Weekly output: password peril, mobile-hotspot help, Facebook’s Oversight Board

I had been holding out hope that I could return to business travel, even if just once before fall or winter, to cover America’s return to launching astronauts to space–SpaceX’s Demo-2 test flight of its Crew Dragon capsule, scheduled for May 27. I’d put in for a press pass and had a confirmed assignment from a name-brand client, and I was willing to figure out how I’d not lose money on the trip later on. But on Monday, I got the e-mail that many other journalists received, saying that NASA could not accommodate me at the Kennedy Space Center because social-distancing dictates required drastically limiting the number of press on site.

I’m not surprised and I’m not that upset. I’ve already seen three launches from the press site at KSC–the penultimate and final Space Shuttle launches and the February 2018 debut of the Falcon Heavy rocket–and that’s three more than I had any reasonable expectation of seeing 10 years ago.

5/5/2020: We still stink at passwords, and there’s really no excuse, Fast Company

I got an advance look at a study published by LastPass, the password-manager service that I used to use. The study confirmed earlier reports that people reuse way too many passwords but reported curiously high adoption of two-step verification–but did not gauge how many of us now employ password managers.

5/8/2020: All of the COVID-19 Data Upgrades That Cell Phone Carriers Are Offering, Wirecutter

I inventoried the ways that the big four wireless carriers as well as their prepaid brands and their major resellers have made it easier to share your smartphone’s bandwidth with nearby devices via its mobile-hotspot function. As you can see in the comments, it looks like I got one service’s information wrong; Google Fi has raised the limit at which it will slow down your connection, but not in a way that will lower most customers’ bills.

5/9/2020: Facebook’s Oversight Board, Al Araby

As one third of a panel discussion on this Arabic-language news network, I talked about Facebook’s new Oversight Board and its odds of changing things at the social network. My main point: While this equivalent of a Supreme Court is empowered to reverse Facebook decisions to take down or keep up content, Facebook’s automated rankings of the priority of content appear to be outside its orbit.

Weekly output: digital divides, copyright meets AI, COVID-19 tracing

This was my first Easter spent in the D.C. area since… sometime in the mid 1990s? I would like to know a more exact date, but those years passed when I still used paper calendars that I lost in a prior millennium.

4/6/2020: Gaps in Internet access, Al Jazeera

The Arabic-language news channel had me on to talk about inconsistent Internet access–some the fault of dysfunctional economies, some the fault of governments deciding that cutting off the Internet will help them manage domestic dissent. The next day, an e-mail from the advocacy group AccessNow scolded Qatar and its neighboring Gulf states for blocking WhatsApp, FaceTime and other Internet-calling apps.

4/9/2020: Who Wrote That Hit Song? It Depends on How Human They Are., Glimmer

My second post for the Web-creativity shop Glitch’s equivalent of an inflight mag covered how copyright law should treat works created by artificial intelligence. I haven’t had a chance to get into the weeds about intellectual-property policy like this since I was last writing for the Disruptive Competition Project seven years ago; I’m glad there’s still a market for that sort of wonky work.

4/12/2020: Using apps to trace COVID-19, Al Jazeera

AJ had me on a second time this week to talk about the potential of smartphone apps to help trace patterns of novel-coronavirus transmission–without giving your location history up to Google or the government or even sharing your name with the people you might have occupied some personal space with after catching this virus.

Weekly output: YouTube in standard definition, tech and the coronavirus

Another Sunday, another week with zero professional events outside my home and only one trip outside my neighborhood. That was a run Monday to a garden center when it looked like that category of retail might have to shut; it turns out that I didn’t need to make that drive and pick out a cherry tree in the rain, but at least this tree seems to be off to a good start in the front yard.

3/25/2020: YouTube switches to standard definition video. Will that make a difference?, USA Today

I filed this two hours and 49 minutes after my editor okayed my column suggestion and asked if I could file it that day. It’s nice to know that I haven’t completely lost my ability to turn around copy that fast–including time to get quotes from four subject-matter experts.

3/26/2020: “Rob Pegoraro on Tech and the Coronavirus” (Two Think Minimum), Tech Policy Institute

I returned to this Washington think tank’s podcast for the first time since 2018 to talk about the effects of the coronavirus pandemic on working and networking, how Internet providers are holding up, and my experience working the March 3 primary election. You can listen to my conversation with TPI’s Scott Wallsten and Sarah Oh–conducted via the Zoom videoconference app instead of in person like the last time–in the SoundCloud embed below.

Housework when nobody leaves the house: The dishes are never done

We’re now wrapping up two weeks of staying at home together as a family. It feels more like a month, and I mostly blame the dishwasher for that.

I’m no stranger to housework after almost nine years of working from home full-time. But having everybody else in the family cooped up at home to avoid the coronavirus is a different thing. The biggest surprise, as I suppose many of you have been learning, is how often you run the dishes when everybody eats every meal at home.

For the three of us, that’s at least nine sets of utensils, glasses and plates or bowls each day. Running the dishwasher that we’d idly thought of replacing because of how long it takes has become an every-three-days proposition at best. And now I really hope this appliance that conveyed with the house almost 16 years ago does not pick this season to break on us.

Laundry, meanwhile, has become surprisingly easier. Why? When I rarely leave the house and never do so to meet anybody for professional reasons, I might as well wear the same pair of pants at least twice before washing them. I’m also finding myself okay with getting two days out of a shirt while the temperatures stay below the 70s.

And as long as I don’t work too hard gardening during what are supposed to be brief breaks from work. Fortunately or unfortunately, my seasonal outdoor distraction from my occupation is even stronger this spring. Because removing some plants and moving others around to make our house look better seems like one of the few things I can control in my life right now. 

Weekly output: backup bandwidth for working from home, WFH advice, Twitter coronavirus rules, ISP data caps

The demolition of this spring’s business-travel schedule concluded Friday with the cancellation of the Geoint 2020 Symposium, a late-April conference in Tampa at which I was set to write up talks for the show daily as I did at last year’s event in San Antonio. This will hurt financially in a way that all of my other canceled conferences haven’t–those few days of deadline writing would have yielded a nice big check on top of the paid travel. Yet I feel like I can’t really complain when I look at how much uglier business has gotten for news organizations in just the past few weeks.

(Sorry if I’m getting you down. Please enjoy a picture of cherry blossoms, taken far from any crowds in D.C.)

3/16/2020: Working or learning from home: Telecoms give boost in bandwidth to keep us online, USA Today

I scrambled to write this Friday afternoon as telecoms began announcing moves to liberalize their data caps and other usage restrictions to accommodate all the Americans newly-forced to work or learn from home. Then I filed an update Saturday morning with news about two wireless carriers giving subscribers a lot more mobile-hotspot data.

3/18/2020: Confessions of a Work-from-Home Pro, Presidential Management Alumni Association

I still miss the Web chats I used to do for the Post, so I was happy to accept the invitation of this group for federal workers to do a group Zoom chat about the finer points of working from home. I hope I was able to help, although I don’t know if there are any great answers for people who live in small residences that don’t allow for much of a separate “work” area.

PMAA says they’ll post a recording of the session soon; when they do, I’ll add a link to it here it is.

3/20/2020: Twitter’s new coronavirus rules, Al Jazeera

The Arabic-language news network had me on via Skype to talk about Twitter’s new rules governing coronavirus disinformation. Although doing this remotely saved me a trip to the D.C. office, it also meant I struggled to hear the translator on top of the anchor; a couple of times, I had to hope I’d correctly heard his rendition of whatever she’d said in Arabic.

3/21/2020: The coronavirus might have just killed ISP data caps, Fast Company

I revisited the news I’d covered for USAT by asking several Internet providers and a few telecom analysts about the odds of now-waived data caps returning; the ISPs didn’t comment, but the analysts all agreed that they were most likely a coronavirus casualty that can’t be revived.

Updated 4/9/2020 to add a link to video of my session in PMAA’s wonderfully-named “Couchella” series. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

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.