A hell of a way to follow up on America’s birthday

On Monday, the United States of America celebrated its 240th birthday. Things have gone pretty much downhill for us since.

American flag over Mississippi RiverTuesday, police officers in Baton Rouge shot and killed Alton Sterling outside a convenience store as bystanders Abdullah Muflahi and Arthur Reed recorded it on video.

On Wednesday, St. Anthony, Minn., police officer Jeronimo Yanez shot and killed Philando Castile in the car also occupied by his girlfriend Diamond Reynolds and his four-year-old daughter. Reynolds live-streamed the aftermath on Facebook Live.

I knew I couldn’t unsee those videos but watched them anyway. They can’t tell the whole story, but they all looked way too much like extrajudicial executions of fellow Americans who happened to be of African descent. I have grown to accept that African-Americans have sound reasons to be nervous about getting stopped by police, even as I have never worried about anything more than getting points on my car insurance.

That’s unsettling. So is the thought that the excessive use of force by a minority of police officers vastly predates the existence of technology to publicize it, the efforts of news organizations like the Washington Post to track it, and the rise of protests by people trying to make a point that shouldn’t be that debatable: Black lives matter.

Thursday night, another person decided the answer was to take an AR-15 rifle to the scene of a Black Lives Matter protest in downtown Dallas and murder as many cops as possible. This African-American–I refuse to use his name–killed officers Lorne Ahrens, Michael Krol, Michael Smith, Brent Thompson, and Patrick Zamarripa and injured seven others along with two civilians before the Dallas Police Department sent in a robot with a bomb (welcome to the future?) to kill him.

How could we as a country top the killings of two people almost live on camera? That was how.

None of those stories represent the nation I want to live in. Cops keep us safe–I sleep well knowing I’m not even a mile from Arlington’s police headquarters–but the rule of law is a good idea for them too. Don’t like how they do their jobs? Vote, every damn time, for leaders who will change that. Picking up a rock, a knife or a gun against people who volunteered to protect us makes you an enemy of civilization.

At least this rotten week brought two other things that do embody the United States I know. One was the sight of our daughter happily playing with day-camp classmates whose complexions cover most of the colors on the American quilt. The other came Friday, when the fifth anniversary of the final space shuttle launch reminded me that, as Anil Dash wrote, “We can do amazing things! I know because I’ve seen it with my own eyes.” Yes, we still can.

2008 called, and it wants its PR pitches back

The other week, I engaged in a futile exercise to avoid having to pay for extra storage in my Google Apps account by getting a few years’ worth of old pitches out of my PR folder. It would have been a quick process if I’d just dragged those thousands of e-mails off the server and into a local folder, but I had to glance over them first to see if I’d filed any important interviews there by mistake… and so went many hours stumbling down memory lane.

2008 calendar closeupBeyond my surprise at how many PR pros can still stand to deal with me (thanks for the continued tolerance, Jesus, Brooke, and Steve), I was also amused to see the PR pitches I’d blown off or misunderstood in just one year, 2008.

For instance, what if I’d known then that I actually would make this app my external brain?

Writing with a company called Evernote— not sure if you are familiar with them, but they have a fascinating story around how consumers can capture their memories in a completely unique and innovative way. The company has already been seeing a lot of buzz around their Web beta and we’re excited to finally be opening the product to the general public. Evernote’s CEO, Phil Libin, will be in DC June 4-6 and I wanted to see if you’d be interested in taking a meeting with him to get an introduction to Evernote and how it can become a user’s external brain?

I ignored the following because, I sniffed at the time, I don’t cover accessories. Look, anybody can ignore a story that becomes a $3 billion acquisition!

Monster, the leader in audio/video accessories, along with legendary artist and producer Dr. Dre and Interscope Geffen A&M Chairman Jimmy Iovine have teamed up to develop a brand new level of headphones, Beats ™ by Dr. Dre ™. The headphones were created to reproduce the full spectrum of sound that musical artists and producers hear in professional recording studios.

I actually did review the gadget offered in the following pitch. But I passed on the CEO interview, and my writeup spent too much time whining about the slow speeds of broadband and the limited availability of streaming movies (even if that remains an annoyance).

Good Morning Rob:

We’re happy to introduce The Netflix Player By Roku.

Please let me know if you would like additional information, JPEGS of the product or would like to speak with Anthony Wood, founder and CEO.

And then there were all the pitches I got for Yahoo sites and services, even after setting aside all the announcements and commentary about Microsoft’s unsuccessful attempt to buy Yahoo. Maybe I should have paid more attention to them?

You never know what you’ll see at a baseball game, maybe even while you’re watching it

Wednesday, I saw a record-tying 20-strikeout performance at Nationals Park–and I didn’t realize history was happening until the 7th inning or so.

Nats Park scoreboard after Max Scherzer's record-tying 20th strikeout.

I know, unobservant. But in my defense, Max Scherzer’s pitching masterpiece for the Nationals didn’t register on the radar of catcher Wilson Ramos either until he saw that his teammate had put 17 Ks on the scoreboard.

Baseball is like that sometimes. You get so used to seeing a few innings’ worth of no-hit pitching getting broken up that you don’t pick up on an actual no-hitter happening until you’ve spent two innings waiting in line at the Shake Shack.

Yes, I’ve been that out-of-it too. As Jordan Zimmermann mowed down the Marlins in 2014’s last regular-season game, I kept thinking that the game was going by really fast while the line to get a burger was not. In my defense, that was not as stupid as my originally booking my flight home from the Online News Association’s conference to land at almost 5 p.m.; fortunately, I could remedy that mistake with a free same-24-hours flight change.

Keeping score from my seat would have been one way to avoid being oblivious about baseball history happening around me those times, but my own scorekeeping knowledge has barely advanced beyond knowing to yell “E6!” when a shortstop airmails a throw to first into the stands. And on Wednesday, I showed up late anyway.

Yet by the seventh-inning stretch that night, everybody was paying attention to every single pitch, just like we did at Nats Park two Septembers ago. Seeing the guy on the mound accomplish the near-impossible was a great feeling.

And it was something we needed after Tuesday’s gut-punch of yet another postseason elimination of the Capitals–the latest in a long series of playoff collapses for Washington teams that led embittered Post sportswriters to recast the paper’s recount of the Nats’ 2014 exit as a catch-all story of D.C. sports futility:

 

After [SPORTS VERB]ing [HIGH NUMBER] of [SPORTS STATISTICS] in the regular season, [TEAM’S TOP-PAID PLAYER] managed just [VERY LOW NUMBER] of [SAME SPORTS STATISTIC] in the playoffs.

Games like Wednesday’s help push games like Tuesday’s into the background. And if you can’t have those, at least baseball offers enough other improbable situations that you just might get to see on any given day–a hitter running out a dropped third strike, a 9-3-6 double play, a position player coming in to pitch or a pitcher pinch-hitting–to offset somewhat the staring-at-the-wall-at-4-a.m. numbness that being a baseball fan can inflict in October.

At least, that’s what I’m telling myself now. Check back with me in the fall.

 

First-time reflections on Israel

I visited a new country the other week, and I didn’t even get a stamp in my passport in return.

Tel Aviv constructionIsrael had been on my list of places to visit for a long time. It’s scenery we’ve read about in the Bible, it’s a state that’s constantly in the headlines (not always in a good way), I’ve heard great things about it from friends who have traveled there, and it’s the home of a thriving tech industry.

My overdue introduction to Israel came courtesy of a trip arranged by the America-Israel Friendship League with help from the Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs. That New York- and Tel Aviv-based non-profit invited a group of U.S. journalists and analysts to get a close-up look at Israel’s cybersecurity sector, and my editors at Yahoo Tech thought its invitation worth accepting.

My report from the trip should finally be up in a few days. Meanwhile, here are some first impressions of the nation I took too long to visit; please bear in mind that if I were terribly confident in all of these judgments, I would have tried to sell this post to a paying client.

MezzeThe food is great. A friend mentioned that he puts on a few pounds every time he visits Israel, and I must admit that I did too. Shakshuka for breakfast, the 20 different mezze at The Old Man & The Sea in Tel Aviv, the stews at Azura in Jerusalem… it was all delicious, and I didn’t even get around to sampling any of the street food.

Tel Aviv has neat architecture: I’d read that before about this city’s stock of Bauhaus buildings and believe it now. I wish I’d had more time to wander around (see also my comment on street food).

Ideological violence is not a far-off thing. Here, many politicians compete to show who can be more freaked out over the specter of terrorists showing up at their front door. In Israel, attacks on civilians are not a hypothetical risk–one happened at a grocery store in a West Bank settlement the week I was there, and the newspapers also carried numerous stories about the recent surge of stabbings of Israelis by Palestinians.

Israel is more diverse than it gets credit for. After a meeting with a cybersecurity professor at Tel Aviv University, we came downstairs to find the building’s lobby crowded with Muslim students wearing headscarves (which, it later hit me, would have been illegal in France). The next day, a quick tour of Jerusalem brought us to the Western Wall plaza as new soldiers in the Israeli Defense Forces prepared for their swearing-in ceremony there, and I was struck by how many of them were the product of the Ethiopian aliyah.

Western WallJerusalem is humbling and unsettling. Thousands of years of history intersect with the Jewish, Christian and Islamic faiths in the Old City of Jerusalem, and standing in the middle of it left me feeling profoundly humbled. I expected that, but I did not expect to see so many IDF soldiers and police walking around with automatic weapons. It wasn’t just me who found that unsettling; one U.S. veteran in our group did not appreciate seeing one man casually hold a rifle pointed outward at a crowd. Another uneasy sight: the bomb-disposal containers we spotted.

 

I still think Israel is creating an existential problem for itself. A week in Israel left me as unconvinced as ever that the country’s continued habit of building settlements in the West Bank does it any long-term good. As the Atlantic’s Jeffrey Goldberg has eloquently observed, Israel cannot annex the West Bank without either betraying its own democratic principles or losing its identity as a Jewish state, and a permanent military occupation is not a solution either. The murder of civilians by Palestinians is horrible but does not justify Israel going out of its way to make any eventual peace more difficult.

 

A farewell to 15th and L

I had one last day at the Post back in April of 2011. I shared another one with other Post alumni Wednesday afternoon, when the paper marked its last official day of business at the address it had occupied for decades, 1150 15th St. NW.

The paper is moving to rented space a few blocks over on K Street; after everybody finishes packing up their stuff, the grim pile of bricks on 15th Street will have a date with a wrecking ball. But first, current and former employees got to share a goodbye ceremony modeled after newsroom farewells to departing employees.

1150 signThere were speeches, but more than I remember being customary. There was cake and also cupcakes. And there was a fake front page–headline, “So long, suckers”–on which every story was written by the building itself about its occupants.

(That story isn’t online as far as I know. Instead, you should read Marc Fisher’s history of the building, from its lead-type days to the present.)

I ran into more people than I expected to see–all the way back to Lucila Woodard, the copy aide supervisor who had hired me for a part-time job in late 1993. I stopped by my old desk and was amused to see that some of the pushpins I’d left on the cubicle wall hadn’t been moved by its subsequent occupants. I also had to chuckle at the sight of some old tube TVs still collecting dust atop filing cabinets.

(I’ve posted a Flickr album from that visit.)

The place changed immensely during my 17 years there. A series of editing-system upgrades made the screens and keyboards not look obviously obsolete; the presses stopped running downtown in 1999 and ended the tradition of late workers getting a still-warm copy of the first edition of tomorrow’s paper dropped off on their desks around 10 p.m.; the nearby blocks stopped featuring fast-food restaurants and hookers as high-end restaurants and bars moved in.

The newsroom has changed a lot since I’ve left too. The stunning sale of the paper to Jeff Bezos ended a painful cycle of buyouts and brought a crop of new journalists to the paper who don’t exhibit the same old feelings of occupational doom.  The site is no longer a sluggish embarrassment; last month, the Post had more online readers than the New York Times. I’m glad to see these things.

On my way out, I ran into a guy from IT who mentioned that one of his neighbors had stopped reading the paper after I left. I told him to tell this guy that he had my express permission to resume reading the Post.

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.

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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?