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.

life
  2022-04-30 22:53 Z

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.

life
  2022-04-23 18:52 Z

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.

tech
  2022-04-07 21:59 Z

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.

tech
  2022-03-26 15:07 Z

After my Goodreads disaster I went and got dumps from every cloud service I care about that I could think to try. 13 in total, Twitter and Facebook and others. I'm impressed with the results.

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.

techgood
  2022-03-07 21:58 Z

Goodreads lost my entire account last week. Nine years as a user, some 600 books and 250 carefully written reviews all deleted and unrecoverable. Their support has not been helpful. In 35 years of being online I've never encountered a company with such callous disregard for their users' data. Update: Goodreads gave me a recovered copy of my data

Do you use Goodreads? Don't trust them with your data. Protect yourself with a backup; use their data export service right now. Consider quitting Goodreads entirely. LibraryThing and The StoryGraph are promising competitors. This blog post also has some ideas on DIY indieweb alternatives.

Don't trust any cloud service with the only copy of your data. Most companies are not quite so reckless but consider what you'd miss if an uncaring company lost your data. Many of the better services have data export products; Google Takeout is fantastic, Twitter has good export, as does Facebook and Instagram and Letterboxd and others.

I've enjoyed using a product like Goodreads. My plan now is to host my own blog-like collection of all my reading notes like Tom does. It will be a lot of work to set up. Fortunately not all is lost, I happened to take a data export last July and I can recover some of the more recent data from emails they sent to my friends. It's a shame they block Archive.org.

For anyone wondering how Goodreads could have simply lost all my data, I'm wondering too! It bespeaks contempt for users. And terrible system design, services should not be able to lose data irrecoverably. The specific bug is related to my removing Twitter API access to Goodreads last week (they stopped supporting Twitter login months before). Somehow that triggered their system to delete everything. Goodreads promises me it was a true delete, the data is wiped from their database. I don't believe this: sites generally flag data as deleted, they don't actually remove it. Goodreads also ignored my request to restore my data from backup. Either they don't have backups or they can't be bothered.

I've learned a hard lesson in trusting cloud services. Unfortunately just having a copy of your data isn't enough; it's a lot of work to build a useful product. In the meantime I will be more careful about which companies I trust. Goodreads has been in decline ever since Amazon bought them in 2013. Apparently an anti-competitive purchase, not a strategic acquisition.

techbad
  2022-02-28 18:00 Z

The best thing an individual American can do right now to fight global warming personally is to switch to electricity for all your energy needs. Your next car should be electric and your next home heater and water heater should be heat pumps. Rooftop solar is an excellent idea too.

That’s the central argument in Electrify, Saul Griffith’s new book about global warming (Amazon). He’s been talking about this for awhile; Electrify covers a lot of the same ground as his free self published Rewiring America and his Make articles.

The most interesting part of the new book isn’t the personal advice but rather his global plan for how the whole world mitigates global warming. He starts by pointing out how urgent the problem is: we have to start doing more right now, this very year, and there’s no time to wait on new technologies. Electricity is the best form of energy for transportation and storage. The basic idea is to shift from fossil fuel to electric consumption while in parallel adding more carbon-neutral electricity sources to the grid. He argues we’ll need 4x as much electricity in the US to achieve full electrification but this is a huge net gain (50%ish) in both total energy consumption and actual costs. He advocates for an effort akin to World War II mobilization to get it done, financed with low interest debt.

What I like best about his argument is it breaks the Gordian knot about “what can we do”? Electrify now and work on adding clean energy sources. I also like his holistic clarity, he really looks at whole-world energy consumption and economics. The optimism is great too. I find the argument convincing.

That being said, I also think global warming is a terrible problem that world politics won’t solve in time. We’re at 1.2C warming now. The Paris goal of 1.5–2C seems impossible. 3C seems inevitable and I suspect we’ll get to 4C at least before warming starts to reverse. That’s an enormous global catastrophe so big I think we have to consider geoengineering in parallel to decarbonizing to stave off the worst effects. As the book points out there's a risk people will see geoengineering as an alternative to decarbonization. It's not, but it might be a band-aid to give us time to get CO2 under control.

tech
  2021-10-17 21:10 Z

I've gotten interested in lowering my carbon footprint. That's led me to do some light research on a couple of consumer power topics.

CleanPowerSF is San Francisco's green energy program. Basically PG&E operates the grid but CleanPowerSF gets the power from green sources. Surprisingly, there's no real extra cost for typical users.

The image above is their Power Content Label, a national standard for reporting where your power comes from. The Green program is at least 97% fossil-fuel-free. Note that large hydroelectric does not technically count as "renewable" on this label for political reasons. Here's a list of other power content labels in California for comparison. Ordinary California power is 40% fossil fuels. Pacific Power in the the north is over 75% fossil fuel.

The California Climate Credit is a carbon tax thing. The big power generation companies pay a carbon tax to the state for greenhouse gas emissions. Some of that tax is given directly to consumers; $50-$200 a year for each customer. I don't understand why it's set up that way.

I've been doing other power related stuff, too. I'm getting solar installed, that makes good financial sense if you can afford a 7 year investment horizon. I also changed my investment strategies to avoid fossil fuel companies; that's really just a cost to me but I feel better about it.

life
  2021-10-02 18:56 Z

I'm a published cartographer! I contributed a couple of static maps of Enga Province in Papua New Guinea for the academic press book The Absent Presence of the State in Large-Scale Resource Extraction Projects. They're in chapter 3, Restraint Without Control, which talks about the interplay of the mining industry and local tribal fighting. You can read more about it on author Alex Golub's blog. There are high resolution versions of the maps on my site.

Alex is a friend from college, he knew I was interested in mapping and asked me to contribute some custom maps to help locate his narrative. PNG is a famously remote country and poorly mapped. Even in the modern era PNG map quality is very uneven. SRTM makes the topography map easy. But maps of human features are harder to come by. Google Maps and Bing Maps have very limited data. OpenStreetMap is much better and there are some specialist maps that are excellent.

I wrote up a bunch of technical notes on making the map back when I did the work. QGIS and OSM were both essential.

I had an idea it'd be nice to make maps for Wikipedia, one per PNG province. But the thought of dealing with Wikipedia politics was overwhelming. If there's a map advocate / mentor who would work with me I could probably get it done.

tech
  2021-09-29 22:17 Z

I felt physically ill reading this story about Facebook’s facilitation of murder and slavery.

... reports from employees who are studying the use of Facebook around the world, including human exploitation and other abuses of the platform. They write about their embarrassment and frustration, citing decisions that allow users to post videos of murders, incitements to violence, government threats against pro-democracy campaigners and advertisements for human trafficking.

There’s been plenty of stories about Facebook’s malfeasance over the years. Two things make this story particularly awful. One is the human scale of the harm they cause. It’s not some abstract discussion about political influence, it’s personal examples like a woman named Patricia being recruited and sold into slavery. The other is that Facebook knows about the problems and is choosing not to act. Or at least not act enough to be meaningful.

Facebook treats harm in developing countries as “simply the cost of doing business” in those places.

I had enough. I rage quit Facebook Thursday. Or at least tried to.

The problem is I’m a captive of Facebook. Because despite all the horrors it’s still a good semi-private way to keep in touch with people. It’s my primary social connection to the small gay community in Nevada County, for instance, including a group that organizes weekly meetups. Also it’s helped me reconnect with old high school friends. I’m well aware of the hundreds of other social media tools I could ask them to use, I helped design some of them. But the reality is that a lot of community happens on Facebook and if you don’t participate there, you miss out.

I don’t know what I’m going to do with Facebook. I was going to delete my account but feel I can’t. I’m trying to stay logged out but I already feel the need to connect occasionally, even if only to arrange social connections outside of Facebook. I’m one of those extremely online people, I can’t just disconnect entirely. But I’m being forced to visit the house of a psychopath.

This story this week is one in a series of investigative articles by the WSJ. Some Facebook employees have been trying to lessen the harm their company is doing and they’re tired of being ignored. So they’re talking to reporters, particularly Jeff Horwitz. As a collection the reporting is incredibly damning. Lying to their oversight board, ignoring mental harm to young women, amplifying anger and lies, sabotaging American vaccination efforts, and helping the business of murderers and slavers.

Facebook is in some ways just reflecting the larger evils of society. I’ve worked on social media policy. I understand the difficulty of moderating conversations. But as a medium Facebook is a very efficient amplifier of evil; its existence uniquely enables things like the genocide of the Rohingya. That creates an obligation on Facebook to mitigate the harmful uses of their product. They have failed to that. Maybe the only remedy is to stop them from operating.

PS: the WSJ has a strong paywall. There are accessible copies of the specific story I reference here and here. The Firefox extension Bypass Paywalls Clean can help you read the WSJ and other sources.

techbad
  2021-09-18 17:51 Z