I’ll be speaking at The Moth Main Stage in Boston on April 27! Tickets are available for purchase at https://themoth.org/events/the-moth-mainstage-in-boston-3.
I noticed this when I voted for the first time in 2012: Georgia’s ballot initiatives, which are typically amendments to the state constitution, are frighteningly biased in their wording to push voters into voting yes.
Here are the ballot initiatives, verbatim1, for 2016, which Georgians are voting on as I type these words:
Provides greater flexibility and state accountability to fix failing schools through increasing community involvement.
Shall the Constitution of Georgia be amended to allow the state to intervene in chronically failing public schools in order to improve student performance?
Authorizes penalties for sexual exploitation and assessments on adult entertainment to fund child victims’ services.
Shall the Constitution of Georgia be amended to allow additional penalties for criminal cases in which a person is adjudged guilty of keeping a place of prostitution, pimping, pandering, pandering by compulsion, solicitation of sodomy, masturbation for hire, trafficking of persons for sexual servitude, or sexual exploitation of children and to allow assessments on adult entertainment establishments to fund the Safe Harbor for Sexually Exploited Children Fund to pay for care and rehabilitative and social services for individuals in this state who have been or may be sexually exploited?
Reforms and re-establishes the Judicial Qualifications Commission and provides for its composition, governance, and powers.
Shall the Constitution of Georgia be amended so as to abolish the existing Judicial Qualifications Commission; require the General Assembly to create and provide by general law for the composition, manner of appointment, and governance of a new Judicial Qualifications Commission, with such commission having the power to discipline, remove, and cause involuntary retirement of judges; require the Judicial Qualifications Commission to have procedures that provide for due process of law and review by the Supreme Court of its advisory opinions; and allow the Judicial Qualifications Commission to be open to the public in some manner?
Dedicates revenue from existing taxes on fireworks to trauma care, fire services, and public safety.
Shall the Constitution of Georgia be amended so as to provide that the proceeds of excise taxes on the sale of fireworks or consumer fireworks be dedicated to the funding of trauma care, firefighter equipping and training, and local public safety purposes?
Given the very low proportion of voters who actually research these initiatives in-depth, who would actually vote against these? Look at the title of Amendment 1! Yet deeper examination, especially on Amendment 3, reveals disturbing aspects of some of these amendments that are obscured by their biased phrasing. (Just start Googling if you’re curious)
While voters should research what they’re voting on, that shouldn’t give the state a free pass to deceive them. I’d be surprise if any of these amendments fail to pass; in the future, if you’re a Georgia voter and haven’t researched the ballot initiative, leave it blank, or, if you’re going to vote on something you haven’t researched (which the vast majority of people voting “yes” are doing”), just vote no, regardless of what the amendment is. Don’t let the state deceive you2.
- View the text of the ballot initiatives at http://sos.ga.gov/admin/uploads/2016_Proposed_Constitutional_Amendments.pdf
- Perhaps the solution is to implement something like California’s State Voter Guides, which features, “an impartial analysis of the proposal and the potential costs to taxpayers as prepared by the Legislative Analyst’s Office, arguments in favor and against it prepared by proponents and opponents, the text and a summary prepared by the Attorney General or the Legislature, as well as other information.” While certainly there is opportunity for bias in this system, it’s still an order of magnitude better than Georgia’s current ballot deception.
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Keynote Address at the Cornell International Affairs Conference VI, November 5, 2015
Good evening. Before I begin, I’d like to thank the Cornell International Affairs Society for giving the opportunity to speak to you all tonight, and for organizing this wonderful conference.
Tonight, I want to tell you a story. It begins when I was 15 years old, on September 3, 2008, in a suburb of Atlanta, Georgia. I received a phone call from a friend. He was an intern for Amnesty International, a human rights organization I had never heard of. He told me about this man on death row in Georgia named Troy Davis. Troy Davis was convicted in 1991 for the 1989 murder of a police officer in Savanah, Georgia. There was no gun, no DNA evidence. Instead, his conviction rested primarily on nine eyewitness testimonies. In the years that followed, seven of the nine eyewitnesses recanted their testimonies. Many of them said the police coerced or intimidated them into testifying against Troy Davis. Despite all this evidence that he may be innocent, Davis was going to be executed in just 20 days.
At the time, I didn’t think it was a big deal. I was a supporter of the death penalty, as most other people in Georgia are. Troy Davis couldn’t possibly be innocent—we had a justice system that protected the innocent and dispensed fair, just punishments to the guilty. If he were innocent, he wouldn’t have lost appeal after appeal.
But there was one small detail that stood out to me, one tiny thing that, in hindsight, changed my life forever. Davis was scheduled to be executed on September 23, while the Supreme Court was due to review his case on September 29. Why? He had been on death row for nearly two decades. Why couldn’t Georgia wait six more days for the highest court in the land to review his case? A fair justice system wouldn’t do that.
On September 23, 90 minutes before the scheduled execution, the US Supreme Court intervened and prevented Troy Davis from being executed. The next day, I sent him a letter. At his invitation, I visited him on death row five days later.
Before I went there, my idea of death row was Alcatraz blended with the gulag. I imagined death row to be dark and dank, filled with angry muscular men, killers and rapists who were destroyers of lives and families. They seemed more beast than human. They were monsters.
Before, everyone in here was just a mugshot and a name written in fine newsprint. But now, as I saw them talking and smiling and laughing and crying, no different than me, it was inescapable that they were . . . human. These were bodies and souls that had known loss and love, cruelty and kindness, pain and joy—beings that had known life. One inmate held his four-year-old daughter up with tears of joy. A boy my age was clad in a shirt with the words “Free My Dad” on the back. Troy told me about the background of many of the other death row inmates—how they had suffered from neglect, child abuse, and drug addiction. He told me about a man who was abandoned as a child. His mother was addicted to drugs, his father was nowhere to be found, and he slept in a dog kennel for shelter. That began the downward spiral that resulted in him on death row.
He told me his own story, about growing up as a quiet kid struggling to fit in, about seeing his hometown get taken over by drugs and gangs in the 1980s. He saw his friends start doing drugs, dealing drugs, or both. He told me his version of what happened the night of the shooting. He was at the wrong place at the wrong time. He didn’t shoot the police officer; he didn’t even have a gun that night. But once somebody else said he did it, the police didn’t consider any alternative suspects and the media started a witch hunt and convicted him in the court of public opinion. He turned himself in, because he thought he could tell the police his side of the story and they’d let him go. When he turned himself in, they hurled racial slurs at the black man who had taken one of their own. They tried to poison his food in the county jail when he was awaiting trial.
He told me he no longer celebrates his birthday, or Christmas, or New Year’s. Why bother, he told me, when it’s just another day you can’t be with the people you love? He said every time he sees his family it’s like they instantly age 20 years, because in his dreams and memories he always sees them as they were in 1989, when he was first locked up. In those 20 years, his father had died, his sister had been diagnosed with cancer, and the rest had aged, lost muscle, gained wrinkles. Every time they visited, he relived all of that. He said the first thing he was going to do when he was a free man was go to his mother’s house and sleep at the foot of her bed so that, when she woke up, she’d know this wasn’t a dream and that her son was finally home.
We grew close. The prison only allowed me to visit him every few months, but in between visits we wrote letters and talked on the phone. He began calling me his “adopted nephew” and signed his letters “Uncle Troy.”
While all of this was going on, Troy’s story attracted a lot of international attention, in part because of the growing international trend against capital punishment. The United Nations began angling for restricted use and eventual abolition of the death penalty in the 1960s. This has culminated in a series of successive resolutions since 2007 (the year Troy Davis first faced execution) that have imposed a moratorium on the death penalty, with the long term goal of its abolition. Year after year, the United States stands in the minority of countries voting against those resolutions, along with countries like China, Saudi Arabia, Iran, and Iraq. UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon has openly stated that the death penalty has no place in the 21st century. The UN Office of the High Commissioner of Human Rights specifically spoke out against Troy Davis’s execution.
The European Union, where the death penalty has been abolished, wrote directly to the Georgia Board of Pardons and Paroles to speak out against Troy Davis’s execution. The European Parliament passed a resolution calling for Troy Davis’s sentence to be commuted and for Georgia to grant him a retrial. Two Nobel Peace Prize winners spoke out against his execution. So did the Pope. All of these international institutions and figures didn’t speak out about Troy Davis because this was just a specific case of an innocent man slipping through the cracks. Rather, it was because his case was one of the most egregious examples of a system that was in itself a human rights violation.
That got me thinking, how do these human rights violations occur? What makes them possible? They occur when we successfully dehumanize the victims. And by only presenting mugshots and rap sheets, our society has dehumanized those on death row. I saw whole human beings as nothing more than the worst mistake they had ever made, as mugshots and rap sheets. And it was only by going to death row and building a personal connection with the people there was I able to break through that.
I think I would’ve eventually opposed capital punishment if I hadn’t met Troy Davis. There are plenty of practical reasons to oppose it. But I wouldn’t be here talking to you tonight. I wouldn’t have signed petitions. I wouldn’t have organized meetings. I wouldn’t have joined rallies. I wouldn’t have become a human rights activist. I wouldn’t have written a book. I wouldn’t have built the personal connection with many other people that convinced them to turn against the death penalty. I wouldn’t have a life’s mission like I do today, which is to fulfill Troy’s dream of a nation without any more Troy Davises.
My challenge to you is to find your Troy Davis. Find that personal connection to your work, whatever it is. If you’re a writer, go and talk to the people who read what you write. If you’re a programmer, meet the people who use your code. If you’re a teacher, truly understand your students. If you’re a fashion designer, meet those who wear your clothes. Find the people who are directly impacted by what you do.
Having proximity to your work changes you. It makes you believe that what you’re doing truly makes a difference, because you’ve seen it with your own eyes. It makes you understand that what you do actually has a real impact on other people. It’s so easy for us to get caught in the ivory tower, to write memos and join committees and make resolutions, without actually doing the hands-on work needed to see the actual, on-the-ground impact of our work. It’s like having a super power, because when you have that inspiration, when you have that motivation, you will always be better and more effective than the people who don’t.
In the end, by a margin of one vote, the Georgia Board of Pardons and Paroles let Troy Davis be executed. But he wasn’t afraid to die. I talked to him, and he said, “God hasn’t failed me. He just isn’t ready for me to come home yet. Look at all the people I’ve inspired, people like you. Millions of people around the world know my name, and know I’m not the only one. If I die, I don’t want my supporters to fade away in sorrow. I want them to get angry and fight for other Troy Davises out there, and fight for human rights all round the world.”
Go out and find your Troy Davis. Gain your superpower. It may not be easy, but in such cases I always remember what Troy told me whenever I doubted myself: The only person who can stop you from doing something is you.
(Photo courtesy of the Cornell International Affairs Society)
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Five Ideas for the Future
Lists predicting future innovations are pretty common these days. There are usually a few recurring themes, like artificial intelligence, personalized medicine, and the “Internet of Things.” This list is five ideas that could make a big change in the future but haven’t really been explored yet.
- The Sharing Economy of Goods
The sharing economy is an economic system where an individual’s (or group’s) excess resource is provided to another individual (or group) that needs that resource. My favorite example Is Airbnb, a company that helps people with excess rooms rent them out to travelers in search of accommodations.
I think there is a huge opportunity to create the sharing economy for goods. The first modern iteration of the sharing economy for goods was Craigslist, which allowed people to sell their unused stuff to local buyers. eBay provided a similar marketplace on a national scale, with auctions and electronic payments to automate pricing.
The main issue with the existing methods of peer-to-peer commerce are that they involve too much friction (contact seller, haggle over price, arrange meetup, travel to meetup location, transfer money and goods) and there is no trust (Craigslist repeatedly warns you of scams, selling on eBay is fraught with scams as well, Craigslist murderers, etc). However, Craigslist were combined with Amazonesque logistics, the volume of goods sold locally would explode.
The other big missing piece is rentals. In my neighborhood, every home has its own lawnmower, even though no lawnmower is ever used for more than two hours a week. There are many other goods, like lawnmowers, that sit idle most of the time*. Peer-to-peer rentals would create the true sharing economy of goods. Standards of living would go up as people would consume and waste less. Lower consumption is better for the environment by reducing trash volume and reducing resources needed to produce items.
The above is why I’m working on Circa, a startup that removes the logistical barriers of local buying and selling.
- Personalized Education
The advent of MOOCs and flipped classrooms in the last decade has begun changing the way we learn. I think we can take it one step further, by using machine learning to personalize education.
Imagine if, for every class, a large set of problems was created, covering all the topics in the class and of varying difficulty levels. Imagine that, using a mobile app, website, or even (shudder) desktop software, every student began completing those questions. Now imagine aggregating this over hundreds or thousands of students. The results is that, using machine learning, you could quickly determine with a high level of accuracy what a student’s individual strengths and weaknesses were, and only show them questions/content in their weak areas so they’re not wasting time reviewing what they already know.
It’s possible that you could build a platform for this, where any content could be “plugged-in” and individualized for each user, ensuring they learn the most material in the shortest amount of time. I actually started building this, but had to shelve it when other projects came up.
- The Personal API
I think the “Internet of Things” is overhyped, but one aspect that excites me is devices that monitor biometrics. I eventually see a future where data like heart rate, serum nutrient and hormone levels, sleep/REM cycles, and even stool composition are regularly collected and analyzed. This data could be collected and accessible through one API, which developers could build apps atop of. While there would certainly need to be thought to privacy and security, creating a personal API that could be accessed in a standardized way could lead to useful analysis, such as:
- Relationships between nutrition and sleep
- Relationships between when meals are eaten sleep
- Relationships between nutrition and mood
- Relationships between exercise and mood
- Preemptively discoveries of allergies
- Preemptively discoveries nutrition deficiencies
The above is by no means an exhaustive list—I could write a whole article about the beneficial analysis that could come out of a Personal API. With machine learning, all of this analysis could be personalized, while at the same time being anonymized and uploaded to the crowd, where it would be aggregated and provided to researchers.
- Unlimited Energy
I believe, within our lifetimes, most (if not all) of our energy needs will be met by solar energy (or we figure out how to harvest lighting). What’s most exciting is that lack of clean energy is the base case for many modern problems as “[a] lot of problems—economic, environmental, war, poverty, food and water availability, bad side effects of globalization, etc.—are deeply related to the energy problem.”
There could be some revolutionary breakthrough, but I think the most likely route is simply the continual, evolutionary increase in efficiency (both cost efficiency and energy efficiency) of photovoltatic cells and decrease in cost of solar power. Solar energy is already cheaper than conventional fossil fuels when accounting for negative externalities.
Since the sun’s useful energy is limited only by our ability to harness it, I think we’ll eventually reach a point where we’ll have virtually unlimited energy. What kind of future can we build where energy isn’t a concern? Perhaps we could eliminate water scarcity or alleviate the intensity of droughts via mass desalinization, which is currently too energy intensive to do in most places. Maybe there are incredible materials currently requiring too much energy to produce on a mass scale. It’s exciting to think about.
- Green Roofs
Green roofs are roofs covered with vegetation—essentially, mini-parks atop buildings. The American Planning Association notes parks have all sorts of benefits, such as reducing air pollution, reducing the heat island effect, decreasing stress levels, promoting exercise, reducing crime, increasing happiness, and making cities more aesthetically pleasing. If every or nearly every urban rooftop was a green roof—that is, every resident of a city was within a 100 second walk from a park or garden—it would revolutionize urban living.
I’ll admit I don’t know quite as much about this topic, and there are certainly quite a few practical considerations (weight bearing capabilities of rooftops, altitude limits, possibilities of storms knocking trees over, etc.). Wikipedia claims, “[These issues make] it unlikely for intensive green roofs to become widely implemented due to a lack of buildings that are able to support such a large amount of added weight as well as the added cost of reinforcing buildings to be able to support such weight.” But if we went in with the attitude that this is the default normal roof, rather than as a peculiar exception to normal roofs, I think we’d figure out a way to scale it, and I think it’d be shocking just how drastically improved all aspects of urban life would become with such a simple change.
* My neighborhood has about 250 houses, each with a yard. Currently, each house has its own lawnmower. During the summer, there are 12 suitable hours for mowing the lawn, or 84 hours a week. Assuming each homeowner wants to mow the lawn once per week, that means there is demand for 250 hours of lawn-mowing per week. Even if we only assume 50 percent efficiency in lawnmower allocation, that means six lawnmowers could service the entire neighborhood! Lawnmowers are about $200 (on the lower end, anyway), so the neighborhood would collectively save about $50,000 on lawnmowers.
Computer Science Should Be Two Separate Majors
I college, I majored in Computer Science and Political Science. The poli sci kids could be divided into two camps—the people who wanted to go to law school (60 percent), and the people who wanted to get into politics (40 percent). Similarly, there was a divide in CS—the people who wanted to become software engineers (80 percent), and the people who wanted to become computer scientists in some form (20 percent). The aspiring computer scientists often double majored in CS and math.
Ultimately, both groups were left unsatisfied. The future software engineers found themselves unprepared for the job market, while the future computer scientists had to add on another major to get the theoretical, math-heavy content they enjoyed. The solution is to split CS into two majors—Computer Science and Software Engineering.
The new, purer CS major would focus on more theoretical topics—algorithm analysis, data structures, artificial intelligence, database design, automata, design of programming languages, artificial intelligence, cryptography, graph theory, etc. The newly created Software Engineering major would focus on the skills software engineers need on the job—version control, collaboration tools, environment configuration, test-driven development, basic web development, security practices, performance optimization, software development methodologies (waterfall, agile, etc.), creating and consuming APIs, etc.
There would naturally be some overlap, as every engineering discipline has a theoretical basis, and many software engineering skills (such as using version control) would prove very useful even in a CS research environment. Ultimately, the two would be distinct but related disciplines, in the similar fashion to two separate spoken languages that evolved from the same ancestor language.
While I believe this would lead to better outcomes for students, I can think of two counterarguments. The first is that such a separation is unnecessary. This argument contends that CS majors are doing fine as they are –salaries are high and the job market robust for a CS grad fresh out of college. Why fix what isn’t broken?
My counterargument is that it is broken. I have friends who studied CS but felt woefully unprepared for the software engineering jobs available, though internships alleviated this somewhat. Many of them were not only uninterested in some of the more theoretical topics they learned in college, but honestly didn’t need to know them for their jobs. On the flip side, I’ve known people hiring software engineers who’ve complained about having to spend six months training recent graduates. This is all anecdotal since there’s no hard data on any of this, but I think there is a broad consensus that there’s a wide gap between college CS and industry software engineering. I’ve heard some universities already have a software engineering major for exactly this reason.
The second argument is that such specialization goes against the philosophy of a college education, which places a broader emphasis on learning for its own sake, critical thinking and “learning how to learn”, and the broadening of the mind that occurs from a college education. College isn’t vocational school and creating a software engineering major, which is clearly designed to train people for a specific profession, pushes universities away from that philosophy.
The counterargument here is that STEM majors, by their inherent nature, tend to be much more specialized and narrow than traditional liberal arts majors. There is no fixed career path for an English major, while an Electrical Engineering major is expected to become an electrical engineer. The “college is for learning for its own sake” argument (which I saw on many college admissions pamphlets when I was applying to college) lost credibility once college became exorbitantly expensive. While I agree in principle with the tenets of broad, liberal education that concerns itself with the expansion of the mind rather than a specific vocational goal, it’s naïve in today’s abysmal job market. When students are burdened by tens or even hundreds of thousands of student debt, there must be a concrete return on that investment to justify it—and at that point, a job that pays the bills means much more than the lofty goals of a liberal education.
Troy Davis was executed two years ago today.
I woke up shortly after sunrise. Today was gameday in Athens, Georgia, and as I hustled out of my apartment I saw families sprawled among dozens of red UGA tents, chatting excitedly and huddling around the television in anticipation of the big game. A few children were tossing a football back and forth, while a group of teenagers cackled as they played cornhole. There wasn’t time to join the festivities. I was already running late.
My mother flew in last night from Boston. Last year, it was just the two of us. This time we were joined by my father and my younger sister. It rained for the first hour of the drive, but occasional rays of sunshine poked through. As we passed Jackson, Georgia, I remembered the last time I was there, on this very day two years ago. The chants still resonated in my mind. I was transported back in time, an observer from the future watching as the hope and tragedy of that night unfolded.
We stopped at a rest area a little past the half way point.
It wasn’t too far from Dublin, Georgia. The last time I was there was in 2010, when the staff and interns of Amnesty International and I stopped there on our way to the historic Troy Davis evidentiary hearing. Today I was clad in the same blue “ I Am Troy Davis” t-shirt that I first wore in Savannah during the hearing. I was only sixteen years old then, a bit chubby and sporting long, shaggy hair. But what I saw in the courtroom furthered my conviction that Troy Davis should not be executed.
As we continued to drive the rain cleared, and the grayness gradually gave way to blue.
We drove past a few farms, but the cotton fields stood out the most. The other crops gave way to shoots of bright, billowy cotton, as if a snow storm had delicately placed bundles of flakes upon each plant.
As we neared the city, we crossed Clarence Thomas interchange. I thought back to the spring of 2012, when Justice Thomas and I sparred over the case. He had voted against giving Troy the evidentiary hearing. He held no doubts that justice had been done with Troy Davis’s execution. And yet, he was also the one who issued the reprieve on September 21, 2011, the one that delayed Troy’s execution for another four hours.
We passed Savannah’s city hall. The building was grand and elegant. But it wasn’t by the Savannah boardwalk or park-like squares that dotted downtown. It was out here, in the Savannah hinterlands, surrounded by overgrown forest and weeds and a half empty strip mall with signs for a Subway and World’s Most Famous Asian Cuisine.
Magnolia Memorial Gardens was exactly the way I remembered it last year. The front office was a small hut, large enough to fit maybe a dozen people.
Last year we rushed to arrive before the staff left, so they could show us where Troy’s grave was. This year, September 21 fell on a Saturday, and the whole place was deserted.
As I thought about the first time I walked here, when Troy was first buried, my mother had already walked far ahead to Troy’s grave.
The three graves were all there. Troy Davis.
Buried beneath him, his mother, Virginia Davis.
Buried beside them, Troy’s sister, Martina.
We placed a note and blue flowers (Troy’s favorite color) on the grave and remained there for a few minutes.
The only flowers on Martina’s grave were dead and wilted. The only ones on Troy and his mother’s grave were beginning to wilt and must have been there a few days.
My thoughts were similar to last year’s, so I won’t repeat them.
We began walking away from the graves. There was only one exit path.
As I walked, keys in hand, I noticed a police car nearby. It had been sitting there, watching us the whole time. As we left I heard the car start up and drive off into the distance.
We began the long drive back. Less than an hour into the drive, the rain began. It bombarded the car, angrily striking the windshield and blinding my view.The sun had set and the two lane interstate had no lights. One of the lanes was closed for construction so all of the cars were crammed into one narrow, bumpy lane. The car began hydroplaning, skidding and swerving every few seconds as I desperately tried to maintain control. Other drivers were tailgating me and each other, apparently oblivious to fact that one small mistake could send us all careening into each other at 70 miles per hour. I was sleep deprived and hungry, and my eyes were straining to see the road amid the whirlwind of mist, rain, and headlight glare. We had four hours left to drive, and the rain was not expected to let up anytime soon. It was too dangerous to pull over–a skidding car could slam into us on the shoulder.
This wasn’t just about me. My father sat beside me, advising me as I drove. My mother and younger sister were in the back seat, blissfully ignorant about how much danger we were in. My life and the lives of my family were in the hands of other people and other forces. No matter how carefully I drove, I wasn’t in full control. Was this how Troy and Martina and Virginia felt, as their lives were eaten away by imprisonment and cancer? I thought back to the cemetery, where the three Davises lay, their lives all snuffed out in 2011. Would the same fate befall my family in 2013? I couldn’t shake the thought.
There’s nothing like a cemetery to make you feel stupid. Yes, stupid. This week had been a rough week for me. At least, I thought it had been a rough week. I seriously injured my eye during a game of frisbee, caught a cold that caused me to miss several important classes and miss a week at the gym, and had a stressful situation with a close friend. But seeing so many graves dug for so many young people makes you realize how petty most of your worries really are. I felt stupid for being angry at such minor things. At the risk of being cliche, l was reminded that life is short, and I wasn’t making the best use of the time that remained.
When Troy was alive, we would talk about how to live life. Troy noted just how unhappy people outside of prison were. He looked at me sadly and said, “People out there are living to die. I’m dying to live.”
When we made it home safely, I resolved to renew my commitment to live life to the fullest. Tell people how you feel. Help others. Be adventurous. Follow your dreams. Remain free.
FAQ About My Name
I get a lot of questions about my name. Here’s a handy list of answers to soothe your inquisitive mind so you can finally sleep at night.
How is your name pronounced?
“Gotham,” like Gotham City from Batman.
Wow, that’s really cool!
That isn’t a question.
Is it really pronounced like that?
I often hear this question. Indians or people of Indian descent assume I’m “Americanizing” the pronunciation of my name because they’ve heard a different pronunciation. Non-Indians assume I’m not giving them the “authentic” pronunciation because it would be too difficult to pronounce.
There is actually a spectrum of valid pronunciations of my name, based on how strong an inflection you want to put on the ‘au’ sound. On one end is my pronunciation, “Gotham,” which pretty much eliminates the inflection. On the other end is “Gow-tham,” a pronunciation which is common in south India. There is a range of pronunciations in between those two, and they are all correct.
No, but is that really how it’s pronounced?
Nice Simpsons reference. That was a good episode.
So did you choose that pronunciation because of its relation to Batman?
I didn’t choose anything. My parents are north Indian, and north Indians tend to put less of an inflection on the ‘au’ sound. I’ve been called “Gotham” since I was born. They did not realize that I would forever be associated with The Dark Knight when they named me.
Why isn’t your name spelled with an ‘h’?
Probably because of British imperialism. North Indians pronounce the English “th” with a really strong emphasis (I don’t know how to write it out, but try making the “th” sound and then do it much more forcefully). To avoid having people pronounce my name with the overpowered “th,” some North Indian transliterated my name from the Devanagari गौतम to the Roman script “Gautam.” They were probably transliterating the name in the first place since English became the lingua franca in India following British colonization. My mother’s name also has a ‘t’ that is pronounced ‘th’ for this reason.
Nonetheless, I have seen alternate spellings, such as “Gowtham.” Deepak Chopra’s son even changed the spelling of his name from my spelling to “Gotham” to end the mispronunciation.
Personally, I prefer my name’s spelling. Although it isn’t phonetic, I find the combination of letters aesthetically pleasing. I get a better vibe from “Gautam” than I do from “Gotham.”
Edit: Gautam Arya pointed out that the reason Gautam isn’t spelled with a ‘th’ is because the Hindi letter त is a voiceless dental stop.
Are you sure it isn’t spelled ‘Guatam’?
Yes. Please stop sending me emails beginning with, “Dear Guatam,” especially when my correctly spelled first name is part of my email address. I’d also appreciate my elementary, middle, and high school reprinting all the certificates awarded to “Guatam Narula.” Please. Those certificates comfort me on those lonely nights at sea.
What are other misspellings/mispronunciations?
Guatham, Guaram, Garfield, Gus (Seriously. Gus.), Garfam, Gotham, Gautham, Guatham, Gaytam, Guavam, Gutam, Gautum, Gowtam, Gotem, Gautman, etc.
What nicknames emerged from your name?
Batman, Got ham?, Guantanamo Bay, Guantum Mechanics, Guatamala, Got’em, Siddhartha Guatananama, Gotham City, Goatman, and every single mispronunciation.
What does your name mean?
I was named after Siddharth Gautam (Siddhartha Gautama in the west), the founder of Buddhism. My parents almost named me Siddharth, but didn’t want me turning into “Sid.” The name means “The Enlightened One” or alternatively, “The Remover of Darkness.” In both cases the “light” symbolizes knowledge and the “darkness” symbolizes ignorance. Basically, I’m the Human Torch from the Fantastic Four, if his super power was educating others.
So does this mean you’re Buddhist?
Nope. My parents aren’t Buddhist either. Guess they just thought the dude was legit or something, man.
Is your name common in India?
Not super duper common, but common enough that I can’t get a decent Twitter username.
So there are other Gautam Narulas?
What was it like watching the Batman movies?
Weird. When Gordon said, “Gotham needs a hero.” I felt the need to tell him I was perfectly capable of taking care of myself. I didn’t appreciate Bane saying stuff like “I terrorize Gotham,” “We will destroy Gotham,” “We take Gotham from the corrupt!” etc. Seriously bro, what’d I ever do to you?
What are the best pickup lines related to your name?
“Hey baby, I may not be Batman but I can give you a tour of Gautam city.”
“Ay girl, you wanna see downtown Gautam?”
“Hey beautiful, what are you looking at him for? You’ve already Gautam man you need.”
Do any of those actually work?
I’ll leave that as an exercise for the reader.
What Javier Taught Me
In March, I traveled to Costa Rica. The purpose of the trip was to gain a better understanding of how globalized surf culture and surf tourism impacted the country and its people. We spent a week speaking to locals and foreigners, exploring towns and villages along the Pacific coast, observing conservation efforts, meeting with community leaders, and discussing what we saw. I could write a lengthy post about everything I learned.1 But there was one event that stood out from the rest of the trip. It was a conversation with a man named Javier.
Javier grew up in a wealthy family in the capital, San José, where his life consisted of country clubs and tennis lessons. When he was 18, Javier traveled to a small coastal village of 300 people. He camped under the stars with his friends, explored the surrounding forests and mangroves, and fell in love with the place. He moved there permanently, opened a small surf shop, and taught himself how to surf, and gave mangrove tours.
“What I like about this place,” Javier told me, “is the whole town is one community of friends. If someone is getting married, we all come together and celebrate. If someone dies, we all go to the funeral.” This philosophy inspired the way he ran his business. “If somebody forgets their credit card or their money, I’ll give them their surf gear anyway. I trust people.”
For many, including members of his family, Javier’s decision to forgo the material comforts of San José was puzzling. But Javier’s philosophy was that he was happier not in spite of having less, but because of it. I didn’t have to take his word for it—I could see it with my own eyes. The man radiated positive energy. He was always smiling, and his skin seemed to glow. Although he was a week shy of 43 years old, Javier looked no older than 25. This was the first time I had ever met someone who seemed truly fulfilled.
I kept thinking about our conversation long after I left Costa Rica. Javier left his old life behind to pursue what held meaning for him. What about me? What held meaning for me, and was I pursuing it? The whole grind of college—writing papers that would only be read once by my professor and then discarded, writing code that would only be run once by my TA and then deleted, taking tests that encouraged rote memorization and regurgitation, building a resumé whose sole purpose was to get me a job where “success” is determined by prestige and money—just left me unsatisfied. Where was the real learning? Where was the impact?
I knew what I wanted. I wanted to make the world a better place, and I wanted to do it in a meaningful, impactful way. I found an essay by Paul Graham where he created a list of five commands that he keeps on top of his todo list. After reflecting for a few days, I modified them to create the five commands that I keep on top of mine:
Build things that help people2
Help others be happy
Do new things
What can Javier teach you?
1) Just a sample of the other topics I also learned about: sustainability efforts and conservation, community activism, the effects of market economics on communal societies, how to surf, “soul surfers” vs competitive surfers, local vs foreign control of land/resources/money, localism and sentiments towards foreigners, income inequality, mating habits of turtles, etc.
2) I use “build” to loosely mean anything you create. You could build a movement, or an app, or a friendship. I’m building a book.