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.

More things I have learned from being a cat’s human

Among the many changes the pandemic has led to in our home, this one’s the weirdest: We now routinely wake up with a live animal ensconced on our bed.

It took several months for the cat we adopted a year ago Thursday to decide that his preferred sleeping spot was at the end of our bed… and then for my wife and I to realize how we appreciated having Abel be our foot warmer, especially in winter. We also now have an extra alarm clock, in the form of Abel walking over or around us once he thinks it’s time to get up.

Photo shows Abel sitting on my laptop and a WiFi hotspot

If you are not a cat’s human, the preceding two paragraphs may look weird. I get it; I was not read up on this element of cat bonding myself before last May’s increase to our house’s population.

I also didn’t realize that while Abel would be capable of understanding the words “off” or “down” when we ask him to get off the dining room table, his compliance would not stop him from jumping from floor to chair to back on the table five minutes later. (This remains a source of shrugging amusement.)

Nor did I know about the weird noises cats make while grooming themselves–or that I would learn to tune out that self-care soundtrack.

And while I was aware of all the hair cats shed, I definitely did not Get The Memo about the inevitable byproduct of cat sneezes.

And yet the newest member of our family provides endless amusement around the house, allows me to contribute to the Internet’s stock of cat photos, lives up to the low-maintenance reputation of cats by spending much of the day sleeping, and returns our affection by nuzzling us and sometimes rubbing noses–and I didn’t realize how great that last part would be. We have a good little cat. Happy adoptiversary, Abel!

Ten years without a real job

I have now somehow clocked a decade of self-employment, and I won’t even pretend that was the plan when my status as a Washington Post employee officially expired on April 29, 2011. At the time, I assumed I would spend not too many weeks as a gentleman of leisure, then find a place where I could resume covering the things I cared about in the world of technology.

(By which I mean, not rewriting Apple rumors.)

Photo shows a 1 and a 0 from a toddler's alphabet set, as seen resting on graph paper.

Instead, multiple places found me, offering freelance rates that were good enough to convince me to try self-employment. It seems that my sudden and surprising appearance on the market represented unintentional, effective positioning on my part; my least-useful advice to new freelancers is “have a column at a major American newspaper, then have the paper kick you to the curb when nobody expects it.”

I also didn’t realize at the time how lucky I was to start freelancing by having two different clients commit to pay for a set amount of work each month at an above-market rate. My gigs at Discovery News and the Consumer Electronics Association eventually went away–there’s no such thing as a permanent freelance client–but they allowed me to figure out the basics of indie existence without stressing over each month’s income.

They also let me start seeing what I’d missed at the events that had never been in the cards for me at the Post–like SXSW, MWC and the Online News Association’s annual gathering–and begin to develop my own sideline as a conference speaker.

I have learned an enormous amount about the self-employed existence since then–battering my way to marginal competence at accounting, struggling with parallel editor-relationship management, booking travel on my own criteria and then optimizing it, time-slicing workdays to get chores like a Costco run done faster than salaried folks can manage, and bringing a certain equanimity to fluctuating cash flow. (My actually-useful advice to new freelancers is “have a spouse with a real job.”) Some years have been much better than others, while last year was much worse than the rest. Marching on as a freelance writer through a global pandemic even as friends have fled the business is one of the harder things I’ve had to do in my career–but the important thing is that I persisted, and now business is picking up and I can even look forward to once again traveling for work.

Ten years and 87 1099 tax forms later (I may be missing a few in that count), I still think I’ve been pretty lucky in this ongoing chapter of my professional life. I’ve never had a client fail to pay me; while I have had to nag a few for several months for a payment, my single longest wait happened because I forgot to invoice the client. I have covered stories and gone to parts of the world that probably would have remained daydream material had I somehow stayed on my old path. And since April of 2011, no one company has ever been in a position to put me out of business. That means a lot.

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.

Daily newsletters I delete every day–only after reading them

If you don’t want your inbox to start filling up with newsletters, you probably shouldn’t become a journalist. Even if you decide not to sign up for daily updates from one organization or another, the PR people at that organization will probably make that decision for you.

But newsletters exist for a reason, that being that they can make it easy to catch up on developments you missed over the last day, week or month. So whether or not I opted in to get somebody’s daily update, I usually don’t click the “unsubscribe” link if the newsletter covers my own occupational interests–and skimming and deleting takes very little out of my time.

Really good newsletters, however, earn not just a quick glance at a subject header and the first headline or two, but start-to-finish reading. I want to talk about two in particular that help keep me current about my fellow scribes.

Morning Consult Tech: Morning Consult, a data-intelligence firm with offices in D.C., New York and San Francisco, puts out this recap of tech-policy headlines before 9 a.m. weekday mornings. It’s an impressively comprehensive summary of recent work that covers publications beyond the usual boldface news names–the left-wing magazine Mother Jones and Vice’s tech-news site Motherboard have each gotten shout-outs. In addition to those two- or three-sentence story blurbs, each message features an events calendar that in the Before Times was a good way to ensure my work social calendar didn’t stay empty as well as a modest amount of self-promotion for the parent firm’s work. My only real complaint is predictably vain: I wish this newsletter would spotlight my own work more often.

Muck Rack Daily: This GIF-laden, moderately gossipy message arrives weekday afternoons from New York-based Muck Rack, which provides tools for PR types, lets journalists post their own portfolios (writing this post reminded me of how overdue I was to update my own), and used to and hopefully once again will host get-togethers for reporters at such events as CES and SXSW. As you can see from Friday’s e-mail, each one revisits the day’s top stories as interpreted through journalists’ tweets–a not-dumb move by the senders to play off of our own vanity–and illustrated by pop-culture GIFs that I occasionally recognize. Here I should note that my father-in-law receives this newsletter, which every now and then leads to him sending me a nice look-who-they-featured e-mail.

If you work on either one of these newsletters, feel free to take a bow. And please don’t be offended when I add that I delete each newsletter after reading, because my inbox is crowded enough already without my squirreling away copies of these and other daily dispatches.

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.

WordPress Block Editor considered harmful

The drop cap that starts this paragraph is something I could not have readily done in the Classic Editor here at WordPress.com, so I hope everybody reading this understands that I’ve spent some time looking for upsides to the Block Editor that has replaced it.

But those upsides still look scarce. Five months after WordPress.com anointed the Block Editor as the new default–and well over three years after this project’s debut–I still find basic tasks more difficult in the Block Editor than in the now-deprecated Classic writing interface. Four examples:

  • Inserting an inline image with text wrapped around it, as seen at right, apparently requires a detour to a separate block menu in which you reduce the image’s size, followed by a click on a menu to right-align the image. In the Classic Editor, those options sit in the dialog to select an image from the Media Library.
  • There’s no way to indent text outside of making it part of a bulleted or numbered list. This one sticks in my craw a bit: I told two WordPress representatives this was a problem after they gave a presentation at least year’s Online News Association conference, and they seemed to agree that indenting was a legitimate formatting tool.
  • This may be more of a bug than a design decision, but when I right-click on a link in Safari and paste its address into the Classic Editor, the link appears in a post as a complete hypertext link under the linked page’s title. In the Block Editor, pasting yields the address of the link, leaving it to me to copy its title and then turn that into a link.
  • The addition of a menu option to switch between editing and selecting modes, as if I were back into learning desktop publishing on Aldus PageMaker in 1991, allows for the chance to realize I clicked my way out of revising whatever I’m writing.

I think I understand where WordPress is going with this. The Block Editor offers a lot more options to embed different types of content, as seen in the screengrab above, and for bloggers looking to mash up their media, I can see why that would make sense. I also have a lot of faith in WordPress, having picked this platform instead of keeping my Web home on Facebook real estate and remaining convinced of the soundness of that decision.

Plus, speaking as a long desktop-publishing geek who may still have some muscle memory of PageMaker keyboard shortcuts: Yes, drop caps are cool.

But from my words-first perspective, the Block Editor makes the everyday writing here a little harder. And since indents are a basic element of the weekly-output posts I’ve been writing here since the fall of 2011, sometimes it makes my usual habits impossible.

I can still switch to the Classic Editor at the start of or halfway through a post, so I’m not doomed. But I worry that at some point, its deprecated status will lead to it being deleted. Will that point arrive before WordPress’s developers can get this editor to interface parity with its predecessor? Please wish me luck.

DVR debt, but for virtual-conference panels

For the past two months, I’ve been looking at the same five tabs left open in my Mac’s copy of Chrome. They’re all from Black Hat–as in, the security conference that happened online in early August, but which remains incomplete in my own viewing.

If this event had taken place in Las Vegas as usual, I would have watched almost all the talks I’d picked out from the schedule. That’s a core feature of traveling to spend a few days at a conference: All of the usual at-home distractions are gone, leaving you free to focus on the proceedings at hand.

Online-only events zero out my travel costs and offer the added benefit of vastly reducing the odds of my catching the novel coronavirus from a crowd of hundreds of strangers. But because they leave me in my everyday surroundings, they’re also hard to follow.

If I have a story to write off a panel–meaning a direct financial incentive–I can and will tune in for that. But for everything else at an online conference, it’s just too easy to switch my attention to whatever work or home task has to be done today and save the panel viewing for later, as if it were yet another recording on my TiVo. (Or to let my attention wander once again to Election Twitter.) It’s not as if other conference attendees will be able to note my absence!

So I still haven’t caught up with the talks at Black Hat. Or at the online-only DEF CON hacker conference that followed it. I haven’t even tried to follow the panels at this year’s online-only version of the Online News Association’s conference… mainly because I couldn’t justify spending $225 on a ticket when this conference’s usual networking benefits would be so attenuated. I feel a little bad about that, but on the other hand I also feel a little cranky about submitting a panel proposal for ONA 20 and never getting a response.

I would love to be able to return to physical-world events with schedules crowded by overlapping panel tracks that force me to choose between rooms. But there seems to be zero chance of them resuming in the next six months, even if a vaccine arrives before the end of the year in mass quantities. Web Summit, CES, SXSW: They’ll all be digital-only, happenings experienced only through a screen.

I should try harder to cultivate the habit of experiencing these virtual events in the moment, not weeks or months afterwards. Or at least I should try to catch up on the backlog of panels I’ve already accumulated. This last hour would have been great for that… except I spent it writing this post instead.

Update, 10/10/2020: It turns out none of those Black Hat panels were available for viewing anymore. Whoops! At least the tab bar in Chrome looks cleaner now, I guess.

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.