What doesn’t get backed up makes you stronger, part deux

I have a couple of confessions to make here. First, my birthday is not January 1. (No I am not going to tell you when it really is). Second, I have been doing a lousy job of backing up my contacts all these years. Welcome to the second part of what is turning out to be a series of posts on what can make your backups stronger. I wrote the first part earlier this year about learning how to backup my Google Authenticator codes when I bought a new phone. Today has actually two challenges. Let’s take the contacts related one first.

For what seems like since the last century, I have been using Google’s now-called Workspace for my main email communications, and also using its Contacts app to store my contacts. Over time I have collected more than 9,000 records in my app. I am sure many of these records are outdated, and every so often I make a half-hearted effort to update people that I come across in LinkedIn that have changed jobs.

Every month or so, I export this contact list into a “Google CSV” file that I dutifully save on my local hard drive. Until today, I have never tried to examine this file to see how it is formatted or even if it contains any useful data. That is the cardinal sin of better backups: Don’t just assume that because you have made a copy of your data that it can be usable.

The reason for doing this is that I came across a Gmail account that I set up long ago that could be used to recover my main email if something should go wrong with my main identity. I don’t use this account for anything, and indeed it had no contact records to prove it. So I thought, this might be a good time to see if I can import my backup contact records. I found out that Gmail is limited to importing only 3,000 contacts per each import. This meant splitting the CSV file into at least four parts. Fortunately, there is an online tool that you can use to do this, and if you don’t have too many requirements, it can be done for free. I had to guess how to split the file up, and luckily I guessed fairly accurately, because I only lost 16 records. It took some trial and error — and liberal use of Gmail’s “undo” feature, before I figured this all out.

Now the hard part is going to be remembering to do this again — sadly, the only way to update my backup contacts is to clear out all of them and start this process all over again. (You can export selected contacts, but I have no way to sort them since a certain date, for example, to do an incremental backup).

Okay, let’s move on to my fake birthday. I did this deliberately as a security measure, to prevent the many people who look me up on The YouTwitFace from getting one piece of data that could be used to compromise my identity. Now, since I did this some of the social media services have placed restrictions on who can see my birthday (as the screen shot here shows The Face’s settings). But I haven’t bothered messing with this until this past week, when I got an assignment to write for The Verge about what happens when your account is hacked. One of the problems is that The Face makes it very hard for you, as the rightful account owner, to prove that you are indeed that person and not some poseur hacker. One of the ways that you are asked to verify yourself is to upload a photo of your ID, showing your actual face and actual birthday. Given that it isn’t 1/1, I will have an issue if at some point I do get hacked and try to present this ID.

Now, I have a choice: I can give Zuck my real birthday and trust that he will not spread it across his universe in the process of selling ads to further target me, or not give out this information and trust that the methods that I have used to protect my account (multiple authentication factors) are sufficient to stop most hacking attempts. I guess I am sticking with 1/1 for now, unless I want to get some fake driver’s license with 1/1 as my birthday that I can use to get into bars and get my account reset.

One other point of discovery as I was rooting around in my account details: I somehow gave The Face access to spend money using my Paypal account. Oopsie. I got rid of that connection quickly. There are two different places you specify this: one called Ads Payments (where they can run ad campaigns and charge you accordingly) and one called Facebook Pay (where you can give money directly to people or causes). You should ensure that the “payment methods” fields are blank in both of them if you don’t want any of your bank account details stored.

So I feel somewhat safer after doing all this, but still not happy that I have to take deeper and deeper dives into protecting my data. I will send you all a note when my piece in The Verge is posted, so you can learn about other ways to better prepare yourself against potential hackers. Spoiler alert: it is not an easy fix.

Figuring out the Facebook Papers: Who’s Carol Smith?

Illustration of a rabbit coming out from a hole in the ground covered by a bear trap with Facebook emojis scattered across the ground.A consortium of A-list reporters from 17 major American and Euro news outlets have begun publishing what they have learned from the documents unearthed by whistleblower Frances Haugen. The trove is a redacted copy of what was given to various legislative and watchdog US and UK agencies. The story collection is being cataloged over at Protocol here. I haven’t read everything – yet – but here are some salient things that I have learned. Most of this isn’t surprising, given the venality that Zuck & co. have shown over the years.

  1. Facebook indeed favors profits over human safety and continues to do so. This piece for the AP documents how foreign “maids” are recruited on Instagram to come work in Saudi Arabia, and then traded using various Facebook posts once they are in the country. The article talks about current searches for the Arabic word for maids has numerous hits with pictures, ages, and prices of candidates. With all its bluster of billions of dollars spent on tracking down these abuses of its terms of service, this shouldn’t be so easy to find if Facebook was really doing a credible job to stamp this out.
  2. Facebook has played a key role in radicalizing its users. NBC News writes about how internal research identified thousands of QAnon groups covering 2.2M members and nearly a thousand anti-vax groups with 1.7M members. The research attributes this population to what it calls “gateway groups” that recruit more than half of them. Again, the fact that the company’s own researchers could track this – and yet do little to stop the growth of these efforts – is troubling.
  3. The same NBC piece talks about a research project using a strawman “Carol Smith” user. Within days of her creation as a conservative-leaning by Facebook staffers, she was receiving all sorts of pernicious content, including invites to join various QAnon groups and others that clearly violated Facebook’s own disinformation rules. Did they act on this research to prevent this? Not that I could see.
  4. The “Stop the Steal” movement that led to the January 6 Capitol riot was organized through many of Facebook’s properties, pages and groups. CNN reports that one internal memo stated that the company wasn’t able to recognize the people contributing to these efforts in time to stop them, although subsequent algorithmic changes have been put in place to do so. Some content moderation efforts that were put in place prior to the November 2020 election were quickly reversed afterwards and could have helped mute some of the organizers of the January 6 riot.
  5. We might think that Facebook has done a sub-par job vetting American content. But it is far worse elsewhere in the world, as this piece in The Atlantic shows. The data shows 13 percent of Facebook’s misinformation-moderation staff hours were devoted to the non-U.S. countries in which it operates, whose populations comprise more than 90 percent of Facebook’s active users. The moderators hired by Facebook aren’t familiar with the local customs, don’t speak the languages, don’t understand the fragility of their governments or the stability of their internet connections – all things that mean more proportional resources will be needed to do a credible job.

So how can we fix this? I don’t think government regulation is the answer. Instead, it is time for new leadership and better designed algorithms that don’t amplify violence and misinformation. Kara Swisher writes in her current NYT column that “Facebook has been tone-deaf and uncaring about the harm that its own research showed its products were doing, despite ensuing pleas from concerned employees.” She also is lobbying for Zuck’s replacement with a leader who can finally listen to — and act on — these issues.

Another path can be found with the parallel universe being setup by former Facebook data scientists and frustrated middle managers called the Integrity Institute. Whether this will work is an open issue, but it could be a useful start.

Time to consider job crafting

A few weeks ago I wrote about career skeptics and the changing way we are interacting with our jobs during the pandemic. Today I want to talk about job crafting and how it can be used to improve your working conditions and perhaps move your job in the right direction and help your career.

5 Best Hot Glue Gun Options for Crafts and DIYs - Bob VilaThe term conjures up glue guns and glitter, which isn’t a bad metaphor for what is really behind the term. In a 2007 paper written by academics, the authors talk about how employees should redesign their jobs to improve work satisfaction and engagement. If HGTV or DIY had shows about job crafting, they would show the before and after shots of tedium transformed into an exciting, vibrant workplace. Or something like that. (But please, no shiplap. I can’t stand shiplap.)

There are three components of job crafting: tasks, cognition and people relationships. Let’s take them in turn. The task crafting is perhaps the easiest to get your head around: you want to change the type and scope of the particular tasks of your job to make the job more interesting, more useful or other reasons. This often involves changing your job responsibilities. My wife says you should be doing the job that you want to have when you get a promotion. A companion piece is changing your cognition or mindset of these tasks, such as how you interpret your job responsibilities or the specific work that you have been hired to do.

Here is an example: if you take orders from your customers, your job could be defined as just pure input, and making sure the orders are entered correctly. But if you alter your mindset a bit, you could be providing your customers with the best possible experience and making sure that they are ordering what they need and have the right expectations. It is a subtle shift, but an important one.

Finally, crafting your relationships is a lot harder: are you aiming to get more mentorship from a particular person in your organization? Or find a particular collaborator? Or are you looking to build particular connections to an important customer or partner? The authors of the 2007 paper wrote a 2020 piece for Harvard’s Business Review that provides some case studies to illustrate these three points.

These three elements interact with each other, so the lines are somewhat blurry among them. But what is important is that crafting your job is only possible when you have cooperation from your manager. If your boss is a bad one and can’t delegate responsibility and authority (just to pick something at random that frequently happened to me), they aren’t going to be able to help and will use their job glue gun to gum up the works, rather than build something wonderful.

Biznology blog: Understanding how collaboration happens

The PC era brought about an unprecedented transformation in the world of work, but it mostly empowered individual employees to run their own productivity apps. But with the work-from-home challenges brought about from the COVID-19 pandemic, workers must to figure out how to collaborate together. It’s now a business imperative, and it isn’t a new problem, but it’s an increasingly complex challenge not because of a lack of tools, but because we have too many to choose from. Now that more of us are working from home, how can we have a virtual experience that will work? There are two posts for Biznology:

In Part 1 of this series, we discussed the history and evolution of collaboration. We set a historical context and show you how collaboration has evolved over the past several decades by looking at some of the more interesting and effective moments in shared team productivityIn part two,  we turn to how to choose the right tools so that you can collaborate effectively.

Understanding career skeptics and the role of employee monitoring

We all know that the pandemic has had a major impact on employment patterns: not just more people working from home, but fewer people returning to their pre-Covid jobs. This has revealed what journalist Charlie Warzel calls career skeptics. His original piece can be found here, where he says folks don’t reject how they navigate their careers, but a complete rejection of having a career. That post received a sharply divided reaction from his readers: one group agreed with his point of view, but another felt the skeptics were a bunch of entitled complainers with a poor work ethic.

I have had essentially four careers. The first began when I was still in college and with a full-time job in my senior year as a professional photographer for the City of Albany, NY. It only lasted a year and only paid $5000 but it was the prototypical “foot in the door” in a very competitive profession. How competitive? After the job ended, I came to New York City with my portfolio in hand to try to get a job with a photographer. It was depressing: most of the people I tried to talk to wouldn’t even give me the time of day. Some just laughed at me: “What New York City (with emphasis on the last word) experience do you have?”

One of the photographers who actually let me in his door was W. Eugene Smith, the celebrated magazine photojournalist who was a few years away from his death. When I saw him he was in poor health, after being poisoned by covering the Minamata Mercury pollution story. He was very kind, although also very critical about my work. But just being able to spend a few moments with him made me realize that I had a long way to go, and that photography wasn’t in the cards in terms of my own career.

That “decisive moment” (to quote from another photographer) with Smith is what I guess many people are going through right now with their own career decisions. Maybe they don’t have a famous person giving them advice. Maybe they are seeing what their contemporaries are doing and want to find something else. My point is that you don’t necessarily have to stop at one career, if you understand your motivations and why you aren’t happy with your current job.

My other three careers were more successful: as a policy analyst in Washington DC and then various roles in IT and finally as you probably know me as a tech journalist. Early into that second career – in fact, at the end of my first job and about to take a second job offer – I remember a conversation with my dad, who ended up working for the same employer for decades as an accountant. I had just finished two years with the first firm, and he cautioned me that the change in jobs was too quick and wouldn’t look good for any future employer. It seems so quaint now, where a two-year tenure is almost too long in some quarters. My point here is that times change, and how our careers evolve need to be considered in the context of the times.

Warzel posits that our culture should perhaps aspire to better relations between employers and employees: the old saw that a company owes you nothing more than a paycheck and a safe working environment aren’t enough in today’s world where career development, intellectual stimulation, and doing something good for the world should motivate people to come to work, or at least come to their laptops in their spare bedrooms.

But that brings up another issue that is bugging me, and that is how we monitor our newly remote work forces. Employers are using increasingly intrusive monitoring software to track what their remote workers are doing, according to this piece in the Washington Post. This software category has exploded: It used to be just time and keystroke tracking, but now these tools can take screen captures, record video and ambient audio as well as track browser URLs and track geolocation. These tools include products such as Hubstaff, DeskTime, VeriClock and ActivTrack, and their use is growing quickly. PC Magazine even has a review of the category here. They say that “solutions that have been traditionally focused on tracking employee activity, logging suspicious behavior, and sniffing out possible insider threats are now pivoting to not only track productivity, but also monitor health and wellness, and even improve engagement.”

That frankly scares me. If we want to develop better employee/employer engagement, we have to start out trusting each other. Using more heavy-handed monitoring is a step backwards and could be yet another reason why employees aren’t returning to their pre-pandemic jobs — even if they don’t have to suffer long commutes to get to the office.

Back in the late 1980s, when I was a manager at PC Week, I supervised about a dozen people. Almost all of them were working remotely from our main office in downtown Boston. It was easy enough to measure their productivity: if the writer wrote his or her assigned stories, that was good enough for me. One of them was Bob who started out with a bang and then eventually tapered off to writing very few stories, and I had to fire him (the first person that I ever fired, by the way). Now, maybe your own productivity can’t be so quickly quantified, but I tried to give Bob the benefit of the doubt but after a month of no output and numerous requests to change his behavior I didn’t have much choice. That firing was a decisive moment for Bob, who went on for a second career as a pastor and talk show radio host.

YAFAT (Yet Another Facebook Apology Tour)

Could it be that we have witnessed the last of the Zuck World Apology Tours? Technically, his last one was in 2018, after the Cambridge Analytica scandal (which I wrote about on my blog here). But the Facebook executive – and his minions – have been apologizing frequently since then. Kara Swisher writes in her last week’s NY Times’ column, “What’s most revealing is the persistence of the tired old, so-so-sorry, we’ll-do-better excuses that Facebook’s executives trot out when the company is called out for its destructive products.” This was in the context of some recent bad news about Instagram, but still.

In Swisher’s column, she points out that Marc Benioff, the Salesforce CEO, told her back in 2018 that “Facebook is the new cigarettes. It’s addictive. It’s not good for you.” Now this remark seems eerily prescient. Yesterday, the Times ran a story about how Facebook will be pushing more positive stories about itself in its news feed in attempts to burnish its image. Called Project Amplify, it is doing what it does best: tweak its algorithm to present its own warped world view. This comes after a series of other failures to use various large-scale manual efforts to monitor and control how it spreads information.

One of the tweaks is to break up the data analytics team behind its CrowdTangle offering. This used to be the domain of data nerds and a few selected social media managers at major news outlets and retail brands. For example, here is a promotional piece that NBC News did on how they used the tool to identify individuals who post particularly poignant pieces on their news feeds. The tool was acquired back at the end of 2016 and its small development team was kept more or less intact until earlier this year. The developers explain it makes engagement on public content from various pages and groups within Facebook, Instagram account posts and other content more discoverable for researchers.

“CrowdTangle is a good resource for the right question such as large-scale text and image analysis but it is limited in its focus on public pages, which isn’t appropriate for my research,” says Zachary Steinert-Threlkeld, an Assistant Professor at UCLA.

But the top Facebook brass didn’t like the results of its analysis, as Kevin Roose explained (in another Times piece entitled, “Inside Facebook’s data wars”) how he constructed his “Top 10” Twitter list of most engaging Facebook posters using CrowdTangle. He still produces these lists daily, and they vary widely across various familiar and unfamiliar names. Roose pointed out how his Top 10 lists were frequently filled with conservative opinion leaders such as Ben Shapiro, Dan Bongino and Sean Hannity.

Facebook has tried to be transparent and continues to fail. It has this idealistic vision of being the online town square where ideas can flow freely. That may be the case in one corner, but the folks who shout the loudest and buy the digital equivalent of ink by the barrel are only interested in their own world view and the spread of misinformation. Its leaders suffer from toxic positivity, where they think their company can do no wrong.

As newspapers have become endangered species, we now have a new target, the addictive and unhealthy social media. As one gruesome warning label in Australia claimed about smoking, using social media can cause blindness and irreversible eye damage. Sad to say, Benioff was spot-on years ago.

9/11, 20 years after

Like Billy Joel once sung, I am in a New York state of mind this week. Thinking about where I was 20 years ago, watching the towers collapse from a vantage point in my town in Long Island. Thinking about the two friends that lost their lives that day, Mark Bingham and Tom Kelly. There are certainly plenty of TV programming to choose from this week, as Deadline summarizes.

By way of background, I have spent half of my life living in Long Island: born in Bay Shore, grew up in Levittown and Merrick, then went to college, only to return for a year to live in the pre-gentrified Brooklyn before leaving to go to grad school. Eventually I came back in my 30s to live in Port Washington, where I raised my daughter, served on the local school board, and established my own business. Port Washington lost about a dozen people on 9/11, which was less than its neighboring community Manhasset did on that day.

For most of the last 20 years, I have been living in the Midwest. Every so often, I miss the hustle and bustle of NYC. This is one of those times. This was going to be a tough anniversary. Covid, cancer, travel restrictions, floods and tornadoes in New Jersey! It does seem like End of Days.

I have been watching the NatGeo/Hulu series on what happened that particular day. It is an amazing piece of journalism, linking images of many of the heroes caught on film in 2001 with contemporary interviews. One of them is an interview with Bingham’s mother and highlights his role in thwarting the hijackers of United 93, and how proud she is of him. The series shows the level of heroism from both those who survived and those who perished. We see the firefighters trying to figure out how to save lives but losing their own. It is a hard film to watch, but it gave me hope in humanity and highlighted some of the day’s heroes.

Now, the notion of what constitutes a hero has been somewhat devalued in the past 20 years, but these were folks who put themselves in harm’s way and considered the plight of others before themselves. One guy was buried under the rubble of one of the collapsed towers with someone else. He first helped free that person, who immediately fled, leaving the first guy to fend for himself. You see him today all healthy and hale, then what he looked like back in 2001, all bloody and torn up from trying to squeeze through the pile of concrete and glass.

As many of you know, I have volunteered as a freelance journalist for my local Red Cross chapter, profiling some of the many volunteers who have given far more time and service towards helping others during many disasters. This week you can read my profile of Mickey Shell (and numerous others) when he went to NYC to help out after 9/11. It was the first time he visited the area from his home in Poplar Bluff, Mo. He is a mental health professor who gave comfort to the survivors, and learned how to navigate the complexities of the NY subway system as part of his deployment.

With 9/11, we came together as one – mostly. Sure, there was the attack on an Indian restaurant in Port Washington by some local louts. They didn’t quite get that Sikhs (who owned the place) wore turbans too and had nothing to do with the 9/11 hijackers, Arabs, or the middle east for that matter. Not much has changed today — we have attacks on various Asians that had nothing to do with transmitting Covid. There will always be haters. And now we have thousands of Afghan refugees that arrived in our airports over the past few weeks to try to assimilate, protect, and give opportunities for a new life. Let’s hope there are still some heroes to go around.

China fights inhumane 996 work practices

Last week China’s Supreme People’s Court and the Ministry of Human Resources and Social Security issued a set of ten new legal cases (what we would normally think of as judicial rulings) about how to treat workers’ rights in labour disputes. The ten cases (documented here in Chinese) cover mostly workplace overtime disputes. Before I can describe these cases, we need to talk about what is called 996 schedules.
Chinese companies are infamous for setting very high working hours: the numbers refer to the “usual” workday running from 9 am to 9 pm, six days a week. As Protocol discusses, this schedule has been tacitly approved by the government for years, and even promoted by such mainstream business owners such as Jack Ma (who called 996 workers a blessing for his company Alibaba) and Richard Li, who derided those that didn’t as slackers.
Microsoft and GitHub Workers Support 996.ICUThe 996 practice got to be so well known that two years ago it got its own Github project, now supported by more than 500 contributors. Called 996icu, its name means if you work 996 hours, you will end up in a hospital’s ICU. The project has badges and banners for supporters of more reasonable working hours, lists of companies that have more balanced work rules and tips to help workers fight 996 conditions. The project’s readme file states “This is not a political movement. We firmly uphold the labor law and request employers to respect the legitimate rights and interests of their employees. We want to create an open source software license that advocates workers’ rights.”
The 996 situation changed with the cases cited by the courts last week. Given a series of high-profile deaths by overworked and overstressed employees, a growing movement among Chinese Millennials to have more of a work/life balance and a concern by the central government about a shrinking labor force (China’s population growth is slowing), it was time for some clarification and to try to stamp out 996 practices. The ten cases define a “standard” 44 hour workweek and 8 hour work day. how to resolve pay disputes, and other employment matters.
The rulings have already brought about changes for smartphone maker Vivo, which scrapped its six-day work weeks the day after the cases were published. Legal scholars predicted that worker complaints would be given more credence by the court system. Still, some social media reaction was skeptical, so we’ll see what happens. But it certainly is a step in the right direction.

NokNok blog: Next level metal credit cards

I got my first metallic credit card from Apple a few years ago. I thought it was more a curiosity than anything else. Soon after, my wife got a metallic card from Chase. American Express and Discover have both been making metal cards for years as well. Now, thanks to a partnership between NokNok and CompoSecure, you will see new types of cards that have something besides their outer skin to offer consumers: the ability to include authentication tokens and cold cryptocurrency wallets. You can read more in my blog post for NokNok here.

Wanna email your governor? Good luck!

One of the simplest methods of communication with the top executive in your state is anything but. This week I tried to find the email address for my governor, Mike Parson, but all I got was a lousy web form on the state website. Yes, I could fill out the form, but I wanted to track our correspondence (wishful thinking, I know) through my email client. Alas, it was not meant to be.

This turned into A Project. Turns out many states aren’t so transparent about their email addresses. Surely they must use email to conduct state business. But finding out these actual addresses well, that is another matter.

Yes, almost every governor’s office phone number is easily discoverable from numerous online sources. And part of me wanted to call each one and ask what the appropriate email address is, just to hear the staffer sputter or put me on hold. You can go to this document, maintained by the National Governors Association, which lists both phone numbers and postal addresses for all of them, including territories. There is a separate document that links to various social media addresses. But email? Nope. You can see the data here for the first few lines:



(NGA, you might want to spend the minutes it might take to add another column to this document and become useful to those of us who want to use email.)

A quick check of several nearby states shows Missouri isn’t alone in relegating constituent queries to a web form: the state websites of Illinois, Kentucky, Iowa and Maryland also just have these forms on their governors’ pages, with no mention of their chief executive’s actual email address. That’s annoying. I tried to decode the underlying HTML of the forms, but I wasn’t smart enough to suss it out.

This reminds me of a story that I wrote many years ago, at the dawn of the internet era. I was searching for computer tech support information, and back then we didn’t have Google and most vendors barely had FTP servers, let alone websites that had this information. But that was the 1990s. Those that had email responders didn’t really staff them for timely answers either. That article btw is notable in how many companies have gone to dust (Lycos? Compuserve? Memories.)

There is a source of governor emails, and it comes from an odd place: Rick Halperin, a history professor at Southern Methodist University. Not wanting to link to an outdated document, I emailed him and asked if he keeps the document up to date. Within minutes he replied (thanks Rick! Governor staffers, please note.), saying thanks for reminding him and yes, link away. So there you have it. To paraphrase that infamous cartoon, on the internet, everyone knows you are a dog if you work for a state government.

Now I am under no expectations that my governor — or any other — is actually going to read his or her emails. Or that anyone will actually respond with anything other than a form letter. But if you want to comment on this piece, I will take the time to write back.