AuthorCarl

Coronavirus Diary 1

I’ve made a huge mistake.

For the past two years I worked from home. I would sometimes go multiple days between leaving the house other than getting the mail or refilling my bird feeders. I was a government contractor support Webex, and a host of other teleconferencing options for a government agency you’ve heard of.

I am particularly well-suited for remote work as I’ve had the time (and money) to setup a space that’s not grandiose by any means but far surpasses anything I’ve ever found at a job site.

I have a hand-crank standing desk from Ikea that I dearly love. Not always because I want to stand, but I’m tall and often times desks aren’t high enough for me. It’s a huge open workspace I can lay out computers and notebooks and whatever I’m tinkering with at the time with room to spare.

I have two monitors setup amongst my small army of computers. I have two windows I can open for cross-breeze. I can control the temperature and amount of light at any given time. Those last two are the biggest benefits of working from home. Light and temperature control are so often overlooked at offices.

I’m also extremely introverted. I’ve got lists of books and projects and things to do miles long. To be inside is to be in my element.

My wife and I do not have any children so we are not trying to figure out how to keep small people entertained and educated all day, while stressing about them, and the coronavirus and the state of the world and… and… and…

It is a great irony not lost on me that on my birthday this year, in Mid-February I resigned from my full-time remote job to take another job in an office. Albeit very nearby which allows me to avoid all of the Interstates and Beltway hellscapes of Washington DC area traffic.

But it means going to work. In an office. Away from my perfect work place. Right at the start of this outbreak.

That lasted a week.

Then I was sent back home since I’m in a position where my job can be done remotely. Which I understand is a completely privileged position. The place where I work relies on people being in the office so many don’t have the same luxury.

Where did I decide to take a job right at the start of a global pandemic where millions of people are being sent home to work or quarantined in their homes?

Why, a company that specializes in remote collaboration of course! My new role is to oversee Webex and Zoom webinars for clients of all sizes including many large companies and government entities you’ve heard of.

I jumped out of the frying pan and directly into a seething volcano! It’s been a breakneck pace for the past week trying to get up to speed and onboarded into a new company, all the while everything is on fire!

This is how my week has been going. And how next week will go. And how the weeks for the foreseeable future will continue.

It’s thrilling being right in the middle or building something and racing to troubleshoot and put out fires with the technology platforms our business relies on. All while trying to learn the business and how it all works internally. I’ve had just as many people ask me this week how my first two weeks have gone as had said how much they appreciated my help with something or expertise I was able to provide. Or even having a warm body to hand a task off to and trust it would get done.

It’s a satisfying feeling knowing I am appreciated and that I can step in and immediately contribute. And those contributions aren’t overlooked. I’m no longer one number on a huge spreadsheet somewhere. A cost for a large government contractor to worry about spending money on. Worried I’ll ask for more or want more out of my position.

As much as it’s nice to know I’m an asset, it’s just as stressful. We use a lot of remote cloud-based applications with work and they’re struggling to keep up at times. Zoom and Webex overall seem to be doing a good job at the basics, but not a day goes by I don’t have a stream of alerts and notifications of various issues with both platforms.

Many of the them are simply limitations of capacity. There are only so many phone lines into a country. There are only so many ports for data and voice to travel across. Just as with cars and trucks sharing a road, the same is true for the internet. And we are going to test that infrastructure like never before.

I’m thankful to still be working. I’m thankful to still be healthy. I’m thankful to have been part of a religion for a time that pushed preparation and saving. It’s serving us well as we have safety nets and savings in place for ourselves.

We are lucky.

And if you made it this far, here’s a silly picture of Zoom multi-platform testing.

Testing Zoom on Mac, Linux and Mobile.

Trials and Treadmills

Friday night I left my house to pick up a Sole F80 Treadmill from a Craigslisting. I drove from my home in Maryland to Northern Virginia in rush hour traffic. Even so, my wife and I made it right near 7 pm, the meeting time. Only to learn there was no way this massive machine would fit into my vehicle. I needed a pickup truck. I do not own a pickup truck.

The guy we met said there was a Home Depot a few miles away, so we jumped in the car and headed there. Sure enough, 2.4 miles away was the store. Would they rent us a truck at this late hour? Now nearly 7:45 pm? Yes. Barely.

I think the woman working the customer service area took pity on us and even though it was after their rental cut-off, and my repeated promises to have the truck returned by closing time (10 pm). I walked out with truck keys. We jumped in the truck and headed back to pick up the massive fitness monster. 

The three of us were able to lift it into the back of the truck. I didn’t have any straps or twine to secure it, but I wasn’t worried about it moving around. I was going to take it easy going home and this thing was nearly 300 pounds.

Before you laugh at my treadmill moving story, here are the dimensions of this thing.

  • Height (in.): 57″
  • Length (in.): 82″
  • Width (in.): 37″
  • Item Weight (lbs.): 278

After we loaded it, I got into the truck and my wife into her car. Because we had left from difference places, we had to drive separately to the pickup. We hadn’t planned on renting a truck and adding that complexity to this purchase. But little did I know, my night was only beginning. At 8 pm…

Heading out of the neighborhood and onto I-66 then I-495 to I-270 was uneventful. The treadmill shifted once when I had to brake harder than I wanted. The problem with leaving enough space between your truck and the vehicle in front of you in DC-area traffic is an open invitation to anyone with a car small enough to zip into that space. And one of those cars zipped a little too close and braked suddenly when the car in front of them did.

Other than that, I made it across the three interstates to my exit and slowly drove through the neighborhoods near my home. The slow turns and rough roads cause the treadmill to move around more than 25 miles from the store. It moved a bit and I had one nightmarish moment as it slid towards the side when the truck hit a pothole rounding a corner.

But eventually, I arrived home with our prize.

We fought the near-freezing temperatures and gusting wind cutting through our clothes to get it off the truck and onto the lawn. I thought momentarily about trying to wrestle it inside, but I was on a deadline. I needed to get back in that truck and drive it another 25 miles back to the store. 

10 pm was my deadline. I pulled up the route on Waze and checked its estimate. 9:22 pm. I was going to make it. But I needed to get moving. Ordinarily, a 40-minute window would be more than enough to give some comfort. Not where I live. 40 minutes can easily get added to a 25-mile journey.

So I was off again. Back in the truck. This time, without cargo so I was able to drive the speed limit going back and didn’t need to worry as much. It was another uneventful drive back to the store. I gassed up the truck and returned it to the store’s parking lot.

I walked in and over to customer service where I saw the woman who had checked us out. 

“You’re back! You made it!” She nearly shouted when she saw me. I could tell she thought I was making promises when I rent the truck so she would give it to me. I was back at 9:30 pm. I had gassed the truck and was rewarded with a final cost of just shy of $40 for the truck and $9 for the gas.

So our $1500 treadmill was up to about $290 so far.

Then I had to drive home. Again.

My wife stayed behind to order dinner and get off her feet since she’d been working all day and there was no reason for two of us to drive 50 miles round trip together.

I left Home Depot. I headed home again. I arrived shortly after 10 pm to the mammoth treadmill lurking in the darkness in my yard. It hadn’t moved. It wasn’t going to without a lot of effort.

I went in and ate the best-tasting calzone I’ve possibly ever tasted. 

Then it was time to meet the next challenge. How do we get this 278 pile of metal and plastic into our house? We had a wooden dolly (a rectangle of wood with wheels). The treadmill has wheels, but they were useless over the grass, so we wrestled it on the dolly to the paved pathway to our front door.

This is where our next set of problems began. With every dimension, it was too big to fit through our doors. So we started figuring out what to take apart and how to take it apart.

Keep in mind it’s 33° F (one degree above freezing). It’s 11 pm, windy and moonless outside. Even with the house’s exterior lights, flashlights and gloves were required.

While I looked for Allen wrenches, my wife looked up the manual and for a video on how to put it together (since no one makes a video on how to pull it apart). So we knew what and where we were looking for. Now I just needed the tools.

This is where my saving tendencies paid off. I had a collection of Allen wrenches from various Ikea installs. I hoped one of those was the right size. Thankfully, they were. It was too late to go anywhere to get the tools we needed so we would have had to left the treadmill outside overnight until we could get tools.

So I went to work removing the top display. Hoping this would make it short enough to fit through the doorway. It was only a couple of screws to remove and collapse it. But it didn’t get us enough room to get in the front door. After nearly an hour of trying, frozen and exhausted already, we loaded it back on the dolly and rolled it around to the side door. There were no stairs. Just a small step up from the paved path to the door. 

But even with the top off, it was just too big.

Because of the hydraulic system that allows the belt to descend once unfolded, it was wouldn’t allow us to collapse it without the weight of the machine holding it down. There was no way we could press it down enough to move it through the door.

We tried one direction. Then the other. And with the weight of it, I could lift it and my wife could steady it, but we weren’t able to lift all of it at once. 

Halfway in the door, when it became clear, it wasn’t going in anymore, I went to move the doormat which had gotten stuck between the belt and the door, I hoped maybe it would give us a tiny bit more room to make it inside. 

Not only did it not, but I also knocked it over and it fell on my wife’s foot and scraped down her leg. Thankfully, it didn’t break anything and didn’t land on her, more bounced off her foot as she put it. But it still put her out of commission for the night and destroyed most of the plastic parts, including the part that covers the motor and electrical system. So that was now exposed. I left it where it fell and went inside to make sure we didn’t need to get her medical help.

She was more or less OK. Just wish a sore foot. I got her some ice and pain killer and she got set up on the couch under a blanket to warm up and rest her foot.

After confirming she was OK and didn’t need anything else from me, I went back to the problem of getting this treadmill inside our house.

I crouched over it and started looking at what else I could take apart to get it inside. I was looking at the plastic covering on the underside of the belt. Could I remove the base from the track? Could I find a way to compress it or disable the hydraulic lift at all?

Yes.

Yes, I could.

As it was now around 12:30 am, still freezing cold and still windy, I was exhausted. Maybe if I was thinking clearer I would have thought of this sooner. But I looked at the lift and realized it’s the same type of mechanism that works my screen door, which I had taken apart earlier in the night.

So while I could not remove the base or track without a lot of work and tools I wasn’t sure I had. I could remove the single screw that held the hydraulic pump in place and kept the belt upright.

I couldn’t believe it. After hours of struggling. After the injury to my wife and the bruises and cuts I had and didn’t even realize until my wife pointed them out to me, possibly because I was numb.

I grabbed my trusty Allen wrench.

I removed that single screw. I stuck it in my pocket and laid the base flat to the belt.

Now, a little after 1 is, I finally had the treadmill small enough to get through my door. So I wrestled it on to the dolly and rolled it into the house. This got me halfway into the house. Through moving one side, then the other across the kitchen’s tile floor, I was eventually able to get the rest of the treadmill inside our house.

At 1 am. More than 6 hours after I left my house thinking “I will go pick up this treadmill and bring it home at a great price!” It was inside. In pieces.

It was battered. There were many plastic pieces that were broken all or partially off. I was cut and bruised. My wife had swollen and cut. I had the treadmill inside, in three pieces. But it was inside.

I went upstairs to shower and collapse into bed.

The next afternoon, after getting a good night’s sleep and taking some more pain killers, we set to work putting this treadmill back together. Thankfully, we didn’t lose any screws and there weren’t that many pieces to put back in place. We slit the remaining plastic protectors on and screwed the base together. We connected the cabling and screwed everything back into place.

I plugged it in and it powered on. I was happy. I was afraid we had broken something, most likely a cable when we were moving it. But it wouldn’t start. The motor wouldn’t turn. It seemed to be in a display mode. None of the buttons worked. Panicking a little bit, I then realize we didn’t have the safety key in place. The bright red piece of metal and plastic that acts as an emergency stop.

Once we found where we’d put it, set it in place, and pressed start, the machine sang and slowly started the motor running and the belt moved.

Success! We had done it.

Even with the replacement plastic pieces costing another $70, we had a working treadmill. All said and done, it was still far cheaper than buying it new anywhere.

The final cost breakdown was:

  • $240 for the treadmill
  • $40 to rent a truck
  • $9 for gas in the truck on return
  • $30 in gas (estimated) for the driving back and forth
  • $70 for replacement plastic parts

$389 for a $1500 treadmill. Not counting our time, blood, sweat and tears.

Permanent Record by Edward Snowden

My favorite part of this entire book is his description of how terrible it is live in the DC area. The traffic. The people. Just trying to get around is an entire evening’s endeavor.

Ed Snowden’s description of DC.

The second part I loved about this book is his description of the access to some administrators have. The ability to look into each and every part of a system because that person has to administer and fix that system when it breaks is like the hand of God reaching out over computer files and information.

Trust is a huge requirement when it comes to administering computer systems. Trust can easily be broken when there’s no oversight. And can be easily abused when there’s no accountability.

The hardest part of this book to read, by far, was the portions of his girlfriend Lindsay’s journal entries.

On Compensation

When trying to understand (and let’s be honest – increase!) my pay, I’ve found it really useful to first understand the processes around compensation at the company I work for. Here are some questions you can ask. Your manager can probably answer many of these, but your colleagues might know too!

Questions you can ask about compensation – Julia Evans

Two questions I like to ask in interviews are very similar to these:

Who makes decisions about raises? (is it at the discretion of the manager? Does the manager have a fixed budget they can give out? Is there a formula based on past performance evaluations?)

When do we adjust salaries? (on the employee’s work anniversary? Right after a performance review?)

I like to ask something like, “In a year if I’m hired and I excel in the position and bring a ton of value to the company, what does the review process look like? How is performance reviewed and what is the outcome from those reviews?”

Now, in the world of government contracting, often times the “performance review” is a performance in itself. There’s no actual review. There’s no outcome other than checking the box for received performance review.

But in the private sector, there should be a review of your performance. And it should mean something. If the interviewer(s) can’t answer these questions, then there may not be a plan in place and it could be a warning sign.

If that’s the case, negotiate strong up front. Push for as much money, time off, other benefits the company offers as you can. This may be your one and only chance.

All of the questions Julia lists are great and depending on your situation may or may not apply to your situation. But they’re good things to think about. Especially if the money isn’t where you want it to be, ask for more vacation time or some other benefit that can often be considered.

And when it comes to salary, always, always, always, always ask for more money.

The worst that can happen is you’re told no.

But there’s often a couple thousand more dollars per year you’re leaving on the table if you don’t ask. If you’re offered $30k, ask for $35k. Even if they only offer $32k, that’s an extra $2,000 per year you wouldn’t have gotten.

Never take the first offer. Always ask for more. There’s more to be given, all you need to do is ask.

Recording All the Melodies

In this recent TED Talk, lawyer, musician, and technologist Damien Riehl talks about the rapidly diminishing number of melodies available to songwriters under the current system of copyright. In order to help songwriters avoid these melodic legal landmines (some of which are documented here), Riehl and his pal Noah Rubin designed and wrote a program to record every possible 8-note, 12-beat melody and released the results — all 68+ billion melodies, 2.6 terabytes of data — into the public domain.

We are running into this with our podcast. When I take our show, add video to it and upload it to YouTube, we inevitably get hit with some copyright claim.

Often for innocuous audio behind something that, if removed, would have no bearing on what’s being said. It’s a bit of sad music. Or a guitar riff that meanders on.

We aren’t at the level of making any money off YouTube, but if we were, it would give me a strong reason not to upload the show to their service.