Book review: The Coldest Winter: America and the Korean War

A photo of my Harley and I taken by my friend Katie.
I’ve always really enjoyed reading David Halberstam’s writing. I first read The Best and the Brightest in high school probably sometime around 2005, and only recently got around to finishing the final book he published before his death, The Coldest Winter: America and the Korean War.

The book is a deep examination of the Korean War and it ranges broadly to cover a number of topics that include:
  1. The political shift to conservatism in the United States following the end of World War II
  2. The political shift in China as Chiang Kai-shek's Nationalist Party collapsed and Mao Zedong's Chinese Communist Party rose to power
  3. Early American involvement in the Korean War and how rapidly our armed forces had deteriorated following the conclusion of the second World War
  4. The power struggle between Douglas MacArthur and Harry Truman as the war being waged against North Korea eventually expanded into a larger conflict with China itself
  5. The near collapse of American forces abroad when faced with direct combat with the Chinese
  6. A in-depth examinations of the larger military campaigns undertaken by UN forces throughout the Korean War as well as specific individual and heroic actions undertaken by platoons, companies, and divisions
The Korean War was largely something that most of the United States public was uninterested in fighting at the time, and which chose to very quickly forget following the signing of the Korean Armistice Agreement in 1953.
The cover of The Coldest Winter: America and the Korean War.

The cover of The Coldest Winter: America and the Korean War.
I’ve read a number of books on the war itself and some of my favorites include The Last Stand of Fox Company: A True Story of U.S. Marines in Combat, Give Me Tomorrow: The Korean War's Greatest Untold Story, and Breakout: The Chosin Reservoir Campaign, Korea 1950. The biggest difference between these books and Halberstam’s are the focus that Halberstam places on the political elements both domestic and foreign that  made the war possible in the first place.

Most books written on this particular conflict focus almost entirely on military actions undertaken during the war, and of those almost all place an undue emphasis on the Battle of the Chosin Reservoir specifically because that battle almost resulted in the complete destruction of US forces abroad on the Asian continent and the start of World War III. With this in mind, being able to unpack the Korean War in a different way and understand more intellectually how it was perceived at home and abroad made the book a fascinating read.

Another part of what made the book so compelling were the numerous parallels between the current political climate in the United States to the political currents that were shaping our country throughout the 1940s and 1950s.

Certain passages really resonated with me, such as when former Secretary of State Dean Acheson while describing MacArthur, quoted Euripides as saying,

“Whom the gods destroy they first make mad.”

Several other passages that especially struck me contained Halberstam’s description of the Republican party during the era, the first of which was,

“The more it lost, the angrier it became. Each time, its representatives had come to the national convention confident of their greater truths only to see the nomination hijacked by an elite from the big industrial states backed up by a few powerful international publishers. The residual bitterness from the 1940 and 1944 conventions was very real; it was hard to tell who the right wingers were angrier at, FDR and the Democrats or the internationalist wing of their own party.”

Another passage which stood out to me enough that I wrote it down was,

“Their cause, as the saw it, was nothing less than simple Americanism, or the protection of an America of sturdy old-fashioned values, which had produced people exactly like them, against the America of their enemies, which had produced people that favored what they saw as socialism, or, in their minds people whose lives were too heavily subsidized by the government.”

If you’re interested in learning about the Korean War, about the foundations of the modern day Republican party in the United States, or just generally looking for a compelling book which will be hard to put down once you start reading, I can’t recommend The Coldest Winter enough.
A photo of my Harley and I taken by my friend Katie.

Switching to Firefox

A photo of my Harley and I taken by my friend Katie.
The last time Firefox was my default browser was in 2008, and when Google released Chrome I switched and never really looked back. Eleven years later, I'm giving Firefox a shot again and I've been really happy and pleasantly surprised at just how good the modern day Firefox browser is.

From a pure design and usability perspective, I've found Firefox to be more cleanly designed and more customizable than Chrome. Feature-wise, every extension I was using on Chrome has a Firefox counterpart that works just as well. Most importantly for me however, Firefox's out of the box privacy settings, especially when used in conjunction with the Facebook Container, are infinitely better than those offered in other browsers.

Since a large portion of what I do at Quora involves web development, I've also been enjoying digging into the Firefox Developer Tools. These things are always a matter of personal preference, but for the type of workflow I often find myself in when doing web development, I've found Firefox's Page Inspector to be feature rich, cleverly designed, and quite performant.

More generally, I've increasingly found myself moving away from using Google designed software, even if I still use and enjoy the underlying services. For example while I rely on Gmail for my personal and work email, I almost exclusively used Airmail as an email client. And while I rely on Google Calendar for both my personal and work scheduling, I exclusively use Fantastical to mange those schedules.

I'm not committed to using Firefox exclusively, but switching away from Chrome has been a good reminder for me that (a) the costs to switching browsers is low, and (b) it's always good to periodically review what software you're using and especially to look at what permissions to your personal data you've granted that software.
A photo of my Harley and I taken by my friend Katie.

Creating an Instapaper script for Automator on OS X

A photo of my Harley and I taken by my friend Katie.
A few months ago I did a write up on Quora explaining how to create an Instapaper script for Automator on OS X that allows you to save any URL in your clipboard to Instapaper.

Since I use Airmail as my mail client and because I subscribe to a lot of newsletters, each morning I work my way through all the newsletters in my inbox and save the links to Instapaper so I can read them during my commute on the train.

If you're reading your email in a browser client like Gmail, you can already easily save articles using the Instapaper Chrome Extension. Below, I'll explain how to save articles locally on your Mac without having to first open them in a browser.

In order to create your own Instapaper Automator service:

  • Open Apple’s Automator application and create a new Service
  • Drag the "Run Shell Script" action into the application’s main workflow area
  • Make sure the service receives no input, can be used by any application, and that the shell script is set to run python
  • Copy and paste the above code snippet into the shell script while also making sure to include your own Instapaper username and password
  • Save your new service as "Save to Instapaper"
  • Open System Preferences, then navigate to Keyboard, followed by Shortcuts
  • Click on the Services tab, scroll down to the General category, and then set a keyboard shortcut for your newly created service

In order to use this service to save an article, first copy a link from your local email client and then use the keyboard shortcut you set above to save the article. The keyboard shortcut I use is: Command + Shift + Z.

When creating your script, you can also optionally drag out a "Display Notification" action beneath your shell script in Automator which will display a notification every time the script is executed and saves an article.

I hope that's helpful! If you run into any issues setting this up, hit me at @doog on Twitter and I'd be more than happy to help you troubleshoot.
A photo of my Harley and I taken by my friend Katie.

My race report for Ragnar Napa Valley (2018)

A photo of my Harley and I taken by my friend Katie.
It's been two years since I last ran a relay race, but I ran Ragnar Napa Valley for the first time this year and really enjoyed myself.

My relay team consisted of Michael Nuttall, John Donley, Chris Goddard, Dave Mickle, and Todd Miller. With the exception of Dave, the entire team had been running Ragnar together for the past four years and their experience with the logistics of the relay really showed.

I was the ninth runner in our twelve person team and ran for a total of 15.46 miles with an average pace of 6:53 per mile over a total gain of 388ft.
Sunrise Calendar on desktop and mobile.
Dave, Todd, myself, Chris, John, and Mike waiting at Exchange 6.
I started my first leg around 1:00 PM in the afternoon on Friday with a temperature of around 82 degrees. This leg of the relay snaked through some residential neighborhoods before heading out to some more rural farmland. I mostly ran on sidewalks and the road shoulder.

My mile splits were: 6:30, 6:27, 6:37, 7:04, 7:21, and 7:30 across a total distance of 6.01 miles. The heat in conjunction with the gain in elevation slowed me down more than I would have liked but overall I felt good about finishing with an average pace of 6:55 for this leg.
Ragnar Leg 9 - 6.01 miles through Novato, CA.
I started off on my second leg just before 2:00 AM on Saturday. The temperature fortunately was hovering just around 50 degrees which made the leg much more comfortable to run. The leg itself took the shape of rough a right angle and was fairly flat and straight almost entirely on the shoulders of rural roads outside of Fulton, CA.

My mile splits were: 6:52, 7:08, 7:04, 7:05, 6:54, and 6:46 across a total distance of 5.33 miles. I was happy with how consistently I kept my splits and ran slower because of the uneven terrain and the low visibility my headlamp provided. Going into the run I had slept very little and had consumed a double burger, french fries, and two large cokes earlier in the evening.

Overall I was really happy with the result given the conditions and finished with an average page of 7:00.
Ragnar Leg 22 - 5.33 miles through Fulton, CA.
I began my final leg of the relay just before noon on Saturday. The temperature was back up to 80 degrees but because this leg was short I was able to push myself. The leg cut directly through downtown Sonoma and largely consisted of sidewalks and a bicycle path that snaked through a public park.

My mile splits were 6:30, 6:50, 6:53, and 6:51 across a total distance of 4.12 miles. I was happy with this finish and with how I performed despite the heat. I finished this leg with an average pace of 6:46.
Ragnar Leg 33 - 4.12 miles through Sonoma, CA.
I couldn't have asked for a better group to have run the race with and walked away from the weekend feeling great. I'm looking forward to doing more of these soon.
A photo of my Harley and I taken by my friend Katie.

On a misleading article about the Marine Corps in the New York Times Magazine

A photo of my Harley and I taken by my friend Katie.
In a recent piece for the New York Times Magazine, journalist Janet Reitman laid out a case for why she believed the United States Marine Corps as an institution did not go far enough in protecting its recruits from incidents of hazing or brutality during recruit training at Marine Corps Recruit Depot, Parris Island.

To be clear, the Marine Corps has a long history of failing to protect the recruits they are tasked with turning into Marines. This is especially true at Parris Island. There are numerous examples both recent and historic of Drill Instructors in various states of sobriety debasing both themselves and the Corps. That these instructors would place recruits into situations where their lives would be in danger is inexcusable. It is for that reason that I believe articles like this one are important both in the light they shine on this issue and for the accountability they push upon Marine leadership.

Having said that, this article was poorly written. It was additionally filled with misleading statements that lacked context and pushed a false narrative.

In one example of this, Reitman writes:

“The bedrock of Marine tradition is a long-ago era when buff, male and mostly white combat Marines launched amphibious early-morning assaults on enemy beaches armed with M1 rifles and Ka-Bar knives. Today’s far less homogeneous troops roll into battle in armored Humvees or tanks, with sophisticated high-powered weaponry and thermal-imaging goggles. Many never leave their base at all, waging war remotely while operating a joystick or writing code.”

There are several things that are wrong with this passage.

First, to describe the average Marine during WWII as “buff” is a complete fallacy. Sure if you were to look at Marine recruiting posters during that time period, you’ll see exactly what is described above. In reality however, the average enlisted male fighting in the American armed forces during WWII was 5'7" and 140lbs.

Look at almost any photo of Marines during the war, and what will stand out to you is how young they are. Many were teenagers who joined before their eighteenth birthdays.

It also struck me as odd to specifically call out how Marine’s during WWII were predominantly white. While this is true, the vast majority of individuals who filled infantry roles in the United States Armed Forces during WWII were in fact white. There are also specific examples that can be looked upon of minority Marines like Pappy Boyington who performed heroically during the war. Examples which I was taught while attending Marine Corps Officer Candidate School. Today 34% of the Marine Corps is composed of individuals who do not identify as white.

Furthermore, to say that Marine’s today lack a resemblance of Marines of the past because they “roll into battle in armored Humvees or tanks, with sophisticated high-powered weaponry” is again, false.

Marines throughout Operation Iraqi Freedom and today in Afghanistan, fight battles in a very traditional sense. In the Second Battle of Fallujah, Marine’s quite literally fought door to door, house to house, in close quarters with rifles and, yes, knives. While it is certainly true that Marine’s no longer fight primarily on or close to beaches, to insinuate that technology has somehow dramatically altered the way they fight all of their battles is simply wrong.

If anything, recent history has shown us that an over-reliance on technology in war can lead to disaster. America’s invasion of Iraq was largely predicated on the notion that advances in technology could replace large numbers of traditional troops on the ground. We’re all aware of how well that experiment turned out.

In another example of a misleading statement that lacks context, Reitman quotes an active duty Lance Corporal who states,

"I feel like they’re [Drill Instructors] really good at lying," says the lance corporal, who was sold on the corps by recruiting videos that presented the Marines as "badasses" on humanitarian missions to save refugees or deliver food and water.

Reitman also goes on to specifically call out misleading statements recruiters made to Raheel Siddiqui during his enlistment process.

The fact of the matter is, military recruiters lie. They give misleading statements to entice impressionable kids to join, and it’s a problem that’s systemic across not just the Marine Corps, but the entire American armed forces. Recruiters are under immense pressure to meet quotas, which itself can lead to a host of problems, and we should address this at a level that reaches beyond just the Marine Corps.

Raheel Siddiqui, as described in this article, struck me as an individual determined to join the Marines no matter what. I’m not sure how much influence a recruiter could have actually had on him given his previously expressed enthusiasm, and the inclusion of the “lying recruiter” narrative in this article made little sense.

Reitman also includes a quote in her article from a Marine recruit in which he says,

“He [the Drill Instructor] lost his temper like crazy. Some days he’d be super motivating toward us," he says, "and then an hour later we’d be almost done for the day, and he’d walk in the squad bay and just flip out."

The inclusion of this statement seems to imply that Drill Instructors who exhibit signs of PTSD are unfit to train recruits. Reitman includes this quote however having written several paragraphs earlier,

“Some Marines I spoke with described boot camp as a performance: The lead actors are the D.I.s, men and women who for the first time in their professional lives are embodying the macho warrior archetype they were taught to venerate as recruits.”

The definition of acting is, “the art or profession of performing the role of a character.” To call Drill Instructors actors, which they are, and then to insinuate that their ability to quickly insert themselves into a character role somehow is indicative of an instability in their personality is misleading.

Later in her article, Reitman writes:

Raheel’s platoon mate didn’t understand why Raheel had joined the Marines. Orders seemed to confound him. Rather than simply following them, he thought about what he was asked. "Like a normal person," the platoon mate says. "It’s not necessarily wrong, but it’s not how they wanted it. It’s wasn’t the Marine way of doing things." This earned Raheel, who always "looked like a scared animal," as his platoon mate says, undue attention from the D.I.s.

The fact of the matter is, the purpose of Marine recruit training is not to create critical thinkers. The purpose is rather to create individuals who are loyal to the institution which they have joined and who will adhere to the orders that are given to them by their superiors.

The Marine Corps is an organization that, while being equipped to accomplish many things, fundamentally exists to kill enemies of the United States. In a time of war, officers expect the individuals to which they are providing orders to execute those orders without question. If a Marine were to think critically about an order which has been given to them which would place them in harm’s way, any rational person would elect to take whatever action would remove them from harm. War however is not a rational thing.

Every Marine officer is taught that their primary focuses are mission accomplishment and the welfare of their Marines, in that order. This is because in some cases, in order to accomplish a mission, Marines must die. To label Raheel as normal in this instance, while implying that the other Marine’s around him are not normal is misleading.

Having read the article, I looked on Twitter to find what others were saying. In doing this, I came across the following tweet by Janet Reitman.

In announcing this article to her followers, I found Janet’s sentiment odd. She did not take this opportunity to discuss how this article was an important step in holding the Marine Corps accountable. She did not mention at all Raheel Siddiqui, or the pain that had been inflicted upon him or his family. Rather, her tweet was simply about herself. It was about how this was her first piece in the New York Times Magazine, and how it was on the cover, and how it was good for her.

While the issues Reitman discusses are important and need to be remedied, the misleading statements throughout this article undermine the author’s credibility and detract from the issue at hand.

While undergoing training at Parris Island, recruits are only allowed to refer to themselves in the third person. The lesson this drives home is that no Marine is more important than the institution which they are seeking to serve, nor are they more important than the individuals around them. Perhaps Janet Reitman could learn something by reflecting upon that sentiment.
A photo of my Harley and I taken by my friend Katie.

Verifying the Alt-Right

A photo of my Harley and I taken by my friend Katie.
Designers, both while creating new features and while updating existing ones, often seek to define what those features should mean to users. In the context of social systems however, user understanding of a product’s features can easily become disjointed from a designer’s original intentions. The consequences when a designer or product team elects to ignore those divergent expectations either willfully or through ignorance can be quite serious.

In November of this year, Twitter made headlines when they suspended a number of accounts associated with the leadership of the alt-right movement and its sympathetic media outlets. Among the accounts suspended were those of white nationalist Richard Spencer as well as his think-tank, the National Policy Institute, and his publishing company, Washington Summit Publishers.

Asked for comment on the account removals, Twitter pointed to its rules, which “prohibit violent threats, harassment, hateful conduct, and multiple account abuse, and [assert that Twitter] will take action on accounts violating those policies.” Twitter’s co-founder and CEO Jack Dorsey was additionally quoted as saying that abuse “has no place on Twitter” and that he intends to stamp it out.

“Abuse is not part of civil discourse. It shuts down conversation and prevents us from understanding each other. Freedom of expression means little if we allow voices to be silenced because of fear of harassment if they speak up.”

While some, such as Heidi Beirich of the Southern Poverty Law Center, applauded the move, others said the bans accomplished nothing and members of the alt-right movement went as far as to describe the suspensions as corporate Stalinism. Regardless of whether not the suspensions were warranted — and I believe that they were — media outlets reacted with confusion when not even a month later, a group of alt-right influencers had their accounts not only reinstated, but reinstated with verified status.

Verified status, as defined in Twitter’s help center, means that Twitter has certified an account’s authenticity. It also adorns a user’s profile with a blue checkmark badge, the purposes of which is to:

“…let people know that an account of public interest is authentic. An account may be verified if it is determined to be an account of public interest. Typically this includes accounts maintained by users in music, acting, fashion, government, politics, religion, journalism, media, sports, business, and other key interest areas.”

The badge itself, which for years was difficult to obtain, was more widely made available in July of this year when Twitter opened up and streamlined the process for applying for verified status. As is often the case when attempting to define policy on a social platform, the language Twitter chose to describe the verification application process and the significance of the badge itself is vague and confusing. In August, Twitter user and Medium engineer Kelly Ellis wrote,

Even now months after these policy changes were implemented, confusion about the verification process remains rife to the point where it was called out explicitly in Anil Dash’s recent blog post, A billion dollar gift for Twitter.

There are two lenses through which one can examine the importance of Twitter verifying the account of an individual or organization that disseminates racist, homophobic, or otherwise inflammatory views.

First, from a technical perspective, Twitter algorithmically favors content from verified users. This means that content which originates from verified accounts is pushed on users at the exclusion of non-verified content. In the most extreme product manifestation of this policy, Twitter’s Engage app is literally built around a feed of engagement between yourself and verified users.
The Twitter Engage app.
The Twitter Engage app.
When you prioritize content from an elect group while at the same time making it harder for a diverse array of individuals to become part of that group, you create a serious problem. For Twitter, who has described their mission as being to, “give everyone the power to create and share ideas and information instantly without barriers,” this problem stands in contradiction to the very principles which Twitter has identified themselves as representing.

Second, and more importantly, regardless of how Twitter describes the meaning of a verified badge in their help-center, the reality of the badge is that is bestows legitimacy and prestige upon any account which it adorns. Following the reinstatement of Richard Spencer’s account, a number of users both supportive of and in opposition of his reinstatement took to Twitter to voice express their frustration or excitement at the move.

What is important to note here however is that, despite Twitter’s claim that a verified badge doesn’t represent an endorsement from Twitter itself, Twitter’s users do in fact treat the badge as an official endorsement of an individual or organization by Twitter. This is because Twitter established over a period of years the exclusiveness of being verified on their platform and because they have made specific changes to their products over time to favor verified content. In the minds of users, the badge represents legitimacy, importance, and prestige. Changing a few sentences in a help center article is not enough to change user perceptions and Twitter knows this.

Because these divergent views between Twitter and their users have been ignored for so long, there is no easy path forward that allows Twitter to modify or influence a user’s understanding with relation to verification that does not also create turbulence. While Twitter users will continue to associate verified users with legitimacy and importance (which itself is not a bad thing), individuals who hold racist and bigoted views will also continue to be verified. Thusly, without some realignment of expectations, Twitter could remain a platform where hate speech continues to be associated with an air of authority by some portion of its users.

At Quora, our design team has at times similarly struggled to interpret the ways our users think about our product and to understand how new features we ship are used. One of the primary ways through which we seek to clarify our understanding is by actually talking with our users on a consistent and ongoing basis. While those discussions can take the shape of something as formal as on-site user research, they can also range to something as informal as reaching out directly to a confused user and asking them to explain what might have led them to reach a certain belief or conclusion.

As designers, we must be acutely aware of the how the products we design are actually being used and understood by users, regardless of our original intentions. To ignore the realities of the product decisions we make is at best disingenuous, and at worst dangerous.
A photo of my Harley and I taken by my friend Katie.

How I am feeling

A photo of my Harley and I taken by my friend Katie.
The outcome of this presidential election has left me feeling absolutely heartbroken. Those of you to which I am close will know that I have always fiercely supported this country and the values upon which it was founded.

I was raised in a conservative part of the United States, and I credit both of my parents for instilling in my brother and I nothing but the deepest respect for those of different races, religions, and viewpoints. It is something that I have never thanked either one of them enough for.

The arc of my own journey as a member of the electorate of this country has also previously been marked with both joy and with sadness. I watched with despair when we elected George W. Bush to a second term in office and with elation as we came together to elect Barack Obama and Joe Biden not once but twice.

It was with feelings of horror, confusion, and heartache that I watched our nation choose the path it did earlier this week. A path marked with bigotry, hatred, ignorance, deceit, and selfishness. A path that spurned a woman who I held nothing but the deepest respect and admiration for as my former state senator and who I so desperately hoped I would also be able call my president.

To have witnessed the United States progress so far forward even in my own lifetime only to watch half our country willfully and gladly vote to take such gut wrenching steps backwards was something I did not expect and could not have prepared for. I stepped off a flight back to San Francisco yesterday evening and when I saw that Hillary’s path to the presidency was slipping away, I sat down in the airport and called my Mom and cried. I cried in part because I was scared, but also because for the first time in my life I was forced to confront the fact that our country might not represent the value system and morality I took for granted that it always would.

Whenever I visit our nation’s capital, I make a point of stopping at the Jefferson Memorial because inscribed on one of the panels of that monument is the following quote,

"I am not an advocate for frequent changes in laws and constitutions, but laws and institutions must go hand in hand with the progress of the human mind. As that becomes more developed, more enlightened, as new discoveries are made, new truths discovered and manners and opinions change, with the change of circumstances, institutions must advance also to keep pace with the times. We might as well require a man to wear still the coat which fitted him when a boy as civilized society to remain ever under the regimen of their barbarous ancestors."

Our country was built upon and our constitution drafted around the principle that as humanity progressed forward together, that our laws and institutions should progress forward as well.

Individuals of the same sex deserve the right to marry a loved one. Women deserve the right to control their own bodies and seek an abortion. Families who have spent years here working hard to provide for those that they care about do not deserve to be ripped apart. Our planet and environment desperately need the protections that we have placed upon them.

These are just some of the things that are under threat from a Trump presidency, and that horrifies me.

I still firmly believe in the goodness of the United States and the people of which it is made up. Yesterday evening taught me that it is one thing to profess a love for something you hold dear, but it is another thing altogether to fight for your beliefs. When I think about whether or not I devoted enough of my own time, energy, and resources to Hillary Clinton and her campaign, the answer will always be no. I did what I considered to be the bare minimum in order to assuage my conscious, and that was not nor should it have ever been enough. The feeling of failing my candidate and my country is something that I will carry with me as long as Donald Trump remains in office, and likely for a long time after.

Donald Trump does not and will never stand for what has made this country great. His election to the office of presidency is an insult to the generations that came before us, and I will do everything in my power in the coming years to continue moving our country forward. I refuse to sink to his level and I refuse to let the path upon which he seeks to set us erode my own morality or beliefs.


A photo of my Harley and I taken by my friend Katie.