November 14, 2020

November, the grayest month on the Seattle calendar, has seen some encouraging news for the world. My Internet-troll president is on his way out and we may have a COVID-19 vaccine soon.

We still have some big challenges locally. The Public Health — Seattle & King County COVID-19 dashboard shows that, as in much of the United States, our confirmed case count is climbing, though our hospitalization and fatality rates still remain low. As of yesterday afternoon, King County has 33,368 confirmed cases of COVID-19 and 828 people have died. Halting case growth will mean that everyone has to continue having less in-person interaction. I haven’t seen any of my teammates in person in over 8 months and I can’t foresee any substantial gatherings until well into 2021. For the first time in 12 years I’m not traveling out of town for Thanksgiving.

With work from home (WFH) firmly entrenched as what my employer calls the new normal — with a long-term view towards the “next normal” —  I’ve made and observed a lot of changes. My “fake commutes” have largely ended as the days have become shorter and wetter; I see no need to go for a bike ride in dark wet conditions just because I did so a year ago. Despite the decline in exercise minutes, I’m still more than 10 pounds lighter than I was when permanent WFH started in early March. I eat fewer snacks, prepare more meals at home, and pay a lot more attention to my home life than I had done before. I can’t recall having driven a car at all this year, and I went some 6 months without even being a passenger in one.

By far the greatest help during this tumultuous year has come from the friends and family members who have talked, texted, and video chatted with me. Any day with even a moderate amount of human contact is a good day. In addition, I’ve identified some companies and products that I call WFH MVPs. They’re the Most Valuable Players that have kept me productive, fed, entertained, and otherwise functional for most of this year. Big and small, prominent and obscure, I give kudos to these helpers in no particular order. Here’s the first batch.

Comcast, often cited as the most hated company in America, is my Internet service provider. Despite Seattle being tech-heavy — our metro area has more people working in software development than in any other field — and despite so many people working from home, all that extra demand hasn’t caused a single significant Comcast outage for me. I routinely get offers from CenturyLink for gigabit fiber-optic service, more than 5 times as fast as my Comcast package for a lower monthly fee, and yet I throw them away because Comcast has come through with reliable service. Credit where it’s due.

Discord is my new favorite communication app. I reluctantly joined it a couple of years ago to coordinate Pokémon Go activities near my home and office, but earlier this year a long-time friend invited me to a private server that she uses to chat with family and friends. I know this friend from our time on IRC over 20 years ago. Although Discord and IRC look superficially similar, Discord has a level of polish and functionality that far exceeds the free networks I used in the ’90s. It’s very easy to write bots for useful and whimsical reasons — I’m running 5 of them right now on a Raspberry Pi micro-PC that I bought for just this purpose. One bot takes a photo with a USB webcam and uploads it to a private channel every minute. You’d think that Discord would restrict my usage of a free, unboosted server for photo archiving, but the company is famously hands-off when it comes to its users. (That has also led to hate groups choosing Discord, but the company has shut many down and it never recommends me servers in the way that Facebook recommends toxic groups or Twitter toxic users.) To support the company and its ad-free business model, I’m now a paying subscriber to Discord Nitro, but its free tier is remarkably generous.

Amazon Prime has been a huge boon to me this year. I’d even credit it to my deciding not to buy or rent a car for shopping trips. After some challenges early this year that led to delays in deliveries, the company has been rock solid with delivering everything from toilet paper to bike supplies to live succulent plants (and a pretty AmazonBasics planter to hold them). For heavy items or on days when I didn’t feel well enough to go to the supermarket, their Prime Now service has delivered loads of groceries on as little as 45 minutes’ notice for a fair price. Amazon’s video-on-demand and photo storage perks for Prime members continue to be valuable. When I worked for Jeff Bezos, he would often comment on the folly of driving a 2,000-pound car to the store to buy 5 pounds of stuff. This year I’ve had a lot of things well under 5 pounds delivered to me quickly and safely.

My biggest COVID indulgence has been filling my home with greenery — I hadn’t had houseplants for most of the past 15 years. Swansons Nursery is a sprawling, overwhelming, all-encompassing place that sold me a big set of plants and pots. I left empty-handed on my first trip, but after writing up a plan with their advice and helpful staff, my next visit led to a large delivery the following Monday. Everyone there is passionate about plants, including the in-store staff and the delivery driver who boasted of the NASA-funded science about plants improving air quality as he single-handedly hoisted a 6-foot cinnamon tree into my living room. Even though one officially needs an appointment to shop there, it doesn’t feel constrained at all. Its cafe, which is an attraction all by itself, remains open. I’ve even come back with questions about maintaining my cinnamon tree, and a phalanx of staffers converged to take a look at some leaf samples I had brought. This is the kind of place that makes me feel more confident as a plant owner.

There are more WFH MVPs to write about. I’ll release my gratitude over time as 2020 comes to a merciful end.