2017 reading list

Like a lot of people, I was a voracious reader as a kid but have had more difficulty finishing books in recent years. I’m surprised and glad to see that I read 58 books in 2017 (33 comics, 23 new prose books, 2 rereads).

My main goal was to fill in some of the gaps in my understanding of US history and racial justice. Here are a few books that stand out to me with respect to that goal:

California Politics and Government: A Practical Approach by Larry N. Gerston and Terry Christensen. I read this as an introduction to California structures and a refresher on high school civics. I appreciated the frank discussion of the anti-immigrant racism in the Progressive movement. Now I finally understand why we have all those propositions on every ballot.

Kiyo’s Story: A Japanese-American Family’s Quest for the American Dream by Kiyo Sato. This book includes vivid descriptions of daily life for the Japanese immigrants and Japanese Americans in WWII camps. It’s a great overall memoir and helps place our country’s crimes in context.

March: Book One, Book Two, and Book Three by John Lewis, Andrew Aydin, and Nate Powell. This is a powerfully illustrated comic book trilogy that tells the true story of John Lewis’s leadership in the civil rights movement. Even if your history class was accurate, reading about a hate mob feels different than seeing the white faces contorted with anger drawn on the page.

Bridging the digital gap

A few months ago, I started volunteering at Digital Device Drop-In, one of the services provided at The Bridge at SFPL Main Branch. Digital Device Drop-In is a place where people can get friendly help from library staff and volunteers about how to use their laptops, phones, tablets, ereaders, and other devices. Contrary to stereotypes about who is comfortable with technology, I’ve found that the attendees from the Tenderloin community are a diverse set from different ages, genders, and races.

On a typical day, I’ll arrive right around 4 pm. The coordinator greets everyone in our 5th floor classroom, explains what they can expect from Drop-In, and then moves around the room, asking people individually what kind of help they’d like today. Based on the areas of concern (“I want to send text messages and check my missed calls”, “I want to share photos on Facebook and WhatsApp”, etc), he identifies someone in the room who’s knowledgeable and pairs us up. I try to focus on helping people use their Android and iOS phones because that’s what I’m best at. Some of the actual questions I’ve fielded include unfriending someone on Facebook, turning off notifications from the Apple News app, and posting photos to Instagram.

I was initially drawn to this volunteer opportunity because I work in a design-focused group whose goal is to make apps more usable for everyone. I figured that in addition to solving a few gadget problems and connecting with people, I’d also gain insight that I could apply to my professional interests. Here are some of the patterns I’ve seen so far:

There’s no such thing as an obvious icon. Contemporary app design (within my US-centric world) favors icons that don’t have text labels. Thanks to minimalism, icons look less like tangible objects and more like a bundle of lines. One Drop-In attendee asked me about the tennis racket icon, which is what passes for a search icon after years of eroding away the physical details of a magnifying glass. Icon confusion is common; I’ve had a number of people jot down notes while I explained things to them, and they would always draw the icon next to their notes. Since the icons weren’t meaningful illustrations, there was nothing that would jog their memory later, so they had to create their own links between symbols and names.

Information hierarchy is confusing without context. A big part of my role as a helper is identifying the problem, which often isn’t stated directly. The notifications I turned off from the Apple News app were initially described to me as “text messages from National Geographic that I didn’t sign up for.” I tried to figure out why I knew at a glance that News and Messages were separate apps, and I think it’s because a phone notification is shaped sort of like a desktop computer notification. For me, the app icon and app name in the upper left are meaningful identifiers. For someone unfamiliar with different content channels on a phone, it isn’t apparent that “News” is the name of an app.

Usability is a particularly hard problem right now because the mental models that we ask people to build have become so complicated. Every time our phones get more capable, we also leave more people behind. I don’t have many answers right now, but I know I’ll carry my Drop-In volunteer experiences with me when I talk about button styles and other standard UI components at work.

Donating to charity

This post describes my own personal experiences and might only be relevant to people with similarly comfortable incomes. They’re arguably the ones who need this conversation more, since poor people tend to donate more of their income.

I started regularly donating money to charity after I graduated from college and started my first full-time job. I was raised to be mindful of the opportunities I had received and the role that luck played in my life. It felt obvious that I should share what I had with others. I looked for registered nonprofits that supported causes I felt personally invested in, wrote them paper checks, then gathered up my receipts to deduct them from my taxes.

It was very easy for me to get started back then because I was sharing a two-bedroom apartment with two other people and paying recession-era rents. Even after saving for retirement, I had plenty of discretionary income, so it was just a matter of setting a donation goal and tracking whether or not I reached it. I decided to try to maximize my company match: if they matched $500, I would donate $500. I didn’t meet my goal every year, but I liked this approach as a way to check in with myself every December. Having a concrete number helped me decide whether I had really done what I set out to do.

When I changed jobs and my new employer no longer offered matching funds, I looked for alternative models. I am an ardent atheist, but I liked some of the things I read about tithing. It seemed similar enough to the corporate model of giving away 1% of profits, and it had the advantage of scaling up with my income. The problem with donating a flat amount was that the tech industry and my own career were both growing, so continuing to donate only $500 would be an increasingly stingy move.

In the past two years, I’ve been comfortably meeting my donation goals, both in company match utilization and in percentage of my income. I’ve been reading about other people’s donation philosophies to inform my thinking. Here are a few sources I’ve found helpful:

Here’s what I’m considering for 2018 and beyond: allocate the entirety of my N% charity budget to statistically effective things like GiveWell, then donate another large chunk of money to things that are a more direct expression of my values. For example, I believe that forced birth policies are a violation of people’s right to control their own bodies. It’s against my morals to impose arbitrary waiting periods and unnecessary exams just to create financial barriers to abortion. One way I can act on this is to give money directly to pregnant people who cannot afford abortions. I could also donate to a group that does education and outreach to connect people with the healthcare they need, or donate to a politician who’s committed to defend these rights.

I haven’t figured out the details, and I’m especially unsure how much I should allocate to each type of giving. Should I keep giving N% and find another N%, doubling the amount I’m giving away to others? Should more of my dollars be dedicated to efficiency or to my personal values? Does it matter whether all of it is tax deductible, or should I allocate more to lobbying and direct aid? Either way, I’ll need to check in with myself at the end of the year to see if it’s gone well.

Showing up in person

In the aftermath of last November’s election, I started attending far more political events than I ever had before. I joined groups that were just forming and groups that had been around for decades. I made signs and attended marches. I listened to speeches by experienced activists. Showing up for causes that I believe in started to make a difference in how I experience my daily life.

My newfound motivation is summed up best in this advice post about Trump by a psychologist: “We do good things because they are good, but results are not guaranteed.” Most of the beliefs I’m advocating for right now are things that have been important to me for decades, if not my entire life. What deterred me before wasn’t thinking that something didn’t matter; it was thinking that my own actions wouldn’t help. I wanted more immediate gratification than I could realistically expect. I ran a service organization on campus and I phone banked for a candidate I believed in and I became a peer counselor on a crisis line. Then I got discouraged and wondered whether I had actually improved anyone’s lives. And then I convinced myself that I needed to take care of myself first, which was technically true, but I didn’t actually make a plan for how to resume taking care of others.

Six months after the election, I’m revisiting President Obama’s words from his farewell address: “I am asking you to believe. Not in my ability to bring about change – but in yours.” This is still tough for me. My guess is that I’ll be battling complacency and fear for a very long time. But I’m trying to believe in the people around me and to spend my time working alongside them. Seeing their faces, hearing their voices, and relying on their strength… it’s not a magic cure, but I think it helps.


Last week, I flew to Alexandria, Virginia to attend RWDevCon, a tutorial conference. Unlike most other tech events, this conference is fully interactive. Before the conference begins, there’s an optional day where you can choose from two different all-day workshops on a single topic. During the conference, aside from the opening and closing remarks and some short inspirational talks, every single session is a hands-on tutorial. Lunch is served buffet-style and everyone sits at large round tables. Each table is set up with casual card games and has at least one RayWenderlich.com team member who teaches the game to everyone else. During the conference party on Friday evening, James Dempsey hosted a game show where attendees were invited to answer trivia questions about Apple development and products. From beginning to end, this conference is both structured and playful, and makes an effort to be inviting to newcomers.

What drew me to RWDevCon was the hands-on nature of these tutorial sessions. I’ve attended different types of tech conferences in the past few years, including PyCon, CocoaConf, and Strange Loop, and I’ve had great experiences at a lot of them. However, I’ve found that some talks seem to suffer from being constrained to ~40 minutes. Many talks that include live coding demonstrations don’t work well for me because I have trouble following along with snippets of code on a far-away screen without enough project context. It’s important to know how you personally learn, but there are some things that hold true in general about learning methods: when you passively receive information, whether it’s written or spoken, you retain less than when you put that information into practice. My hope was that RWDevCon’s format would address both of those concerns. I wrote this post on my flight home, so it’s too early to say for sure how much I’ll retain, but right now I’m pretty happy with how the conference went.

Before the conference, I was concerned that my lack of language fluency would pose a problem. The tutorials were presented in Swift, required lots of typing, and covered some advanced subjects. I originally learned how to develop iOS apps in Objective-C and I still use it exclusively at work. I can read Swift well enough to translate Stack Overflow answers into my own code base, but I wasn’t confident that I could write it, so I was worried about whether I was going to be able to keep up. Fortunately, I’m a fast touch typist, I’ve been using Xcode and Cocoa / Cocoa Touch for years, and I’ve previously learned about concepts like closures and optionals in other languages. However, I did occasionally create syntax errors that I couldn’t immediately fix. This posed a problem during the faster-moving sessions because I was distracted from listening to the next part and I could no longer run my project to test things out. My solution was to keep both the starter project and the final project open during the demo. That way, if I couldn’t figure out the problem in a few seconds, I could copy and paste the relevant five lines and get myself unstuck.

Two tutorials in particular stood out to me:

Reconstructing Popular iOS Animations by Caroline Begbie
I think this session will end up being the most applicable to my day job. My app could really use more animations, so I was glad to see a substantial amount of content both in the live portion and in the PDF lab to complete afterwards. I also loved that Caroline provided ample context for her examples because as a user, I find gratuitous animations very frustrating, and it was helpful to understand how Tinder and Snapchat’s animations convey information to the user.

Swift Playgrounds in Depth by Jawwad Ahmad
This is the session I’m planning on revisiting first. I want to teach myself more Swift in little chunks of time at home and this looks like a great way to start. I’m not convinced that I’d use things like file literals in production code, but it looks really cool for prototyping and exploration. This tutorial was especially good at minimizing the amount of boilerplate code that we had to type in ourselves while delivering a lot of value.

As with any conference, there were a few things I wish I’d done differently:

Prepare a detailed schedule. The organizers sent out a lot of materials in the week leading up to the conference. I wish I’d reviewed the schedule and made a plan of which tutorials I wanted to attend. The important part wouldn’t be to adhere strictly to those decisions; it’s to do the work of understanding what each session is really about. It would also have forced me to contemplate what I wanted to get out of the conference. For example, did I want exposure to tricky new ideas, or would I rather practice something I partly understood in order to solidify my understanding?

Plan some quality alone time. I planned some fun breaks by meeting up with local friends in the evenings for dinner. However, as much as I enjoy talking to people, I also really love my alone time. I wish I’d planned some sit-down restaurant meals or walks around the neighborhood to let my thoughts simply wander. In addition, the ergonomics of conference tables and chairs aren’t great for typing on a MacBook Air, and my wrists and eyes could have used some rest.

An observation on diversity: compared to the places where I’ve personally worked, my gut sense from looking around the room was that gender diversity was poor and age diversity was slightly better than average. Racial diversity seemed about on par. I was shocked to overhear someone say that “There are a lot more ladies here this year.” I realize that my experiences at large companies in San Francisco may not be typical, but I wanted to note my reaction anyway.

Overall, my experience at RWDevCon was very positive. I’m glad that I was able to attend and I feel like I gained a lot from it, both in terms of the technical material covered and the many ad hoc conversations with folks from other places.

The cost of healthcare

Nancy Pelosi has been working with other Democrats to host events in support of the ACA. I attended a rally at City Hall on January 15 and a town hall at Delancey Street Foundation on February 18. Pelosi is also asking constituents to send her personal stories of how we would be affected by the repeal of the ACA. I decided to adapt some of my tweets into a letter that I sent by email.

A few weeks ago, I attended your rally to save the ACA at City Hall here in San Francisco. I was proud to see the turnout across the country that weekend. For me, that day was partly about being a person in a visible crowd, but also about spending the time to hear other people’s stories. I wanted to share my own story with you to explain why it’s so important to me to fight for healthcare for everyone.

I grew up without consistent health insurance, but I got mandatory coverage when I went to college. In my senior year, a few days after a student clinic visit, I got a call insisting that I go to the ER immediately. I asked them, “Wait, what? Why? I feel fine.” They told me that they’d completed a blood test and my results contained something or other that was 3x the expected levels. They were super scared, so I reluctantly canceled my plans with friends and hopped on a bus to a nearby hospital, rolling my eyes. Getting screened in the ER was tedious because I had to wait around, but I didn’t really mind. Just like I assumed, they found levels contrary to campus clinic.

However… they did find high blood pressure. Really high. Enough that they wanted to admit me immediately to run some more tests. At this point I started arguing with them. I felt fine, no big deal. What I really meant was, “I don’t know whether I can afford to be that sick.” I find that it horrifying that I was 21 years old and had blood pressure that called for hospitalization and still tried to refuse further tests. Even though I had insurance, I was panicking that I might be on the verge of a preexisting condition that meant I could never afford a coverage gap again.

I was very lucky: my insurance covered almost all of my $23k hospital bill for a two day stay. I had a parent that taught me how to talk to institutions, including calling the hospital on the phone and asking for a payment plan. I didn’t end up with a serious health crisis. And when I graduated a few months later, I started working at a job that provided good insurance and paid enough that I could save up. But if my health had been a bit worse, or my family had been poorer, or if I’d been less educated, that could easily have been catastrophic.

Our broken healthcare system affects every single person in this country. The ACA finally gave me hope that we would fix it in my lifetime. Thank you for the support you’ve shown so far. Please continue to fight on behalf of all of us.

Post-election changes

This is not a post about how the outside world has changed since November 8, 2016. If you’re looking for that, you probably want this series of posts by Amy Siskind. These are observations about myself.

On the night of the election, I stayed up until 5:30 am, struggling to come to terms with what had just happened. By the next day, I was angry and had resolved to show up and do my part.

Here are some ways that my life has changed in the past 2.5 months.

It’s impossible to maintain focus at work and in my personal life. Turns out it’s harder to write layout code when you simply don’t feel safe. This shift has made me realize how secure and happy I felt for much of the past year. Even as I struggle to find my footing again, I’m grateful to have had that time and to become more aware of it.

I feel physically nauseated from time to time, regardless of how much I sleep and what I eat. Sometimes it seems incredibly daunting to get up from where I’m sitting and walk to my bus stop and go wherever I need to go. I assume that this is due to stress.

I lost interest in most of my old hobbies. I would like to keep running, but it feels like I don’t have the energy to do it yet. I picked up comic books but gotten bored after a few pages. My cosplay ambitions are on indefinite hold, partly because I have no interest at all, but mainly because I don’t think I can sustain both cosplay and activism, and if one of them has to go, it’s obvious what I should do.

I started reading the news again. I’d been trying to limit my daily consumption of it, especially during the endless campaign, but I think I went overboard and got disconnected from the outside world. I grew up reading the Washington Post and the Wall Street Journal, and when I moved to California after college, I got into neighborhood coverage, urbanist blogs, and The Atlantic. These days I mainly try to read The Guardian and periodically peek at National Review, but I inevitably also read a lot of New York Times and Washington Post because that’s what gets shared the most in my networks.

I call my members of Congress on a regular basis. I put their phone numbers in my contact list a week after the election and I’ve been following action newsletters and calling their district offices ever since. I helped a few friends get through their phone anxiety to make their first call.

I learned that I like attending political events in person. However, not every group is right for me. Each group of people has its own style of running the meeting and resolving conflicts. Coming from a tech environment where everyone bends over backwards to avoid crosstalk, it’s jarring to hear people interrupting each other or bluntly saying, “That’s not true. Your facts are wrong.” It’s something I’m trying to get used to without losing my sense of self.

Becoming a Democrat (again)

I’ve been voting for about a decade now and I’ve almost always voted for Democrats. I was excited for my very first election (a midterm election!) because I could finally vote Rick Santorum out of the Senate for his opposition to birth control and promotion of intelligent design. I was also eager to vote for Barack Obama in the 2008 primary.* Back then, it actually mattered that I was a Democrat because Pennsylvania had closed primaries, meaning that only Democrats could vote for the Democratic candidate.

However, when I moved to San Francisco, I registered to vote without declaring a party preference. This isn’t the same as explicitly declaring yourself Independent; it’s just not having any annotation on your name in the voter rolls. I was just trying to avoid phone calls and paper mail, not totally disavow the party. Over the years, I got used to this status quo, and ended up feeling surprisingly attached to it. Since California’s primaries are only closed for Republicans and not Democrats, I didn’t feel the need to rejoin until now.

In the weeks before an election, you get voter guides in the mail from a bunch of different advocacy groups. I do my best to study multiple guides and compare their reasoning when they differ, but I assume that some voters will vote Democrat all the way down the ticket out of information overload or apathy. After all, I’ve considered doing it myself: I didn’t do enough research before my first election and was surprised by how many offices there were beyond Senator.

Here in San Francisco, the Democratic party totally dominates local and state politics, to the point that people strongly identify with specific factions within it. In San Francisco, this looks like a fight between “progressives” and “moderates” over how to fix the housing crisis (but everyone at least agrees that we have a housing crisis and that it’s hurting existing communities and vulnerable people). When I’m on the fence, I do look to the Democratic party’s endorsements in hopes that party members have done a lot of useful arguing on our behalf and figured out a reasonable compromise.

I’m not sure where I thought those party members came from, but last fall, I learned that some of them are directly elected at Assembly District Election Meetings (ADEMs). So, last weekend, I showed up to the Assembly District 17 election at Local 261, a union hall in the Mission to reregister as a Democrat and vote for San Francisco’s voice in statewide party policy.

The line was several blocks long and the wind and the rain were intense enough that my umbrella snapped in the line of duty, but I made it into the building after an hour and was able to cast my vote. As of this post, official results aren’t out yet, but a preliminary photo on David Chiu’s Facebook page suggests that the margin between the 7th Delegate and the 1st runner-up might only have been a vote or two, which is amazing and makes the wait in the rain feel worthwhile.

* This claim is according to the best of my recollection, but I’m not 100% sure and I’m not going to FOIA my voting record to fact check my own blog post and confirm that I voted. For what it’s worth, I did find a Facebook post from April 2008 where I mentioned Obama.

San Francisco’s representatives

My Civic Workout recently asked subscribers to look up the answers to these questions:

  • Who are your elected officials?
  • Where are their newsletters?
  • When are their upcoming town hall meetings?

I live in San Francisco, and if you live in my general vicinity, all of the information below should apply to you too. If you live elsewhere, consider taking some time to research your own elected officials and share your work with your local friends.

Here are the links I used:


I couldn’t find websites or newsletters for everyone. Most people do seem to have campaign newsletters, but those aren’t the same thing as constituent newsletters. One reason might be that newly sworn in members haven’t set everything up yet (as of early January 2017): for example, Kamala Harris was elected to the Senate and Scott Wiener was elected to the State Senate on November 8, 2016.

Federal legislature

Each state has two Senators that represent everyone in the state. If you live in California, both Dianne Feinstein and Kamala Harris represent you, regardless of where in the state you live.

Each person has exactly one representative in the House of Representatives. The districts don’t necessarily line up with city names. You might need your zip code or even your street address to figure out who represents you in the House. Nancy Pelosi represents most, but not all, of San Francisco.

Legislation can be introduced by either the House or the Senate. If someone tries to introduce a nationwide version of SB 1070, Arizona’s notorious racial profiling bill, it could come from either the House or the Senate.

Cabinet nominations and Supreme Court nominations are confirmed by the Senate. When the president chooses people to lead the Department of Homeland Security or the State Department, or to fill an empty spot on the Supreme Court, the Senate needs to sign off on each of those choices.

Senator Dianne Feinstein
San Francisco office: 415-393-0707
Washington DC office: 202-224-3841

Senator Kamala Harris
San Francisco office: 916-448-2787
Washington DC office: 202-224-3553

Representative Nancy Pelosi
pelosi.house.gov (newsletter)
San Francisco office: 415-556-4862
Washington DC office: 202-225-4965

State legislature

Legislation can be introduced by either the Assembly or the (State) Senate, which are similar to the House and the US Senate. One important difference is that State Senators don’t serve the whole state; instead, they have their own districts which are a bit bigger than Assembly Members’ districts.

Scott Wiener serves San Francisco, Daly City, and Colma in the Senate. David Chiu serves the eastern half of San Francisco in the Assembly; Phil Ting serves the western half of San Francisco.

State Senator Scott Wiener
sd11.senate.ca.gov (newsletter)
San Francisco office: 415-557-1300
Sacramento office: 916-651-4011

Assembly Member David Chiu
asmdc.org/members/a17 (newsletter)
San Francisco office: 415-557-3013
Sacramento office: 916-319-2017

Assembly Member Phil Ting
asmdc.org/members/a19 (newsletter)
San Francisco office: 415-557-2312
Sacramento office: 916-319-2019

Concrete actions

Throughout the 2016 presidential campaign, I hoped that Trump would not be elected. If he did get elected, I hoped that he wouldn’t follow through on his claims. Since the election, I have been proven wrong over and over. Right now, I have very little hope for the future, but I cannot stand by and do nothing.

Here are my attempts to take consistent, effective action against the regressive policies and cultural fallout that I’m expecting from a Trump administration:


For the immigrants that will be targeted by inhumane deportation policies, I’m donating $50 per month to the American Civil Liberties Union.

For the people who will lose access to reproductive healthcare thanks to fundamentalist Christian terrorists, financial barriers, local abortion clinic shutdowns, and coercive state laws, I’m donating $50 per month to Planned Parenthood.

For everyone endangered by unconstitutional government surveillance, especially activists, I’m donating $50 per month to the Electronic Frontier Foundation.

For queer people who might lose their marital status, get fired from their job, or get denied their correct gender markers on paperwork, I’m donating $50 per month to Lambda Legal.

For everyone targeted by hate crimes and resurgent white supremacy, I’m donating $50 per month to Southern Poverty Law Center.


I’ve purchased annual subscriptions to The Guardian and Foreign Policy to get news that isn’t curated for me by advocacy groups, friends, or colleagues.

I’m donating $50 per month to ProPublica to support investigative journalism.



I’m following three email newsletters: flippable, re:act, and resist in addition to all of the advocacy groups above.

I’m calling Representative Nancy Pelosi, Senator Barbara Boxer, and Senator Dianne Feinstein with my comments and including my name, address, and zip code to make sure they know I’m a constituent.