Outrage and Strongly Worded Blog Posts

On my long drive back down the west coast this past holiday season, I listened about 20 hours of podcasts. Most of them were political and current events, including “Left, Right, and Center”, “The Bugle”, and my favorite, “Wait Wait, Don’t Tell Me.” I also listened to several episodes of “Political Gabfest”, and one segment about outrage caught my attention since I had been thinking about similar issues in this blog post.

Roughly, the segment was a discussion about Slate’s feature piece, “The year of outrage 2014,” where they catalogued social media outrage from every day of 2014 and turned it into a nifty interactive. It turns out that there was a lot of outrage.

It’s ironic that Slate decided to appeal to a culture of outrage, in part derived from our preference for minimal context and easily digested information, is a massive infographic and 10 long essays. I almost didn’t read it myself despite citing it as the starting point for this article. Here’s the thesis:

…Over the past decade or so, outrage has become the default mode for politicians, pundits, critics and, with the rise of social media, the rest of us. When something outrageous happens—when a posh London block installs anti-homeless spikes, or when Khloé Kardashian wears a Native American headdress, or, for that matter, when we read the horrifying details in the Senate’s torture report—it’s easy to anticipate the cycle that follows: anger, sarcasm, recrimination, piling on; defenses and counterattacks; anger at the anger, disdain for the outraged; sometimes, an apology … and on to the next. Twitter and Facebook make it easier than ever to participate from home…

Not being a heavy Twitter or Facebook user, I miss out on a lot of the excitement. I do, however, use reddit quite a bit, and it’s fascinating to see outrage there. Although the 140 character limit is a factor, longer discourse doesn’t fix it. The reddit community tends to be contrarian and smug, which builds in the “second opinion bias” that also causes outrage. The Slate essays explain this much better than I can, but I would attribute a culture of outrage to 2 things. First, we have a lack of context and research that we would expect from journalists but can’t expect from social media and citizen journalists. Second, we have a natural bias towards evidence and opinions that confirm our worldview.

Who’s fault is it: the medium or us? The internet as a medium has no intention or agenda: it simply facilitates human thought and communication. Even so, the medium has constraints that play into outrage, and it’s tough to blame individuals when we are presented with information (such as in 140 character snippets)  that we intrinsically react rashly to. We have cognitive biases: we know them, and we have had them well before the internet, from sound bites on TV to parlor room arguments before that. An important difference is the exponential influence of the internet, which scales previously limited instances of outrage from the mind of one person into a viral phenomena across the world.

I would like to present a challenge to the platforms that exist out there. I think sites like Twitter, Facebook, and reddit publicly take a hands-off approach to these issues and push for democratized, unregulated platforms (short of illegal activity). With my limited knowledge of user experience, however, I find this position disingenuous: the interface and platform itself can bias our behavior tremendously. Sometimes it is implicit, like the positioning of buttons, or explicit, like Facebook filtering our newsfeed. I think these sites should accept both the role they play in facilitating discourse and what we know about human biases. We need platforms that encourage better discourse.

Of course, maybe they are looking into these things: smart people work at these companies, so I hope they’re doing their homework. I just write a blog.

Even so, I should also do my best to encourage discourse through my blog. Like the Slate writers, here’s my story. A few months back, I started writing less about personal events and more about issues and ideas in my blog. I don’t have any hard numbers, but I noticed an odd trend through various metrics. There was a negative correlation between audience engagement and the thought I had put into the post. In other words, my less thoughtful pieces tended to get more activity than my more thoughtful ones.

Here’s my theory. When I put more thought into a blog post, the result is usually messy, and my blog post ends without firm conclusions and having argued both sides. Less thoughtful pieces end up more polemical that leave reader with stronger feeling, either in agreement or disagreement. I think they’re less interesting, but they’re easier to get into and respond to.

I could also be totally self-centered in my analysis. Truth be told, I don’t really know what my audience likes to read about. I just write and hope others find topics as interesting as I do.

The Effect of a Placebo-based Policy

(Disclaimer: I don’t actually know that much about medical ethics or public policy, so I welcome all comments to educate me on the issues here. Also, I will miss citing things because I’m a lazy blogger, so I recommend that if you’re interested, you do your own research)

The Placebo Effect is a well-known phenomenon where a patient actually improves even when given a non-effective treatment that  he or she believes is effective. The perception of efficacy alone not only makes the patient feel better, but actually makes them better.

This effect manifests in other, similar manners, where the perception overrides the actual sensation. For example, it turns out that people will enjoy (and report as enjoying) wine more if it is marked as being more expensive, independent of the actual wine itself. Though maybe if you’re a hipster cheapskate like me, you might perceive cheaper as being better, like a hole-in-the-wall Chinese restaurant.

In both of these cases, the subject is being tricked into something, but the effect on them is real. Given that, the big question I have is: do you think it’s ethical for doctors, marketers, and other professionals to use the Placebo effect?

Big Yak Mountain, the book club I am in, just read Dan Ariely’s Predictably Irrational. Ariely is a behavioral economist at Duke, and in this book, he describes several quirks about human decision-making that show how irrational we are. He discusses how uncertain we are in valuing things, to the point where we don’t even know whether we should pay or be paid for some experience. He talks about the gulf between free versus really cheap. He explains why I would happily help you move a couch out of the goodness of my heart but would be unwilling to do it if you offered me $5. Overall, he covers roughly 15 different topics, one per chapter, in an accessible manner. Although I think that Thinking, Fast and Slow is still better, I can understand why you might want to save yourself a few hundred pages and explanation of experimental methods.

When I was putting together notes for the discussion, the question I kept coming back to was, “Is it okay that we’re so irrational, or shoulwe be more rational, more economically logical, in reasoning?” From our discussion, we roughly agreed that these phenomenon are fascinating and good to know, but we were also completely satisfied to experience our blissful irrationality as it is. The bigger question, however, is how this should impact policy, and this is where I am going to do the very bad thing of generalizing narrow experimental results into my worldview.

I asked one policy question above, and I have a few more for you along the same lines. Here’s an easy one: should the use of “free” in advertising campaigns be regulated? I think most of us would say no, despite the fact that we’re totally irrational about free and will go way out of our way to get a free bagel to a degree far beyond that of a 1 cent bagel, even if the free bagel is just a way to lure us into a store to make a large purchase.

Here’s a more contentious one. Ariely spends a chapter on how irrational we are when aroused. If you’re unfamiliar with the study, I’ll save the joy of the experimental methods for when you read the book, but the result is that we act less rationally when emotionally aroused. Since people can be emotionally aroused by anger, one policy is a “cooling off” period between the purchase and acquisition of a gun to prevent people from doing something rash. What do you think of cooling off periods?

The last one is quite broad, but a big issue today is government surveillance. It appears that the NSA has been spying on just about everyone to a much greater degree than we thought. I’m a trusting guy and believe that this was done for our own good and not because someone is reading my phone meta-data to hurt me. If we momentarily ignore the ethics of the surveillance itself, we have been deceived about the activity itself. This deception sounds a lot like the Placebo effect, where an authority gave the perception of something to make us feel better and improve our situation, though they were technically lying at the time. Given my biased framing, how do you feel about the government deceiving us about surveillance for our benefit?

I haven’t quite worked through the details and nuances of this, and specific issues deserve more thought, but I personally am pretty liberal (socially and economically), and I think my belief in human irrationality (and by inclusion, the placebo effect) plays a big role in that. Simply, I, like most other people in this country, am just one person who can’t adequately grasp what is ultimately good for me, and to some degree, I need someone (and not just market forces) to be watching my back.

I need financial regulations because I have no idea what the banks are doing. I need environmental regulations because I don’t know what every supplier is doing. And even if I could, I couldn’t resist buying the cheaper detergent to make optimal purchases. I believe in universal health care because choice is good, but it’s a lot ask every individual to know how best to keep themselves healthy. And assuming that Congress is well-informed (which apparently has not been true so far), I’m generally pretty okay with government surveillance because there are things that I’m better off not knowing, and I trust an entity with the goal of protecting me more than businesses with the goal of being profitable.

So my wildly extrapolated beliefs based in science suggest that a stronger hand in policy is good for us. Of course, there’s always the looming threat of totalitarianism, but a healthy debate and oversight from our legislature should keep it in check. At least in contrast to current trends in libertarianism and small government, I would like to see government stay involved. Some people believe that they deserve complete transparency, that markets are self-correcting, that government should be limited, and that individuals should have tremendous personal freedom. I definitely believe in personal freedom on social issues where it’s more obvious (to me) how freedom affect one’s happiness. On the other issues, my understanding of human cognition is that given complete information and choice, people can still be quite bad at ultimately making themselves happy. And I think that public policy has that mandate as well.

How Friendly Public Transit can be Cynical

People seem to agree that the Caltrain is a better experience than BART as public transit options in the Bay Area. Whereas the BART is a dinky, old subway system, the Caltrain is overall a comfortable and happy experience from station to station. I agreed with Caltrain’s superiority until recently when I had several difficulties with it that have me thinking that BART is overall an easier, friendlier system.

The BART is rapid transit, so it’s like a subway but mostly above the ground. The trains follow several different routes half way down the peninsula and up and down the East Bay, so it’s particularly useful if you need to go to the airport or Oakland. The trains themselves feel old and rickety with fabric cushions that make you think about every hypothetical previous rider and their hygiene. Running through Oakland, I have been led to believe that the trains are full of hoodlums at all hours. To get on and off the train, you have to get prepaid tickets and swipe them at turnstyles on entrance and exit. When you swipe upon exit, it’ll deduct the proper amount from your ticket.

One form of BART tickets is the Clipper card, which is like a prepaid debit card for public transit around the Bay Area. Load it up with money as you need it, and ride to its remaining balance. Without one of those, you can buy a disposable ticket at BART stations for precisely the amount of your fare.

The Caltrain is a train that runs primarily from San Francisco to San Jose on a single track. Stations lie in one of the 6 zones, which determines the total fare. The trains are spacious with seats made out of some synthetic material, and open containers are allowed (primarily for pre-gaming Giants & Niners fans). The stations are open, so you buy your ticket in advance and walk right onto the train. You can either buy one-time tickets from one zone to another, or you can “tag on” with your Clipper card at a machine at the station and then “tag off” at the end. On the train, the conductor will walk up and down the aisles to check that you have a valid ticket. At the end of your ride, you just walk off the train and move on to your final destination.

Overall, the Caltrain just feels nice. The stations are well-kept, the conductors are nice, the seats are comfy, and the riders are generally friendly (and the seatbacks are high enough that you can keep to yourself if they aren’t). It’s friendly and open and easy, until it’s not, as my recent experiences have led me to discover.

To get to a conference in San Jose, I bought an 8-ride pass from the Stanford zone to the San Jose zone. These rides were put onto my Clipper card at a slight discount over 8 single ride tickets between these zones. The first problem I had was that I once forgot to tag off. The net effect is that for a $5 ride, I was out $13. $5 was the lost use of one of my 8 rides that I had prepaid for. The $8 was the Clipper penalty for not tagging off. So that people can’t take advantage of Clipper to get valid tickets for less than the actual cost of their ride, Clipper deducts the maximum possible fare when you tag on, then refunds the proper amount when you tag off. Since I didn’t tag off, I in theory could have ridden all the way to Gilroy, and Caltrain understandably wanted to charge me for that possibility.

I forgot to tag off: I knew the consequences and made a mistake. Caltrain even puts up signage around the station to remind you to tag off. Even so, the station is laid out to make tagging off compulsory before leaving the station. In this case, the open layout of the station requires Caltrain to adopt the cynical policy of maximum fare with a refund to address possible exploits. Were everyone required to tag off before leaving the station, this loophole wouldn’t be possible, and this policy wouldn’t be necessary. In short, a trusting environment leads to distrustful policies that punish honest mistakes.

The next issue I had was that I ended up skipping a day of the conference and had 2 extra prepaid rides on my Clipper card. This wouldn’t have been a problem except that these rides expired in a month, putting me out another $10 or so. Expiration is logical for Caltrain: since the 8-ride passes are discounted, a clever rider would just buy 8-ride passes to use as single ride tickets and assume that he or she would use the rides eventually. Again, Caltrain has an apparently generous design (discounts for regular riders) that punishes honest mistakes because of the need to deal with loopholes.

The worst situation, however, occurs when a rider is on the train with an invalid ticket. Riding without a ticket is clearly a problem and is punishable by a roughly $300 fine. Riding illegally sounds bad, but it’s actually quite easy to mistakenly do. You might

  1. fall asleep on the train and ride into another zone
  2. take the wrong train and ride into another zone
  3. failed to tag on properly
  4. misunderstand the conditions of your ticket

If you’re caught in this situation, you’re only hope is the generosity and understanding of the conductor.

These problems all sound like necessary conditions of the system as is, but with a small tweak, these all go away. Like BART, add turnstyles on entry and exit from the stations. It makes us feel like robots for a few seconds and requires locking down the station, but it results in a clear policy with fewer consequences for mistakes.

By requiring a valid ticket at the exit turnstyle, BART doesn’t need to deduct the maximum fare on entry: it knows exactly how much to deduct at the end. If you rode farther than you intended, it simply charges you more. If you didn’t pay enough, you can go to a machine to add more money to your card. Because of that, you can’t ride BART illegally without jumping a turnstyle. The ticket got you in, and you’re never “out of zone”.

That’s it.

Caltrain makes a better first impression than BART does, but because BART has a more structured and less trusting design, it doesn’t need a strict policy. Public transit here needs rider payment to run, and BART has offloaded that process to technology and layout. Caltrain, however, compensates for its open design with a punitive policy.

In the end, these two systems aren’t alternatives: there’s only a short stretch that they both serve, none of which has ever been relevant for me. The takeaway for me was realizing that technology can be a trust-inducing tool. Nowadays, we hear more about privacy rights, malware, surveillance, and other evils of technology that make us suspicious of the world we’ve built. There is, however, something comforting about the cold rationality of technology that can wipe away our own cynicism. When we know the machines have our back, we don’t have to worry about what other people may do.

Why We Don’t Need to Worry About Robots’ Rights

Last Thursday, I went to a panel discussion being held at the Stanford Law School by The Center for Internet and Society on “Legal Perspectives in Artificial Intelligence.” My mind is mostly buried in the AI, but since I have recently become more interested in policy in general and the social impact of technology, I thought it could be interesting to see where the crossover is.

There were a lot of possible intersections, such as the use of AI in assisting lawyers put together cases or IP rights to AI code and programs. The topic they mostly discussed, however, was the possibility of AI being considered a legal person and what the implication of that was. It was an unfortunate angle to take because AI equal to a human doesn’t exist, so it was mostly non-answers, roughly of the form, “Interesting; we’ll see what happens.” They also chose not to jump into the philosophical aspects too much, with only minor discussion of philosophical zombies (a being that behaves exactly like a human but has no consciousness), and instead left those as largely open questions as well.

Disregarding how unsatisfying those answers were, I was also disappointed by the conversation as a whole because I found their conception of AI somewhat narrow, and that limited the topics they could consider. Instead of considering the state of technology as it is today and the issues surrounding that, they mostly clung to the more fantastic view of AI. This view, perpetuated largely by popular media, is best represented by robots like C-3PO that are human in all except form. More generally, this view treats AI as a system with intentions, self-motivation, and more psychological properties similar to humans. And that AI doesn’t exist.

Stepping back from that, however, and we already have some forms of AI, and I will make the stronger claim that what we have now will be the form of AI for the foreseeable future (with respect to legal rights; of course we’re making great progress in the nitty-gritty). So, I think that this panel was appropriate for us now, but for different reasons than what the organizers likely considered. AI is here now and it has plenty of problems surrounding it. For better or worse, though, I think it’s largely invisible in our lives. Let me give a few examples of AI in our lives, what its role is, why I don’t see it changing into HAL, and what the legal implications of it are.

First, AI in the market. The panelists discussed the legal status of AI as a trustee, an advisor to a trustee, or as a business operator. I don’t see this coming soon because AI don’t have their own desires, so it doesn’t make sense for them to be in charge. AI can be a tool to make recommendations and crunch the numbers, but the last mile will be all blood and guts. And this form of AI already exists. Take algorithmic trading: a computer is executing trades for a fund or some other trader based only on the numbers and often faster than humans are capable of. On the whole, it’s a black box. Very smart physicists and computer scientists can build models to make it run, but once it’s going, it’s past our ability to actively monitor it. Just last year, the Dow Jones crashed, which was largely blamed on algorithmic trading. The SEC ended up changing some rules based on this, so this is a problem being dealt with right now. I haven’t followed the situation, but I imagine that there are questions about liability when AI runs havoc on the market.

Second, health care. This came up in the discussion of Watson, the Jeopardy playing AI that IBM claims it wants to retool for health care. They were concerned about the possible issues here, as health as least as touchy of a topic as the market. I’m not scared about it, though, because we still have doctors. Doctors may receive advice from computers, but the final decision is going to be in the hands of a human. We don’t send our brightest to school for a decade just to let them defer judgement: they’ll still sit between a patient and AI. Even so, this is again already happening today. In fact, we apparently even have a journal dedicated to this topic. As it is, we can use probabilistic models to diagnose various illnesses by telling a computer what the various symptoms are, and it’ll spit back the likelihood of various possibilities. AI researchers will tell you that they’re actually better than doctors since they have the accumulated knowledge of many more cases than any 1 doctor could ever know. Importantly, AI here is just a tool, not a legal person. We do have questions today, such as patient privacy when the data are being aggregated into a single machine, and these will be the questions moving forward.

To wrap this up, let’s bring this around to an example of AI that you must be familiar with to be reading this: web search. On the surface, it seems like this is a task that humans are performing, any non-trivial search engine you’ll encounter has all sorts of interesting AI in it, such as trying to figure out if you meant the scooters, the mice, the hygiene product, or the phone when you type in, “Why isn’t my razor working?” The net result is that people usually click on the first link, which means that we’ve already deferred a lot of our choices to AI in picking the “best match” to our search terms. But that’s a far cry from R2D2, and hopefully, no one will ever sue a search engine for giving them bad results.

And it’s everywhere else, too. Google translate, autonomous cars, Bing flight search, Amazon search recommendations, and Siri are all examples of what AI really looks like today, and frankly,  it’s not that scary. None of it may sound that impressive or very AI-like, but that tends to be a funny problem with AI as a field of research: once we figure out how to do it, it’s not AI anymore.

I think it’s important that all of those things I just rattled off are tools, not independent agents. We build things that we want, and for the most part, we want things done for us while leaving us in control. This means that we build wonderful systems that use AI to make our lives easier, but that last mile is still human.

Given that this is what AI is and what it will be (so I claim), then the issues are already in front of us now. And if they don’t seem like issues, it’s because they aren’t. Do we worry about incorrect diagnoses from AI? A doctor may blame a computer, but it’s still the doctor’s call. What about an autonomous car getting into an accident? Assuming it’s entirely autonomous, it’s no different than trams that have a preset schedule. Cars aren’t going to have their own desires (such as to tailgate the jerk who cut them off), and since we’ll understand how they work, the mystery is gone.

So in summary, AI is here now, and it’s as it will be. There are legal issues to consider with respect to AI, but we shouldn’t be worrying about AI as a legal person. And appreciate and understand how important AI already is in your lives. As tools.

Letter about a Palo Alto pedestrian mall

I was inspired to write the following letter, which I may or may not try to find someone to send this to. Feel free to comment on it, especially if of the “what are you thinking, it would be an idiot move to let anyone official read this” variety, because I honestly have done 0 research in writing this. It’ll probably get polished before I send it to someone, as well. And if anyone knows who that person to contact would be, I guess that would be good, too.


My name is Kevin Leung, and I’m a junior here at Stanford University. I am writing to you because I wanted to give you another perspective on having a pedestrian mall along University Avenue. I had heard about it from friends on Facebook and have thought about the consequences of having it created. Particularly, a recent vacation to Athens made me consider what University could be.
When I think of Europe, I think about the clear differences in lifestyle. One of these aspects is the large difference in night life: Europeans tend to eat dinner much later than Americans, and a common image is a group of friends or family sitting around a table at a cafe past sundown, sipping coffee or throwing back beers. Until this past trip, I had never seen it, but my hotel happened to be down a street of cafes, bars and dessert shops. Already narrow, the street just barely had enough space for a single, very careful taxi driver to pass between tables. From 8:00 onward, the street was crowded with people around tables, enjoying their drinks and conversation. The insides of the restaurants were empty as everyone wanted to enjoy the weather and ambience. Even though I’m sure several of them had been drinking for hours, it wasn’t boisterous, but had that classic, calm, relaxing feel.
This model, of course, isn’t too different from University Ave. Indeed, it’s the striking similarities that made me compare these two places. Palo Alto is an upscale area, and that sense of classiness exists in both that street of cafes in Athens and University. The restaurants along University offer a wide variety of cuisines, with largely great quality. California weather also happens to be fantastic, and barring rainy season, I would be happy to be outside just about any other evening.
I appreciate it even more considering what I’ve been accustomed to. When not at school, I live in Katy, Texas, a suburb of Houston, where we have nothing that nice. Most apparently, the weather means that you never want to be outside. Sitting outside either results in great sock and t-shirt tans during the day or an unending plane of mosquito bites during the evening. Because of that, everyone drives from air conditioning to air conditioning, so casual streets have never developed. Moreover, Houston is largely urban sprawl, so everything is far apart, and many parts of the town are largely undesirable. Except for a small area near Rice University, I’m somewhat afraid to venture to downtown Houston. Given that, I hope you believe me when I say that I appreciate what University Ave. offers to local residents.
Perhaps it’s ungrateful part of me, but I would like to think that it’s my desire to see University fulfill everything that I want to see that is making me write this. What follows is my current perception of and attitude towards University Ave. Admittedly, this might be a very skewed perspective that is very unaligned with either what you see or the absolute truth. Even in that case, I feel like Palo Alto has misbranded itself, as I’m certain that my attitude is not uncommon among students.
Even though I live, eat, sleep, and study within 2 miles of University Ave, I will visit it about twice a quarter, which is slightly less than once a month. Given its proximity to Palo Alto, Stanford University and the “Stanford Bubble” doesn’t seem to extend into Palo Alto. I have often told friends that Stanford doesn’t really have a college town like UT has Austin, or Hanover has Dartmouth College. Instead, I gripe to my classmates that University is lined with uninvitingly upscale, expensive restaurants and Oriental rug stores. Instead, students will often go to surrounding areas to hang out. Castro Street in Mountain View seems more inviting. Redwood City has walks around the movie theater, giving it a very open feel.
Walking along University, I often get the sense that people aren’t stopping to enjoy it, but simply walking along it to get somewhere. Even with all of the tables pushed up against restaurant walls, the sidewalks are narrow, so a group of three or four friends can severely constrict traffic. It feels crowded, but not alive. More notably, I often feel like there’s nowhere that I want to stop at. While this might be an entirely separate issue, I think an important distinction between University and, say, Castro Street or downtown Santa Cruz is the presence of fun shops. On Castro Street, I’ve seen toy shops, music shops, and lock shops. In Santa Cruz, I stopped at a souvenir shop, a CD store, and an independent bookstore. On University Ave., I end up having to point out Facebook to visitors because I feel like there’s nothing else that would seem to interest them.
And for me, there’s little value to being in a car on University. Traffic is certainly slow enough to facilitate browsing, but one is typically too frustrated about traffic to point out the artwork outside of the Pizza, My Heart. Knowing better, I never take University to 101 because it’s so slow, and I really only end up on University to get to one of the side streets to park. Starting just beyond the Caltrain station and the turn to Alma, University feels like a dead zone of traffic that I would want to avoid at an time.
It seems unfair for me to stop with just criticism and no suggestion, so here’s my vision about what University could be. As I mentioned above, an important step in improving upon many of these shortcomings would be to make University a pedestrian mall, if even only for the evening and/or weekends.
A pedestrian mall would mean that restaurants could place more tables outside, allowing customers to dine with more space and without the din of cars driving by. Instead of just being somewhere to eat, University could become a place for students to “chillax”. I would hope that the greater reliance on outside space would shift customer behavior to more of a European attitude, where groups can just enjoy the evening around a table outside.
A pedestrian mall would means that foot traffic would increase. Instead of scrambling along a narrow sidewalk, people could walk openly in the middle of the street, seeing both sides of University without being hustled to get out of the way. This would encourage shops to move outside as well to approach their potential customers. I would imagine that foot traffic results in more sales than car traffic anyways.
Finally, a pedestrian mall would result in a place where the tastes of students and upper-class residents could meet. The better chance for students to hang out on University would help to chase away the student perception that University was filled for the richer residents and not the students. While a pedestrian mall would be approachable for students, Palo Alto could stay just as classy for the residents.
Admittedly, I’m not sure what the consequences of the change would be from a more official perspective. I don’t know how traffic would be re-routed, or if there would be legal difficulties, or how to get the buy-in of owners along University, or what the economic situation or plan of Palo Alto. To be honest, I actually didn’t even do much research on whether this plan has been considered before writing this (I should note, though, that such news hasn’t been made clearly available to students, and there’s a lot of interest in knowing the progress and setbacks and doing what we can to move this along). Given that, I’m certainly not the one to tell you how this will all work out because I have no expertise on the matter. I just felt that there were models of what University Ave. might be and to point out what I see to be the potential places for improvement in adding a pedestrian mall.


A Word to Future Academic Decathletes

I went in to visit and help out the Taylor AD team today, and I had come up with a sort of motivational speech for the occasion. I, however, was never actually called on to talk to them as a group, and thus, the speech ended up being unnecessary. Instead, it’ll reside here in my blog, half because I didn’t want it to go to waste, and half because I’m trying to fill in for an entry.

Forewarning: there’s some off-color humor, and a couple references that may not be entirely correct. Sorry for the messy nature of it, but that’s probably how I’d talk if I were giving a presentation to high school students.

Hi, I’m Kevin, as you probably know. And to be honest, I have some beef with AD.
Chances are that you are no more motivated than I was my junior year. You want to do well, but you don’t really want to study for it. You’re proud about how well you’ve done for how much work you’ve put into it.

Which is fine. Heck, you’ve worked harder than most people in this school. Out of the 1200-ish upperclassmen, you’re in the 1% who’ve cut it to be on Taylor AD team, which is one of 27 schools in the nation to have won the national championships. And we’ve done it twice.

But let’s be honest: that wasn’t actually either you or me. We’re recipients to expectations that we should be kicking butt, and things would be a lot easier if it weren’t that way. Equivalently, there’s an expectation that you should study. A lot. Shellum and Sweatnum worked their kids hard, to the point where the story goes that the kids who made the team never ever took an English test on time. And I’ve even been told that their students received chemical boosts to improve their focus. Okay, maybe I heard that from a very unreliable source, but I wouldn’t be surprised if they put their kids on crack to make them better. Just throwing that out there.

So I’m very sorry to say, but you’re not going to get drugs from Scott to do AD. Taylor still has too much pride to let the white trash take over like that. Go to Cinco if you want to do that.

Anyways, that means you guys are mostly on your own. So that doesn’t sound that hard. Study a lot and win a lot. But up till now, I’ve left one huge gap in talking to you. Allow me to digress.

I took a modern algebra class this last quarter at college, and it was the first proof-based math class I’ve ever taken. I had taken linear algebra my freshmen year, but that was a pretty high school class, as it was mostly focused on learning formulas and doing computation. I pretty thoroughly hated math after that class, but I convinced myself that it wouldn’t be fair for me to judge it so harshly without having taken a real college-level math class. As a summary, I took the class, got crushed by it, and now know I do not want to take another math class ever again.

But I’m okay with that, because I know I got crushed by a legit math class, and the class is one of two gateway classes into all math classes, and I had taken the hardest version of the class. And I learned a lot. I learned so much. One of the major parts of the class is to essentially write a section out of a textbook and learn how to do math writing, so we had to write our own proof for the Fundamental Theorem of Finite Abelian Groups. Don’t worry; I still don’t really know what that means either. What I did learn from constructing the proof, though, is that when explaining something and giving steps for something, you have to give the motivation for it before you start explaining, or else your audience doesn’t know what you’re getting at.

Which is how I wrap it back around into this speech that you’re now realizing is far more intense than you had originally thought it was going to be. But the point: the motivation. Yes, the motivation. I’m sure at some point, you’ve asked yourself, “Why am I doing this?” When I was at region, I had about 10 minutes of disillusionment with AD and began to question the purpose of the last half-year of my life. There are a lot of reasons the coaches might have given you as to why you want to study this. And there are a lot of things you’ve discovered while studying AD. Well, let me lay things straight for you.

First, Scott or Irish probably told you that AD looks good on a college app. That’s a terrible reason to do AD. Not only does that make you just as bad as any GPA whore, it doesn’t even really count. Some of you are probably seniors who didn’t do it your junior year, and to be honest, that means that AD doesn’t count for squat. You barely found out you actually made it on the team in time for college apps, and even state isn’t until after mid-semester reports. My college apps only said that I had made the AD team. There was no actual proof that I was a good AD student, battle-hardened in competition. So having that on there is probably about as valuable as saying that you’re treasurer of the anime club. Maybe the admissions officer will pat you on the head for that.

Second, maybe they talked about the scholarship money. There’s not THAT much money in it. If I did the math on how much I made hourly for my scholarship, I would estimate that I made about two or three dollars on the hour. Go work for HEB if you want money. They’ll pay you twice that much.

Third, maybe they told you that the subjects would be interesting. This one is a mixed bag. Changes are that they are not interesting. And even if they were, you probably aren’t excited about the subjects after reading the same 40-page packet the twentieth time.

Even if the subjects were interesting, you’d hate them anyways because USAD stinks. If you haven’t realized already, the people who work at USAD are utterly incompetent. For example, my senior year was China. They failed at writing the packets. For one of the songs, they claimed that the performer of the piece was xibeifeng. If you don’t know Chinese, that translates to northwest wind, which was the name of the song. And they managed to use two different romanizations of Chinese in two different packets, so the same guy had two different names in two different packets, and if you didn’t know Chinese, you’d be none the smarter.

On the otherhand, maybe you know my good friend Willie. Very smart kid, love him to death. He’s studying at Rice right now, and his topic of interest? Doing economic development for green technologies in China. As a reminder, my senior year, the theme was china, and SQ was climatology, particularly climate change. So he’s basically turned AD into his life goal.

I’m going to tell you now, though, that he’s the exception. You’re going to study and study to memorize every fact, but the day after your last competition, it won’t matter ever again. I promise. Which is maybe the fourth point that the coaches tried to sell you on: that you’d learn something useful. Maybe you’ll remember it for a week. Or maybe a month. Or if you’re really hardcore, you’ll remember your stuff for a couple months, so you can help the octathlon kids. But you’re not going to remember most of it. I don’t remember most of what I learned. The method that USAD tests you ensures that most of what you do will be completely worthless, because facts are worthless. The dimensions of a piece of art hanging in a museum in Washington DC just really don’t matter that much in real life.

But they didn’t entirely lie to you. AD is an excellent 5.0 study hall.

So yeah, I have some beef with AD. AD sucks. It really does. And the coaches are looking to give me the cane right now for telling you all of this. But I promise it’s okay, because I didn’t come here to make you hate AD. I came here to make you hate AD, but realize that it’s absolutely worth your time.

You know, when I talk to my college friends, sometimes we talk about our high school days, and we were all over the place. Take my draw group, for example. 5 of my best friends. Most of us were mathletes, but we all had different priorities.

My friend Ben from LA went to a math and science magnet school, so he was legitimately good at math, such that he’s still good at math at Stanford.

My friend George from Oregon was a debator. One of those debators, such that he still talks about it from time to time.

My friend Jordan from Virginia is pretty messed up. First, I should note that you should under no circumstances watch Rudolph the Five-Legged Reindeer. But anyways, Jordan; to be honest, I don’t know what he did.

My friend Tom, from the scary side of LA, was the king of his high school. President of every club, a football player and a wrestler, and even on the AD team there.

My roommate RJ from quiet little Bedford, New Hampshire, was all about robotics, which I think his team won nationals for.

And me? Well, here at Taylor, my big things were band, cs, and AD. Band and CS I did seriously for 4 years. AD, I only really got into it my senior year. But when we talk over lunch about high school, I talk about AD.

Which doesn’t make a lot of sense. I was a lot more successful with CS, and that had far more apparent impact on my career path, as my major is very closely related to CS. Having thought about it a lot, though, I think I know a couple reasons.

First, speech. When I told you that you don’t learn anything useful in AD, I was 90% lying. Speech and impromptu was so good for me. Being able to speak off the cuff in an intelligent way is super-valuable. This last quarter, I had to take the 2nd of two classes in writing and rhetoric, and the second is focused on oral communication. We had to do a bunch of 2 minute presentations, and while some people had difficulty with them, I cruised through it. That’s all prep from AD impromptu. Maybe debate teaches you how to speak better, but AD was far more efficient than that.

Second, people. If the 8 other people on the team aren’t your best friends or worst enemies, they should be. You should be partying with these people all the time. I remember my junior year, I watched the AD team dissolve because of terrible team relationships and dynamics. Not every team is meant to jive perfectly. But you should absolutely know whether that’s the case or not. Studying for AD isn’t fun, but partying definitely is, so you should absolutely do that. The AD team from my senior year is actually putting some good thought into how we’re going to do our reunion later this break, and it should be excellent. I’m going to be meeting up with some of my best friends who I very much want to see even after parting with them for college. You can make some of the best friends in AD if you put the effort into it.

Third, study habits. If you’re on the AD team, chances are that you don’t have to work really hard for school. For those of you that this is true of, listen up. If it’s not, don’t worry about it, because you’re way ahead of us.

I’m fairly confident most of you don’t work hard on school, and believe it across all 3 levels. A kids? You made the team because you don’t have to study for school, and decided to devote some of the time you slack off during on AD. C kids? If you studied for school, you wouldn’t be a C kid. Chances are that you don’t think school is worth your time. Which is debatable. In some ways, I admire you guys, because you were smart enough to not spend your time on educationally worthless pursuits. Regardless, you’re probably pretty lazy. B kids? You have the best chance of being hard workers, but probably not.

So I say this from experience: my study habits in high school sucked. When I think back to how productive I was during those years compared to now, I’m thoroughly unimpressed. I think, in some ways, AD was my chance to prove that I wasn’t a slacker, and that I was just as capable of studying hard as anyone else.

And to be honest, maybe you don’t need it to prepare for college. I’ve talked to some of my friends who insist that college is easier and less work than high school, that they slack off even more than they did here at Taylor. So maybe it won’t matter. That, however, isn’t me. If I hadn’t improved my study habits, I’d definitely be in dire straits right now. And I realize that part of that was just a kick in the pants in going to college, but I still believe that AD helped to psyche me up to be able to sit silently for hours, just reading and reading.

So those are all things I discovered that were great things that came out of AD. But none of those were why I really went for it, why I harassed my teammates to study, why I got working for DemiDec. When I think back, I only decided to really do AD at the beginning of the summer before my senior year, long before I realized all the things I’ve told you so far. It just kind of came to me that this was my chance to actually be successful at AD, and that it should become my biggest priority. And I think it was the chance of failure and the knowledge that I completely controlled what happened that motivated me so strongly.

When I thought about my other activities, I had never really failed. When I went up for region band, my sophomore year, there were no expectations for me, though I lucked out when one of the tubas had to back out. And I knew I would make it the next year, and again my senior year. I could’ve gone for state or something, but I knew there were a couple tubas in my region who I could never beat. In marching band, I mattered as much as any other student; individually, not very much. In CS, my team had been very successful very early, but unfortunately, the ceiling in that arena is pretty low.

Which is not at all the case with AD. I knew from my junior year that I could do very poorly. I also knew, though, that there’s no clear advantage for one person over another. Natural talent didn’t matter nearly as much as in band, and the ability to grasp clear, algorithmic thinking didn’t matter either. AD is 100% about working at it, and it was my choice that I should.

Because I don’t think I had ever committed myself to seeing something through like that. I had been fortunate in my other pursuits to have been successful enough early that I could largely depend on that to carry me through. But AD was a legitimate challenge that I had to overcome.

So that’s about all I have for my schpeel. Chances are, you haven’t had the same foolish motivation that I did, and in some ways, I hope you don’t, because I very well could’ve been owned by putting all my stock in AD. So I absolutely recommend that you study hard for the next three months, because I promise you, if you actually dedicate yourself to it, you will absolutely be proud of yourself for it.

Trip to Chinatown

My friend Willie organized a trip out to Chinatown last weekend for some of my friends and me. Eight of us packed into a van to a Chinese restaurant for lunch, milk tea, and a supermarket tour. A hill and tollway later, we were there.

While driving several months ago, I remember listening to a segment on National Public Radio. A woman described her experience with Chinese culture. She knew little about China, but knew about some customs. She couldn’t speak Chinese, but she knew the words for food. She lived like any American family in U.S. suburbia, but her family would cook full Chinese cuisine on Sunday nights. I laughed at how familiar her story seemed, how much it resonated with my own experiences.
(I like this paragraph, though I’m not sure if it’s in the right place, or really fits with the unity of the story. What do you think?)

I had a good time on the trip. I spent some time with my friends, and I visited a culture I’m familiar with and love much, yet rarely see. Nothing about it surprised me, yet I was shocked with the explaining I had to do.

Western and Chinese cultures are a peanut butter and jelly sandwich to me. While both are distinct and separate, they are coupled and normal to me. I could have gone to Arby’s for lunch and Safeway afterwards, and it would have been just the same to me. To my friends, however, it was something different.

I first noticed it with the menus. I can’t read Chinese, so I’m used to the poorly explained English translations. While certainly helpful, I didn’t need to walk over to the wall of pictures to determine my meal.

Which was also set up somewhat different. In western culture, people order individually, often sharing small portions of their meals with others. With Chinese dining, everything is communal. Large dishes are brought out and put on a turntable in the middle of the table, and everyone digs in to the same dishes, almost like a buffet. I was surprised at how calmly that went, as well. Chinese dining is usually a furious ordeal, with the turntable spinning and food grabbed mid-revolution. My friends were more conservative, seemingly unwilling to get the wheel spinning for their food.

It’s difficult to see the difference without a direct comparison. I always understood that the two cultures have had different standards, manners, customs. Even so, both always felt comfortable to me, and never seemed to occupy separate places as much as I realize now. It’s a gift to have two perspectives, two lifestyles. Best of both worlds, right?

(Not wholly satisfied with this, but I know I need to publish. Thank goodness for second chances in editing.)

Wondering about Wonders

On the bus to Project Graduation, I got into a discussion about the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World. As we tried to discuss the various wonders, we soon realized that we couldn’t actually remember all seven (we forgot the Temple of Artemis). Various forces destroyed six of the seven many years ago, so I doubt many people could name more than the Pyramids at Giza—the only extant one.
I voted for the new 7 wonders of the world. While this may just be another unrecognized attempt, I figured it couldn’t hurt to take part. This list has been condensed significantly, containing both recognizable items such as New York’s Statue of Liberty and the Great Wall of China, along with some less popularized items, such as Neuschwanstein Castle in Germany and Alhambra in Spain.
Of the twenty-one finalists, I knew fifteen, a seventh less than how many I knew of the older wonders.
Just yesterday, the new 7 wonders were announced. I wasn’t particularly surprised with the results; all are recognizable and have exotic cultures surrounding them. Perhaps the least recognizable of the group is Petra, but I think that garnered votes for being recognized from Indiana Jones. That’s why I voted for it.
I was surprised to see that six of the seven are at least several centuries old. I had anticipated a younger, western bias in the voting, perhaps favoring the Statue of Liberty or Eiffel Tower. Instead of voting for modern masterpieces of engineering, the public favored the aged testaments of enduring construction.
When voting, I had picked sites I learned and admired from history class. The Hagia Sophia, a religious symbol built in the city of a thousand names at the crux of several empires, struck me as a critical site. It, like the Kremlin, symbolizes a culture and the people in history around it.
The wonders should reflect not only architectural achievement, but significance to people and culture. Looking at the wonders picked, I’m still impressed. All are breath-taking expressions of human creativity, but not all of them evoke the epic sense I wanted. Maybe I need to take another history class.

Gum on My Shoe: Final Draft

It’s more realistic that I update this once a day. Hopefully, I won’t completely skip a day because I know I’ve already failed missing out in the morning.
One amazing benefit of this blog I’ve already seen: I only put a single space at the beginning of my sentences. Apparently putting two spaces is an unnecessary carry-over from the days of the typewriter that isn’t appropriate anymore. The more you know…

I recently learned that my cell phone provider gets terrible reception out west. Therefore, my mom decided to switch our family provider, and thanks to advertised deals, we also got new phones.
Out of the box, mine looked pretty cool. It flips open—my last phone was just a bar—allowing me to answer calls like in the movies. It feels thinner and more modern, and the black exterior creates a mysterious aura. (Calling for an opinion here: I switched to present tense in the middle of that paragraph; is that appropriate? Past tense makes it sound like my phone no longer does that, but it’s also awkward to switch.)
I ruffled through the box and found the quick-start guide. I hadn’t kept up with the technology and wanted to know what features it had. Maybe the camera also worked as a scanner to read in phone numbers and text. Maybe the GPS could sense locations and situations where it should switch to silent. Maybe it could fight crime while I slept, flying back when I got a call.
The pages were laid out exactly as I wanted, each with a feature to show off. And forget about. Instant messaging? I believe I can also phone them. MP3 player? I would get one if I needed it. Internet browser? Thank goodness I have a computer. Send video, picture, and sound messages? I don’t even send text messages. The camera swivels around? I guess I can satisfy my narcissistic urges now.
Well, it’s not all bad. The contact list is slightly more intuitively designed. The font is cute. And I can flip open my phone and look cool doing it.
It would be premature to say that it isn’t a better phone. I don’t know yet if the audio is clearer, or if it gets better reception. Maybe it has great in-call features. But the trend to improve it is to make it more than just a phone. It’s also an MP3 player, camera, camcorder, and web browser.
Technology is chasing me. I never know whether a camera phone will make me the next reluctant internet celebrity. Programs and features beg me to check my email more frequently. And we’re constantly connected. I can think of eight ways to contact my friends if I need them.
But I can’t fight it. The internet links me to news sources and knowledge databases for me to explore. With countless feeds, I can keep up with the latest news and get several perspectives on any event.
Several days ago, my family was playing Trivial Pursuit, laughing at the obscurity of facts. Whenever we were curious about an answer, we did a search on our laptop and found far more trivia. I don’t remember that from our games in the past.
We have many choices today for how to do things, because everything is always at hand. We always have access to them, yet this limits our choice. We can’t choose not to have them. I wish my phone would just be a phone.

I don’t have much patience with rewrites either.
Tomorrow: who knows. I’ll figure that out tomorrow.