the12 - Debra Rienstra - Unfinished Business
I found this brief reflection heartening as I head toward my first commencement as a professor tomorrow, with some unfinished business and also a sense of wonder about how I came to be here and doing this.
"Why do people respond to these misfortunes and not to others? The psychologist Paul Slovic points out that, when Holloway disappeared, the story of her plight took up far more television time than the concurrent genocide in Darfur. Each day, more than ten times the number of people who died in Hurricane Katrina die because of preventable diseases, and more than thirteen times as many perish from malnutrition. There is, of course, the attention-getting power of new events. Just as we can come to ignore the hum of traffic, we become oblivious of problems that seem unrelenting, like the starvation of children in Africa—or homicide in the United States. In the past three decades, there were some sixty mass shootings, causing about five hundred deaths; that is, about one-tenth of one per cent of the homicides in America. But mass murders get splashed onto television screens, newspaper headlines, and the Web; the biggest ones settle into our collective memory—Columbine, Virginia Tech, Aurora, Sandy Hook. The 99.9 per cent of other homicides are, unless the victim is someone you’ve heard of, mere background noise. The key to engaging empathy is what has been called “the identifiable victim effect.” As the economist Thomas Schelling, writing forty-five years ago, mordantly observed, “Let a six-year-old girl with brown hair need thousands of dollars for an operation that will prolong her life until Christmas, and the post office will be swamped with nickels and dimes to save her. But let it be reported that without a sales tax the hospital facilities of Massachusetts will deteriorate and cause a barely perceptible increase in preventable deaths—not many will drop a tear or reach for their checkbooks."
"Names research suddenly became much, much easier because of one curious dad. In 1997, Michael Shackleford was an employee of the Office of the Actuary at the Social Security Administration’s headquarters in Baltimore; his wife was pregnant and he was determined to avoid giving the child a common name like his own. With his access to Social Security card data, he wrote a simple program to sort the information by year of birth, gender, and first name. Suddenly he could see every Janet born in 1960. He could see that the number one names in 1990 were Michael and Jessica. He realized this could be important. “I knew that my eyeballs were seeing this list of the most popular baby names nationwide for the first time,” he recalled recently. “It was too good to keep to myself.” Since then, the SSA has built up its site so that anyone—a researcher, an expectant parent, or a teenage Olivia in 2023 wondering how she got saddled with something so commonplace—can now explore the top 1,000 names by year back to 1880. You can track a particular name over time, or peruse lists including popular twin names. (In 2011, 14 pairs of twins were named London and Paris.) The previous year’s list is released each year around Mother’s Day."
Honors Work in Your Major: Joys and Pointers « An Inventory of Uncommercial Goods
So proud of my honors student Kathryn and her smart scholarly work-in-progress (using a theory I previously found boring in an interesting and illuminating way!). She describes her process a little in this blog post.
"So I went to Google to interview some of the people who are working on its search engine. And what I heard floored me. “The Star Trek computer is not just a metaphor that we use to explain to others what we’re building,” Singhal told me. “It is the ideal that we’re aiming to build—the ideal version done realistically.” He added that the search team does refer to Star Trek internally when they’re discussing how to improve the search engine. “It comes up often,” Singhal said. “For instance, we might say, ‘Captain Kirk never pulled out a keyboard to ask a question.’ So in that way it becomes one of the design principles—we see that because the Star Trek computer actively relies on speech, if we want to do that we need to work to push the barrier of speech recognition and machine understanding."