Tag Archives: identity

The Ethnic Check

Census_2001Yesterday I received a letter from the State of California alerting me that my Census form is due next week and that I should be sure to fill it out and return it, as is decidedly my intention. That form will include the page that drives many Americans crazy — the one that offers you a bunch of ethnic backgrounds that you can identify yourself on. As my spouse of African-Cherokee-Jamaican-German and who knows what else decent says, this is not a multiple choice question for many of us. Personally, I always check the “white” box, which is not lying, although I always have a nagging doubt that the Semitic parts of my genetic makeup aren’t fairly represented by that choice.

Today, skimming through my news feed, I starred this article by Michelle Malkin, passed on by Google Reader’s “Cool” feed, and I just found time to read it. The gist of the article is that Census filler-outers should refrain from allowing the government to peg us by ethnicity, instead choosing “Other” and filling in the comment squares with “American”. Take that, Gubmint statisticians!

Now, this is interesting, because while Ms. Malkin proudly describes herself as a Fox News Commentator, I don’t think this question lands on a liberal/conservative scale. Discomfort with being pegged by race straddles all ideological outposts, as it should. But data is data, and the ethnic makeup of our country by geographic area is a powerful set of data. If we don’t know that a neighborhood is primarily Asian, White, Black or Hispanic, we don’t know if the schools are largely segregated. We don’t know if the auto insurance rates are being assessed with a racial bias. We don’t know if elected officials are representative of the districts they serve. And these are all very important things to know.

It might seem that, by eschewing all data about race, we can consider ourselves above racism. But we can board our windows and doors and dream that the world outside is made of candy, too. It won’t make the world any sweeter. If we don’t have any facts about the ethnic makeup and the conditions of people in this country, then we can’t discuss racial justice and equality in any meaningful fashion. We might hate to take something as personal as the genetic, geographic path that brought us to this country and made us the unique individuals that we are and dissect it, analyze it, generalize about it and draw broad conclusions. It is uncomfortable and, in a way, demeaning. But it’s not as uncomfortable and demeaning as being broadly discriminated against. And without evidence of abuse, and of progress, we can’t end discrimination. We can only board up the windows that display it.

So, I’m not going to take Ms. Malkin’s advice on this one, and I’m going to urge my multi-racial wife and kid to be as honest as they can with the choices provided to them. Because we want the government to make decisions based on facts and data, not idealizations, even if it means being a little blaze about who we really are.

Random Identity

I took a brief trip to Second Life the other night, yet another web 2.0 trend that, like Facebook, sends my normally open-minded and curious instincts running for shelter. I’ve never been into gaming, and I obviously don’t use the internet in order to do things anonymously – my username is based on my real name just about everywhere. But I’m looking for any means possible to improve communication at my geographically diverse company, and to do it while reducing our carbon footprint. So that’s quite a challenge – how do we improve communication while cutting down on flying, when we have offices in Honolulu, Juneau and D.C., among other places?

So it struck me that Second Life, as a virtual meeting place, has, at the very least, potential that should be vetted. I have yet to do that vetting – I plan to give it a shot tonight by attending a virtual meeting with the Techsoup virtual community. On Wednesday, I created an account and figured out just enough about how Second Life works in order to get to the meeting later. Reactions:


  • Second Life supports voice, if you have a microphone and stereo speakers, and does it well enough that, if you’re conversing with someone who is, in the Virtual Reality, standing to your left, their voice will come from the left speaker.
  • It was easier than I thought it would be to move around and figure it all out. Your mileage might vary. It is, necessarily, a somewhat busy interface.


  • You are not only advised to not use your real name, you can’t. The account creation process lets you create a first name (text input box) ad select a last name from about 25 in a drop down list. After being advised to “pick my name carefuly, it’s permanent, and can’t be changed”, I had little option to actually pick a name that I identified with or took seriously.
  • Big roots in the gaming community, obviously. The account creation process offers you ten avatars to choose from (avatars being the cartoon images that will represent you in the virtual world). Five female, five male – I was not going for the female impersonation thing, so that left me five. Of those, one (“Boy Next Door”) was fairly innocuous, although it looked about as much like me as Fred from “Scooby Doo” does. If I didn’t want to be Fred, my choices ranged from anthropomorphic fox people to what must be villains from the old “He-man, Master of the Universe” Saturday morning cartoon. Mind you, I was able to customize Fred’s appearance, and while I was shooting to make him look like me (I know, completely unclear on the concept here), as close as I could get resembled my punk rock days in the late seventies.

So, I’ll do a follow up post after I get to do what I set out to do, and evaluate Second Life as a virtual meeting place. But, already, I’m trying to imagine how I explain to the eighty or so Earthjustice Attorneys that step one is to pick a name like “John Vigaromney” that you’ll be known as, and step two is to decide whether you want to look like a furry animal or a grim reaper. Then determine whether the avatars will reduce any serious meeting on global warming or mountaintop protection strategies to jokes and hysterical laughter.

I’m really not looking for Second Life, but there’s a huge — and maybe critical — application for Supplemental Life, which lets online collaboration more intuitively replace travel.

Wanna play with OpenID?

Yesterday, Sun announced a rollout of OpenID for all of the company’s employees, and joined Microsoft, Yahoo!, AOL and others in embracing the emerging Single Sign-on standard.

In order to deepen my understanding of OpenID and what it’s ramifications might be for me and the non-profit community, I’m diving in and inviting you to join me. I’ve set up an OpenID server at http://openid.techcafeteria.com that you are welcome to use to establish your own ID. From there, you can also manage your identity, optionally revealing some demographic info to sites that you authenticate to (completely optional!) and managing the sites that you have authenticated to.

I’ve also set up my blog to allow for OpenID as a registration option, via a handy WordPress plugin.

Some notes if you want to join in:

  • If you sign up, you might want to then register on my blog and leave a comment on this entry. That way we’ll know who we’re playing with.
  • If you have trouble accessing http://openid.techcafeteria.com, wait a few hours – it should be fully reachable by Friday at the very latest. I just set up the DNS a few hours ago

If you don’t know where to use OpenID other than my blog, note that plugins are available for WordPress, livejournal, Drupal, MediaWiki, and other community-based applications, as well as a module for apache. Technet has articles on how to integrate it with ASP sites. So, it’s out there – look for the logo:

OpenId Logo

New Home, OpenID Redux

Okay, I finished the big job of migrating my blog from it’s old home to my new digs, and I think I have the bugs out, with thanks to the two blogs that linked to my OpenID article, and the two people who let me know that the email was broken (making it impossible for people to register). We’re off to a good start!

I offered some preliminary thoughts and asked a question about OpenID, proposing that, while this is a boon for users, it might have a negative impact on an organization’s ability to coax contact information out of web visitors, as providing personal info will no longer be a requirement for authenticating to a web site.

Johannes Ernst, a man who designs identity management software for a living, responded on his blog with a few counterpoints (which I’ll brutally summarize):

  1. People often present false information in contact forms anyway;
  2. “Because users can provide their OpenID that they also have provided to other sites, the site can actually learn more about the user — which other websites they frequent, for example.” Johanne qualifies this one with the rider that people won’t necessarily use their OpenID to share such data.
  3. With control of their identity, the visitor might feel more confident about sharing information.
  4. With single sign-on, and easier access to the authentication-required content, visitors might be more compelled to join and share.

Simon Willison, a co-creator of the Django Web framework, anticipated my question and replied on January 10th. Simon makes the clear point that OpenID will only replace the “enter your name and type a password twice” portion of an online registration. It won’t fully replace requests for further data and confirmation, such as the graphical Captchas that we’re all getting so used to. In fact, he proposes, the fact that a user has an open ID doesn’t mean that they aren’t a spammer — we shouldn’t accept it as full authentication, just a convenience for the password tracking part.

Simon has me fairly well sold that this isn’t as big a threat as I thought. But I still have a lot of questions about the idea, and I’m curious as to how it will play out once the standard is established (assuming it will be – I suspect so). if the authentication is as weak for the web service as Simon suggests, will an industry like SSL arise, adding verification to OpenID authentication? And I’m still intrigued as to what conventions will grow out of everyone having a personal web address, which, of course, will lead to some sort of web page.
Johannes made a comment that really intrigued me on his post, when he said:

” Personally, if I have a choice between knowing a URL pointing to your blog, and having the information you typed into a web form that I put up, I take the blog any time. (That might even be true if the form’s data was all correct!) That is not data that your typical CRM system knows how to manage, but as we all know in the blogosphere, extremely valuable to gain some view on the user’s social network and reputation and interests.”

Johannes has a pretty interesting idea for a marketing app there. While he suggests that the data is free-form, I’d counter that – most blogs follow very standard conventions, and many bloggers (hey, me included!) use the standard text that comes with our blogging platform to denote them. So just as HR staff no longer “read” resumes, how far can blog scanning be behind?