Lessons from transatlantic travel during the never-ending pandemic

Returning to Europe for the first time in close to two years reminded me of some aspects of EU life that had faded from my mind, like the endless series of GDPR-mandated privacy dialogs marring familiar news sites.

But my visit to Estonia on a sponsored press trip this week also exposed a newer difference between life here and on the other side of the Atlantic: how people are responding to the pandemic that’s now nearing its third year.

While I did not have to show proof of vaccination or a negative test result to board my flight (I took a PCR test two days prior to departure anyway and got a negative result the evening prior), I didn’t take too many steps after landing in Frankfurt before being asked for those documents to get into a Lufthansa lounge.

In Estonia–where the positive-test rate is lower than here in Virginia, while the vaccination rate is also lower but rising rapidly–I had to present my vaccination card once again to check into the hotel in Tallinn.

I faced more documentation requests to get into restaurants, a museum and a government office building. I’d call it a papers-please ritual except the Europeans among me could display EU-spec digital certificates on their phones that could be verified with a scan of a QR code, while I was left showing my paper card or a photo of it. This left me feeling like a health-tech hick, especially when one official looked at that image and said something like “I’ll have to trust you.”

(I’m told there’s an effort to build out a digital-vaccination-certificate standard across U.S. states, with California already supporting it; yes, consider the story assignment received.)

Mask compliance, however, did not seem great in the few mostly-empty restaurants and bars I ducked into; I did not linger in any crowded indoor spaces unmasked because I felt like I was pushing my luck enough already.

(For the same reason, I bought a BinaxNow antigen test at a CVS this morning and got yet another negative result.)

I had to present a negative test to board my flight home Thursday morning. That itself got checked twice, once before I could get a boarding pass and again before the gate for my flight back to the States from Munich.

And then after a long day of travel, I returned to a United States in which most people never have to produce any sort of confirmation of vaccination or a recent negative test–and some people seem violently opposed to any such mandate, even if that rugged individualism in the face of a pandemic just might put them in the grave.

A laptop aging only somewhat gracefully

My not-yet-four-year-old laptop has spent most of the last year and a half parked on a desk and plugged into a power outlet, but the HP Spectre x360 I bought in November of 2017 is still showing its age in ways that are increasingly hard to overlook.

The most obvious sign of its time is the decaying battery life. It’s not so much that I can’t count on the battery to make it past two hours; it’s more an issue that the percentage-left estimates in the taskbar seem a lot less reliable once the computer falls below 30 percent. And that if I leave this laptop in sleep mode but unplugged, the battery seems to need much less time to exhaust itself.

Photo shows my laptop with its charging cable plugged in.

HP’s hardware-diagnostics app now rates the battery’s condition as “weak,” which doesn’t make a lot of sense considering it’s only seen 380 or so charge cycles out of the 1,000 for which it’s rated. If I had a major tech conference coming up, I would be looking at prices for a new battery. But with Black Hat behind me as an event I covered remotely, it now doesn’t look like I’ll have a battery-destroying, laptop-torturing tech event on my calendar before CES 2022.

The exterior of the laptop doesn’t look too banged up in comparison–unlike my previous MacBook Air at a younger age, none of the keys have had their labels start to wear thin. The hinges that let me rotate the screen 360 degrees and turn the device into a laptop–one of the primary reasons I ditched Apple to buy a Windows laptop–remain sturdy, even if the one on the left looks a little out of alignment.

But the rubber strips on the underside that were supposed to help it stay in place on a slick surface have almost entirely peeled away, making the bottom of the laptop look decidedly janky.

At least the computer itself still seems fast enough, its 512-gigabyte solid state drive is not that close to being exhausted, and Microsoft has yet to rule it too old for any Windows 10 updates.

Four years is a good run for any laptop, so the prospect of having to buy a new one doesn’t bug me that much. But I do wish I could get some extended hands-on time with upcoming hardware from the major vendors–which I won’t get until I can travel to a battery-destroying, laptop-torturing tech event like CES.

Hertz IT needs some work

Renting a car for the first time in two years and change proved to be more high-maintenance than I’d expected, and I can’t even blame the crack this vehicle sustained in its windshield after a passing truck in southside Virginia kicked up a rock at just the right time.

Instead, my surprise was waiting in the mail two weeks after I’d wrapped up my drive testing for PCMag’s Fastest Mobile Networks report: a letter from Hertz Vehicle Control informing me that this car was “seriously overdue” and if that I did not return it within 10 days of receipt, “felony grand theft auto charges will be promptly filed with law enforcement.”

The problems with this letter started with its third line, complaining that I had not parked the car at the BWI rental-car center. Pursuant to the rental-car agreement for this assignment, I had dropped it off in Atlanta at the ATL rental-car center–where I had waved over a Hertz attendant to point out the windshield damage and then seen her note that by writing a large X on a window.

I had not asked for a printed receipt because I’ve spent a few decades renting cars on and off and had never had an issue with my return of a car vanishing down a bit bucket. I should have noticed that Hertz did not e-mail me a receipt, but I had a family trip to distract me and I had not received any feedback suggesting this car was lost–no e-mails, no phone calls, no late charges. Plus, my prior Hertz rental in the spring of 2019 had been completely satisfactory.

Not for the first time, Twitter made it easy to resolve this customer-service problem. My cranky tweet mentioning @Hertz about the nastygram got a prompt Twitter response inviting me to provide details via direct message; I did, and less than an hour a Hertz rep DMed to say “I have just sent an alert to the location to have them close out your contract and email you the final receipt.”

The next day, I got a reply to the e-mail I’d sent first to the address listed in that Hertz letter, apologizing for the mixup: “There was a delay in the contract being closed, which triggered the automatic overdue letter.”

I couldn’t resist writing back: “I have to ask: Is your normal first notice of an overdue vehicle involve a threat of felony grand theft auto charges? I did not appreciate being treated that way.”

The response: “I do apologize, unfortunately, the letter is standard verbiage that is sent to every file that is triggered as an overdue. That’s why we include at the bottom if it’s sent in error, to please let us know.”

I appreciate these apologies–especially if they stick and I don’t get any other letters asking about this vehicle–but the opening notice of an overdue car really shouldn’t include a threat of felony charges. On the other hand, I recognize that this could have gone much worse.

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.

Post-road-trip reflections

Ever since fleeing my rural upbringings for college in D.C., I have taken pride in how little I rely on driving to get around–to the point that I didn’t buy my first car until I was 26. But over the last week and change, I clocked 1,117 miles in a rented vehicle and did not hate it.

Getting paid for the time I spent behind the wheel as part of PCMag’s upcoming Fastest Mobile Networks report made a difference. But having each day’s drive be a one-off proposition instead of the latest iteration of a dreadful commute made its own difference. The first multiple-day road trip I’ve had in about 25 years took me to some interesting places, away from home and around the District.

Photo shows a black Chevy Spark with Hawaii plates, with the High Museum of Art across the street and midtown Atlanta buildings in the background

To start, having to stop and test the wireless carriers’ performance at multiple places scattered around each city on my itinerary–Baltimore, D.C., Raleigh and its Triangle neighbors, Charlotte, and Atlanta–allowed me to indulge my interest in transportation and development just by looking around.

All of these cities feature beautiful neighborhoods I wish I’d had time to walk around on this trip, and all made some dreadful mistakes decades ago with urban highways. (Spoiler alert: They often shoved them through Black people’s homes.) Some now seem to be making amends for those auto-centric excesses with bike lanes, light-rail lines and streetcars, sights that delighted my Greater Greater Washington-reading heart.

After months of having all three meals almost exclusively at home, I also had the challenge of getting breakfast, lunch and dinner without falling back on chain restaurants. All the mandatory test stops often got in the way of this and led me to atrocious lunch times after 2 p.m., but I did meet that challenge and now have a short list of places to return to. I’m not sure when I’ll next have a chance to get lunch at Fat Matt’s Rib Shack in Atlanta or NoDa Bodega in Charlotte, among others, but Open Crumb in Anacostia is only a few blocks off a bike trail I’m overdue to return to.

PCMag’s instructions for this drive testing encouraged avoiding Interstates between cities in favor of smaller, more rural roads that might expose the limits of the carriers’ networks, and that changed up the journey a little more. The four- or two-lane roads I found ate up more of my time but also relieved me of the sight of other cars’ brake lights–and often, of other cars at all. Large swaths of Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina and Georgia remain forests with only the occasional town of a few intersections to change up the scenery.

(As a native New Jerseyan and now Northern Virginia resident, I did wonder how often I’d see Confederate battle flags on these rural stretches. I only spotted four such displays, which is more than I’d like but much less than I’d feared.)

All of this driving in not-straight lines and my own lack of experience with the drive-testing routine, however, left little time for me to play tourist or even meet people along the way. My late departure for Raleigh barely allowed the minutes for a detour through Richmond to see Monument Avenue devoid of most of its Confederacy whitewashing; I wrapped up my testing around the Triangle in time to go to a Durham Bulls game last Friday; I made sufficiently good time between Charlotte and Atlanta to get a quick lunch in Athens, Ga., and gawk at the remains of the trestle pictured on the back cover of R.E.M.’s Murmur; that was about it. I finally met a friend for dinner Monday night in Atlanta–better yet, it was at his house and he cooked.

Since coming home Tuesday night, I have yet to open the door of our car, much less take it anywhere. That’s been a pleasure, but I have to admit I won’t mind the next chance to drive somewhere on an indirect, inefficient route if it’s part of a reasonably well-paying freelance gig.

An update on my Forbes experiment

It’s now been a year and change I started writing about the intersection of media, policy, and technology at Forbes. It’s also been two months and change since I last published anything there.

That might look like a conclusive verdict against the experiment I started last June, but the reality is a little more nuanced. On one hand, I’ve very much enjoyed the ability to “write and publish as I see fit instead of waiting for an editor to okay a pitch and then edit my copy” (as I wrote last summer). On the other hand, I’ve yet to clock enough page views in a month to earn above the minimum rate.

So when I had a bunch of new work come my way starting in April, I had to decide at the start of May if I would commit to writing my monthly minimum of five posts–my arrangement doesn’t provide partial pay for posting less than that–or take a break to focus on this new business. And since I had gone months without seeing any Forbes post crack a five-digit number of page views, that was an unavoidable call for me.

My most-read story at Forbes, a post I wrote at the end of November about the strange lifeline AT&T and, to a lesser extent, Verizon provide to the hoax-soaked One America News Network, has drawn a total of 35,747 views as of today. But most have done much worse than that unspectacular total, with many failing to crack a thousand views. That’s frustrated me to no end–not least since I’ve seen pieces at other outlets do great in the same time–but at a certain point, I had to stop banging my head against that wall and direct my attention to work that didn’t have Web-traffic stats between me and my payment. 

It’s possible that the subscription paywall Forbes put in place late last year (you should see the dialog above after reading five stories at the site in a month) has made it much harder for a post to go viral there. But I’ve seen at least one friend who writes at Forbes continue to hit numbers that should earn a decent bonus. Maybe I’m just page-view Kryptonite at this client in particular?

If I am, and if I decide to call it a day for this experiment, I will have no regrets. I’ve been able to address important topics–for example, Apple’s retelling of app-distribution history, the self-owns of some senators trying to interrogate tech CEOs, Google’s abusive conduct of its display-advertising business, President Trump’s clumsy and illegal attempts to regulate social media–as I saw fit. (Thinking about that, it would have been nice to toss up a post Thursday about the lawsuit by 36 states and D.C. against Google over its control of the Play Store instead of limiting my commentary to a Twitter thread that made me no money at all.) And the effort I put into focusing on media-policy issues also made me a sharper, better-sourced reporter in that area.

Meanwhile, management at Forbes has made some smart moves–in particular, bringing on the Houston Chronicle’s former tech columnist Dwight Silverman to cover the computing industry was a great call on their part. And nobody there has told me that time’s up on my contributor gig. But I do know that July already looks shot in terms of writing bandwidth that would let me return to it.

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.