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. Terrorist attacks have become fixtures of the daily news, with yesterday alone seeing over a dozen killed in Iraq. Why did this bother me so much?

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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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The Federal Government is Not Useless

There has been much haranguing about the apparent uselessness of the federal government. While I am no political pundit, I can speak about my little corner of the universe. The US federal government includes something called the National Institutes of Health or NIH, which happens to be the largest scientific research organization in the world. With a budget of over $30 billion, it spends more on research than Microsoft, IBM, Intel, Google, and Apple combined, supporting over 300,000 researchers nationwide. It also employs 6,000 scientists internally, who collectively produce more biomedical research than any other organization in the United States. What does it mean for the NIH staff to be furloughed? It means that every single day, 16.4 research years are wasted, or about three Ph.D. theses. This is likely to be an underestimate because the scientists employed by the NIH are professionals whose scientific output exceeds that of graduate students, and the quality of NIH-produced research backs this up. What kind of research will be delayed every day? You can read the list yourself, but it includes things like deciphering the genetic code, inventing MRI, and sequencing the human genome. This is not hyperbole; all these discoveries were made by NIH-supported researchers, who have received 83 Nobel prizes in total.

The US is the world’s preeminent scientific superpower, “a player without peer” as Nature recently put it. Only through profound and self-inflicted displays of stupidity such as we have witnessed during the past 24 hours will this cease to be the case.

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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On Community, Part III

This is the third part of a four-part series on issues of community and social cohesion in the United States. In the first part I made the claim that the US lacks a strong sense of community, and in the second part I outlined some of the underlying reasons for that. In this post I offer more reasons, focusing primarily on multiculturalism and its potentially negative effects. I am a proponent of multiculturalism and believe that on the whole its advantages outweigh its disadvantages, but the topic of this post is social cohesion, and viewed from this specific prism, I believe that multiculturalism can have detrimental consequences.

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On Community, Part II

This is the second part of a four-part series on issues of community in the United States. In the first part, I made the claim that America lacks social cohesion and a strong sense of community, and that this deficiency may be a major factor in cultivating extreme behavior exhibited by school shooters like Adam Lanza. In this part and the next, I will address some possible reasons behind this problem. In the fourth part, I hope to propose ideas for solutions.

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The American Experiment in the Chinese Century

There is an undeniable air of melancholy in America today. Everywhere it seems there is a growing sense that our best days are behind us, that the American Century is coming to an end, with the inevitable rise of China and a concomitant Chinese Century. There is also, of course, much in the way of punditry regarding how fast this will happen, or whether it will happen at all. My own feeling is that regardless of the details, the transition is inevitable. China, despite its non-trivial challenges and problems, is unstoppable (and if it weren’t, should it be stopped, given the likely millions who will be lifted out of poverty by its rise?), and thus regardless of whether it will happen in 2020 or 2050, many of us will live to see the day when the United States is no longer the world’s preeminent superpower.

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On Community, Part I

I would like to propose that the primary reason school shootings happen so frequently in America is not because of guns or mental health, but because the US, by and large, lacks a cohesive social fabric and a sense of community. That’s not to say that guns and mental health don’t play a role, only that they are secondary to the issue of social cohesion. My claims will be largely based on anecdotal evidence, but one piece of systemic evidence is that the US’ situation with guns and mental health is similar to many other countries’, particularly countries in the Middle East where guns (and heavier grade weaponry) are abundant and access to mental health is even more restricted than it is in the US. Yet, crimes of the sort perpetrated by Adam Lanza are almost entirely unheard of in the Middle East. Violence in schools and against children does occur, as evidenced by the frequent brutality of the Taliban against girls for example, but such crimes represent a distinct phenomenon from that of the lone gunman with little ideological or political motivation. But I am getting ahead of myself. I would first like to begin with issues regarding community in the United States.

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