These impermanent things: going through a near-century of mementos

My mom is getting ready to move to a smaller place, so I’ve spent some of the last few days inspecting a large collection of old photos, papers and scrapbooks that had been collecting dust in the attic.

Dad in 1938One thing I didn’t realize before starting this exercise was how unevenly these old pieces of paper would decay. Black-and-white photos from the 1930s and before (that’s my dad at the right) still look fine, but the brown paper of Mom’s scrapbooks from the 1940s (below) flakes into fine particles at the slightest pressure. There is no preserving some of this stuff.

That’s not an issue I or my heirs will have to deal with, as long as somebody takes a few minutes to copy data to a new storage medium every few years. And if an app exists to open those files, which should be a near-certainty for JPEGs and PDFs.

The other is the frequent absence of metadata. Looking at 1960s photos from cocktail parties–yes, much the same subject material as a typical weekend’s worth of Facebook photos–the only way I can identify their locations, their dates and times, and the people in them is to ask my mom. If Dad took those pictures in his single days, their details will probably remain a mystery, as he died in 1999. At least some of these photos have hand-written captions, some in writing that I can decipher without straining.

Mom's scrapbookThat, too, is a problem we’ll almost never have to deal with again.

It’s now been at least a dozen years since digital cameras went mainstream and we could stop worrying about not knowing the exact instant a photo was taken–assuming you remembered to set the time and adjust the time zone on a digicam. It’s been over eight years since smartphones began automatically geotagging photos. It’s been almost as long since photo-album apps on our computers or on social networks let us tag people in photos and started offering to find more pictures of them. Google Photos can even identify locations and faces in uploaded photos without any such metadata and also promises storage in perpetuity.

So some 50 years from now, when our daughter is going over old photos and videos–presumably in some VR interface–she will have a lot less mystery to deal with. But I hope she’ll come away with the same thought I’ve had while browsing through these keepsakes: You know, Mom and Dad were pretty cool back in the day.

Continue reading

I would like to buy an argument: debating Syrian-refugee paranoia

I’ve spent too much time over the last five days arguing with people who have suddenly decided that Syrian refugees represent such a threat to the United States that we cannot risk admitting any of them, and it’s been wearying work on multiple levels.

First, there’s the bankruptcy of the entire argument that boiled over after the Paris attacks. All of the attackers identified so far were EU nationals, not Syrian refugees; there’s no evidence the craven death cult that has no right to call itself Islamic is even trying to hide itself among refugees fleeing it (none of the 2,200-odd Syrian refugees admitted since Sept. 11, 2001 have been arrested for plotting violent acts); getting into the U.S. as a refugee is a tedious, years-long process; getting in as a Syrian refugee involves even more screening; and said craven death cult wants us to fear Muslim foreigners, so this entire demonization of Syrian refugees fits right into their playbook.

Japanese internment memorial(Before you brush off the previous paragraph as a product of the liberal media conspiracy, please read this debunking of refugee myths by longtime Virginia Republican Brian Schoeneman.)

Then there’s trying to grasp the logic of politicians who were for Syrian refugees before they were against it and now refuse to admit any unless we can guarantee that 100 percent of them don’t embody a threat that appears to be fictional. This devotion to security at all costs would be touching if so many of these same individuals didn’t shrug away such better-documented risks as America’s current gun policy, the death toll on our roads, and global warming.

Lest the last paragraph look like a jab at Republicans, remember that this fear-mongering is a bipartisan sport: The single worst statement on the subject may have come from Roanoke, Virginia’s Democratic mayor David Bowers, who cited the 1940s imprisonment of Japanese-Americans as a reasonable precedent before apologizing two days later.

The second-most trying part of this conversation is what happens when you ask strangers how they came to this reasoning. One conversation on Twitter ended with the fellow in question asserting that “I trust 10,000 Jews before I trust 10 Muslims.” A friend of a friend on Facebook declared that “Any restrictions in Muslims would be based on the fact that they have earned it.”

It would be easy to brush off this hysteria as the product of garden-variety xenophobia and Islamophobia, but then there’s the most difficult part of the deal: Hearing from friends I know to be educated and open-minded who still think we can’t let in any Syrian refugees.

I try not to be a jerk when talking politics with pals, but I probably haven’t lived up to that standard this week. All I can say is this: If I didn’t care what you thought, I wouldn’t waste so many processor cycles trying to convince you otherwise. But I wish I did know where you’re coming from, because you’ve totally lost me on this one.

Oh, and this: If you really do want to hold up the citizens of one country or the adherents of one religion as uniquely suspect, can you please first go to D.C. and spend a few minutes contemplating the Memorial to Japanese-American Patriotism in World War II that commemorates the fear-driven imprisonment of 110,000 to 120,000 people who came from or had ancestors in the wrong country? Then ask yourself: Are you willing to make that same statement in front of this monument to our surrender to bigotry 73 years ago?

Je t’aime, Paris

Eiffel Tower in 1991Lesser-known fact about me: For one happy summer in 1990, I qualified as a part-time Parisian. I owed that to my dad, who had first lucked into a transfer to his employer’s Paris office and then–nepotism at its finest!–arranged a summer job for me there.

Each morning, I’d board the train in the suburb of Louveciennes, transfer to the RER, escape from the subterranean, odorous archipelago of the Châtelet – les Halles station, and enjoy a short walk to Dad’s office. I’d plug away at building out a database, then take a long lunch break and explore the city.

I’d come back, immerse myself in Paradox for another few hours and then head home. I felt like I’d won an occupational lottery on top of the life-lottery victory of my parents’ move to France in 1989 and my subsequent spring, summer and winter breaks there.

Paris office viewThe two and a half years my family spent around France’s capital before returning to the States in 1991 gave me the chance to know the city beyond bucket-list tourist attractions: the sculpture garden of modern architecture that is La Défense; quiet, tree-lined streets in the inner arrondissements; the roof of the old opera building that a friend and I somehow made our way to after ditching a tour.

This time also left me with an enduring fondness for baguettes, croissants, Camembert, crêpes, Côtes du Rhône, steak frites, duck breast, any other entrée done up with a pan sauce, and Calvados.

And it taught me to speak French well enough that Parisians stopped automatically replying in English. (I had an unfair advantage at Georgetown’s foreign-language proficiency exam: When my examiner handed me a Le Monde story and asked me to discuss it, I realized I’d read that piece a week before while spending Easter with my family.) That fluency has faded, but I still enjoy dusting off my rusty French to help a visitor like the gentleman at the Walmart near Union Station who needed a prepaid SIM card for his phone.

France passport stampsI wish I were writing this out of idle nostalgia. But I’m not. The city I adored 25 years ago fell victim to a series of monstrous crimes Friday night, apparently committed by the same craven death cult that has murdered thousands more across the Middle East and has no right to call itself “Islamic” or even “human.”

There is nothing I can do to reverse that. But I can say this much after almost a quarter-century apart: Paris, it’s been so long since last we met, but I will return. That’s a promise.

Interplanetary download times, then and now

Like many of you, I’ve spent much of this week refreshing various NASA social-media feeds to see the latest pictures from Pluto.

Voyager Neptune image

Neptune as seen by Voyager 2 on August 14, 1989.

New Horizons Pluto image

Pluto as seen by New Horizons on July 13, 2015.

Beyond the ongoing amazement that with less than half a penny of every federal dollar, NASA has taken our senses further into the solar system than anybody else in history, this has gotten me thinking of the last times we explored a planet for the first time.

When Voyager 2 flew by Uranus and then Neptune in 1986 and 1989, my download time to see color photos of either planet for longer than a brief spot on the evening news could span months. The New York Times was a black-and-white production, so I would have to wait for the inevitable National Geographic cover story that I would then read and re-read obsessively.

When the Web came around years later, it did not take me long to realize that magazine production cycles and the U.S. Postal Service would never again limit my ability to geek out over pictures taken by robot spacecraft billions of miles away.

And now we’re outright spoiled–I cannot keep track of the image catalogs maintained by various NASA centers. But to see full-resolution copies of the images captured by New Horizons this week, we will have to wait even longer than we did in 1986 and 1989: At 1,000 bits per second, the maximum bit rate available from 2.97 billion miles away, it will take 16 months to get a complete set of the spacecraft’s observations.

The fine art of viewing fireworks in D.C.

It’s July 4th, and if you’re in the nation’s capital you (or at least, those of you without small children in tow) have one job: Find a way to see the fireworks that doesn’t involve dealing with the hordes on or near the Mall and the transportation chaos before and after.

Fireworks from rooftopThe single best option I’ve found is either the roof of somebody’s house or the balcony of somebody’s apartment. Either way, you’ve got a maximum of personal space with food, beverages and a bathroom close by–and you’ll be with friends or at least friends of friends. And if you’re really lucky, some pyro a few doors down will be setting off fireworks from his own roof, a sight my wife and I were treated to in 2009 atop one pal’s Logan Circle row house.

Second comes the roof deck of an apartment or office. That was our go-to solution for a few years when friends of ours lived in a high-rise a few blocks away from our abode, and I’m sure people who work in buildings downtown with roof decks become a lot more popular this time of year.

But buildings aren’t the only way to see the fireworks. In 2006, we rented a canoe with two friends of ours from the late, great Jack’s Boathouse, then watched the pyrotechnics from the Potomac as we shared a bottle of wine, a baguette and some cheese. This required a few compromises (like having no bathroom option short of paddling over to Theodore Roosevelt Island and running into the woods, something nobody had to do) but was pretty great overall.

These days, though, having an almost five-year-old means we have to look for simpler solutions. Like our front porch, from where we can sort of see the fireworks through the trees across the street. Or even falling back to watching them on TV. And that’s okay too; the important thing about America’s birthday is to take a minute to appreciate this good country we live in.

History moves fast sometimes

I spent four years studying history in college, and the big takeaway was that progress is a slow game that requires the ability to get up after getting knocked down, over and over.

A slightly worn American flag flutters in a spring breeze.

The exceptions to that rule are rare and delightful. My freshman year, we watched Communism crumble across Eastern Europe so fast that one professor told us to put aside the assigned textbooks and instead read the paper each morning and come prepared to discuss the latest news from Berlin, Warsaw, Prague, Budapest and beyond.

The past week in America has felt like that. Within a few days, the vile cruelty of the Charleston shootings finally awakened many Southern whites to the reality that the Confederate battle flag is far too stained by hate to deserve a place of honor on the people’s property. It and other salutes to the Confederacy’s war against the United States now look set to vanish from government facilities as fast as statues of Lenin in the Warsaw Pact’s client states.

(Note to Virginia: Now would be a swell time to rename the Jefferson Davis Highway. I’ve already e-mailed my state senator and delegate to say as much.)

And then on Friday, less than two years after throwing out the insultingly ill-named “Defense of Marriage Act,” the Supreme Court ruled that marriage equality was the law. This case of justice arriving like a thunderbolt, as President Obama said, could not have happened without decades of effort.

And yet: It came less than 11 years after Karl Rove made ballot initiatives against gay marriage part of a winning Republican strategy. It was nine years since a Virginia constitutional amendment banning any state recognition of same-sex unions passed the commonwealth by a large margin. It happened seven years after Obama stated his opposition to gay marriage during the 2008 campaign, and people like me didn’t think that was a huge problem. Not even a year and a half ago, Virginia Attorney General Mark Herring (who refused to defend the gay-marriage ban he’d voted for in 2006) defeated his opponent Mark Obenshain (who had not changed his mind about that now-defunct law) by only 907 votes.

Thinking about all that, I sent a celebratory e-mail to my wife with a single-character subject line: “=”

Tales from the software-CD crypt

Wednesday’s “worst version of Windows” column for Yahoo Tech was a fun stumble down memory lane, and not just because it allowed me to re-read reviews of Windows Me and Windows XP: I also got to dig out some of my semi-treasured collection of software CDs.

Old and obscure software CDsI started collecting them once I had a desk of my own at the Post, and these things soon became a core part of my cubicle decor there. Beyond the Windows CDs you saw in the photo atop that column, I have:

  • a BeOS CD that I then tried out on my Mac clone and thought was a revelation compared to the Mac OS of 1997;
  • a CD for the Snap online service CNet launched with EarthLink in 1997, and which I’m sure nobody else remembers today;
  • a system CD from the Power Mac Cube I reviewed for the Post;
  • a rectangular CD for Windows Media Player 7 that was supposed to portray that awful music app’s interface, and which would be unusable on any computer with a slot-loading optical drive;
  • a CD of Insignia Software’s SoftWindows, an emulation app that shipped for the first Power Macs.

These obscurities don’t function as any sort of decor now that they’re stashed in an interoffice envelope. But they do help remind me of where the industry’s come (remember when the only way the Mac was going to survive is if you could run Windows programs miserably slowly on it?) and of reviews that I perhaps could have done better.

And they’re also a type of keepsake that’s been rendered obsolete by the online delivery of almost all software. What am I going to do, take a screengrab of the .zip file that contained my beta download of Windows 10?