Plaguebeard status

It’s now been four weeks since I last shaved, which means I’ve completed the dubious facial-hair accomplishment of having to wash my beard after meals. And here I thought I’d adopted the low-maintenance alternative to shaving!

Ditching that almost-daily ritual of shaving my face is yet another thing I’ve done to try to simplify my life as the novel-coronavirus pandemic grinds on. Besides, it had been almost 24 years since I’d last tried growing a beard, so why not give it another shot when my professional visibility would be limited to people on the other side of a webcam?

(That prior experiment started when two other guys in the Washington Post’s Weekend section stopped shaving, two more of us decided to do the same, a “beardguys” group somehow appeared for us in the newsroom messaging system, and then three weeks later everybody called it quits. That probably had something to do with September in D.C. being a not-comfortable time to have facial hair.)

On the positive side, it didn’t take me long this time to get past the significant-other-disapproval stage of stubble, while our daughter finds this addition to my face generally amusing. My beard has grown out with a predominance of gray around my chin that adds a certain gravitas. And having that much extra hair around my face helps balance out how untidy the hair on my head is starting to look after five weeks without the services of a barber.

On the negative side, my beard sometimes itches and, as mentioned previously, is starting to complicate eating. I have no idea what sort of beard grooming I should be doing, although I hope it doesn’t involve as many different products as I’ve seen recommended. And as it gets warmer and warmer outside, having this extra insulation for my face may seem pointless.

It would be nice to think that we could exit this lockdown state before we reach the depths of summer heat and humidity. But while I can count on the latter, I can’t count on the former.

Weekly output: Streaming video vs. ISPs, streaming-TV advice, Twitter takedowns

In an alternate universe, this week would have seen two opening days: the Nationals home game and the year’s first mowing of the lawn. Opening Day has yet to happen, but at least our yard looks a lot nicer, especially after some obsessive weeding this weekend.

Patreon members got an extra this week: my calculations about finally replacing my aging iMac with a now-slightly-less-expensive Mac mini.

3/30/2020: Relax: Netflix binging won’t kill broadband during the COVID-19 crisis, Fast Company

Beyond talking to the usual bandwidth experts about the odds of our connectivity crumpling under all the new work-from-home traffic, I also quizzed people at three small Internet providers that don’t have the resources of a Comcast to deal with a flood of traffic.

4/1/2020: Streaming Services: A U.S. News Guide, U.S. News & World Report

U.S. News contributor Rudi Greenberg interviewed me for this cheat sheet about TV cord cutting.

4/2/2020: Twitter takedowns, Al Jazeera

I appeared via Skype on the Arabic-language news channel to talk about Twitter’s latest takedowns of networks of state-run sockpuppet accounts. I hope my key point came across in overdubbed Arabic: Twitter’s problem is what while it’s learned to catch these influence operations, it can’t catch them as fast as its trending-topics algorithm can boost some of their output.

Gardening as pandemic therapy

The only way I’m being more productive than usual this spring involves dirt under my fingernails. The added housework from having everybody home all the time and the cognitive load imposed by trying to keep a nine-year-old on track with remote schoolwork may have blown up my settled work-from-home lifestyle–but at least I can still garden.

Planting, weeding, and transplanting are always a distraction at this time of year, but they’re worse when the novel-coronavirus pandemic has scoured my schedule of work events around D.C. or away from it. This ongoing public-health crisis has also left little else in my life that offers any sense of control.

So I don’t step outside too often without taking at least a few minutes to find and rip out bittercress, chickweed, and deadnettles as if they were rogue viruses. I have sunk more time than seems practical into moving lilies and ground cover from overgrown plantings into patchy areas of the lawn that I should have given up on already, then tilling other parts of the lawn before scattering grass seed there just before a night of rain.

And I picked up a few new plants last Monday to dress up the yard, the most important being a weeping cherry for the front lawn. Because I can’t leave enough well alone, I couldn’t just plant that and adjourn for a nap; I also had to yank out an overgrown laurel from one side of the front porch and and move it to a back corner of the yard. Then I moved a smaller shrub into the laurel’s old spot; it will probably grow too big in a few years. I also shifted a few yucca plants around before finishing up with a dessert course of still more weeding.

Two hours later, my clothes were caked with dirt and my joints ached. But today, the new cherry tree looks great. And neighbors who are left with few forms of outdoor recreation beyond walking around the neighborhood have something pleasant to distract them. Giving them that seems like the least I could do under the circumstances.

Weekly output: YouTube in standard definition, tech and the coronavirus

Another Sunday, another week with zero professional events outside my home and only one trip outside my neighborhood. That was a run Monday to a garden center when it looked like that category of retail might have to shut; it turns out that I didn’t need to make that drive and pick out a cherry tree in the rain, but at least this tree seems to be off to a good start in the front yard.

3/25/2020: YouTube switches to standard definition video. Will that make a difference?, USA Today

I filed this two hours and 49 minutes after my editor okayed my column suggestion and asked if I could file it that day. It’s nice to know that I haven’t completely lost my ability to turn around copy that fast–including time to get quotes from four subject-matter experts.

3/26/2020: “Rob Pegoraro on Tech and the Coronavirus” (Two Think Minimum), Tech Policy Institute

I returned to this Washington think tank’s podcast for the first time since 2018 to talk about the effects of the coronavirus pandemic on working and networking, how Internet providers are holding up, and my experience working the March 3 primary election. You can listen to my conversation with TPI’s Scott Wallsten and Sarah Oh–conducted via the Zoom videoconference app instead of in person like the last time–in the SoundCloud embed below.

Housework when nobody leaves the house: The dishes are never done

We’re now wrapping up two weeks of staying at home together as a family. It feels more like a month, and I mostly blame the dishwasher for that.

I’m no stranger to housework after almost nine years of working from home full-time. But having everybody else in the family cooped up at home to avoid the coronavirus is a different thing. The biggest surprise, as I suppose many of you have been learning, is how often you run the dishes when everybody eats every meal at home.

For the three of us, that’s at least nine sets of utensils, glasses and plates or bowls each day. Running the dishwasher that we’d idly thought of replacing because of how long it takes has become an every-three-days proposition at best. And now I really hope this appliance that conveyed with the house almost 16 years ago does not pick this season to break on us.

Laundry, meanwhile, has become surprisingly easier. Why? When I rarely leave the house and never do so to meet anybody for professional reasons, I might as well wear the same pair of pants at least twice before washing them. I’m also finding myself okay with getting two days out of a shirt while the temperatures stay below the 70s.

And as long as I don’t work too hard gardening during what are supposed to be brief breaks from work. Fortunately or unfortunately, my seasonal outdoor distraction from my occupation is even stronger this spring. Because removing some plants and moving others around to make our house look better seems like one of the few things I can control in my life right now. 

Weekly output: backup bandwidth for working from home, WFH advice, Twitter coronavirus rules, ISP data caps

The demolition of this spring’s business-travel schedule concluded Friday with the cancellation of the Geoint 2020 Symposium, a late-April conference in Tampa at which I was set to write up talks for the show daily as I did at last year’s event in San Antonio. This will hurt financially in a way that all of my other canceled conferences haven’t–those few days of deadline writing would have yielded a nice big check on top of the paid travel. Yet I feel like I can’t really complain when I look at how much uglier business has gotten for news organizations in just the past few weeks.

(Sorry if I’m getting you down. Please enjoy a picture of cherry blossoms, taken far from any crowds in D.C.)

3/16/2020: Working or learning from home: Telecoms give boost in bandwidth to keep us online, USA Today

I scrambled to write this Friday afternoon as telecoms began announcing moves to liberalize their data caps and other usage restrictions to accommodate all the Americans newly-forced to work or learn from home. Then I filed an update Saturday morning with news about two wireless carriers giving subscribers a lot more mobile-hotspot data.

3/18/2020: Confessions of a Work-from-Home Pro, Presidential Management Alumni Association

I still miss the Web chats I used to do for the Post, so I was happy to accept the invitation of this group for federal workers to do a group Zoom chat about the finer points of working from home. I hope I was able to help, although I don’t know if there are any great answers for people who live in small residences that don’t allow for much of a separate “work” area.

PMAA says they’ll post a recording of the session soon; when they do, I’ll add a link to it here it is.

3/20/2020: Twitter’s new coronavirus rules, Al Jazeera

The Arabic-language news network had me on via Skype to talk about Twitter’s new rules governing coronavirus disinformation. Although doing this remotely saved me a trip to the D.C. office, it also meant I struggled to hear the translator on top of the anchor; a couple of times, I had to hope I’d correctly heard his rendition of whatever she’d said in Arabic.

3/21/2020: The coronavirus might have just killed ISP data caps, Fast Company

I revisited the news I’d covered for USAT by asking several Internet providers and a few telecom analysts about the odds of now-waived data caps returning; the ISPs didn’t comment, but the analysts all agreed that they were most likely a coronavirus casualty that can’t be revived.

Updated 4/9/2020 to add a link to video of my session in PMAA’s wonderfully-named “Couchella” series. 

Things I learned from working a primary election

After more than 15 years of writing about voting-machine security, I finally got some hands-on experience in the field–by waking up at 4 a.m. and working a 16-hour day.

I’d had the idea in my head for a while, thanks to frequent reminders from such election-security experts as Georgetown Law’s Matt Blaze that the best way to learn how elections work is to work one yourself. And I finally realized in January that I’d be in town for the March 3 Democratic primary and, as a self-employed type, could take the whole day off.

I applied at Arlington’s site by filling out a short form, and about two hours later got a confirmation of my appointment as an election officer. (My wife works for Arlington’s Department of Technology Services but has no role in election administration.) A training class Feb. 11 outlined the basics of the work and sent me home with a thick binder of documentation–yes, I actually read it–and on March 3, I woke up two minutes before my 4 a.m. alarm.

After packing myself a lunch and snacks, as if I were going to grade school, and powering through some cereal, I arrived at my assigned polling place just before the instructed start time of 5 a.m. I left a little before 9 p.m. Here are the big things I learned over those 16 hours:

  • Yes, having people fill out paper ballots and scan them in works. I saw 500-plus voters do that while I tended the scanner in the morning, and none had the machine reject their ballot. There was confusion over which way to insert that ballot, but the scanner accommodated that by reading them whether they were inserted upside down, right-side up, forwards or backwards. (I wish more machines were that tolerant of human variances in input.) And at the end of the day, we had a box full of ballots that will be kept for a year.
  • The technology overall appeared to be of higher quality than the grotesquely insecure, Windows-based Winvote touchscreen machines on which I voted for too many years. This scanner was an offline model running a build of Linux, while the poll-book apps ran on a set of iPads.
  • The “vote fraud” rationale for imposing photo ID requirements is not only fraudulent, but photo IDs themselves are overrated. The state allows a really broad selection of public- and private-sector IDs—unavoidable unless you want to make it obvious that you’re restricting the franchise to older and wealthier voters—and our instructions required us to be liberal in accepting those. I didn’t see or hear of anybody getting rejected for an ID mismatch. (The one surprise was how many people showed up with passports; I quickly grew to appreciate their larger color photos over the tiny black-and-white thumbnails on drivers’ licenses.)
  • Asking people to state their name and address, then matching that against voter-registration records, does work. That also happens to be how voter check-in used to work in Virginia before Republicans in the General Assembly shoved through the photo-ID requirement that’s now been reversed by the new Democratic majority in Richmond.
  • You know who really loves high turnout? Election officers who otherwise have some pretty dull hours in mid-morning and then mid-afternoon. At one point, the person in charge of the ballot scanner busied himself by arranging stickers into a bitmapped outline of Virginia, then added a layer of stickers on top of that to represent I-95 and I-66. Fortunately, precinct 44 blew away past primary-turnout records with a total of 1,046 in-person votes.
  • The attention to detail I saw was almost liturgical. Every hour, the precinct chief did a count of voters checked in and votes cast to ensure the numbers matched; every record was done in at least duplicate; every piece of paper was signed by at least two election officers, and the overall SOR (statement of results) bore the signatures of all eight of us. We closed out the night by putting documents and records in specified, numbered envelopes, each locked with a numbered zip-tie lock; each number was recorded on a piece of paper on the outside of each envelope that was itself signed by two election officers.
  • Serving as an election officer isn’t physically demanding work, but it does make for a long day. We did have coffee delivered, but it didn’t arrive until 9 a.m., and nobody had time for dinner during the rush to close out things after the polls closed.
  • It’s also not the most lucrative work ever. My paycheck arrived Friday: $175, amounting to an hourly wage of $10.94. The value of seeing the attention paid to make democracy work and then watching more than a thousand people show up to exercise their rights: priceless.

Updated 3/23/2020 to fix some formatting glitches.