I, cat herder

Sunday will mark our fourth month in the cat-American demographic. Adopting a cat is only one of the many unanticipated consequences of pandemic life, but no other has left the same dent in my afternoons.

As in, getting a cat means I can’t enjoy my usual catnapping. The lounge chair that has served me so well for postprandial repose is now largely the property of the newest member of our family… and like any good cat daddy, I am okay with that, I guess.

We didn’t have cat adoption on our to-do list back in March, but as the weeks ground on, our daughter kept making the case for a pet. We understood that a cat would be on the low-maintenance end of the spectrum, so when the Humane Rescue Alliance’s site listed a domestic shorthair up for adoption, we proceeded.

The first few weeks with Abel home were tricky. (We don’t know the backstory to the name, but I assume it means he’s down to eight lives.) He was extremely skittish and spent most of his time in the safe space we’d set up in a closet–and we all paid for getting too close with scratches. But then he warmed up to our abode and has since shown a remarkable ability to find different spots in which to nap.

One of his favorite locations continues to be the chair I used to call mine. Abel will curl up there, soak in the afternoon light, and then settle into a sort of squeaky snoring. For at least an hour. The feline social engineering that cats have developed to get humans to dote on them is really something to see.

When Abel is awake, he enjoys pouncing on various household objects. Despite a lack of depth perception from one eye never developing properly, he can be remarkably fierce in attack mode; if he ever finds any of the mice that have occasionally surfaced in the basement, they’re goners. Abel also likes playing with cables and wires of any sort, so I can’t go a day without having to shoo him away from trying to paw at or nibble on my laptop’s charging cable.

I also now have a much better grasp of the unintentional comedic potential of cats. Abel and I have figured out how to play a form of soccer that involves me rolling a wine cork to him, him gnawing on it and then rolling it back, and then me passing it back to repeat the cycle. He’s also learned how to vault himself onto my desk, then slouch behind the computer and ignore my entreaties to vacate my workspace.

I would like to have contributed more cat imagery to the Internet by now. But another thing I’ve realized in my new cat-person lifestyle is that getting a non-blurry shot of an animal that embodies “short attention span” is not as easy as the pros make it look.

Same t-shirt, different day

Wednesday was like Sunday for one unlikely reason: I wore the same t-shirt both days without a wash day in between. The same situation applies to today, except I don’t remember which day I had put aside the barely worn t-shirt that I threw on this morning.

Folded t-shirts in a drawerThis kind of clothing recycling is usually unthinkable in August here. But between the novel-coronavirus pandemic having nuked all of my work social schedule, most of my other excuses to leave home vanishing, and the weather being so unseasonably cool it lets me pretend I’ve traveled someplace, I can get away with this sad little lifehack.

It may be somewhat sadder that I’m not taking advantage of this sartorial judgment-free zone to get into some deep cuts from a t-shirt set that goes back to the 1980s. (Learning the Marie Kondo t-shirt fold spared me from having to cull this collection… which I know is completely antithetical to the KonMari ethos.) But breaking out a Reagan Decade-vintage concert t-shirt for anything short of an ’80s-tied gathering seems wrong.

Instead, I keep going back to favorites from the last 15 or so years: the not-really-free shirts I got for going to conferences like the Online News Association’s gatherings and XOXO, the less expensive freebies I’ve picked up at Nats games and at running or cycling events, even some shirts I’ve paid for. That includes the most recent acquisition you can see in the photo here: one from the late, great Post Pub.

(I don’t know why I didn’t make the effort to buy an Iota t-shirt when I had the chance.)

None of these t-shirts make much of a fashion statement, but they all feel comfortable and comforting after years of wear and impose almost no cognitive load. Collectively, they’re my low-budget answer to Steve Jobs’ black mock turtleneck.

Unlike Jobs, I can’t expect to make this look work for my occasional professional appearance. Fortunately, it’s difficult to put much wear into a button-down t-shirt in a 10-minute TV hit via Skype or even an hour-long Zoom panel. So I just might be able to get through summer without having to wash those shirts at all.

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.

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.

I’m finally getting paid by the click, more or less

My byline showed up at a new place this morning: Forbes, where I’m going to be covering the intersections of media, policy and technology. My first post unpacks AT&T’s probably-doomed attempt to boost its HBO Max streaming video service by exempting it from its data caps.

Writing about tech policy is nothing new for me, but this freelance client brings a different model of compensation, plus some self-inflicted dents to its reputation.

The publication I once knew as a glossy magazine that branded itself a “Capitalist Tool” did not cover itself with glory as it transitioned to the Web. It leaned way too far into the outside-contributor model under former editor Lewis D’Vorkin, flooding its pages with content churned out by writers who were often unvetted and unpaid and sometimes flat-out unqualified.

So when my friend Wayne Rash started writing there last year and encouraged me to come along, I had to quiz him at length about his experience. Then I talked to another recent addition to the site, analyst Carolina Milanesi, as well as one of its more senior contributors, tech journalist Larry Magid. They all pronounced Forbes a worthwhile outlet that was no longer a churnalism warehouse.

So I got on the phone with Dawn Chmielewski, the media editor there. I’ve known Dawn since she was covering tech at the Los Angeles Times when I was doing the same at the Washington Post, and seeing Forbes hire her last January had already raised my estimation of the place. She explained the steps they’d taken to professionalize their contributor system, including booting a bunch of the old contributors, as well as the pay structure.

That aspect, of particular importance to me, involves a minimum payment for five posts a month that would represent… a per-word rate I wouldn’t want to talk about. But traffic above a certain level brings a steady increase in income, and the page views that come from repeat visitors count for considerably more.

Aside from the short-lived micro-blogging platform Sulia, no other clients have paid me along these lines. But I can tell you that at almost every place I’ve written, including the Post, I’ve had editors cite my page views as a key metric in my value as a journalist and send me spreadsheets showing just how my stuff had done in recent months. And I’ve had editors turn down pitches explicitly because previous posts on the same topics did not get enough clicks.

Remember that every time you see journalists huff that they don’t get paid by the click. Stories get assigned on the basis of traffic all the time, and journalists can lose their jobs for the same reason. Making this a direct component of compensation is at least more transparent–as is the fact that each story at Forbes shows its page views above the headline.

As I write this, my debut only has 408 views. In the context of a Saturday-morning post that didn’t break news, I’d rate that as not great, not terrible. And I have time to figure this out, given that business at other clients has slowed or, in the case of Yahoo Finance, ground to a halt.

In six months, I may decide that this experiment–and its key benefit of letting me write and publish as I see fit instead of waiting for an editor to okay a pitch and then edit my copy–was worth it. Or I may put this down as another case of my successfully finding something that didn’t work. Either way, I suspect I’ll know a lot more about the dynamics of online readership after seeing my metrics move in real time on a site with an exponentially larger audience than this blog.

How not to order online for in-store pickup

As a student of online retail, I’m occupationally obliged to try a newly-touted shopping option from a big-name retailer. And as one of the least efficient Home Depot shoppers ever born, I’ll do a lot to avoid walking up and down aisles for an hour to find a particular widget.

So when I realized I had an intersection of limited time for shopping with a growing to-do list of home repairs, I decided to take Home Depot up on its invitation to let the employees at the nearest location grab the items on my shopping list. I’d pay in advance, and then I could pick up my purchases on the way back from another errand I already had on my schedule.

Of course, none of that happened as I’d hoped.

The promised same-day pickup came and went, which I’d accepted upfront as a risk given the generalized logistical hell of life in the novel-coronavirus pandemic.

But after 48 hours with no update on what Home Depot had done with my money, I thought I should try to get an update. Texting the number on my e-mailed receipt, however, yielded this disheartening and unexplained auto-reply: “To support the high volume of help requests resulting from COVID-19, we have temporarily suspended messaging services.”

I tried calling next. After spending 25 minutes on hold, most of that featuring recorded reminders that I could order online and pick up in store, the call dropped. I also tried calling the store directly; after 11 minutes on hold, that call also went into the bit bucket. I tweeted my annoyance at this display of botched customer relationship management and moved on for the day.

Two days later, I must have been in a mood for more punishment, since I tried calling the Home Depot customer-service line again. This time, I only had to sit through 17 minutes of hold music before my call got dumped.

My tweet about this latest fascinating development drew the attention of one of Bernie Sanders’ more devout fans, and I spent the next few hours getting roasted for my alleged selfish disregard for the plight of Home Depot’s workers.

I thought I’d been pretty clear in trying to complain about a broken CRM stack that took customers’ money and offered no hint about when they’d get the items they’d tried to purchase. But I have been on Twitter way too long to be surprised to see context crumble there.

The next morning, Home Depot e-mailed to say that my same-day pickup was ready, a good five days after I’d clicked a purchase button. My receipt of this message was my cue to remember one item that I’d forgotten to put on this order, a short stretch of water hose to replace the leaking connector on a hose reel.

And then I waited until the next afternoon to stop by Home Depot’s Seven Corners location to pick up my purchases. On arriving there, I realized that the window-screen repair kit I’d ordered did not include the screen itself, just the frame. I could have known that in advance by, you know, reading the kit’s description online–but instead I had to spend a little more time meandering around the place.

Anyway, here’s the important part of the story: The employees in this store were great, as usual.

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.

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.

Three more erased events: SXSW, Google I/O, Collision

Yet another set of travel plans got sucked into a coronavirus-fueled jet engine this week. On Tuesday, Google announced that it would cancel its annual I/O developer conference, Friday morning saw Web Summit pull the plug on the Collision conference in Toronto, after which Friday afternoon brought the cancellation of SXSW

And now my business-travel schedule for the first quarter of the year looks as empty as it did back in Q1 of 2007.

I expected the I/O news. As an event that draws a global audience and is hosted by a large tech company with preexisting image problems, I/O seemed doomed the second Facebook said it would scrub the F8 developer conference that was set to happen a week before I/O. (Those of you still hoping to go to Apple’s WWDC developer conference would be well advised to book fully-refundable airfare and lodging.) 

I was also prepared for the axe to fall on SXSW, just because of the overriding attention to it as one large conference this month that had yet gotten coronavirus-canceled–and all of the tech companies that had already bailed. But it still took an order from Austin’s government banned events of more than 2,500 people to kill this year’s festival and deprive me of my annual overdose of tacos and BBQ.

Collision, however, surprised me. That conference was scheduled for June 22 through 25, which in a strictly medical sense would have left plenty of time to gauge the situation. But I suspect that the organizers were already considering how many speakers had or would pull out after their employers banned employee travel, and so made the decision early to run the conference online instead.

I told them I’m willing to moderate whatever panels they need, but count me as a skeptic of this approach. A “digital conference”–more accurately read as “webinar”–is no substitute for the unexpected in-person connections you make at a good conference.

I would like to see this event-losing streak end. One of the things I treasure as a self-employed professional is the freedom to go to interesting places for work. I also count on conferences to offset all the Me Time that working from home full-time affords me.

But as the past few weeks have made clear, that’s not up to me. The only travel I have booked that isn’t subject to getting scratched by risk-averse tech corporations is a trip in early April to see my in-laws over our kid’s spring break. Taking off from Dulles that morning will feel like a victory.