My fellow Virginians, please install the COVIDWISE app. Now, thank you.

As the United States continues to flail away at the novel-coronavirus pandemic, my part of it has done one thing right. Wednesday morning, Virginia’s Department of Health launched COVIDWISE–the first digital contact-tracing app shipped in the U.S. on the privacy-optimized Exposure Notifications framework that Apple and Google co-developed this spring.

What that means is that COVIDWISE, available for iPhones running 13.5 or newer and most Android phones running Android 6.0 or newer, requires none of your data–not your name, not your number, not your e-mail, not even your phone’s electronic identifiers–to have it warn that you spent a sustained period of time close to somebody who has tested positive for COVID-19.

COVIDWISE and other apps built on the Apple/Google system instead send out randomized Bluetooth beacons every few minutes, store those sent by nearby phones running these apps, and flag those that indicate sufficiently extended proximity to allow for COVID-19 transmission as doctors understand it. That’s the important but often misunderstood point: All of the actual contact matching is done on individual phones by these apps–not by Apple, Google or any health authorities.

If a user of COVIDWISE tests positive and alerts this system by entering the code given them by a doctor or test lab into this app, that will trigger their copy of the app to upload its record of the last 14 days of those flagged close contacts–again, anonymized beyond even Apple or Google’s knowledge–to a VDH-run server. The health authority’s server will then send a get-tested alert to phones that had originally broadcast the beacons behind those detected contacts–once the apps on those devices do their daily check-ins online for any such warnings.

The U.S. is late to this game–Latvia shipped the first such app based on Apple and Google’s framework, Apturi Covid, in late May. In that time, the single biggest complaint about the Apple/Google project from healthcare professionals has been that it’s too private and doesn’t provide the names or locations that would ease traditional contact-tracing efforts.

I’m not writing this just off reading Apple and Google’s documentation; I’ve spent a lot of time over the last two months talking to outside experts for a long report on digital-contact-tracing apps. Please trust me on this; you should install COVIDWISE.

Plus, there’s nothing to it. The pictures above show almost the entire process on my Android phone: download, open, tap through a few dialogs, that’s it. At no point did I have to enter any data, and the Settings app confirms that COVIDWISE has requested zero permissions for my data. It uses the Bluetooth radio and the network connection; that’s it, as I’ve confirmed on two other Android phones.

If I’m curious about how this app’s working, I can pop into Android’s Settings app (search “COVID” or “exposure”) to see when my phone last performed an exposure check. But I don’t expect to get any other sign of this app’s presence on my phone–unless it warns me that I stood too close to somebody who tested positive, in which case I may not enjoy that notification but will certainly need it.

Updated 8/6/2020 with further details about the app’s setup and operation.

Weekly output: online-video churn, Trump vs. social media, online-video UX, Tim Cook’s App Store history, Saudi Twitter spies, online-video ads, online-video lessons, Trump vs. TikTok

My biggest regret about this busy news week: I didn’t get to follow Access Now’s RightsCon digital conference. Having spoken at its real-world predecessor in Toronto two years ago–and knowing that friends were on this year’s panel schedule–I can only hope that I can catch up in my non-existent spare time this week.

7/27/2020: Sling’s ex-chief Warren Schlichting is content with churn, FierceVideo

My occasional trade-publication client signed me up to cover their OTT Blitz Week virtual event. I started that by writing up former Sling TV head Warren Schlichting’s observations about running an over-the-top video service.

7/28/2020: Here’s Trump’s Plan To Regulate Social Media, Forbes

Writing about the Trump administration’s proposal to have the Federal Communications Commission rewrite a law allowed me the unexpected pleasure of approvingly quoting experts at the left-leaning think tank Public Knowledge and the right-leading Charles Koch Institute, both of which said this plan seems nuts.

7/28/2020: There’s no UX without ‘you’, FierceVideo

My second post about OTT Blitz Week covered a panel that saw executives from Discovery, Sling, Pluto TV, Xumo and other online-video firms offering their insights on making their user experience feel comfortable for viewers.

7/29/2020: What Tim Cook Left Out Of His Version Of App Store History, Forbes

Apple’s CEO’s prepared statement for Wednesday’s tech-CEO hearings came close to erasing the history of online software distribution before the 2008 debut of Apple’s iOS App Store, and that bugged me. I wrote a correction of Tim Cook’s testimony, and I was flattered to see this post get a “Highly recommended” shout-out on Apple raconteur John Gruber’s Daring Fireball blog.

7/29/2020: New charges for Saudi moles at Twitter, Al Jazeera

Stories involving Saudi Arabia behaving badly online often result in appearances for me on this Qatar-based news network. In this case, the news peg was a set of new charges against Saudi spies allegedly burrowing into Twitter.

7/29/2020: We’re not Facebook, OTT ad execs emphasize, FierceVideo

The executives on this OTT Blitz Week panel on addressable (read: targeted) advertising on streaming TV emphasized how they don’t want or need behavioral data that gets too close to individual viewers’ tastes.

7/31/2020: There’s no one template for over-the-top video success, FierceVideo

I wrapped up my coverage of Fierce’s virtual event with a recap of this lessons-learned panel, featuring CEOs from the rhymable firms Fubo, Xumo and Philo.

8/1/2020: Trump’s threat to ban TikTok, Al Jazeera

I made a second appearance this week on the Arabic-language news network to discuss President Trump’s possibly-idle threat to ban TikTok. As I wrote last week at Forbes, the fact that the U.S. isn’t China leaves Trump out of options to banish that social app from American screens.

So this is what it will take to interrupt my CES streak

Next January will not be like the 23 before it, because for the first time since 1997 I won’t be going to CES. And neither will anybody else, thanks to the Consumer Technology Association’s Tuesday announcement recognizing the impossibility of staging a giant in-person tech event during the novel-coronavirus pandemic. Instead, CES 2021 will become what the Arlington trade association is calling an “all-digital experience.”

The event formerly known as the Consumer Electronics Show has been a fixture in my life for so long that my child has never seen me at home during its allotted days in early January. Neither has my wife.

Now they will. I won’t get up too early too few days after New Year’s Day to tear myself away from my family, spend hours in a pressurized metal tube flying to Las Vegas, and spend the rest of the week walking in circles through a series of enormous convention-center halls between demos, meetings and receptions.

As dreadful as the logistics of CES get, I will miss the thing. No other event all year provides as many opportunities to take the measure of the tech industry, see what the executives running it think (often inaccurately) we want to buy, and inspect the actual hardware. Plus, CES offers some first-rate networking that historically has generated a fair amount of business for me.

I already feel the CES Stockholm Syndrome settling in… will I feel compelled to recreate the awfulness of CES bandwidth by hobbling my phone in 3G mode and then tethering my laptop off that trickle of connectivity? Should I ask random strangers “ship date? price?” 15 times a day to remind myself of the joys of CES reporting? Will I have to gobble a Clif bar for lunch and then eat dinner standing up to re-enact the usual CES sustenance scenario?

I would like to think that I could use the time that will be liberated from the annual gadget pilgrimage to do things like go skiing or visit museums, but I’m sure the coronavirus will still be Ruining Everything in early January. Instead, I can only hope that week can bring the highlight of one of my last pre-CES, post-New Year weeks: a blizzard of epic proportions.

Weekly output: Toyota’s Woven City, baseball on streaming TV services, TikTok, broadband out of reach

A year ago this week, we celebrated the 50th anniversary of the first moon landing. These days, touting America’s ability to apply technology towards a national purpose is a harder sell.

7/20/2020: Woven City: Toyota’s Planned Proving Ground in Japan, Urban Land

This feature about the smart-city project Toyota touted at CES grew out of the piece I wrote for the Urban Land Institute’s magazine from that show. The piece is also supposed to run in Urban Land’s Japanese-language edition, but I don’t have a link to that yet.

7/23/2020: Finally: Every Baseball Team’s Sports Network Is Available On At Least One Streaming Service, Forbes

Two days before baseball’s belated Opening Day, I thought five teams would once again shut out cord cutters because their regional sports networks would not be available on any streaming-TV services. Then all five got on board–yes, even the mismanaged Mid-Atlantic Sports Network that carries Nationals and Orioles games.

7/24/2020: The Feds Want You To Freak Out Over TikTok. You Shouldn’t, And They Can’t Ban It Anyway., Forbes

The two business trips I made to China to attend the (now-scrapped) CES Asia show helped inform my perspective on TikTok–having poked around WeChat after having to use it during both trips, I can’t see the video-clip app being anywhere in the same league in terms of data thirstiness.

7/26/2020: Broadbanned: Still no affordable fix for a broadband internet connection just out of reach, USA Today

This story started when a reader saw the piece I did in 2015 about a reader who found himself out of reach of the nearest broadband connection. This piece set off a vigorous conversation on Twitter and has already led to four more reader e-mails about similar cases of ISPs asking for tens of thousands of dollars to extend broadband to their homes.

Speaking of topics that become self-replicating through a steady stream of reader requests, on Patreon I noted that writing once about password-reset problems with Google accounts has apparently ensured I will get pleas for help with that problem from readers for the rest of my life.

Streaming-TV sites still need some design work

This year’s version of the “what regional sports networks will shut up and take a cord-cutting baseball fan’s money” story was not like the last three. I wrote it much later in the year, it’s at Forbes instead of Yahoo, and it finally brings good news for Washington Nationals fans.

But the process of researching which streaming services carry which baseball RSNs was as annoying as ever, thanks to these companies not fixing the user-interface problems that gummed up last year’s work.

AT&T TV Now: The channel-finder page of the streaming service formerly known as DirecTV Now requires third-party cookies for reasons unexplained, ensuring it will break in Safari and Firefox. You can search by Zip code but then often must choose a county inside that Zip, a detail no other streaming service requests. AT&T also has yet to update this site to include the four sports networks (for the Nats, Orioles, Rockies, and Pirates) that it just added, much less the Seattle RSN it soon will offer.

This site does, however, get one thing very right that its rivals don’t: It inventories the teams featured on its available regional sports networks.

FuboTV: This sports-oriented streaming service has a simple channel-lookup page that you may not know exists, as neither its home page nor its support site seem to point visitors to it. Too bad, because it’s a model of simplicity: Type in a Zip code, and it lists the local channels first, identifying both broadcasters and regional sports networks with a blue “Local” tag. Fubo also lists the RSNs it carries nationwide in a tech-support story that seems to be regularly updated, but neither that nor the channel-finder associate networks with their core teams.

Hulu + Live TV: You can’t miss the channel-lookup interface here, since it’s waiting behind a “View Channels In Your Area” link on this service’s live-TV page. Plug in a Zip code and you get a clean listing of channel icons, with “Live Local Channels” at the top. Unfortunately, they’re all shown only as icons, without any pop-up text to identify the more cluttered graphics among them, and it’s up to you to remember which RSN features which sports franchise.

Sling TV: Sling charges just $30 for the basic service (one good reason why I’m a subscriber) and apparently isn’t too concerned about getting people to buy up to a higher tier to watch pro sports. Seeing what regional sports networks you might get that way requires clicking around a support site that keeps pointing you to a now-useless “Game Finder” page (well, useless unless you had not learned that the coronavirus pandemic has made a mess of every pro sports league’s schedule). The link you actually want, “Finding Your Game On A Regional Sports Network,” clarifies that Sling only carries three such networks, the Comcast RSNs in the Bay Area and Washington, what I like to think of as the Other Bay Area. 

YouTube TV: Google’s streaming service doesn’t make you search hard for a channel lookup–the form is right on its home page and is automatically populated with the Zip code for what Google thinks is your location. Click the big blue “Submit” button or type in a different Zip code before confirming that, and you get an improved version of Hulu’s interface that labels channel logos with their names. But as at everywhere but AT&T TV Now, you still have to look up which RSN carries which teams.

I would like to think that these sites will do better and ease the 2021 version of this work. But in case they don’t, I finally took the time to crate a spreadsheet (the Forbes post features a cleaner, searchable version) that I can update whenever these services add or drop a channel. I hope there’s more of the former happening than the latter, so that when I’m looking at the prospect of a 162-game Nats season next spring I won’t be limited to one service carrying those games.

Weekly output: smart cities, Bowie Seniors Computer Club, Twitter hack (x2)

Baseball will allegedly return Thursday with the Nationals’ home opener against the Yankees. Six months ago, I was looking forward to being on the stands on Opening Day to see the Nats hoist a World Series championship banner–and now the prospect of baseball coming back seems divorced from reality.

7/13/2020: Keeping an Eye on Privacy as Cities Get Smarter, Urban Land

I wrote this recap of smart-cities technology seen at CES month ago, but the coronavirus pandemic upended the publication schedule at the Urban Land Institute’s magazine. Note that the site will ask you to provide an e-mail address for a newsletter subscription to read this piece, but you don’t have to confirm your signup before reading.

7/16/2020: July 16 Zoom meeting, Bowie Seniors Computer Club

I got a message through the contact form here–yes, I really do read those–from one of the people running the user group that had hosted me for a talk back in 2009. I said I’d be delighted to return, even if only in video form, and I wound up spending much more time than I’d expected talking about my post-Post freelance career, the state of tech journalism, and the role of travel to tech events in my work these days.

7/16/2020: Twitter hacking, Al Jazeera

The Arabic-language news network had me on live a couple of times to talk about the previous day’s takeovers of a grab-bag of big-name Twitter accounts for no apparent purpose but broadcasting a cheap Bitcoin scam from such high-profile accounts as Apple, Uber, Elon Musk, Jeff Bezos and Joe Biden.

I survived yet another year of self-inflicted tax prep

The annual exercise in accounting self-abuse that is me doing my own taxes ended three months later than originally scheduled and yet still on time, thanks to the IRS pushing Tax Day back to July 15 to make up for the coronavirus ruining everything.

That delay taught me what I’d needed all along to make this math masochism easier: a dress rehearsal a month and a half before the real deadline. Here, my thanks must go to the Virginia Department of Taxation, which extended the deadline to pay state taxes but only by a month–from May 1 to June 1–and left in place the automatic six-month extension to file state returns.

I didn’t want to send too much or too little money to Richmond, so I needed to get our federal taxes close enough to done for me to plug the relevant figures into our Virginia return and get a reliable estimate. I plowed through TurboTax, as usual needing much more time to calculate my business profit after expenses than for any other part of the return. As much as I miss having itemized deductions make a large amount of our tax bill vanish, getting them right did eat up a lot of hours.

(Side rant: My TurboTax labors also went faster than usual because I finally figured out the freakshow workaround required to import statements from some old American Funds holdings. Without that, I would have had to type in those figures by hand because the PDF download this inept investment firm provided was a giant image without any selectable numbers.)

That work yielded nearly-final figures for the federal return that I could flow into a Virginia return in TurboTax. Then I double-checked that result by redoing the state math in Intuit’s woeful Free Fillable Forms online app, what I actually use to file because I refuse to reward Intuit for its rent-seeking strategy of getting states to retire their own online-filing tools.

In past years, TurboTax and Free Fillable Forms have agreed on what I’d owe Richmond or what Richmond owed us. This year, the stone tablet of spreadsheets said we’d owe $10 more than what TurboTax estimated for our Virginia bill. I ignored that at the end of June but went back through all the numbers again this week without finding any reason for the difference. Which is fine–maybe we paid Virginia a Hamilton we don’t owe, but I’m sure my state could use the help these days.

After going over our federal returns one last time Wednesday night, I had them e-filed before 10 p.m. Wednesday, then had the state returns dispatched an hour later. That left one last tax-prep chore: tweaking the Google Docs freelance expenses spreadsheet template that I shared here two winters ago to make it a little clearer which home-office expenses should be added together.

Warning: Election work may be habit-forming

For the third time this year–and the second time in three weeks–I woke up at 4 a.m. to start a workday that wouldn’t end until after 8 p.m.

I had thought at the time that the almost 16 hours I spent March 3 staffing the Democratic presidential primary would be my one-and-done immersion in the field. I’d learned firsthand about voter identification rules, the importance of a simple paper-ballot user experience, and the intense care taken to verifying the process and the results, and a second round didn’t seem that it could teach me much more.

But then the novel-coronavirus pandemic led many older poll workers to opt out, while my freelance work has yet to fill up my schedule in the way it did a year ago. After reading enough stories about electoral debacles in other states, I had to re-up when my precinct chief e-mailed to ask if I could work the June 23 Republican primary and the July 7 special election to fill an Arlington County Board seat.

I also figured that I wouldn’t see much of a crowd on either day. That was especially true for the GOP primary, when only 41 voters showed up (all of whom I appreciated for doing so) for the election that determined Daniel Gade would run against Sen. Mark Warner. I was glad that I’d brought a book to read, and that my colleagues for the day proved to be good company.

Tuesday saw 114 voters cast ballots to help put Takis Karantonis on the County Board. It also featured better protective gear for poll workers, in the form of comfortable cloth face masks with nicely-official-looking “Election Officer” labels as well as acrylic shields for the poll-book workers checking in voters.

Tuesday was also the last election to feature the photo-ID requirements that the General Assembly repealed this spring. This time, with voters consistently wearing their own masks, looking at tiny black-and-white thumbnail portraits on driver’s licenses was even more of a formality compared to the older and simpler method of asking each voter to state their name and address and then matching that to their entry in the poll book.

One of the other people working this election made a point of saying “see you in November!” to each voter. The resulting enthusiastic responses ranged from “You bet!” to “hell yes” to “I’ll be here at 4 a.m.”

That’s going to be a big deal and a lot of work. Friday morning, the precinct chief e-mailed Tuesday’s crew to thank us for the work and express his hope that we’d be on to help with the general election in November… and, yes, I think I see where this is going for me.

Weekly output: Collision recap, YouTube TV rate hike, coronavirus antibody testing, data caps returning

I had an exceptionally low-key Fourth of July: My wife and I watched the flyover from our sidewalk, I cooked dinner on the grill, and after dining we watched the fireworks from a nearby street.

In addition to the stories below, Patreon readers got a post from me about that site’s confusing and vague presentation of possible sales taxes on membership fees.

6/30/2020: Collision from Home 2020 at a glance, IT World Canada

Lynn Grenier wrote a recap of panels at last week’s virtual conference that mentioned one of mine, making this the first and probably the last time I’m in the same story as Justin Trudeau.

6/30/2020: YouTube TV Now Costs Almost Twice What It Did Three Years Ago, Forbes

The headline wrote itself. I revised it a day later to note a smaller price hike at a competing service, FuboTV, and add a reminder to readers that they can watch PBS over the air for free.

7/1/2020: Here’s what it’s like to get a coronavirus antibody test, Fast Company

On this piece, the lede wrote itself.

7/1/2020: Data caps still alive as pledges from internet service providers expire, USA Today

Between the inability of the nation’s largest Internet provider to make up its mind, my own inattention, and USAT’s status as an online and print publication, this column has had a few iterations. First we updated it later Wednesday to add Comcast’s decision to reinstate and raise its data cap–a move made after that cable operator left its customers guessing after its previous pledge to suspend enforcement of that limit had expired. Then we revised the piece again to correct my own misspelling of somebody’s last name (yes, I managed to get “Smith” wrong because I typed in Cox spokesperson’s Todd Smith’s name and got a different Todd’s surname lodged between my brain and fingers at the time). Finally, the column as revised and extended ran in the July 2 print edition of USAT.