Weekly output: WiFi help, SpaceX and NASA, cybersecurity issues and the coronavirus (x2), Trump’s social-media executive order (x3)

This weekend has shown some of the ugliest sides of the United States, from systemic racism to abuse of police power to wanton destructiveness. It would have been even worse without Saturday’s reminder from SpaceX and NASA that we can also do great things together.

5/25/2020: Think you are ready for a new router? First, try these free home Wi-Fi fixes, USA Today

I borrowed the expertise of my friends Tom Bridge and Glenn Fleishman for this column about no-cost tweaks to a home network that may improve your experience.

5/27/2020: SpaceX’s Dragon launch ushers in a new era for Americans in space, Fast Company

I’d meant to write this story from the Kennedy Space Center’s press site. Instead, I wrote it from my desk at home–below a picture I took of the last shuttle launch that STS-135 commander Chris Ferguson signed for me at a later NASA Tweetup.

5/27/2020: The Thought Leadership Summit, Webit Virtual

This conference was once going to take place in Spain next month and have me moderate some panels. Webit’s had to go virtual like every other large event, so my first spot involved a panel on cybersecurity issues in the novel-coronavirus pandemic that featured Webit executive chairman Plamen Russev, Siemens chief cybersecurity officer Natalia Oropeza, Inrupt security-architecture chief Bruce Schneier, and VMWare security vice president Tom Corn.

5/27/2020: Trump vs. Twitter, Al Jazeera

The Arabic-language news network had me on to talk about President Trump’s temper tantrum of executive order that makes a lot of noise about Twitter’s alleged unfairness but contains almost nothing in the way of a legally-valid signal.

5/28/2020: The Leading Media Forum, Webit Virtual

My second appearance for Webit featured an extended discussion about media coverage of cybersecurity issues with Webit’s Russev, Wired Italia’s Luca Zorloni, Forbes’ Monica Melton, and Euronews’ Salim Essaid. The video on this should look much better than the earlier panel, because I realized that my laptop’s camera had the white balance so hideously bad that my navy-blue shirt looked purple. With only a couple of minutes to go before showtime, I grabbed my iPad, braced it between my laptop keyboard and screen, and used that instead.

5/28/2020: Trump’s social-media executive order, Al Araby

My second TV hit about the Trump executive order came right after he signed that document, which meant my interpreter on this Arabic-language network and I had to wait for him to stop talking.

5/29/2020: Trump’s Twitter Tantrum; Hong Kong Crackdown, Bipodisan

My first tweets about the Trump order caught the eye of my friend Robert Schlesinger, who then invited me to join him and his co-host Jean Card on this political podcast. We had much more fun than you might expect from a chat about Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act.

Return to flight

For the first time in almost nine years, Americans began a journey to space from Florida instead of Kazakhstan. SpaceX’s successful launch Saturday afternoon of NASA astronauts Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley on a Crew Dragon capsule atop a Falcon 9 rocket closed the longest gap ever in human spaceflight from U.S. soil and broke a government monopoly on travel to orbit.

The long wait after the last shuttle mission in July 2011 for this day and this liftoff took me back all the way to 1981. That’s when my 10-year-old self woke up unnaturally early on a Sunday morning to watch the space shuttle Columbia roar to life, taking John Young and Bob Crippen to orbit after a more than five-year drought that followed the splashdown of the U.S. half of the Apollo-Soyuz Test Project in July of 1975.

I didn’t get to watch that launch on YouTube on a flat-panel TV–instead, it was an over-the-air CBS signal on a cathode-ray-tube set. There was also no social media; the only people I could rejoice with afterwards were my brother and my mom and dad.

But then as now, the United States had been through hard times. Not only did NASA have to sit and watch as the Soviet Union sent cosmonauts to orbit and the shuttle program’s delays dragged on, the end of the 1970s saw our country reeling from an oil crisis, an economic crisis, and the hostage crisis. The USSR felt free to invade Afghanistan and throw its weight around the rest of the world.

It was a lot for a nine-year-old boy who had only recently gotten into the habit of reading the New York Times and watching the evening news. It felt like my country kept getting kicked around.

The past year has not been like the year running up to STS-1. It’s worse. So much worse. A global pandemic has killed more than 102,000 Americans and wrecked the U.S. economy (with the inconsequential collateral damage of my being unable to cover the SpaceX launch in person as I did 2018’s Falcon Heavy launch). The president is a ignorant bigot, a pathological liar, and a magnet for the corrupt and the incompetent–NASA administrator Jim Bridenstine being a blessed exception. The streets of some American cities were on fire Friday night.

The state of American spaceflight was nowhere as bad before today as it was at the end of 1980–astronauts have kept flying to space on Russian rockets without the shuttle’s fatal vulnerabilities, and the ISS is a spacecraft big enough to see from the ground. But all the other things make today’s misery index exponentially higher.

And this time, the kid trying to make sense of the world is my daughter. I try to help her with that, but I don’t know that I’m doing that much. Could anybody?

Saturday’s launch doesn’t cure the novel coronavirus, put tens of millions of Americans back to work, vote Trump out of office or banish his brand of cruelty from American politics, bring George Floyd back to life, or excise systemic racism. But as my friend Maura Corbett put it in a tweet, this accomplishment gave “a grieving and broken country some wonder and hope today.” And it should remind everybody that hard work and a willingness to learn may ultimately take you through adversity. And to the stars.

Weekly output: small telecom firms dropping pay TV, remote-working security, Facebook bias allegations

This week brought bad news on the client front: Glimmer, the tech-culture publication where I’ve enjoyed writing long features about such wonky topics as Google’s complex relationship with news publishers, did not survive a round of layoffs at its corporate parent Glitch. As crummy as this was for me, it was worse for my editor there who now finds herself unemployed.

5/18/2020: Small TV providers need to hold customers’ hands to exit TV, FierceVideo

This story took much longer to report than I expected, mainly because I had a hard time getting enough of the small number of tiny Internet providers to have dropped pay TV outright to return my calls or e-mails.

5/19/2020: Session 3 Security Panel, Futureproof IT

In my first virtual-conference panel, I talked about security issues with remote-work software (via Zoom, naturally) with Secureframe CEO Shrav Mehta, Splunk senior technology advocate Amélie Erin Koran, and freelance tech journalist Yael Grauer.

5/22/2020: Facebook bias allegations, Al Jazeera

The Arabic-language news network had me to discuss complaints that Facebook is blocking pro-Palestinian speech. That’s not an allegation I’ve seen confirmed independently–it’s not hard to find pages advocating for Palestine and against Israel’s occupation–but I spent most of my time on air emphasizing the general difficulty of content moderation at scale. I hope my effort at nuance was as persuasive in the interpreter’s rendition.

Lessons from moderating three virtual panels

I spoke at a conference Tuesday for the first time since February, and this time the dress code was a little different: no pants required.

That’s because my appearance at Futureproof IT came through my laptop’s webcam and the Zoom video-chat app, leaving nothing below my chest visible to the remote audience. That’s also how I moderated two more panels this week for the Collision conference that was originally set to run in Toronto in June but has since migrated to a digital format, with my appearances among those recorded in advance.

And that’s how I expect all of my conference speaking to happen for at least the next few months, thanks to the novel-coronavirus pandemic ruining everything.

I’ve learned a lot about successful panel moderation on a physical stage, but doing so in a virtual environment brings new challenges.

Start with picking and positioning a webcam. The camera in my aging iMac is at a good height relative to me when sitting, but it also delivers a subpar 720p resolution–and from that angle, I’d have natural light from the windows hitting only one side of my face. My HP laptop, meanwhile, has a 1080p webcam, and by parking it atop a stepladder and then a large tin topped by the thickest book I could find in my office (a hardcover of Dune), I could position it high enough while allowing myself to face my office’s windows.

(If I’d only bought the Wirecutter-endorsed Logitech C920S webcam in the Before Times, I could have stuck the thing on a tripod and be done with it. As the song goes, there’s a lot of things if I could I’d rearrange.)

The Collision panels added another complication: a request for a pale, blank backdrop. I managed that by hanging a white bedsheet from the ceiling with packing tape and binder clips–the tape stuck to the drywall, but I needed the clips to hold the tape to the sheet.

And then none of my other panelists showed up with pale, blank backgrounds. That’s one reassuring aspect of this: Not only can you expect somebody else to have audio or video hiccups, you can also expect somebody else to have a worse backdrop or camera angle.

Before kicking off a virtual panel, you must also silence every other device in the room, and my failure to think through “every other device” meant the Futureproof panel was not interruption-proof. As in, we were distracted by the one thing I didn’t think to put in do-not-disturb mode, an old Trimline land-line phone on my desk mainly for nostalgia purposes.

At least I didn’t have to change any settings on the laptop, thanks to Windows 10’s Focus Assist quashing interruptions from other apps once I switched Zoom to full-screen mode. But that also meant I had to look elsewhere for a timer: I couldn’t see the lock in the Windows taskbar, while Zoom’s option to show your connected time doesn’t account for minutes spent prepping on a call before a panel begins. I made do with the clock apps on my phone and iPad.

All three panels suffered from a certain latency as other speakers paused before answering my questions. You can’t point or nod to one as you would onstage to encourage them to jump in–and if one starts filibustering, it’s also harder to signal him to wrap things up. Simply reading the facial expressions of other panelists can be difficult if they use a lower-resolution webcam or neglect their lighting.

Reading the audience seems even harder in Zoom unless, I guess, you keep the chat pane open and have an audience that is exceptionally concise in their feedback. The way Facebook and Twitter let a live video audience respond with emoji and hearts ought to deliver easily-understood feedback at scale, and perhaps one of the many virtual-event apps now seeing escalating interest–see my friend Robin Raskin’s writeup of a handful at Techonomy–gets even closer to the real thing.

But I highly doubt any app will recreate how great it can feel to have a live audience tuned into the talk, laughing at your jokes and then applauding your work.

Weekly output: Google’s relationship with news publishers

This coming week will feature my first conference-speaking gig since February, in the form of a panel I’m moderating (via Zoom) about the security of remote-working systems (such as Zoom) for the Futureproof IT virtual summit.

5/11/2020: Google Searches For What It Can’t Find, Glimmer

I had pitched this tech-culture publication about covering the argument over whether Google (and maybe Facebook too) should pay news publishers for showing snippet-length previews of their content, as any search site would do with any other site it indexes. That’s an issue I’ve been covering since 2012, and this time around I proposed to get the input of some publishers of small news sites instead of the usual industry lobbyists. My editor accepted that pitch almost immediately–then stumbled upon a test of Question Hub, a new feature from Google that invites Web searchers to tell publishers what they looked for but couldn’t find. This made the story even more interesting to write.

A new bread-baking hack: tangzhong

I’ve been baking sandwich bread about every week since 2004, and two weeks ago I learned that I’d been missing out on a fairly simple technique to make softer loaves that stay fresh longer.

It’s called tangzhong, and I learned about it from a tweet from science journalist Erin Biba. I read the introduction she shared from King Arthur Flour’s blog, then that blog’s explanation of how to work this into a standard sandwich-bread recipe.

“Tangzhong” is either Chinese for “soup starter” or “flour roux,” depending on where you read, and it’s a way to incorporate more water into bread dough without it evaporating and making the bread stale as fast as usual. You do that by cooking a small amount of flour and water in a pan until they form a slurry–as if you were making roux for homemade mac and cheese–that locks in the moisture, Then you combine this with  the rest of your flour mixture before adding your yeast mixture and proceeding as usual.

The King Arthur directions started simple: 3 tablespoons flour and half a cup of water in a pan over medium heat until the mixture thickens. But then math intruded, in the form of calculations to determine how much water to add to the rest of the recipe to ensure that the water added up to 75 percent of the weight of the flour.

The first try, I spent so much time weighing ingredients–a somewhat irritating step when you’re putting flour and then water on a scale in measuring cups already labeled to tell you how much of something they contain–that I forgot to add the weight of that initial half cup of water back in and instead poured in almost a quarter of a cup more water into my yeast-and-water mix. The result was an unmanageably soupy dough that I couldn’t work with until I’d added maybe another half cup of flour above the 3 1/2 cups in my standard recipe.

That left me with more risen dough than I’d need for one loaf, so I broke off a bit and formed that into hot dog rolls and hamburger buns. All were delicious, if done at least half an hour behind schedule. The bread was notably softer and fluffier–more like the pre-packaged sort I renounced buying 15 years ago when I was just embarking on baking hipsterdom–and kept fresh longer, freeing me from wanting to relegate the last couple of slices to toast or a grilled-cheese sandwich.

The second try, I decided to wing it a little and not add any water beyond the half cup in the tangzhong and the 1 1/4 cup in which I normally pour yeast and honey to start. I also saved myself some complexity by putting all of the flour in the stand mixer’s bowl, then taking out 3 tablespoons for the tangzhong. But once again, I still had dough too damp to work, so I added a little more flour and once again got some bonus rolls.

On the third try, I used only 1 3/4 cup of water to start the yeast, leaving me with 1 1/2 1 1/4 cups of water in the total recipe. As in, close enough to not too far below the proportions the King Arthur recipe had specified, if only I’d paid more attention the first time, but also the same amount of total water as in my usual bread-baking practice.

On this iteration, the dough came away from the sides (if not the bottom) of our stand mixer like usual, and the finished loaf was fantastic like the others. As I write this, I am already looking forward to tomorrow’s sandwich for lunch.

Updated 5/16 to correct totals for the third iteration.

Weekly output: password peril, mobile-hotspot help, Facebook’s Oversight Board

I had been holding out hope that I could return to business travel, even if just once before fall or winter, to cover America’s return to launching astronauts to space–SpaceX’s Demo-2 test flight of its Crew Dragon capsule, scheduled for May 27. I’d put in for a press pass and had a confirmed assignment from a name-brand client, and I was willing to figure out how I’d not lose money on the trip later on. But on Monday, I got the e-mail that many other journalists received, saying that NASA could not accommodate me at the Kennedy Space Center because social-distancing dictates required drastically limiting the number of press on site.

I’m not surprised and I’m not that upset. I’ve already seen three launches from the press site at KSC–the penultimate and final Space Shuttle launches and the February 2018 debut of the Falcon Heavy rocket–and that’s three more than I had any reasonable expectation of seeing 10 years ago.

5/5/2020: We still stink at passwords, and there’s really no excuse, Fast Company

I got an advance look at a study published by LastPass, the password-manager service that I used to use. The study confirmed earlier reports that people reuse way too many passwords but reported curiously high adoption of two-step verification–but did not gauge how many of us now employ password managers.

5/8/2020: All of the COVID-19 Data Upgrades That Cell Phone Carriers Are Offering, Wirecutter

I inventoried the ways that the big four wireless carriers as well as their prepaid brands and their major resellers have made it easier to share your smartphone’s bandwidth with nearby devices via its mobile-hotspot function. As you can see in the comments, it looks like I got one service’s information wrong; Google Fi has raised the limit at which it will slow down your connection, but not in a way that will lower most customers’ bills.

5/9/2020: Facebook’s Oversight Board, Al Araby

As one third of a panel discussion on this Arabic-language news network, I talked about Facebook’s new Oversight Board and its odds of changing things at the social network. My main point: While this equivalent of a Supreme Court is empowered to reverse Facebook decisions to take down or keep up content, Facebook’s automated rankings of the priority of content appear to be outside its orbit.