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.

Road trips, now and way back then

CHARLOTTE, N.C.–I’m in the middle of my first multiple-day road trip since… um… 1996. Things about motoring around the U.S. have changed just a bit for me since that trip from Los Angeles to D.C., much less the 1992 trek from Sacramento to the District that was my first cross-country drive.

The biggest differences are that I’m doing this trip solo instead of with a college friend–and that instead of having a room in a group house or apartment awaiting at the end of the trip, I am looking forward to seeing my wife and almost 11-year-old daughter again.

Then comes the fact that this road trip is for work instead of fun, or what passes for fun when you’re in your twenties. I’m spending a week as one of the test drivers for PCMag’s Fastest Mobile Networks project, taking a rental car and six specially configured test phones to locations picked in a series of cities.

Photo shows my rental car with the door open, six test phones sitting on the passenger seat, and a row of storefronts in the Little Five Points neighborhood of Raleigh.

This freelance gig on wheels started with a train–I boarded Amtrak Tuesday for the first time since February 2020 for a short ride to BWI to pick up this car Tuesday, after which I met the previous driver in Baltimore to get the test phones and spend the afternoon driving around Charm City. I devoted Wednesday to driving around D.C., went from home to Raleigh, N.C. Thursday; spent all of Friday on the roads of the Triangle; and had a considerably shorter day of driving Saturday to reach here. My tour of the southeast wraps up in Atlanta Tuesday, after which I fly home.

The vehicle in question, a Chevrolet Spark, isn’t much bigger than the Toyotas involved in 1992 and 1997. But it’s as new as rental cars get, versus the 1977 Corolla with a four-speed manual transmission that made it across the U.S. in 1992 or the 1986 Tercel with a crack in the windshield that did the same in 1996. And it has such modern conveniences as air conditioning, power windows and a backup camera.

And instead of driving entirely offline–taking old cars across deserts with neither GPS nor the ability to communicate must seem bizarre to my kid–I have a smartphone to navigate and keep me in touch via calls, text messages, e-mail, multiple social networks, and the Slack channel PCMag set up for this test. Plus the six test smartphones that spend each day on the passenger seat running their automated tests, as seen in the photo above taken in Raleigh Friday morning.

(I wrote a more detailed explanation of the testing process for Patreon readers Friday.)

But in one respect, the technology of road trips may have backslid a bit from the 1990s. Those old cars lacked CD players but did include tape decks, while this Chevy is like many new cars in not including any playback hardware for prerecorded music. I can plug in a flash drive or pair my phone via Bluetooth, but I have yet to get around to cobbling together a road-trip-relevant playlist on my phone or copying one to a flash drive. Instead, I have instead relied on a more traditional soundtrack source: the radio. And since I had an excellent college-rock station to keep me entertained around Raleigh, that hasn’t been so bad.

7/22/2021: Updated to fix a couple of inaccuracies I only realized when checking this post against old photo albums.

Farewell, cicadas

I flew out of town Friday morning–my first post-vaccination travel!–and returned Tuesday afternoon. Those four days and change spent visiting my mom, my brother and his family in the Boston area were enough to come home to a Washington area that no longer sounded as it did before I left.

By which I mean, the high-pitched call of millions of cicadas buzzing for each other’s attention no longer greeted me the moment I stepped outside the house. Instead, it was the standard soundtrack of birds chirping that I’d heard most of the previous 17 years. Walking around the neighborhood was different too, without red- or orange-eyed bugs crawling underfoot, flying about, or occasionally landing on me.

Barely a month after Brood X emerged in volume in my neighborhood, the cicadas seem to be vanishing as quickly as they appeared. I now see remarkably few signs of their having been here at all; the weeping cherry tree I planted last spring had one small branch die off and show scars from female cicadas depositing their eggs there, but that seems to be the extent of the plant damage. And so far, the yard does not smell from an excess of decomposing cicadas, something I would very much like not to change.

I do have all the pictures I took of Brood X to remind me, plus a video or two. But as weirdly amusing as I found these harmless bugs and their lifecycle from nymph to adult (maybe seeing their mass emergence for a second time in my life reduced the freakout factor?), that was nothing compared to the interest my daughter developed in them. After more than a year of the pandemic penning in her horizons and, for most of that time, reducing school to a series of boxes on a screen, a fascinating spectacle of nature arrived in our backyard and around our neighborhood that she’d never seen before and wanted to learn more about.

As crazy as it may sound, I will miss the insect word’s answer to short-period comets just because of that. But these little alien-looking arthropods haven’t really gone; their offspring are now beginning a 17-year subterranean sojourn that will lead to them emerging en masse to surprise the children of 2038, and hopefully fascinate some of them.

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.

Waiting for the cicadas

The neighborhood is about to get a lot more crowded for the next month or so. The mid-Atlantic’s 17-year cicadas are now emerging–first as holes they make in the ground while crawling out as nymphs, then as exoskeletons left on branches and leaves after molting, and soon as hordes of bugs with beady red eyes.

Around my neighborhood, the local ambassadors of Brood X haven’t yet reached that third stage. Every day I see more of their cast-off exoskeletons (exuviae, if you didn’t know) clinging to foliage like little beige bug bookmarks, but until tonight I hadn’t seen any of this year’s cicadas alive. That’s when I learned that you can hear them molting–a sort of quiet, slow and moist clicking–then spot them slowly tugging their pale selves out of their old shells.

Yes, that is slightly alarming to witness.

But it’s nowhere close to the freakout potential of having thousands of cicadas within a block–meaning you have to watch where you step, and that going for a jog or a bike ride ensures some will bounce off of you. Plus, there is the vaguely extraterrestrial racket generated by their mating calls.

I am fairly tolerant of insects overall (except for mosquitoes, which should be genetically engineered into extinction), but gardening may lose much of its charms until the middle of June.

I learned this in 2004, the previous emergence of Brood X and my own introduction to the evolutionary freakshow that is the periodical cicadas’ survival strategy. Instead of trying to hide or escape from predators, cicadas arrive in such massive numbers that other animals get full and have to take a break from this free buffet. The surviving cicadas can then make millions of cicada eggs that the females deposit in trees–from which larvae will drop to the ground, burrow underground and wait 17 years before emerging to fascinate or frighten the children of 2038.

People have been writing about this ritual of life in the mid-Atlantic for centuries, but this year’s cicada onslaught will be different from previous emergences because of a different plague: social media. If you suffer from any sort of arthropod anxiety, you’re not going to enjoy all the cicada Facebook status updates, cicada tweets, cicada Instagram pics and stories, cicada TikToks, and other social testimony that will soon be swarming screens. This could be a really good time to give those apps a rest and instead start reading an intimidatingly long book.

A yard once again in bloom, and in new need of work

This morning, the weeping cherry tree that I planted last spring to try to keep myself occupied as the world shut down showed its first blossoms. By this evening, that little tree was well on its way to surrounding itself with a cloud of white flowers.

After years of being a cherry blossom spectator, I feel like I’m being a good local citizen by making my own tiny contribution to one of the D.C. area’s signature spring sights. What also feels good: seeing the work of a previous year come back to life. It’s one of the most satisfying things in all of gardening.

Photo of cherry blossoms, showing base of the tree and my lawn velow

My yard also features a growing collection of daffodils, with lilies making their way out of the ground to bloom again. The redbud trees and a lilac out front are rapidly budding, and the small raised bed outside the back patio has a crop of arugula seedlings planted two weeks ago that should be providing sandwich fixings in another couple of weeks.

And all the time I’ve put in over the last few springs to root out bittercress and chickweed seems to have resulted in far fewer of those pests to twist out of the ground with a weeding fork.

On the downside, an unusually damp February has left large, low-lying swaths of lawn reduced to shoe-grabbing, clay-dense dirt. I would like to think that the grass will make a springtime recovery, but realistically, I need to regrade those parts. And after so many years of low-maintenance lawn care–including 16 years and counting with the same electric lawnmower–it bothers to me think that I’ll have to pay for dirt. But if I do my job right now and them remember to reseed in the fall, next spring I won’t be looking at caked clay in those parts of the lawn. Right? Please tell me I’m right?

My recipe management remains surprisingly analog

All the kitchen time I’ve had over the last year of not going out to eat in restaurants has seriously advanced my cooking, but it has not advanced my recipe management nearly as much.

Yes, I still save recipes on paper, cutting them out of various publications and gluing them into pages in the binder I’ve tended for last 20 years or so. I also keep recipes in digital form–there’s an entire notebook in my Evernote for that–but each time I add one electronically and then cook off of that on-screen copy, I’m reminded of the advantages ink on paper retains in this use case.

Photo of an iPad open to Evernote, showing a list of recipes. Below it sits my recipe binder, showing a handwritten recipe from my mom.

Start with my primary source for new recipes, the Washington Post’s Food section. The Post’s Recipe Finder sites is fantastic, but it provides no way for me to save my favorites like the Recipe Box of the New York Times’ Food section. So each time I hit that page, I have to redo my search or hope the browser’s autocomplete takes me back to a specific recipe page.

As for NYT, my second most-frequent cooking read, it neglects its Recipe Box feature by not providing any obvious way for me to get to it in the Times’ iPad app, much less add a personal shortcut to it. I could fix that by installing the paper’s NYT Cooking app, but I resent the idea of getting a second app from one company to fix a usability problem in its first app.

So in practice, the recipes I find online that I want to keep making go into Evernote. Adding recipes on my desktop isn’t bad, since Evernote’s Web Clipper extension offers a variety of import options that go from pulling in an all of a page to just the text I select. But on the device I use far more often to look up recipes, my iPad, that clipping feature–available via the Share menu–ingests the entire page. Which on foodie blogs mean I get the multi-paragraph opening essay, the affiliate links to buy ingredients or kitchen gadgets, and the comments.

(I don’t mind all that stuff when I’m in recipe-browsing mode–I respect how my fellow indie creators work to monetize their content–but I don’t need it once I’ve got a spatula or a spoon in hand.)

Deboning one of these imported recipes requires an extra, non-obvious step in Evernote: select the clip, tap or click the banner at its top, and tap or click the magic-wand “Simplify & Make Editable” icon. Then I finally have a clean copy of a recipe that I can look up anywhere… well, whenever I’m once again in a position to cook in somebody else’s kitchen.

Finally, consulting a recipe on an iPad gets awkward the moment both of my thumbs get covered in flour, oil, butter or whatever else is going into the recipe–at which point I can no longer unlock the screen via Touch ID once the tablet automatically locks. Unfortunately, iOS doesn’t offer any sort of recipe mode, and it doesn’t appear that I can use a Siri shortcut to keep the screen unlocked for only the next hour or two.

Meanwhile, I have my three-ring binder of recipes. The workflow to add a recipe from the paper is not what I’d call elegant, but breaking out scissors to cut that out of the paper and using a glue stick to attach it to a paper at least exercises arts-and-crafts skills that have mostly gone unused since grade school. (Removing a recipe that’s been added this way is difficult to impossible, so I have a separate folder of recipes that I haven’t yet made enough times to deem them binder-worthy.) More important, this collection also includes recipes that never made it to any screen of mine: handouts from farmers’ markets and restaurant and winery events, printouts from friends, and the occasional handwritten one from my mom.

There’s no search tool in this binder, but it does support a limited sort of favorites functionality that works automatically over time and yet is incompatible with digital storage: stains from sauces and other dripped ingredients.

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.