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Aaron Parecki

just how old do you think I am, twitter?

Ben Werdmüller

In it for the long haul

Back in April, I tweeted this about how I thought Covid-19 would go down over the next few months:

My working assumptions: we’re not leaving lockdown until the end of August / beginning of September, and there will be a second wave after this, because it’ll still be too early. We’ll see layoffs even at seemingly wealthy companies. Social distancing until at least 2022.

At the time, people were telling me that I should prepare to be in lockdown for maybe another month (so, until two months ago). There had been lots of talk about everything being up and running for Easter (April 12), or for Memorial Day (May 25). My tweet looked like doom-saying pessimism.

If anything, my assessment now seems overly optimistic. The World Health Organization is now saying we'll have it under control in 3 to 5 years; Dr Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, says we won't have a vaccine until 2021 (which in itself is very fast); almost 40% of healthcare executives think a vaccine won't be made available to all until 2022. Social distancing is likely to be with us for some time to come, and with it, a real change to the way all of us live. This will be true all over the world, but particularly in the United States, where leadership and our own hubris have continued to spectacularly fail us.

Here in the US, 73% of companies plan to keep at least some workers permanently remote; 30 million people lost their jobs because of the pandemic; at the time of writing we're in the last week of the $600/week of federal unemployment benefits (unless Congress extends this help). No matter what happens next, the effect of this era will be felt for generations.

Unfortunately, this is particularly true in communities of color. Indigenous and Black Americans are five times more likely than white Americans to be hospitalized because of the virus. Hispanic or Latinx Americans are four times more likely than white Americans.

We should have been mentally preparing ourselves for a long pandemic this whole time. Assuming these figures hold, the following is true for the foreseeable:

We are not going back to the office.

We are not going to resume the same kind of social activities we're used to.

We are not going to conferences, or to the movies, or to conventions.

We are going to need to adapt.

It's difficult to imagine how we would have coped before the internet. For the last few decades, it's slowly become ingrained in all of our lives. For the last few months, it's become the way all of our lives can operate: famously through Zoom (which is now worth 78X its revenue), but also Slack, Facebook, and all of the apps and services that keep us in touch with each other. All of these services were created long before Covid; it's going to be interesting to see the services people create to cope with the specific challenges of the pandemic. I am hopeful that while some of those services will be startups, others will be open source collectives of people who want to help.

It's also difficult to imagine how our current systems of care can cope. A pandemic makes clear that we are, as individuals, only as healthy as we are as a society: if lots of people have a deadly, infectious disease, I'm more likely to get it too, no matter what healthcare plan I'm on. It's in all of our interests to establish a genuine social care system that allows everyone to be safe and healthy - and in a world where millions of people continue to lose their jobs every month, it's vitally important that this safety net isn't tied to employment. Healthcare must be a human right. Housing must be a human right, with strong tenant protections. Food must be a human right. The fallacy that every single thing needs to be a free market must come to an end.

We're going through a period of major change, and we're still only on the first foothills. There's a long, hard road ahead. Surviving the next few years will mean covering new ground, and redefining a great deal of how society works.

Most importantly, we will need to finally learn to work together.

Photo by Morning Brew on Unsplash

Aaron Parecki

Nice to see that #PHP is improving on the switch syntax, this is going to be great! https://php.watch/versions/8.0/match-expression

Aaron Parecki

grr delivery companies that don't even bother trying to get in to the building and mark the package "delivery attempted, recipient not home" 😠 @DHLexpress

Ben Werdmüller

Supporting professional development in 2020

As a manager, I believe my primary role is to create the conditions for my team to do their best work. I'm a proponent of servant leadership. That's become even more important this year, for obvious reasons: we're in the middle of a pandemic that has also had significant economic effects. We're all working remotely (which I've done for over a decade, but is new for this company); we all have significant extra stresses in our lives.

I've always felt that one of the opportunities for smaller startups is to provide stronger professional development. Whereas other, richer companies can provide eye-watering salaries and kombucha on tap, smaller ventures have the ability to provide more flexibility in support of an employee's personal goals. The result can be a level-up in skills and experience that is far in excess of what might be possible in a more rigid organization of thousands of people. By working at very small startups, I've been able to get my hands dirty working in an interdisciplinary way, and I've developed a mindset of action over discussion; I don't think my career would have been possible without this experience. I want to provide that to the people who I support.

There's no great manual for this, although I consider myself to always be learning. Here are some things I've found useful, which I'm putting out as a request for feedback as much as anything else. I'd love to learn what other managers have found useful, and I'd love for thoughts on the techniques I've been using.

I'm a happy user of Range, which helps us plan our days, check in with each other, and understand each other a little bit better. We've found that it also helps to have live standups every day, and we have a tactical meeting every week, but the Range updates are a low-friction, high-empathy way to keep everyone on the same page about the work going on.

The 1:1 has become the most important way for me to support each member of the team. I make sure that I spend time with every engineer on my team; the space is theirs to bring up anything that's important to them, and I've often found myself helping with external factors that might also be affecting their work. I want to support the whole human, and it's often stretched me as a person.

How you show up in this framework is incredibly important. As a servant leader, it's much more about being a coach than, for example, being a teacher or a micromanager. This year, I found Ed Batista's course The Art of Self-Coaching to be really useful; normally it's a part of Stanford's MBA program, but a version was made available to all because of the pandemic. It's helped me formalize some thoughts around growth vs fixed mindsets in particular, as well as be more self-aware about how my own thoughts and feelings affect my team and my work.

They own the agenda. I always start a 1:1 by asking what's top of mind for them. Sometimes, the resulting discussion can take up the whole meeting; occasionally it'll overflow into follow-ons. I'll sometimes prod with questions like "what are you excited about?" and "what are you worried about?", which will reveal topics that hadn't readily risen to the surface.

A while back, I asked everyone to work on a professional development plan. I've seen a lot of development plans that are just about identifying what someone wants to learn, or how someone can improve, without really touching on the "why" of it. Particularly for younger engineers, that might not be something they've thought too deeply about, so I wanted to create a better framework for figuring that out.

Here's a lightly redacted version of the template I came up with. If it's helpful to you, please feel free to adapt and use it (I'm also very interested in feedback). It asks the owner to think about what their mission at their work is - what do they want to achieve over the course of their career? It specifically offers my own mission, as well as another sample mission, as examples. Following this, it asks about their goals - where do they want to be a few years from now? Again, I offer examples, including for myself. And finally, it asks what the tactical next steps are towards getting there. (This is analogous to the mission, vision and strategy of a company.)

That mission and vision might not involve working at the company forever; the colleague might want to found a startup, for example. That's completely okay. The answers to each of these things might not come readily; that's an opportunity for us to work together to figure it out. But once we have some of those answers, particularly to the tactical next steps, I make sure to refer to them during every 1:1. Are we making progress towards these goals together? What else can I do to help?

Finally, I'll sometimes use a feedback exercise I learned at Matter. This is something that's been harder to reproduce while we've all been remote; I'm planning on building a lightweight web tool to support it. But in person, I've found it to be very useful in a variety of situations. The jist is: on 6 Post-Its, you provide feedback for yourself (3 supportive items, 2 things you'd change, and 1 item that reflects how you're feeling about your work), and then you do the same for the other person. Then you provide that feedback for the other person, who has also provided feedback for themselves and for you. Because everyone is being vulnerable and taking care to be mindful of how they express themselves, the exercise results in a kind of radical honesty that's usually hard to achieve at work. It has the power to clear the air, identify opportunities for real growth, and find wins that you might not realize existed. I love it.

You may have noticed that despite being a product and engineering leader, almost none of this is directly to do with product and engineering. I've certainly got opinions on how to, for example, run brainstorms and retros; I've also got opinions on how to think about building software. We often talk about those things in these conversations. But the core of being a manager is about supporting the people you work with. That's more about the touchy-feely human stuff than anything else.

If you have resources, ideas, or feedback on any of the above, I'd love to hear them. I'm always learning, and I could always do better.

Photo by Jehyun Sung on Unsplash

Aaron Parecki

I haven't opened the @TripIt app in so long that I got signed out 😭

Ben Werdmüller

Anxiety in 2020

Last week I suddenly felt horrendous: I felt deeper fatigue than I had in years, I was experiencing severe headaches, and I was finding it hard to think straight. My daily work has become a series of Zoom meetings, and I careened from scheduled event to scheduled event, hoping I could just get through it.

Of course, this being 2020, I began to worry about Covid-19. I spend most of my time right now around my immunosuppressed mother, who is not doing well completely independently of the pandemic, and I'm deeply worried that I'll somehow transmit something to her. I'm a little bit worried about the virus for myself, too, but to be honest, I have no idea what my life looks like beyond all this - not just beyond the pandemic, but also beyond my family's health journey.

I don't have Covid; I just came dangerously close to burning out.

Lately, I've learned that too many stimuli lead to my feeling physically wrecked. It's not just that the notifications, messages, and tiny dopamine hits make me feel mentally overwhelmed, but they start to push me to the right of the bell curve of physical anxiety symptoms. I need to rate-limit and sanitize my inputs, otherwise my outputs suffer.



At this point, my social media hiatus from Thanksgiving through to New Year's Day has become a tradition. I always feel better. It's got very little to do with the actual content of social media - although endless outrage is inevitably wearing, it's not like any of the outrage is actually misplaced - and more to do with the physical mechanisms of the software itself. The interaction mechanics that keep us coming back for more, designed to juice the engagement statistics, undeniably increase my anxiety - if only just a little.

Which I think would be fine if it wasn't 2020. We're in the middle of a global, deadly pandemic. My mother is dying. My father is getting older. My sister has become long-term disabled with chronic pain. I have a demanding job (which, to be clear, I love). The President of the United States continues to show his true colors as a racist and a fascist. And the blowback from the world's largest civil rights movement - a point of hope in itself - is staggering, even within my own extended family. Finally, there was an event in my extended family this week that I don't even begin to want to talk about here.

Given all this, the baseline of stress is much further to the right of the anxiety bell curve, which means that stimuli which would ordinarily be tolerable are less so. Again, it's not so much about the content of the stimuli: I've even discovered that playing Stardew Valley, a lovely little computer game about running a farm, has been sometimes too much.

I'd like to remain functional, be able to show up well at work, and support my family and friends in the way I would like. So that means cutting out stimuli.

Rather than cutting things out wholesale, I'm going to aim for moderation, at least to start. I like that Screen Time has made its way to MacOS from the iOS / iPadOS devices. Because my screen time goals sync between them, I can allocate myself 30 minutes a day for game playing, for example, and 45 minutes for social media. (Because RSS feeds and blogging are not rapid-fire, I don't feel the need to ration them.) I've also made a concerted effort to bring down my Zoom meeting load by around a third, giving me more contemplative time at work.


I recognize that talking about burnout and cognitive stamina isn't really the done thing - I think I'm supposed to be hustling? Shouldn't I be building a personal brand based on excellence and productivity? But that's exactly why I'm talking about it here. We all need to look after ourselves and each other, now more than ever. I spend a lot of my time caring for others, and it can be easy to forget self-care. But the old adage of needing to put your own oxygen mask on first is true. I need to do better at remembering that, and maybe you do too.

Aaron Parecki

Curbside dropoff for bike maintenance 🚲

Ben Werdmüller

Reading, watching, playing, using: June 2020

Here's the media I consumed and found interesting in June.

Apps

Linear. A super-powerful bug tracker designed to speed teams up. I'm using it for personal projects right now, but I might expand that. I particularly like how it connects to GitHub issues, and how it inherits just the right things from Jira's classic design, while discarding the rest.

Streaming

13th. I saw this for the first time in June - and regret being super-late to the party. The entire movie is up on YouTube. If you haven't yet, educate yourself.

Dark Season 3. If you haven't checked out Dark yet, you're missing something. Watch it in its original German with English subtitles. And maybe keep notes: its human-centered science fiction story is densely plotted to say the least. Season 3 adds a whole new dimension, literally.

Eurovision Song Contest: The Story of Fire Saga. I needed this. It's a giant ad for the song contest, really. Which is fine, because I happen to love the song contest. One of those objectively terrible movies that brought me a lot of joy.

Books

Blood Dazzler, by Patricia Smith. The story of Hurricane Katrina told through poetry. Blood Dazzler is heart-wrenching work. Patricia Smith is - as well as a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize, among other things - a four-time National Poetry Slam champion, and the spoken-word rhythm underlying her work is impossible to ignore.

Notable Articles

Black Lives Matter

How to Make this Moment the Turning Point for Real Change. "So the bottom line is this: if we want to bring about real change, then the choice isn’t between protest and politics. We have to do both. We have to mobilize to raise awareness, and we have to organize and cast our ballots to make sure that we elect candidates who will act on reform." Barack Obama on Black Lives Matter.

Black Journalists and Covering the Storm That Never Passes. "I can’t tell you how many times I, or someone on my team, has cried into their laptops over the injustices inflicted daily on black people, who have gone to bed with anxiety over what looms in the morning, in the aftermath of another violent act against our humanity."

Why So Many Police Are Handling the Protests Wrong. "Researchers have spent 50 years studying the way crowds of protesters and crowds of police behave—and what happens when the two interact. One thing they will tell you is that when the police respond by escalating force—wearing riot gear from the start, or using tear gas on protesters—it doesn’t work. In fact, disproportionate police force is one of the things that can make a peaceful protest not so peaceful. But if we know that (and have known that for decades), why are police still doing it?"

The American Nightmare. "But only the lies of racist Americans are great. Their American dream—that this is a land of equal opportunity, committed to freedom and equality, where police officers protect and serve—is a lie. Their American dream—that they have more because they are more, that when black people have more, they were given more—is a lie. Their American dream—that they have the civil right to kill black Americans with impunity and that black Americans do not have the human right to live—is a lie." Ibram X. Kendi is the author of How to Be an Antiracist.

Stop focusing on looting in Minneapolis. Be outraged that police keep killing black men. A good opinion from the LA Times editorial board. The constant commentary from people who believe property is more imporant than the murder of a community is sickening.

This Is Fascism. "The message of this federal government is unambiguous. It has been conveyed in part by Customs and Border Protection, the largest law enforcement agency in the U.S.—a force shot through with racism and tyranny, now charged with carrying out Trump’s most knee-jerk nativist impulses—which announced Sunday that it was mobilizing officers to augment police forces “confronting the lawless actions of rioters.”"

Thousands of Americans across the US are peacefully marching against police violence. A beautiful photo record of the protests.

'We Just Want to Live.' Photographers Share What They Experienced While Covering Protests Across America. More vital photo record.

How Did BlackOutTuesday Go So Wrong So Fast? I believe this was deliberately co-opted. he net result was that black voices were silenced on social media for days.

Don’t Fall for the ‘Chaos’ Theory of the Protests. "Why were peaceful protesters being tear-gassed, on national TV? Because Trump and his aides—nearly all of them men and every one of them white—had decided to punctuate his speech with a walk across Lafayette Square to a church where Trump posed, clutching a Bible. What became even clearer, though, was that the Bible-posing was not the photo op the Trump administration was aiming for; the clearing of Lafayette Square was. The video that played out on CNN’s split screen was a document of state power in action: the president, his will made manifest; the protesters, their eyes reddened from tear gas, forced to make way for the leader."

The Police Take the Side of White Vigilantes. "Who are the cops for? Over the last week, all across the country, in ways large and small, they’ve shown us." The slave catchers are living up to their legacy.

We Crunched the Numbers: Police — Not Protesters — Are Overwhelmingly Responsible for Attacking Journalists. "Police are responsible for the vast majority of assaults on journalists: over 80 percent." From the Freedom of the Press Foundation.

The '3.5% rule': How a small minority can change the world. "Once around 3.5% of the whole population has begun to participate actively, success appears to be inevitable." Fingers crossed.

Confessions of a Former Bastard Cop. "American policing is a thick blue tumor strangling the life from our communities and if you don’t believe it when the poor and the marginalized say it, if you don’t believe it when you see cops across the country shooting journalists with less-lethal bullets and caustic chemicals, maybe you’ll believe it when you hear it straight from the pig’s mouth."

The Police Have Been Spying on Black Reporters and Activists for Years. I Know Because I’m One of Them. And if you're not familiar with COINTELPRO, it's worth reading up on that, too.

‘To see this, I am honored’: Brother of man killed by Seattle police reflects on time in CHAZ. "If John were here, he would be honored. All my heart and soul show this will work. The government is listening, that we have had enough. I’m proud of this."

Recall That Ice Cream Truck Song? We Have Unpleasant News For You. ""N***** Love A Watermelon Ha! Ha! Ha!" merits the distinction of the most racist song title in America. Released in March 1916 by Columbia Records, it was written by actor Harry C. Browne and played on the familiar depiction of black people as mindless beasts of burden greedily devouring slices of watermelon."

Elsewhere in American fascism

Dozens Of Immigrant Families Who Were Separated At The Border Likely Shouldn't Have Been, An Internal Report Found. "The inspector general's report found that 40 children were separated from their parents for at least four weeks, although one didn't see their family for more than a year."

Political Symbols at Demonstrations. "Researchers at the Tow Center and Columbia’s Journalism and Engineering schools have developed a tool that can help reporters decipher the symbols and acronyms used by political groups which may be helpful as they report on political actions now and during the election season." The far right is out in force.

A letter to Defense Secretary Mark Esper. Pentagon policy official James Miller's resignation letter. "You have made life-and-death decisions in combat overseas; soon you may be asked to make life-and-death decisions about using the military on American streets and against Americans. Where will you draw the line, and when will you draw it?"

James Mattis Denounces President Trump, Describes Him as a Threat to the Constitution. "Donald Trump is the first president in my lifetime who does not try to unite the American people—does not even pretend to try. Instead, he tries to divide us [...] We are witnessing the consequences of three years of this deliberate effort. We are witnessing the consequences of three years without mature leadership. We can unite without him, drawing on the strengths inherent in our civil society. This will not be easy, as the past few days have shown, but we owe it to our fellow citizens; to past generations that bled to defend our promise; and to our children."

The Real Apprentice. "At this time, most native New Yorkers saw Trump as a bit of a joke: a fame-thirsty, tasteless rake with a history of high-end failure. He made disastrous deals, like the Plaza Hotel. His airline failed almost as soon as it began. He even found a way to go bankrupt on casinos. But on television, through careful editing—turning three hours into thirty seconds—Mark Burnett made Trump seem decisive, funny, and likeable."

How The Antifa Fantasy Spread In Small Towns Across The US. "Rumors of roving bands of Antifa have followed small protests all over the United States. Why are people so ready to believe them?" There's a lot of value in keeping people scared - particularly of a bogeyman that seeks to undermine your ideology.

No, Trump probably can’t list antifa as a ‘terrorist group.’ Here’s what he’s really doing. "The Trump administration is unlikely to designate antifa a terrorist group in counterterrorism law. If it did, that designation would be difficult to enforce, since antifa is not really an organization. Nor is it clear how much antifa supporters have committed actual terrorism. But Trump’s announcement could suggest that U.S. counterterrorism agencies are shifting their priorities. This is worth watching."

The U.S. Military Has a Boogaloo Problem. "Some of the largest private Facebook groups catering to the [neo-confederate] boogaloo movement have scores of members who identify as active-duty military."

‘State-sanctioned violence’: US police fail to meet basic human rights standards. "Police in America’s biggest cities are failing to meet even the most basic international human rights standards governing the use of lethal force, a new study from the University of Chicago has found."

America’s wholesome square dancing tradition is a tool of white supremacy. It turns out this information is still not widely known.

And finally, two pieces of good news from the Supreme Court: Civil Rights Law Protects Gay and Transgender Workers, Supreme Court Rules; California’s ‘sanctuary’ cities rules stay in place after Supreme Court rejects Trump’s challenge.

Technology

A New iOS Shortcut Blurs Faces and Wipes Metadata for Protest Images. Neat!

IBM will no longer offer, develop, or research facial recognition technology. I was very pleasantly surprised by this ethical stance. "In his letter, [IBM CEO] Krishna also advocated for police reform, arguing that more police misconduct cases should be put under the purview of federal court and that Congress should make changes to qualified immunity doctrine, among other measures."

The Racial Bias Built Into Photography. "Photography is not just a system of calibrating light, but a technology of subjective decisions. Light skin became the chemical baseline for film technology, fulfilling the needs of its target dominant market."

Black tech founders say venture capital needs to move past ‘diversity theater’. "There’s a dearth of black investors in venture capital’s upper echelons and little investment in start-ups with black founders".

This startup is working to bring full anonymity to the internet. Kudos to Harry Halpin and his team.

Pinwheel is the API platform for income verification that every fintech and neobank needs. Meanwhile, a quiet fintech revolution is taking place. As always, in a gold rush, you make money providing spades (building infrastructure that others can build on).

Colin Kaepernick to Join Medium Board of Directors. Kudos to Ev and everyone at Medium.

Facebook Pitched New Tool Allowing Employers to Suppress Words Like “Unionize” in Workplace Chat Product. "One Facebook employee who spoke to The Intercept on condition of anonymity said he saw the blacklisting feature, with a suggested use case around unionization, as a clear effort to give employers the ability to exert control over employees." It would be illegal for an employer to use this, right? Right?

Facebook Groups Are Destroying America. "Dynamics in groups often mirror those of peer-to-peer messaging apps: People share, spread, and receive information directly to and from their closest contacts, whom they typically see as reliable sources. To make things easier for those looking to stoke political division, groups provide a menu of potential targets organized by issue and even location; bad actors can create fake profiles or personas tailored to the interests of the audiences they intend to infiltrate. This allows them to seed their own content in a group and also to repurpose its content for use on other platforms." I'm a little skeptical of this, but it's worth reading.

The Ghost in the Machine. "We could expect a Black programmer, immersed as she is in the same systems of racial meaning and economic expediency as the rest of her co-workers, to code software in a way that perpetuates racial stereotypes. Or, even if she is aware and desires to intervene, will she be able to exercise the power to do so?" A good exploration of the ideas in Dr Ruha Benjamin's excellent Race After Technology.

He Removed Labels That Said “Medical Use Prohibited,” Then Tried to Sell Thousands of Masks to Officials Who Distribute to Hospitals. "Using TaskRabbit and Venmo, a Silicon Valley investor and his business partner had workers repackage non-medical KN95 masks so he could sell them to Texas emergency workers." This is overt, life-threatening fraud.

How to Know You’re Not Insane (And how a Cards Against Humanity Staff Writer was fired.) My copy - acquired at XOXO in the early days - is finally finding its way into the recycling bin.

And finally

The Seven Billion Habits of Highly Effective Robots. A cute science fiction short.

Aaron Parecki

I'm going live in 10 minutes talking about the State of OAuth at @APIDaysGlobal!

Register for free → https://www.apidays.co/interface

Aaron Parecki

sneak peek of an image I made for a talk tomorrow

can you guess what it's about?

Aaron Parecki

Great crowd for @IndieWebCamp West keynotes and intros! We're running sessions the rest of the day, and projects and demos tomorrow! Join here ➤ https://events.indieweb.org/2020/06/indiewebcamp-west-2020-ZB8zoAAu6sdN

Ben Werdmüller

6 observations about fintech after my first 9 months

Nine months ago, I joined ForUsAll as Head of Engineering. It's my first fintech company.

Long-term readers will know that I've spent most of my life in the open source web world, building one of the first white label social networking platforms, and in media, where I helped build the way journalists at networks like NBC securely send footage back to the newsroom. Every startup I've ever joined has had a strong social mission; here, in the midst of widening income inequality, we're trying to help ordinary people build a stronger financial future.

This is my personal space; opinions here, as in all of my posts, are mine alone.

Here are some things I've observed.

1. Financial technology is broken.

It's common for financial institutions to have web platforms that look like they were built in 1998. Some of them were. I'm certain that some smaller institutions are running their software on decrepit Windows servers. APIs are virtually nonexistent. Interoperability between institutions is often in the form of faxes (you read that correctly; please breathe) or checks in the mail.

Over in Europe, open banking has become an important movement. It's inevitable that institutions in the US will need to modernize to adopt similar ideas. The institutions that haven't invested in in-house technology, or don't have strong technology partnerships, are going to find themselves in very rocky waters.

Elsewhere, businesses understand that open, standard APIs are a way to build ecosystems and gain value through partnerships. They also understand that they need to build technical teams that are first-class contributors to the business. In the financial sector, a very closed, old-world view of technology is still prevelant. The institutions that can't let go of these archaic mindsets will eventually die. There's a new batch of fintech startups - ForUsAll among them, alongside the likes of Chime and Digit - that will take their place and redefine the ecosystem.

Which brings me to ...

2. Scraping is everywhere.

Plaid was recently acquired by Visa for $5.3 billion. It provides a unified auth and limited API for most institutions. Its connections are sort of flaky, but it's remarkably better than the previous status quo.

And it largely works using Puppeteer.

Because institutions don't have APIs, Plaid spends a lot of time and energy maintaining headless browsers to log into banking websites on your behalf. In order to be able to log in, it has to be saving your banking password in plain text. (Compare and contrast with a typical API, which would use secure, revokable tokens for authentication.)

If you're connecting to a bank using Venmo, Robinhood, Coinbase, and others, you're probably saving your banking password in plain text in Plaid. Infuriatingly, because there are no APIs, let alone API standards, there's very little alternative. But it's worth saying that if you're giving credentials to a third party, many banks will absolve themselves of any liability in a data breach.

3. Operations teams are vital.

The first rule of technology on the internet is that if it looks like magic, there's probably an army of people in an office park somewhere (often the Philippines) making it happen. In the finance world, a lot of the magic isn't done by technology as much as teams of people whose role is to reconcile data and perform financial operations that can't be automated.

There's room for a kind of Financial Operations as a Service platform - but because of the sensitive data involved, the workers on demand would need to be certified, heavily insured, and security tested. You'd also lose their most important feature: the institutional knowledge about a customer that is grown when you spend time with them.

4. There's a lot of opportunity for growth.

Institutional technology myopia means there's a lot of room for innovators to enter the market and change it for the better.

But there's also a lot of opportunity to create ecosystems. Perhaps that's even how you win: create an open ecosystem that allows institutions to easily interoperate with each other in a peer-to-peer, secure way. The older institutions won't bother to connect, but the newer ones could potentially form alliances and band together. Eventually, the incumbent institutions will have to join in.

Imagine a banking system built on openness, human-centered design, software libraries, SDKs, and running code, instead of armies of Excel spreadsheets and ties behind desks.

Imagine beautiful experiences that give you full control over your money. Imagine institutions that aren't all just controlled by old, white men for their own benefit. Imagine wealth for all.

It sounds kind of good, right?

Now imagine the ecosystem that makes it all possible.

I know what you think that sounds like. I know what many readers are going to say. But trust me:

5. It's not about blockchain.

Programmable money isn't cool. You know what's cool? Money people can use.

I'm sure there will come a time when cryptocurrencies do allow the open banking ecosystem I describe above to be built. But that time isn't now. And while I'm grateful for the people working on building the financial system of 2030, we still need to drag the existing one into the 21st century.

Again: people are, today in 2020, using faxes and paper checks as forms of inter-bank communication. When technology is used, user passwords are often saved in plain text. And many of the people involved don't really see anything wrong with it. Blockchain might be one of the technologies that helps us, but the point isn't about technology; the point is what people are able to do with their money.

6. It is about wealth for all.

So that's what we need to build. We need to build the infrastructure that brings banking in line with today, in that way that the internet is so good at, where gatekeepers are crushed and ordinary people are empowered.

In the nineties, we empowered everyone to communicate. In the 2000s, we let everyone publish. In the 2010s, we put limitless knowledge in everyone's hands, wherever they were. And in the 2020s, we're going to reimagine the financial system to be an open ecosystem where anyone can innovate, for the benefit of us all. The old gatekeepers will give way to new, decentralized tapestries of value, where anyone can share, earn, and save in a way that they fully control.

The 2020s are about tearing down the same old thing and building something more equitable and agile in its place. That's the opportunity - and it's an opportunity for all of us.

Photo by Austin Distel on Unsplash

Aaron Parecki

Do I know anyone at @Apple? Found basically a showstopper bug in Sign In with Apple and hoping to discuss with someone. #WWDC #WWDC20

Ben Werdmüller

Tim Hortons, the surveillance state, and you

Journalist James McLeod examined the data gathered about him by the app for Tim Hortons, the Canadian coffee chain:

From my home to my office to a Blue Jays game at Rogers Centre, even all the way to Morocco, where I travelled on vacation last June, the company’s app silently logged my coordinates and relayed them back to its corporate servers.

The app uses tracking technology by Radar Labs, which is also used by a host of other retail apps, including Burger King and DryBar. Users opt into data collection when they begin using the app.

The Supreme Court has held that cellphone location data is generally protected by the Fourth Amendment. That means that law enforcement needs to get a warrant before it can tap this information. The court case actually dealt with cell carrier data, rather than data stored by services like Radar Labs, Facebook, or Foursquare, so between this discrepancy and the ominous word "generally", there's certainly some wiggle room.

The President recently called for anti-fascists to be designated as terrorists. Although legal scholars seem to agree that this isn't going to be possible, this call provides a call to action for law enforcement to focus on protesters (rather than white supremacists, who are the largest domestic terrorism threat).

Geofence warrants allow police to sweep up information from any cellphone that happened to be in the vicinity of a crime. While protests are protected under the Constitution of the United States, many have tried to paint the current civil rights marches as riots, even though violent activity has often been instigated by police. These clashes allow them to obtain blanket rights to search phones that were present during a protest - and of course, in a world where data is in the cloud, they don't need physical access to the device to do so. Republicans like Matt Gaetz have called for surveillance to be stepped up.

Further warrants are possible to obtain from sympathetic judges. The fact is, though, that a lot of location data is available on the open market in a semi-anonymized form - law enforcement can obtain it like any other customer. It's possible to reverse engineer this data to determine an individual's actions and associations over time. This information can and is used to spy on and harass activists.

So when a coffee chain gathers data in this way, presumably for its own commercial intelligence, it is also feeding into a broader surveillance apparatus that can be used to track protesters, determine associations between people, and stifle dissent.

I don't believe that anyone at Tim Hortons is intentionally trying to create a police state - but actions are more important than intentions. It's now up to them, and everyone who builds technology, to do the right thing.

Photo by Etienne Girardet on Unsplash

Ben Werdmüller

Love and sayur lodeh

My Oma taught me to make food. That wasn't exactly her intention: she had become too old and frail to chop vegetables and stand over a hot stove, so I did those things for her. I was her kitchen surrogate. Through her instructions and careful corrections, I learned the superficial mechanics of cooking, and the generations-deep love and attention that goes into making a meal. Indonesian food made with American ingredients. Spices and stories, stirred together. Love and sayur lodeh.

Every morning, more or less as soon as she woke up, she would begin to think about what we would eat for dinner. She would make sure we had the right ingredients, and get to work (and get me to work) hours in advance. Then we would prepare the meal, the two of us, and we would eat it all together. We would spend time together as a family in the evening. Then she would sleep, and the horrors of the concentration camp would creep into her dreams. Through the walls, I would hear her wail and cry throughout the night. Then she would wake up, and begin to think about what we would eat for dinner.

Turlock, California is a small town in the San Joaquin Valley, next door to Modesto, and about two hours west of San Francisco. The air is hot and thick with almond dust, and the last bookstore that sold more than Bibles closed years ago. When my parents moved there in 2002, every radio station played country music, and the roads were littered with disposable American flags. It was less than a year after 9/11, and the feverish patriotism that had followed the attacks was waning.

They had moved from Oxford, a university town where many of the buildings dated back to the 1500s. A steady stream of scholars from around the world made for a cosmopolitan culture, even if the institution itself was long set in its ways. The museums and art galleries were free and numerous. Countless languages could be heard on its streets. Tolkien and Radiohead were among its children. Turlock was a universe away.

But it was important to be there for Oma. Even then, the rising cost of living in the Bay Area was pushing my family out, and as they scattered to the wind, my parents moved in to provide her with a home. That's why, when I graduated from university in Edinburgh with an honors degree in Computer Science and a popular website under my belt, I found my way to Turlock, too.

My Opa died before I was born. He was a leader of the resistance against the Japanese in Indonesia, and before that, the founder of a bank. My Dad's whole family was captured; Opa was placed into a work camp, while Oma and her children were imprisoned separately.

The children survived through Oma's ingenuity. My Dad was a toddler; without her wiles and instincts, I simply wouldn't exist. While the guards weren't looking, she would gather snails from around the camp and secretly cook them. My aunt would quietly escape and swim through the sewers to gather more food. The Japanese guards were brutal. Torture and killings were commonplace in the camp. These were dangerous activities.

When they emigrated back to the Netherlands after the war, escaping the Indonesian National Revolution, their property had been stripped as part of a rejection of colonial rule. (The Dutch, it must be added, were themselves a brutal colonial power.) Eventually, they found their way to California, where they ran a gas station on Highway 12 outside of Sebastopol, and a second one in Bodega Bay, which had previously featured in Alfred Hitchcock's The Birds. They lived in a small mobile home, and built their lives up from scratch several times. Even when flood waters destroyed their possessions, washing away the physical evidence of their life before, they picked themselves up and started again.

My aunts' lives were interrupted; their educations permanently put on hold. Generations later, this trauma still ripples through my family, waves of hardship emanating from a central event.

My Dad was drafted during the Vietnam War era, and became a non-citizen member of the US Army. It was through this, and the GI Bill that he was able to take advantage of afterwards, that he was able to get an education. He earned degree after degree, and found himself in Berkeley, studying philosophy and leading anti-war protests. He met my mother, an upper middle class Ukrainian Jewish American from upstate New York, herself descended from a family that escaped pogroms and had been forced to build a new life from scratch.

When it became clear that they would have a child, they chose to get married and move to Europe. I was born in Rotterdam and raised in England, the product of the ebbs and flows of immigrants caught in the wake of world-changing events. The toddler who survived the concentration camp earned a PhD in Economics from Oxford.

I wouldn't exist without Oma. When they moved back to California to give her a place to live and become her carers, I was completely supportive. But beyond those first four months in Turlock, the closest place to the Bay Area my parents could afford, I didn't stay.

It was almost a decade later when my mother was diagnosed with pulmonary fibrosis. The persistent cough that had dogged her for years took permanent hold. Her lungs began to scar up and shrivel, and she began to carry oxygen on her back. It became clear that she might not have much longer to live. There was no known cause and no known cure. It wasn't clear that a lung transplant would be possible, or that she would survive it.

So I moved to California to help look after my own parents, just as my parents had moved to look after my Oma. I wanted to be closer and help where I could. It ripped my life apart, and I found myself building it up again from two suitcases.

It's now been close to a decade. My mother often tells me what she wants me to make for dinner. I'll be her surrogate in the kitchen, mixing ingredients together to her instructions. The food I cook is made from spices and the history of all of us, our family and the families like ours, fractals of ebbs and flows of people that form the atoms of history and culture.

This is the world. We're all part of a constantly-changing map of humans caught up in each others' wake: twisting currents in the tide of generations. We are constantly moving and we have always been. All of us are immigrants. All of us belong. All of us survive through kindness and ingenuity, despite the forces of militarism, hate, and intolerance. The only constant is change. The only savior is love.

Ben Werdmüller

Reading, watching, playing, using: May 2020

Here's the media I consumed and found interesting in May.

I'm scared for the world and sick to my stomach about the injustices faced by black communities. The pressure cooker exploded in May, and it looks like June will continue this trend. I hope we can find our way to a more equal, more compassionate world where everyone can live a good life. It certainly feels like we're a long way from it now.

Apps

Stardew Valley. I'm late to the party but hopelessly addicted. It's like a cross between The Sims and The Secret of Monkey Island, with all of the humor and weirdness of the latter. Every time I think I've got a handle on it, it adds a new angle.

MSCHF. Part art project, part commercial enterprise, MSCHF releases a new drop twice a month. They're the people who brought us The Office on Slack, Jesus Shoes, and the cut up Damien Hirst painting.

Streaming

Atlanta's Missing and Murdered: The Lost Children. A timely, pointed documentary on the 30+ African American children and young adults who disappeared or were found murdered between 1979-81. The implications are devastating and highly relevant to what's happening on our streets today.

The Invisible Man. Tense from the first minute, this is a strongly feminist movie about gaslighting that is viscerally terrifying tonally and conceptually. Elisabeth Moss is excellent.

The Valhalla Murders. A taut Icelandic murder mystery that, again, has implications beyond its premise. It sounds like there's going to be a second season; I can't wait.

The Half of It. I expect this to continue to be the most beautiful film I've seen this year. I'm inspired by director Alice Wu, who was a computer scientist working at Microsoft before she changed directions and moved into filmmaking.

Notable Articles

The Pandemic

Flattening the Truth on Coronavirus. Dave Eggers on the convoluted, contradictory advice we're being offered.

“Political Connections and Cronyism”: In Blistering Whistleblower Complaint, Rick Bright Blasts Team Trump’s Pandemic Response. "Two weeks after being pushed out of his post, the former head of a $1.5 billion federal health agency formally accuses top officials of pressuring him to approve unproven chloroquine drugs and award pricey contracts to friends of the administration."

I'm Immunocompromised and Freaking Out About the World Reopening. I'm not immunocompromised, but I have loved ones who are, and this sums up how I feel, too.

The Curious Case of the People Who Want to “Reopen” America—But Not Wear Masks. "The lesson here is that these stories aren’t really about vaccines or bioweapons or population control. Instead, they’re meta-parables about how the people telling them see themselves and feel about their place in the world."

Life on a Screen. My friend Oliver Mahony on his life working remotely.

‘How Could the CDC Make That Mistake?’ "The government’s disease-fighting agency is conflating viral and antibody tests, compromising a few crucial metrics that governors depend on to reopen their economies. Pennsylvania, Georgia, Texas, and other states are doing the same."

An Incalculable Loss. A remarkable, human New York Times piece on the 100,000+ lives lost to Covid-19.

Black Lives Matter

Proportionate Response. "When destroying a police precinct is a reasonable reaction."

The Only Thing, Historically, That's Curbed Inequality: Catastrophe. "Plagues, revolutions, massive wars, collapsed states—these are what reliably reduce economic disparities."

How Western media would cover Minneapolis if it happened in another country. "In recent years, the international community has sounded the alarm on the deteriorating political and human rights situation in the United States under the regime of Donald Trump. Now, as the country marks 100,000 deaths from the coronavirus pandemic, the former British colony finds itself in a downward spiral of ethnic violence. The fatigue and paralysis of the international community are evident in its silence, America experts say."

The Pandemic Is the Right Time to Defund the Police. "The coronavirus has slowed much American police work, but the rate of police killings has remained relatively unchanged."

Black Journalists Are Exhausted. "As we’ve heard again and again, these are extraordinary times. However, it’s an especially peculiar time to be a black journalist. The pandemic has laid bare many of the same racial inequities that generations of black journalists have been covering since 1827 when the Freedom’s Journal birthed the black press. While this pandemic is unique, the waves of trauma crashing down on my community are not."

George Floyd’s brother says Trump ‘kept pushing me off’ during phone call. "Philonise Floyd says president dismissed him during a phone conversation – he ‘didn’t give me a chance to even speak’."

Politics

The Unbelievable Story Of The Plot Against George Soros. "How two Jewish American political consultants helped create the world’s largest anti-Semitic conspiracy theory."

Trump Is a Superspreader—of Distraction. "An added benefit of trolling, from the President’s perspective, is that it is also diverting the attention of the nation’s many Trump-haters, for whom his prolific stupidities and public feuds offer an endless supply of new outrage."

What Trump doesn't get about his new executive order: it'd backfire. "Trump seems oblivious to the fact that his new executive order, if it were implemented, would almost certainly backfire on him personally."

Culture & Society

The real Lord of the Flies: what happened when six boys were shipwrecked for 15 months. It's far more uplifting than the book would have you believe.

The End of Meat Is Here. "If you care about the working poor, about racial justice, and about climate change, you have to stop eating animals."

David Foster Wallace, "This Is Water". "In 2005 author David Foster Wallace delivered the commencement address at Kenyon College. This thoughtful and moving talk inspires in me feelings of grief and anger and terror and hope, a response no doubt influenced by my awareness of Wallace's suicide some 40 months later in September 2008."

Brick Lane’s Beigel Bake reveals recipe for iconic bagels for stay-at-home bakers. Oh hell yes. I miss the Beigel Bake a great deal.

A Window Onto an American Nightmare. "Homelessness afflicts nearly one in five hundred Americans. As a crisis, it’s insidious, because its victims rarely plunge toward the abyss; they slide. Maybe you’ve been couch surfing in between jobs and you overstay your welcome. Maybe you’ve been in Airbnbs while apartment hunting and the search is harder than expected. Maybe, like Hickson, you lived on the momentum of a private dream until you had a reason to put down roots."

The Overlooked Black History of Memorial Day. "Researchers have traced the earliest annual commemoration to women who laid flowers on soldiers’ graves in the Civil War hospital town of Columbus, Miss., in April 1866. But historians like the Pulitzer Prize winner David Blight have tried to raise awareness of freed slaves who decorated soldiers’ graves a year earlier, to make sure their story gets told too."

Masculinity As Radical Selfishness: Rebecca Solnit on the Maskless Men of the Pandemic. "Why is doing what literally billions of women do day after day framed as some terrible ordeal? Where is the headline “Local Man Cannot Parent Own Child”?"

The Vintage Beauty Of Soviet Control Rooms. Pretty.

Journalism

U.S. drops to 45 in ranking of countries based on freedom of the press. "The report calls out Trump as a ‘media-bashing enthusiast’." I mean, to say the least.

Like it or not, Google and Facebook are becoming the leading patrons of the news industry. To be clear: I don't like it at all.

How Civil Didn’t Save Journalism. "Civil indeed helped launch a handful of publications, but it fell short on its promise to solve the media industry’s problems by finding a viable, alternative funding model. This might be because Civil’s mission was always more about investigating the viability of cryptocurrency."

CNN crew released from police custody after they were arrested live on air in Minneapolis. These are dark times.

Technology

Psychicpaper. Fascinating, technical details about a serious bug in iOS. "I dubbed it “psychic paper” because, just like the item by that name that Doctor Who likes to carry, it allows you get past security checks and make others believe you have a wide range of credentials that you shouldn’t have."

Amazon VP Resigns, Calls Company ‘Chickenshit’ for Firing Protesting Workers. Thank you, Tim Bray. The post on his blog is here.

Deno 1.0. An interesting alternative to Node that disposes of centralized package managers.

The Next Social Era is Here: Why Now Is the Time for Social Products Again. "Now is the best time in eight years to be a Founder of social/communications products, and we believe it will kick off a second wave of product-first Founders who are true artists of their craft."

The power of Open Source in the fight against COVID-19. "In every crisis, Open Source has empowered organizations to do more with less. It's great to see this play out again. Open Source teams have rallied to help and come up with some pretty incredible solutions when times are tough."

Doordash and Pizza Arbitrage. "If someone could pay Doordash $16 a pizza, and Doordash would pay his restaurant $24 a pizza, then he should clearly just order pizzas himself via Doordash, all day long. You'd net a clean $8 profit per pizza [insert nerdy economics joke about there is such a thing as a free lunch]." Kind of a fun story. But these food delivery startups have extremely screwy economics.

New York Times phasing out all 3rd-party advertising data. They're big enough that they can - but others will follow.

Automattic pumps $4.6M into New Vector to help grow Matrix, an open, decentralized comms ecosystem. I met the Matrix team earlier in their journey, when I was still working on Known. I tried to invest in them at Matter, because I knew this would be big, but no dice. I'm excited for their continued success.

The open podcast ecosystem is dying — here’s how to save it. Podcasting is one of the last bastions of popular openness. It is successful and vibrant because it is open. Let's keep that going.

Remote-team managers can learn a lot from open-source communities. "Instead of trying to reinvent management from first principles, we can turn to other areas with experience navigating distributed teams with individuals managing competing commitments. Open-source software communities—which also are remote communities connected by the internet—have long included the role of community managers. These are the people who tend to the health of the community, by maintaining communication, motivation, efficiency, and engagement. It’s a well-honed practice that remote managers can learn a lot from."