My next in-person tech conference will have to wait a little longer

Next week was going to feature a conference badge and triple-digit temperatures, and now the only way I’ll get any of those things is if the forecast for D.C. turns out to be completely off.

Barely a month after I’d booked flights and a (refundable) hotel room for the Black Hat security conference, convinced that this security gathering in Las Vegas would represent my first in-person conference since February of 2020, I cancelled those bookings this week. Instead of flying to Nevada to take notes in the middle of a physical audience and then network in person at a series of receptions, I’ll follow the briefings online and then connect with nobody new as I have dinner at home.

It wasn’t any one thing about this conference happening in the middle of a not-yet-over pandemic that led me to bag this trip, even though I’ve been fully vaccinated since late May; it was all the things.

First, while I would expect most information-security professionals to evaluate their risks intelligently and therefore have gotten vaccinated long ago, there’s always going to be the exceptions.

Second, Black Hat is like everything else in Vegas in August in that it must exist in a series of air-conditioned bubbles. And while I wouldn’t have a problem wearing a mask while watching briefings, staying masked-up is a lot harder at a conference reception.

Third, Vegas has a giant tourist demographic that self-selects for poor risk management, raising the odds of me sharing an elevator or check-in line with some hard-partying idiot who has made pandemic denial part of his personal political brand.

Fourth, the city itself has a depressingly low vaccination rate, with only 41% of Clark County residents fully vaccinated. Seeing that many people spend that many months declining to use the best tool we have against the pandemic does not make me want to go to their city and spend my money.

The odds remain pretty low, as I understand them, that I would pick up the Delta variant of the novel coronavirus over those two days and change in Vegas. But when one of the people I’d see afterwards would be my not-yet-vaccine-eligible 11-year-old daughter, I can’t justify the risk posed by what strikes me as an especially bad scenario compared to any of the events I’m contemplating for later this year.

So even while I have resumed some business travel, it’s going to be a little while longer before I come home with a new conference badge to add to the collection that’s now been collecting dust for a year and a half.

A virtual-event hobby: desktop Easter eggs

This week involved two panels I recorded from my desk, which made it like a great many weeks since February of 2020. But the specifics of my appearances Thursday and Friday represented a serious advance overall compared to the virtual-panel game I brought last March–and not just because my camera setup is now much less crummy.

My earliest upgrade was to improve the art on the wall visible behind me when I sit facing the windows for optimal lighting. Meaning, I filled a spot I’d left open by framing a cue sheet from one of the century rides I completed as a younger cyclist. That continues to offer the bonus of reminding me that difficult things are doable with enough practice, time, and rest stops that involve volunteers handing you bagels.

It took me longer to realize that my usual camera angle–a phone and then a webcam mounted on a tripod between the windows and me–left space on my desk to fill with something besides the vintage Bell System Trimline phone I keep parked there (but no longer have plugged into our VoIP service, because having robocalls interrupt an interview is no good).

First, I realized that if I was going to be talking about information security, I should leave the printed program from 2019’s DEF CON hacker conference resting against the wall behind me as a visual credential. Then I figured that parking a spare Rubik’s Cube in front of that would provide a little visual contrast and confirm that I’m a child of the ’80s. My service as an election officer last year left me with a badge from working the general election, and that seemed like another good totem to leave visible for anyone doubting my civic dedication. Still later, I decided that I couldn’t possibly hide the ThinkGeek Millennium Falcon multi-tool kit (don’t ask, just covet) that my brother gave me years ago.

Because I am slow, I eventually further thought that I could spotlight event-specific flair. For example, in a virtual panel about cruise-ship apps, I arranged a set of my dad’s old passports on that corner of the desk. An interview of a Major League Baseball executive gave me an excuse to park a Livan Hernandez bobblehead on the desk. I was tempted to display a pair of drumsticks I got as a conference souvenir years ago for the panel I recorded Friday morning with a music-app executive–but I didn’t want to suggest skills I lack, so I broke out the sticks for the sound check before that recording.

I hope some of you have enjoyed seeing these little tchotchkes, but if not at least they’ve injected a little variety to my own virtual-panel routine. I’ll enjoy that while it lasts, because at some point–that’s now looking like the third quarter of this year–I will go back to moderating in-person panels and will have to return to hoping anybody in the room notices the panel socks I’m wearing.

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.

Your eyes are up there: an unfixed problem with virtual panels

After all of the practice the last year has given me at looking into a camera as if it’s another human being and carrying on a group discussion, I still struggle with one important bit: keeping my eyes focused on the camera.

File this under panel-moderation problems: If you’re going to write an outline of the talk beforehand and then consult that during the panel–as you should–you’ll leave your audience wondering why you keep glancing down.

In a real-world, non-virtual panel, the spectators almost always sit far enough away to not notice a moderator’s checks of their notes. But in a virtual panel, where the optimum distance for the camera is a couple of feet at most, this is hard to hide. Especially if you’re following the virtual-panel best practice of using a dedicated webcam and fastening it to a tripod in whatever spot will leave your face evenly lighted.

If I could ever boil down a panel outline to a large-type one-page printout that I could tape to a tripod, I might be in better shape–but then I’d still need to find some way to mount a screen close to the camera.

For those of you who also can’t self-edit panel notes and and also struggle with this first-world problem, here’s a workaround I latched onto today, when the unavailability of the Logitech webcam in the photo above may have been an advantage: After attaching my aging smartphone to the top of a chair with a cheap GorillaPod tripod and using the DroidCam Android app to employ its camera as a higher-quality substitute for my HP laptop’s white-balance-impaired webcam, I flipped that 2-in-1 convertible computer’s screen roughly 270 degrees into “tent mode” and draped it over that top railing with the screen facing towards me.

That left the screen placed just below the phone and allowed me to look more focused on the talk… right up until this recording ran over schedule and into my next appointment, leaving me squirming in my chair as I hoped everybody else would wrap things up already.

The ignominious pandemic anniversaries pile up

A year ago today, the novel-coronavirus pandemic got a little more real for me and yet remained nowhere real enough. That’s when I had to cancel my travel plans for MWC in Barcelona after the organizers of that wireless-industry trade show succumbed to a wave of withdrawals by their bigger exhibitors.

The blog post I wrote then about MWC’s scrubbing betrays a stunning refusal to consider what I might not know about the emerging pandemic and the possible inadequacy of our own response to it. So do the e-mails I sent to friends and family that week, in which I blithely talked about plans for work and family trips in March, April and beyond as if the disease would somehow soon go away.

Now the Earth has gone a full orbit around the Sun since those early and excruciatingly bad takes, and the pandemic anniversaries are starting to stack up. Last Friday marked a year since my last time speaking at a conference out of town, last Saturday a year since my last attendance at a sports event. The coming weeks will bring the anniversaries of my last in-person panel, conference reception and indoor dinner at a restaurant.

Since then, we have learned many things the hard way, while almost half a million Americans aren’t around to benefit from those lessons. Tens of thousands more get sick every day; this week’s numbers included an old friend who only today had his temperature drop below 100 degrees after a few tense and agonizing days wracked by this virus.

But as of tonight, just over 50 million Americans have now received at least one dose of the vaccine–my in-laws among them, my mom scheduled next week.

I believe that we have already reached the farthest point of our own orbit away from the Before Times. But after having been wrong so many times in my pandemic predictions, I will not now forecast when this trajectory might land us back on something like the Earth we knew.

Farewell to a well-traveled passport

The passport I’ve carried for almost 10 years is officially retired now that I’ve put it in the mail with my renewal form, a check, and a photo of me showing a lot more gray hair than the January 2011 shot in my about-to-expire travel document.

The stamps in that worn passport tell an incomplete story of travel on an unprecedented scale for me–something I had no idea would become part of my life when I had no idea that my travel-light job at the Washington Post was in its closing months. Flipping through that passport over the last 11, mostly-grounded months has been one of my ways to remember what Conference Life was like in the Before Times and to think about what it can be like once again as novel-coronavirus vaccination marches on.

Photo of old passport held open to show stamps, with a United Airlines route map in the background

Those stamps show my most frequent arrival and departure airports were Frankfurt and Shanghai (six each), followed by Brussels (five) and Berlin, Munich, and Lisbon (four each), with others from Barcelona, Dublin, Fukuoka, London, Narita, Paris, San Jose del Cabo, Shenzhen, and Zurich.

But those stamps (and the array of security-sticker travel barnacles on the back) only reveal part of my travel timeline because Hong Kong and Israel stamp separate pieces of paper, while Canada no longer stamps U.S. passports at entry ports with electronic kiosks. There are also no stamps from anywhere in Europe since early 2017, when I began using my Irish passport for EU travel; that’s gotten processed electronically every time instead of collecting a little ink.

This collection of travel souvenirs still doesn’t touch what I can see in one of my dad’s passports from the 1960s and 1970s (or those of some of my avgeek friends), but it still represents an enormous leap for me. One of several hundred thousand miles.

Now I get to wait for my new passport to arrive in the mail with strangely-pristine pages–along with the expired passport that I may not be able to consign permanently to a drawer. The Chinese visa in it runs through 2026, so if any future travel will have me going to the People’s Republic, that document will once again come along for the ride.

A distanced, disconnected CES

Throughout this week I’ve spent covering CES in its all-digital incarnation, the Google Photos app on my phone has kept reminding me of how far this virtual experience is from the trade show that had me flying to Las Vegas every January from 1998 through 2020.

Photo of a 2020 CES badge held in front of a screen showing a schedule of on-demand videos from CES 2021

On one hand, the app’s Memories feature has been spotlighting the things I saw at CES years ago. On the other hand, Google Photos reveals that almost all of the pictures I’ve taken this week feature my cat–and none involve any new gadgets.

The event formerly known as the Consumer Electronics Show isn’t like other conferences that have had to adopt all-digital formats. (The same goes for the two other gadget shows on my calendar over the last several years, IFA and MWC.) Companies do their best to hype up their upcoming hardware, but you also get to inspect it firsthand and try to find the flaws the presenters didn’t think to mention.

That’s not an option at CES 2021, where the product presentations are even more like long-form ads than the CES press conferences of prior years. And while an online format can still allow for a live Q&A afterwards, that hasn’t been the case with the CES press events I’ve attended watched. I’ve had to e-mail PR types and wait for a response to a question I probably could have gotten answered in a few minutes were we all in the same physical space.

I don’t write that to take away anything from the people at the Consumer Technology Association who work incredibly hard to make CES happen in a normal year and then had to tear up the script in late July and write a new one from scratch. Some real-world interactions are just difficult or impossible to replicate online.

That also goes for all the unexpected connections you make at CES and the conversations you enjoy over bad food in a press room and better food at a reception or a dinner. As much as I hate tearing myself away from my family at the start of every January, the chance to catch up with old tech-nerd friends and maybe make a few new ones helps compensate for that.

Like most of the social interactions I’ve surrendered since last March, they now await at the far end of a long tether. I hope it’s not too many more months before I can pull myself back.

2020 in review: persistence required

Back in August, when 2020’s nightmare status had become numbingly obvious even if we didn’t know how much worse the novel-coronavirus pandemic would get, I recounted here what I’d typed to a friend in a chat the day before: “This entire year… I think if we can all get through it, nothing will ever seem as hard.”

As I type this, 2020 only has hours left to go, so simply being able to write this recap feels like a minor victory. But as I type this, I also see that the Johns Hopkins University pandemic dashboard I have checked far too many times year now lists a total of 344,030 Americans dead from the pandemic–a staggering, heartbreaking toll made worse by President Trump’s careless stewardship and pointless politicization of things as basic as wearing a mask. Among the earliest of those casualties: my senior-year roommate’s father.

Screenshot of the Mac Calendar app's year view of my work calendar, showing many days with no appointments at all.

Spending most of this year in what often felt like a form of house arrest seems like such an inconsequential side effect compared to that loss, or the brief hospital stays two relatives endured. But beyond leading to such developments as my briefly growing a beard, my cooking and gardening like never before, and our adopting a cat, the pandemic took a hammer to my own business.

As the economy crumpled, some of my clients cut their freelance budgets drastically or to zero; one of my best clients closed at the end of May. With business travel shut down–see how empty that screengrab of my calendar looks?–my sideline of moderating panels at conferences became an exercise confined to my desk instead of a way to get free trips to fun places.

I somehow scraped together enough work to see my income drop by only about 14 percent compared to 2019–but that year was itself not great. I can’t lie to you or to myself: Freelancing isn’t working as well for me as it did five years ago. But the entire profession of journalism is in far worse shape than it was five years ago.

Inconveniently enough, I still love the work. And I loved writing the following stories more than most.

In a year that’s seen me so cut off from people, the chance to call out abuses of power that made things harder for everybody else cooped up at home helped me feel a little more connected to you all.

So did my four long days of work as an election officer, concluding with the tiny role I played Nov. 3 helping Americans vote in unprecedented numbers and end Trump’s reign of lies, cruelty, bigotry, and incompetence. That service for a cause much bigger than myself was nowhere near my best-paying work this year. But it may have been the most satisfying.

Election Day 2020, from 5:05 a.m. to 9:21 p.m.

I had my longest workday of the year (or so I can only hope) Tuesday when I served as an election officer for Arlington County, my fourth time this year. Here’s how things went, hour by hour.

  • 5:05 a.m. It’s near freezing out and Venus still sits fairly high in the sky as I arrive. I join 11 other poll workers in setting up the hardware, including two ballot scanners. We decide to keep the exit door open to ensure the space stays well ventilated.

  • 5:43 a.m. Ballots come in shrink-wrapped packs of 100 each, but I’ve hand-counted 200, 10 at a time, to ensure we know just how many we give to voters and can compare that total with how many went into the ballot scanner. (Voters can request a new ballot if they make a mistake, after which we mark the old one “spoiled,” record it on a sheet, and put the spoiled ballot into a large envelope.) Halfway through that, I decided I was too tired to try practicing my French and Spanish by counting to 10 in each language. 

  • 5:45 a.m. I look outside and see there’s already a line of voters waiting.

  • 6 a.m. Polls open, and voters stream in. Four minutes later, we have our first voter with a dog; the pup wears an American-flag bandana. We don’t get a break until 35 minutes later, and 29 minutes after that, we see our first parent to bring a kid.

  • 6:59 a.m. Working the ballot table doesn’t leave me much to do, except when a voter makes a mistake and wants a new ballot. The first such spoiled one goes into the designated envelope. 

  • 7:39 a.m. For the first time in four elections I’ve worked, a ballot gets jammed in the scanner. Rebooting the device, as advised by tech support, doesn’t work, but unlocking it from the ballot receptacle and sliding it free revealed a ballot with a folded corner that had gotten hung up on its way out of the machine.

  • 8:07 a.m. A crew for the German television network ARD stops inside to film for a segment that airs without this interior footage. Two minutes later, we have our first voter requesting a provisional ballot after (if I heard this correctly from across the room) their requested absentee ballot did not arrive.

  • 8:53 a.m. Ugh, so tired. Coffee delivery not due to happen until 9:30 a.m., also known as four and a half hours after we got to work.

  • 9:38 a.m. Where is that coffee?

  • 9:42 a.m. COFFEE! ☕ I enjoy this with a second breakfast of homemade scones.

  • 11:12 a.m. A man arrives wearing a mask, sunglasses and a hat, as if to point out the questionable utility of Virginia’s now-repealed photo-ID requirement in a pandemic.

  • 12:40 p.m. Can’t lie, I just nodded off behind the ballot table.

  • 1:10 p.m. Things slow down enough for me to enjoy the lunch I’d packed eight-plus hours ago at a picnic table outside.

  • 1:37 p.m. Time to charge my phone, which I have been checking for news way too often despite the lack of useful insights on the election.

  • 2:30 p.m. After switching to the poll-book table, I discovered that KnowInk’s Poll Pad app may have issues with surnames longer than one word. First I couldn’t find a voter whose last name began with the Arabic prefix “al-” (I had to type it without the hyphen), and then it didn’t spot somebody with a “di ” Italian prefix until I entered that without a space.

  • 2:49 p.m. The poll worker who took over my spot at the ballot table gives us some excitement when she discovers one pack of ballots contain only 99, not the specified 100.

  • 3:43 p.m. Voter check-in involves us looking up the voter by name in the app, then asking them to say their address. If they recently moved but are in the same precinct, we can fix that on the spot. I see this with several voters, including one gentleman who forgot to update his home address while his wife, with him to vote, had.

  • 5:48 p.m. I hand off poll-book duty to take a spot by the scanner, where I tell voters the scanner will read their ballot whether they feed it in upside-down, right side up, forwards or backwards–then invite them to take a sticker, one of the best parts  of this job.

  • 7 p.m. The two scanners recorded a total of 358 votes, exactly matching the number of ballots handed out and not spoiled. That’s light turnout–we saw 1,046 voters for the March 3 Democratic presidential primary–except this precinct already had 1,585 voters cast ballots in advance.

  • 7:18 p.m. We print the results from the scanners, revealing both vote totals and images of everybody’s write-in votes. They range from Calvin Coolidge to Tony Bennett (unclear if the voter meant the singer or UVA’s basketball coach) to “EAT SHIT.”

  • 7:54 p.m. Having printed and signed the results and extracted the flash drives from each that contain images of every ballot, we can stow the scanners. We then collect the ballots and secure them in a sealed box.

  • 9:21 p.m. After an hour of collecting various pieces of paper, signing them, tucking them in designated envelopes and sealing those, then stowing the rest of the election hardware, we’re done. The precinct chief thanks us, and we give him a round of applause. A late dinner awaits.