Last week’s Eclipse passed right over us here in South Carolina. I live about 20 minutes outside the line of totality, so of my family came to visit and we went up to Camp Gravatt to watch the main event. I took a few hundred pictures of the course of the day, and figured there might be people interested in seeing a few.
I’ve been struggling with what to write about our new president, the protests he’s triggered, the ban on refugees he’s ordered, the families he’s dividing, the hateful things he has said about many groups, and all the related news. While this is mostly a technology blog and much more articulate people are already saying things worth hearing, these are not events I can allow to pass without comment.
For a variety of reasons I haven’t been able to attend the protests, except for accidentally attended part of a rally in Philadelphia (I thought the rally pictured above was over when I met a friend for dinner right in the middle of it), but it’s been exciting to watch the sustained energy the last few weeks.
Last week my wife paraphrased some of the memes that have been going around: Remember all those times in history class you thought “If I had been alive during ____ I would have ____”? What you are doing now is exactly what you would have done.
She didn’t mean it as a direct challenge to me, but I haven’t been able to let it go. In part because while I’ve had good answers in the past, I’m not sure I have a good answer at the moment. Besides, the challenge takes on another level of importance when coming from a historian.
While I was in Philly I visited American Friends Service Committee’s Waging Peace exhibit marking their 100th year.
For four generations my family has spent time worked and volunteered for AFSC, and there were markers of some of our work in the exhibit. Our widely different roles matched the times and events we were living through. As young adults my great grandparents worked in post-World War I Germany and France, and my great-grandfather later led the construction of a housing co-op. My grandfather and father served as conscience objector with AFSC during World War II and Vietnam. Most of my father’s siblings and their children have volunteered in various ways with some AFSC program or another, often packing donated clothing in the basement of Friends Center in Philadelphia. I spent ten years as an employee in the IT and Communications departments in Philadelphia.
For my great grandparents there was little formal training or planning. They both took on roles I can barely imagine doing now, let alone doing them at 22 in countries destroyed by war. Later in his life my great grandfather described part of his work after the armistice:
I was sent with an English boy to Bethlainville, near Verdun, none of the now returned owners knew who we were or why we were there. “To plow our land? Oh no! Americans come to take our land away from us?” My two high school years of French were put to a real test. We are here for Love. We are not the Americans you have met with during the war. We want no pay. But one young girl who had lost both her father and brothers, completely alone, said she would take a chance. “Oh but you’ll be raped said the others” O.K. she will have a gamble. So Jacoby plowed from day break until noon and then I plowed from noon until I couldn’t see at dark. Land all plowed, now we will see what these young men really want. Nothing? Nothing but love. Not the kind she expected. From then on everybody wanted their land plowed. Later on another crew of Americans came with seeds, tools, clothing, etc. So the people of Bethlainville were restored to almost normal living.
Relief work has grown a bit more formal in the last century.
He later returned to AFSC to support the self-help housing program, first in Ohio, and then leading the program in north Philadelphia which renovated a building to create a co-op that still functions today; my cousin, his wife, and daughter are members of the co-op.
My own work at AFSC was much less exciting: I sat in relatively comfortable offices and made sure the technology needed to support the programs was worked. I supported mostly communications, and fundraising, and my program involvement tended to be limited to supporting their public facing functions. I was in entirely administrative positions: I was overhead.
At the time it was sometimes hard to see, but now I easily see the value I contributed over 10 years. Too often we denigrate administrative functions at nonprofits as wasteful distractions from their true mission. But the truth is that well done administration is critical to the success of any good organization. They need money to pay the staff, they need web sites to inform people about their work, they do advocacy to make systemic change, they post pictures of their own pets to get your attention.
Now I’m struggling to find ways to help now as the world seems to spin out of control and the US government does things even worse than we did while I was at AFSC (the US went to war twice, admitted torturing people, and openly spied on citizens, so this is a fairly high bar to cross).
While I’ve been pleased, and frankly surprised, at how effective the current protests appear to be, I believe over the next four years the resistance the administration’s fermentation of hatred and distrust will have to be a community by community movement. The lack of trust between communities, and the lack of political power make sustained broad-based movements hard to imagine. There are communities under new attack, and others that have been failed for decades now starting to find their voices: many are voices of pain and anger. Even as we see mass protests we also see infighting within them and outside resistance from communities with shared interests.
I’ve written in the past about my sister-in-law’s students in Maryland. My wife and I posted similar messages to all our personal and social media networks, and hundreds of postcards and letters have poured in from all corners. The teachers read them to the kids, and send them home so their families also know there are Americans who welcome them. Some of those letters came from other immigrant children, and her students are now writing back to share their warmth and stickers, with the other children. It doesn’t fix everything, but provides some of what that community needs: love, the kind my great grandparents carried to post-war France and Germany.
There need to be people in the world who are willing to go into the most dangerous places, but we can’t all be those people. We also need people working actively in their community to help spread love, respect, and basic dignity.
I’m still struggling to find ways to have a positive, and effective impact, but here are things I’m trying:
- I’m making hats for a newly arrive Iraqi family I learned about from a woman at church this morning.
- Call and write to my elected officials to thank them for the things I think they are doing right, and ask them to change where I think they are wrong.
- Writing and speaking openly about my concerns.
- Attend rallies when I can, and support those who do when I cannot.
- Donate to organizations taking the kinds of action we want to see in the world including Planned Parenthood and likely others (we’re still working on who all that will be).
Please share with me (and others) what you’re doing, and what else you think can be done.
I believe that to work for positive change we all need to work in and with marginalized communities and help find positive solutions for their problems – even those expressing their frustration through hate toward others.
My sister-in-law is an ESOL teacher in Maryland. Yesterday she found herself trying comfort her class of terrified 6-8 year olds who wanted to know why America hates them. Many of her students are war refugees who have seen bombings, gunfire, and family members killed. Many of them are muslims, and even at young ages are aware of what has been said during the election about them and their families. Coming to America was supposed to mean safety and a government that would protect them, and now they fear that is gone.
Right now we can’t fix the Supreme Court, and we can’t undo all of the damage that has been done to our nation this year, but we can help these children.
We are trying to get as many people as we can from as many places as possible to send them postcards.
Tell them you’re happy they are in America.
Tell them you don’t hate Muslims.
Tell them that you love them.
Tell them whatever is in your heart.
Postcards can be sent to:
Riverdale, MD 20737
This week we get a letter from Atlantic Broadband, our ISP, addressed to “Aaron & Eliza Crosman Geor”. My wife has never gone by Eliza and her last name is not “Geor”.
It’s been this way since we signed up with them, when we ask them to fix it they acknowledge that they cannot because their database cannot correctly handle couples with different last names who both want to appear on the account. Apparently it is the position of Atlantic Broadband that in 2016 it is reasonable to tell a woman she cannot be addressed by her legal name because it would be expensive for them to fix their database, and therefore she must be misaddressed or left out entirely.
I consider this unacceptable from old companies, but Atlantic BB was founded in 2004 – there are probably articles about not making assumptions about people’s names that are older than their company.
Folks, it is 2016, when companies insult people and then blame their databases it is because they do not consider all their customers worthy of equal respect.
So let’s get a few basics out of the way:
- Software reflects the biases of the people who write it and buy it.
- If your database tells someone their name is invalid your database is not neutral. Just because you don’t get the push-back that Facebook sees when they mess this up does not mean what you’re doing is okay.
- If your database assumes my household follows 1950s social norms, the company that uses it considers 1950s social norms acceptable in 2016 – and there are probably a few of those they don’t want to defend (I hope).
- When an email, phone rep, or letter calls me by my wife’s last name or her by mine, in both cases they are assuming she has my last name not that I have hers. This is a sexist assumption that the company has chosen to allow.
Of course Atlantic isn’t the only company that does this: Verizon calls me Elizabeth in email a couple times a week because she must be primary on that account (one person must lead the family plan), and Nationwide Insurance had to hack their data fields for years so my wife could appear on our car insurance card (as required by law) every time we moved because their web interface no longer allowed the needed changes. The same bad design assumptions can be insulting for other reasons such as ethnic discrimination. My grandmother was mis-addressed by just about everyone until she died because in the 1960s the Social Security Administration could not handle having an ‘ in her name, and no one was willing to fix it in the 50 years that followed SSA’s uninvited edit to her (and many other people’s) name.
In all these cases representatives all say something to the effect of “our computers cannot handle it.” And that of course is simply not true. Your systems may not be setup to handle real people, but that’s because you don’t believe they should be.
Let’s check Atlantic Broadband’s beliefs about their customers based on how they address us (I’m sure there are some additional assumptions not reflected here but these are the ones they managed to encode in one line in this letter):
- They assume they are addressing one primary account holder: I happen to know from my interactions with them that they list my first name as: “Aaron & Eliza”, and my last name as “Crosman Geor”. Plenty of households have more than one, or even two, adults who expect equal treatment in their home. Our bank and mortgage company know we are both responsible adults why is this so hard for an ISP (or insurance company, or cell provider, credit card, etc)?
- They assume my first name isn’t very long: They allowed 13 characters, but 4 more is too many. I went to high school with a kid who broke their database by exceeding the 26 character limit it had (they didn’t ask the kid to change his name, the school database admin fixed the database), but Atlantic can barely handle half that.
- They assume my last name isn’t very long: Only 12 characters were used and they stopped in a strange place. I know many people with last name longer than that: frequently people who have hyphenated last names blow past 12. Also the kid with a 26 character first name – his surname was longer.
- They assume my middle name isn’t an important part of my name: If they had a middle name field, they could squeeze a few more letters in and make this read more sensibly. But they only consider first and last names important. Plenty of people have three names – or more – they like to have included on letters.
- They assume it is okay to mis-address me and my wife: The name listed is just plain wrong, but they believe it’s okay to keep using this greeting. They assume this even after they have been told it’s not, and even after we’ve reduced service with them (if another ISP provided service to my house I’d probably cut it entirely although mostly for other reasons). They believe misaddressed advertisements will convince me I need a landline or cable package again.
Now I’ll be fair for just a minute and note something they got right: they allow & and spaces in a name so Little Bobby Tables might be able to be a customer without causing a crisis (partially because his name is too long for them to fit a valid SQL command into the field).
Frequently you’ll hear customers blame themselves because their names are too long or they have done something outside the “norm”. Let’s be clear: this is the fault of the people who write and buy the software. Software development is entirely too dominated by men, as is the leadership of large companies. When a company lacks diversity in key roles you see that reflected in the systems built to support the work. Atlantic’s leadership’s priorities and views are reflected in how their customers are addressed because they did not demand the developers correct their sexist assumptions.
These problems are too common for us to be able to refuse to do business when it comes up. I will say that when we switched our insurance to State Farm they did not have any trouble understanding that we had different last names and their systems accommodated that by default.
If you do business with a company that makes these (or other similar mistakes) I think it’s totally reasonable to remind them every time you reasonable can that it’s offensive. Explain that they company is denying you, your loved ones, and/or your friends a major marker of their identity. Remind them they are not neutral.
If you write data systems for a living: check the assumptions you’re building into your code. Don’t blame the technology because you used the wrong character set or trimmed the field too short: disk is cheap, UTF-8 has been standard for 15+ years, and processors are fast. If the database or report layout doesn’t work because someone’s name is too long the flaw is not the name.
We all make mistakes and bad assumptions sometimes, but that does not make it okay to deny people basic respect. When we make a bad assumption, that’s a bug, and good developers are obligated to fix it. Good companies are obligated to prevent it from happening in the first place.
Near the end of her life my grandmother made hats – lots of hats. Most of them made from cheap acrylic yarns and most sized for children. She lived alone and spent much of her time sitting in her apartment watching C-SPAN and knitting. At the time her apartment was a few blocks from my office so I went to visit her about once a week and we’d chat about current events, politics, and whatever else was on her mind. If you went to visit her during the winter and you were not wearing a hat when you arrived (and since she was on the 19th floor I usually took my hat off in the elevator) you were strongly encouraged to take a few to keep warm when you left.
My mother and aunt would bring her yarn from various sales and the ends of projects, and I would occasionally take a bag or two or hats with me after a visit. I tried giving them away on the street to homeless people who often slept near her apartment or my office but they weren’t usually interested. I sent a couple bags to Afghans for Afghans (before I realized they needed items made from better fiber). We sent some to a friend who taught in Buffalo (Nanny loved the picture of children wearing her hats sent in the thank you note).
Even having given away a couple bags full, when it came time for her to stop living alone we discovered there was a closet full of grocery bags stuffed with hats. We laughed at the large number of hats she had stashed away but as her last charitable act – even though it was one she never knew about – we gave them away. My wife and I gave them to school teachers who had children in need. My sister took a few hundred to a women’s shelter. And we donated them to other useful causes when we could find people about to use them. Slowly my grandmother’s work was spread across several communities.
In addition to working in technology, I also spin – as in make yarn from wool and other fibers. I get more or less done depending on the ebbs and flows of life, but I generally have some fiber in the process of becoming yarn on a spinning wheel. My fibre stash is small compared to some spinners’ but since lots of my fiber is either a gift or a random purchase from events like the Maryland Sheep and Wool Festival instead of a specific project, I usually have extra yarn around too.
I also knit. And yes, I knit hats. Visiting in her apartment talking about the hats she was making Nanny shared – more than once – the pattern she used to make all those hats. She’d memorized it from some magazine or another years earlier (or at least a pattern like it) and so I typically make them about them same as she did:
- Pick a size needle that works with the yarn you have, and will result in the size you want (this takes trial and error if you aren’t an experienced knitter who knows their gage).
- Cast on 96 stitches (she sometimes said 76, but usually it was 96 and that appeals to my techie nature).
- Work 2 inches in Knit 2, Purl 2.
- Work 3 inches in Stockinette.
- Knit 2 together, Knit 6, repeat to the end of the row. Purl back.
- Knit 2 together, Knit 5 repeat to the end of the row. Purl back.
- Continue this way until, decreasing the number of stitches between each gather until your gathers start to collide. Then knit 2 together every stitch (still purl back).
- When you have 4 or 5 stitches on the needles, cut the yarn with about a foot of extra.
- Pull the end back through the remaining loops, and stitch down the open side.
I’ve made hats for friends and family, although certainly not in the volume she produced them. Last winter I realized I could use some of my stash of fiber to start making them to give away like we did with hers. And so now I have a slowly growing collection of hats (some with matching scarves) in the hopes that I am able to do something half as useful with them as we managed with my grandmother’s.
My grandmother was a challenging person in many ways. But she always tried to be nice to strangers and people in need. So this has become my tribute to the parts of her that I loved most.