Sitting Quietly In a Room, Alone

Sitting Quietly In a Room, Alone

Pandemic Paradoxes


More confinement-induced considerations.

The health emergency continues. We’re on day 14 of home quarantine. I have no medical reports to read, and that is already good going in itself.

Given our lack of contact with the outside world over the last two weeks, the only possible source of infection at this point would be fomites (shopping bags from the home delivery, packages from Amazon, the doorknob at the entrance to our building, etc.), but it seems the rate of contagion from such objects is low.

Well, so far, so good.

So I’m back to pondering my own half-baked ideas (like that drunk guy at the bar, but since this bar - well, blog- is mine, no one can chuck me out), along with some links for more information. As a self-proclaimed know-it-all, I feel more than qualified to give my two cents. We’ve graduated from being a nation of 60 million national team managers to one of 60 million virologists.

The right choices

As I was saying a few days ago, when we find ourselves in uncharted territory, it’s always difficult to know the right choices to make. This same concept was highlighted by Italian philosopher and psychoanalyst Umberto Galimberti in a video recommended to me by Dr. Paolo Faresin, owner of the Hippocampo psychology practice. Professor Galimberti addresses some key issues, such as the difference between fear and anguish, and how to explain these difficult times to children. (The video is in Italian only, unfortunately).

On the other hand, to quote Sun Tzu (a writer who obviously has to be quoted - even if at random - when considering any argument on any topic): to have any chance of winning the battle, you must at least know yourself and your own strengths...

Know your enemy as you know yourself. If you know others and know yourself, you will not be imperiled in a hundred battles. If you do not know others but know yourself, you win one and lose one. If you do not know others and do not know yourself, you will be imperiled in every single battle.

--Sun Tzu, The Art of War, 6th-5th century BC

Knowing yourself.

I’m not alone in the belief that the greatest obstacle we face in this time is not the forced cohabitation, nor the restrictions on our freedom, but the horrifying realisation that once the hamster wheel we all run on every day stops turning and we start asking those questions, the ones very few can answer without hesitation, our four walls return nothing but stony silence. Who am I? What am I doing? What’s the point of all this?

It’s not the virus that brought us this anguish, but our own inability to find real purpose once we’re against the wall.

When I have set myself now and then to consider the various distractions of men, the toils and dangers to which they expose themselves in the court or the camp, whence arise so many quarrels and passions, such daring and often such evil exploits, etc., I have discovered that all the misfortunes of men arise from one thing only, that they are unable to stay quietly in their own chamber.

--Blaise Pascal, Pensées. 139. Diversion.

Once more, I find myself with no answers.

For a time, I thought (and still do think) that knowledge, knowing, was a real life-saver. To satiate our curiosity and expand our horizons under the impression that, by understanding more about the world, we might even be able to better understand ourselves.

The flood of knowledge

And right now, many (too many?) people are telling you to spend your free time learning, or consuming cultural content (books, films, documentaries, visits to virtual museums, etc.).

From my limited perspective, I see some barriers to this “race for knowledge” (and running it seems much like running on our aforementioned wheel; we just can’t lie on the sofa doing nothing).

  1. However, that doesn’t mean we have more free time. Or at least those of us with families, yours truly included, are having to spend a lot more time looking after kids, not to mention all the household chores. With the canteens and restaurants closed, we’re having to cook twice a day. Without cleaners, we’re having to do all the vacuuming and ironing. All in all, we actually end up with even less free time than we had before the pandemic.

  2. In order to educate ourselves, we need to have a certain inclination and be highly motivated, especially if we’re not paying for it. There are thousands of courses, covering all fields imaginable, which are available online for free, but for most of us, they will remain a greatly missed opportunity. These courses were there before COVID too of course, but only a small fraction of the population actually took them. Why, then, would we be doing it now during a state of emergency, with stress levels higher, and the anxiety of not knowing what will happen next? Mostly, we just lack the inclination. So no, I don’t believe this pandemic is about to give rise to a new generation of renaissance men (and women)...

An example of motivation

If you think about it, finding (that) motivation could be (quite) easy.

Among the few newsletters I’m actually surprised by every time I find it in my mailbox is that of Quincy Larson, founder of freeCodeCamp, a site that’s been teaching coding - completely free - since 2014, whose 40.000 “graduates” have even found work with Apple, Google, Amazon, Microsoft, etc.

In his latest article, titled “Learn to Code From Home: The Coronavirus Quarantine Developer Skill Handbook”, he explains how to get started on a career path to become a programmer. I highly recommend reading this, even if you have absolutely no intention of going down that road. It’s an article I wish I had written myself.

In a nutshell, Larson Identifies 7 skills that are essential for entering this market, 4 technical...

  • HTML, CSS and JavaScript
  • Computer Science concepts, algorithms, data structures, and databases
  • Python and basic data science libraries like NumPy
  • Command line tools like Linux, Git, and Bash

and 3 more universal...

  • Small business basics - how to find freelance customers, how to do basic sales, accounting, legal
  • And job application basics – how to pass technical interviews, how to negotiate a high salary
  • How to earn professional certifications that can make it easier to get a developer job

The author is an example of how it is possible to reinvent yourself on the market without having to go to university or spend thousands on education. This is how he puts it in the quoted article:

I am a self-taught software engineer. I used to work as an English teacher. But in 2011 – at the age of 31 – I started learning to code using free online resources. In the 9 years since, I’ve worked as a software engineer at tech startups and built websites for freelance clients.

And yet, how many of us have enough drive and focus to undertake such a journey and achieve success?

The digital divide

I’d also like to revisit the school topic from my last post.

Regarding the inadequacy of the Italian school system (and not exclusively there - the same could also be applied to Spain, to a certain degree) when it comes to the digitalisation of teaching, I have found some useful data along with more than one example to confirm my dodgy theory in this article (in Italian) by Massimo Mantellini for Internazionale: “Il divario digitale è una zavorra per l’Italia ” (Italy’s Digital Divide Is a Dead Weight for the Country)

I’ll just quote one passage (in translation, bold type is mine):

There are two reasons why the digital divide should be at the centre of Italian national politics. Because it affects our most vulnerable and at this point, it has an affect on a very significant number of our activities. It’s not just schools that are being hit: information, the buying of goods and services, admin, entertainment and work itself have quietly slipped from analogue to digital in just a few years. A transformation of habits and skills has taken place from which a large number of Italians have remained at least partially excluded.

The article then mentions another issue that often goes unnoticed: the fact that many young people access the Internet exclusively through smartphones has prevented them from developing the skills needed to use technology and the Internet in a conscious way. The so-called “digital natives” are in fact largely incapable of “tinkering” with their tools, sometimes to the point of not being able to use programmes only slightly more complex than the average three-button app.

And I’m speaking from experience here too: More than once I, at almost fifty years old, have had to help my nieces, who are in their twenties, or colleagues twenty years younger than me.

As I explained elsewhere, dealing with the obstacle course of home computers and the countless sluggish versions of Windows served some purpose at least: they taught us to know how to manage when something doesn’t work. And as the well-known computer science mantra (or at least, my mantra) has it: “nothing ever f*cking works”.

Anyway, I’ve rambled enough.

Those of you who have not yet been overwhelmed by my verbal diarrhoea can also read an interview I did (in Italian) for Odiopiccolo, a digital newspaper from my hometown, Brescia.

Oh, and I have something on the way for next week too. Stop by again some time. I need 100 people (“the plot thickens”).

(This blog post was translated by Owen Bucher-Flynn).

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