Whither Twitter

Twitter has occupied an embarrassingly large part of my online existence since the spring of 2008–a span of years that somehow exceeds my active tenure on Usenet. But the past two weeks of Twitter leave me a lot less certain about how much time I will or should spend on that service.

I did not have high expectations in April when Elon Musk–who, never forget, already has two full-time jobs at just Tesla and SpaceX–offered to buy Twitter. He had already revealed a low-resolution understanding of content moderation on social platforms but took the advice of a clique of tech bros and told Twitter’s board that he had the answers: “Twitter has extraordinary potential. I will unlock it.”

Photo of Twitter's site showing the "fail whale" error graphic and a "Twitter is over capacity" message, as seen in a phone's Web browser at CES 2010.

Seeing Musk then spend months and what could be $100 million in legal fees trying to squirm out of his accepted, above-market offer of $54.20 a share did not elevate those expectations.

Just before a court case he probably would have lost, Musk gave in, threw $44 billion ($13 billion borrowed) on the table and took over Twitter on Oct. 28. He quickly sacked a handful of top executives before firing about half of the workforce with careless cruelty. One friend figured he’d gotten canned when he couldn’t log into his work laptop.

Things have skidded downhill since. On Twitter, Musk keeps showing himself an easy mark for far-right conspiracy liars and the phony complaints of online trolls; in its offices, he’s ordered a rushed rollout of an $8/month subscription scheme that grants the blue-circled checkmark of a verified account, on the assumption that credit-card payment processors will catch fraudsters.

The predictable result: a wave of fake but “verified” accounts impersonating the likes of Eli Lilly, Nintendo, George W. Bush, Lockheed Martin, Telsa and Musk himself.

Also predictable: Twitter advertisers reacting to this chaos and their fear of wobbly content moderation (rejected by Musk) by smashing the Esc key on their spending plans until they can figure out what’s going on. Musk has responded by whining that companies pausing ad campaigns amounts to them “trying to destroy free speech in America.”

As for legacy verified accounts like my own, Musk has oscillated from saying that they’d require the same $8/month charge to suggesting they’d continue to saying they will be dropped–while also introducing, yanking and then resurfacing gray-checkmark icons for certain larger organizations over a 36-hour period. Oh, and not paying your $8 a month might mean your tweets fall down a bit bucket.

After a Thursday that saw Twitter’s chief information security officer, chief privacy officer, and chief complaince officer resign by early morning, Musk told the remaining employees at an all-hands meeting that “Bankruptcy isn’t out of the question.” Since Twitter now owes more than $1 billion a year in interest on the debt from Musk’s acquisition, that warning seems reasonable.

I am not writing this out of schadenfreude. As much as Twitter can drive me nuts (what is it with the militantly stupid people in my replies?), I’ve found it enormously helpful as a public notebook, a shortcut to subject-matter experts, an on-demand focus group, and an ongoing exercise in short-form prose. As (I think) my Washington Post colleague Frank Ahrens once observed, Twitter lets journalists write the New York City tabloid headlines we couldn’t get away with in our own newsrooms.

A "Keep Calm and Tweet #ONA12" badge from the 2012 Online News Association conference.

If Twitter really does implode, which now seems a much more real possibility even if a roundtrip through Chapter 11 is more likely, I don’t know how I’d replace it.

Many of the people I follow there are advancing evacuation plans on a federated, non-commercial, somewhat confusing social platform–not Usenet, but Mastodon.

I have taken tentative steps to do likewise, in the sense that I created one account on the well-known server Mastodon.Social and then realized I’d created a separate account on the xoxo.zone server in 2018 after hearing Mastodon talked up at a meetup during the XOXO conference in Portland. Now I need to decide which account to keep and which one to migrate, and indecision over that makes it easier to stay on Twitter and watch it burn.

Meanwhile, seeing Musk’s stark, public display of incompetence continues to leave me baffled when I compare that to the Musk venture I know best, SpaceX. If Musk ran SpaceX this impulsively and with this little willingness to learn from others, multiple launch pads at Cape Canaveral would be smoking holes in the ground.

Instead, SpaceX is the leading provider of launch services in the world, sending Falcon 9 rockets to space and landing their first stages for reuse on a better-than-weekly basis. “Transformational” is not too strong of a word for what SpaceX has accomplished since it first orbited a prototype Dragon capsule in December of 2010; this part of Musk’s career ought to be Presidential Medal of Freedom material, with bipartisan applause.

(I got to see that reentry-singed Dragon capsule up close in July of 2011 when NASA hosted a Tweetup at the Kennedy Space Center for the final Space Shuttle launch, yet another experience I owe in some way to Twitter.)

I keep hoping that I will see this sort of steely-eyed focus in Musk’s stewardship of Twitter. Instead, he appears to be off to an even worse start than I could have imagined. And I can imagine quite a bit.

KSC FOMO is real

This weekend is treating me to the first-world problem of having travel booked to a place I haven’t visited in three years–at the cost of not being able to visit another place I haven’t visited in four years.

The Kennedy Space Center's Vehicle Assembly Building, Shuttle Landing Facility Runway, and launch complexes 39A and 39B as seen from an American Airlines jet on the way to Miami.

While I will be packing Sunday to fly to Berlin for the IFA electronics show for the first time since 2019 (disclosure: the organizers are covering most of the travel costs for an invited group of U.S. journalists and analysts, myself included), NASA’s massive Space Launch System rocket will be enjoying what I trust is its last night of slumber on Pad 39B at the Kennedy Space Center before starting a journey to the Moon Monday morning.

Before everybody gets on my case for the subpar judgment I’ve just confessed, I booked the IFA travel in early July, weeks before NASA set tentative launch dates for this uncrewed Artemis I mission. At least I’ve got Monday morning mostly free to glue myself to a screen and see if SLS lifts off in the two-hour window that opens at 8:33 a.m.

Meanwhile, journalists I know are arriving at Cape Canaveral and tweeting photos from KSC’s press site, something I last got to do in 2018. The Artemis 1 countdown began Saturday morning. And if no technical glitches surface and all the other launch-commit criteria line up green Monday, everybody close enough will get to see NASA’s largest rocket since the Saturn V take to the skies–then hear and feel the crackling thunder of its engines, which apparently will be a lot louder than the shuttle’s.

I’ll only get to watch the proceedings from my living room. The closest I’ve gotten to the Cape since that February 2018 trip to cover Falcon Heavy’s debut is seeing KSC from a plane–which, don’t get me wrong, is a real window-seat treat.

But while I may have to wait two more years for a chance to see the next SLS launch, the launch calendar is now so busy at the Space Coast that even a randomly scheduled trip to central Florida allows decent odds of seeing a liftoff. So, yes, I will return to KSC even if it’s just for fun–and in that case, I’m bringing my family so they can see firsthand why I’m so crazy about this.

Twenty countries and counting… counting slowly

HELSINKI

Arriving here Tuesday afternoon added a new airport to what’s already a very long list of those I’ve flown in or out of–and put a new country on what’s a much shorter list of those I’ve visited.

Finland's flag flies in a breeze on the back of a boat in Helsinki's harbor under a partly-cloudy sky.

As of now, that second list includes only 20 of the world’s roughly 200 states outside the U.S. As grouped by continent, they are:

  • North America: Canada, Mexico
  • Europe: Austria, Belgium, Estonia, Finland, France, Germany, Ireland, Italy, Latvia, Netherlands, Portugal, Soviet Union, Spain, Switzerland, United Kingdom
  • Asia: China, Israel, Japan

That may not be a complete summary; it’s possible that I’m forgetting some long-ago toe-touch of a visit to a tiny European state like Liechtenstein or Andorra, and I’m not counting Vatican City.

But one thing should be clear from that list: what an inveterate Atlanticist I am, even after factoring in my also holding EU citizenship by way of my grandmother being born in Ireland. The scant representation of the rest of the world leaves me scratching my head a bit.

For instance, how have I not gotten to any part of Central America, despite that being so close to the U.S.? Why has my fondness for Asian megacities only led me to two countries there? What’s up with my failure to cross the Equator?

This list also reflects some missed opportunities. One of my best friends from high school spent a few years living in Sydney (unless it was Melbourne) in the 1990s, but I never looked into using what was already a decent accumulation of frequent-flyer miles to see him. And in the summer of 2001, I passed on a chance to join two friends when they visited a college pal living in Cairo at the time; in my defense, I had no clue how complicated U.S. relations with Mideast countries were about to get.

At least I am now once again adding to this list, even if slowly. After spending so many months confined to the D.C. area through 2020 and 2021–and still remembering how little I traveled anywhere in my post-graduation spell of underemployment–I am not taking that freedom for granted.

(Disclosure: I came to Helsinki to cover the security firm WithSecure’s Sphere conference, which in turn covered my travel costs and those of other journalists attending the event.)

Saying there’s nothing we can do is not a serious answer

Two Sundays ago, I walked out of the airport terminal in Boise and stopped to gawk at the sticker on an entrance door. Illustrated with a picture of an anxious cartoon handgun, it warned travelers of the mininum $3,920 fine waiting if they tried to take a firearm through security. Then I saw a second sign with the same message on the doors leading from a parking garage to the terminal.

But on that afternoon, the apparent need for such a reminder represented one of the smallest parts of America’s gun problem.

Two Sundays ago, it had only been a day since a deranged 18-year-old excuse for a man had shot and killed 10 people at a grocery store in Buffalo. I spent the next seven days driving through the Pacific Northwest as part of PCMag’s Fastest Mobile Networks drive testing, then flew home Monday. A day later, a deranged 18-year-old excuse for a man shot and killed 19 grade-school children and two teachers in Uvalde, Tex.

This sickening repeat led to a predictably sickening response by elected officials, most but not all Republican, that amounted to this: Whatever we do can’t touch our peculiar institution of massively distributed gun ownership.

It’s fair to point to the conduct of the local police in Uvalde–their inaction left children only a little younger than my own dying in their hour of need. But this spasm of whataboutism has also led to politicians endorsing things like rebuilding schools along the lines of prisons (presumably, the rest of us remain free to get shot elsewhere) and improving mental-health care (which would be more persuasive were it not coming from politicians who spent years trying to kill the Affordable Care Act without serious plans to replace it), and anything else but the public-health issues of what guns are on the market, how they are sold and transferred, and who winds up carrying them.

The Second Amendment’s two-part phrasing allows multiple readings, but the last time the Supreme Court pondered it and perceived an individual right to gun ownership, it still saw no absolutes.

“It is not a right to keep and carry any weapon whatsoever in any manner whatsoever and for whatever purpose,” Justice Antonin Scalia wrote in District of Columbia v. Heller in 2008. “The Court’s opinion should not be taken to cast doubt on longstanding prohibitions on the possession of firearms by felons and the mentally ill, or laws forbidding the carrying of firearms in sensitive places such as schools and government buildings, or laws imposing conditions and qualifications on the commercial sale of arms.” 

Which brings me back to my first setting. Flying from D.C. to Boise via Chicago treated me to the safest way to travel–made so because the culture of safety in commercial aviation doesn’t accept excuses like “the risk is somebody else’s fault” or “this is how we’ve always done it” or “individual passengers can make their own decisions.” Many other parts of American life could use something like that culture of safety, but none more than the manufacture and distribution of devices expressly made to kill people.

So sick of Silver Line schedule slips

My least favorite genre of local transportation story, by an overwhelming margin, is reports of delays in the second phase of Metro’s Silver Line to Dulles Airport and beyond. Over the past few months, I’ve let myself grow optimistic that this wait for a one-seat international-airport ride would end–and then this week served up a new round of gut-punch news about the project’s long-anticipated entry into revenue service.

Thursday, Washington Metropolitan Area Transportation Authority general manager Paul Wiedefeld used the agency’s board meeting to announce a new problem: incorrectly sealed joint boots connecting third rails to their power supply. It’s sufficiently irritating that these cable-connector assemblies–a basic part of the system that you can easily identify from a train, given that they look like giant orange hair dryers–were not installed right, pushing the extension’s opening into, maybe, July.

But it’s worse that Metro and the Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority, the agency overseeing the construction, apparently knew about this snafu for months but did not see fit to loop in the taxpaying public. To put this more directly: When WMATA and MWAA posted presentations earlier this month about Silver Line progress that didn’t mention this hangup, they lied.

And this development follows a long series of dashed deadline hopes.

In 2014, months after the first phase of the Silver Line had opened, this expansion was projected to open in 2018. A year later, extensive design changes had pushed that timeframe out to sometime in 2020. That estimate held through discoveries in 2018 and 2019 of such problems as defective concrete panels, incorrectly installed railroad ties and flaws in fixes for those concrete panels. But then issues with the train-control system found in 2020 yielded a revised estimate of 2021 that then evaporated as fixes for them dragged on into the summer of 2021.

MWAA declaring “substantial completion” for the Silver Line’s tracks and stations in November, followed by it reaching the same milestone in December for the extension’s rail yard, was supposed to put this extension officially in the home stretch. Instead, these two agencies have found new ways to prolong the punch-list work needed before Metro can take control of the line and then, after some 90 days of its own testing, open the faregates.

I am among the less-inconvenienced stakeholders. I don’t commute to Reston or Herndon and only lose an extra 15 or 20 minutes and $5 on each trip to IAD by having to transfer to MWAA’s Silver Line Express bus at the Wiehle-Reston East Metro station–not that every time I’m waiting for that bus, I don’t think that a completed Silver Line could have already whisked me to the airport.

But the larger picture is that $2.778 billion worth of infrastructure continues to sit idle while MWAA and WMATA point to the other party (or the Washington Metrorail Safety Commission, which must provide a separate sign-off) as the reason for the latest delay. I don’t perceive any urgency at either agency’s leadership to put this asset into service–although at this point I mostly blame Metro, since I see the same feckless lack of initiative in the transit agency’s prolonged inability to get its 7000-series trains back into service.

It’s a disgraceful failure of project management all around, and only one thing eases the embarrassment factor for my city: the far more horrific cost and schedule overruns afflicting New York’s transit projects.

Brief memories of Ukraine, over 32 years later

Until this week, my relatively limited travel around the world had not included any places that later became war zones on live TV. Thanks to Russia’s paranoid president Vladimir Putin lashing out in toxic nostalgia for the Soviet Union, that description no longer applies to Ukraine.

My mid-1989 introduction to what was then the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic was too brief. As part of a post-high-school-graduation student tour of the Soviet Union that my parents paid for (a boondoggle that I remain amazed got a green light from Mom and Dad), a few days after landing in Moscow, our group took an overnight train to the city then called Kiev.

Our compressed schedule over maybe two days there had us visit multiple museums, see a concert, and gawk at the Motherland Monument, a gigantic WWII tribute consisting of a statue of a woman hoisting a sword and a shield emblazoned with the USSR’s hammer and sickle. But we also had a limited amount of time to walk around Kyiv itself, which on our final day in the city yielded the unexpected sight of a large gathering of people next to a stadium holding signs and flags.

As in, the kind of politicial demonstration that was not supposed to happen in the country that President Reagan had fairly labeled an “evil empire.” The flags themselves–blue and yellow banners, which I knew did not match the red-and-blue flag of the Ukrainian SSR–were equally surprising.

I didn’t know what those people were protesting, and the photos I took don’t reveal enough visible text on their signs for me to type into Google Translate now. But more than three decades later, I think that the kind of people who would gather publicly under a forbidden flag in 1989 will fight like hell against Russia’s murderous incursion.

The other takeaway I retain from that trip, which also took our New Jersey contingent to Odessa, Sochi, and St. Petersburg, then still called Leningrad: The Russian people–some of whom have marched in the streets this week at considerable risk to their own safety to protest this assault against their democratic neighbor–deserve better than having any more of their future stolen by Putin and his corrupt, thuggish ilk.

2021 in review: return to flight

The course of this year abounded in bumps–from the horrifying sight of an attempted coup at the Capitol six days into January to the stubborn, vaccine-refusal-fueled persistence of the pandemic. But 2021 was still not 2020, and I refuse to brush that aside.

The most important dates on my calendar this year had no equivalent on last year’s: my first, second and booster shots of a coronavirus vaccine. Those Moderna doses helped give me so much of my life back, and I’ve tried to repay that continuing to volunteer at vaccination clinics.

They also allowed my writing to feature something last seen in January of 2020: datelines. My first travel for an assignment came in July, when I set out on a 1,000-plus mile road trip for PCMag’s Fastest Mobile Networks report. That was followed in August by a transatlantic jaunt to Estonia and back, a quick September visit to Miami Beach to moderate my first in-person panels since February of 2020, an October reunion with Online News Association friends, and November trips to Lisbon for Web Summit and to the Big Island of Hawaii for Qualcomm’s Snapdragon Tech Summit (note that organizers paid my travel costs for all of those events except the ONA gathering).

The long days I spent drive testing wireless networks for PCMag paid off a second time when the editors asked if I’d be interested in doing more work there. That solved a problem I had when I ended my experiment in writing for Forbes–where to cover tech-policy developments–but this gig has since allowed me to write about such non-political subjects as a test drive of a $120,000+ battery-electric Mercedes.

This year also saw me write for several new places–always a good thing for a freelancer, also a key factor in 2021’s income exceeding 2020’s by a welcome margin–while last week marked my 10th anniversary as a USA Today tech columnist. That’s approaching the length of my tenure as a Washington Post tech columnist, which is crazy to consider.

Among all of this year’s work, these stories stand out in my mind:

  • In February, I wrote about App Store ratings fraud for Forbes, because a company as self-righteous about its control of a mobile-apps marketplace as Apple should do a better job of policing it.
  • I teed off on exploding prices at Internet providers in a May column for USA Today after being inspired and irked by the poor disclosure I saw during the research for a U.S. News guide to ISPs.
  • In my debut at the Verge in early June, I explained how data-broker sites function as a self-licking ice-cream cone and offered practical advice about how to limit the visibility of your personal details.
  • Family tech support awakened me to the inadequacy of Gmail’s message-storage management, leading to a USA Today column teeing off on Google for that neglected user experience.
  • Who better to quote as a hype-puncturing source about SpaceX’s Starlink satellite broadband than Elon Musk himself? The reality-check video keynote he did at MWC in late June yielded a Fast Company post that helped inform my subsequent coverage of rural broadband.
  • I combined my notes from the Estonia trip with interviews of U.S. experts afterwards for a Fast Company story explaining that Baltic state’s e-government journey–including why it would be such a heavy lift here.
  • I used my PCMag perch to unpack Apple executive Craig Federighi’s disingenuous Web Summit talk about App Store security.

Having mentioned my business travel here–see after the jump for a map of where I flew for work in 2021–I have to note that the most important flights I took were the ones that reunited me with family members for the first time in well over a year. I hope your 2021 included the same.

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How I took to the skies on Sept. 11 in an antique airplane

One of the ways I’ve come to mark the anniversary of Sept. 11 is to do what I could not in the days after that horrific Tuesday: fly. In 2011, 2014, 2017, and 2019, conferences provided reasons to get on planes, while last year, I booked a miniature mileage run starting at National Airport and ending at Dulles. This year, there was no way I would mark 20 years since that brutal day by staying on the ground.

How, then? I started looking up United fares from DCA to EWR and back, but I also recalled a friend’s post this summer from an airshow in Pennsylvania that offered rides in World War II-vintage airplanes. Searching online for more such opportunities revealed one airshow taking place in Hagerstown, Md., on Sept. 11… at which I could spend $450 for a roughly 30-minute hop in a B-25 Mitchell bomber named “Panchito,” maintained by the Delaware Aviation Museum Foundation and restored after a similar model that flew combat missions from Okinawa in the summer of 1945.

How could I not? Well, first I asked an avgeek friend if he could look up the maintenance history of this 1945-vintage B-25J (after checking the records, he commented, “this aircraft looks pretty clean to me”), and then I called the foundation to inquire about their policies if weather or mechanical issues forced a cancellation (they would either refund the money or rebook me on a future flight). And then I put down my reservation for a seat at one of the waist gun positions and hoped for good flying weather.

Saturday, Sept. 11, 2021 obliged, arriving as clear and sunny as a certain Tuesday two decades ago.

I met no traffic on the way to Hagerstown and got to the airport in time to take the first of some 200 pictures (a slideshow of my Flickr album featuring 50 or so of them awaits below) before the preflight briefing. To sum up its instructions: Keep your seat belt and shoulder harness fastened until a crew member signals you can get up, then fasten them again when instructed; don’t play with the plane’s mounted, inert guns; don’t stick anything out the porthole on the right side of the plane; if you have to exit quickly after a landing, use the yellow handles before touching the red ones; if no emergency exits open, take the crash axe to a window.

Boarding required climbing nearly-vertical stairs dropped out of the belly of this B-25 and not bonking my head on any metal surfaces. Then I–enough of an avgeek to own a messenger bag that includes a recycled airplane seatbelt buckle–needed coaching on how to strap myself into 1940s-era lap and shoulder harnesses.

Panchito came to visceral life as her two 14-cylinder piston engines spun up, shaking the cabin around me as the scent of gasoline wafted in. They rumbled as we taxied to the end of the runway and held several minutes for a takeoff slot, then roared to pull us down the runway and pitch us into the air after a surprisingly short takeoff roll.

(Seeing this plane jump like that reminded me of the Doolittle Raid, in which American pilots flew 16 B-25s, loaded much more heavily than ours, off the aircraft carrier USS Hornet and bombed Japanese cities less than six months after Pearl Harbor.)

No other airplane I’ve boarded has felt as alive as this 76-year-old airframe. Beyond the deafening racket of her Wright R-2600 Twin Cyclones–ear protection was mandatory and hearing anybody else on board was hopeless outside of the intercom–I could literally see Panchito’s nervous system at work, in the form of the cables linking cockpit controls to flight surfaces that slid back and forth and bounced against pulleys.

Once we were free to move about the cabin, I realized how little that meant in the cramped confines of a WWII medium bomber. I could wriggle my way to the tail-gun position by crawling down a tunnel, but only after the occupant of that spot had returned to a position by the waist guns.

The sights awaiting from that perch–a perspective I’ve never had on any aircraft before–were worth the exertion. That miniature glass greenhouse provided almost a 360-degree view of the B-25’s twin tails and the rest of the plane as well as such surrounding scenery as local skiing favorite Whitetail, the Potomac River, and a green-and-brown quilt of farm fields.

Worming my way back to the waist-gun spot allowed me to soak in the feeling of a cold 175-mph wind blasting through the porthole. I kept thinking: This plane is a beast.

I could peek somewhat enviously at the cockpit through a passageway running over the bomb bay, but that cramped tunnel was not open for people to go through in flight. The bomb bay appeared completely inaccessible, in case any Dr. Strangelove fans are wondering about that.

Soon enough, a crew member flashed the buckle-up sign, two thumbs pointed towards each other, and it was time to strap in. The pilots extended flaps, deployed the landing gear, and landed smoothly after 22 minutes in the air. Back at the ramp, a crowd of spectators awaited us–another thing you don’t get in a 737 or an A320. I lingered around Panchito, poking my head around the cockpit and the bombardier’s station; that, too, is no part of the standard airline experience.

Unlike most commercial aviation, this flight earned me zero frequent-flyer miles and did zero to help me retain any elite status. My concern over those things: also zero.

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9/11 + 20

Photo taken from a Rosslyn rooftop Sept. 8 shows the "tower of light" tribute shining into the night sky from the Pentagon, with the river, Memorial Bridge and the Washington Monument to its left.

Twenty years ago today, I woke up and then the nightmare began. First as heard through the calm voice of NPR’s Bob Edwards, then as seen in increasingly horrific images and video clips on TV and online that revealed the United States was in for one of the most painful days of its existence.

As I wrote to fellow tech journalists on a mailing list that night: “I just had to turn off the TV. I can’t stand to watch the clips of the plane crashing into the building anymore–I keep hoping the jet will miss, but it never does.”

The moments of September 11, 2001 that have stayed with me the most, however, aren’t in any photo or video I can inspect today. Biking to the Washington Post as D.C. was rapidly emptying of its daytime population, with the gigantic plume of smoke at the Pentagon rising into a sky of fear… anxious back-and-forth with friends in New York via AOL Instant Messenger when other means of communication failed… seeing a colleague burst into tears at the thought of all the financial-industry voices she had known who were silenced… the ride home through a grief-stricken city with troops on street corners and a quiet sky.

It was all a stunning realization of our own vulnerability. But today, 9/11 also strikes me as the day when any wishful thinking that the 21st century had freed us from the mistakes of the 20th got crushed, conclusively and cruelly.

The 20 years since haven’t been much kinder with their lessons about thinking we have escaped history. We started a war in Afghanistan that we mission-creeped into a doomed exercise into propping up a corrupt government, then launched a war in Iraq with no connection to 9/11 or even a reality-based assessment of our national interest. We did find and kill the author of the 9/11 attacks, but terminating Osama bin Laden’s crimes against humanity did not make us that much quicker to end the atrocities of the Daesh death cult that has no right to call itself “Islamic.”

At home, the body counts from gun deaths and opioid abuse grotesquely exceed those of 9/11 but invoke no somber anniversary commemorations or giant American flags draped from office buildings. And then we decided the way out of these turbulent times was to give the most powerful job in America to Donald Trump, who could never be accused of being too subtle or mild-mannered like his predecessor and instead inflicted a four-year reign of lies, cruelty, bigotry, and incompetence that culminated in a violent attempt to overturn the election. Jan. 6, 2021 scared me as a neighbor of the federal government in a way no other day had since Sept. 11, 2001.

As I type this, the pandemic that has now killed nearly one in every 500 Americans grinds on, even as many refuse to take the vaccines that can do more than anything else we know to free us from this plague. The more I think about 9/11-conspiracy lies, the more I see them as the extended beta test for the anti-vax delusions now afflicting my country.

Yet despite all that, we have made it a fifth of the way into this century, and at least many of us see the broken things we need to fix more clearly than we did 20 years ago. Today, I don’t want to think about the crimes committed then as much as the bravery, sacrifice and persistence we saw afterwards. And which endure today.

Ten years without a real job

I have now somehow clocked a decade of self-employment, and I won’t even pretend that was the plan when my status as a Washington Post employee officially expired on April 29, 2011. At the time, I assumed I would spend not too many weeks as a gentleman of leisure, then find a place where I could resume covering the things I cared about in the world of technology.

(By which I mean, not rewriting Apple rumors.)

Photo shows a 1 and a 0 from a toddler's alphabet set, as seen resting on graph paper.

Instead, multiple places found me, offering freelance rates that were good enough to convince me to try self-employment. It seems that my sudden and surprising appearance on the market represented unintentional, effective positioning on my part; my least-useful advice to new freelancers is “have a column at a major American newspaper, then have the paper kick you to the curb when nobody expects it.”

I also didn’t realize at the time how lucky I was to start freelancing by having two different clients commit to pay for a set amount of work each month at an above-market rate. My gigs at Discovery News and the Consumer Electronics Association eventually went away–there’s no such thing as a permanent freelance client–but they allowed me to figure out the basics of indie existence without stressing over each month’s income.

They also let me start seeing what I’d missed at the events that had never been in the cards for me at the Post–like SXSW, MWC and the Online News Association’s annual gathering–and begin to develop my own sideline as a conference speaker.

I have learned an enormous amount about the self-employed existence since then–battering my way to marginal competence at accounting, struggling with parallel editor-relationship management, booking travel on my own criteria and then optimizing it, time-slicing workdays to get chores like a Costco run done faster than salaried folks can manage, and bringing a certain equanimity to fluctuating cash flow. (My actually-useful advice to new freelancers is “have a spouse with a real job.”) Some years have been much better than others, while last year was much worse than the rest. Marching on as a freelance writer through a global pandemic even as friends have fled the business is one of the harder things I’ve had to do in my career–but the important thing is that I persisted, and now business is picking up and I can even look forward to once again traveling for work.

Ten years and 87 1099 tax forms later (I may be missing a few in that count), I still think I’ve been pretty lucky in this ongoing chapter of my professional life. I’ve never had a client fail to pay me; while I have had to nag a few for several months for a payment, my single longest wait happened because I forgot to invoice the client. I have covered stories and gone to parts of the world that probably would have remained daydream material had I somehow stayed on my old path. And since April of 2011, no one company has ever been in a position to put me out of business. That means a lot.