Charitable Giving in 2023

The number of hours left in 2023 is down to single digits as I write this. This year as in past years, the majority of my charitable giving is to churches within my denomination (Seventh-Day Adventist), with additional giving to non-profit journalism and other non-religious causes.

Religiously-Motivated Charitable Giving

Unlike previous years, where I only donated to my home church, I also donated to every church that I attended either in-person or online at least once this calendar year. This included Boston Temple, which I attended in-person when I visited my cousin there in October, as well as Oakwood University Church (online), Revision Church Atlanta SDA (online), along with the churches in my local area I visit most often in-person.

As I did last year, I donated to Adventist Community Services of Greater Washington (ACSGW). I also donated to my high school alma mater again this year.

Other Charitable Giving

Other destinations for my charitable giving this year included the following organizations (in no particular order):

Charitable Giving Plans for 2024

Having finally added back to the roster of charitable donation recipients I missed in past years, one change I anticipate making in 2024 is donating to whatever the organization resulting from the merger between CIR/Reveal and Mother Jones is ultimately called.

Non-profit journalists did great work this year in exposing the depths of Clarence Thomas’ corruption, methods used by the Mormon church to keep child sex abuse cases secret, a healthcare company trying to deny coverage to a chronically ill patient, and more. Especially in a presidential election year, where for-profit newsrooms like The New York Times appear to be using their coverage to weigh in in favor of the powerful, non-profit newsrooms will be more important than ever. If you haven’t already donated to a non-profit newsroom this year, I encourage you to get that donation in before the new year.

In 2024, consider supporting a non-profit newsroom in your local area. The Institute for Nonprofit News (INN) has a tool that will match you with such organizations so you can donate to them directly and follow their coverage. I might be adding some Maryland non-profit newsrooms to my charitable giving plans before this time next year.

Looking Back at Highs and Lows of 2023


  • Expanded scope at work
    • 2 stand-alone teams versus one large one
    • New area of responsibility
    • Managing (and delegating to) team lead and tech leads for the first time
    • Having skip-level 1-on-1s
    • Got to hire some contractors (to work around the headcount freeze of last year)
  • 12th wedding anniversary
  • Twins turned 8 years old
  • Published more blog posts than in 2022 (31 including this one versus 22 last year)
  • Ramped up my pleasure reading, including:
    • The South: Jim Crow and Its Afterlives, by Adolph L. Reed
    • Caste, by Isabel Wilkerson
    • Heavy, by Kiese Laymon
    • Spook Street, by Mick Herron (#4 in the Slough House series)
    • The List, by Mick Herron
    • Old Man’s War, by John Scalzi
    • Tiamat’s Wrath, by James S.A. Corey (#8 of 9 in The Expanse series)
    • London Rules, by Mick Herron (#5 in the Slough House series)
    • The Ghost Brigades, by John Scalzi
    • The Last Colony, by John Scalzi
    • Beacon 23, by Hugh Howey
  • Successful cataract surgery
  • Solo vacation this year was to Boston, to visit my cousin and do some touristy stuff


  • Didn’t complete AWS Serverless badge (a work goal for the year that I ran out of time for)
  • Had to deliver below strong ratings for an employee for the first time
  • Did not work on my health enough

The American Dream is Still Achievable–But Far from Easy

One of my mutuals on social media takes special glee in puncturing strongly-held beliefs. His latest target: the belief in America’s upward mobility relative to other countries:

A social media mutual shooting down an assertion regarding upward mobility in the U.S.

With the full awareness that some people will oppose what you say regardless, I’ll share information I’ve come across before in previous iterations of this same debate.

Key Statistics

Per this article from the World Economic Forum, the top 10 countries in their Global Social Mobility Index (as of 2020) are as follows:

  1. Denmark
  2. Norway
  3. Finland
  4. Sweden
  5. Iceland
  6. Netherlands
  7. Switzerland
  8. Austria
  9. Belgium
  10. Luxembourg

Canada, Japan, and Australia rank 14th, 15th, and 16th per the same index, with Britain ranking 21st and the U.S. a disappointing 27th. The full report weighs in at a stout 218 pages. While I won’t be doing a “I read this so you don’t have to” in this post, I will zoom into a couple of areas that highlight the challenges well.

One of the more interesting questions posed recently was how long it takes to get from the bottom economically to the middle class in reference to an NPR piece from 2014 indicating that economic mobility in the U.S. was worse than that of other wealthy countries.

As it turns out, part of the answer to Mr. Wilson’s question is in the following figure from page 10 of the same report.

Per the figure, a family in the US that started at the bottom of the income distribution could approach the mean income level in 5 generations–slower than in most of the countries ranked ahead of the U.S. in socioeconomic mobility, and on par with countries with global social mobility index scores similar to or slightly lower than the U.S.

Global Social Mobility Index Framework and Thoughts on Its Pillars

Figure 5 from page 14 of the World Economic Forum's Global Social Mobility Report from 2020.  It shows a boxes and arrows diagram for a virtuous cycle of more social mobility and a vicious cycle of less social mobility connected to 10 pillars comprising the Global Social Mobility Index Framework

The diagram above does a nice job of depicting what makes up their social mobility index. The 10 pillars of the index provide some clues as to why the U.S. might rank where it does when you think of local and national policy decisions. The Health pillar reminds me of the debates around the Affordable Care Act, successful attempts to undermine it in key respects, and continuing efforts to repeal it entirely through the federal judiciary. Due only in part to the COVID-19 pandemic, life expectancy in the U.S. has been trending downward. The U.S. also has maternal mortality rates far higher than most peer countries in the OECD (and non-OECD countries like Romania and Croatia). Maternal mortality rates seem primed to worsen due to the impacts of the Dobb’s decision on access to abortion, since states where abortion access is most restricted already have worse rates of maternal mortality than states where the procedure isn’t banned. Infant mortality rates are also higher than that of most of our peer countries in the OECD as well.

The Efficient and Inclusive Institutions pillar includes the courts and public services (the robustness of which vary widely depending on which state in the country you’re talking about). When it comes to the education and learning pillars, the mobility framework focuses much more on very early childhood education, vocational training, and other primary and secondary education factors. When I think of education, I think of how much more constrained it has become at the post-secondary level over the past 20 years due to significant increases in tuition. During the same time multiple states (including my home state of Maryland) drastically reduced the level of subsidies that had made in-state tuition a bargain and a no-brainer for students who were bright and ambitious but lacked the funds for truly elite education.

Technology Access as a pillar of social mobility is near and dear to my heart, given my career and past experiences from childhood and adulthood with dial-up internet at home. I seriously doubt I could have built the middle-class lifestyle I enjoy (and that I have provided to my wife and children over the past dozen years) without the education access, quality, equity (and affordability) and technology access I’ve been given going back decades. Access to high speed internet (at home, school, and/or public libraries), affordability of home and/or school access, accessibility in rural areas, monopolies on broadband provision, and electricity availability in rural areas have probably combined to make this access very unevenly distributed across the country. The shorthand for this in numerous news articles and other reports is “the digital divide”. There appears to be a growing body of scholarship around inequality in remote learning quality during COVID-19 subsequent to this social mobility report that should shed more light regarding the impacts of insufficient technology access internationally.

Pillars 6-8 cover work opportunities, fair wages, and working conditions. The Working Conditions pillar in particular uses the following benchmarks “the level of workers’ rights, collective bargaining coverage, meritocracy at work, labour-employer, cooperation, as well as the percentage of workers working longer than 48 hours per week” (page 17 of the full report). Here in the U.S. we have right-to-work states, a very low federal minimum wage, and unions which had been steadily eroded in strength up until very recently. All those factors before even talking about the ways in which certain employers have used illegal/undocumented workers–including migrant children, and the downward pressure undocumented labor puts on wages.

Last but not least, the pillars touching on the relative strength social safety net in each country measured. Compared to other wealthy nations, our social safety net is weak. How we handle unemployment (and unemployment benefits), job transitions, etc are just a few areas of consideration. One area where this is the most obvious might be maternity leave and paternity leave. An ex-pat friend of mine who lives and works in Berlin described a much more generous and family-centric system when it came to the experience of his wife having their son there than my own experience with my wife having twins here in the U.S.

Why Do So Many Immigrants Still Come Here?

This is one question usually posed in response to the sort of data and statistics I’ve shared earlier. But the same data statistics also answer this question. If you look toward the bottom of the global social mobility index rankings, here are some of the countries we find there:

  • Honduras (73rd out of 82)
  • Guatemala (75th out of 82)
  • India (76th out of 82)
  • Senegal (80th out of 82)
  • Cameroon (81st out of 82)
  • Côte d’Ivoire (82nd out of 82)

Further from the bottom but still in the second half of the index are countries like China (45th), Vietnam (50th), Thailand (55th), Mexico (58th), Brazil (60th), Philippines (61st), El Salvador (68th), and Ghana (70th). Even at 27th, the United States still offers far more social mobility to ambitious immigrants from these countries. The United States is also the third-largest country by population on Earth, behind only China and India. The ethnic diversity of the United States might also be attractive to immigrants because it increases their likelihood of finding community in an otherwise-new place. While it was a much earlier era for my parents and their family and friends coming here from the Caribbean in the 1960s, they built new community here and had more educational and economic opportunities here than they had at home in places like Jamaica, Guyana, and Trinidad.

Whether the United States remains the destination of choice for most immigrants is an open question. Much depends on the results of the 2024 presidential election. Even if the nominees are as expected (Trump for the GOP and Biden for the Democrats) and Biden manages to win re-election, Biden has retained certain Trump-era policies around immigration in his first term. A second Trump term would certainly bring an even harsher version of the immigration regime initial championed by Jeff Sessions as attorney general and by Stephen Miller, and include attacks on birthright citizenship despite it being part of the 14th Amendment to the Constitution of the United States.

What’s the Bottom Line on the American Dream?

There is no shortage of anecdotes from people coming to the U.S. and achieving great success. My parents and many of their friends achieved much greater success for themselves and their children here than they would have had in their own country. That success was by no means easy. Both of my parents earned all of their degrees (undergraduate and masters’) in night school. My sister and I were latchkey kids as a result. Success anecdotes aren’t the only data points though. The results of emigrating from one’s country of origin do not fall neatly into a binary of “success” or “failure”. For every story like that of my parents, there are probably others of people who have achieved less than my parents and would still count coming to America as a success. There may be others who achieved more than my parents but would still judge their emigration experience a failure.

The immigrant experience of America is definitely not the only one that matters when it comes to how people regard the American Dream, and whether it can realistically achieved. People born and raised here, with parents, grandparents, and other prior generations born here have had a different experience and a different set of expectations. Some people have cynically used (and continue to use) the success of my parents and their generation (and their children) as a way to blame black people with many generations of American heritage for their relative lack of achievement. The white grievance politics ascendant on the political right these days has found a ready audience among those who resent that the days of households where dad worked, mom stayed home with the children, and a high school education was enough for steady employment, a middle-class lifestyle, and being able to send those children to college are long gone. It is easier to blame immigrants, “wokeness”, and foreign aid for that changing than it is to acknowledge the reality that by both inertia and conscious policy choices, government and corporations both undermined each of the ten pillars the social mobility index framework is built upon. That’s why the American Dream–while still achievable–is harder.

Great Customer Service Smoothes Out Bad Self-Service

Success at switching to a truly bundled Disney+ and Hulu experience (both with no ads) from the janky status quo where both services were billed separately and Hulu had ads but Disney+ didn’t required the great customer service experience I had earlier today. In prior months, I’d made the mistake of following the instructions provided as the self-service approach to accomplishing this, and failed miserably. I switched from annual billing to monthly on Disney+ and tried to switch to the Premium Duo multiple times over multiple months, only to be redirected to Hulu and be blocked from signing up for what I wanted.

Today I tried the chat option (with a live human being) and finally got the bundle I wanted–and a refund for the price differential between the new bundle and what I’d been paying. It ultimately took being manually unsubscribed from both Disney+ and Hulu, which the customer service rep accomplished by reaching out to whatever department and systems she needed to, in the span of about 20 minutes. Definitely a 5-star customer service experience–unfortunately made necessary by terrible self-service options.

Plenty of companies almost certainly believe that they will be able to use ChatGPT (or something like it) to replace the people that do this work. But at least initially (and probably for quite awhile after that) the fully-automated customer service experience is likely to be worse (if not much worse) than the experience of customer service from people. I’m very skeptical of the idea that an AI chatbot would have driven the same outcome from a customer service interaction as a person did in this case. And this is in a low-stakes situation like streaming services (some number of which will very likely end up on my budget chopping block in 2024). High-stakes customer service situations will not have the same tolerance for mistakes, as shown in the FTC’s 5-year ban on Rite-Aid using facial recognition for surveillance. These are the sorts of mistakes warned about in the documentary Coded Bias years ago, but I have no doubt that other companies will make the same mistakes Rite-Aid did.

In an episode of Hanselminutes I listened to recently, the host (Scott Hanselman) used a comparison of how AI could be used between the Iron Man suit and Ultron. I hope using AI to augment human capabilities (like the Iron Man suit) is the destination we get back to, after the current pursuit of replacing humans entirely (like Ultron) fails. Customer service experiences that led by people but augmented by technology will be better for people on both sides of the customer service equation and better for brands.

Flipboard Renewing Its Relevance With the Fediverse

Flipboard is jumping into the fediverse with both feet, according to a piece from The Verge. While the fediverse isn’t where I saw the piece first (that would be on Threads), when Flipboard first announced it was experimenting with Mastodon some months back, it was the first time I’d thought about Flipboard in years (much less used it). Since The Verge piece first ran December 18th, it’s been updated with links to both their Flipboard account, and their Mastodon account.

If you’re not familiar with Flipboard, their key organizing principle is the magazine. Articles you read from any number of sources can be “flipped” into a magazine you create, along with any commentary you may want to provide. As in other social media networks, you can follow other members and be followed by them. You can comment on shared articles and other Flipboard members can respond. Another interesting feature (which I never took advantage of myself) is Invite contributors. I presume this feature allows multiple Flipboard members to contribute articles to the same magazine. This might be how The Verge handles its own presence on Flipboard.

Unrelated to the whole fediverse pivot, reviewing the features of Flipboard makes me wonder if they ever actively pursued the sorts of people who write newsletters. From what I’ve seen of Substack, I haven’t seen anything it does as a service that Flipboard doesn’t do as well or better–and they probably have a much larger number of monthly active users.

The key difference I’ve found so far between the mobile app experience and the web experience of Flipboard is that you can only flip articles into Mastodon via the mobile app.

Another thing Flipboard has changed since I last looked at what they were doing with Mastodon is allow you to add any Mastodon profile URL to your Flipboard profile and display a verified link on your profile page. I’ve already set that up and now my profile looks like this:

This is the sort of attention and interest that Tumblr could have generated had they moved more aggressively in exploring integration with the fediverse via ActivityPub. Tumblr is a first-class citizen on IFTTT, an awesome site for creating workflows and automations between a whole host of different services. I have a number of automations (IFTTT calls them applets) that use Tumblr as a destination and a “fedified” Tumblr would have let me automate a lot of posting without having to change a thing. Flipboard simply isn’t set up for that–not without workarounds or hacks (though IFTTT appears to have one that uses Pocket as an intermediary that I plan to try).

If this post has piqued your curiosity about Flipboard’s foray into the fediverse, I encourage you to check out Flipboard for yourself. Follow me there, comment on pieces I’ve flipped, create your own magazine(s), get the Flipboard mobile app and flip good pieces into Mastodon.

(Tech) Education Should Be Free (and Rigorous)

Free tech education is the reality being created by Quincy Larson, the founder of FreeCodeCamp. I’ve been seeing their posts on Twitter for years, but didn’t dive deeper until I heard Larson interviewed recently on Hanselminutes. The 30-minute interview was enough to convince me to add Larson’s organization to the short list of non-profits I support on a monthly basis. One of the distinctions I appreciated most in the interview was the one made between gate-keeping and rigor. Especially in the context of certifications (in an industry with an ever-growing number of them), making certifications valuable is a challenge that FreeCodeCamp solves by making them challenging to get. Having pursued a number of certifications over the course of my tech career (earning a Certified Scrum Master cert a couple of times, the AWS Certified Solution Architect Associate, and an internal certification at work for secure coding), I’ve seen some differences in how the organizations behind each certification attempt to strike that balance.

  • Certified Scrum Master. Relative to cloud certifications for AWS, Azure, or Google Cloud, CSM certification is much easier. Two days in an instructor-led training course, followed by a certification exam and you have a certification that’s good for 2 years. I don’t recall what my employers paid for the courses to get me certified each time, but these days you can spend anywhere from $500-$1100 per person for the 2-3 day class and exam. I think the minimum score to pass is 80%, and one of my classmates the last time I certified got 100% (I missed out on that by a single question). In short, less rigorous (and far less gate-keeping).
  • Certified AWS Solution Architect Associate. I spent months preparing for to take this certification exam. Just the associate-level exam itself costs $150. The self-study course and practice exams I took (both from Udemy) normally cost $210 combined, though there are plenty of other options both online and instructor-led (I expect the latter would cost significantly more per student than instructor-led training for other certifications. Achieving the minimum score to pass (usually around 70%) is far from certain, given the sheer amount of material to retain and the high level of rigor of the questions. I ended up scoring around 80% but I really had to sweat for it. Much more rigorous, but rather low on gate-keeping as well because of the relatively low cost of self-study and practice exams (and the ability to do hands-on practice with the AWS Free Tier with a personal AWS account).

The key value of rigor is that the process of preparing to take a certification exam should meaningfully apply to actually doing the work the certification is intended to represent. My experience of pursuing AWS certification is that the learning did (and does) apply to design discussions. It’s given me valuable depth of understanding necessary to push my teams to fully explore different services for building features. One of my direct reports used the knowledge gained from certification to build equivalent functionality out of AWS services approved for use inside our organization to approximate the functionality of an AWS service currently not approved for use (in order to integrate with a third-party vendor we were working with).

When I talk to people in different fields where certifications are available, I get the distinct sense that there are varying degrees of gate-keeping involved (a practice that tech companies are certainly no strangers to). My wife has said this often regarding HR certifications offered by SHRM. She’s been an HR director for over 20 years (without that certification) but hasn’t been able to pass the certification exam (despite having a master’s degree in HR management).

When considering whether or not to pursue a certification, it’s definitely a good idea to look at them from the additional perspective of whether they are gate-keeping–or providing rigor–not just if they will help you advance your career. If you can, find out from people who’ve actually earned the certification whether they feel like it helped make them better at their job. Some certifications are must-haves regardless of their rigor or utility, either because your employer requires them or because eligibility to pursue certain contracts requires them (particularly in the federal contracting space).

Duke University Libraries Drop Basecamp

I was glad to see Duke University Libraries in-depth explanation of why they’re dropping Basecamp for managing projects. It reminded me of previous blog posts of my own from 2017 regarding the ideology and worldview that seemed prevalent at that time in tech, and a post from last year that drew a line from James Damore, through Jason Fried and David Heinemeier Hansson, to Elon Musk.

The Libraries took the time to revisit their discussion of 2021 to continue using Basecamp and updated themselves regarding the posts and rhetoric of Hansson regarding DEI, and his public glee in the mass layoffs of tech workers last year (which have by no means abated in 2023). They also did not shy away from talking about their own shortcomings as an organization when it comes their own workplace:

We also know the harms that our own workplace practices and culture have caused over the years. We know about it because we listen to each other, both informally and formally, via climate surveys, workshops, and other practices: 

The point is not that we’re perfect, or a model to emulate. The point is that we are not naive. We have seen (and done) some stuff.

Duke University Libraries Blog, November 30, 2023

The Libraries set a thoughtful, public example of consciously choosing temporary inconvenience over continuing to reward the mendacity and cruelty of the leader of a third-party vendor. I salute them.

Peter Gabriel Is Why I Love Stop-Motion Animation

Back in October, I was reminded exactly when I became a fan of stop-motion animation. A friend in one of my Slack groups shared this Jason Kottke post. The second video on the page (Peter Gabriel’s Sledgehammer) was my first introduction to him. The song came out in 1986, the video won 9 MTV Video Music Awards the following year. The company who did the animation for the video, Aardman Animations, would later go on to create Wallace and Gromit (an inventor and his pet dog) who’ve starred in a number of short films (The Wrong Trousers) and feature-length films (The Curse of the Were-Rabbit) that I found hilarious. Chicken Run was an Aardman co-production with Dreamworks that I also enjoyed.

While researching this post, I learned that another one of my stop-motion favorites–The Nightmare Before Christmas–actually came out the same year as The Wrong Trousers (1993). Nightmare was very much in keeping with the dark and scary sensibilities of Tim Burton (the man behind Beetlejuice and Edward Scissorhands, among many other films), but to make it a musical as well was just hilarious and delightful. Isle of Dogs and Fantastic Mr. Fox are two more stop-motion animated features I’ve enjoyed. One of my guiltier pleasures when it comes to stop-motion animation was definitely Celebrity Deathmatch. Stop-motion animated wrestling matches between clay versions of celebrities was way more fun than it had any right to be.

While not actually stop-motion animation, The Lego Movie (and its sequel) succeed at hewing very closely to the same style, with the obvious exceptions of the live action scenes. While there are much older examples of stop-motion animation (the original King Kong from 1933, the character Gumby from the 1950s, and anything by Ray Harryhausen), the Sledgehammer video is where that particular fandom of mine began.