July 29, 2014 § 1 Comment
Someone approached me on Twitter a few days ago with some questions about MAPSS. We had a short email exchange recently that I thought I’d share on here in case other incoming MAPSS students are interested in learning about my experience there. This is, obviously, just one anecdote about what MAPSS is like, but hopefully readers can gather some insights to inform their decisions or expectations.
1. If you don’t mind being frank, when and why did you decide not to pursue a PhD?
2. Did you have a significant quant background before attending MAPSS? I also come from a Poli Sci/Poli Theory background…I was wondering how abrupt and difficult the transition was to more quant-oriented courses.
3. What is your experience of U Chicago’s career services and alumni network? Did you avail yourself of those connections?
4. What was your time at MAPSS like? Did you involve yourself in extracurriculars at all? Did you socialize a great deal with your MAPSS Cohort?
5. Do you have any tips or recommendations regarding the MAPSS experience that you would impart to someone beginning the program?
July 22, 2014 § Leave a comment
I ran across a lot of chatter about Soylent today, around the internet and with my friends. I’m curious about the stuff, but I think there is something sort of troubling about the very idea too.
Firstly, I love food a lot. So I mostly consider Soylent an affront to my personal and emotional attachment to experiencing food. I mean, I’m mostly joking, but I’m also sort of serious.
I also understand that Soylent is meant to serve as a supplement for people who find taking time out of their day to prepare, obtain and consume food annoying. The fact that Soylent was created by, is being championed by, and largely funded by the tech community is not coincidence. Tech, in my ways, infantilizes its members. There are many fantasies in tech that culminate with an engineer or coder being some sort of hyper-efficient programmer, only capable of one thing. The fact that major tech companies offer to do your laundry, feed you on site and give you a ride from home to work is not unrelated. There is some ideal at work underneath all of this that when you were young your parents took care of all these needs and now your company (your new parent) can take care of it. It might be a stretch, but a beige, tasteless substance that meets your every nutritional need is not too far from what your mother provides for you after birth.
But even all of that isn’t what bothers me about Soylent. What worries me is that Soylent was able to raise nearly $1 million on Kickstarter. What worries me is that the likes of Andreesen Horowitz are investing money in it. I think this is what takes Soylent from some project to work around a human’s need for food or aesthetic pleasure in experiencing food, to something that becomes a commodity for investment. I don’t think Andreesen Horowitz look at a product like this and glance over its potential application as a complete replacement for food not just for engineers but everyone. I can see a future when governments’ with food aid programs look to Soylent as some sort of solution to hunger and malnutrition crises. It’s not hard to imagine a rationale that flows something like — “well people are dying of hunger around the world, give them Soylent, *claps dusty hands*, my job here is done.”
But that’s not what solving the problem of malnutrition is about. It’s not that we don’t have enough food to feed the world’s hungry, it’s that we’re really bad at distributing food equitably. Even if we see a problem like malnutrition or starvation being solved by something like Soylent – then what? What will these people, who have been saved from the edge of starvation do? Will they have access to education? Will they be given a chance to find a job that pays enough of a salary to survive? Will they have the opportunity to find housing in a place of their choosing? What favor have we done them by keeping them alive with Soylent? More likely, will we walk away feeling like we’ve done our job by giving them Soylent so their basal nutritional needs are met while we could care less about needs that come after that.
I have no intention of painting this picture as the actual or even presumed intentions of the inventors of Soylent. I don’t think they or their investors see this as the problem they’re solving. I don’t have a hard time believing that the inventors of Soylent, their investors and all who are enthusiastic about the product genuinely believe it will be something office workers use as a substitute to walking out and getting an fat laden sandwich for lunch.
But I do believe, as Jacques Ellul believed, that technological progress is irreversible. With the exception of the nuclear weapon, society has never reversed the forward movement of technology. So to go blindly on the path of innovation, to try and disrupt everything, to invent for the sake of invention carries with it another responsibility. I think it is the responsibility of the inventor, of the investor, of the problem solver to consider his/her innovation in a broader social context. And I think this is what ultimately bothers me about Soylent. There is a lack of imagination on the part of the inventors to consider what the idea of food replacement actually means. Food is a huge part of culture. Once cannot simply replace its nutritional functions and walk away scot free.
Addendum: my friend Mike asked on twitter, “should one not solve problems when they exist?” I think this is an apt question and worth an answer longer than 140 characters. In my head, this is how I think about the problem. Say you have both a terrible headache and a brain tumor. The two are likely related. For someone to come in and help you with your headache, maybe even make it go away, is not the same thing as solving the problem. You still have a brain tumor to deal with.
This, crude, analogy is how I think about this larger problem of inequality in the world. Alleviating malnutrition is only part of the problem. It is certainly beyond the scope of Soylent, or any one project, to address global inequality. But my point is that thinking you’re helping by fix the headache, when in fact you probably actually caused the brain tumor, isn’t solving the problem.
Lest I seem to sure of myself, let me clarify that I have no idea what the right answer is. I don’t think it’s bad that people are trying to solve world hunger, but I do think it is bad that it often stops here.
June 9, 2014 § Leave a comment
I ran my first triathlon of the season this past weekend. It was a really fun experience with new friends I’ve made here in Brooklyn. I’ve also been meditating with coworkers and on my own, regularly, for the last 10 plus months. I find a lot in common between these experiences. And I find them instructive for dealing with anxiety about the future, of which there is plenty among my peer group.
Endurance sports like distance running, biking, swimming require a lot of mental fortitude. Completing an endurance event is as much a test of mental strength and will power as physical ability. Starting out on mile 1 of a 60 mile bike ride, or turning the corner for mile 20 of a marathon, it is easy to think about what I’ll feel like when I’m done. It’s easy to count backward from the finish line and just convince myself that I’ll keep enduring the pain until it’s over. I sometimes even think the finish line will be worth it, that how crappy I feel in the moment will be rewarded in turn when I finish. But I think that’s a mistake. I find it is much more rewarding to be present. I find much more satisfaction in focusing on how I feel right now. The ride, run or swim become much more calming when I can just focus on how I feel in the moment, enjoying the scenery, focusing on my breath or appreciating the pace I’m keeping up. If I start playing the mental game of “I only have 10 miles to go, which is 5 miles, repeated twice, which is about 30 or 35 minutes, so I should be…” I know I won’t enjoy myself as much. This falsely gives all the credit to the finish, when in fact the finish is only a small fraction of the activity.
I’ve had similar experiences with meditation. When I first started meditating, I remember having a hard time focusing on the present. My self talk during meditation sessions would primarily be about how I might feel at the end. There was no focus on being present, on learning about the moment I was in. It took me a long time and a lot of practice to understand how to focus on my breath, on how to recognize but not fixate on fleeting thoughts. It was a difficult habit to build, but something I’m glad I worked on. I still work on these habits every time I meditate, but I now understand the goal of focusing on my breath, on allowing myself to learn about my thought patterns and my proclivities through each meditation session.
I have found these habits to be very helpful in alleviating anxiety in my day to day life as well. Focusing on the future, thinking about next steps, evaluating experiences in terms of future rewards can be very anxiety provoking. I have talked with peers about these feelings too, and I imagine anxiety about the future is prevalent among many people. I have tried my best to focus on the present when moments like this arise for me. Taking pleasure in the moment you’re in, addressing facts and feelings as you know them now, trying your best not to count backward from some imagined future can go a long way in decreasing some of the anxiety caused by a hyper competitive, status minded, fatigue lauding world. There are a lot of things to be said about why we live in a world like this (from perspectives found in economics, sociology, psychology, philosophy, so on and so on), but that’s a discussion about causes. I have found that in the mean time, this tactic of focusing on the present, can be helpful in treating at least this symptom.
October 22, 2013 § 1 Comment
On October 16, 2013 I participated in an Ignite event at Etsy. 12 of my colleagues and I got 5 minutes, 20 auto-advancing slides and the attention of a room-full of our friends and colleagues to tell a story. I talked about why I think it’s important to spend time getting outside of your domain of expertise and learning new things, from the arts for example.
I really enjoyed putting words and order to my thoughts on this subject. If you’ve followed my Twitter feed at any point in time, you can tell me affinity for all different domains of knowledge. Here’s to more years of consumption, production, exploration and expansion.
October 7, 2013 § Leave a comment
I just came across this paper on SSRN, titled ‘I’ve got Nothing to Hide’ and other Misunderstandings of Privacy. It’s a short essay from 2007-2008 that succinctly situates one part of the privacy discussion. More than anything else, I was drawn toward reading it because it directly addresses an argument I found myself making a lot in the last few months regarding the NSA, Prizm, and other government data collection efforts that made national news.
Some key take aways from the paper that made me change my mind about making the “I don’t have anything to hide” argument are:
- “Far too often, discussions of the NSA surveillance and data mining define the problem solely in terms of surveillance. To return to my discussion of metaphor, the problems are not just Orwellian, but Kafkaesque. The NSA programs are problematic even if no information people want to hide is uncovered. In The Trial, the problem is not inhibited behavior, but rather a suffocating powerlessness and vulnerability created by the court system’s use of personal data and its exclusion of the protagonist from having any knowledge or participation in the process.”
- “[The privacy issue] is not about whether the information gathered is something people want to hide, but rather about the power and the structure of government.”
- “One of the difficulties with the nothing to hide argument is that it looks for a visceral kind of injury as opposed to a structural one. “
My proclivities as a millennial, whose political world view was largely formed by September 11th, led me astray on this matter it seems. I found myself erring on the side of “well my personal discomfort, if any, will most likely be relegated to embarrassment at worst, and in exchange for increased national security, maybe it’s a worthwhile trade.” (or some bastardized version of that argument) But having someone lay the entire privacy question out, define privacy (a difficult endeavor in itself) and address the fact that saying “I have nothing to hide,” almost entirely misses the point was beneficial.