Weekly output: Streaming video vs. ISPs, streaming-TV advice, Twitter takedowns

In an alternate universe, this week would have seen two opening days: the Nationals home game and the year’s first mowing of the lawn. Opening Day has yet to happen, but at least our yard looks a lot nicer, especially after some obsessive weeding this weekend.

Patreon members got an extra this week: my calculations about finally replacing my aging iMac with a now-slightly-less-expensive Mac mini.

3/30/2020: Relax: Netflix binging won’t kill broadband during the COVID-19 crisis, Fast Company

Beyond talking to the usual bandwidth experts about the odds of our connectivity crumpling under all the new work-from-home traffic, I also quizzed people at three small Internet providers that don’t have the resources of a Comcast to deal with a flood of traffic.

4/1/2020: Streaming Services: A U.S. News Guide, U.S. News & World Report

U.S. News contributor Rudi Greenberg interviewed me for this cheat sheet about TV cord cutting.

4/2/2020: Twitter takedowns, Al Jazeera

I appeared via Skype on the Arabic-language news channel to talk about Twitter’s latest takedowns of networks of state-run sockpuppet accounts. I hope my key point came across in overdubbed Arabic: Twitter’s problem is what while it’s learned to catch these influence operations, it can’t catch them as fast as its trending-topics algorithm can boost some of their output.

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.

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.

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.

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.

Playing hooky for home openers

I watched the Nationals lose a winnable baseball game Thursday. I’ve done that a lot since 2005, but this 8-2 defeat wasn’t just any home game. It was the Nats’ home opener–as far as I can figure out, the 13th that I’ve seen in person, starting with our team’s debut at RFK in 2005.

(The exception was 2007. According to an e-mail I sent to my wife, I listened to the game on the radio from home.)

That also makes this spring pastime one of the few consistent examples of me taking advantage of the flexible scheduling that I should theoretically enjoy as a work-from-home freelancer.

As in: When I wandered into this lifestyle, I had delusions of being able to devote the occasional morning or afternoon to a movie or a museum. Nope!

The reality has been one of compressed chores. My schedule affords enough idle time to let me get in some gardening or expedite a Costco run, but tearing myself away from other obligations for a few hours in a row seems impossible… except for this one rite of spring. I should not complain about that, even when the game in question has us getting lit up by the Mets.

Five years of not having a real job

Monday marked five years since I’d last been on the clock for an employer. The continued absence of a salary still doesn’t bother me.

Five years of 1099sA lot has changed since the day that started with my failing to sleep in, then involved the hilarity of filing our taxes and ended with a few retellings of my what-happened story at an Online News Association meetup.

My top sources of income have changed almost every year, so I’ve gotten used to answering such vaguely existential questions as “where are you at?”

I’m no longer incompetent at accounting and have even gone back to doing our taxes, Schedule C and all.

I’ve traveled to places I might have never seen on the Post’s dime. I did enjoy marking the fifth anniversary of my independence in Hong Kong, although I can’t say the same about spending the preceding 16 hours in seat 21K. One contributing factor to all that travel: Sufficient practice at public speaking has begun to pay off with more invitations to moderate a panel or give a talk, and accepting them doesn’t require multiple layers of newsroom approval.

I’ve been able to say what I think on Twitter and Facebook without worrying about running afoul of some newsroom social-media policy intended to fool readers into thinking we have no opinions about what we cover.

And I don’t know if I can call myself a hustler, but I’m definitely a more aggressive capitalist than I was in 2011.

In an alternate universe flipped to a different page in this Choose Your Own Occupational Adventure book, I might have landed another full-time job. I half-expected that to happen within a few months of leaving the Post, but instead a variety of interesting freelance opportunities appeared and I chose to follow them. (Lesson learned that most people unfortunately can’t apply: It’s not that hard to start as a freelancer if you first hold down a column for a major newspaper for over a decade.)

I may yet regret going this route–yes, I have been following the news about Yahoo. But every new round of newsroom layoffs and every job-destroying pivot at a new-media startup reinforces my sense that having a full-time employer provides little more security than cultivating a good set of regular clients that can’t constitute a single point of income failure.

Check back in another five years, and I should be able to report if I was right about that.