Weekly output: Coffee with a Journalist, free PBS streaming, Microsoft report on election meddling, Oracle buying TikTok

After returning to the skies Friday, Sunday saw me return to a part of a bike trail I’d neglected for shamefully long–the Washington & Old Dominion trail west of Arlington. I’m so glad I decided to bike for longer than usual today.

9/8/2020: Coffee with a Journalist: Rob Pegoraro, Fast Company, OnePitch

I recorded my conversation with host Beck Bamberger in mid-August for this PR-service firm’s podcast. Listen in and you’ll learn a few things about how I work, where ideas come from and what sort of PR pitches I find of interest, or at least not annoying.

9/8/2020: You Can Now (Probably) Stream Your Local PBS Station For Free, Forbes

I came to this story a few days late, but so did everybody else, thanks to the apparent absence of any PR effort by PBS on behalf of its introduction of free live streaming of its affiliates in almost 90 markets. I updated the post after publication to note PBS’s quick addition of support for Apple TV as well as its iOS, Android and Kindle Fire apps and to correct one error in the original writeup.

9/11/2020: Microsoft: Hackers from Russia, China and Iran targeted the presidential elections, Al Jazeera

The Arabic-language news network asked if I could comment on Thursday’s report from Microsoft finding continued attempts by Russia, China and Iran to meddle with the election. As you may be able to tell from the background, I recorded this in an airport–Columbus, the midpoint of Friday’s 9/11 observance. Without a tripod handy, I realized I could use the outside pocket on the old United Airlines amenity kit I use to stash cables and chargers to hold my phone steady.

9/13/2020: Oracle buying TikTok, Al Jazeera

AJ’s English-language news network had me on live Sunday night to talk about the unexpected outcome of the Trump administration’s campaign to force a sale of TikTok’s U.S. operations: Oracle will make that purchase, despite its lack of experience running consumer apps, much less a social network. I don’t see how that can rate as good news for any TikTok user.

Updated 9/16/2020 to add my Coffee with a Journalist appearance, which I’d forgotten to add mainly because it had been that long since I recorded my spot. 

An unlikely return to the skies

Weeks spent wondering when I might next get on a plane turned into months–and then that wait ended a little after 7 a.m. Friday, when I boarded a flight from National Airport to Newark.

I had no personal or business appointment near EWR. I just had my habit developed over the last nine years of flying on Sept. 11–plus a stash of future flight credit on United with no imminent use, a growing despondency over my grounded status, an empty schedule Friday, and enough research to establish that I could take a day trip then on largely-empty planes for a reasonable fare.

Commercial aviation’s pandemic-wracked status made this short-notice jaunt possible, in that I didn’t book Friday’s itinerary until Wednesday. The price of procrastination was a little complexity: The cheapest itinerary that would let me leave my city and altitude and arrive home in time for dinner without brittle connections had me flying from National to Newark to Columbus back to Newark and then home to Dulles.

That’s a bit ridiculous, but as a card-carrying avgeek I could not turn it down.

The flights themselves were fine and seemed safe. I spent more time near more random people making my grocery-store visits this week than I did up in the air, and airplanes have much better air ventilation and filtration. It helped that my frequent-flyer status on United allowed my upgrades to clear on all four legs–but note that a seat up front doesn’t get you much more in these pandemic days than extra personal space. I kept my mask on except to have a beverage or a snack on each flight, and everybody near me did the same.

But the real reward consisted of the chances to appreciate the memorial United employees once again set up at EWR to commemorate the crews of UA 93 and UA 175, soak in the post-departure perspective of a Manhattan skyline that doesn’t match the one I knew up to Sept. 11, 2001, and treasure returning safely to one of my two home airports.

Weekly output: a 5G reality check, sports network fees without sports

Yesterday afforded us the rare privilege of several hours spent in a different part of the greater Washington area–Harpers Ferry. That historic town at the confluence of the Potomac and the Shenandoah is as picturesque they say, and it’s close enough that I have zero excuse not to have visited it before. On the other hand, it’s good that after 30-plus years around here I’m still discovering new places.

9/4/2020: Two promising 5G trends: $200 5G phones and unlimited home broadband, Fast Company

My coverage of the scaled-back IFA tech show got an unexpected boost when Qualcomm offered Fast Company a chance to quiz their president Cristiano Amon about their announcements at that event. I enjoyed my conversation with the executive I’d met IRL at an IFA reception last year, and I also appreciated getting some realistic talk about which parts of the 5G formula actually look to be mass-market material on a global scale.

9/6/2020: NBA, NHL, MLB fans sidelined: Will TV subscribers ever get money back after coronavirus shortened seasons?, USA Today

I wrote an update to the column I did in April that didn’t break an enormous amount of news–AT&T’s reply almost matched the one they provided then word-for-word. But I did get some more specific assurances from Comcast about when subscribers might get compensation for months of paying sports-network fees that have not brought anywhere near the usual quota of live sports.

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.

Weekly output: password managers, exposure-notification apps, talking tech with Mark Vena

Six months ago, I expected to be busy tonight packing for the IFA tech trade show. But although that conference in Berlin is proceeding on a drastically-scaled-down basis, I’m not flying to Germany tomorrow because of the European Union’s ban on Americans traveling to the EU. Given how thoroughly we’ve botched this pandemic, I can’t blame them for imposing that restriction.

8/24/2020: Extra security or extra risk? Pros and cons of password managers, TechRepublic

I shared my experience with password managers–mainly LastPass and 1Password–with TechRepublic’s Veronica Combs for this overview of the advantages and disadvantages of these services.

8/25/2020: COVID-19 tracking apps, supported by Apple and Google, begin showing up in app stores, USA Today

Writing a lengthy report for O’Reilly about contact-tracing apps did not mean I could write this much shorter piece from memory and my existing notes. In addition to getting useful adoption data from Virginia’s Department of Public Health about its COVIDWISE app, I also reported that VDH plans to support a national key-server project from the Association of Public Health Laboratories that will let these state-developed apps relay and receive warnings of potential COVID-19 exposure across state lines.

8/28/2020: SmartTechCheck Podcast (8-28-20), Mark Vena

I talked about exposure-notification apps, the future of tech events like IFA, 5G wireless and Apple silicon with my analyst pal at Moor Insights & Strategy–another tech type who would have been packing for Berlin tonight but is instead grounded. You may notice a break in the recording about halfway through, when I had to get a glass of water so I could resume speaking normally. Note to self: Before sitting down to record a 45-minute podcast, make sure a glass of water is on the desk.

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.

Weekly output: exposure notification apps, Saudi dissidents exposed by Twitter breach, social platforms and politicians

Facing yet another weekend with little to set itself apart from those before, I homebrewed a batch of beer Friday night. Those four hours of work mean I can spend another three hours bottling all this ale next weekend–but then I should have about five gallons of beer taking up space in the basement.

8/17/2020: Privacy Optimization Meets Pandemic Tracking, O’Reilly Media

The report on coronavirus-tracing apps that I filed in draft form in early July–the first assignment I’ve had since college to be budgeted in terms of pages instead of words or column inches–finally got published. You can download a free copy of this 19-page evaluation of the potential of mobile software built on the Apple/Google Exposure Notification API by providing a minimal level of employer-related data.

8/19/2020: Twitter breach led to arrests of Saudi dissidents, Al Jazeera

The Qatar-based news network had me on to discuss Ryan Gallagher’s report for Bloomberg about how a 2015 case of Saudi spies working at Twitter led to arrests of dissidents in Saudi Arabia. The point I made–which hopefully came through in the live overdubbing into Arabic–is that Twitter can’t allow completely anonymous use if it’s going to police fake accounts, so it needs to ensure that only well-vetted employees can see the personally identifying information of its users.

8/20/2020: We Think Social Platforms Censor Political Views. Because Politicians Want Us To., Forbes

President Trump served up a news peg for this writeup of a study from the Pew Research Center about perceptions of social platforms’ treatment of political speech, and not just by posting his usual complaints about the unfairness of Twitter. Instead, he essentially played footsie in a Wednesday-evening press conference with the QAnon conspiracy-theory cult that Twitter and Facebook now rightly consider harmful.

The wrong kind of endless summer

Today is Aug. 22, and I need to look at the lock screen of my phone more than usual to confirm that fact.

Months after the novel-coronavirus pandemic’s swift demolition of my business-travel schedule, the days and weeks blur into one another. Not only has no work travel since appeared on my calendar, personal travel has vanished too.

Visiting my mom and brother in Massachusetts became a non-starter once that state declared a 14-day quarantine for arrivals (you’re exempt if you can produce a negative COVID-19 test result from no more than 72 hours before your entrance, but good luck with that turnaround time). We thought about visiting my wife’s family in the Bay Area but decided to hold off on spending that much time in airports and airplanes, and now the latest bout of wildfires make a visit there ill-advised for anybody.

And we never got it together to plan any other trip anywhere because of [gestures weakly] all of this.

So for the first time since… ugh, 1993, I will go nowhere for the summer. And back then, at least I had plenty of opportunities to leave my sad Crystal City apartment and get lost in the city.

This summer offers almost nothing: no lunchtime panels, no evening receptions, no weekend parties, not much of anything aside from such brief escapes as a timed-ticket visit to the National Zoo or a crab feast on a neighbor’s deck. Lately, I can’t even count on the arrival of the mail to remind me that it’s Saturday versus Sunday.

The only respite has come from, of all the things, the weather, which has mixed things up with a delightfully cool spell over the last week and change. Opening the front door to temperatures in the 70s has let me pretend I’ve woken up in California or Europe–until seeing the untidy state of the lawn reminds me of overdue chores here.

Having written all that, I feel utterly unentitled to any pity. The three of us may be growing weary of all this time cooped up at home, but lots of people have never had the money or the time off to go anywhere fun for vacation. And many others have been treated exponentially worse by this accursed pandemic.

Yesterday, I was chatting online with a friend who has been recovering from some severe depression this summer. Not quite knowing what to write, I typed this: “This entire year… I think if we can all get through it, nothing will ever seem as hard.”

God, I hope that’s true.

Weekly output: Facebook and politically-tied local news, smartphone plans

This week was a lot less hectic than the week before, and yet most of the items on my household to-do list remain undone.

8/13/2020: No, Facebook Isn’t Getting Political Clickbait Out Of Its News Tab, Forbes

I took a closer look at a new Facebook policy about political propaganda disguised as news and found two huge holes in it. I was pleasantly surprised to see the tech-news aggregator Techmeme give this post a shout-out, but a plug from that influential site doesn’t seem to have graced me with a lot of extra page views.

8/13/2020: The Best Cell Phone Plans, Wirecutter

This update to the smartphone-plans guide I’ve been maintaining since 2014 leads with the same two picks as before, but the Verizon plan we endorse as the best choice for most people is no longer limited to a single line, while T-Mobile’s advantage for high data use includes a big lead in usable 5G connectivity. (We thought about giving our best-for-most-people nod to an AT&T plan that offered more data but cost more, but “don’t buy more than you need” is a big Wirecutter principle.) This update also benefited from a more systematic process of ranking all of the services we considered in 11 different categories, from coverage to to cost to customer-satisfaction scores.

Race with a capital B and a capital W

The Shift key is now getting more work on journalists’ keyboards, thanks to this summer’s sweeping adoption by news organizations of the custom of capitalizing Black and, often, White, when describing a person’s race.

Yeah, it looked weird to me too at first.

When you’ve always typed a word one way, changing it absent new evidence can feel forced. I remember my college paper’s editorial board discussing whether to capitalize the “b” in “black” and then voting against it, and I’m sure I was among the no votes.

I’m also sure about who wasn’t among any of the votes: actual Black people.

How to describe fellow human beings of an enormous variety of cultures and religions with one easily-observable characteristic that others without that complexion often fixate on so they can put all these people into one racial basket? 

“African-American” isn’t bad, but it implies an other-ness to Americans whose ancestors may have been in the United States for centuries longer than the ancestors of White people whom almost nobody labels “European-American.” (You can call me that if you want, but only because of my Irish passport.) And for many Black Americans, the genealogical trail stops on this side of the Atlantic, courtesy of the Middle Passage not yielding the documentation that came with the vessels on which my grandparents and great-grandparents came to Ellis Island from the 1910s onward.

As a catch-all term, African-American also fits poorly for more recent immigrants with family trees rooted on this side of the Atlantic. See, for example, presumptive Democratic vice-presidential nominee Sen. Kamala Harris (D.-Calif.), whose half-Jamaican, half-Indian ancestry led a relative to ask on Facebook how she could be African-American. A much less polite debate has boiled over on the Wikipedia entry for Harris.

Lower-case-b “black” fails in a similar manner if you write it next to an equally broad demographic description like “Asian” or “Latin.” It doesn’t seem weird to capitalize other ethnicities, but not the one we seem to talk about most often? 

So Black it is, however belatedly. What about us paler folks? Do we write “white” in lowercase as one might lowercase “brown” when describing most people without European heritage?

I now say no. One reason, as the Washington Post observed in a note announcing its style change, is that “White also represents a distinct cultural identity in the United States.” But hold the mayo jokes, please: What that item left for a later Post podcast to observe is that whiteness has often amounted to the powerful absence of race.

As in, race is something for other people. If you don’t note somebody’s race when describing them, they must be White, and White people in the conversation may breathe a little easier knowing that they’re not about to slide into some uncomfortable conversation about race. Being White is the default setting that you don’t have to adjust or even acknowledge. That is a real thing that we should stop pretending doesn’t exist.

And as that Post podcast’s nuanced discussion reminded me, this issue of how we label these differences that exist far more in our minds than in actual human biology is fascinating. I wish my old Post colleague Bill Walsh were still around to join this conversation; I’m sure the most erudite copy editor I’ve known would have something smart to say.