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.

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Twitter Moments: where context goes to die even more

Two articles recounting politicians not telling the truth caught my eye Tuesday morning. That would have made it another day ending in “y,” except that the story each candidate sold didn’t make them look that much better or worse than the reality documented in contemporary records–why stick to the unsupportable story?

So I tweeted that thought and linked to these pieces about Democratic senatorial candidates: a report by the New York Times’ Jonathan Martin on how Rep. Kyrsten Sinema’s (D.-Ariz.) tales of childhood homelessness didn’t square with her family’s utility bills from those years of grinding poverty, and a fact-check by the Washington Post’s Glenn Kessler ruling out a debate claim by Rep. Beto O’Rourke (D.-Tex.) that he did not try to flee a 1998 DWI arrest that he has otherwise owned up to as inexcusable.

Four hours later, Twitter’s app notified me that this tweet had been added to a Moment–a curated collection of tweets on a topic that can show up in the timelines of people who don’t follow you. You can’t opt out of this publicity without blocking the account that created the Moment, which seems impossible if Twitter’s editors were behind it.

Then my notifications started getting a little weird.

I got a bunch of retweets and likes from people who had stuck #MAGA hashtags in their bios (as in, the acronym for President Trump’s favorite slogan) or added a red X to their name (a protest against Twitter “shadow-banning” right-wing voices, an allegation that has yet to survive independent scrutiny). Maybe they thought they’d found a kindred spirit; if so, they could not possibly have looked at my other recent political tweets.

But I also received shout-outs from a few people with Resistance hashtags or blue-wave emojis conveying their outrage at Trump’s GOP. They might have approved of my overall output on Twitter, but they could not possibly have read the reports I shared in that tweet–maybe they thought I was talking about Trump or his Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh?

This kind of context asphyxiation can happen any time on Twitter, but a Moment’s ability to catapult a tweet far out of your normal audience and its usual context magnifies the odds enormously. I got a sense of that from watching Helen Rosner’s XOXO talk three weeks ago, but now I understand this from firsthand experience. Thanks, I guess?

Recognize a bad-faith campaign to discredit a journalist when you see one

The latest target of Two Minutes Hate on the Internet is somebody unusual, in that it’s somebody I know. But the story here is manufactured outrage as usual.

Until Thursday, few people outside tech-journalism circles could have name-checked Sarah Jeong or described her Twitter presence. I’ve been following her since sometime in 2014, so I can: sarcastic and often bitterly so, expletive-laced, and grounded in a deep knowledge of how tech intersects culture and the law

That makes Jeong an essential read in my world, and also an amusing one–see her unpacking of the PETA’s monkey-selfie case. She’s also a student of how social networks fuel online harassment and wrote an excellent book about it, The Internet of Garbage, that led me to quote her in Yahoo Finance posts in 2015 and 2016.

Now Jeong is again experiencing the subject of her own research, thanks to a cut-and-paste screencap compilation quoting her saying such mean things about white people from 2013 to 2015 as “it’s kind of sick how much joy I get out of being cruel to old white men.”

Why 2014 tweets in 2018? The New York Times announced Wednesday that it had named Jeong to its editorial board. The creator of that image, who calls himself Garbage Human on Twitter, apparently saw a chance to bully the Times into hitting the Undo button on its hire–what’s happened to other young writers, some right-wing, hired by traditional media outlets.

So is Jeong a racist whom the NYT should dump? That argument is, as Jeong would put it, bullshit.

First: No, she isn’t racist. I have interacted with her, online and in person, more than enough to determine that, and I’ve yet to see any co-workers of her say otherwise. And yes, that insight trumps yours if you hadn’t heard of Jeong until yesterday. Seen in context–as you can, since she hasn’t deleted them–most of the tweets at stake are cranky jokes received as such by white friends. One’s a profane distillation of a multiple-tweet legal argument. Others look like her venting about the misogynistic, racist word vomit that can greet a woman or person of color on Twitter; I will not tone-police people in that position. 

Second, consider the sources. After Garbage Human, whose tweets show a fondness for InfoWars hoaxer Paul Joseph Watson, Jeong’s tweets got publicized by Gateway Pundit, a conspiracy-theory-spouting factory of lies. I first became acquainted with its dreck last January, when it wrongly named my friend Doris Truong as the Asian reporter taking pictures of Rex Tillerson’s notes at his confirmation hearing without bothering to ask her if she was even there.

These are not honest critics, and their arguments are no more founded in a belief in racial equality than GamerGate harassment was about ethics in gaming journalism. You don’t owe time to the talking points of a bad-faith actor, not when it’s based on a context-free sample of a handful of tweets out of 103,203 available.

I know this because I saw this strategy employed successfully against my then-Post co-worker Dave Weigel in 2010. That’s when the journalism-gossip site FishbowlDC and then the Daily Caller (both with a history of ginning up right-wing outrage, facts or context optional) published cranky e-mails about various politicians that Weigel had sent to a private mailing list. Post management did not have the spine to stand up for its new employee against this selective copy-and-paste hit job or the absurd theory behind it that reporters should never share opinions about the stuff they cover, and Weigel resigned.

Five years later, the Post hired Weigel back. He’s been kicking ass at the paper since.

I look forward to Jeong doing the same at the NYT, as it declined to take the bait. Its PR department defended their new hire while adding that it “does not condone” her earlier banter and including Jeong’s tweeted apology that “I deeply regret that I mimicked the language of my harassers.”

Jeong’s current employer until she starts at the Times, The Verge, took a stronger line in a post:

Online trolls and harassers want us, the Times, and other newsrooms to waste our time by debating their malicious agenda. They take tweets and other statements out of context because they want to disrupt us and harm individual reporters. The strategy is to divide and conquer by forcing newsrooms to disavow their colleagues one at a time. This is not a good-faith conversation; it’s intimidation.

Exactly.

2017 in review: This has not been easy

This year has been lousy in a variety of ways.

On a national level, the Trump administration luxuriated in lies, cruelty, bigotry, and incompetence. We learned that even more men in power had spent decades inflicting or tolerating vile sexual harassment. And widely-distributed firearms ownership left us with another year of American carnage that featured a few mass shootings so horrifying that Congress did nothing.

On a personal level, the worst part of 2017 was the day in March when I learned of just one of those tens of thousands of gun deaths: the suicide of my old Post friend Mike Musgrove. I think about that almost every day and still don’t have good answers.

But I have had meaningful, paying work, and for that I’m grateful.

Most of that has taken place at Yahoo Finance, where I easily wrote 8,000 words on net neutrality alone.

I continue to appreciate having a widely-read place at which I can call out government and industry nonsense, and I wish I’d taken more advantage of that opportunity–the second half of the year saw me let too many weeks go by without any posts there. But 2017 also saw some overdue client diversification beyond my usual top three of Yahoo, USA Today and Wirecutter.

I’ve done more wonky writing for trade publications, which tend to offer better rates (even if they sometimes pay slower) and often wind up compensating me for the kind of research I’d need to do anyway to write knowledgeably for a consumer-focused site. This year has also brought about the reappearance of my byline in the Washington Post and the resulting, thoroughly enjoyable confusion of readers who hadn’t seen me there since 2011.

Once again, I did more than my share to prop up the travel industry. Conferences, speaking opportunities and story research took me to Las Vegas, Barcelona, Austin, New York (only once, which should have led Amtrak to e-mail to ask if I’m okay), Lisbon (twice), the Bay Area (three times), Shanghai, Paris, Berlin, Cleveland (being driven most of the way there by a semi-autonomous Cadillac was one of those “I can’t believe I’m being paid to do this” moments) and Boston.

(See after the jump for a map of all these flights.)

Tearing myself away from my family each time has not gotten any easier, but at least all of last year’s travel put me in a position to make myself more comfortable on more of these flights. As an avgeek, the upgrade I most appreciated is the one that cleared 36 hours before my trip to Shanghai in June to put me in the last seat available on the upper deck of a United 747–barely five months before the the Queen of the Skies exited United’s fleet.

Almost all of these international trips involved concerned queries from citizens of our countries about the leadership of my own. I understand where they came from but wish they weren’t necessary. Someday, that will happen–but not in 2018.

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The two kinds of Airbnbs I rent

No travel site has saved me as much money as Airbnb–the 10 rooms and the two apartments I’ve booked through the site represent thousands of extra dollars I didn’t have to spend on overpriced hotels at events like Mobile World Congress and Google I/O. But no other travel site has left me thinking so much about its effects on the places I visit.

The vision that Airbnb sells, and the reality I’ve seen in half of those 12 stays, is somebody renting out a room or (when they’re traveling) their entire residence to make extra money on the side. I always appreciate the effort these hosts put in–the labels on everything, the well-placed power strips that hotels often forget, the advice about places to eat and drink nearby–and I like the thought that I’m helping people stay in their homes or apartments.

(A friend in Brooklyn has rented out the extra room in his apartment for years; seeing him favorably review an Airbnb room in Denver put me at ease with staying there for last year’s Online News Association conference.)

But Airbnb also features many other hosts who list multiple properties and, in some cases, have purchased many or all of the apartments in a building to rent out to budget-minded travelers like me. In the latter case–like the room in San Francisco I rented this week that appeared to have once been a single-room-occupancy apartment–you can easily imagine that without an Airbnb, people who live near those places would have more housing options.

That concern, sometimes pushed by the hotel industry, has led many cities to try to restrict Airbnb. In Barcelona, that crackdown meant the apartment in the Gothic Quarter that I’d stayed at for three years in a row was off the market this February because the host couldn’t get the required tourist license (I found another apartment that did have it, or at least said it did). In San Francisco, it’s led the company to start collecting occupancy taxes (which is fine with me).

I don’t want to overstate Airbnb’s effect on a housing market–certainly not in the Bay Area, where development policies founded on delusional entitlement have done far more to jack up residential costs. But I do worry about this.

And then I continue to book on Airbnb when crashing with friends isn’t an option. When the alternative is eating $200 or $300 a night on a hotel room or staying in distant suburbs, what else do you expect me to do?

The Jefferson Davis Highway in Arlington may be Virginia’s least worthy Confederate memorial

Two years after racist violence in Charleston forced most of us to realize that the Confederate battle flag had long since decayed into a symbol of hate, racist violence in Charlottesville has hammered in the rest of that lesson: The same logic applies to statues, memorials and other public commemorations of the Confederacy that whitewash it as a noble but failed venture.

Arlington County exhibits less of this Lost Cause litter than most of Virginia, but one of our few examples may be the least worthy in the Commonwealth: our part of the Jefferson Davis Highway. The name affixed to U.S. 1 from Interstate 395 to Alexandria and to State Route 110 from Rosslyn to I-395 has long been an embarrassing exercise in denial.

• The residents of what was then Alexandria County voted to stay with the Union by a 2-to-1 margin.

• Union troops promptly liberated the county at the start of the Civil War and turned much of it into an armed camp that saw no Confederate attacks; in the bargain, we got Fort Myer.

• Non-Virginian Jefferson Davis displayed neither battlefield genius nor courage during the war and was a lousy political leader. In an essay arguing for moving Confederate statues to museums and cemeteries, National Review editor Rich Lowry idly flicked Davis into the trash as “the blessedly incompetent president of the Confederacy.”

• This highway only got its name in the 1920s after a lobbying effort by the United Daughters of the Confederacy–part of a larger effort to cement a narrative of white supremacy–that put forth Davis alongside Lincoln as “the two great leaders of the critical period of American history.”

• Lest we lose sight of the subtext here, the Confederacy started a war that cost the lives of 750,000-plus people and threatened to dismember the United States so its citizens could keep and abuse other human beings as property.

Arlington effectively backed away from this highway in 2004, when a reshuffling of Crystal City mailing addresses to match them with building entrances erased many Jefferson Davis Highway addresses–including the one of the apartment I shared with three friends after college. (For a while, Apple Maps was a dead-ender about this realignment.) Arlington also renamed a secondary road from “Old Jefferson Davis Highway” to “Long Bridge Drive”; FYI, the park later built next to the renovated street is great for plane- and train-spotting.

Renaming the highway itself, however, requires permission from Virginia’s General Assembly. The County Board put that among its 2016 legislative priorities, but our representatives in Richmond set that goal aside and wound up getting ignored on other issues.

The city of Alexandria, however, faces no such restriction and has started taking suggestions on what to call its portion of the road. And now, after Charlottesville, Arlington’s elected leaders seem more resolute.

Thursday, the County Board issued a statement solidly backing the renaming of Jefferson Davis Highway, with a softer endorsement of rechristening the county’s portion of Lee Highway. (I once saw Robert E. Lee in an entirely different category from Davis; I had read less at the time about his conduct and the greater cruelty of his troops.) Arlington’s school board, in turn, pledged to reconsider the name of Washington-Lee High School.

That leaves the General Assembly with a choice when it’s back in session, either in 2018 or in a special session that Governor McAuliffe could call sooner: Accept that the Confederacy’s losing effort doesn’t warrant a participation trophy for one of its weakest leaders on this stretch of concrete, or disgrace itself with racially-coded control-freakery. This is not an issue with many sides; there is one right side of history here, and Virginia had best place itself on it.

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.