A Conservation Law for Empathy?

Earlier this week I found myself in Rome in the morning with about 20 minutes to spare. Walking around the neighborhood I was staying in (Trastevere), I came across an elderly nun walking along one of the bigger, and more crowded, streets of Rome. As I waited for her to go through a narrow passage in the sea of people, a young woman pushing a stroller physically nudged her out of the way, using the stroller to deny the physical space in front of and adjacent to the older woman as she overtook her. The nun grimaced but seemed resigned to what happened. I saw this unfold despite having been out for only about ten minutes. In contrast, having walked US streets in San Francisco, Boston, and New York for over twenty years, I don’t recall seeing a similar situation happen even once. It follows that frequentist estimates of such occurrences in American cities and Rome suggest very different underlying distributions.

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Je Suis Charlie

Yesterday’s news about the horrific massacre in Paris shook me really hard. I spent the day very upset, and the night puzzled by my extreme reaction. Terrorism attacks have virtually become fixtures of the daily news, with yesterday alone over a dozen killed in Iraq. Why did this bother me so much?

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Question: Would You Exit?

This post will be a question to you dear reader. Consider the following scenario: Death is no longer at everyone’s doorstep. Any person can choose to live healthily for as long as they wish, with the caveat that no new person can be born unless someone already living decides to “exit”, a euphemism for a completely painless death, something as easy as walking through a door. Thus while one can go on living forever, it would hypothetically deprive some other person from experiencing the joys (and pains) of life and growth.

If you lived in such a world, would you ever exit? If so, what would you first want to do/accomplish before freeing up your spot for someone else? Feel free to comment below.

Utopia

I recently came across an art installation online by Yang Liu, a Chinese-born artist who lives in Germany. Her series of visual designs contrast the cultural norms and values of China and Germany, and their broader respective civilizations. Being a product of the West and East myself, I was constantly nodding at her images, as they captured much of the cultural differences between my adopted and birth country, a topic on which I have previously written. As I continued scrolling, I found myself “choosing” between which side I preferred best, depending on the topic. These choices, in the form of picking the blue (Germany) or red (China) tile and trivial though they are, in fact summarize one of my life’s larger struggles; the straddling of two different and often incongruous ways of being, and the striving to define an identity that is at once consistent with and is a synthesis of both.

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A Year in New England: Boston vs. The Valley

It has now been over a year since my move to Boston from Palo Alto, which seems like a fitting time to take a retrospective look at the two places. My sampling will be far from unbiased, having lived close to 20 years in the Bay Area. As a result this will be more like “Boston through the eyes of a Northern Californian”. There is no specific order to the comparisons below; I will vacillate between the substantive and the frivolous. And there will be no declared winner; both places are far too different and offer far too much for one to dominate the other in the Pareto optimal sense. At times, this will be more about Stanford vs. Harvard than the Bay Area vs. Boston, as much of my experience is ultimately grounded by my local environment.

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10 Months at Harvard, Quantified

I will soon reach the one-year mark of my fellowship at HMS, which seems like a fitting time to examine how effectively I have spent my time here so far. I have been a practitioner of self quantification long before the movement acquired its name, having tracked some aspect of my life since I was 16. Given the movement’s growing popularity, I thought it appropriate to share some of my life hacking experiments. My approach has cyclically peaked and waned in sophistication, something that I will expound upon later in the post, but I believe that the overall trajectory of my effort has been that of increasing usefulness. Any lifestyle change, particularly one that involves compulsive tracking of one’s behavior, ought to result in actionable information that is demonstrably useful and not merely be a quantitative exercise in vanity. In this post I hope to show that this can in fact be the case for self quantification.

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Berlin

I recently had the pleasure of visiting Berlin for the first time. Prior to my arrival I had heard a lot about the city, and had many expectations. The real Berlin turned out to be very different from the one of my imagination, in more ways than one.

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On Ego and Ambition

I occasionally engage in a somewhat macabre exercise: lost in thought, I begin to imagine hypothetical reactions from everyone I know to the news of my sudden death, usually due to an unexpected event like a car accident. I don’t do this very often, maybe once every few months. And there is no specific recurrent trigger for it. The last time I did it, a little over a month ago, was soon after hearing about the death of Roger Ebert. I, like many others who followed his life and writings over the years, felt saddened by this loss, and that sadness prompted me to consider my own mortality. At first, it was the “typical” story. I thought about my girlfriend, my parents, and the people closest to me. I thought about all the years invested, the memories formed and the futures planned; about all that was worthy and that was hard won. Then I thought about the sadness that would engulf all these people, about their sense of loss and the emptiness that they would experience. And, as such exercises typically end for me, I began to experience a deep sense of sorrow. I felt saddened by the inevitability of my death, by the eventual destruction of all that I have built, by the wasted memories, meticulously acquired then blown away as if they were never experienced. Perhaps I even felt angry by the seeming meaninglessness of life, by an existence in which we strive to live great lives, only to have them yanked away from us by the fragility of an aging and imperfectly evolved biological machine. It is typically at this point that, feeling hopelessly defeated, I turn my attention to something else, get distracted, and go on merrily living a life of ignorant bliss. For some reason however, this time my thoughts took a different turn.

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The Glass Bead Game, by Hermann Hesse

… For although in a certain sense and for light-minded persons non-existent things can be more easily and irresponsibly represented in words than existing things, for the serious and conscientious historian it is just the reverse. Nothing is harder, yet nothing is more necessary, than to speak of certain things whose existence is neither demonstrable nor probable. The very fact that serious and conscientious men treat them as existing things brings them a step closer to existence and to the possibility of being born.

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On Community, Part IV

This is the fourth and final post in a series about community and social cohesion in the United States. In the preceding entries (I, II, III) I put forth the thesis that American culture lacks a strong sense of community, and outlined some of the reasons I believe are responsible for this coming to be. In this post, I will propose some ideas to counteract the problem, although my ideas do not yet constitute a comprehensive solution. I am at an early enough stage in my thinking to only begin to realize the scope of this problem, let alone devise serious and credible solutions. What follows are shots in the dark; the first steps in what is bound to be a long journey.

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