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.”
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.
Tuesday had a lot in common with the four days I spent last year working as an election officer for Arlington County. Just as in March, June, July and then November, I staggered through a sleep-deprived day that started with a 5 a.m. arrival at the polling place and didn’t end until around 8:30 p.m. As in all of those elections except last March’s Democratic presidential primary, the day left me with a fair amount of downtime to fill with reading a book and chatting with my fellow poll workers. And once again, it felt deeply fulfilling to help my fellow citizens do their part to hire candidates for temporary, taxpayer-funded jobs.
But instead, I will talk about my workday Tuesday. Here are some things you should know about how we did our part in Virginia’s primary elections, which I hope map with how elections are run wherever you may read this:
• Trust paper. Arlington uses hand-marked paper ballots that each voter feeds into a scanner that will read the ballot if it’s upside-down, right-side up, forwards or backwards. (We also have ballot-marking devices for voters with disabilities.) That paper trail then becomes part of the risk-limiting audit that Virginia now conducts after each election; the audit run after November’s election (but not reported out until March) confirmed that the votes as scanned accurately recorded how people marked their ballots. If your state is among the minority to still use “direct-recording” machines that leave no paper trail (hello, Texas), direct your ire at the elected officials who haven’t fixed that problem.
• Don’t confuse voter identification with TSA Pre. I checked in one voter who did not have a Virginia driver’s license but did appear in our poll-book app as a registered voter, and I saw other voters show up with the same scenario. That was understandable, as the Virginia DMV is struggling to catch up with a pandemic-inflicted backlog. It would be unconscionable to kick those people out of polling places when one government bureaucracy can’t issue ID cards fast enough while another has already confirmed their eligibility. I should note here that this voter brought their voter registration card; should you get stuck in this situation, bringing that other piece of paper will save a tired poll worker a little time.
• Expect software to fail; design for resilience. The most reassuring paper product I saw Tuesday was the printout of the entire pollbook for our precinct, which meant that we did not have to rely on our pollbook app to stay up all day. Fortunately, that software did work, by which I mean it functioned aside from the feature that was supposed to scan the bar code on the back of a Virginia driver’s license but instead failed at least nine out of 10 times in my experience.
• Check everything at least twice. My day started with opening packs of ballots and counting them, 10 at a time. Each shrink-wrapped pack should have held 100 ballots and did, but we checked that anyway–so that there would be no discrepancy between the number of ballots handed out and the number of voters checked in. We also verified each total at the end of every hour; each time, there was no surplus of voters or ballots. And then we made one last check after polls closed to confirm that we had handed out exactly one ballot per voter.
If the above sounds inefficient, you read this right. Election administration has to suffer some inefficiency to accommodate the conflicting demands of allowing voters secret ballots and yielding an auditable paper record. Deal with it.
The one thing you can say about any tech-policy dispute involving Facebook is that the ensuing discussion will take a while. Witness this week’s blowup in Australia, where the imminent passage of a bill (“News Media and Digital Platforms Mandatory Bargaining Code”) mandating a scheme of payments from the largest digital platforms to government-registered news publishers led Facebook to respond Wednesday with a news blackout. Now Australians can’t read or share news links on Facebook, Australian publishers can’t share their stories there, and Facebook users in every other country can’t share Australian news links either.
After writing about that fracas at Forbes on Wednesday, I spent too much time over the next day and a half in what may be my longest-ever tech-policy Twitter discussion. That left me feeling worn out–but also wishing I had taken a little more time to make my views clear. So for future reference, here are several things I think about this entire debate over what, if anything, tech platforms owe news sites.
Link taxes don’t make moral or economic sense. Not only does nobody need permission to link on the Web, a pointer to a news site–whether it’s a Google search result, a Facebook post or the blue text here–does not take from that site in any meaningful way. Well, not unless the nut of the story comes across in the headline and lead image, in which case the same story would likely go unread if seen on a newspaper’s home page. I’ve said this in various ways over more than a decade: the Washington Post in 2009, the Disruptive Competition Project in 2012, at Yahoo Finance in 2018, and at Glitch’s blog Glimmer last spring. (DisCo is a project of the Computer & Communications Industry Association, a trade group that counts Google as a member; as you can see, my judgment didn’t change before or after my one year contributing to its policy blog.)
The vast reach of Facebook and Google is a legitimate cause for nervousness. I think both companies exercise more influence over our online lives than is healthy and have written multiple how-to stories (see, for instance, these stories from 2017, 2018, and 2020) to get people to spend less time at each. And I’ve practiced what I preach, including the defaults in my own browsers and the setup of this blog. Yet people keep sticking with Google, even though it’s trivial to change your search site. My WordPress stats show that of the 291,315 search-engine referrals to this blog since its April 2011 launch, 277,850 came from Google. Y’all couldn’t try making DuckDuckGo or Bing the default in even one browser on one device?
Online advertising is a big part of the news industry’s problem. The more I look at the machinery behind the online ads that supposedly prop up news sites–meaning the display ads programmatically inserted to match a reader’s perceived interests–the more I hate it. We’ve built a system that requires extensive tracking of people across the Web, somehow involves the work of a large set of intermediaries yet still winds up dominated at multiple levels by Google, struggles to keep out bad actors, and winds up delivering too little money to publishers. You know what doesn’t even touch this problem? Demands for link taxes.
If digital platforms can build new businesses with publishers, that’s not wrong even if it happens under political duress. Google has responded to demands like those in Australia and in Europe with something called the News Showcase, an enhanced news-search site that takes readers direct to stories and pays publishers. It’s ugly and sad that Google is doing this to pay off publishers who would otherwise try to break the open Web, but if it gets money to newsrooms more reliably than digital ads, I’ll take it.
Updated 2/21/2021 to note that the Australian bill would have the government determine which publishers qualified for these payments, a deeply problematic provision in its own right, clean up some tangled syntax, and to add a paragraph about antitrust that should have been in this post yesterday.
Spending all of Thursday without once worrying about the president of the United States making yet another horrifyingly stupid announcement or appointment felt like a sort of luxury citizenship after four years of incessant Trump-induced anxiety.
Yet my own experience of President Trump’s reign of error may itself rank as luxurious compared to that of many other Americans. He did not bar my overseas cousins from entering the U.S., insult my religion or ancestry, send troops to my street, or put my child in a cage. The liar-in-chief did regularly denounce the news media as “the enemy of the people,” but my interactions with unhinged Trump supporters never left the online world. And I have to admit that the tax changes Trump pushed through appear to have saved us a decent amount of money.
But it still infuriated me to see my tax dollars spent to inflict those cruelties and more on other people, amplify Trump’s encouragements of racist wingnuts and conspiracy-theory kooks, and pay the salaries of the incompetent, bigoted and corrupt hangers-on who infested Trump’s White House. And then Trump’s willful denial of science helped turn a pandemic that was bound to be dreadful into a disaster whose death toll now exceeds America’s World War II’s combat casualties.
It’s usually a mistake to judge a president’s work too quickly. I now struggle to remember just what made George H.W. Bush seem so much worse than Bill Clinton when I voted for the first time in 1992, while my opinion of Barack Obama has slipped as I’ve realized what a mess he left in Syria. Amidst Trump’s American carnage, people who took their jobs seriously did some good work, even outside headline events like completing the return of human spaceflight to American soil; we may learn about more such quiet efforts.
But well before 2020, Trump’s toxic combination of narcissism, intolerance, ignorance and greed looked set to place him among America’s lesser commanders in chief. Now that Trump has further befouled himself by being the first president in American history to attempt to overturn a legitimate election result up to the point of inciting a deadly riot at the Capitol, I can’t imagine how most historians won’t rate him the lowest of the low, below even those craven sympathizers of slavery and secession James Buchanan and Andrew Johnson.
Joe Biden and Kamala Harris aren’t perfect (neither led my choices up to Virginia’s primary last March), but they are decent human beings willing to seek out experts and admit contrary evidence. In their administration, the White House should not be a house of lies or a stage for political extremists. And should they lose their next election, they’ll accept that outcome. Even if you once saw promise in Trump to become a disruptive outsider, I hope you can recognize that last bit as an upgrade.
These 147 politicians–including all four of Virginia’s Republican representatives–deserve expulsion from public life for this stunt, but instead we are stuck with them until they lose an election. Which, considering some of their districts, may never happen.
The next time those two or any of their 145 Trump-cult colleagues denounce tech companies as dangerous for democracy, do I skip past their own willingness to abandon it to keep an autocratic president in power over the will of voters? No. It would be obscene to do that.
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.
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.
7:18 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.
In four days, we Americans can punch out of our national nightmare. We can finish voting to close the books on the Trump administration’s luxuriation in lies, cruelty, bigotry, and incompetence and try to rebuild. Or we will re-up for another four years of that and probably worse.
This does not make for good sleep at night or mental focus during the day. We are all, as I’ve said of lesser things, in the Death Star trench.
The numbers here all look good for the American people to shut the door on Donald Trump, possibly in a landslide vote for Joe Biden. Yes, I did see things through blue-colored glasses four years ago–but then everybody assumed Hillary Clinton would win. A lot of people felt safe either sitting out an election featuring two unpopular candidates or voting for a third-party contender.
This year, pollsters have tried to correct for the mistakes they made at the state level four years ago, Trump’s administration is a known quantity instead of a high-leverage bet on an outsider–and a pandemic abetted by his criminally inept response has sent close to a quarter of a million Americans to their graves and put the economy into a ditch. Yet Democrats are by and large terrified, because nobody around for November 2016 can forget that shock.
When you’ve always typed a word one way, changing it absent new evidence can feel forced. I remember my college paper’s editorial board discussing whether to capitalize the “b” in “black” and then voting against it, and I’m sure I was among the no votes.
I’m also sure about who wasn’t among any of the votes: actual Black people.
How to describe fellow human beings of an enormous variety of cultures and religions with one easily-observable characteristic that others without that complexion often fixate on so they can put all these people into one racial basket?
“African-American” isn’t bad, but it implies an other-ness to Americans whose ancestors may have been in the United States for centuries longer than the ancestors of White people whom almost nobody labels “European-American.” (You can call me that if you want, but only because of my Irish passport.) And for many Black Americans, the genealogical trail stops on this side of the Atlantic, courtesy of the Middle Passage not yielding the documentation that came with the vessels on which my grandparents and great-grandparents came to Ellis Island from the 1910s onward.
As a catch-all term, African-American also fits poorly for more recent immigrants with family trees rooted on this side of the Atlantic. See, for example, presumptive Democratic vice-presidential nominee Sen. Kamala Harris (D.-Calif.), whose half-Jamaican, half-Indian ancestry led a relative to ask on Facebook how she could be African-American. A much less polite debate has boiled over on the Wikipedia entry for Harris.
Lower-case-b “black” fails in a similar manner if you write it next to an equally broad demographic description like “Asian” or “Latin.” It doesn’t seem weird to capitalize other ethnicities, but not the one we seem to talk about most often?
So Black it is, however belatedly. What about us paler folks? Do we write “white” in lowercase as one might lowercase “brown” when describing most people without European heritage?
I now say no. One reason, as the Washington Post observed in a note announcing its style change, is that “White also represents a distinct cultural identity in the United States.” But hold the mayo jokes, please: What that item left for a later Post podcast to observe is that whiteness has often amounted to the powerful absence of race.
As in, race is something for other people. If you don’t note somebody’s race when describing them, they must be White, and White people in the conversation may breathe a little easier knowing that they’re not about to slide into some uncomfortable conversation about race. Being White is the default setting that you don’t have to adjust or even acknowledge. That is a real thing that we should stop pretending doesn’t exist.
And as that Post podcast’s nuanced discussion reminded me, this issue of how we label these differences that exist far more in our minds than in actual human biology is fascinating. I wish my old Post colleague Bill Walsh were still around to join this conversation; I’m sure the most erudite copy editor I’ve known would have something smart to say.
As the United States continues to flail away at the novel-coronavirus pandemic, my part of it has done one thing right. Wednesday morning, Virginia’s Department of Health launched COVIDWISE–the first digital contact-tracing app shipped in the U.S. on the privacy-optimized Exposure Notifications framework that Apple and Google co-developed this spring.
COVIDWISE and other apps built on the Apple/Google system instead send out randomized Bluetooth beacons every few minutes, store those sent by nearby phones running these apps, and flag those that indicate sufficiently extended proximity to allow for COVID-19 transmission as doctors understand it. That’s the important but often misunderstood point: All of the actual contact matching is done on individual phones by these apps–not by Apple, Google or any health authorities.
If a user of COVIDWISE tests positive and alerts this system by entering the code given them by a doctor or test lab into this app, that will trigger their copy of the app to upload its record of the last 14 days of those flagged close contacts–again, anonymized beyond even Apple or Google’s knowledge–to a VDH-run server. The health authority’s server will then send a get-tested alert to phones that had originally broadcast the beacons behind those detected contacts–once the apps on those devices do their daily check-ins online for any such warnings.
The U.S. is late to this game–Latvia shipped the first such app based on Apple and Google’s framework, Apturi Covid, in late May. In that time, the single biggest complaint about the Apple/Google project from healthcare professionals has been that it’s too private and doesn’t provide the names or locations that would ease traditional contact-tracing efforts.
I’m not writing this just off reading Apple and Google’s documentation; I’ve spent a lot of time over the last two months talking to outside experts for a long report on digital-contact-tracing apps. Please trust me on this; you should install COVIDWISE.
Plus, there’s nothing to it. The pictures above show almost the entire process on my Android phone: download, open, tap through a few dialogs, that’s it. At no point did I have to enter any data, and the Settings app confirms that COVIDWISE has requested zero permissions for my data. It uses the Bluetooth radio and the network connection; that’s it, as I’ve confirmed on two other Android phones.
If I’m curious about how this app’s working, I can pop into Android’s Settings app (search “COVID” or “exposure”) to see when my phone last performed an exposure check. But I don’t expect to get any other sign of this app’s presence on my phone–unless it warns me that I stood too close to somebody who tested positive, in which case I may not enjoy that notification but will certainly need it.
Updated 8/6/2020 with further details about the app’s setup and operation.
The annual exercise in accounting self-abuse that is me doing my own taxes ended three months later than originally scheduled and yet still on time, thanks to the IRS pushing Tax Day back to July 15 to make up for the coronavirus ruining everything.
That delay taught me what I’d needed all along to make this math masochism easier: a dress rehearsal a month and a half before the real deadline. Here, my thanks must go to the Virginia Department of Taxation, which extended the deadline to pay state taxes but only by a month–from May 1 to June 1–and left in place the automatic six-month extension to file state returns.
I didn’t want to send too much or too little money to Richmond, so I needed to get our federal taxes close enough to done for me to plug the relevant figures into our Virginia return and get a reliable estimate. I plowed through TurboTax, as usual needing much more time to calculate my business profit after expenses than for any other part of the return. As much as I miss having itemized deductions make a large amount of our tax bill vanish, getting them right did eat up a lot of hours.
(Side rant: My TurboTax labors also went faster than usual because I finally figured out the freakshow workaround required to import statements from some old American Funds holdings. Without that, I would have had to type in those figures by hand because the PDF download this inept investment firm provided was a giant image without any selectable numbers.)
In past years, TurboTax and Free Fillable Forms have agreed on what I’d owe Richmond or what Richmond owed us. This year, the stone tablet of spreadsheets said we’d owe $10 more than what TurboTax estimated for our Virginia bill. I ignored that at the end of June but went back through all the numbers again this week without finding any reason for the difference. Which is fine–maybe we paid Virginia a Hamilton we don’t owe, but I’m sure my state could use the help these days.