MDJ 2020.03.16: What do we know?

About Apple, COVID-19, and in general

Here in Oklahoma, we’re just starting to shut things down in a way that other places have done for a while. Brent Simmons, the primary author of NetNewsWire, has been in “self-isolation” (with his wife) for two weeks. Still, New York City is only closing the schools today, and Oklahoma’s governor became the 49th to declare a statewide state of emergency Sunday night (by announcing it on Facebook and not alerting the news media, for what that’s worth).

As far as I know, I do not have the coronavirus. I have the next best thing: hypochondria.

I have what they call “white coat syndrome.” When someone measures my heart rate or blood pressure, IO can feel my heart beating faster. When I get the annual flu vaccination, I convince myself that any kind of lethargy or malaise I feel in the subsequent 48 hours is the result of the vaccine revving up my immune system. On the other hand, absent these diagnostic stimuli, the worst I usually experience is allergies.

Oh, and heart failure. And Type 2 Diabetes. And depression.

None of these reasons are why I’ve been obsessed with the COVID-19 coverage. I’ve had limited outings this past week—picking up the never-ending prescriptions, renewing my driver’s license when a new pharmacy unexpectedly told me it expired months ago,  eating a couple of times at local restaurants to try to support them before the lockdown forces them closed (which has not happened yet in Oklahoma as of this writing), and going grocery shopping a few extra times. Bizarrely, I accidentally over-purchased toilet paper at a warehouse club in late January, so paper products are not an issue.

In all cases, I’ve been careful to try to self-isolate. When waiting in lines where keeping a one-meter distance was not an option, I’ve tried to face a different direction so I’m not breathing on anyone. I’ve been washing my hands whenever applicable and using disinfectant wipes wherever I see them offered. I even wiped down the fingerprint reader after using it to renew my driver’s license. (The staff had wiped it down before I used it.)

Breaking the chain of transmission won’t change my life much. I live alone and work alone, and the next six weeks will be the only time in human history this lifestyle will be “healthy.” Perhaps ironically, I’ve been trying for the past few years to stop buying groceries once a week and to start getting out every day. If I had succeeded, it might annoy me to revert. If.

It may be that I have two octogenarian parents with mobility problems, living on a farm and sharing a hobby of using their TVs to deafen each other, who have only started to accept that going to the store or a restaurant is not a good option for the foreseeable future. It may be that I spent most of the last decade taking daily care of a widowed friend with dementia, managing her affairs, and arranging for her care, and it’s not quite three years since she passed. It’s taken about half that time to stop seeing everything through the lens of how it would affect her, something I did not expect.

The past two weeks have been something like watching the beginning of a disaster movie. When the head of the White Star Lines orders the captain of the Titanic to proceed at full speed, you already know what’s going to happen to the ship. When nearly the same thing happens at the beginning of The Poseidon Adventure—a ship going too fast without adequate ballast in this case—you know the ship will capsize because otherwise, you wouldn’t be watching the movie. When the fire breaks out on floor 81 due to inadequate electrical work in The Towering Inferno…well, let’s just say it’s a lot like watching people move around during an epidemic without knowing or caring that they may have a deadly virus but not show symptoms.

Write what you know

Trying to relate this to the world of Apple technology has been a strenuous effort at best while ignoring it has been impossible. Yet, at the same time, I don’t want to start reporting COVID-19 news here because I’m not qualified. I can pass along anecdotes and point you to reports of news, but I’m not equipped to know what’s right and what’s wrong.

That essential qualification doesn’t seem to bother many people anymore. To wit:

Oddly, that does not point to an empty article. What Macworld knows about iOS 14 or iPadOS 14 is nothing. The material in question does not even report anything—it’s a compilation of reports from 9to5Mac and MacRumors that. Those reports as well do no exhibit knowledge.

Let me be more precise: it seems that both sites have received a development version of what we would, at this time, think of as “iOS 14.” This code is of unknown provenance, and readers cannot examine it, nor are any of the names on the articles ones I recognize as iOS code-level experts. (I could be wrong! It certainly seems that Apple made Guillaume Rambo pay for his public analysis of iOS 13 pre-release versions, so actual experts may be keeping their names off the reports.) The organizations that have seen this code believe that it is an early version of iOS 14. They believe they have found key features in that code, including support for mouse cursors and a trackpad, new home screen options, and more.

There is a strong likelihood that some of these analyses will prove to be true. But no one outside Apple knows these things. Keep in mind that the same kind of static analysis on iOS releases has been alerting us about an imminent Apple-made Bluetooth-based item tracker, similar to the Tile devices, and it has still failed to materialize. I’d also ask you to remember that the Apple v. Think Secret lawsuits of the last decade was over the design of a FireWire audio interface that never saw the light of day.

Plans change. I was going to host a Final Four party in three weeks for the NCAA Basketball national championship. I’ve done it for many years, and I had an invitation list and a menu in mind, but I had not invited a single person nor purchased any food for it. Now that the entire tournament has been canceled, did I “cancel” a party that never formed? I don’t think I did. I think I had plans that didn’t work out.

I should also point out that none of that is true. I find it challenging to watch basketball, soccer, and hockey on TV because there’s no downtime, and I’m usually multitasking enough not to give full attention to a sporting event. It’s why I prefer baseball, American football, and curling.

I made up this analogy to try to get you to relate to Apple’s announcement of WWDC 2020, an online-only affair replacing a physical get-together this year in San Jose. The revelation led to a ton of reports that “Apple has canceled WWDC 2020,” just as the days preceding it led to rumors of this cancellation.

Did Apple have plans for a conference in San Jose? I would bet money the company did have those plans.  But one thing we do know is that Apple has been unhappy with the limitations of WWDC for many years. Developers outside the Bay Area have to spend a few thousand dollars for a week in San Jose, including flights and meals. Even then, the number of attendees is limited to something like 25% as many developers as would like to attend. Apple has built out its former WWDC app, now the “Developers” app for all its platforms except macOS, to make sessions available to all developers either live or on-demand the next day. Apple wants to reach more developers with an online conference. They now get a real chance to try that, and it sucks that the cynical eye of the rumor monger can see it only as something that had not been announced being “canceled.”

I don’t know when people stopped treating rumors with the healthy skepticism they deserve, or honestly if they ever stopped doing that. It’s almost like we’re returning to the days where rumors can never fail. They can only be failed by Apple—where the rumor is presumptively true, and if it doesn’t come to pass, then Apple somehow was unable to create an unannounced product. No one ever blames the rumor, no matter how fantastic it may have been.

But many rumors do come true! They’re not all wrong, but some of them will prove false, or wind up being something different than was reported. For instance, what if the alleged “AirTag” trackers turn out to be an Apple gadget to locate Apple Store merchandise that walked off, and were never intended to be sold to consumers? I have zero proof of this and probably don’t even believe it; I’m just trying to point out alternative explanations for the same data.

We, as a people, can’t afford to change speculation into fact during a pandemic just because it generates more page views that way. Drinking rubbing alcohol or bleach will not kill the SARS-CoV-2 virus inside a person, but will grievously injure them without affecting the virus at all. The fact that these liquids can kill the virus outside the body does not mean they do the same in vivo, as the doctor says.

Let’s use the right words for what we know and what we believe, and not elevate ourselves to authority we do not possess. I’m not even saying not to read the rumor articles. I’m saying that they’re belief, not knowledge, and I’m saying that’s important.

What I Believe

In that vein, as the United States enters territory few of us have charted before, here is what I believe about the crisis.

According to WHO, some 80% of people infected with the coronavirus will be asymptomatic or have mild symptoms. 15% of infections are severe enough to require oxygen, and the final 5% are severe enough to require ventilation—that is, being put on a ventilator. I do not have data on how many people exposed to the virus will catch it, but this Washington Post simulator suggests that everyone can catch it if we’re not careful.

We know that some people can be contagious with the coronavirus for two to three days before showing symptoms, but WHO says this does not seem to be a significant transmission vector. Nonetheless, even mild symptoms can be a sign that you’re contagious. That’s why we all have to behave as if we are each infected and act so that we do not infect others. It’s one of the few times where hypochondria may lead you to the right action.

That’s because the primary transmission vector is still breathing the live virus that an infected person has exhaled. Social distancing and closing down meetings and businesses all boil down to the fact that we can’t infect each other if we don’t get too close. And it’s not enough to make sure we (individually) haven’t caught the virus. WHO says new outbreaks can spread quickly, so we’ll all need to keep our distances until we’re pretty sure the virus is dying off.

The extreme control exhibited in Chinese society won’t work in a lot of places, but it does show that staying apart works. While Apple has announced it’s closing all US stores until at least 27 March, the company is reopening all of its Chinese retail stores that had been closed for the same reason in January and February. Right now, our best way of fighting this pandemic is to make sure anyone who is exhaling (or “shedding,” as they call it) coronavirus makes sure no one else nearby breathes it in.

I have no idea what shape or form tech news will take in the next few weeks. I know not everyone will have the luxury to follow CDC and WHO recommendations and will have to face the public more than they’d like. Others will start to get cabin fever, and many others will wind up involuntarily furloughed and have to fight the virus with less income.

But we are all in this together. As the balladeer says, we recognize that there are ties between us, all men and women living on the earth. Stay safe, and we’ll get through this.