A two-month anniversary update

Tomorrow, Oct. 6, will be my two-month anniversary at my job. It’s been very rewarding (and busy, as you can tell from my lack of updates). We’ve added three new sections: defense, financial services and tax. Every day I’m editing stories about budget issues, the health-care reform law, infrastructure, cybersecurity, oil and natural gas production, lobbying and all kinds of other topics. I’m learning a LOT.

I’m also enjoying living in D.C., venturing into new neighborhoods and trying new restaurants and meeting some new people (or rediscovering old ones).

I will not be quite as active on here as I was before I started working, but things are going well and I’m pleased so far with my new capital life.

The day the Web went dark

Visit Google lately? Or Wikipedia? Or WordPress?

On Wednesday, each of these sites (and others, including BoingBoingTwitpic and Reddit) will “go dark” in protest of the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) and the Protect IP Act (PIPA). Both of these bills have seemingly innocuous names (piracy is bad), but a measured dissection shows how damaging they would be to the Web and to free expression.

Chris Heald wrote an excellent criticism of SOPA on Mashable, providing clear positions and using layman’s terms to explain just what about SOPA is so troubling. Heald makes his opinion clear: “If a programmer on my team wrote code as convoluted as this bill, I would fire him on the spot.”

Here are some of the bill’s provisions:

1. The attorney general could take action against any site found to “facilitate” copyright infringement. As Heald points out, the site need not be solely for content theft. Text and photos on otherwise law-abiding sites could be targeted, as could links. This would include sites like Facebook, Gmail, Google, YouTube, Tumblr and God only knows how many others. Want to upload a video of yourself singing, say, “Rolling in the Deep”? Heald points out that, at $1 a pop (what the song sells for as a legal download), if your video gets 2,500 views, you’ll have committed a felony. This is without any monetary gain on your part, by the way. (Obligatory joke about, “Most YouTube performances are terrible, but this is ridiculous!”)

2. Search engines would have to scrub the offending sites from their listings, and advertising services would have to cut ties.

3. Your ISP would have to censor your access to foreign sites that the U.S. government could not take down on its own. One such site? Wikileaks.

The overall gist? This bill would effectively cripple Web development by putting it under de facto government control, gut online advertising potential, give the government (or more precisely, the corporations buying off the government) a frightening amount of censorship authority and criminalize virtually … everything, nearly anything you or I do in day-to-day Web use, no matter how innocent. The big push for the legislation comes from the RIAA and the MPAA in an effort to curb music and film piracy, respectively. What it actually does is aim a bazooka at an anthill, targeting content pirates and innocent-but-unlucky Web users alike.

Being a journalist, I’m extremely wary of anyone who would try to deny me or anyone else access to information. It demonstrates a troubling willingness to assert unilateral control over citizens’ Web-usage habits and I believe that it discourages Web innovation, because the fear of reprisal would prevent start-ups from attempting to get off the ground. Look at how many great American tech companies would be affected by this legislation. It’s enough to scare off anyone else.

Thankfully, it looks like SOPA may not be long for this world. However, I think it’s important for people to still understand what it is and how critical it is that it or something like it never be allowed to pass. This is the information age, and information is power. Don’t give it up so easily.

The full text of the bill can be found here

Searching for Compassion in the Storm

If you haven’t already heard (or seen, or read), tornadoes in the southern U.S. killed at least 200 people last night and caused untold damage. The tornado season has gotten off to a devastating start in the midwest and in the south.

Being from Kansas, I’ve had tornado safety drilled into my mind practically from birth. A microburst hit my college town in March 2006, and I’ve spent untold numbers of spring and summer evenings hiding out in the basement watching or listening to the weather forecasts, occasionally peeking out the window to look at thunderstorms, hail and the eerie green stillness that only comes when something awful is about to happen. So, learning what’s happened in the south, I can commiserate with what the poor people down there are going through.

I’ve also read various stories about the storms on Gawker and The Huffington Post. While the stories themselves were sympathetic or at least innocuous, I was shocked and disgusted at the tone of many reader comments. Cracking jokes about God’s judgment and the Wizard of Oz, calling the storms retribution for “birtherism,” telling southerners they had no right to expect disaster aid — this is compassion? I by no means consider myself a conservative or a Tea Party member, but these tasteless comments from so-called enlightened liberals made me extraordinarily angry. Tornadoes do not care whether you’re a Republican or a Democrat, I promise.

As a Kansan, I’m used to people automatically assuming that I’m uneducated, live on a farm, hate gays and disbelieve evolution. Southerners are often the victims of stereotyping that’s at least that annoying if not worse. But to bring it out when people are dead and dying through no fault of their own, frankly, makes me sick.

What makes it more galling is that most of these people no doubt consider themselves to be open-minded, educated and tolerant. The same people who’d be offended if these comments were slung at gays, minorities or liberals in general have no qualms tossing them at people from an “inferior” region. (For the record, I abhor blanket statements about any demographic.) Many of them self-identify as being from parts of the U.S. like the northeast, which doesn’t typically have as many tornadoes as the midwest and south; do they know what it’s like to cower in your basement and have the very real fear that at any second, without warning, your home may be blown away?

And yes, many people in the south (and elsewhere) express a dislike for government handouts. Does this mean that in their hour of need, we should tell them, “No disaster relief for you”? No. Why? Because we’re supposed to be better than that. If we show a lack of compassion to those who lack it themselves, how are we better? How does that set an example and help people to change their minds? It doesn’t. In pointing out some southerners’ hypocrisy regarding federal assistance, some people have equally made hypocrites of themselves.

The Red Cross is accepting donations on behalf of people in the south affected by the storms. Please make a contribution.