Weekly output: null

I finally managed to end a week with not a mere one or two stories, but absolutely nothing to my name. I spent last Saturday to this Saturday in the Bay Area with my wife’s family, and I did as much of nothing as I could manage–in between gawking at county-fair exhibits, visiting a winery or two and touring a nature preserve that offered the unadvertised benefit of zero wireless coverage. I napped at least once every day, I read a couple of books (on paper, even) that were not about current consumer-tech trends, and I ate too much.

I didn’t completely unplug; I sent out some queries for stories, answered some time-sensitive messages, and allotted a few minutes most days to flip through my RSS headlines. And I set aside one morning for an in-person conversation about security issues that led to a post I filed Friday. But that story and another piece I wrote this week have not gotten posted yet. Nothing to do about that now but get back to work Monday morning…

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Arcadia Power, or how I’m offsetting half our electricity’s carbon footprint for free

I can credit President Trump for our latest renewable-energy move. The day he announced that the U.S. would withdraw from the Paris climate-change agreement–in almost four years, and for fraudulent reasons–I felt a little more motivated to find more ways to cut down on our home’s carbon footprint.

We’ve long since done the easy stuff, like having insulation blown into the walls, ditching incandescent light bulbs for compact fluorescent bulbs and then LEDS, and replacing a grossly inefficient air-conditioning unit. (Okay, the A/C forced that upon us by dying in the first hot week of last summer.) Putting solar panels on our roof would make a major difference but at a high upfront cost–and waiting until next year or the year after should yield a further decline in that expense.

Arcadia Power energy-use graphicIn our case, that leaves carbon-offset programs, in which you pay to have your energy use offset by buying a share of renewable energy produced elsewhere. Purchasing “Renewable Energy Certificates” won’t immediately leave more coal in the ground, so it’s no substitute for your electric utility selling a renewable-only option. But when your utility is Dominion Energy–which generates only 5.6 percent of its electricity from renewables (versus 33.8 percent from nuclear, 33.6 percent from gas and 26.5 percent from coal) and spends lavishly to stop Richmond from mandating anything greener–that’s all you have.

Dominion has its own REC program, but environmental advocates have criticized it for high overhead costs and its failure to support solar and wind projects in Virginia. What I didn’t realize until the president’s petulance about Paris got me to do some more research: Better options exist.

The one I picked is a D.C.-based firm called Arcadia Power that, thanks to a round of venture-capital funding last year, will offset half of your electricity for free. I was a little skeptical at first, but the energy experts at Grist took a skeptical look at the company and did not find it wanting. Arcadia also offers a 100-percent offset plan–at a higher per-kWh rate than Dominion’s REC surcharge–and a community-solar subscription option, but they aren’t things I need to figure out immediately.

Setting up an account there involved a day or two of waiting to have it take over my Dominion account–yes, I had to cough up my username and password first–and then getting confirmation that Arcadia was now managing my account. Since then, it’s been a drama-free experience. My payment was processed as usual from my bank (Arcadia apparently has to pass along Dominion’s credit-card-payment surcharge), and I didn’t get dinged for the bill a second time by Dominion.

The one part that hasn’t worked out so far: While Arcadia has a referral program, neither of the environmentally-minded friends I’ve spammed about it have signed up. So while I’m not spending more to support renewable energy, I may not actually save money on the deal.

Weekly output: AI anxiety, iOS VPNs in China, side effects of unlimited data, Googling Islam, GDPR and data portability, leaving family wireless plans

I take a little pride in having made it through all of July without once writing about iPhone 8 rumors.

7/31/2017: AI worries, Al Jazeera

I talked about the recent argument between Elon Musk and Mark Zuckerberg about the possible threat of highly competent, extraordinarily capable artificial intelligences. My take: The machines probably won’t kill us, but they may take some of our jobs.

Yahoo iOS VPN apps post7/31/2017: Apple’s decision to drop privacy apps in China might not be the last of its kind, Yahoo Finance

The eviction of VPN apps from the Chinese-market App Store is something anybody could have seen coming. And as long as Apple leaves itself as the only judge of which apps most users can install on iOS devices, we’ll keep seeing this kind of story play out.

8/2/2017: Study shows unlimited data plans are slowing wireless carrier speeds, Yahoo Finance

A lot of other sites ran with OpenSignal’s new study finding slower speeds at AT&T and Verizon Wireless after their belated reintroduction of unmetered-data plans, but most others didn’t try to compare that firm’s findings with those of other recent tests of the big four wireless carriers.

8/2/2017: Google and searches on Islam, Al Jazeera

My producer asked if I could talk about some recent controversy over Google favoring Islamophobic pages in results for some common queries about Islam. I have to admit I’d missed some of that news, but on closer inspection it fit with past episodes of Holocaust denial creeping up in Google results.

8/2/2017: A massive EU privacy rule could bring an unexpected benefit for US consumers, Yahoo Finance

I hadn’t paid much attention to the European Union’s upcoming General Data Protection Regulation until moderating a panel about privacy issues at CES. But once I started looking at “GDPR” I realized that these EU rules could make a difference here by requiring social networks–hi, Instagram and Tumblr–to let their users take their data with them. I can only hope that this data-portability angle resonated with some readers.

8/6/2017: Options available when it’s time to leave the wireless-family-plan nest, USA Today

I would have filed this column a little earlier if AT&T still had the simple rate-planning tool that let visitors get estimates of different wireless plans; now, you have to step through signing up for service to see what you might pay.

A D.C. summer isn’t complete without a Fort Reno concert

I don’t get out to concerts much these days, but Monday allowed me to check out a couple of indie-rock bands for free. The Northwest D.C. venue I attended lacked such typical amenities as a bar, air conditioning and walls–but I couldn’t miss what I thought was my last chance to catch this summer’s Fort Reno concert series.

These free shows in that Tenleytown park at 40th and Chesapeake Streets NW, named after the Civil War fort, have been on my calendar since it existed on paper–so my first would have been sometime in 1996, but I can’t tell you when. They’ve been on the District’s schedule since 1968, which is an amazing record for a volunteer-run production.

The format hasn’t changed over the two decades I’ve been attending, or trying to attend, Fort Reno shows. Three local bands play short sets on a bare platform from about 7 to 9 p.m. in front of an all-ages crowd picnicking or dancing on the ill-kept grass around that stage.

I wrote “trying to attend” because an evening thunderstorm is guaranteed to cancel the proceedings–I blame that for scrubbing at least one show featuring the Dismemberment Plan that I’d had on my schedule. And the more frequent scenario of swampy heat in the high 90s will discourage a lot of music fans from spending two hours sweltering to the beat.

But if the weather cooperates, you can see some pretty great bands. My all-time favorite show would probably be Fugazi’s August 2001 set there, but I’ve never seen a bad performance there. Monday introduced me to Makeup Girl’s peppy alt-rock; sadly, I only caught one song from Bacchae and missed Numbers Station.

Fort Reno is easy to get to, provided the Red Line isn’t a mess and traffic on Foxhall Road or Wisconsin Avenue isn’t the same (at least there’s plenty of free parking on the nearby blocks). And while you do have to bring your own dinner and a picnic blanket, you need not think too hard about nourishment: Duck into Whole Foods, get some prepared food and a non-alcoholic beverage in a non-glass bottle, and you’re set.

(The three things forbidden at Fort Reno shows are alcohol, drugs, and glass bottles. Don’t be a jerk; you can get a beer later on.)

Nobody will mind if you walk around the park to explore the scenery. Telecommunications nerds should appreciate the radio and TV transmitter towers looming overhead, while geography-minded types can summit the highest natural elevation in D.C., all of 409 feet above sea level, by walking uphill behind the stage past a large oak tree until the slope levels off, then looking for a small metal marker.

And the crowd is always a delight. Monday’s show featured the usual mix: cool moms and dads bringing their kids up right, aging hipsters (one sporting a t-shirt with the 1980s political commentary “Meese Is A Pig”), and slam-dancing teenagers. There was also one boy wearing a wolf’s-head mask, who got a “wolf boy! wolf boy! wolf boy!” cheer from the band and the crowd.

I also found out Monday that it wasn’t the last show of the summer: The organizers had rescheduled a rained-out show for this Thursday. As I type this, the weather looks… not fantastic, but definitely not rainy. So you should go.

Weekly output: Adobe Flash’s farewell, white-spaces broadband, People You May Know

Two of this week’s three articles (there weren’t more because I was visiting family for most of the week and trying to approximate being on vacation) involve topics that I’ve been following for more than a decade. That has me feeling my age, as does today’s lack of a nap.

7/25/2017: Why everybody should be happy that Flash is finally dying, Yahoo Finance

Writing this post about Adobe’s announcement that it will officially retire Flash at the end of 2020 had me re-reading stuff I wrote seven or eight years ago, not all of which looks too prescient today.

7/27/2017: How Microsoft wants to bring broadband to rural Americans, Yahoo Finance

I had meant to file this story the previous week, but it took multiple phone calls and e-mails to pin down the pricing and features of an upcoming wireless-broadband service built on “white spaces” technology. For all the griping I do about PR people, sometimes you run across a company that would communicate its message much more effectively with professional help.

7/30/2017: Why Facebook’s ‘People You May Know’ makes some weird suggestions, USA Today

This Q&A involved its own game of e-mail tag, but it was worth that effort to document Facebook’s friend suggestions in more detail than the social network’s own online help.

 

Self-employment is easier if you’re not at the mercy of health-insurance companies

I am thankful every day that my wife has a good job that includes affordable health insurance for our family. But seeing the Republican Party attempt to demolish the Affordable Care Act over the past few months has made me even more appreciative of being a kept man.

For as long as I’ve been self-employed, I’ve been able to tell myself that if my wife’s job ever went away, the ACA would give us a fair shot at keeping health insurance for the three of us–even today, the rates I see quoted at HealthCare.gov remain reasonable. Meanwhile, not having to worry about exceeding lifetime coverage caps (my friend Kate Washington’s testimony about the costs of her husband Brad’s treatments for cancer are essential reading) or being judged to have a pre-existing condition takes a lot of anxiety off my mind.

Most of the GOP’s proposed replacements for the ACA would have taken a hammer to some if not all of those protections. It’s possible that my wife’s premiums would have dropped as a result. But we don’t want to trim that bill at the cost of screwing over other people.

Like, for example, self-employed friends who get their coverages on ACA exchanges. Tom Bridge and his wife Tiffany each run tech consultancies in D.C., and without the law’s protection they’d be looking at vastly higher coverage for themselves and their son. He’s tweeted often and well about how this product of the Democratic Party has allowed him to build a business.

Friday morning’s Senate defeat (thanks, Senators Collins, McCain and Murkowski and all 48 of their Democratic colleagues) against the latest in a long line of ACA-gutting bills drafted in secret and in haste should ease the existential dread they and many others have been feeling.

(President Trump being President Trump, he won’t shut up on Twitter about how the GOP should keep trying to kill “Obamacare” despite its unbroken record of failure so far. He’s the Black Knight of American politics on this subject.)

It does not, however, end the need to fix what’s wrong with the ACA in some markets. Another freelancer friend, Seattle-based tech writer Glenn Fleishman, has seen his costs climb to “ridiculous” levels–as in $20,000 this year. He’s now seeking full-time employment to escape that.

Now would be a great time for the Republican Party to accept that Americans have decided health insurance shouldn’t be left as a privilege, then bring some business smarts towards crafting the most efficient, choice-driven way to meet that goal. Since most other industrialized countries achieved universal coverage long ago, there’s a huge variety of ideas for them to steal, and which Republicans could have learned from over the past seven years instead of repeatedly staging stunt votes against the ACA.

The party that constantly says it speaks for entrepreneurs should be able to sell this as making it easier for people to start a business and create jobs. Or the GOP can continue to try to tear down this part of President Obama’s legacy, all so the self-employed can once again be “free” to run into the embrace of a large corporation if they don’t want to have to worry about getting sick.