About robpegoraro

Freelance journalist who covers (and is often vexed by) computers, gadgets and other things that beep.

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.

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.

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.

Weekly output: Elon Musk, PGA Tour, FuboTV, inflight WiFi

This week began with my leaving the house two days in a row for work events–an experience I may next have sometime in April–and ended with the cancellation of conferences in Dallas and Miami at which I was going to moderate panels and would have had my travel expenses covered in return. Well, things could be worse.

Patreon members got an extra post from me: a recap of a really dumb thing I did on my home network that briefly took out our VoIP home phone service.

3/10/2020: Elon Musk: ‘I hope I’m not dead by the time people go to Mars’, Fast Company

I attended the Satellite 2020 trade show in Washington largely to see the Musk keynote that wrapped up the show Monday afternoon. Yes, that means I spent an hour and a half in a packed room with hundreds of other people; no, I have not exhibited COVID-19 symptoms.

3/10/2020: PGA Tour’s new rights deal adds ESPN+, FierceVideo

I covered breaking news at my favorite trade-pub client Monday. My first post covered the nine-year rights deal the PGA Tour announced that morning, and which is already worth a good deal less since the entirety of pro sports is on hold until the novel coronavirus ebbs.

3/10/2020: FuboTV adds MLB and NHL channels, FierceVideo

My second post at Fierce also covered sports on television, in the form of the streaming-TV service Fubo adding two channels that now have no games to air.

3/11/2020: One small perk of the coronavirus outbreak: Faster airplane Wi-Fi, Fast Company

I wrote this the week before after covering the U.S. Chamber of Commerce’s Aviation Summit, a daylong conference that featured a panel about inflight connectivity as well as industry executives voicing concerns about “booking softness” that now seem woefully understated. Another thing that’s aged badly: the headline on this piece.

Work-from-home advice from a work-from-home regular

My occupational routine of working from home is suddenly in fashion for the dreadful reason of a global pandemic. Employers ranging from Google to the federal government to the Washington Post have been telling people to get out of the office and stay out until some sort of all-clear is declared about the novel coronavirus.

This may be a new and unsettling development to many of you, but it’s been my everyday reality for the past nine years–longer, if you count all the time I’d work from home while at the Post to test one gadget or another.

The joking on Twitter that “the only ones to survive will be freelance writers” may overstate things a bit, but all of this Me Time has left me well versed at staying productive without such traditional work delineations as a commute to a geographically distinct workplace and frequent in-person professional interaction with other human beings.

Here are the best practices I’ve learned since 2011 or so:

  • Have a spot at home that serves as your logical office. Ideally it’s a physically separate room–if you’re self-employed, the home-office deduction is easier to claim that way–but it should be someplace you can associate with work. And can then leave when you’re not on the clock.
  • Get a comfortable chair (I should have followed this advice years ago instead of letting my current chair get even more worn out) and make sure it’s positioned so you can type comfortably for hours at a stretch
  • You don’t need a separate webcam–unless your laptop has one below the screen that treats video callers to an up-nostril perspective of you–but a desktop USB microphone would be a good idea. My client Wirecutter has some useful advice; you should be fine with the budget pick unless you do podcasts for a living.
  • Make sure that your webcam shows a tidy office to the rest of the world. You can still have piles of paper and dirty clothes around; just keep them out of the frame.
  • You will probably spend a lot more time on conference calls, and some con-call systems are more evil and stupid than others. Please try to lead your office away from the ones that date to 1980s telecom and and to apps like Zoom or Uberconference that indicate who’s speaking at any time. Note that the free version of Zoom limits meetings to 40 minutes, which is such a good reason not to pay that I must wonder if this company is trying to go out of business.
  • Does your WiFi offer reliable coverage in your home office? If it doesn’t, you will notice that intensely and often once you’re clocking eight hours a day on that questionable connectivity. And no matter what, you should have all of your important documents cached or copied for offline access.
  • You should know what kinds of backup bandwidth are available–for example, major cable operators say they will open their WiFi hotspot networks to the public, while Sprint and T-Mobile plan to offer their subscribers 20 GB of mobile-hotspot usage.
  • Yes, you still need to shower and get dressed. But you may find that you can use those daily habits as fake deadlines: No showering until I finish this task that I didn’t get done yesterday.
  • Find ways to shut out distractions. If you find yourself wandering down Wikipedia rabbit holes, clean part of your house instead. Or go outside and get in some gardening, if it’s warm enough. If nothing else, walk around pointlessly your home as you would in an office.
  • We all have coworkers who don’t reply to e-mails fast enough. Figure out what comms channel works to bug them when they inevitably leave your last message unanswered: Slack, a text, a call, a direct message on their most common social platform.
  • Don’t eat lunch at your desk. Ever. You’re at home, and you don’t have to do that anymore. While you’re at it, get in the habit of making yourself lunch; you can put the savings into patronizing the restaurants, coffee shops and bars closest to you.
  • It’s okay to run short errands during the day. It’s not like you were that productive over every hour of your in-office workdays anyway.
  • Get to know your neighbors, especially those who have been working from home all along and who may have useful neighborhood-specific advice. Human contact during the day is good.
  • You’ll also soon realize which of your neighbors insist on hiring people to tidy up their yard with noisy, polluting gas-powered leaf blowers.
  • Have some kind of back channel–a text or WhatsApp group, a Facebook Messenger group, a Slack channel, whatever–for personal banter with your favorite fellow cubicle-farm dwellers.
  • Take time to call friends about absolutely nothing.
  • You can swear at your computer as much as it deserves without freaking out co-workers, but please don’t get in that habit anyway. (This is literally me saying “do as I say, not as I do.”) Especially if you’ve got a kid stuck at home too.
  • On the other hand, go ahead and play your preferred productivity playlist through your computer’s speakers. If blasting Kool Moe Dee’s “I Go To Work” or R.E.M.’s “Finest Worksong” gets your day in gear, you don’t need to confine that to headphones. (This is totally me showing my age.)
  • If you’re tired, you’re allowed to nap. You’re at home! Nobody outside can tell you’re enjoying a postprandial snooze.

(My thanks to everybody who replied with further suggestions to the Twitter thread in which I first shared most of these tips.)

Updated 3/18/2020 with a few extra tips.

Weekly output: encrypted DNS in Firefox (x2), expanding rural broadband, business turnarounds, optimizing business travel, travel tips

My calendar this week is much less cluttered than it was a week ago, between SXSW’s cancellation clearing out Friday and (also coronavirus-related) postponement of the DC Blockchain Summit freeing up Wednesday and Thursday.

3/2/2020: Your internet provider knows where you’ve been. How to keep your browsing more private, USA Today

I tackled a fairly esoteric topic–encrypted domain name service–in this column. I don’t know how many people read it to the end, but at least my tweet about the piece seems to have done well

3/3/2020: Why ‘rural broadband’ may no longer be an oxymoron, Fast Company

I wrote up a new study from the Pew Charitable Trusts that offers reasons for hope about expanding rural broadband, plus useful lessons learned from states that have managed to make progress on that front.

3/3/2020: This Morning with Gordon Deal March 03, 2020, This Morning with Gordon Deal

This business radio show had me on talk about the Firefox browsing-privacy news in my column. My bit starts at the 12:45 mark.

3/4/2020: Four companies that reinvented themselves the right way… and won, Signal 360

A friend edits a newsletter Procter & Gamble publishes and asked if I could write about a few examples of companies turning themselves around. That’s not a genre of story I usually do, so I thought it would be fun to write. The results: this look at how Lego, T-Mobile, Yelp and Best Buy managed to dig themselves out of various holes.

3/8/2020: From Bookings to Bandwidth, How to Supercharge Your Business Travel, Frequent Traveler University

I did this talk with travel blogger Tess Zhao twice: a more beginner-oriented version in the morning for attendees of the Travel & Adventure Show at the Washington Convention Center, and then an expert-mode version in the afternoon for FTU DC ticket holders.

3/8/2020: Closing panel, Frequent Traveler University

This gathering for miles-and-points travel enthusiasts wrapped up with almost all of the FTU DC speakers fielding questions from the audience about various flight and lodging hacks and tips.

Updated 3/9/2020 to add a link the Signal 360 post I didn’t find when I did my usual Google News search for pages featuring my name over the last week.