Back in the pool

A photo of my Harley and I taken by my friend Katie.
After what has been close to a six year hiatus, I'm back in the pool swimming laps. The last time I swam regularly was in graduate school when I was still living in Seattle and it feels good to be back  in the water.

I've been swimming at the Bakar Fitness & Recreation Center at UCSF and have been using their six lane outdoor pool on the buildings roof a few times a week, usually alternating days that I'm not swimming with runs around San Francisco.

When I swam as an undergraduate circa 2007, I used a waterproof Otterbox case for a first gen iPod Nano which I strapped to my arm. The case was bulky and running a wired pair of headphones up my arm always felt pretty restrictive.

This time around I've been using a Sony NWWS413BM which basically looks like a pair of bluetooth headphones but is actually a standalone MP3 player with 4GB of memory built in.
Sony's NWWS413BM waterproof MP3 player.
Sony's NWWS413BM waterproof MP3 player.
So far I've been using them to listen to Halberstam's The Best and the Brightest on audio-book and the audio is surprisingly crisp underwater. I read the book somewhere around a decade ago and have been looking for an excuse to pick it back up and give it another run through.

As far as the rest of my gear goes, I'm swimming with the following:
  1. Speedo Silicone Swim Cap
  2. Speedo Vanquisher 2.0 Goggles
  3. Speedo Solar 1
  4. Speedo Poly Mesh Training Suit
  5. Timex Men's T5E901 Ironman Watch (for lap counting)
I use Nike gear almost exclusively for almost everything I do, but their swim lines are unfortunately shit so this is the rare (possibly only) sport I'll make an exception for.

It feels good to be working out a set of muscles I haven't thought about in a while and it feels good to be complimenting running with a different kind of cardio. I'm going to run another marathon in November, but I don't plan on swimming with a specific goal in mind other than the enjoyment I get out of being in the water.
A photo of my Harley and I taken by my friend Katie.

Book review: Becoming

A photo of my Harley and I taken by my friend Katie.
Becoming, by Michelle Obama, is one of the best books I've read in a very long time. For most if not all of Barack Obama's eight years as President, to me Michelle was always the strong woman standing behind him smiling with their two daughters and dogs. Or, she was the hilarious center of the Let's Move! campaigns many viral videos.

Even though I knew she was incredibly intelligent and knew she was by any account a woman of great stature, I didn't really know much about the events that had shaped her life or about the personal and professional sacrifices she had made on the behalf of her husband and family.
The cover of Becoming.
The cover of Becoming.
Becoming was, in a lot of ways, a revealing of who this woman was in her entirety. Rather than the spotlight that had always been focused on her husband casting light on an adjacent Michelle, here the spotlight is firmly cast upon her alone, and she is the one directing that spotlight's brightness and focus.

Reading about what it was like being raised in Chicago, about the value system her parents had instilled within her, and about the sacrifices they had made in order to better the lives of her brother and her was deeply moving. I found myself admiring a great deal her father's quiet pride and determinant work ethic.

Becoming is laid out in such a fashion as to make it easy in later chapters to draw direct lines between Michelle's ideas about family structure and values and those that her parents had quietly built their own lives around.

Not that I didn't know this already, but I walked away from this book with great clarity around the fact that Michelle Obama is a woman that could have done almost anything she set her mind to in a professional sense. But she cast aside those ambitions, and did so knowing that the orderly and quiet family life she sought would be forever forgone, in order to support and lift up her husband.

I was further impressed to have learned of the great lengths she went to while living in the White House to teach both of her daughters that the world does not revolve around any one man, despite having to raise them within an environment where, in the case of their father, their world did indeed revolve around him. A common thread throughout the many causes she celebrated and worked on was the empowerment of young people, and women especially to understand their place in the world as equals among men.

I enjoyed tremendously learning about the path Michelle took through life that led her to Barack, the White House, and beyond. I also deeply enjoyed learning about how she placed her family continually and always above everything else, herself included.
A photo of my Harley and I taken by my friend Katie.

Rebuilding Quora's consumer email system

A photo of my Harley and I taken by my friend Katie.
This past month, I took on a project at Quora as a part of a week-long internal hackathon to redesign, rewrite, and re-architect forty of our consumer facing emails.

Despite now leading Quora's ad design team and spending most of my time working on projects that drive revenue, I've always really valued the fact that hackathons allow me to work on lots of different parts of Quora with colleagues I otherwise might not get the chance to collaborate with.

While I already wrote a higher-level overview of this project, I additionally wanted to dive a little deeper into the tools and frameworks I used to help drive the project forward.
Quora's Daily Digest email.
Quora's Daily Digest email.
One of the first decisions I made before the project even kicked-off was that it was going to be worthwhile to completely rewrite our email templates rather than try to build atop what was already there. I decided this largely because:
  1. I wanted to incorporate a third party email framework
  2. Quora's emails had in some cases been built almost a decade ago and email client rendering had changed enough during that time where it made sense to rethink earlier assumptions
  3. Our email view-code was fairly bloated and pretty buggy
  4. I wanted our emails to take a mobile first approach, whereas many of our existing emails had been built for desktop clients, in some cases exclusively
After comparing several third-party email frameworks, I pretty quickly decided on moving forward with MJML. I choose MJML because:
  1. They have a well constructed component system which was important given the modular nature of this project
  2. They have very well built-out linter, language, and preview support for Atom
  3. Their documentation was outstanding
Getting up and running with MJML was extremely straightforward. After installing their command line tools, I also installed their Atom packages and was off and running. Their Atom packages work in such a fashion as to immediately update a preview of your email every time you make a change, and the WYSIWYG nature of this style of development made iterating through early designs very fast.
Quora's new email design template as viewed in Atom using MJML packages.
Quora's new email design template as viewed in Atom using MJML packages.
Once I had a base template I was comfortable with, I took the raw HTML that MJML generated and migrated it to work with Quora's own internal HTML rendering framework, Webnode. From there, it was easy to begin testing the emails with production data and I simultaneously relied on testing with Litmus to ensure that the templates themselves had good support across disparate platforms and email clients.

In addition to boosting user engagement, the new emails we launched also:
  1. Rendered with 80% less CSS
  2. Rendered in most cases with around 65% less HTML
  3. Inherited from builder rules that made it easier to maintain existing emails and harder to introduce visual discrepancies into new emails
I had a ton of fun working on this project. While I certainly won't be seeking out more email-centric projects anytime soon, it's always really rewarding to take a well defined problem and quickly execute toward a solution that you know is a measurable improvement.
A photo of my Harley and I taken by my friend Katie.

Book review: The Forever War

A photo of my Harley and I taken by my friend Katie.
I'm honestly not even sure why I picked this book up, but once I started I burned through it pretty quickly. The Forever War, by Dexter Filkins, was published in 2009 and is largely a recounting of the time he spent on the ground in Iraq following the American invasion and throughout the insurgency that followed.

I've read a number of books on Iraq, most recently the excellent The Fighters by C. J. Chivers but also The Gamble and Fiasco, both written by Thomas Ricks.

I found The Forever War to be a very different kind of book. While The Fighters focused almost entirely on the collected stories of the individual soldiers, airmen, and marines that served, and while Ricks' books almost always themselves at a higher strategic level, The Forever War was told entirely through Filkin's own experience as a reporter living and working in Iraq during a period when the country was quite literally unraveling.
The cover of The Forever War.
The cover of The Forever War.
Filkins does a tremendous job digging into both the absurdity and the tragedy of what he witnessed. One example that struck me was when the Americans renovated a decrepit park that had formerly been the site of a popular soccer field. The US soldiers, despite their best intentions, built a winding lover's lane throughout the park which rendered the soccer fields inoperable. As violence in the area increased, barbed wire was run across the park and a month after the soldiers withdrew, everything of value within the park itself, including the sprinkler heads, had been stolen.

Another chapter that especially struck me was Filkins detailing of the erosion of hope in a particularly promising American officer. He begins the chapter by writing:

In the fall of 2003, Nathan Sassaman, then forty, was the most impressive American field commander in Iraq. He was witty, bright and relentless, the embodiment of the best that America could offer. He was the son of a Methodist minister and a graduate of West Point; as the quarterback for Army’s football team, he had led the school to its first bowl victory. When I met him, Sassaman was working day and night to make the American project in Iraq succeed, inspiring the eight hundred young men under his command to do the same. He slept in his boots.

But over the course of a few months, faced with the murder of his men and a lack of progress, we find the officer a very changed man:

The breaking point for Sassaman had come two weeks before, on November 17. A group of his soldiers was on patrol, driving a pair of Bradley personnel carriers down the two-lane road near the entrance to Abu Hishma. A group of Iraqi kids started taunting the soldiers, running their fingers across their necks. The kids knew what was coming next. A couple of seconds later, a group of insurgents fired a volley of rocket-propelled grenades. One of them pierced the front of one of the Bradleys and sailed into the chest of Dale Panchot, a twenty-six-year-old staff sergeant from Northome, Minnesota. It nearly cut him in half.

The next morning, Sassaman’s men swept through the village kicking down doors, throwing Iraqis to the ground, leading young men away. In the ensuing days Sassaman called in airstrikes on houses suspected of sheltering insurgents; his tanks bulldozed others. He fired phosphorous rounds into wheat fields where insurgents had set up mortars, burning them to the ground. And they began wrapping Abu Hishma in razor wire. “We’ve been wreaking havoc,” Captain Todd Brown told me

What struck me about the book were the ways in which Filkins was able to draw out time and again how culturally at odds that Iraqis were compared to the Americans who were supposedly liberating them, and just how utterly predictable the outcome of the entire effort was. I'd definitely recommend this book.
A photo of my Harley and I taken by my friend Katie.

Race report for the Oakland Marathon

A photo of my Harley and I taken by my friend Katie.
I ran the Oakland Marathon this past Sunday and really enjoyed myself. I sporadically run half-marathons, most recently the Berkeley Half-Marathon with my good friend Mandi Spishak-Thomas, but this was the first full I had run in a while so I didn't really know how I would perform running at that distance.

The weather couldn't have been better, which helped a lot. I went off the start line just past 7:00 am leaving from Lake Merritt and the temperature hovered just above fifty degrees. About an hour into the race the sun broke through the clouds and the temperature climbed a few degrees, but still stayed cool enough where I felt comfortable during every leg of the race.

My loose game-plan was to try to run at about a 7:00 mile pace until I couldn't anymore, and that's pretty much what I was able to do.
Oakland Marathon - 26.22 miles through Oakland, CA.
I hit something of a wall at mile twenty two, but at that point with only four miles to go it really didn't matter that much.

I finished with a time of 3:16:44 and Strava clocked me at a total distance of 26.98 miles. Over the course of the race I gained 267 feet in elevation and and averaged a pace of 7:17. My individual mile splits were:
  1. Mile 1: 7:13
  2. Mile 2: 7:05
  3. Mile 3: 6:30
  4. Mile 4: 6:50
  5. Mile 5: 6:57
  6. Mile 6: 7:02
  7. Mile 7: 7:05
  8. Mile 8: 7:02
  9. Mile 9: 7:08
  10. Mile 10: 7:13
  11. Mile 11: 6:55
  12. Mile 12: 6:59
  13. Mile 13: 6:55
  14. Mile 14: 7:24
  15. Mile 15: 7:16
  16. Mile 16: 7:17
  17. Mile 17: 6:58
  18. Mile 18: 6:57
  19. Mile 19: 7:08
  20. Mile 20: 7:06
  21. Mile 21: 7:16
  22. Mile 22: 7:47
  23. Mile 23: 8:20
  24. Mile 24: 7:55
  25. Mile 25: 8:22
  26. Mile 26: 8:06
From a hydration and nutritional standpoint, I also adopted a pretty laissez-faire attitude. There were fourteen aid stations on the course, so at each of those I grabbed a Gatorade and at three I also grabbed a Gu shot (one of which was birthday cake flavored and was disgusting).

Melanie met me on the course at the halfway point to cheer me on, and again at the finish line. I drank a Drake's IPA at the finish and felt great.
A photo of my Harley and I taken by my friend Katie.

Book review: The Beastie Boys Book

A photo of my Harley and I taken by my friend Katie.
The Beastie Boys Book by Michael Diamond and Adam Horovitz was a fun and quick read. Even for those who are only mildly familiar with the groups discography, there's a lot about this book to love.

When deciding whether to read or listen to the book, I opted for the audio book in part because the list of readers include such names as Chuck D, Kim Gordon, Snoop Dogg, Nas, Steve Buscemi, Ben Stiller, Jon Stewart, Will Ferrell, Wanda Sykes, Spike Jonze, Jeff Tweedy, LL Cool J, Tim Meadows, Elvis Costello, John C. Reilly, Maya Rudolph, Amy Poehler, and Rachel Maddow.

It's most accurate to describe the audio book as the literary equivalent of the numerous celebrity cameos in their 2011 music video, Fight for Your Right (Revisited).

The book covers a variety of topics and roughly follows a linear timeline of the groups New York City origins and then traces their steps to Los Angeles and back. Rather than crafting a larger narrative as the book unfolds, most chapters consist of short essays written by either Mike or Adam and read in their own voices (which each of them interrupting one another to tell a different side of the same story where appropriate).

Hearing about what is was like to grow up in New York City in the late seventies and early eighties was fascinating as was learning about the bands first incarnation as punk rockers and their gradual transition to hip hop.
The cover of The Coldest Winter: America and the Korean War.
The cover of The Beastie Boys Book.
There are a lot of things I never knew about the band even having listened to them for the better part of the past twenty years. Adam and Mike delved into a tremendous amount of depth regarding their approaches to recording each of their studio albums, how they produced albums for their friends, started a magazine, dabbled in retail fashion, and were some of the first artists to have an official website with a community built around it (going as far as to hand out floppy discs with internet access at concerts which drunken fans then threw at them while they were on stage).

One thing that did surprise me was that the book touched very little on the death of Adam "MCA" Yauch, with Adam mentioning only in passing that the death hit both him and Mike so hard that it really wasn't something they could talk about.

I especially enjoyed Spike Jonze talking about the shoots for some of their music videos, specifically the video for Sabotage and how the four of them essentially drove around Los Angeles finding places to shoot without a permit and using parking lots to change into disguises.

So again, if you're looking for a light read (or listen) and have even a passing interest in the Beastie Boys, I can't recommend the book enough.
A photo of my Harley and I taken by my friend Katie.

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.