Notes from building @NewYorkerCaptionBot

A New Yorker cartoon with the caption 'How soon until the trolls arrive?' Caption by @jtag

Over the holiday weekend I put some free time towards building my first Twitter bot: @NYCaptionBot: a bot that takes an @-message and turns it into a caption for a random New Yorker cartoon.

All-in-all, it took maybe 12 hours scattered over a few days. This was my first project using the Twitter API and using Node, so there was a bit of a learning curve, but development was ultimately pretty straightforward. Now that it’s unleashed into the world I wanted to jot down some thoughts and things I learned in the hope that they might be useful to someone else down the road.

Three tips to be more secure online

We could all do more to be a little safer online, and that’s even more apparent after learning how the recent email hack went down. Here’s how a Russian government hacking group was able to hack into DNC and Clinton staff emails according to Buzzfeed: they sent some official-looking emails to these people with instructions to reset their passwords. The password reset page looked like an official Google page and asked for their current passwords. And apparently enough people fell for the trap.

It might sound sophisticated, but posing as a legitimate company in order to trick people into handing over important data is a common exploit.

We can’t hug this one out

Photos of protestors and police hugging

For all the pain we’re collectively shouldering right now, I like to see people looking for sources of uplift, wherever that may come from. For some, it’s sports, a TV show, or just spending time with the people they love. I see others taking some measure of relief from small moments of racial bonding and reconciliation. These moments are captured in photos, Reddit threads and Facebook posts, spreading virally across progressive and conservative networks alike.

One of the defining examples of these viral moments in recent years is the photo of a Black boy hugging a cop at a Portland Black Lives Matter protest in 2014. And in the days since the killings of Philando Castile, Alton Sterling and the Dallas officers, I’ve been seeing more of these: a story about a white cop asking a Black girl how she’s doing and her breaking down in his arms; a video of an officer having a dance off with some kids; a Reddit post about a white man, two Black men and a white cop bonding over Pokemon in the middle of the night; and still more pictures of white cops and Black protesters side-by-side.

If these moments give people some slight relief or sense of hope in a dark time, great. I don’t want to take that away from anyone. And certainly any instance of police trying to build better relationships with the community is a welcome sight. But I’m concerned that there’s a risk that these images and stories reduce the problem of violent, systemic anti-Black racism to simply a matter of white people being mean to Black people. Or potentially even worse, of Black people not being nice to white people either.

Lessons from tech, for non-tech people

Before I started working in tech, I worked at a non-profit called the Bus Project, focused on expanding access to democracy and building power for young people. My career transition has forced me to learn not just new skills, but a whole new way of working, and lately I’ve been thinking about what lessons I’ve learned that I would have loved to know as a non-tech worker.

For starters, I want to talk about what I’ve learned about the capital-A Agile way of working. Before 18F, I had never formally practiced anything like Agile development. I was familiar with the basic concepts, but hadn’t been a part of a team that really followed the practice. Two years in, though, I’ve learned a lot (and still have a ton more to learn).

I should preface by saying that none of these ideas are my own; there’s a bunch more out there you can read if you’re interested. And if you’re already familiar with the concepts, I can almost guarantee you’re not going to learn anything new here. But nonetheless, since I know a lot of people who don’t work in tech, here’s my take on a few things that I think could be relevant to folks who aren’t making software.

Using Mint to keep a budget, part 2

Philadelphia Mint smelting room (Library of Congress)

The other day, I posted part 1 of a guide on how I use Mint to keep a budget. I was pleasently surprised with the response it got and was glad to hear it was useful. That post covers the main high level strategies that help make Mint useful to me, and in this post I’m going to cover a few of the more granular tactics I use that keep my routine running smoothly.

Using Mint to keep a budget, part 1

'As Uncle Sam prepares  to move his gold from the mint...'

Earlier today a friend mentioned she’s trying to watch her spending. This is a thing almost everyone thinks about, and it’s something that I’ve worked pretty hard and have been fairly successful with. So once again I responded the way I always do when the topic comes up: “Do you use Mint?”

Now, I’m far from the most financially responsible person I know — I’m not a great saver, for instance, and I spend way too much money on coffee — but I wanted to share a handful of tricks I’ve honed with Mint that have helped me to be stay within budgets and avoid any debt over the last five years.

I feel like some weird faux Suze Orman right now, but whatev, here goes.

America the Work-in-Progress

A Fourth of July celebration, St. Helena Island, S.C.  (LOC)

As I start out this Fourth of July weekend as a real life federal employee for the first time, working to make a government that runs a little smoother and serves its people a little better, I’ve been thinking about patriotism.

When you truly care about justice at home and abroad, patriotism is tricky. Is it right to love a country that has the highest incarceration rate in the world? A country rife with racial, gender and economic inequality? A country that committed genocide against the continent’s native people? And what does it mean when these horrors aren’t actually contrary to American values but are in fact—as Ta-Nehisi Coates says of the abuses of our criminal justice system—”byproducts of democratic will”?

Write it out

So why start a blog now? Good question! I’ve been asking myself that for a while as I’ve been trying to decide whether to start one. The answer I keep coming back to is that I want to be a better thinker. I want to learn to sharpen my analsysis, put thoughts into words, and build arguments where otherwise I might’ve settled for hand-waiving.

As my relationship with The Internet has grown over the nearly 20 years I’ve been using it—and especially over the last, say, seven or so—I’ve developed places I go for certain things. Instagram is to feel connected with the people and places I love. Facebook is to follow a certain few people and say certain things to a certain audience. Tumblr and Vine are things that people send me links from (:old-man-emoji:). And then Twitter is the place to follow news, make jokes, and feel connected to what the writers, thinkers, journalists, comedians, bloggers, colleagues and others are experiencing.