Working from home during the Corona shutdown

Like many people these days I currently work from home. Due to the corona pandemic, everything that is not essential is closed in Switzerland. Since I work in software development, it is possible to work at home. Most if not all people in my team do so. What is great about the new situation is that I can now eat lunch with my family. We also try to go for a short walk to the lake or the forest after lunch. But there are a couple of factors that make working at home challenging:

  • The factor that I anticipated to be the worst, is distraction. Normally when I try to work on something at home that needs concentration, it takes on average five minutes before somebody comes and wants something from me. And then again after another five minutes, and again and again. This is why I can usually only work at home, when everybody else is asleep. All the more astonished am I, that they leave me do my work now that it’s for my employer and not a hobby project of mine. A very important contribution is from my noise cancelling headphones. Without them this would not be possible.
  • The office at home is the size of a broom closet. It is 1.4 by 2.2 meters with no window or direct daylight. Thus it is important to go out to the patio from time to time to get some fresh air and some rays of sun light.
  • I have a very comfortable chair in my home office, and a nice solid table. But I grew so used to the table I have at work that I can raise to a standing position whenever I want. Even if I wanted to buy such a table, I couldn’t fit it in my small office at home. So I have to take care to move my body enough, not to develop back pain. Especially now that I can’t go swimming in the communal pool. I just hope the lock-down won’t get so bad that I can’t go running any more.
  • My screens are roughly 20 years old, and the low resolution makes it a bit challenging to work effectively. I wanted to order a new screen for years, but always postponed the purchase. Now that I knew that I would work from home, I figured it is the time to go ahead. Even though I ordered it very soon, delivery took more than a week, as the online shops and delivery companies are totally overwhelmed at the moment. The new screen is a blast. It is even bigger than I imagined.
  • And then, there is the big elephant in the room. Let me begin by a quote I recently read on the website of the Session messenger: “Friends don’t let friends use compromised messengers”. This statement really resonated with me. On the opposite end of the spectrum, there is a communication software that is closed source, has a proprietary protocol, centralized infrastructure, no end-to-end encryption, constant access to the internet, the microphone, the webcam, the keyboard and the screen. On top of that it also has the capability to take over control of the computer. Back Orifice pales in comparison with these capabilities. That it is tedious to use and only fully works about half of the time is only the lesser evil. It was developed by a company with a long track record of deception and abuses. This software is called Microsoft Teams, and it was recently declared as the primary means of communication in our company. In the past, I flat out refused to use it. But in the current environment of emergency, I felt that I could not complicate things. Apparently, there was not much opposition against inviting the panopticon into our homes. When a co-worker told me that it could be used from within the browser, I was slightly relieved. As long as it is contained in the browser sandbox, the amount of harm it can do is somewhat limited. With the browser you have some control over what access you grant it. Unfortunately in the browser only the chat feature worked, but no audio or video calls. So my team lead asked me to install the desktop client. Installing malware directly on the machine was a no-go for me. So I installed it quarantined inside an empty virtual machine. This now works for audio conferences. But I feel uneasy, uncomfortable even stressed, whenever it is running. My stress level when Teams is running is comparable with sitting on a dentist chair. That is not healthy over time. Thus I often block access to the microphone and the network to the VM, but that brings only light improvement. So, when somebody writes on slack, I enable Teams, but I can’t have it running with full access all the time, I just can’t. I am reachable through slack, email, phone, text messages, tox, session, even telegram. They all have an open source client that I can trust. I just need a quick note, to start Teams on request. Isn’t it ironic that with the struggle to care about physical hygiene, nobody seems to think about digital hygiene.

I often think about why I care more about digital security and privacy than average people. So many people carelessly ignore the security of their devices, it is completely reckless. How people voluntarily put something like an Amazon Alexa in their home is beyond me. I don’t think I have more to hide than other people. For a long time I have cared about FLOSS . It is not only that I dislike artificial barriers, vendor-lock-ins and planned obsolescence. It is also the trust gained through being able to inspect the software. But the biggest impact came, when I started to be involved with Bitcoin. This is when I really learned about the value of information, and how to protect it. There were times when I had more wealth sitting on my computer than on my bank account. Who wouldn’t think about how to protect it from the grabs of thieves. With Bitcoin, you are responsible for the private keys. When you fail to protect them, your wealth is gone. There is no bank you can beg to reverse the transaction. But on the plus side, If you protect your data well, nobody can steal it from you. If your bank goes bust, your Bitcoins are still save. Many people don’t want that responsibility, and prefer somebody else to handle it for them. I can see the same behavior with cloud computing. Bitcoin people are very passionate about OpSec. I am talking about the original cypherpunk people here, not the “get rich quick” crowd that showed up later on. There is a mantra in the Bitcoin world: “don’t trust, verify”. Everything that can’t be verified, such as closed source software has to be considered compromised.

Ok, enough of going on a tangent. This post is about working from home. My wive calculated the first day, that I should now be able to finish at least an hour earlier, because there is no more commute. Sounds reasonable, right? My usual day now looks like this: I get up at the same time as usual and take a shower. I dress the same way and groom the beard the same way as I would, if I went outside. Instead of having breakfast alone and driving to work, I start working. When everybody is ready, we have breakfast together. After that I work again until lunch is ready. When I have to go to the toilet, I also grab a fresh tea and go outside for a minute to get some fresh air and some sun. The lunch break is longer than at the office. The kids eat very slowly, and we have a rule at home that we all wait at the table for everybody to finish. Then we usually go for a walk to the forest and/or the lake. We are very fortunate that both are only about two hundred meters away. Because the lunch break is longer, I often work as long in the afternoon, as I usually am in the office. Sometimes I even work till the time I would otherwise arrive at home.

We also currently spend the weekends mostly at home. So I took the chance, to tidy up and clean my small office at home.

Interesting reading about privacy in the current state of emergency: