I launched a new website for my linkblog; go check it out! I'm proud of how it looks.
My linkblog is a collection of links I find interesting. I write it for an audience, a few links a day of general interest. I've been doing this for 19 years now and I think it's one of the best things I publish.
Link blogging is a venerable form that both was a part of the very first blogs and predates blogs with definitive 90s web sites like Cool Site of the Day. It's no longer fashionable although its spirit lives on in every social media share button. The distinguishing factor of a linkblog is the link itself is the focus. Minimal extra content; I average 10 words a link.
The novel thing on my new website is sentiment. I decide whether the link will make readers feel better or worse and color the post white or black. I think it's important to share negative stories but I don't want to overwhelm everyone with doomscrolling. The other fancy thing is a prominent image for every post. They're a combination of website previews from metascraper and screenshots from shot-scraper.
I wish I had more reach! Only 12 people said they read it on Twitter (despite 7400 followers!). I have more readers via RSS; Feedly shows 100, there's a few more on Slacks. Kind of sad but I accept what I'm doing is not mainstream. I don't think this new web view will bring in the masses but it feels like an important part of making my linkblog more of a real thing.
Way back in 1994 I wrote an undergraduate thesis for my math degree at Reed College. It was a fun project, studying a discrete dynamic system that was an extension of the Ising model. Sort of cellular automata meets statistical mechanics.
A few years ago my colleagues from the Santa Fe Institute wrote a preprint from that work, Vortex Dynamics and Entropic Coulomb Forces in Ising and Potts Antiferromagnets and Ice Models. They were kind enough to list me as an author even though I barely understand half the paper! I do have the pretty pictures, though, plus a healthy appreciation of the complexity of discrete systems.
I've never met one of the co-authors, Cosma Shalizi. But thanks to his having a weblog I now know more about him than the other guys.
Google has agreed to settle a gender discrimination suit brought by employees. Congratulations to the plaintiffs, suing your employer is a difficult and stressful thing. But while the $118M headline looks big it works out to only $7600 per employee, less after the lawyers' generous cut. The harm was "the company paid female employees approximately $16,794 less per year". It's hardly restoring equity.
I faced a similar tiny settlement amount in the 2010 antitrust suit when it was found that Google, Adobe, Apple, Intel, Intuit, Pixar, Lucasfilm, and eBay were all colluding to not hire each others' employees to illegally suppress wages. The first settlement "my lawyers" agreed to was so low that the judge threw out the agreement saying they should do better. The final amount was still just a few thousand dollars for each employee.
I was mad enough I wrote a tart letter to the court when I opted out of the settlement.
I am unimpressed with my nominated attorneys. The fact that Judge Koh ruled the original settlement was “below the range of reasonableness” suggests my attorneys are poor negotiators and have not represented the plaintiffs effectively. ... I’m irritated that they cannot even do class members the courtesy of answering email.
As an unnamed class member I had nothing really to do with the suit, so this letter was my only personal involvement. At least when Gilardi & Co saw this letter to the judge they finally answered my email.
Class action lawsuits are the American way of resolving harm to groups of ordinary people. I understand why the lawyers are well paid for them. But they're seldom a good tool for monetary equity. There is value in getting the company to admit to its bad behavior and make changes.
Starlink is oversold in North America. I've had the service since March 2021 and it's mostly great. But every evening it slows down. On bad nights I can't watch a single 1080p video stream reliably. Over half of Starlink customers report problems. Starlink's speed test app now admits "the network may be affected by slower speeds during busy hours". As if that were OK.
Overselling capacity is a common problem with American ISPs. More customers means more revenue and if customers get a crappy experience? Too bad, there's no regulation to stop them. Starlink has a serious financial challenge so of course they have an incentive to oversell. And service quality is likely to keep getting worse. Their user growth is accelerating and the new RV service means literally anyone can buy a dish now without waiting (albeit at a lower service tier.) They are adding capacity but their growth plan hinges on the troubled Starship launch vehicle.
Customers were promised better. Starlink was advertised as offering 100-200Mbps and 20ms latency; their legalese description promises 50-250Mbps / 20-40ms. My reality is speeds drop to 10-20Mbps every evening. Upload speeds are tiny, often well below 5Mbps. 20ms latency is a fantasy; 50ms is typical. And capacity is highly variable minute by minute, a technical challenge for rate limiting protocols.
The US government is giving Starlink $900M to sell rural Americans 100Mbps download / 20Mbps upload. But Starlink is delivering just a tenth of that download speed during peak hours and nowhere near that upload speed ever. I hope the FCC RDOF contract includes measured performance targets.
I am still grateful for Starlink, it's significantly better than anything else I can get in Grass Valley, CA. But they're making a business decision that's bad for customers. It's a reminder of how important it is to have Internet competition. Investing in wired infrastructure is as important as ever.
I learned a few years ago I have a brother. No one knew, my mother gave birth to him in 1959 and immediately gave him up for adoption. My mother died two decades ago so details are hard to come by. My brother worked for years to find us. I'm glad he succeeded! And I feel sad for my mother's story.
I also feel guilty for my initial reaction. A stranger called me out of the blue and told me he was my brother and in that moment it felt wrong. I went with my gut and told him I thought it was a scam. I still feel bad for my rejection. Fortunately he was persistent and talked to other family members and about a year later I got back in touch and we confirmed with a genetic match. Our first talk felt strange because there's no normal way to have that conversation.
My mother never told anyone. She was 21 when she had my brother. She married my father five years later. No one knew about her secret child. Not her sister, not her best friends, not my sister or me. I don't even know if she told my father but I hope she trusted him enough to. Her parents knew but not her grandparents. This secretness makes me so sad for her, she bore this difficult thing without support.
We found a small cache of memorabilia that makes sense now. Mementos from a summer in New York. A letter from Elizabeth Arden (!) saying what a bright young woman my mother was and how nice it was that she visited her health spa in Maine. Just after the birth, I'm curious whether Ms. Arden was a regular host for young women in trouble.
It turns out that unintended pregnancies and complex family trees are way more common than we acknowledge. Ken's family is full of surprise cousins and grandchildren being raised as children. My mother and her generation treated birth out of wedlock as a source of shame. My generation doesn't quite know what to think. With genetic testing now keeping things secret is much, much harder. I feel no shame but even here I'm avoiding names, for privacy.
We know who the birth father is but my brother has been cautious about approaching him, disrupting his life. I would love to know more, he was in my mother's social circle and I would like to imagine young love or at least a summer fling. Instead all I know is the evidence of her shame and suppression.
But now I also know my brother! He's an interesting and successful man and a pleasant part of my life. I'm glad to know him.
I've written before about learning that my ancestors Leonard and Melvina Ward owned a slave. Today I learned there were more, at least seven.
This marker comes courtesy of Find-a-Grave. It's on a small family cemetery near Bagwell, TX. I'm not positive but I think the land is still in the family. I'm curious who put the marker there, it looks like the same style as one placed in 1969 for a named family member.
One thing that makes it hard to grapple with the mass crime of slavery today is the distance in time. But it's really not that far away and there is documentation to be found with enough work. I keep thinking how there's no names of the enslaved people on the marker, nor the census records I have. I would like to know more.
I’m back to using Goodreads but I lost my friends list, if you use Goodreads please add me as a friend.
After Goodreads lost my account I was furious and of course intended to never use it again. But to their credit, Goodreads did some extra work and managed to get me a copy of all my lost review data that I could import. And in the meantime I’d come to really miss Goodreads and decided I’d prefer to go back to using it.
After my experience I got interested in the IndieWeb idea of POSSE, Publish on your Own Site. You publish content like short updates or book reviews on your own infrastructure, then syndicate it to Twitter or Goodreads as appropriate. I like the spirit of owning your own data. But it requires you have your own infrastructure to publish to. I set up a basic Hugo blog for book reviews but it just doesn’t cut it. Goodreads offers so much more. Reviews are published in the context of a database of books, quickly crosslinked by author and genre and with publishing data and covers. Also Goodreads is social, reviews are shared with friends. That second part is why I didn’t switch to The StoryGraph; it’s a promising product but the community is small.
Still I’ve learned a hard lesson; your data isn’t safe on any cloud service. Making backups of your data is a good idea, I now have data dumps from 15 services. Although you still need a product to make that data useful. I’m still curious how Goodreads lost my data, they haven’t told me. One thing this whole debacle got me thinking is how dangerous account deletion is.
Consumer websites need to be very careful about data deletion. There's a risk of an account being hacked and deleted without the owner's consent.
The GDPR includes a right to erasure, California's CCPA has a right to delete. These are good laws, they allow an individual to require a company delete all personal data they have on someone. However this right also contains a risk. What if someone unauthorized requests the deletion? Proper deletion cannot be undone, in theory even backups should be deleted.
One solution is to delay the deletion and make every effort to contact the user before it's done. Some users might interpret the delay as the company acting poorly but I think it's an important protection against accidental or malicious deletion. Facebook has had a reasonable system for this for many years now; when you delete an account you have 30 days to change your mind. As a side effect some Facebook users keep their accounts in a perpetual state of almost-deletion, the super-logoff. Even better if the user's data is hidden while in the delete-pending state.
I don't know the legal niceties of whether a company can inject a delay. The GDPR language talks about "without undue delay", which seems to leave room for a safety net. CCPA is explicit about businesses having 45 or 90 days to "respond to a request to delete".
This whole post is motivated by my Goodreads disaster. One explanation for what happened is someone could have hijacked my Goodreads account and then deleted it to hide their tracks. At first I was outraged my data could ever be deleted. But Goodreads would be correct to do that in response to a valid request for deletion. And it looks like Goodreads will delete irrevocably immediately. (I'm not certain.) If they'd put in a 30 day delay I would have noticed in time. Speculating about this scenario made me realize that instantaneous deletion is a dangerous feature for any product.
The best of the data exports comes from Google Takeout. They were a pioneer in making a proper product out of data export and the Google Data Liberation Front did a lot of activism both within Google and externally to sell the idea. It's not an obvious thing for a company to do; letting customers download all their data opens the door to competitors. But it's the decent and right thing to do and it allows your power users to do complex things without much support.
Data export is also increasingly the legally required thing to do. The GDPR enshrines a right to data portability in the law governing businesses in the EU. California's CCPA also has a data access right. It's a little weaker than GDPR's but a lot of sites seem to just provide GDPR to everyone, or at least to Californians. These are excellent regulations; they protect consumers and enable competition. They do put a regulatory burden on the companies implementing them but it's not too huge and the technical infrastructure has other uses too. (Imagine, Goodreads could have backups of user data!)
One thing I hadn't appreciated is how hard it is to build something to use the data. Recreating a product like Goodreads or Gmail is a lot of work! In practice the exports seem most useful when some other commercial service is designed to import them. There's not a big ecosystem of open source tools to work with export data. Some of the data exports I got are pretty rough, low level dumps in CSV or JSON format. Then again Twitter has a whole working live webapp, you can browse and search nicely formatted tweets right from the files.
My Google data is the most valuable to me; I wrote up notes on what I found in my 67GB export. It's impressive; Takeout covers some 50+ Google products, many of which have done a thoughtful job making their exports another designed product feature. Not only did the Data Liberation Front get the company to export the data but they created an infrastructure and culture of supporting and improving those exports. It's a good thing.