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.

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.

Here’s how much Facebook was tracking me around the rest of the Web

Facebook finally fulfilled one of Mark Zuckerberg’s campaign promises this week–a promise dating back to May of 2018.

That’s when Facebook’s CEO said the company would roll out a “Clear History” feature that would let its users erase Facebook records of their activity at other sites and apps as gathered by the social network’s Like and Share buttons and other plug-ins.

(If it took you a long time to realize the extent of that tracking, I can’t blame you. Instead, I can blame me: The post I did for the Washington Post when my old shop integrated a batch of Facebook components to its site didn’t spell out this risk.)

Twenty months after Zuck’s announcement, this feature, renamed “Off Facebook Activity”, finally arrived for U.S. users on Tuesday. I promptly set aside that day’s tasks to check it out firsthand.

The good news, such as it was: Only 74 apps and sites had been providing Facebook info about my activity there. And most of them (disclosure: including such current and past clients as USA Today, Fast Company, The Points Guy and the Columbia Journalism Review) had only coughed up isolated data points.

The bad news: The Yelp, Eventbrite, AnyDo, and Duolingo apps had all coughed up more than 20 records of my interactions there, as had the sites of Home Depot and Safeway owner Albertson’s.

To judge from the responses I got from readers of my Facebook when I asked them how many sites and apps showed up in their own Off-Facebook Activity listings, I’m practically living a cloistered life. Most comments cited three-digit numbers, two close to four digits: 232, 356, 395, 862, and 974. One thing most of these users seemed to have in common: using Google’s Chrome as a default browser instead of Apple’s Safari or Mozilla Firefox, both of which automatically block tracking by social networks on other pages. The former is the default on my desktop, while the latter has that place on my laptop.

I’ve now cleared my history and turned off future Off-Facebook Activity–at the possible cost of no longer having WordPress.com publish new posts automatically to my Facebook page. I can probably live with that.

The boring art of testing hotspot bandwidth and battery life

I’m nearing the finish line (I hope) of an overdue update to the Wirecutter guide to WiFi hotspots. The research for that had me repeatedly subjecting an array of loaner hotspots from all four nationwide wireless carriers to tests of the two core metrics of bandwidth and battery life.

It hasn’t exactly been my most exciting work.

For bandwidth testing, I’ve continued to rely on Ookla’s Speedtest.net Web, Android and iOS apps to clock the download speeds, upload speeds and ping times each hotspot has served up. This is pretty much an industry-standard benchmark, and these apps are simple enough to run.

But getting data out of them is another thing:

  • The iOS app creates a .csv file you can open in any spreadsheet app that includes every relevant bit of data–date and time, GPS-derived location, WiFi network name, download/upload/ping measurements, shareable public link–and attaches it to an e-mail message.
  • The Android app also generates a .csv file–except that choosing to have it saved to your Google Drive leaves you with a .eml mail-attachment file. You have to e-mail it to yourself to get a usable .csv, at which point you discover that this export doesn’t include the name of the wireless network.
  • The Web app’s “Export” button yields a third type of .csv file, one without a record of the WiFi network name, your location, or a shareable link.
  • No, the option to create a Speedtest account won’t help–because you can’t log into that from the mobile apps.

Ookla is owned by PCMag publisher Ziff Davis, but that has yet to result in any corporate pressure to make exporting measurements less janky for the hardworking journalists at that and other Ziff tech media properties.

Testing hotspot battery life only requires recording the times you started and ended each trial. But because these things often run for 12 hours or more, it’s not realistic to tether a laptop to a hotspot and keep working nonstop until the hotspot battery expires and the connection drops.

To ensure my laptop would be keeping each hotspot working full time, I opened a page to NASA’s live YouTube channel. Beyond running up the social-media metrics for one of my favorite four-letter government agencies, keeping the browser on a single live channel avoids the risk of YouTube’s recommendations sending me off to some nutcase conspiracy hub.

Because I’m not always that smart, I didn’t think to check my laptop’s ability to log a wireless connection going offline until after I’d spent an hour and change watching one hotspot linger at 1% of a charge.

As a helpful StackExchange thread pointed out, that logged data awaits inside Windows. Type “Event Viewer” in the taskbar search, open that app, select “Applications and Services Logs” in the left-hand pane, double-click the center pane’s “Microsoft,” “Windows,” “UniversalTelemetryClient,” and “Operational” entries in succession, then select “Filter Current Log…” in the right-hand pane. Type “55” in the resulting dialog’s Event ID field, hit “OK” and you’ll see a series of entries.

Assuming you check this right after seeing that the laptop went offline, opening the most recent should reveal a properties field consisting of “Is the Internet available: false,” with the time corresponding to when the hotspot died.

Since I don’t have a Mac laptop, I’m not sure how you’d do this on one. A different StackExchange thread suggests a Terminal command, but that doesn’t work on my iMac–maybe because this aging desktop isn’t running the latest macOS edition. It would be ironic if you have to hit the command line on a Mac to perform a task that Windows lets you accomplish inside a graphical user interface–but the Windows Event Viewer app is mighty ugly itself, and neither operating system covers itself in glory in this aspect.

Google told me to put this blog on a diet

The screen real estate around these words should look a little neater now–not much thanks to my own editing instincts. Instead, I needed a scolding from Google.

That came from its PageSpeed Insights tool, a page you can use to check the performance of your own site or any other. It’s been around for years, but I didn’t think to use it until after I finally connected this site to Google’s Search Console webmaster tool last May (yes, even though I’ve been blogging here since 2011 and am supposed to be a professional tech journalist) and saw a prompt to try PageSpeed Insights in my results.

The results were not flattering: a mobile performance score of 47 out of 100, with desktop performance better but still subpar at 89. Scrolling down revealed a variety of flaws in this blog, some that I could correct with the limited tools of a free WordPress.com account and some that I could not.

I started with the first obviously fixable thing, image sizes. Google suggested that I convert such frequently-downloaded elements as the background image to “next-gen formats” like WebP or JPEG 2000. But instead of switching to files that Apple’s Safari browser can’t display, I opened the original photo for the background (a view of the Blue Ridge from a bike century ride in 2006) in my Mac’s GraphicConverter app and exported it with a lower image-quality setting that cut its size by a third at no visible cost.

That did not impress PageSpeed–my mobile score actually dropped to 44–so I moved on to the third-party code that Google reported had been getting in the way of my own content. It listed Facebook as a major offender, accounting for 207 milliseconds of delay. Removing the Facebook widget that you formerly saw in the right-hand sidebar boosted my mobile score to 53, with the desktop score essentially unchanged at 87.

(PageSpeed Insights scores fluctuate up and down with each test, so don’t get bent out of shape if yours drops by five for no apparent reason, at least not until you run the test again.)

Then I removed the Facebook and Twitter share buttons and elected to toss all of the share buttons except the tool to e-mail a link to the page. That edged the mobile score up to 58 and pushed the desktop score up to 96.

This pruning got me to look again at all the ads you see around here–and think about how low-rent so many of them are. I turned off the three “additional ad placement” options that had been salting each post with extra banners. That may cut into my ad revenue, but it’s already so thin I’d rather that my professional presence online not look quite so janky.

Having spun myself up fully into Marie Kondo mode, I returned to the sidebar and removed the Twitter widget (PageSpeed Insights had blamed Twitter code for 119 ms of delay) and some non-interactive links that only cluttered that part of the page.

The results of all this effort as calculated by PageSpeed Insights just now: scores of 76 on mobile and 99 on desktop. I hope you notice this blog loading a little quicker–and I trust you appreciate how this exercise has also rid my blog of Facebook’s tracking.

A better time of year to bikeshare

The arrival of fall around here means three things to me: pears replacing peaches at farmers’ markets, a chance to grow a second crop of arugula, and a notable increase in my Capital Bikeshare mileage.

Between the temperature dropping into the 50s and summer’s stagnant humidity finally lifting, I no longer have to worry about rolling up to my destination glistening dripping with sweat. Meanwhile, the fall colors on the trees has the city looking pretty great, even if the leaves don’t get as vibrant as in New England. So why not bike instead of taking Metro?

Over the last few years, the growing network of bike lanes and the continued expansion of Capital Bikeshare’s network has made this an easier proposition. And when I can dock a bike to end a rental and then take the same bike out–“dock surfing“–I can reach just about anyplace downtown or on Capitol Hill without paying any extra charges. You can’t say that for those increasingly expensive e-scooters.

(My usual stations to daisy-chain free rentals: 24th and Pennsylvania NW if I’m riding to downtown, Lincoln Memorial if I’m headed to the Hill.)

So I’m seeing more of Washington than usual, I’m getting some moderate exercise, and I’m saving money–I’ve already recouped almost all of the $85 annual fee in saved Metro fares. What’s not to like?

Well, the chance that some inattentive driver will hit me. I got a reminder of that risk two weeks ago when one driver merged abruptly into a bike lane ahead of my wife, leading to her stopping abruptly, crashing, and breaking her collarbone. Yes, again. Could you all please try harder to share the road?

Your Sunday chore: Cheer on Marine Corps Marathon runners

There’s a huge athletic event taking place in our nation’s capital this weekend that you don’t want to miss.

No, not the World Series (but how freaking amazing is that?!). The Marine Corps Marathon takes place Sunday in D.C. and Arlington, and watching that is a vastly cheaper than a ticket to Nationals Park. Plus, the runners could use your support.

If you live in Rosslyn, Georgetown or Crystal City, all neighborhoods through which the course runs, you’ll have little choice but to spectate. But between Metro and bikeshare, you should have plenty of chances to find a less-mobbed part of the course (read: not on the National Mall or in Rosslyn) to cheer on runners. My advice would be to find a spot later on in the course, when they’re more likely to appreciate the encouragement.

My longtime favorite spot has been the Virginia end of the 14th Street Bridge, a cruel stretch of concrete near the 20-mile mark that is one of the most brutal parts of the run. But two years ago, police turned away spectators there, so I had to bike over to Crystal City.

What if you don’t know anybody running? Just look at what they’re wearing. Lots of runners write their names on their shirts, so you can cheer them on directly instead of shouting variations of “Go runners!” and “You got this!” Many others will wear shirts with their college or other affiliations on them, which is your chance to give an on-brand shout-out.

That’s also your chance to set aside all your usual sports rivalries. As a Georgetown grad, I’m prepared to yell “Go Orange!” if I see somebody running in a Syracuse shirt or give a “Blue Devil!” shout to a runner in Duke attire… okay, the latter gesture might still make me feel a little dirty inside.

There is, however, one risk to this. Speaking from experience, seeing the determination etched into people’s faces may make you want to run the Marine Corps Marathon yourself.