Keynote Address at the Cornell International Affairs Conference VI

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.

Thank you.

(Photo courtesy of the Cornell International Affairs Society)


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Remain Free: A Memoir

Remain Free: A Memoir

2015-09-21 10.07.53

On this day, four years ago, Georgia executed my friend, my mentor, my uncle, Troy Davis. I believe he was innocent. Today I’m officially releasing Remain Free, so the world doesn’t forget who he was or the truth of what really happened.

I wish you all could’ve met him. My greatest hope with Remain Free is that, through the hundreds of recorded conversations, letters, and in-person visits that make up this book, Troy’s voice shines through and you get a sense of who he really was.

Today I visited Troy’s grave. I had decided ahead of time that, instead of a party or some kind of flashy event, Remain Free’s “launch” would be me leaving him a copy on his grave in Savannah. My mother was concerned–what’ll happen to the book? Would it get damaged by the rain? What if someone with bad intentions got a hold of it? I was firm that I wanted to leave the book there, and let whatever would happen, happen. It was my way of showing Troy that I didn’t forget about him, and that his struggle was important enough to bring thousands of people together to bring this very object left on his grave into existence.

She then said, “I hope this book falls into the hands of the right person, someone who is destined to read this book.”

A few minutes later, a man approached us as we stood at the grave. He was in his fifties or sixties, black, several inches shorter than me. He wore a blue hat to protect his face from the harsh Savannah sun that had emerged from the rain clouds. His name was Leonard and he worked for the cemetery. We told him why we were there. His eyes widened. “You knew Troy Davis?” he asked incredulously. He was a Savannah native and familiar with the case, but was eager to learn more about Troy, about how he changed our lives.

My mother continued to talk to him while I opened the copy of Remain Free I brought with me and started writing a message to Troy. When I finished, the man said, “I’ll leave you two alone to meditate on Troy’s grave. But please, let me give you my email address. I want to follow this story. I want to learn more about Troy.” He walked away, and I realized that he was exactly what my mother had asked for, just minutes earlier. I picked up the book, and the I Am Troy Davis wristband, and walked toward the cemetery office and handed both objects to him. There was a mixture of gratitude and excitement in his voice when I gave it to him. He never told us why he walked across the entire cemetery to talk to us…just that he was glad he did. Maybe he was destined to be the one who read Troy’s copy.

I wasn’t planning on sharing the note I wrote for Troy in that book, but I realized that, in a sense, we’ve all taken this journey together. You all put your faith in me when I was a teenager with a dream and an overambitious timeline. The least I could do is return that trust by sharing what I wrote to Troy in the front cover of the book:

Troy,

It’s hard to believe four years have passed. I wish you were still here to see what kind of man I’ve become. I’ve been a bit lost since you’ve been gone. I haven’t lived up to my full potential. I could’ve used your guidance during these years. I hope that, despite my failures, you’d still be proud of me. I wrote the book, just like you said I should. This book brought hundreds of people together to make it possible—people who’ve never met you, many of whom have never met me. They all came together because they believed this story—our story—was something worth telling, something worth sharing.

I promise that as long as I’m alive, people won’t forget your story. I promise I won’t stop fighting until the death penalty is ended in the United States. I promise I’ll fight to live up to my full potential, to make the world a better place and to save the other Troy Davises out there. It’s been four years since I’ve written a letter. Here is my longest letter to you, for you.

Your adopted nephew,

Gautam Narula

The last time I was here I was filled with sadness, but today I’m filled with gratitude. Thanks for making Remain Free possible.

 

Remain Free Preview II: Death Row

Death Row

This is a preview from Remain Free, which will be released on September 21, 2015.

 

The most direct route was to go down 400 and onto 75, slicing through the heart of Atlanta from top to bottom and following the interstate straight to Jackson. We instead took 285, circling the city and enveloping ourselves in the sprawling suburbs that ringed downtown until we merged back onto 75. It was about forty miles of monotony from there—stifled yawns, graffiti-covered buildings, and the occasional patch of pine trees until Exit 201. There wasn’t much to see in Jackson, population five thousand and county seat of the unfortunately named Butts County. The main road was deserted—just a trucker gas station and some empty parking lots. We drove until we saw a sign on the left: GEORGIA DIAGNOSTIC PRISON.

The road onto the prison campus was narrow but smooth. Tall pines lined the shoulders, which gave way to woods. A squat cottage—the warden’s, we were later told—nestled in a clearing against the woods amid lush, manicured grass. The cottage sat astride an idyllic lake where geese floated lazily by a wooden dock. Birds chirped, and I could feel the simple yet elegant beauty of it all.

But something felt off. Why was this here? This was an odd place to hold rapists and murderers. It was an even odder place to kill them.

The road ended in a two level parking lot. Behind it, a fence draped in barbed wire formed a rectangle that extended to the horizon, interrupted only by the emotionless vigilance of carefully placed watchtowers. Everything was white: the buildings, the prison vans, the watchtowers, even the helipad attached to the parking lot by a thin strip of concrete. Pranavi shuddered. My mother just stared ahead.

When I walk outside the Georgia Diagnostic and Classification Prison, I am free. When I go in, I am a criminal. My pockets are searched and emptied before I walk through a metal detector. Wallets, ID cards, and keys are confiscated, and our clothes are thoroughly checked to ensure minimal skin exposure. My hand is stamped so they know when I come and when I go. I am shepherded through a series of cramped cages where the door behind me closes before the one in front opens.

As I walk I feel the gaze of dozens of electronic and human eyes. Inspirational posters crowd the walls, ignored by those who work here and unseen by those who live here. I bound past an elevator for the handicapped, which hasn’t worked in months, and walk up a flight of stairs where a bulletin board lists my rights as a visitor.

The visitor’s lobby: On the left are two microwaves and a few vending machines, which will rapidly deplete the eighty quarters we bring in to replace Troy’s missed meal. On the right are two bathrooms. In the center is the main visitor area, where non-death row inmates sit with their visitors without the restrictions of bars or handcuffs. Their white jumpsuits read “Georgia Dept. of Corrections” on the back.

One inmate runs to his four-year-old daughter and picks her up with tears of joy. A boy my age is clad in a shirt with the words “Free My Dad” on the front. Beyond a glass wall and yellow bars, prisoners trundle along, occasionally followed by guards.

Welcome to Troy Davis’s home.

Troy Davis, inmate 657378, walks in now, bound in handcuffs. Two guards escort him to the visitation cell, a long, narrow room with concrete walls on three sides and reinforced glass and metal mesh on the fourth. We follow them in, and once Troy is inside they remove his handcuffs and walk out, locking the door behind them. He hugs each of us before we sit down. Then he begins his story.

Remain Free Preview I: Phone Call

Phone Call

This is a preview from Remain Free, which will be released on September 21, 2015.

 

September 3, 2008.

I was watching TV when the phone call came.

“Hey, it’s Sahil. Do you have a second to talk?” Sahil was a childhood friend a few years older than me. While his parents and my mother had been friends for decades, he’d never called before. Why now? He lived too far away to see regularly, and we’d drifted apart over the years. I couldn’t even remember the last time I’d seen him.

“Sure,” I said. “What’s up?”

“Have you heard of Troy Davis?”

“I haven’t.”

“He’s an inmate on Georgia’s death row, convicted of killing a cop in Savannah. There’s a lot of evidence that he’s innocent. I’ve been working on the case at Amnesty International for a while, and I visited Troy on death row. He’ll be executed in a couple of weeks, so I’ve been calling everyone I know to get them involved before it’s too late.”

I handed the phone to my mother and drifted away from the call. Plenty of death row inmates preached their innocence to all who’d listen. Surely, after decades of trial and appeal, the man’s innocence would have come to light. If he could lose in court time and time again, he must have been guilty. Far more likely that Troy Davis was lying than to have a faulty trial and faulty appeals. I shrugged it off and retreated to the bedroom to stupefy my mind with television.

But the topic resurfaced on the ride home from school a few days later.

“Remember what Sahil was saying, about Troy Davis?” my mother asked. The car remained motionless in Alpharetta’s rush-hour traffic. Her voice was somber, carrying a heavy weight. “I’ve been researching the case online. There are serious problems. Sahil was right.”

A Google search revealed Troy Davis was a black man convicted in 1991 of the 1989 murder of a white Savannah police officer, Mark MacPhail. His conviction rested primarily on nine eyewitness testimonies. Seven of those nine had recanted or altered their testimony, citing police coercion and intimidation. There was no physical evidence, no gun, and no DNA. It all sounded convincing on the surface. But if the evidence were as strong as Davis supporters claimed, why hadn’t the courts ordered a new trial? The claims Davis made of mistaken identity, shoddy evidence, witness tampering, a rushed and sub-par investigation, and a systematic denial of appeals on technicalities implied a legal system so brazenly unjust that they had to be false. Even Georgia, with its troubled history of segregation, lynchings, and race riots, couldn’t be so perverse. Not in 2008.

As I read through articles, one fact stood out: Georgia set the execution for September 23, 2008, but the Supreme Court was reportedly due to examine the case on September 29.

Why? The state had intentionally set an execution date days before the highest court in the country was to review the case. Troy Davis had been on death row for nearly two decades. What difference would a few more weeks make?

These questions brewed in my mind at school the next day. If the Supreme Court was going to review the case just six days later, if Troy Davis had already been on death row for seventeen years, if Georgia was so confident the evidence against Troy Davis was ironclad enough to kill him, why couldn’t they wait? There was no logical explanation for the state’s actions. Except . . . except that they wanted to kill Troy Davis before others could examine his case. But why should they care if others examine his case? They would only care if there was a chance they were wrong.

Could he really be innocent? And could that really happen here, in America? The justice system was a seamless machine—impartial, unemotional, and unerring. The machine’s input was the accused. There were two streams of output: the innocent, quickly and efficiently released; and the guilty, made to meet the highest bar of innocence until proven guilty and swiftly given a punishment fitting of the crime. Why would the machine operate like this? I struggled through my disbelief and confusion but couldn’t find answers.

In school we were always told the self-congratulatory story of the American system of justice, infused with lessons from the struggle for independence from the United Kingdom. The flagrant British disregard for basic liberties convinced our founders to secure the right to a trial by jury, a doctrine of innocent until proven guilty, and a system of appeals—safeguards we were told helped make us the greatest and freest nation in the world. The lynchings and segregation and race riots here in Georgia were now just fading words in textbooks. Those kinds of things didn’t happen anymore. We’d moved past them as a nation. America today was the land of the free, and the American legal system the envy of the world. We didn’t execute innocent people.

Besides, if someone committed a truly heinous crime, if they raped and tortured and gleefully killed innocent people, they didn’t deserve to live. The death penalty was the product of an implied social contract, a contract murderers violated. In doing so they forfeited their right to life, and their execution was morally justified. Perhaps it was a strange way for a fifteen-year-old to think, but how else could I reconcile the senselessness of murder with my belief that we were governed by cold, unerring logic?

The state motto—Wisdom, Justice, and Moderation—now seemed more a hollow, mocking reminder of what we really were than a declaration of what we aspired to be. Did we live in a world where we killed people for the sake of finality and call it justice?

Remain Free

Remain Free

I’m thrilled to officially announce the publication of Remain Free, a book I’ve spent three years working on. It will be released on September 21, 2015. More information (including excerpts from the book) can be found on www.remainfree.com, but I’ll answer a few commonly asked questions here. I answered other questions in a Reddit AMA I did when I first announced the book back in 2012.

Remain Free

What is Remain Free?

Remain Free is a memoir about my relationship with Troy Davis, a well-known death row inmate who was executed in 2011 despite serious doubts of his guilt. I believe he was executed innocent.

Why did you write this book?

Troy Davis was the focus of intense media scrutiny in the months leading up to his execution. In 2008, the Wikipedia page for “Troy Davis” was a football player, with a small link asking if you meant “Troy Anthony Davis,” the convicted cop killer whose sparsely populated page contained a few paragraphs. Now “Troy Davis” redirected to “Troy Davis Case,” which had pages and pages of material and over a hundred references. The case had been splattered all over the national news networks, debated by prominent talking heads every evening, covered by all major newspapers, and editorialized by popular political cartoons. Celebrities tweeted about Troy. An interview I gave spread over the internet and was republished in dozens of major newspapers. Troy Davis was no longer just a local case of interest. He was the most famous death row inmate in the world.

But after his execution, the media quickly moved on to other stories. The I Am Troy Davis movement had made him a household name, but had also created a caricature of who the man really was. Troy told me many things about the case that I couldn’t say publicly while he was still alive. Six months after Troy’s execution, I decided to write the book. I just want the world to truly know who Troy Davis was, what he stood for, and what really happened.

Why does Remain Free matter?

The issues in the American justice system discussed in Remain Free, like the morality, practicality, and constitutionality of the death penalty, racial tensions between police and black communities, overzealous prosecutors, police coercion and intimidation of witness—all of these issues are as relevant, if not even more relevant, today—think of Travon martin, Ferguson, Eric Garner, and the many other public incidents between police and African Americans.

Since Troy faced his first execution date in 2007, Seven states have abolished the death penalty in the last eight years. The Supreme Court recently considered the constitutionality of lethal injection. Since Troy’s execution, 16 death row inmates have been exonerated. What happened to Troy Davis from 1989 to 2011 is all too relevant in 2015.

And in my personal opinion, it’s a compelling story: the story of an unlikely friendship between a sheltered upper-middle class Indian-American teenager from the suburbs of Atlanta and a forty-year-old African-American death row inmate from drug-riddled Savannah—that’s not a story you hear about every day. The experience changed me forever, and I believe the story will open the minds of many people who’ve never thought about these issues.

When will it be released?

The book will officially be released on September 21, 2015, the four year anniversary of Troy’s execution.

What will you do with the money?

All of the profits from the book will be donated to the Innocence Project, a non-profit that exonerates wrongfully convicted individuals (including death row inmates) through DNA testing. They are the embodiment of Troy’s final request: that his supporters “continue to fight this fight.”

Five Ideas for the Future

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.

  1. 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.

  1. 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.

  1. 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.

  1. 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.

  1. 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

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.

Two Years Ago

This post was originally published on September 21, 2013 at www.remainfree.com.

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.

Imagining a Better Facebook

Imagining a Better Facebook

Today is February 4, 2014, exactly one decade after a nineteen-year-old Mark Zuckerberg launched thefacebook from his dorm room. Today, the company is worth over $150 billion and has over 1.2 billion active users. I joined Facebook in late 2007. Back then, Facebook was fun. I’d waste hours on the site writing statuses, scrolling through my newsfeed, and messaging friends. But these days, I don’t enjoy using Facebook. Many of my friends don’t like using it either. Although they’re still active Facebook users, most of them find Instagram and Snapchat more enjoyable.

The problem isn’t inherent in the concept of an online social network, but rather in Facebook itself. What would the ideal social network look like? To answer this, I dissected all of the good and bad things about Facebook.

The Good

Everybody is on Facebook

The most compelling reason to use Facebook is because everybody else is on Facebook. It’s rare to have a Facebook search come up empty. These “network effects” make it difficult for any competing social network to displace Facebook.

Chat/Messaging

Email is slow and can get lost in a crowded inbox. Texting isn’t ideal for longer back and forth conversations, has poor support for group conversations, and can be invasive if you don’t know the other person well. Facebook messaging fits nicely between the two.

Facebook groups

I keep in touch with high school friends through a Facebook group, which we use to plan events and let each other know when we’re in town. In college I joined Facebook groups for my majors and various campus organizations, and they were useful for announcements, asking questions, and connecting with like-minded people.

Events

Planning and coordinating events is easy with Facebook. The downside is that people are flaky online (only 30-50 percent of RSVP’d event guests show up), but that’s probably not a Facebook-specific issue.

Photos

Before, if you wanted to share photos online, you’d have to upload them somewhere and email the link to a bunch of people. Facebook allows you to share photos with your friends and family and have them view it in one centralized place.

Profiles

You can gain a basic understanding of a person by looking through their profile and seeing the pages they follow. I’ll browse through friends’ profiles to see if we have similar intellectual interests, or watch the same TV shows. I’ll even learn new things about people I know well from their profiles.

Facebook Pages

Facebook pages, if used correctly, can build communities around shared interests. However, I follow dozens of Facebook pages and can only think of three or four that actually update me with things I care about.

The Bad

Privacy

Facebook’s privacy issues are well documented, so I won’t repeat them here. What bothers me most is that Facebook tracks you around the internet even when you aren’t logged in. And if I forget to log out and accidentally click one of the ubiquitous “like” buttons around the internet, the action shows up on my profile and my friends’ newsfeed.

Irrelevance

The most unpleasant aspect about Facebook is how irrelevant my newsfeed is. I randomly selected posts from my newsfeed and categorized them as “relevant” or “irrelevant,” and only 20 percent fell into the first category. This is abysmally low considering Facebook’s sophisticated algorithms for newsfeed content, my selectivity in accepting friend requests, and my consistent efforts to hide posts from or unfriend people who share things I don’t care about. There’s just too much junk on Facebook, which leads to…

Sharing ad nauseum

Facebook has built up a pervasive culture of sharing. I get spammed with invites from stupid third party apps on the Facebook platform, invites to events that the sender knows I’m not interested in, and Facebook messages from people I don’t want to talk to. My newsfeed is polluted with uninteresting updates from pages I follow and a torrent of photos of pets, food, and babies1. This culture of endless sharing is why Facebook needs newsfeed curation algorithms in the first place.

I had to jump through hoops to make myself invisible to certain people on Facebook chat so they would stop spamming me with messages2. I’ve had to manually unfollow people who post annoying things. I shouldn’t have to keep fighting against my social network like this.

Friendship Expectations

I’ve learned firsthand that people get very upset when you don’t accept their friend requests. Most people I know are Facebook friends with their relatives, coworkers, bosses, and random acquaintances out of social obligation.

Bloated

Facebook is overloaded with useless stuff. Trending topics, hashtags, Facebook gifts, location check-ins, third party apps, graph search, timeline, etc.

The core features are: profiles (though these have become bloated too), newsfeed, photos, chat, events, and groups. Everything else is extraneous.

Notification Overload

These days I hesitate to comment on posts because I’ll be flooded with notifications about unrelated five-word comments from people I don’t know. Facebook has tried to fix this by consolidating notifications and allowing you to unfollow posts, but I’d rather not receive those notifications at all. I no longer stay logged in on the Facebook app because of its push notifications.

The Ideal Social Network

Using this list, we can imagine what the ideal social network (IDS) would look like.

Simple

IDS would be premised around a clean, minimal interface with only essential features, similar to Facebook in the early days. It contains only the essentials: profiles, a newsfeed, photos, chat/messaging, events, and groups. Privacy and security settings are simple and streamlined.

Structured Around Friend Circles

Google+ got it right when they created friendship “circles.” In IDS, every friend must be assigned a circle, such as close friends, family, co-workers, etc, and posts can be targeted to individual circles. Circles give better privacy controls and more accurately represent how we manage our social connections in real life. Facebook awkwardly tried to copy the circle idea with Facebook lists, but few use them since they aren’t a central aspect of the network, as in Google+.

Different Business Model

I’m not opposed to personalized ads. If I have to see ads, I’d rather they be relevant. What is unacceptable is Facebook tracking me around the internet, even when I’m logged out, and giving that data to advertisers. IDS users would be able to opt-out of personalized ads or be able to upgrade to a premium, ad-free version. I wouldn’t mind paying a few dollars a month for an ad-free privacy-respecting social network.

Discourages Extraneous Sharing

To prevent newsfeed pollution, IDS would do the following:

  1. Allow downvoting. The downvotes would be hidden from the original poster, and would be used to make newsfeed curation algorithms more accurate.
  2. Make it easy to unfollow someone or reduce their posts’ prevalence in your newsfeed.
  3. Gamify posts by showing engagement statistics. If people see their posts are consistently not getting likes/upvotes or comments, they may change their posting behavior.

Discourages Meaningless Connections

I see three possible solutions:

  1. Hard limit on the number of friends. Dunbar’s Number suggests we can only maintain 150 relationships at a time, so IDS could limit the number of friends to 300 to add some breathing room.
  2. Don’t have a suggested friends feature. Instead, require each user to make a conscious, specific effort to add someone as a friend. Most users wouldn’t make that effort for people they barely know.
  3. Have a “suggested unfriend” feature, based on frequency of interactions and downvotes.

IDS is the kind of social network I want to build and use. Facebook’s enormous userbase means IDS is probably doomed from the start, but it’s something to think about as Facebook enters its second decade.

 

1- Okay, the baby photos haven’t started yet. Give it a few years.

2- To be invisible on chat for a subset of your Facebook friends, create a separate friend list, add the appropriate people to that list, and change the list settings so they can’t see when you’re logged on.

Play Like Picasso

I was rummaging through old files on my computer and came across my primary college application essay, “Play like Picasso.” I remember staying up late one night in what must have been November 2010 and writing it in about an hour. Surprisingly, almost nothing was changed in the editing process. The essays were to be roughly 500 words–this clocks in at 547.

Play like Picasso

I can’t draw. I really can’t draw. My drawing abilities haven’t changed since I was five years old; they consist of crudely constructed androgynous stick figures with smiling or frowning faces. My painting and sculpting abilities are equally uninspiring, and early childhood summers spent in weeklong art camps failed to improve my aptitude. Perhaps this early realization of my lack of artistic talent directed me to nontraditional avenues of creative expression, and it just so happened that one of these avenues was chess. I immediately took to the game, playing almost daily with my father when I was five years old, losing every time but entranced with its possibilities. I became more and more involved, joining my school chess club, playing on the internet and in tournaments, and excitedly bringing my chess set to sleepovers at my neighbor’s house.  What was it about pushing those pieces of plastic that excited me so much? Maybe it was the feeling that every game I played was unique, the knowledge that every game I play has never been played before and will never be played again. Maybe it was going to a chess tournament and being able to see both a homeless man intently analyzing the chess board, unrestricted by the limitations life had placed on him, and a Mercedes-driving Cuban doctor wrestle with the fact that the very hands and mind that had saved hundreds of lives in decades past could not prevent an imminent defeat by his nine-year-old opponent.

Perhaps it was because, like an author with his characters or an artist with his subjects, I could empathize with my pieces. Maybe I was that lone piece, bravely yet recklessly straying into enemy territory on an all-or-nothing gamble to prove what I’m capable of to my opponent and to myself. Maybe I was one of the two Bishops working side-by-side, perfectly complementing my counterpart on the other color complex, realizing that in our differences lay our strength. Maybe I was a Knight, indecisive, hopping between dark and light squares and awkward in my irregular and idiosyncratic movements, yet capable of great beauty if given an opportunity to flourish. Maybe I was a lowly Pawn, jeered at by the other pieces for my limited powers yet containing the hidden potential to transform into a Queen, the most powerful and majestic piece on the board, and prove my worth. Maybe it was because I knew what it was like to be in zugzwang, a chess term that describes a situation where a player wishes he could freeze time, since every move he makes worsens his position. Maybe I wished life were like chess, because even though it would still be confusing, I could find beauty in every move. Maybe it was all of these things.

I see a chess position the way I see myself: an imperfect work of art, full of flaws and failures but also of hope and potential, viewed differently by each and every person yet unambiguous in its defining characteristics. It, like me, is a peculiar work of art I will never fully understand but will always strive to improve.  Every time I sit down at the chess board, I’m creating art. And one day, maybe not too long from now, I will play like Picasso.