My least-replicable travel hack: an Irish passport

Thursday, I wrapped up another trip to Europe that left me with zero passport stamps. I haven’t gotten any coming home since my Global Entry subscription kicked in five years ago, but I also haven’t picked up any arriving in the European Union since the spring of 2017.

That’s when I started traveling to the EU with an Irish passport. The backstory: As I’ve mentioned here before, my grandmother was born in Ireland, which qualifies me for Irish citizenship–and my parents did the extensive paperwork to secure that so I could work in my dad’s office in Paris in 1991 without getting a work visa.

The passport I got then expired after a few years of my using it only as an ID at bars on St. Patrick’s Day (bouncers were uniformly unimpressed), and I didn’t think further about it until being in Europe in November of 2016.

No, Trump’s election alone didn’t drive me to get a new Irish passport. The dreadful non-EU passport lines I saw at Lisbon’s airport did–on top of the even-worse ones I sweated out in Paris that summer.

Renewing a citizenship document that far out of date took exponentially longer than I expected. The post office somehow lost the certified letter with all the required documents–starting with my birth certificate and Irish foreign birth registration–for a few long weeks, leaving me worried that I’d wind up undocumented in two countries. But that envelope finally made its way to the embassy on Sheridan Circle in D.C., and at the end of April I had a passport in burgundy as well as one in blue.

The time savings since then have been enormous in some places. In Paris and Lisbon, I’ve easily dodged 40-minute waits; at Heathrow last summer, my wife and our daughter got to share this EU-citizenship benefit, avoiding what looked like an hour-plus queue for the “All Passports” desks.

At better-run airports like Barcelona, Brussels, and Munich, this passport has only yielded a few minutes that I could spend in a lounge instead of on a line–plus the robotic experience of having my passport read at an electronic gate instead of by a person–but that’s still quality time. In all cases, my Irish passport has gone unstamped, as per EU policy.

It’s not like I get a choice: I have to use an EU passport when entering and leaving the EU, just as I have to use my American passport when returning to the States.

(Yes, the Feds know about my international alter ego. I stopped by the Global Entry office in the Reagan Building not long after getting this passport to have it added to my file.)

There is, however, one country where I’ve yet to derive any benefit from my Irish passport: Ireland. Shamefully enough, I haven’t been back since Web Summit in 2015, and I should do something about that.

Advertisements

2018 in review: security-minded

I spent more time writing about information-security issues in 2018 than in any prior year, which is only fair when I think about the security angles I and many of other people missed in prior years.

Exploring these issues made me realize how fascinating infosec is as a field of study–interface design, business models, human psychology and human villainy all intersect in this area. Plus, there’s real market demand for writing on this topic.

2018 calendarI did much of this writing for Yahoo, but I also picked up a new client that let me get into the weeds on security issues. Well after two friends had separately suggested I start writing for The Parallax–and after an e-mail or two to founder Seth Rosenblatt had gone unanswered–I spotted Seth at the Google I/O press lounge, introduced myself, and came home with a couple of story assignments.

(Lesson re-learned: Sometimes, the biggest ROI from going to conference consists of the business-development conversations you have there.)

Having this extra outlet helped diversify my income, especially during a few months when too many story pitches elsewhere suffered from poor product-market fit. My top priority for 2019 is further diversification: The Parallax is funded by a single sponsor, the Avast security-software firm, which on one hand frees it from the frailty of conventional online advertising but on the other leaves it somewhat brittle.

I’d also like to speak more often at conferences. Despite being half-terrified of public speaking in high school, I’ve become pretty good at what think of as the performance art of journalism. This took me some fun places in 2018, including my overdue introduction to Toronto. (See after the jump for a map of my business travel.)

My focus on online security and privacy extended to my own affairs. In 2018, I made Firefox my default browser and set its default search to DuckDuckGo, cut back on Facebook’s access to my data, and disabled SMS two-step verification on my most important accounts in favor of app or U2F security-key authentication.

At Yahoo, it’s now been more than five years since my first byline there–and with David Pogue’s November departure to return to the New York Times, I’m the last original Yahoo Tech columnist still writing for Yahoo. My streak is even longer at USA Today, where I just hit my seventh anniversary of writing for the site (and sometimes the paper). Permanence of any sort is not a given in freelance journalism, and I appreciate that these two places have not gotten bored with me.

I also appreciate or at least hope that you reading this haven’t gotten bored with me. I’d like to think this short list of my favorite work of 2018 had something to do with that.

Thanks for reading; please keep doing so in 2019.

Continue reading

This is the worst interface I’ve ever seen

Our water heater broke sometime Monday, and we found out the analog way: Only cold water came out of the tap.

A visit to the basement revealed that the heater had already been reporting a problem in the least intuitive way possible. A single green LED on an assembly near its base was blinking out a pattern–eight flashes in a row, followed by a pause of a few seconds and then two more flashes.

That sequence, a small sticker explained, was the heater’s way of saying “Temperature sensor fault detected.” This same sticker listed 17 other sequences of flashes and pauses that could report anything from “No faults” to “Flammable vapor sensor fault detected.”

(The temperature sensor had indeed gone bad, although it took multiple visits by techs to confirm that and then return with a working replacement. This has left me with a renewed appreciation for household modern conveniences.)

That’s an awful user interface. It’s also what happens when you supply a single, single-color LED to display the status of a fairly complex home appliance. Bradford White, the manufacturer, could have put in a light that changed color–seeing a once-green indicator turn to red is usually your tip that something’s changed for the worse–or put in two or more LEDs.

Or that firm could have splurged on a digital readout capable of showing numeric error codes, bringing the discoverability of this interface up to that of the “DSKY” control of the Apollo Guidance Computer that NASA astronauts sometimes struggled to decipher on their way to the Moon.

Instead, sticking with that sole green LED and offloading the work of discovering its Morse-code-esque interface to customers may have saved Bradford White a dime per heater. On the upside, I’m now pretty sure I’ve seen the worst possible UI. I mean, not even Lotus Notes got this bad.

Crystal City wasn’t so enticing in 1993

With the news Tuesday morning that Amazon will put one of its “HQ2” locations in Arlington, Crystal City–or “National Landing,” the name picked to encompass an Amazon realm that will reach some adjacent blocks in Pentagon City and Alexandria–has suddenly become one of the D.C. area’s most interesting neighborhoods.

That was very much not the case when I moved there with three friends in 1993. For a single guy in his early 20s, there was one word for the neighborhood then: Loserville.

Then as now, Crystal City was bisected by a partly-elevated highway, with superblocks filled by bland, boxy buildings on either side. But in 1993, most of these office and apartment structures couldn’t be bothered to engage the street: Aside from a few scattered exceptions, retail and dining establishments huddled in the Crystal City Underground.

My walk to Metro from our apartment on South 23rd Street–a hulking structure with concrete-comb balcony railings that evoked Communist Bloc architecture–either took me through those climate-controlled corridors or along sidewalks with immaculate landscaping but few human life forms, as you can see in pictures I took that summer.

(My Washington Post colleague Frank Ahrens later wrote a feature about Crystal City that ran under the headline “Habitrail For Humanity” and featured this wonderful line from Sen. John McCain, a resident then: “You can start to feel more like a mole than a human.”)

Shopping was not an issue, with a Safeway a short stroll into the Underground and other everyday retail spots not much further along. I had an easy Metro commute to the Post and other places in D.C., and we were close enough to National Airport that I once hiked home from it. But the only affordable nightlife-ish spot I remember on our side of U.S. 1 was a Hamburger Hamlet.

Crossing the other side of the road shamefully called “Jefferson Davis Highway” (and which marred our building’s mailing address) would get you to a short little strip of restaurants in older storefronts on South 23rd Street. But first you had to choose between a long wait for a crosswalk signal or holding your nose as you briskly strolled through a pedestrian tunnel that reeked of piss.

Meanwhile, all the cool kids lived in apartments or group homes in Adams-Morgan, Cleveland Park, Dupont, Georgetown or Woodley Park. Going to parties at their places–nobody ever headed in the other direction–meant dreading the question “where do you live?”

After 15 months, I was delighted to move to an apartment in Arlington’s Court House neighborhood and be able to walk to cheap, delicious Vietnamese food and some moderately-hipster bars.

Crystal City has grown less ugly in the 21st century. A series of redevelopments turned the west side of Crystal Drive into a great stretch of restaurants and bars, a few new and less-bland buildings have sprouted around the neighborhood, and the brownfield to the north that mainly served as an impound lot for towed cars has become the terrific Long Bridge Park. Even most Jefferson Davis Highway addresses are gone, now that Arlington decided in 2004 to reassign buildings street addresses that mapped to their front doors.

The people quoted in a Post piece Tuesday voicing complaints along the lines of Crystal City having “no nightlife” must not realize how bad things used to be.

Amazon’s arrival should make them better still, replacing more of those ’60s and ’70s-vintage hulks with taller, shinier structures. And unlike Amazon’s other HQ2 spot, NYC’s Long Island City neighborhood, Crystal City will also see serious infrastructure improvements: Current and future Metro stops will get new entrances, its Virginia Railway Express station will be expanded, the walk to National will take place on a pedestrian bridge, and the long-term vision involves turning U.S. 1 into a surface-level, human-scaled boulevard.

But Arlington’s plans don’t include another upgrade that’s out of the county’s hands until the General Assembly notices the current century: rechristening that highway so it’s no longer an exercise in Confederacy whitewashing. Click “Okay” already, Richmond.

Of course I didn’t see how social media could be an accelerant for bigotry

It took a few years after I first reviewed Windows XP for me to realize the enormous omission from my initial assessment of that operating system: It didn’t even include the word “security.” It feels like I’ve devoted much of my work since to making up for that shortfall.

I’ve had the same unpleasant realization over the past few years about social media. Just as my first look at XP showed no imagination about how an OS designed to run on trusted networks would fare on the open Internet, my early writing about social networks evidenced inadequate foresight about how they might help bigots to bond.

Consider, for instance, the Twitter explainer I wrote for the Post in 2008. I loved writing that almost exclusively as a series of 140-character-compliant paragraphs, and I think as prose it holds up well. But although Twitter was still figuring out the basic mechanics of @ mentions then, the piece reveals no consideration of how Twitter’s architecture might let bigoted trolls recruit like-minded people to scale up a Twitter mention’s compelled attention into a denial-of-service attack.

The evidence was there: A year before, writer Kathy Sierra had endured a hail of death threats for the crime of having two X chromosomes while expressing value judgments about technology. But my attention was elsewhere.

I can file away my naïveté about Windows security on not doing enough background research, but I can’t untangle my lack of imagination about social networks from having used them exclusively as a straight white man with an Italian (read: Catholic) last name. On every social network I’ve used–from Usenet newsgroups to Slashdot to the Post’s comments to Twitter and Facebook–I’ve had the unrequested benefit of not being routinely attacked for my gender, sexuality, race or religion.

But I never quite realized that until writing about Gamergate. I spent the day before that Yahoo Tech post ran locking down every important account and steeling myself for a toxic response online. Then nothing bad happened and nobody tried to destroy my critique by impeaching my identity. I can now confirm that white privilege is a hell of a drug.

Since then, we’ve had another unforeseen development: a president who has bragged about sexual assault, regularly evokes such anti-Semitic memes as “globalists”–a laundered code word for international Jewish financiers–and said neo-Nazis in Charlottesville last August included “very fine people.” Trump’s dog-whistling seems to have encouraged some bigots to crawl out from under their rocks and look for company.

Some have also been inspired to look for ways to kill people they see as “the other.” This bigotry boom has a growing body count–in C-ville last year, where I paid my respects at the memorial to Heather Heyer earlier this month, and today at a synagogue in Pittsburgh’s Squirrel Hill neighborhood. Last week’s pipe-bombing attempts could have added to that toll.

I’m sorry that I was asleep to so much of this before. I think I’m awake now, but I want you to tell me if you see otherwise.

It’s been a trying week to keep a politically open mind

For years, one of the non-obvious pleasures of writing about tech policy has been knowing that the good and bad ideas don’t fall along the usual right/left lines.

I might not want to hear Republicans like Rep. Darrell Issa (R.-Calif.) and former Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R.-Utah) say a single word about Benghazi, but they were right on a lot of intellectual-property issues. At the same time, I have not enjoyed seeing Democrats I otherwise find clueful like Sen. Pat Leahy (D.-Vt.) repeat entertainment-industry talking points.

But as the past couple of years and these past few days in particular have reminded me, the GOP looks different these days. When a Supreme Court nominee can snarl about left-wing conspiracies in a way that invites the description “Justice Brett Kavanaugh (R)” as the White House rushes through an investigation of sexual-assault allegations against him, and then all but one Senate Republican approves… well, that didn’t happen under President George W. Bush, as awful as things got then.

As a voter, I find nothing to like about what’s now the party of Trump. I’m struggling to think when I might once again cast a contrarian vote for a Republican for Congress in my deep-blue district–especially since my current representative lacks his predecessor’s history of questionable financial transactions.

But at the same time, it’s not good for my health to turn into a ball of rage, and I don’t want to respond to a bout of tribalism on the Republican side by returning the favor. So I’ve been trying to keep a few thoughts in mind.

One is that coherent political philosophies can deserve respect, but blind loyalty, an unprincipled will to power or rank bigotry do not. I may not agree with your notions on government power or individual responsibility, but if I see you speaking and acting in accordance with them, I can at least try to understand where you’re coming from. If, however, you’ve abandoned past positions because they conflict with fact-starved Trump talking points, why should I take you seriously?

If the logic of your current policy positions boils down to “this will help my team,” the same response applies. And if you spout racist or misogynistic nonsense, crawl back under your rock.
A second is that today’s Republican Party and conservatism aren’t the same thing, as one of this year’s dumber tech-policy debates illustrates. It’s become fashionable to describe (groundless) GOP complaints over social-network bias in terms of unfairness to “conservatives,” but the people doing the whining are solidly in Trump’s corner and back such Trump moves as imposing a hidden tax through massive tariffs and propping up dying resource-extraction industries–neither the stuff of small-c conservatism.

A third is that Democrats left alone can still screw things up. Living in D.C. in the mid 1990s, I had the privilege of helping to pay Marion Barry’s salary with my taxes; I know the risks of unchecked one-party rule. We still need a party that can point out that market forces can solve some problems on their own and that abuse of power isn’t just a sport for big business.

I assume it will take at least one electoral wipeout to break Trump’s spell on the Republican Party and let it try to recover that role–as that bomb-throwing liberal George Will wrote in June. In the interest of not trying to pretend I have no opinion on things I see everyday, I will admit that seeing such a beatdown would not make me sad.

Peak lawn

It’s the time of the year when I have to mow the lawn once a week. That means it’s also the best time of the year to mow the lawn.

The spring wave of weeds has gone by now while spring’s rains have the grass growing at its fastest pace of the year–so fast that it starts going to seed, which at least lets me tell myself that those seeds will help fill in the bare spots.

It does get hot, but it’s not too humid and the mosquitoes have yet to arrive. So if I inevitably get distracted and start weeding or transplanting flowers, I don’t have to risk being used as a walking blood bank.

So I have no problem dragging my lawnmower and its extension cord up the basement steps once a week. (I have no idea what possesses people with small yards to buy gas-powered lawnmowers; the electric model I bought for $200 or so 14 years ago has been essentially free to use, needing no maintenance beyond blade sharpening.) Soon enough the grass will slow down, a summer drought will set in, ailanthus altissima (aka the Tree of Hell) will make its annual assault on my lawn, and in three months just reading this post will probably make me grumpy.