Love of the Fact Check

People who know me well are not surprised when I tell them that I enjoy fact checking.

People who don’t know me very well look some combination of shocked, horrified, or judgmental when I tell them that I enjoy fact checking.

What they are missing is that fact checking is not about proving people wrong — I don’t like having to flag notes or facts and then follow up for a “can I see your data set” conversation. It’s not about making anyone look bad or asking them to do more work and more research… it’s about ensuring that what is produced is the best piece we can build together.

For me, the fact check is like being a sleuth. I need to figure out what kinds of questions the initial data collectors were asking and whether or not the data is being interpreted accurately when it’s allowed to roam free and be interpreted by other people outside the initial collection team. This is sort of like sniffing out the initial environment of the “scene of the crime” where the data was collected.

Then I get to check out the arguments the opponents or other groups are making and see where there are interpretation issues. Sometimes data sets are very consistent.. sometimes it’s an entirely different story.

I get to look up conversations between brilliant thinkers and try to track down the initial inception point of a thought or idea that became a major piece of intellectual capital.

I get to have really cool conversations about strengthening arguments and narratives with facts. I LOVE this part. I want to make my speakers be the best they can be, because the talk should be able to stand on its own at the point that it’s given… and years later or when its viewed online by people in other contexts.

I hope next time people wont be so horrified when I tell them that I love fact checking. I know I always appreciate the feedback on my own work.

July: Favorite TED Talks

When people find out what I do now, I am always asked what my favorite talks are from our site. These are my current favorites, though the last one is almost always in my top 3.

This one always fills me with wonder and makes me smile.

This one reminds me that the world is beautiful and worth exploring.
This one reminds me to make time to reflect.

A Perfect Love Letter

I have been collecting my favorite lines from literature and lectures in notebooks since I was in high school. Some of them are so beautiful, that I read them to myself on the way to work on the subway… and recently a friend asked if I had ever played with them, adding my own structure to it. So… I did.

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[When I met you, you weren’t] doing a thing that I could see, except standing there leaning on the balcony railing, holding the universe together. (J.D. Salinger, A Girl I Once Knew)

[One] of the mixed blessings of being twenty and twenty-one and even twenty-three is the conviction that nothing like this, all evidence to the contrary notwithstanding, has ever happened before. (Joan Didion, Slouching Towards Bethlehem) [That you and I find ourselves here, where] journeys end in lovers meeting. (Shakespeare, Twelfth Night) [That when we first spoke, your] laughter was a question [I] wanted to spend [my] whole life answering. (Nicole Krauss, The History of Love)

I just want you to know that you’re very special… and the only reason I’m telling you is that I don’t know if anyone ever has. (Stephen Chbosky, The Perks of Being A Wallflower)

Yo te he nombrado reina.
Hay más altas que tú, más altas.
Hay más puras que tú, más puras.
Hay más bellas que tú, hay más bellas.
Pero tú eres la reina. (Pablo Neruda, La Reina)

[And I want for you to] Be who you are and say what you feel, because those who mind don’t matter and those who matter don’t mind. (Dr Seuss)

Who, being loved, is poor? (Oscar Wilde, A Woman of No Importance)

[My love, the] curves of your lips could rewrite history. (Oscar Wilde, The Picture of Dorian Gray) [And how easy would it be,] You only have to let the soft animal of your body
love what it loves. (Mary Oliver, Wild Geese)

[So] if you ever have need of my life, come and take it. (Anton Chekov, The Seagull)

[For] there are stars, but none of you, to spare. (June Jordan, Sunflower Sonnet II)

Midsummer Night’s Dream (or how we use fantasy to make sense of the truth)

As an undergrad, I would go visit a specific painting in the Yale University Art Galleries every time I needed to go somewhere to think. It was a piece by Kandinsky called The Waterfall. It used to be hidden on a little wall panel in a corner of the second floor gallery. There was a bench for me to sit on and wait, sorting through thoughts, until I was either kicked out because the gallery was closing or I had finished sorting for the day.

This isn’t my favorite piece by Kandinsky, but his pieces have always helped me make sense of my most tangled thoughts. In his paintings, I see all the vibrance and pain and absolute ecstasy of life. Their abstraction helped me find ways to live with my questions.

1941'529_1.tif Luna Imaging, Inc. 1315 Innes Place Venice, CA 90291 (310) 452-8370
Luna Imaging, Inc.

When I first moved to New York, I was very skeptical of the psychic on the corner of my street in Chelsea. I saw her there every day, sometimes she would beckon me to come in from the sidewalk when I was walking home from work. And then, I started to notice lots of psychics spread out across the city… including one in the West Village on my walk to work that often had expensive black cars waiting outside of it for women in sunglasses to disappear into after their “appointments.”

There are enough psychics spread across the city… a city with exceptionally high rents and overhead costs for businesses… that you can find one easily on a basic google maps search. Which means… people are going to see them regularly enough that being a “psychic” is a viable career option for a handful of people.

I learned, from Kandinsky then and from the psychics now how valuable it is to find ways that help you live with your questions. And, more importantly, learn to ask better questions of yourself. When the answers cannot be answered with Yes or No, we have to turn to other tools that help us cope with and make sense of truth.

We turn to abstraction.

Why?

First, Rainer Maria Rilke was quoted to me, on a Friday, in a way that has haunted me ever since: Be patient towards all that is unsolved in your heart and try to love the questions themselves, liked locked rooms and like books that are now written in a very foreign tongue. Do not now seek the answers, which cannot be given you because you would not be able to live them. And the point is, to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps you will then, gradually, without noticing it, live along some distant day into the answer.”

At a certain point, with many things, we realize how little we can approximate, predict… or even guess. I’ve noticed, from working around investment analysts, labor organizers, artists, and teachers… we all seek tools to help give us direction and ways to cope with “living the question.”

I visit modern and contemporary art collections to let myself feel. In the same way I experience an instinctual reaction to the answer I receive while flipping a coin when I need to make a decision that I feel largely conflicted on, I can find roots of an emotional response through art. How often have you flipped a coin to get an “external answer, reacted to the draw and made your own decision independently from this information?

Art helps me ask questions. Better questions than I often start with. For example: What should I do next? Is a broad question that feels like an aimless sea in a fog. When forced to pick directions, especially those that scare me, like dive into the deep! I find responses within myself that force me to think through the reasons I am reacting that way. Therein, I begin to find some truth.

But for others, psychics and tarot cards, their symbols and metaphors, provide important insight. In my travels, I’ve met successful investors (even, billionaires) who rely on astrology to pick their trades, economists who discuss network structures in communities in geometric terms to make sense of their personal identity questions, and introverts who rely on the symbology of Tarot cards to have conversations with their closest friends about their personal fears and questions.

If nothing else, the vagueness of symbols forces us to communicate better. When answering, what this artwork means to me, I have to begin my providing tools to explain the framework of my thinking. I introduce my questions. Without finding these questions & defining this framework… my friend cannot engage with me. And I’ve grown most recently from these shared experiences.

#ScholarFest

Last week I attended the ScholarFest at the Kluge Center in the Library of Congress.

Perhaps the best moment was being asked by the hostess if I would like to visit “the past, present or future?” and then, upon selecting the future, being led down a beautiful hallway in the Thomas Jefferson Building of the Library and settled into the beginning of a discussion about life on other planets.

The event initially came into my periphery when someone that I work with at TED sent a description of the event, highlighting their program for the “Lightening Conversations” and asked if I had time to go. I said, absolutely.

[Quick update: videos from Scholarfest are now on youtube. Here is the session cut for the Future]

First, what were the “Lightening Conversations?”

The first part of the ScholarFest program used scholars paired based on mutual research interests, tangentially related research interests, or directly opposing research interests.

Each pair was given 10 minutes to start a dialogue intersecting their research and/or engaging with each other’s work. Speakers were not directly introduced by the initial introduction to the event, instead weaving in a quick line or two about their work in the first few minutes of each session. There were five sessions in the first piece of the program and some time set aside for town hall style Q&A. The total program ran for an hour and 20 minutes before it transitioned into a new room with a new theme.

The structure of each pairing depended on what the two speakers decided they wanted to do. Participants were informed of their pairing and introduced to the other speaker the night before the panel. For some, it seemed they had found new collaborators and conspirators, even though their topics and opinions on various subjects varied so greatly. For others, the mix could be abrasive, but also ended quickly.

Some of the structures that evolved during these 10 minute Lightening Conversations:

  • each person introduced a few key points and themes from their research,

  • each person introduced their work and then asked their partner about their specific research work,

  • they started with a thematic question that applied to both of their areas of interest,

  • they presented a question directly to the other person

  • a science historian moderated/interviewed the scientist

  • the critiqued each other’s theories/work and had a lively discussion

  • they discussed and wove themselves from each other’s work into the same discussion

I was intrigued by the Lightening Conversation format for a few reasons. First, it seems like a great way to breathe life back into Academia. It was a wonderful treat for me, as a researcher, to watch experts in their fields have an open conversation and ask each other questions. It was a chance to see how their minds worked outside of purely academic contexts and formats. The informality and speed of the conversations meant that each person had to think on their toes.

Second, the interdisciplinary themes of the Future (and some of the other conversations, in particular Freedom of Speech) meant that these experts were asked to step outside of their fields of expertise and engage in new thought experiments. It made academia feel more human. Challenging. Like a continued experiment that the audience was invited to watch and engage with… not a typical experience when attending a university lecture. A lot of ground was covered quickly.

Finally, the audience was offered a wide range of perspectives before they were offered the opportunity to reengage with the entire cast of speakers from that session. Rather than pull from a single thread of opinions or thoughts, there was a tapestry of conversation to pull from and multiple experts could respond to our questions. This was nothing short of delightful. I felt very spoiled.

I would really like to see more of this take place at Yale (and others, but I can only speak from my experience). It brought rich life back into the research I’ve seen only in very long and dense academic texts. Looking forward to ScholarFest next year!

Why I write [[1]]

I write to make sense of the world when I feel so overwhelmed by the combination of information, analysis, and pure human emotion. It is the only way I can stop myself from feeling too overwhelmed to pick something to help out with where I can offer something. I write to make sense of my world, I build to do something worth remembering later.

All of this news from Baltimore makes me think about how parents talk to their children about right and wrong. How do we teach them about justice? I know it happened, but I cannot remember how my parents first introduced the concept of “just” and “unjust,” or even “fairness.”

How does one define or provide examples of justice today, while the news is scrolling through coverage from Baltimore and Ferguson and so many other communities in the United States that are sharing the stories that have been hidden for too long?

I mostly read twitter, and a handful of the articles, but there is a lot of editorializing and not enough data for me to follow and make sense of everything from here, at a distance.

All of it is, however, causing me to return to questions I’ve been returning to for the last few years.

I struggle with my understanding of “activism” and viewing myself as an “activist” in similar ways/language that my Catholic or formerly Catholic friends talk about their faith.

The difference, and what I envy them for, is that they can retreat to a church as a space of quiet reflection.

My temple is in loud gritty streets where I cannot ever turn off. Where a car horn at 4am is as natural to me as the sound of my roommate locking the door behind her when she leaves early in the morning. Never alone, never completely able to let go.

The only way I escape from losing my mind in over-defining and critiquing myself to death is to write about it. Either in the journals I keep or in poetry. The poetry is ideal because I can hide behind words and express more purely what the strain/breach of faith feels like. [Breach in both definitions: the breaking and rebuilding].

Maybe it will always be in conflict.

Yale Tech Conference: Yale Looks To Boost Entrepreneurial Community

Yesterday, Yale Tech kicked off its first New York City based conference. The first Yale Tech event was a sold out 200 person conference in San Francisco with attendees coming all the way from Shanghai for the event. Yesterday was another nearly sold out event with ~100 people. Not bad for a school known for investing heavily in arts and humanities… and struggling with some of its science programs/attracting students interested in the sciences. [I should add that Yale is making a concentrated effort to reach out to STEM students and improve its programs.]

The content throughout the day was very strong. The morning kicked off with speakers from Yale Entrepreneurial Institute and Yale’s Computer Science Department, urging alumni to be more involved with some of the great projects happening on campus. One of the speakers pointed out that students (and alumni, myself included) frequently complain that Yale does not offer many programs that focus on “real world applications.” I know, at least for me, this was an issue when I was working through proposal for my thesis and looking for faculty support/editors to advise my work.

What started with HackYale‘s efforts to improve access to hard skills for our student body is now happening on a larger university level (we hope). HackYale started in 2012 as an effort by students (Will Gaybrick YLS’12, Bay Gross YC’13 and Miles Grimshaw YC’13) to introduce a programming curriculum into Yale’s offerings. The students working in the program originally taught programming skills to their classmates for free, but as the program grew, Yale started to pay student teachers for their time. Yesterday at Yale Tech, Gaybrick was speaking on a panel about investing (he is now a partner at Thrive Capital) and he added that more students had signed up for HackYale in the first two weeks than had graduated from the Computer Science Department in several years. In 2015, Yale and it’s alumni have decided to step in and make further improvements.

Yale’s Computer Science Department is also underfunded and staffed compared to many of the other schools within our network. Luckily, the university is making some efforts to grow this department and offer more immediately applicable programming courses for students. Alumni support for this move appeared during the conference under #YaleTech.

The conference hosted a series of industry leaders, including Henry Blodget [CEO and Co-Founder of Business Insider], Jennifer Fleiss [CEO, Rent-The-Runway], Kevin Delaney [Editor-in-Chief, Quartz] and Eddie Hartman [Co-Founder & Chief Product Officer, LegalZoom]. I have to applaud the content and conference director, Victor Wong, for getting nearly 50/50 male to female speakers for the event. I know from my own work at TED and formerly at TEDxYale that this is hard to do. [For many reasons, as June Cohen explained at TEDGlobal 2013]. The speakers were all very candid and shared valuable insight from their respective industries. During the course of the day, we covered everything from data driven sizing recommendations for high end women’s fashion to war stories from investing and mergers and acquisitions.

It was good to see the conversations go beyond technology and programming into other fields, like journalism, legal support, and finance. I think the conference staff did a wonderful job presenting many different projects coming out of the Entrepreneurial Community at Yale, which is not an easy task. The audience was equally diverse — I spent time talking to alumni now working in local and city government, architects, engineers, developers, professors, digital designers, teachers, and writers. It is promising to see alumni from so many different backgrounds coming together to support Yale Tech’s efforts. Overall, the conference sends an important message to current students about other options out there beyond the jobs and recruiters that actively chase recent grads. The alumni encouraged students to be creative and look for new opportunities. As we all know, I think this is a really important message to share with students.

I’ll be following Yale Tech’s growth in NYC and abroad… can’t wait for more.