2021 in review: return to flight

The course of this year abounded in bumps–from the horrifying sight of an attempted coup at the Capitol six days into January to the stubborn, vaccine-refusal-fueled persistence of the pandemic. But 2021 was still not 2020, and I refuse to brush that aside.

The most important dates on my calendar this year had no equivalent on last year’s: my first, second and booster shots of a coronavirus vaccine. Those Moderna doses helped give me so much of my life back, and I’ve tried to repay that continuing to volunteer at vaccination clinics.

They also allowed my writing to feature something last seen in January of 2020: datelines. My first travel for an assignment came in July, when I set out on a 1,000-plus mile road trip for PCMag’s Fastest Mobile Networks report. That was followed in August by a transatlantic jaunt to Estonia and back, a quick September visit to Miami Beach to moderate my first in-person panels since February of 2020, an October reunion with Online News Association friends, and November trips to Lisbon for Web Summit and to the Big Island of Hawaii for Qualcomm’s Snapdragon Tech Summit (note that organizers paid my travel costs for all of those events except the ONA gathering).

The long days I spent drive testing wireless networks for PCMag paid off a second time when the editors asked if I’d be interested in doing more work there. That solved a problem I had when I ended my experiment in writing for Forbes–where to cover tech-policy developments–but this gig has since allowed me to write about such non-political subjects as a test drive of a $120,000+ battery-electric Mercedes.

This year also saw me write for several new places–always a good thing for a freelancer, also a key factor in 2021’s income exceeding 2020’s by a welcome margin–while last week marked my 10th anniversary as a USA Today tech columnist. That’s approaching the length of my tenure as a Washington Post tech columnist, which is crazy to consider.

Among all of this year’s work, these stories stand out in my mind:

  • In February, I wrote about App Store ratings fraud for Forbes, because a company as self-righteous about its control of a mobile-apps marketplace as Apple should do a better job of policing it.
  • I teed off on exploding prices at Internet providers in a May column for USA Today after being inspired and irked by the poor disclosure I saw during the research for a U.S. News guide to ISPs.
  • In my debut at the Verge in early June, I explained how data-broker sites function as a self-licking ice-cream cone and offered practical advice about how to limit the visibility of your personal details.
  • Family tech support awakened me to the inadequacy of Gmail’s message-storage management, leading to a USA Today column teeing off on Google for that neglected user experience.
  • Who better to quote as a hype-puncturing source about SpaceX’s Starlink satellite broadband than Elon Musk himself? The reality-check video keynote he did at MWC in late June yielded a Fast Company post that helped inform my subsequent coverage of rural broadband.
  • I combined my notes from the Estonia trip with interviews of U.S. experts afterwards for a Fast Company story explaining that Baltic state’s e-government journey–including why it would be such a heavy lift here.
  • I used my PCMag perch to unpack Apple executive Craig Federighi’s disingenuous Web Summit talk about App Store security.

Having mentioned my business travel here–see after the jump for a map of where I flew for work in 2021–I have to note that the most important flights I took were the ones that reunited me with family members for the first time in well over a year. I hope your 2021 included the same.

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Thanks, science

Unlike a year ago, I’m not writing a post-Thanksgiving post from my own house. Instead, my family and I were able to travel and spend this holiday with my mom as well as my brother and his family. And one of the many things for which we’re thankful is the unprecedented worldwide effort that allowed us all to get vaccinated, with the two youngest members of this family reunion getting their first doses earlier this month.

That was what I had hoped might somehow be possible once the awfulness of the pandemic broke through my early denial, but there was no guarantee that the scientists of the world could fulfill that hope. And there was even less reason to think that the United States would have three effective vaccines in sufficiently wide distribution to have more than 196 million Americans now fully vaxxed.

I am profoundly grateful to everybody who has spent long days in laboratories, hospitals, clinics and other medical workplaces to get us to this point. They have cleared a path for us all to move forward into the broad, sunlit uplands that Winston Churchill spoke of during another time of worldwide peril.

(Seeing this effort firsthand and making a microscopic contribution to it as an occasional vax-clinic volunteer with the Virginia Medical Reserve Corps–most recently, a week before Thanksgiving, when I had the welcome sight of parents lining up with under-12 kids–has been a tremendous honor.)

At the same time, a year ago I would not have guessed that an early rush to get vaccinated would fade as people either thought the pandemic was done and they could sit out getting a jab–or believed the conspiracy lies of politicians and propagandists about vaccines. I also would not have thought that vaccine distribution around the world would still be this uneven this far along.

Today’s agonizing news of yet another coronavirus variant is the reminder we shouldn’t have needed that taking our eyes off a moving target will cost us. But while you cannot count out humans’ capacity for stupidity and sloth, the last year and change should also offer more than enough reminder that it’s unwise to bet against human ingenuity.

All vaxxed up and nowhere to go (especially for work)

Thursday was my V-day: two weeks elapsed since my second dose of the Moderna coronavirus vaccine, and therefore cleared for takeoff into a normal life. But I still feel like I’m on the runway, if not still on the taxiway waiting for my clearance.

I’m blaming work. I had thought it would be nice to celebrate this milestone Friday by having a drink at an actual bar indoors, but I had deadlines to meet that kept me at the keyboard until almost dinnertime. One reason why I still had fingers at the keyboard that late: I spent part of Friday afternoon volunteering at a vaccination clinic, which was arguably a better way to mark the occasion anyway. I did at least wear only one cloth mask instead of doubling up as I had before.

Photo shows my COVID-19 vaccination card atop my new passport and a route map from United Airlines' Hemispheres magazine.

(Another difference between now and my first volunteer shift in early April: Positive test rates have plummeted to well under 2% in Arlington and D.C.)

Work also factors into this in-between feeling, because it’s become so obvious that business gatherings will be a trailing indicator of America’s victory over this disease. As I type this, my also-fully-vaccinated neighbors are having people over on their back deck and that seems completely normal, but I have no idea when the first (non-pandemic-denying) think tank, trade association, PR firm or other corporate outpost around here will dare to host an in-person briefing, luncheon or reception.

The forecast is also fuzzy for in-person conferences. Wednesday, the management of the IFA trade show announced that they had to cancel this year’s edition of that electronics event in Berlin. I had thought they had good odds of pulling it off, considering how fast Germany is getting vaccine doses into arms. But IFA is a global show, and many of the countries that would be sending companies there remain far behind in vaccinations.

(MWC Barcelona, the first tech event to succumb to the pandemic, is somehow still set to happen next month, albeit on a grossly exhibitor-deprived scale. I don’t know what the thinking is there.)

Conferences that take place in the U.S. and draw a mostly-American audience look more likely to happen as planned, which on my calendar would probably make the first such IRL event the Black Hat information-security conference. Subjecting oneself to the blast-furnace heat of Las Vegas in August is not most people’s idea of fun–but after a year and change of only experiencing events through a screen, I legit would enjoy it. Besides, it really is a dry heat there.

Sore feet for a shot: an afternoon as a Virginia Medical Reserve Corps volunteer

Like many of you, I’ve spent much of the last year feeling helpless against this accursed pandemic–not just because of the existential dread inflicted by a disease that keeps striking people who wear masks and do the other right things, but because I could not do anything to help others beyond wearing a mask myself and writing the occasional article about exposure-notification apps and novel-coronavirus antibody testing.

Add on the guilt I’ve picked up about not getting sick despite the chances I have taken (meaning, gratuitously non-essential travel), and I felt even more that I had to give something else back. Thursday, I finally did.

That opportunity came via the Virginia Medical Reserve Corps, a program the state government set up in 2002. Although the MRC emphasizes medical backgrounds, it also welcomes volunteers with zero credentials in the field. I filled out my application in early February, got approved a couple of days later, and then waited to get an e-mail inviting me to an online training session. That didn’t arrive until March 1, at which point I realized I could have watched a prerecorded session any time over the previous three weeks.

Photo showing part of my Virginia MRC badge and COVID-19 vaccination card atop papers relating post-vaccination advice.

That video covered the basics of helping with COVID-19 vaccination clinics–including a mention that at the end of a shift, volunteers may receive leftover doses of the vaccine–but it did not prepare me for how quickly volunteer opportunities would get snapped up. The first few squandered chances pushed me to set up a Gmail filter to star and mark as important every MRC message.

And after weeks of waiting for vaccinations to open up for people in group 1C (my cohort, both because the Centers for Disease Control chose to categorize journalists as “other essential workers” and because I could stand to lose a few pounds), I finally opened one of those “Volunteers Needed” e-mails fast enough on April 1. I quickly signed up for a noon-5 p.m. shift April 8 at a community center in Arlington hosting second-dose vaccinations.

After a quick recap of basic rules Thursday afternoon (the important one being not to guess at answers to people’s questions) and my being issued a badge with my name and photo (as if I had a real job!), I got my assignment of minding the line. It was easy work: Check to make sure that the closest taped stripe on the floor inside the entrance wasn’t occupied, then wave in the next person on the line outside.

After a couple of hours, I took a break to finish gobbling down the sandwich I’d packed, then got moved to an indoor spot at which I could remind people to have their IDs and vaccination cards ready.

Here’s one thing I didn’t expect to get out of that: realizing how many people in so many different demographics were still waiting to finish getting vaccinated. Months after first responders and people over 75 should have all been covered, I saw several senior citizens in wheelchairs and two police officers waiting for their second shots, plus dozens more people visibly older than me.

That instantly silenced my inner monologue of grumbling over seeing younger friends posting vax selfies–and properly relegated my sore feet from hours of standing to the least of everybody’s problems.

The other surprise of this experience: how much I enjoyed brief banter with total strangers, something I last experienced working the election in November. (In retrospect, serving as a poll worker was a gateway drug for MRC volunteering.) I complimented people on the designs of their masks, greeted people wearing UVA caps with “Go Hoos,” made dad jokes about having your boarding pass ready… yeah, I do need to get out more.

One of the supervisors had asked early on if I would be interested in a vaccine dose if one were available (my reply amounted to “[bleep] yeah”) and as the last of hundreds of people with booked appointments stood in line, he said the words I’d been waiting to hear since last spring: “We have a shot for you.”

A day after getting my first dose of the Moderna vaccine, I have some soreness in that upper arm and a profound sense of gratitude. Instead of counting up after every exposure risk–five days without symptoms is my rough benchmark for assuming that I haven’t gotten infected–I can now count down. I’m T-minus 13 days until the vaccine should hit 80 percent effectiveness per the CDC study released at the end of March, T-minus 27 days until my second dose, and T-minus 41 days until my immune system has fully processed the vaccine.

I just hope today’s Costco run isn’t the crowded-places errand that gets me sick first.

But if I can get through the next five days and then cross that two-week post-first-dose mark, I’ll be ready to work another volunteer MRC shift. And this time, I’ll wear my hiking boots.