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.