Don’t blame this nonsense on “Washington” or “Congress”

Most of the federal government shut down at midnight, and that sucks for multiple reasons. (Beyond the basic breakdown in democratic government on display, the shutdown has cut off a few friends from their next paychecks.) But spare me the ritual outrage over the evils of “Washington” or “Congress.”

Capitol stop-sign barrierThe former is not just a political abstraction but a city of 632,323 people. Most of the residents of the District of Columbia have nothing to do with Congress, and none have voting representation there.

As for the latter, there’s a great deal to dislike in the deliberative body that meets and occasionally gets actual work done a few blocks south of Union Station. But it’s an epic feat of false equivalency to blame the shutdown on some bipartisan failure to cooperate.

One part of one party in one house of Congress made it happen. That segment of House Republicans deeply loathes the Affordable Care Act (would that all these advocates of individual liberty were also at the barricades over the NSA’s subversion of the Fourth Amendment), have already staged dozens of stunt votes against it, and yesterday led the rest of the House GOP to hold up the entire federal budget over a policy that won a mandate in two presidential elections and survived the Supreme Court’s scrutiny.

That won’t work, on account of the simple math of a Democratic majority in the Senate and the absence of a veto-proof Republican majority in the House. That’s normally a cue to compromise. So is the political reality that every minute that ACA insurance signups continue in overwhelming numbers–oh, yes, that’s one thing the government shutdown didn’t stop–Obamacare collects more constituents.

In days or weeks, I trust that enough of the House will realize this–hopefully before the true  believers there shove the country into default. In the meantime, don’t mistake those in the grip of a preexisting condition some have diagnosed as Obamacare Derangement Syndrome for the entirety of Congress, and please leave the good city of Washington right out of this.

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Potential exposure is not forced exposure

One of the foremost foes of intellectual-property extortion is shutting down. Groklaw founder and editor Pamela Jones announced this morning in a post, titled “Forced Exposure,” that the possibility of NSA surveillance of her e-mail means she can’t trust e-mail as a means of collaborative input, and therefore the blog must end.

Groklaw signoffThey tell us that if you send or receive an email from outside the US, it will be read. If it’s encrypted, they keep it for five years, presumably in the hopes of tech advancing to be able to decrypt it against your will and without your knowledge. Groklaw has readers all over the world.

This news bothers me deeply–because Groklaw has provided an immense public service in collecting and presenting evidence of grotesque IP abuse such as the SCO Group’s prolonged and mendacious attempt to claim copyright over code in the Linux operating system, and because I don’t like finding fault with somebody whose work I and so many other people admire.

But look: Potential exposure is not forced exposure. Or if it is, it’s always been there. Yes, the NSA might be reading my e-mail and PJ’s. But keyloggers planted by the Russian mob might be reading it too. The NSA might have the ability to crack PGP encryption in five years–or they could have had it all along and haven’t told us, or they could decide to ignore that five-year timeline. Your own computer might be airtight, but what about the machines of all your correspondents? For that matter, how can you be sure you’ve maintained your privacy offline without going into Kaczysnki-esque seclusion?

If your reaction to those possibilities is to declare that all is lost and that you should “get off the Internet to the degree that it’s possible,” as PJ wrote in this morning’s post, then how are you not tumbling into the same existential fear that the defenders of the surveillance state sometimes seem to think is the right and proper state of a compliant citizenry?

I don’t know PJ (friends whose judgment I trust do and profess a deep respect for her) and only have a vague notion of what her life has been like running Groklaw (it’s entailed being the target of an unhealthy dose of character assassination). But with my limited knowledge I can’t endorse her stance. I wish she’d at least found somebody else to run the site: While we’re having this hypothetical discussion, very real copyright and patent extortion is going on, and Groklaw was doing a damn good job of exposing it.

Qualms Over QAM (2012 CEA re-post)

(Since a site redesign at the Consumer Electronics Association resulted in the posts I wrote for CEA’s Digital Dialogue blog vanishing, along with everything there older than last November, I’m reposting a few that I think still hold up or shed light on current issues. This one ran on Feb. 14, 2012;  the AllVid effort I mentioned at the end has gone nowhere since, but in October, the Federal Communications Commission voted to allow QAM encryption–with results that I’ll be discussing in this weekend’s USA Today column.)

This month’s telecom-policy squabble covers a TV technology that nobody seems to love–if they even know it exists.

The system in question goes by the name QAM, short for “quadrature amplitude modulation,” and it’s the only way to tune into digital cable without a box. But while “cable-ready” sets dealt fairly well with even premium channels in the mid 1990s, QAM’s horizons are far more limited.

Coax cableYou can’t count on QAM providing more than the “basic tier” of local broadcast stations plus public, educational and government channels. Forget ESPN or even CNN; to get those without a cable box, you need a CableCard-compliant device–which in practice means either a TiVo digital video recorder or one of a few add-on tuners for computers.

But it’s worse than that: As readers have testified and I’ve seen myself, QAM reception often presents a puzzling picture of your cable choices. Channels can appear under seemingly random numbers–and then move to new ones or disappear outright.

So the proposal now before the Federal Communications Commission to allow cable operators to encrypt QAM signals on all-digital networks–simplifying their systems while cutting off existing QAM hardware–might not seem like anything worth fussing over.

And yet for a small minority of users, QAM does work. Some use it on second or third sets (PDF); some resorted to basic-tier cable after failing to get adequate over-the-air digital-TV reception; some employ it to use computers as digital video recorders. And these subscribers don’t want it to go away.

How many people are we talking about? The Web-media-receiver vendor Boxee says that 40 percent of buyers of its new Boxee Live TV device use QAM to receive cable TV through that add-on. You could dismiss that as a figment of a small sample size; that $49 add-on has only been on sale since January. But a more established computer-video vendor, Hauppauge Computer Works, also cited 40 percent QAM usage (PDF) among buyers of its PC peripherals.

The Consumer Electronics Association has no stats for this segment of the market.

CEA has joined those manufacturers in their opposition to QAM encryption, writing in a November filing (PDF) that the FCC should decline this request unless it also moves forward on other, long-standing proposals to open up the market for TV hardware (more on that in a moment).

The cable companies’ arguments, as related over a call Friday with representatives of the National Cable & Telecommunications Association, fall into three categories:

• Cable operators’ own figures suggest that almost nobody relies on QAM. Cablevision, which obtained a waiver from the FCC to start encrypting QAM after converting to all-digital service in New York, N.Y., reported that “less than 0.1 percent of subscribers” (PDF) requested a free set-top box or CableCard to decode it.

• Encryption will allow remote activation and deactivation, without sending a technician on a truck to somebody’s house. (NCTA realizes that people don’t like sitting through four-hour service windows.)

• Encryption will also stop people from tuning into basic-tier cable without paying. RCN, among other cable operators, reports (PDF) this is a growing problem among Internet-only subscribers.

It’s important to note that the the cable operators, while maybe not everyone’s favorite companies, have been way ahead of satellite vendors in the interoperability game. DirecTV users who wanted to plug in a TiVo could only wait for that service to ship its own “DirecTiVo” model; that recently arrived, years late, to complaints over its aged interface.

Meanwhile, CableCard finally seems to work as advertised–even if that’s happened too late for some pioneering CableCard vendors. Once-prominent TiVo rival Moxi Digital gave up the fight two weeks ago when its new owner, ARRIS Group, announced that it would only sell through cable operators.

There’s been a proposal afoot, against opposition from cable, to set a comprehensive pay-TV standard called “AllVid” that would work not just for cable but also satellite and fiber-optic services. It would allow every screen in a home network to tie into a simple gateway adapter–the video equivalent of the wireless router that links a cable modem and a laptop.

That’s what CEA has been asking for in return for giving up clear QAM. Boxee could also live with this tradeoff, said spokesman Andrew Kippen; Hauppauge CEO Ken Plotkin, however, was not to ready to make that deal.

Me, I think I could live with that bargain–if it included an assurance that current QAM users who will have to tolerate a new box and remote control won’t have to pay extra for them. (If encrypting QAM harms so few people and yields as many benefits as cable operators say, they should be able to afford subsidizing that hardware.)

But this is an easy thing for me to say, since I switched to over-the-air and Internet broadcasts years ago. If you pay for cable today, I’d rather know your opinion: Would you trade simple reception of entry-level cable today for easy access to a full lineup of channels a few years from now?

Overlooked E-Book Chapter: DRM Makes Monopolies (2012 CEA repost)

(Since a site redesign at the Consumer Electronics Association resulted in the posts I wrote for CEA’s Digital Dialogue blog vanishing, along with everything there older than last November, I’m reposting a few that I think still hold up. This one ran on April 17, 2012; since then, sci-fi publisher Tor Books–a subsidiary of the Macmillan publishing conglomerate–has gone DRM-free, but most of the industry has yet to take that step.)

Even if you’ve been following the e-books story for the past five years, it can be hard to define the heroes and villains of that plot.

First Amazon was the innovator, liberating us from paper with its Kindle. Then Apple was going to upend things with the iPad’s iBooks app and store. Now the Department of Justice says that the real problem is an unholy union of the publishers and Apple.

E-book reader appsIn an antitrust lawsuit announced last Wednesday, the DoJ charged Hachette Book Group, HarperCollins Publishers, Simon & Schuster, Macmillan, Penguin Group and Apple with conspiring to fix prices, to the disadvantage of consumers and Amazon.

The first three publishers have already agreed to a settlement that will block “most-favored nation” clauses that prevent e-book stores from discounting titles while allowing them to place other limits on the sale of their work. Meanwhile, Macmillan, Penguin and Apple continue to fight the suit.

It’s an immensely complicated issue, colored to a large degree by who you think is more evil. Is the problem the big publishers targeted by the DoJ’s suit, who allegedly colluded over dinners in expensive Manhattan restaurants? Or is it the gigantic Seattle retailer, which both controls a huge share of e-book sales and has been getting into the publishing business itself?

(A CEA press release posits a third foe, quoting association president Gary Shapiro calling the lawsuit “another sad milestone in our government’s war on American companies.”)

But the basic issue at stake here is not complex: ensuring vigorous competition in e-books that eliminates the need for court battles and consent decrees. And in that context, you can’t ignore how publishers have not just given Amazon a tool to build a monopoly but required its use.

This is the “digital rights management” restrictions required by publishers on e-book titles sold through all of the major online outlets–not just Amazon’s Kindle Store but also Barnes & Noble’s Nook store and Apple’s iBookstore.

DRM is supposed to stop unauthorized copying and sharing by making a copyrighted work playable, readable or visible only on authorized products. It’s not always a huge annoyance: DVDs and Blu-ray discs employ standardized–if easily circumvented–DRM that doesn’t limit you to player hardware or software specifically approved by a movie studio.

But in the world of digital downloads, DRM usually locks the “buyer” of a DRMed item into using only one vendor’s hardware or software.

(The scare quotes are necessary because the license agreements for many DRMed items stipulate that you don’t actually own those downloads.)

If you want to keep your future hardware and software options open, this favors doing business with the e-book store that offers the most DRM-compliant reading options.

That store, by a hardcover-thick margin, is Amazon. Beyond its growing family of Kindle reader devices, including last year’s Kindle Fire tablet, it also ships reader apps for Windows, Mac OS X, Linux (via a “Cloud Reader” Web app) iOS, Android, Windows Phone 7, BlackBerry and even HP’s now-abandoned webOS.

Barnes & Noble, by contrast, only provides Nook reader apps for iOS, Android, Windows and OS X. And Apple limits iBooks to its iOS devices.

Considering that evidence, where do you think somebody ought to shop?

So long as DRM stays part of the plot, every Kindle reader sold, every Kindle app installed and every Kindle title purchased will strengthen Amazon’s hand.

DRM can’t solve this problem, any more than any form of DRM tolerable to home users can abolish copyright infringement. But ditching it would erase the equation. If you could buy an e-book in a standard format that, like an MP3 music file, would be playable on current and imaginable future hardware, it wouldn’t matter which store sold it. There would be no lock-in; each sale would would not weigh so heavily on the next.

(As I wrote last spring, not having to worry about DRM-induced obsolescence would also vastly increase the odds of me buying e-books at all.)

The music industry figured this out years ago. Giving up on the DRM dream enabled a thriving competition between Apple, Amazon and other vendors of digital downloads, with no lock-in beyond the relative difficulty of syncing music from iTunes to a non-Apple device.

Other observers of the e-book business have been making the same call on personal blogs and on tech-news sites. One publisher, Hachette, may even be paying attention, as PaidContent reporter Laura Hazard Owen wrote last month.

But in much traditional-media coverage of digital content, DRM remains the lock that dare not speak its name. You can read a thousand-word piece about the slow market for movie downloads that notes a “lack of interoperability” without ever explaining why–or even using that three-letter abbreviation. Many of last week’s stories about Amazon, Apple and book publishers miss this point just as badly. And if we can’t properly identify this issue, we certainly can’t fix it.

DMCA exemptions: requesting permission to innovate (2011 CEA repost)

(Since a site redesign at the Consumer Electronics Association resulted in the posts I wrote for CEA’s Digital Dialogue blog vanishing, along with everything there older than last November, I’m reposting a few that I think still hold up. This one ran Dec. 16, 2011; it may help explain where the last few months of headlines about phone unlocking came from.)

One of the stranger rituals of U.S. tech policy is now unfolding in Washington: the triennial reassessment of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act’s “anti-circumvention” rules.

In this exercise, the Librarian of Congress considers granting exemptions to the DMCA’s ban on picking digital or electronic locks that control access to copyrighted works. The DMCA mandates this review because of the possibility–in retrospect, certainty–of companies abusing their immunity from customer interference with “digital rights management” systems to limit non-infringing uses.

DMCA exemption rulemakingYou may prefer to call this a “requesting permission to innovate” ritual.

In four earlier rounds of exemption proceedings–in 200020032006 and last year–Librarian James H. Billington has inconsistently expanded the range of DMCA exemptions, sometimes taking away earlier permissions.

He legalized hacking into Web-filtering software to inspect lists of blocked sites the first two times but didn’t renew that in 2006. The exemption granted in 2000 for defeating broken DRM mechanisms that wrongly deny access was then narrowed to a loophole for breaking obsolete or malfunctioning “dongle” hardware keys. (A related exemption, covering systems that require presenting an original copy of a program or game in a storage format that has become obsolete, arrived in 2003 but was not renewed in 2010.)

E-book customers won the right in 2003 to hack their DRM if it prevented the use of screen-reader accessibility software and have kept it since, but no equivalent accessibility exemption has been granted for movie viewers. And yet in 2010, the Librarian legalized ripping “protected” DVDs for fair-use criticism and commentary purposes, something still not allowed for DRMed e-books or music.

2006′s exemptions let you unlock a phone to use on a competing network, but 2010′s narrowed that to used phones. But last year’s proceeding also granted the right to jailbreak a phone to install the software of your choice–a big development for iPhone users.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, many of the 20 comments submitted in this year’s proceeding focus on preserving prior gains or ironing out inconsistencies.

For example, a group called the Library Copyright Alliance only wants to renew 2010′s DVD-ripping exemption, while the University of Michigan’s library seeks to have its protected class of students widened beyond those in “film and media studies.”

(Those links and all that follow point to PDF files.)

Public Knowledge wants to see the current DVD rule extended to cover “space shifting” to other formats, noting the increasing number of laptops without DVD drives.

A coalition of Telecommunications for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing, Gallaudet University and the Participatory Culture Foundation propose granting a broader exemption to make movie downloads, streams and discs accessible to those with hearing or sight impairments.

A group led by the International Documentary Association proposes to expand the same provision to cover Blu-ray discs and movie downloads and streams so that future filmmakers can incorporate fair-use excerpts in documentary or fictional works. A set of professors at the University of Pennsylvania and elsewhere make the same request for educational use and are echoed by the University of Rhode Island’s Media Education Lab.

The American Council of the Blind and the American Foundation for the Blind, meanwhile, want to maintain an exemption for making e-books accessible to readers with limited vision. The Open Book Alliance wants another for removing DRM from books that are already in the public domain.

Mobile devices figure in over a quarter of these submissions. Small wireless firms MetroPCS CommunicationsYoughiogheny Communications and a trade group called RCA – the Competitive Carriers Association all want to renew and expand 2010′s phone-unlocking exemption to cover mobile devices in general, not just phones. Consumers Union concurs.

The Software Freedom Law Center also favors allowing device owners to install the operating system of their choice. It also wants to permit desktop users to bypass any mandatory app stores–although neither Windows nor Mac OS X impose that restriction today.

The Electronic Frontier Foundation sent in an all-of-the-above brief backing exemptions for jailbreaking phones, tablets and video-game consoles and another set for unlocking DVDs, downloads and streams to extract fair-use clips.

Four submissions from individuals request blanket waivers on circumvention for personal use; a fifth seeks one for the narrow category of DRMed e-books in the Mobipocket format Amazon no longer supports on its Kindle readers.

We’ll have to wait until sometime in February to see which of these requests get a favorable hearing, or if any of 2010′s exemptions will disappear. That’s plenty of time to contemplate a broader question: If a far-reaching provision of a law carries such a high risk of collateral damage that an unelected official must drill holes into it every three years–and those holes seem to get bigger over time–shouldn’t we think about rebooting that rule?

That war I bought into 10 years ago

A decade ago, I was staying up late to watch my country invade another. I had a personal investment in the war I saw unfolding on TV and on the Web: One of my cousins was a corporal with the Marines, and his unit was crossing the border into Iraq. And I had been persuaded that we were doing the right thing.

Post Baghdad front pageThe reporting I’d seen in my newspaper and others told me that we had probable cause of Iraqi chemical, biological and nuclear weapons efforts. The front page of March 20th’s edition of the Post treated them as givens.

Sure, I hadn’t found President Bush to be the most convincing advocate. But Colin Powell knew of what he spoke, right? And I, like others, thought British prime minister Tony Blair had made an eloquent case for the grim necessity of war.

Early on, it looked like we’d be proved correct. Only weeks after the start of the war, Baghdad fell; I kept that day’s A section of the Post as a souvenir.

Then everything got so much more complicated over weeks, months and years. My cousin came home safe (as did his sister, who followed him into the USMC and then Iraq), but thousands of other Americans did not. The day-one gung-ho reaction on newspaper front pages looks like a cultural fossil now.

I’m not writing this to unpack the last 10 years of U.S. policy in the Mideast. You can overdose on that elsewhere. It’s just an appropriate day to admit that I got spun into believing things that weren’t so–and so did too many of the journalists who wrote the stories that had helped convince me.

Tax phobia will make you do stupid things

For years, Virginia has had a problem everybody can identify: It’s running out of money to repair its existing roads, rails, airports and ports, let alone build new transportation infrastructure. The reason why is obvious too–the gas tax, unchanged since 1987 at 17.5 cents a gallon, doesn’t take in enough and will yield increasingly less as fuel economy improves.

Virginia General Assembly logoIt doesn’t require a graphing calculator to conclude that the easiest fix would be to hike the gas tax by a dime–the price per gallon has gone up by that much in the last two weeks, and we all seem to have survived.

But in the confused state of my state’s politics, the gas tax–which is buried in the retail price–has somehow hit an iron ceiling. Raising it, at least among most state Republicans, is now unthinkable; I’ve even seen that low rate sold as a competitive advantage over other states.

(You can also apply that argument to the commonwealth’s exceedingly low cigarette taxes, which have created a thriving market for cigarette smugglers.)

In January, Gov. Robert F. McDonnell (R.) suggested a way out of this artificial impasse: Get rid of the gas tax entirely and raise the sales tax from 5 to 5.8 percent. Having ensuring that car-free Virginians would underwrite free use of their roads by the rest of the East Coast, this plan would also sock hybrid and electric-vehicle owners with a $100 annual fee.

That economically insane proposal passed the House but got amended by the Senate to a saner plan bill built around adding a nickel to the gas tax and then indexing it to construction-cost inflation, plus a 1 percent wholesale tax.

Alas, the conference committee then went to work and gave birth to a mutt of a bill that passed the House of Delegates today. It would end the retail gas tax but then impose a wholesale tax–3.5 percent on gas, 6.5 percent on diesel–which would then rise with inflation.

That difference is supposed to account for the wear tractor-trailers impose on the roads, but it also punishes drivers who bought diesel cars for their greater efficiency. In the same vein, the $100/year hybrid fee is back. Apparently, Richmond only likes efficient vehicles if they run on gas alone.

The hybrid fee bothers me in particular–we bought a Prius in 2005–but then again we’ve benefited from being exempted from the state’s car tax. And why did we get that freebie? Because our county government wanted to encourage people to buy hybrids, but the state wouldn’t let them push people to buy more efficient vehicles in the most obvious way: yup, raise the gas tax.

News flash: There are a lot of white guys in tech

There’s been a contentious and useful conversation this week over the demographic balance of the tech economy, sparked by Jamelle Bouie posting the piece he’d written earlier on that topic for Marco Arment’s subscription-required iPad publication The Magazine. The first two sentences of his story:

Click through to the “about” page of any technology magazine, website, or blog, and you often find individual or group pictures of the staff and regular contributors. What’s noticeable is so in its absence: You find precious few brown people.

Bouie pinned much of the blame for that on tech journalists sticking with their default recruitment settings–as he quoted Anil Dash, “they’ve tended to hire from their familiar circle of connections.”

TC Disrupt crowds

Not all of the tech community appreciated the critique. After some back-and-forth on Twitter, veteran startup founder Jason Calacanis posted an essay defending his ecosystem’s meritocracy and suggesting that ambitious writers of any color follow his example of “hustling in my spare time”:

To fall back to race as the reason why people don’t break out in our wonderful oasis of openness is to do a massive injustice to what we’ve fought so hard to create.

It was interesting to digest that a day or so after reading testimonials by two female tech types, Sarah Parmenter and Leslie Jensen-Inman, about the grotesque sexism they’d encountered while speaking at conferences. Perhaps the tech ecosystem is not a wonderful oasis of openness for everyone?

I know it’s not.

I’ve been to more than enough tech events that didn’t exactly look like America, but I also have my own experience distributing work to journalists. From 1997 to 2005, my job titles at the Washington Post ended in “editor,” and a key part of those jobs was assigning a page or so of reviews each week.

I did okay at finding women writers, but I was not effective at signing up non-white ones. It was not (I think) an error of commission, but one of distraction: I had more than one person’s job on my plate, I was stressed enough figuring out my own–and once I’d located enough freelancers who could file on time, I didn’t look beyond the people I knew and the people they knew.

This is one white guy’s story, and it may not apply to any other editor who looks somewhat like me.

But I do know this much: As the sample size grows, a continued mismatch between your community’s demographics and those of the larger society increasingly suggests an inefficiency in the allocation of talent. You might want to look into why that happens.

Belated updates to this year’s stories

You don’t have to run a correction when a story changes after you’ve written about it–but it is polite to follow up. Here’s a not-so-short list of updates to stories I’ve done this year.

Old stories sepia toneWhen I wrote that Google’s new, unified privacy policy would almost certainly be recast to let users opt out of having the company assemble a detailed portrait of them based on their use of separate Google services, I was wrong; that has yet to happen.

Sonic.net’s groundbreaking fiber-to-the-home service–a steal at $69.95 a month for 1 billion bits per second–seems to be off to a fine start in Sonoma County, but the planned expansion to San Francisco’s Sunset District is still on the way. It hasn’t shown up as an advertised offering on this Santa Rosa, Calif., Internet provider’s home-services page either.

Remember when adjacent-friend-discovery apps were going to blow up after their moment in the sun at SXSW in March? Didn’t happen. Facebook bought Glancee (and has yet to do much publicly with its technology), while Highlight seems to have fallen off the map (maybe I’m not hanging out with the right crowd?).

The ethics of outsourced manufacturing, fortunately, have stayed in the headlines since I wrote about them in March for CEA. And we may even be seeing legitimate progress, to judge from the New York Times’ story earlier this week recounting upgrades in pay and working conditions at contract manufacturers Foxconn and Quanta’s Chinese factories.

I’m still waiting to see comparable progress in liberating e-books from “digital rights management.” The sci-fi publisher Tor/Forge–a subsidiary of Macmillan–went DRM-free in July, but other branches of the major publishing houses have clung to this self-defeating measure. 

After saying so many good things about the car2go car-sharing service–and seeing that story get picked up in a few other places–I have to confess that I, ahem, haven’t used the service since. Capital Bikeshare is even more convenient and cheaper for trips under two miles, plus I need to make my way into the District to jump into one of car2go’s Smart fortwo vehicles.

I tempered my praise for Sprint’s Evo 4G LTE by wondering how long its users would wait to get Google’s software updates. Answer: almost six months, the time it took HTC and Sprint to deliver the Android 4.1 release Google shipped in June.

I was pretty sure I’d buy a Nexus 7 tablet after liking it as much as I did in July. But now that I own an iPad mini, that purchase seems like it would be redundant. Am I making a mistake there?

After teeing off on Apple Maps in the first chapter of my iPhone 5 review for CNNMoney.com, I have to give Apple credit for fixing the two worst flaws I called out. It now lists the correct address for the Kennedy Center as its first search result and provides a route to Dulles Airport that don’t cross any runways. But it still doesn’t know about Yards Park or the new 11th Street Bridges across the Anacostia–and the latter omission means its directions will now send you on a closed stretch of freeway.

My upbeat review of Samsung’s $249 Google Chromebook noted some build-quality concerns, in the form of a loose corner of the screen bezel. I found out the hard way that it’s more delicate than that; its LCD is now broken, and I don’t even know how. (We do have a two-year-old at home, but it’s also possible that I dropped something on it.)

My advice about enabling multiple-calendar Google Calendar sync on an iOS device by setting up your Google account as a Microsoft Exchange account will soon be obsolete. Effective January 30, Google will no longer support Exchange syncing on new setups (although existing ones will still work). Fortunately, it’s also posted instructions to enable multiple-calendar sync without the Exchange workaround.

3/23/2013: Updated the link for the car2go review after the post vanished in a site redesign and, for CMS-driven reasons that escape me, could not be re-posted at the same address. 

“This is not the day”

Not long after learning of yesterday’s horrible news of a mass shooting, I thought about the post I’d started writing after earlier horrible news of a mass shooting, then finished after still other horrible news of a mass shooting. I referenced it in a tweet, and was promptly called out by a couple of people who objected, strenuously, to bringing up anything with a whiff of politics. Why?

This is not the day.

I should have expected replies like that. But why? What is the logic of that reflexive responseeven from people who don’t support loosening gun regulations–every time some sad individual takes a gun and kills a dozen or more of his fellow human beings?

I am not talking about self-serving commentary by those looking to cash in politically or financially. Think of Mitt Romney grotesquely distorting recent American public diplomacy in the Middle East hours after the murder of Ambassador Chris Stevens or, on a lesser level of offensiveness, Sen. Chuck Schumer (D.-N.Y.) demanding publicly that Apple “set the record straight” about the reception of the iPhone 4′s antenna or all of those foolish publicists who think calling out a recent tragedy in a PR pitch will get reporters to cover the client’s product.

No, I am speaking of citizens who want to know what went wrong and what we could have done to prevent it. What other reaction could we possibly have to an atrocity like the murder of 20 children? (As the father of a two-year-old, I was almost shaking with rage at one point yesterday.) Wondering what we could have done differently is, as Maggie Koerth-Baker noted astutely, is part of the bargaining stage of grief.

This is what we’ve done after a hurricane floods subway tunnels and shuts out the lights across much of New York City, a highway bridge collapses, a space shuttle breaks up on reentry, and hijackers fly airplanes into buildings. We would be less than functioning, inquisitive human beings if we did not ask if we could have done anything different, even on The Day.

That may “politicize the tragedy.” But so does attempting to short-circuit any discussion about our options because This Is Not The Day. And in a democracy, politics is how we have to solve some of our biggest problems.

So to those of you who want to use your First Amendment rights to defend your Second Amendment rights the next time, please find another talking point. Because this one does not help your cause. And this discussion could use your reasoned input, not your denial.