Hi.

I took the summer off from blogging. Instead I worked a lot, read a lot, spent time with family, bought a house, watched baseball, hung out with friends, celebrated new babies (not mine), and started a newsletter.

I’m in a weird limbo right now, creatively. I got the advanced reader copies of my book and I simultaneously feel very overwhelmed by that and very unmoored by not having a book to work on.

I could, of course, start working on a new book. But… I can’t figure out what to write about. The problem isn’t a lack of ideas, it’s too many. There are a couple that stick out, but whenever I daydream about them for too long the mean editor part of my brain pokes me and says, “yeah but that doesn’t matter.”

I’ve been toying with a couple of fiction ideas, but is that what I should be spending my time on when there are important nonfiction things to write about?

I have a handful of nonfiction ideas, but they aren’t relevant to any of the Major Crises facing our world right now – so I shouldn’t bother, right? That would be a waste.

Sounding a little self-important, huh? A little neurotic. Well, that’s my brain!

Anyway. I’ll figure it out. At some point I’ll realize what I actually want to spend a huge chunk of time and energy on, and I’ll do it.

In the meantime, I’m working really hard at my day job, taking on some new volunteer responsibilities, and working on a podcast project. Oh, and I deleted Instagram from my phone again…!

 

 

 

Driverless empathy

Algorithms and big data affect our lives in so many ways we don’t even see. These things that we tend to believe are there to make our lives easier and more fair also do a lot of damage, from weeding out job applicants based on unfair parameters that ignore context to targeting advertisements based on racial stereotypes. A couple of weeks ago I got to see Cathy O’Neil speak on a panel about her book Weapons of Math Destruction, which is all about this phenomenon. Reading her book, I kept thinking about whether a more explicit focus on empathy on the part of the engineers behind these algorithms might make a difference.

The futurist and game creator Jane McGonigal suggested something similar to me when I spoke to her for this story earlier this year. We talked about Twitter, and how some future-thinking and future-empathizing might have helped avoid some of the nasty problems the platform is facing (and facilitating) right now. But pretty soon Twitter may be the least of our worries. Automation is, by many accounts, the next big, disruptive force, and our problems with algorithms and big data are only going to bet bigger as this force expands. One of the most urgent areas of automation that could use an empathy injection? Self-driving cars.

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I’ll be honest – until very recently I didn’t give too much thought to self-driving cars as part of this empathy and tech revolution that’s always on my mind. I thought of them as a gadget that may or may not actually be available at scale over the next decade, and that I may or may not ever come in contact with (especially while I live in New York City and don’t drive). But when I listened to the recent Radiolab episode “Driverless Dilemma,” I realized I’d been forgetting that even though humans might not be driving these cars, humans are deeply involved in the creation and maintenance of the tech that controls them. And the decisions those humans make could have life and death consequences.

The “Driverless Dilemma” conversation is sandwiched around an old Radiolab episode about the “Trolley Problem,” which asks people to consider whether they’d kill one person to save five in several different scenarios. You can probably imagine some version of this while driving: suddenly there are a bunch of pedestrians in front of you that you’re going to hit unless you swerve, but if you swerve you’ll hit one pedestrian, or possibly kill yourself. As driverless technology becomes more common, cars will be making these split-second decisions. Except it’s not really the cars making the decisions, it’s people making them, probably ahead of time, based on a whole bunch of factors that we can only begin to guess at right now. The Radiolab episode is really thought-provoking and I highly recommend listening to it. But one word that didn’t come up that I think could play a major role in answering these questions going forward is, of course, empathy.

When I talked with Jane McGonigal about Twitter, we discussed what the engineers could have done to put themselves in the shoes of people who might either use their platform for harassment or be harassed by trolls. Perhaps they would then have taken measures to prevent some of the abuse that happens there. One reason that may not have happened is that those engineers didn’t fit into either of those categories, so it didn’t occur to them to imagine those scenarios. Some intentional empathy, like what design firms have been doing for decades (“imagine yourself as the user of this product”) could have gone a long way. This may also be the key when it comes to driverless cars. Except the engineers behind cars’ algorithms will have to consider what it’s like to be the “driver” as well as other actual drivers on the road, cyclists, pedestrians, and any number of others. And they’ll have to imagine thousands of different scenarios. An algorithm that tells the car to swerve and kill the driver to avoid killing five pedestrians won’t cut it. What if there’s also a dog somewhere in the equation? What if it’s raining? What if the pedestrians aren’t in a crosswalk? What if all of the pedestrians are children? What if the “driver” is pregnant? Car manufacturers say these are all bits of data that their driverless cars will eventually be able to gather. But what will they do with them? Can you teach a car context? Can you inject its algorithm with empathy?

Interested in empathy? Check this out.

Today, the Huffington Post has a big list of ways to incorporate more empathy into your life this year . I’ve been ramping up my writing about empathy, but not here. I won’t be using WordPress anymore after next week. So if you want to read more of my writing about empathy, please subscribe to my newsletter here. You will get an intro email, and then just two emails each month. I would really hate to lose the conversations with all of you when I make the move, so I hope you’ll join me!

 

On empathy in language

Happy Friday!

I was tagged into a really interesting conversation on Twitter yesterday about empathy in language, and how Americans generally don’t seem to have many words to express empathy for others. In fact, the English word for empathy reportedly comes from the German word einfuhlung, which means “feeling into.” And we only started using it about 100 years ago.

The word “empathy” alone doesn’t really seem to be enough to actually express it, though. You can say to someone, “I empathize,” but is that always the most effective way to express empathy? The conversation yesterday was really about how we don’t seem to have words to convey “affection, deference and respect” to strangers, especially strangers who may be worse off than us, or of a lower social class. To me, having words like that and knowing how to use them would be a form of expressing empathy. Having a way to address someone in a way that essentially acknowledges our privilege without being condescending and signaling that we’re empathetic would be incredibly useful. Some people find ways to do this, of course. But as I tweeted back, it’s not really something we learn.

Then someone else in the conversation noted that it depends on who we mean by “we.” African American Vernacular English and other dialects used primarily by minorities do seem to have words that achieve the very thing we were discussing. (Click that link for some examples.) So maybe we just – in general – tend to devalue the speech that confers empathy in these ways?

This is something I will be diving further into very soon. Which brings me to this reminder: I won’t be using WordPress anymore after next week. So if you want to read more about this kind of thing, please subscribe to my newsletter here. You will get an intro email, and then just two emails each month. I would really hate to lose the conversations with all of you when I make the move!

On resolutions and banana bread

I made a lot of New Year’s resolutions this year. I know that’s not cool. The cool thing now is to announce that you are not making any resolutions, because you are above resolutions. You have come to understand, through trial and error and reading many think pieces, that resolutions are impossible, unhelpful, and ultimately silly. I might have jumped on that bandwagon once or twice in the last few years, but I secretly always made a list of goals, hopes and directions. I can’t help it. I love lists.

My list almost always includes finding or creating more time for things that bring me joy, thought not always in so many words. That’s on there this year, but I feel like I’ve gotten a lot better at that in recent years, so it’s a bit lower on the list than usual. Above it are a lot of professional goals, and some stuff about health – you know, the cliche resolutions – plus a lofty (for me) objective of reading 24 books in 2016. Oh, and trying to enjoy the rest of wedding planning, and the festivities themselves, with minimal stress. That one might be a long shot.

So far, so good. It’s day three and I’ve written something and read something every day so far. I’ve also taken time to be thoughtful and meditative, and I even went to the gym today! I’ve been extra nice to my fiance and taken the time each night to actually wash my face before going to bed. Check, check, check.

On December 28 I bought a bunch of bananas. This wasn’t in preparation for any of my resolutions, I just love bananas. Unfortunately, I’m not great at eating bananas. I will usually buy a bunch, hang them up on my cool little banana hook in my kitchen, use one or two for smoothies or as a snack with peanut butter and a rice cake (I’m seven, I know) and then notice a foul odor and fruit flies in the kitchen a few days later. Oh right, the bananas.

I had all last week off from work, so maybe it was the free time or the fact that I was in and out of the kitchen a lot, but I decided to make banana bread. Banana zucchini bread, specifically. I was not going to let these bananas go bad, not this time! I actually put it on my to-do list a couple of days in a row. Yesterday, Saturday, I finally got around to buying the missing ingredients, and as I drifted off to sleep while reading last night I made a mental note to make it in the morning.

Then I woke up at 1:30am with a run of heart palpitations (it happens, I’ve been cleared by a cardiologist, nothing to see here) and I didn’t get back to sleep until 4:30, because I am the type of person who is simply up once she’s up. There goes the banana bread, I thought. And the gym. And anything else I was going to do on Sunday.

When I finally got up around 10am, though, I actually felt OK. I dragged myself up, put on some gym clothes and pulled my fiance away from Fallout 4 long enough to do a quick workout – both of our first in way longer than either of us are willing to admit. We were feeling pretty great after that, so we got some bagels (baby steps, OK?), showered, and headed out for the other main errand of the day: picking suits for the wedding. I tried to stay positive, but everything wedding-related, even seemingly benign things like choosing suit colors and getting measured, has an extra layer of tedium and intensity to it, at least for me. Thankfully the woman who helped us at Men’s Wearhouse (in Atlantic Terminal in Brooklyn) was extremely calm and helpful. Still, it took a long time, and by the time we were finished we needed a beer.

It wasn’t until a couple of hours later, halfway into my mushroom sandwich and amber lager and going back and forth with Reid for the millionth time about whether the men’s vests would clash with the bridesmaids’ dresses, that I remembered the banana bread. I had a headache. I was exhausted and stressed. (Told you that resolution would be a long shot.) I wanted to go home and get in the bath, not the kitchen. Then, another palpitation. Sometimes I think my conscience, or the universe, or whatever, gives me a literal kick in the heart, instead of the metaphorical one in the butt, to get my priorities in order.

We walked the mile home, I pulled up the recipe, and peeled the bananas. While I mashed them with the other ingredients, I realized this might be the first time I’d actually used an entire bunch of bananas in at least a year. What a waste. Sure, I’d given some away to people who asked for food on the subway or the sidewalk, and I’d eaten most of them, but how many had I thrown away? And when it was this easy to take the overripe ones and mash them up into something new and delicious?

As I rhythmically mashed and mixed, something that is often quite meditative for me, I started to realize that a lot of my New Year’s resolutions could be summed up in the idea that I want to be more resourceful this year. Thinking about my list, it seems to show that I have a desire to take all of the things I’ve learned over the last few years and put them to better use. I want to pay closer attention to what’s already inside me, what I’ve always had but only recently started to notice, and make it work for me. Forgive me for this, but yeah, I want to use all the bananas.

This bread smells amazing. I’m sitting in my living room right now typing, and I’m just enveloped by the warm, sweet promise of soft, gooey, filling bread. Bread like my mom used to make when the bananas started to go soft, and we’d eat it for breakfast on the weekend with a pat of butter. Bread that came into existence by necessity, because it was either that or let the fruit go to waste.

I’m taking another look at my list of resolutions for this year, and while I’m still motivated and excited by each bullet point, I can see a clear theme for myself for 2016: don’t waste a bit.

I don’t want to do everything with my phone

It took me a long time to get an iPhone. I was smug about it. I remember looking at my friends with pity as they tapped app after app, checking and double-checking Facebook and Instagram and Foursquare (remember Foursquare?) I could never do that, I told myself. How does one become so addicted to something so silly?

Well, as we know from my Facebook addiction, that was a bunch of bull. (Did you really think I would stay off for more than four days?) And I do blame my iPhone, to a point. If I didn’t have this thing notifying me every time someone said something, and then making me anticipate those notifications, I probably wouldn’t think about that silly place nearly as much. I do like being able to do certain things in the palm of my hand: listen to a podcast, send an email, take photos, order food. But even though I’ve become a smartphone convert, I still don’t want to do everything with it.

That’s why when I see stories like this one, explaining that at some point I may be forced to use my phone to get on the subway, or to pay for things like Metro cards, I get uncomfortable. I still see the thing as a phone, a way of communicating, even if most of the communication I do on it is by text and email an social media. Maybe I’m a bad millennial, but the idea of using my phone — my $99 phone that would probably cost a lot more than that to replace — to spend real money in a public place over a questionably secure network makes me squirm.

Maybe it’s the financial security issue… Maybe it’s precisely because the phone has become such a personal thing that I use to do so much, it feels odd to connect it to something so public? I’m not sure. It will be interesting to see the ideas that people come up with for the MTA’s RFP. Not for the first time, I’ll probably find myself with the old folks and Luddites rooting for something a little less phone-intensive.

New Year, New Plans, New Goals

Happy New Year! I hope you had a nice break from whatever it is you do with your days and are adjusting to normal life again smoothly. (If not, here’s a cute puppy picture that really helped me today.)

My 2015 has already been pretty exciting – I suddenly find myself getting ready to plan a wedding! Meanwhile, I’m working on a big project at work, along with a few smaller ones, and spinning my wheels on a few exciting freelance ideas.

I’ve been thinking a lot about my plans for this blog. Last year was just about seeing if I could do it. Could I maintain this thing with relative frequency while working full time and training for the marathon? Turns out…kind of! This year I’m going to focus more on quality of posts, and keep things divided into categories. Mainly: health/science stories that interest me and media critique. And yes, there will also be some wedding-related posts. I’m not going to share ring pictures or my Pinterest boards or anything, but if you’re interested in money and sociology and how those things interact and make the world turn, which I am, it’s a hard topic to pass up!

I’ve already noticed a few things that have surprised or annoyed me, and I’ve only been engaged for 5 days! But I’ll save those for another post. For now, I just want to do a mini link dump of a few things I read over the holidays that I think are worth sharing:

A Century of Silence by Raffi Khatchadourian in The New Yorker. This is a long read, but it’s well worth it. It’s a look at the author’s family’s experience with the Armenian genocide, and his own experience returning to his ancestral home in Turkey last year, as the government – or at least more Turks – appears to be slowly coming around to acknowledging the event and atoning for it.

I’m Trying Not To Hate Men by Laura Bogart in Salon. A beautifully written essay in which the author tries to reconcile the violence she has experienced at the hands of men and the seemingly endless stream of stories about such violence with her desire to rise above and live a fearless life.

Before Setting New Goals, Evaluate The Previous Ones by Carl Richards in The New York Times. One of the better New Year’s Resolutions stories I saw floating around this year, this one makes a great point: it doesn’t make much sense to make a bunch of new resolutions if you don’t take a look back at how well you followed your previous ones. If you’re just not great at resolutions…maybe try a different kind of goal-setting?

Would love to hear your thoughts on any/all of these!