blog entry. To help achieve this I'll continue to avoid any "alerts" to my phone and keep my aggregate daily time on social media to under 30 minutes.

Understand the value proposition. To me the value of social media is facilitating catching up on what is happening with my friends and family. Seeing pictures of my adorable grandson, catching Phil's early morning shot of the crescent moon and Venus, knowing I need to add a friend struggling with an issue to my prayer list - that is where it excels.

Drop the rope. No social media promotes debate, only ranting. People do not wish to read more than 140 characters (if that). Most folks do not want an exchange of ideas, they want you to validate their opinions. Recognize trolls and pass on by. Recognize ideologues and pass on by. If on occasion you wish to add to a thread do it politely, honestly, and singularly (no running posts trying to have the last word).

Owners are not without agendas. FB and others are certainly willing to manipulate us, from filtering what hits the news feed to promoting the idea that to mute or unfriend someone makes you a shallow person. And let's certainly not forget that the breadcrumbs of our likes and dislikes here are vacuumed up for big data's consumption. Be skeptical of the medium and its desire to influence you.

So I guess it's time to emerge from my self imposed exile to see if things have calmed down (although I doubt it). And I guess if it is still triggering even with trying to adhere to my observations I can decide to give it up for 40 more days over Lent.

Monday, May 4, 2015

A Crisis of Scientific Confidence

Recently National Geographic's cover story focused on the "War on Science", i.e. the failure of a growing segment of the population to take scientific findings at face value. The article was a bit disappointing in that rather than providing an analysis it appeared to have more of an agenda to it (namely promoting climate warming).
The author cites quite a variety of scientific theories that are not universally embraced. On one side of the spectrum are the cases where people reject findings that are backed up by a lot of impartial evidence such as that we have landed on the Moon or that fluoridated water cuts tooth decay. On the other side of the spectrum we have Achenbach's assertion that doubting climate change induced by man's increase of CO2 emissions is equally misguided. Undoubtedly the author hopes that by placing skeptics of homo sapien induced climate warming into the same category as deniers of the Moon landing or parents withholding vaccinations out of fear of autism that they will change their mind or at the very least silence them out of embarrassment.
The conspiracy fringe will always be with us. Whether it be the Kennedy assassination or the communist plot of fluoridated water, there are people who just love a good controversy even when none exists. You might as well be shocked that some people love to gossip. But the real story here that did not get the attention it needed is that science is experiencing a doubting population because it is appears bought and sold. There is no more potent ally for that new tax or regulation if only it will agree with your point of view. The CEOs and politicos won't let science be science and follow the scientific method. Science now seems to be increasingly pulled by the purse strings that can come with the correct findings. One camp will not share data with the other for fear they may find a flaw. Objective scientific analysis is replaced by turf wars. Perhaps as the author suggests this mistrust of science is only people "subconsciously clinging to our intuitions—what researchers call our naive beliefs".
The prime directive of science - to test your hypothesis through well designed experiments - is subjugated to cries of we need to shut off any debate or discussion because "the matter is settled". How many times, especially with an issue with so many complex variables as climate prediction, has science been sure of one thing only to discover it was wrong. To quote Agent K from MIB, "1,500 years ago, everybody knew that the Earth was the center of the universe. 500 years ago, everybody knew that the Earth was flat. And 15 minutes ago, you knew that humans were alone on this planet. Imagine what you'll know tomorrow."
Until science can gain some insulation from the influencers and reaffirm the scientific method which never closes discussion, the crisis in confidence will likely malinger.