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.

MWC malaise: why a canceled conference has me feeling crushed

For the first time since 2012, my winter won’t involve me spending a week soaking in the wireless industry at MWC. I wish I weren’t overstating things to say that I feel gutted about this.

GSMA, the organization behind the trade show earlier known as Mobile World Congress, canceled the conference that drew 109,000-plus people last year–a week and a half in advance, and because of fear instead of evidence. The novel coronavirus afflicting China is a real threat, but it’s also remained almost completely confined to that country. And two weeks ago, GSMA announced security measures that essentially blackballed everybody from mainland China who hadn’t already left the country.

FCB logo Camp NouBut then a sequence of companies with the resources to know better decided to pull out of the show anyway: Ericsson, LG, Sony, Cisco, Facebook, Nokia, Amazon, Intel, AT&T… and on and on. After enough bold-face names had self-ejected from MWC, the only suspense left was when GSMA would take the loss and the likely scorn of the Barcelona and Catalan governments that had rightly stated no health emergency existed.

I won’t eat too much of a financial loss. I got half of my Airbnb payment back, while my airfare will be good for a future United flight (spoiler alert: likely). Friends of mine who booked refund-proof flights and lodging are harder up (one’s out at least $2,000). Some of them have already said they’ll proceed with that week in Barcelona and get in meetings with industry types who also stuck with their travel arrangements.

I can’t justify that business proposition but do feel a little jealous of those people after my happy history in Barcelona. MWC 2013 was the first international business trip I self-financed, and that trip cemented BCN as one of my favorite airport codes to have on my calendar. The show provided a sweeping overview of phones, networks and apps around the world that I couldn’t get at CES. And its logistics–from the moving walkways connecting the halls of the Fira Gran Via to Barcelona’s extensive and efficient metro and commuter-rail network–made CES look even more inadequate in that department.

MWC opened my eyes to all the different ways the wireless industry works outside the U.S.–as in, I would have covered the market better at the Post if I’d made this trip sooner, except the paper was too cheap to spring for that. At first, I didn’t sell enough stories from MWC to recoup my own travel costs (granted, I was also getting paid a lot more then), but after a few years of practice I got a better grip on my MWC business model and started clearing a decent profit. Making this a successful business venture ranks as one of my prouder achievements as a full-time freelancer.

I also improved my travel-hacking skills from that first year, in which booking flights in January left me with a seven-hour layover in Brussels on the way there and a two-stop itinerary home with a tight connection in Zurich that shrank to 20 minutes when my flight left BCN late. MWC 2017, in which I was able to leverage a United upgrade certificate to ensconce myself in seat 2A on a Lufthansa A330 home to Dulles, may be my most comfortable business trip ever.

Barcelona sculptureThe time-zone gap between Spain and any possible editor in the States also allowed me to explore my new favorite Spanish city. I carved out hours to visit all of Antonio Gaudí’s landmarks–yes, you should visit Casa Milà and Sagrada Familia–and spent not enough time getting lost in streets that sometimes weren’t wide enough to allow my phone to get a solid GPS location.

Barcelona has its issues, like seemingly annual transit strikes and the elevated risk of pickpocketing. But getting to go there for work has been an immense privilege.

This year was supposed to extend this recent tradition, but instead it will represent an interruption–at best. As my friend and MWC co-conspirator Sascha Segan explains in this essay at PCMag, knifing this year’s installment could easily lead to MWC going to another city in Europe. Or not happening at all again.

That makes me sad. Seeing the world retreat in unreasoning fear makes me angry.

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.

From Pixel 1 to Pixel 3a

I changed smartphones this week without being forced to–my old phone hadn’t suffered any catastrophic failure or fallen into a weird cycle of malfunctions. Instead, I retired my first-generation Google Pixel because two years and change is a good run for a phone, and upgrading to a Pixel 3a with a better camera and superior network coverage would only cost $400 and change.

I could shop free of duress because my Pixel 1 has been the best smartphone I’ve ever owned. It’s taken a lot of great pictures, it’s had an almost-entirely crash-free existence, it’s benefited from every Google update almost as soon as each was released, its battery life has been fine (except for maybe the last few weeks, and obviously not at battery-devouring tech events like CES), and it’s survived multiple drops on hard floors that left all four corners scuffed.

The Pixel 3a I bought last week–after spending a couple of months trying out a loaner picked up at Google I/O in May–should share most of those virtues. It also cost about two-thirds the Pixel 1’s list price (although I was able to buy mine at a substantial discount when Google refunded the purchase price of the Nexus 5X that succumbed to a fatal bootloop cycle). And like the Pixel 1 but unlike the Pixel 2 and Pixel 3, this device includes a headphone jack, so I didn’t have to underwrite the gadget industry’s latest idiotic design-minimalism fetish.

The obvious upgrade with the 3a is its camera, which includes most of the optical hardware of the far more expensive Pixel 3. But because it also supports the low-frequency LTE band that T-Mobile has lit up over the past few years, this device should also deliver much better connectivity.

(I really hope I haven’t jinxed this purchase with the preceding two paragraphs.)

Finally, after struggling with earlier Android migrations, I have to give Google credit for easing this path. This time around, I only had to connect the two devices with a USB-C cable, start the migration process, and see some 13 minutes later that my app-icon layout had been copied over, after which I could sit through a tedious app-download process. That’s still not close to the simplicity of swapping iOS devices–like, why did my screen wallpaper not copy over?–but I’ll accept that added inconvenience if it means I can still have a phone with a headphone jack.

(No, I’m never letting that go. Why did you ask?)

TV-shopping bookmarks for cord-cutters

I had yet another story about how to watch baseball games online this week, which meant I had yet another round of checking the sites of streaming-TV services to see which regional sports networks they carry in various places.

That should be easy, but some of these “over the top” video providers don’t let you do this right on their home page. They may not even link to the relevant channel-finder page from anyplace obvious, and in one case a channel-finder feature lurks on a tech-support page.

So I had to open last year’s version of this cord-cutting story to find all the links I’d gathered then. To save me from having to do that again, and to spare you from some extra clicking around, here are those local-channel-lookup links:

DirecTV Now

FuboTV

Hulu with Live TV

PlayStation Vue

Sling TV

YouTube TV

You’re welcome. As a bonus, two more links:

• The Streamable put together a chart showing which services carry the regional sports networks of which baseball teams, which would have saved me a ton of time in researching my own post if only I’d known about it at the time.

•  CNet’s David Katzmaier put together an enormous Google spreadsheet showing which services carry which TV networks (the big four of ABC, CBS, Fox and NBC plus MyTV and the CW, with PBS stations remaining absent) in more than 200 TV markets. Unfortunately, it hasn’t been updated since August of 2018… but I can’t blame the authors for not diving back into what must have been an exhausting effort.

Here’s my Web-services budget

The annual exercise of adding up my business expenses so I can plug those totals into my taxes gave me an excuse to do an extra and overdue round of math: calculating how much I spend a year on various Web services to do my job.

The result turned out to be higher than I thought–even though I left out such non-interactive services as this domain-name registration ($25 for two years) and having it mapped to this blog ($13 a year). But in looking over these costs, I’m also not sure I could do much about them.

Google One

Yes, I pay Google for my e-mail–the work account hosted there overran its 15 gigabytes of free storage a few years ago. I now pay $19.99 a year for 100 GB. That’s a reasonable price, especially compared to the $1.99 monthly rate I was first offered, and that I took too long to drop in favor of the newer, cheaper yearly plan.

Microsoft Office 365

Getting a Windows laptop let me to opting for Microsoft’s cloud-storage service, mainly as a cheap backup and synchronization option. The $69.99 annual cost also lets me put Microsoft Office on one computer, but I’ve been using the free, open-source LibreOffice suite for so long, I have yet to install Office on my HP. Oops.

Evernote Premium

This is my second-longest-running subscription–I’ve been paying for the premium version of my note-taking app since 2015. Over that time, the cost has increased from $45 to $69.99. That’s made me think about dropping this and switching to Microsoft’s OneNote. But even though Microsoft owns LinkedIn, it’s Evernote that not only scans business cards but checks LinkedIn to fill in contact info for each person.

Flickr Pro

I’ve been paying for extra storage at this photo-sharing site since late 2011–back when the free version of Flickr offered a punitively-limited storage quota. This cost, too, has increased from $44.95 for two years to $49.99 a year. But now that Yahoo has sold the site to the photography hub SmugMug, the free tier once again requires serious compromises. And $50 a year doesn’t seem that bad, not when I’m supporting an indie-Web property instead of giving still more time to Facebook or Google.

Private Internet Access

I signed up for this virtual-private-network service two years ago at a discounted rate of $59.95 for two years, courtesy of a deal offered at Techdirt. Absent that discount, I’d pay $69.95, so I will reassess my options when this runs out in a few months. Not paying for a VPN service, however, is not an option; how else am I supposed to keep up on American news when I’m in Europe?

LastPass Premium

I decided to pay for the full-feature version of this password manager last year, and I’m already reconsidering that. Three reasons why: The free version of LastPass remains great, the premium version implements U2F two-step verification in a particularly inflexible way, and the company announced last month that the cost of Premium will increase from $24 a year to $36.

Combined and with multi-year costs annualized, all of these services added up to $258.96 last year. I suspect this total compares favorably to what we spend on news and entertainment subscriptions–but that’s not math I care to do right now.

Another part of the world where I need to use a VPN

I spent last week in London with my family–yes, actual vacation-esque time! It was great, except for when I was trying to keep up with news from back home.

My first stay across the Atlantic since the European Union’s General Data Protection Regulation went into force May 25 brought home the unpleasant reality of some U.S. sites’ continued struggles with this privacy law. And instead of experiencing this only briefly in a Virtual Private Network session on my iPad, I got a full-time dose of it.

The biggest problem is sites such as the Chicago Tribune and the Los Angeles Times that have blocked all European access instead of providing the privacy controls required by the GDPR.

That’s not the fault of the GDPR–its provisions were set two years ago–but is the fault of Tronc, the long-mismanaged news firm formerly known as Tribune Publishing. Tronc could afford to pay $15 million to former chairman Michael Ferro after he quit facing charges of sexual abuse but apparently couldn’t afford to hire any GDPR-qualified developers. I hope the LAT can fix that now that Tronc has sold the paper, but it may be a while before I can link to any Tribune stories without annoying European readers.

With my client USA Today, the issue isn’t as bad: It provides EU readers with a stripped-down, ad- and tracking-free version of the site, which you can see at right in the screenshot above. What’s not to like about such a fast, simple version? Well, I can’t see comments on my own columns, and simply searching for stories requires switching to Google… by which I mean, Bing, since right-clicking a Google search result doesn’t let you copy the target address, and clicking through to a Google result will yield an EU-specific USAT address.

The simplest fix for these and other GDPR-compliance glitches was to fire up Private Internet Access on my laptop and connect to one of that VPN service’s U.S. locations–yes, as if I were in China. It seems a violation of the Web’s founding principles to have to teleport my browser to another continent for a task as simple as reading the news, but here we are.

Please stop asking for my “best number”

Too many of my interactions with public-relations types and the people they represent conclude with a pointless question: “What’s your best number?”

That query is a waste of time because my phone number, 202-683-7948, should be obvious: It’s in the signature that appears at the end of almost every e-mail I send as well as on my business cards.

Besides, as a self-employed individual in the 21st century, I don’t use any other number for work.

My absence of a desk line should be obvious: Why bother when I already have a smartphone on my person at almost all times? But the number on my wireless plan isn’t my work number either.

You might see me call from a 703-area-code number if both WiFi connectivity and mobile broadband are awful, but there’s no upside to returning my call at those digits. If I have any cellular signal, calls to my work number will ring through to my cell–and even if my phone is offline, they’ll still reach the rest of my devices.

Yes, I’m one of those people using a Google Voice number, even after years of Google’s intermittent neglect of that service. I’ve had this GV number–again, 202-683-7948, which may be easier to remember as 202-OVERWIT–since 2007, when a friend got me an invite to the closed beta test of GrandCentral, the company Google bought before relaunching its service as Google Voice.

And not only do I have those digits mapped to my regular gadgets, they also reach me in WhatsApp and Signal. I would have done the same with WeChat but couldn’t–which turned out not to matter, since my cell number is invisible in that app.

I trust that’s cleared up how to reach me telephonically. Now can you all also remember that if I don’t pick up when you call, you’re supposed to either leave a voicemail or send a follow-up e-mail?

Bandwidth battles in China

SHANGHAI–Crowded gadget trade shows like CES and Mobile World Congress usually entail connectivity complaints. But when you put the gadget show in China, you level up the complexity, thanks to the need to run a Virtual Private Network app to preserve access to U.S. sites blocked by China’s Internet filters.

In theory–and in every PR pitch from a VPN service advertising itself as the surefire way to stop your ISP from tracking your online activity–that should add no difficulty to getting online. You connect, the VPN app automatically sets up an encrypted link to the VPN firm’s servers, and then you browse as usual.

PIA VPN exit-server menu

The reality that I’ve seen at CES Asia this week while using the Private Internet Access Windows and Android apps has been a good deal less elegant.

  • Often, the PIA app will connect automatically to the best available server (don’t be like me by wasting selecting a particular U.S. server when the app usually gets this right) to provide a usable link to the outside world. But it’s never clear how long that link will stay up; you don’t want to start a long VoIP call or Skype conference in this situation.
  • On other occasions, the app has gotten stuck negotiating the VPN connection–and occasionally then falls into a loop in which it waits increasingly longer to retry the setup. Telling it to restart that process works sometimes; in others, I’ve had to quit the app. For whatever reason, this has been more of a problem on my laptop than on my phone.
  • The WiFi itself has been exceedingly spotty whether I’ve used my hotel WiFi, the Skyroam Solis international-roaming hotspot I took (a review loaner that I really, really need to send back), the press-room WiFi or, worst of all, the show-floor WiFi. Each time one of those connections drop, the VPN app has to negotiate a new connection.

If you were going to say “you’re using the wrong VPN app”: Maybe I am! I signed up for PIA last year when the excellent digital-policy-news site Techdirt offered a discounted two-year subscription; since then, my client Wirecutter has endorsed a competing service, IVPN (although I can’t reach that site at the moment). Since I don’t have any other trips to China coming up, I will wait to reassess things when my current subscription runs out next April.

Also, it’s not just me; my friend and former Yahoo Tech colleague Dan Tynan has been running into the same wonkiness.

To compound the weirdness, I’ve also found that some connectivity here seems to route around the Great Firewall without VPN help. That was true of the press-room WiFi Thursday, for instance, and I’ve also had other journalists attending CES Asia report that having a U.S. phone roam here–free on Sprint and T-Mobile, a surcharge on AT&T or Verizon–yielded an unfettered connection.

At the same time, using a VPN connection occasionally left the CES Asia site unreachable. I have no idea why that is so.

What I do know is that I’ll very much appreciate being able to break out my laptop somewhere over the Pacific in a few hours and pay for an unblocked connection–then land in a country where that’s the default condition.

The wrong kind of practice with power and bandwidth management

After a week of having to worry about electricity and connectivity, I’ve spent today doing the same thing–but worse.

Tree down on wiresToday’s villains are not Mobile World Congress venues with inconsistent power-outlet placement and WiFi dead zones, but moving air molecules and a tree that wasn’t as solidly rooted as we thought.

Sometime before 6 a.m., the hurricane-force winds that have descended on the Northeast knocked over the large spruce tree in our front yard that had withstood the derecho and Sandy, and which an arborist last August had said only needed fertilizer and some treatment to curb mites.

Things could have been worse. The tree didn’t fall onto the front porch or our car, and it avoided smashing a neighbor’s vehicle on the street–because after its tumbling trunk snapped the power lines, the telecom wires below them held and broke its fall.

But that left me starting the workday with one fully charged laptop and another on its last 22 percent of a charge, a phone that was down to 75% from early-morning checks of the weather and news, an iPad at 20%, a loaner AT&T hotspot (for an upcoming update to the Wirecutter LTE-hotspots guide) below half a charge, and a few mostly-drained external chargers.

Windows 10 battery-life gaugeThinking that I should stick around our house to answer any questions from workers restoring power, I made it until around 3 p.m.

First I set the HP laptop that I had fortuitously remembered to plug in last night to the most conservative power settings Windows offered. I turned on the AT&T hotspot and signed the laptop and iPad onto its WiFi. Then I plugged the hotspot and my usual phone charger into the USB ports of the MacBook Air that had been mostly collecting dust since November’s laptop upgrade, but which could still serve as a backup charger.

After running down the Air, I dusted off two higher-capacity Mophie chargers that had shown up unbidden from different PR firms. They had next to no electricity left, because I’d stashed them in my home office’s closet after deciding to give them away to readers someday. But each trickled a little more of a charge into my phone and the hotspot, and the larger of the two also had a power outlet that afforded my laptop a little more time.

All of this let me limp along and get a column researched and partially written by around 3–with the last bit of work done in Google Docs’ offline mode after the hotspot died. By then, three things were apparent: My laptop would not make it another 30 minutes, nobody would show up to restore electricity while the winds were still hitting 50 mph, and I should have thought to recharge all of my gadgets last night at the first reports of a coming storm.

So I retreated to the same still-online neighbor’s house that my wife and our daughter had adjourned to Friday morning. We’ll sleep there tonight as our now-dead tree twists on wires in the wind and our house stays dark and cold. I would like to see all these things change Saturday.