A few surprising plot twists in daily economics

I love economics stories that surprise me. In the last few weeks, I’ve listed to a few stories that truly shocked me and I wanted to share them, in case you need a media list for the weekend.

Did you know that some professional hunters are also some of the most ardent conservationists? This RadioLab episode explores the story of poachers who pay for expensive contracts to hunt for rare or endangered animals around the world.

White Rhinos, US Fish and Wildlife Services, Taken Nakuru, Africa. Credit: Karl Stromayer/USFWS
White Rhinos, US Fish and Wildlife Services, Taken Nakuru, Africa. Credit: Karl Stromayer/USFWS

Turns out, the story is more complicated than “blood thirsty poachers.” This episode is well worth a listen to the complicated financial structure behind conservation parks.

Voluntourism draws a lot of critique from communities around the world, but I hadn’t realized how closely tied some orphanages in countries like Cambodia, Nepal, and Uganda are to the emotions (and markets!) that tourists bring to their travels. What happens when “cute children” become a tourist trap? (Good news: She’s working on fixing this bad dynamic)

We Need to End the Era of Orphanages | Tara Winkler

Breakfast is my favorite part of American cuisine… but it wasn’t always a “thing.” This writer explored the breakfast cereal marketing campaign that made Breakfast “the most important meal of the day.”

And how about a public bench designed to simultaneously interrupt informal economic activities (specifically, drug dealing), prevent theft, limit loitering, and defy graffiti? 99% Invisible covered a brief history of unpleasant design to show how some designers though about solving what they viewed as “social ills.”

Work by Public artist BiP, New Haven CT
Work by Public artist BiP, New Haven CT

Finally, a few thought-provoking pieces by R. Luke DuBois about how we organize numbers and think about people. If you haven’t seen his TED talk yet, I would recommend beginning here.

His maps of the United States are fascinating and worth exploring over a long, hot summer afternoon. You can see more of them on the TED Ideas Blog or on his website. He challenges the idea of “data viz” with his piece called “Take a Bullet for the City” and he does his part to make our communities a little warmer through his piece that connects people on the missed connections board on Craigslist.

My Mother, The Explorer.

My mother is an explorer.

Not of the hiking boots and rain-soaked maps–sort. Her adventures sought truth beyond what was directly stated.

A few years ago, I was writing my thesis, and she was completing her dissertation in parallel. We both wrote about Colombia, though I wrote about drug cartels and how they invested in political campaigns, whereas she focused on twentieth-century and contemporary Colombian artists and how they documented the violence of the drug wars.

We found that writing about Mexico, where I was born and she had lived for a quarter of her life, was too raw, too close to memories we weren’t ready to talk about, so we shifted our focus to Colombia.

She asked, “How do you sit down and focus? Help me remember what it’s like to be a student.”

I offered some notes on my study habits.

I asked, “Can I borrow your books from the artists?” Sometimes, they offered a perspective closer to the truth. She’d challenge me to go beyond the text.

We explored truth together.

I finished my thesis and graduated from Yale. A year later, she submitted her PhD dissertation to Harvard. Mine was to satisfy my burning questions about black markets in Latin America, an important step towards embracing myself wholeheartedly as an explorer of truth (a researcher). Hers was a project of love and defiance that shows it is never too late to chase your dreams.

Now, a few years after college, my mentors remind me that I should start my PhD now, if I want to sample all that life has to offer. They tell me the investment of my time and energy into a PhD has to happen now, if I want to have a family and a career. I left academia to try my hand at research inside industry, first for a think tank and then TED, and to try pursuing other people’s questions.

Sometimes, I am consumed by anxiety. And just when I wonder if my window of opportunity to return to my questions is closing, I remember my mother’s journey, and how she fearlessly pursued her degree while working and caring for her children. It would take fourteen years from start to finish for her to complete her PhD. It was interrupted with adventure: she left her program when she moved to Mexico City, had children, worked as an art critic, and taught art history, before she eventually returned to her PhD.

Timelines for the questions we pursue, she taught me, can be adapted, and sometimes a researcher requires different types of personal growth to reach her fullest potential.

My Mom is an explorer. My path (and my timeline) is my own to determine. With her as an example, I embrace my adventures.

Diana Enriquez is by day TED’s Content Researcher, and by night an informal economist. She loves experiment design, trying to answer difficult questions, unusual businesses, and the informal economy. She grew up in Mexico City and Boston and now lives in Brooklyn. 

This was originally published as an essay in a collection of essays here.

What is the Extended Eulogy?

For me, growing up in a Mexican family meant that death was about curation.

See, in Mexico, we remember the dead regularly – to us, the line between living and dead is not so thick. In those moments, we are expected to interact directly with the person we are remembering.

Our communities created profiles of our loved ones … in their own words. On the Day of the Dead, We reread letters they wrote, quote them, relived our interactions and favorite meals… and because these people do not exist as a static, as they might in a formalize biography, they live on as a multi-faceted memory.

But I wondered, how did other people design these profiles? How often are we able to remember those that we love through their words?

I started a research project for my Learning Wednesday – I call it, The Extended Eulogy.

It started because I had a mentor figure from college who died in April after a long battle with cancer. We knew him as the Master of Saybrook College, my program at Yale. We remembered him through the events he hosted and the comforting words he offered when we needed them.

But to the rest of the world, Master Hudak as a super hacker. For the months that he was in the hospital, receiving treatment until the end of his life, he was as the subject of discussion within the top 10 hits on major hacker chat boards around the world.

I started thinking about the profiles that each of Master Hudak’s communities would build around his memory – how would they curate his profile?

To date, I have interviewed several curators for Extended Eulogies. The first was a friend who was a major curatorial voice behind the NYTimes Best Seller “The Opposite of Loneliness,” which is a collection of essays written by my former classmate Marina Keegan. Marina passed away tragically in a car crash in 2012. This book lives on as her legacy.

The second is an artist who was asked to grant three wishes by a friend of hers as he died of complications from AIDS in 90s. His Extended Eulogy was an exhibition of his photographs that she curated. As you walked through the collection, you walked through a timeline of his creative mind.

Both of these curators told me that when they reviewed the work by their friends… they could hear their voices in it.

I narrowed the scope of my research to three framing questions. Each time I asked them:

How did you remember this person?

How did the world know this person?

What questions did this person spend their life trying to answer?

Just a week or two after Master Hudak’s death, I learned that my grandfather had been diagnosed with cancer.

The Extended Eulogies research project started to morph… into a living profile.

I am on a mission to collect all of the memories for his profile that I can… but most importantly, I need to capture his memories in his own words.

What you need to know about my grandfather is I grew up allowed to believe in legends and heroes, because my grandfather was one of these heroes.

Orphaned twice by 19, he received a partial scholarship to play football for the University of Nebraska and put himself through college while supporting his young family by working nightshifts on the Lincoln, Nebraska Railroad. He was the designer and implementer for the first computer system in Kellogg’s supply chain.

My grandfather created everything he became.

I took a Monday off work to spend the day interviewing him with the StoryCorps app. For four hours, we talked about the future of work, family, and life’s questions big questions… adding dimensions to the man who lived in my memory as a series of family legends and humorous stories.

The difference now between this profile and a biography is that my grandfather has a hand in it.

He is not a writer or an artist, but I want to tell his story and remember him through his voice. His words.

This living profile and the Extended Eulogy is about breathing life into our memories. It is about giving the people we remember enough layers of complexity to remember and celebrate that they were human – that they struggled with questions, and saw themselves one way while the rest of the world may have seen them another way.

The richer the profile, the richer the memory that can live on with us, to interact with us on the Day of the Dead each year. I am grateful for this opportunity to build something full of life with my grandfather.

This is a talk I will give tomorrow at the TED Staff Retreat about my Wednesday Research work. This is a new experiment for me, and it exists largely as a conceptual art piece until I find the right ways to work with my research. 

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.