Tag: writing

Alexa Doesn’t Have to Make Your Kid into a Raging Asshole

My brother Evan got an Amazon Echo from Santa this year, and his first instinct was to rename it “Grandma.”


Sadly, Amazon dislikes fun – “Alexa” it would remain – but we gladly accepted the challenge to find more innovative ways of exploring the AI’s magical skillset while casting aspersions into the depths of its still-uncanny valley.

Hunter Walk did the same – but because he has a young child at home, his family’s Alexa Abuse posed something of a real problem. In his poetic words:

We love our Amazon Echo. Among other tasks, my four-year-old finds the knock knock jokes hilarious, the weather captivating, the ability to summon songs comparable to magic and Echo to be the best speller in the house. But I fear it’s also turning our daughter into a raging asshole.

You may share Hunter’s fears. Technology is changing how our children learn and develop, and it’s not immediately clear whether the net effect is positive or negative.

In the eyes of my (actual) grandmother, technology is turning our kids’ brains to mush. It’s hijacking their ability to have simple conversations, to delay gratification, and to talk face-to-face. Why would kids interact with people when Alexa and the Internet can fulfill their every need?

The problems that technology poses are well-understood – but reliable remedies to keep the cyberbugs away are hard to come by. There’s the Luddite’s abstention, the Moderate’s strictly limited doses, and the Defeated’s elixir of resignation to our future robo-verlords.

But such reactionary, retrospective critiques are misguided because the past has passed. My children won’t play outside like I did on Tumbleweed Drive, or write middle-school love notes on loose-leaf paper, or understand why I made physical mixtapes for the girl I liked in high school. Those days are not coming back.

And why dwell on what has been lost when we have a window into the future?

Today, I want to think about Alexa as Harbinger. What can she teach us about how to prepare the next generation for a future that will inevitably look radically different from the present?

First, the obvious: kids don’t have to make eye contact with Alexa, and she doesn’t mind if kids are rude, short, or demanding. These trends are echoed in fast-hitting communication apps like Snapchat and Messenger. Should parents worry that technology is making their children less social adept?

I think not, because face-to-face conversation will be less important in the future. My elementary school taught me cursive and said that it would be the only accepted form of writing in adult life. In retrospect, my time would have been better spent focusing on digital communication. What if our schools taught kids how to write compelling and well-formatted emails, or how to curate their social media accounts? Ambitious and forward-thinking educators could even use technology to reach students who don’t feel comfortable talking aloud in the classroom.

Even the best digital communication is still intermediated, however, so concerns of empathetic distancing are real. This is not a cause for anti-technology resistance. To the contrary, it’s an opportunity. We shouldn’t worry that our children won’t talk to each other face-to-face – we should instead prepare them to be empathetic and engaged even once most of their interpersonal contact comes either intermediated through, or (as in the case of Alexa) directed towards, technology.

Could we program Alexa to have “emotions,” promoting an inorganic development of emotional intelligence?

My grandma also worries that my siblings and I can’t delay gratification, and she’s not exactly wrong – AmazonPrime is amazing(ly taxing on my bank account), and reading short-form content on Facebook and Twitter has impacted my ability to read a normal book without distraction.

But again: what if we are permanently turning into a short-term society? Alexa is the ultimate time-saver – our wish is her command – and other tech similarly minimizes the time we need to spend to get what we want. There is no use in resisting such innovations, because again: they are here to stay. How, then, can we prepare children for a world in which many of their needs are met on demand?

In that world, our children will need to master using the “here and now” to prioritize activities that create lasting value. It’s rewarding to get 100 likes on Instagram, but that buzz only lasts as long as the dopamine hit. Our challenge, then, is to find ways that technology can help children organize short-term, daily, incremental activities towards the achievement of long-term goals.

Could we program Alexa to ignore our commands until we spend time working towards our goals?

These concerns – and many others like them – are important to analyze. But I will conclude here with a question larger than any particular vice or virtue: could technology change the way that children develop values? Specifically, what happens when children go to Alexa, rather than Mom or Teacher, with questions about how the world works? We have to teach children not only skills, but also values to guide their decision-making. How can we do so in the digital age?

My preferred solution is to get ahead of Alexa and the technological wave it represents – to embrace its transformative power and judo-move its considerable momentum into productivity towards helping our children succeed. We can’t look to the past to guide our thinking here, and we can’t lament. Only a proactive approach will do – because technology won’t help us live by our values unless we first ask it to do so.

Jordan Shapiro, a PhD and Senior Fellow for the Joan Ganz Cooney Center, a research and innovation lab focused on educating children, put it well:

[Parents often ask:] “Aren’t you afraid that after they learn from a video game kids won’t be willing to pick up books?” I’m shocked by the absurdity of the question… [and] the assumption that technology is stronger than the humans that created it. No, I’m not afraid. I assume it is adults’ responsibility to teach children value systems… We need to start taking responsibility for ourselves.

Faith and Science, as They Really Are

During the Vietnam War, a string of malaria appeared that was resistant to chloroquine, the most prevalent treatment at the time. Malaria was already a huge killer – in 1967 alone, the disease infected over 5.8M people – and a resistant strain could have spelled disaster. In response, the Chinese Premier Zhou Enlai launched a secret research group to find a new treatment; in May 1967, an undistinguished female scientist named Tu Youyou joined the team.

By that time, scientists around the world had already tested over 240,000 compounds with no success. And yet, the community at large and the Premier’s team continued to research – the latter sent Tu to the island province of Hainan to research malaria patients in person.

In 1969, Tu had an unconventional idea: why not study traditional Chinese herbal medicine for new ideas on compounds? To their credit, the research team allowed her to pursue this train of thought – for although herbal medicine was considered just one step better than witchcraft, they were desperate – and the team was rewarded for their confidence. After analysis of a 1600-year-old text, on a page titled “Emergency Prescriptions Kept Up One’s Sleeve” to be prescribed for “intermittent fevers” (a classic malaria symptom), Tu discovered the sweet wormwood plant as a possible remedy. Upon testing, Tu found that this was not only the most effective compound of the 240,000+ found to date, but also objectively effective as a remedy for malaria. Her discover could – and eventually would – save literally millions of lives when brought to the world at large.

Unfortunately, however, that “when” wasn’t realized as fast as it could, and should, have been. The difficulty was that the compound was so closely linked with the “superstitions” of ancient Chinese medicine that it was largely ignored on the world stage. It took the World Health Organization another 24 years to approve the use of the compound; and Tu Youyou was only awarded a Nobel Prize for her discovery in 2015. (When she was given another, similar award in 2011, Tu simply commented: “I am too old to bear this.”)

Tu’s discovery had an incredible impact on the world. But could it have been still larger if the world was more receptive to spiritual, or religious, hypotheses? I have to think so.

And I have to wonder what other powerful ideas we might have missed out on – and what future ideas we might let pass – due to skewed notions of what our worldviews really are, and what they ought to be.

The Cuba Files: Fact, Fiction, and Politics

December 27th, Baggage Claim of the Havana Airport, Cuba:

Ric and I wait for my bag at an unlabeled carousel. It’s been at least thirty minutes since the plane landed, and announcements over the tinny speakers have been unhelpful at best. It’s not until I notice the Spirit-yellow “transfer” slip sandwiched between a bag and the carousel’s metal slat that we know we’re waiting in the right place. About ten minutes later, after the baggage handlers have presumably had 1-2 smoke breaks while completing the ~100 yard transfer from plane to baggage claim, my backpack finally arrives. Between the standard Spirit Airlines delay of 20m and this wait, it’s now over an hour after we are scheduled to land in Havana.

And yet, as soon as we walk out of the baggage claim area and into the swarm of friends and family, he is still waiting: José Ramón, the host of our AirBnb, he with whom I spoke relatively broken Spanish over the reservation’s built-in chat window, standing alongside his wife and with a sign reading “CHRISTIAN KEIL.” I’m very surprised that he showed up at all. We never confirmed that he would be there, nor a price for a trip; in the moment, we considered it a grand gesture of Cuban culture and hospitality that the host of our $37/night AirBnb would include transportation (and waiting for an hour to pick up us) gratis. Our host drove us in his late-50s Ford to the property in Havana’s northwest “Vedado” region, and our trip was off to an incredibly smooth start.

Two days later, we came back from a day of exploring Havana to a note from José Ramón: we should call him to confirm our check-out procedures, oh, and if we could leave the $25 for the cab ride from the airport, that would be perfect. That is Cuba, as I saw it. José Ramón was, overall, an incredibly gracious host. And the country was, overall, relatively tourist-friendly. But the whole country is just so wildly impoverished that there really isn’t another story to tell.

‘Twas the Night Before Business School Decision Day

‘Twas the night before business school decision day, and at this point, I’m just glad to have a house.

Last night, I returned from perhaps one of the least logistically lucky trips of my career – two turbulent flights to and from NOLA: one cancelled, one significantly delayed – and found that the heater in my apartment had broken at some point during the last week. It was 40 degrees inside when I first called my landlord, and no warmer when he confirmed the diagnosis of a “broken induction fan,” or something. My room stayed cold all last night, and after a restless night bundled up in every blanket in the apartment, I promptly awoke and left for the warm respite of the Deloitte office.

Today, I luckily secured my most basic of human needs: the HVAC guy did a bang-up job. (W.C. deliberate; he fixed the heat but broke one of my Harry Potter bookends.) I sit now at the desk in my kitchen, listening to a Greatest of Stevie Wonder album and the occasional L passing by, in a balmy 70-degree heat, just having finished a simple dinner and showered after working out. I am now protected from the cold, with a full belly and luck that appears to be on the up-and-up.

The latter has hopefully arrived just in time. Tomorrow is the first day of business school decisions.

This is My America

After tonight, everything is different.

It’s 11:48 PM on Tuesday, November 8th, 2016. All signs point to an inevitable, if unbelievable, conclusion: Donald Trump will be the next President of the United States. Let me say that slightly differently. The former host of the Apprentice, a man who has publicly stated that has he sexually assaulted women, that Muslims should be banned from entering the country, that he will prosecute his political opponent, that Mexicans are rapists, that women should be distrusted when they are on their periods; a candidate who hasn’t released his tax returns, who praises Vladimir Putin, who disagrees with his Vice President, who called his opponent a “nasty woman” and claimed that there are some “bad hombres” in this country, who criticizes the freedom of the press, who has bankrupted several companies despite not paying contracted workers and threatening to sue them if they protest, who has divorced his first two wives before landing on a supermodel immigrant – despite his notable and avowed hatred for all those who are not American – and who now inevitably accepts and will praise the electoral system that he previously considered “rigged”: this narcissist is about to become the leader of the free world, and one third of the most powerful government on the face of the Earth.

(The previous paragraph is only moderately catastrophizing. You’ll notice that I didn’t mention the fact that this man – who is provoked to vehemence at all hours of the night by tweets from Rosie O’Donnell – will now have control over the United States’ nuclear arsenal. I refuse to believe that someone could start a nuclear war. But, also, I now know that what I believe or refuse to believe has absolutely no hold over reality.)

It’s now 12:03 AM, November 9th. It’s my mother’s birthday. Yesterday, she posted a picture of herself in a navy pantsuit on Facebook – a celebratory gesture, paying homage to the preferred garb of our then presumptive future Madam President. But today, we know the truth: that America is not what we thought it was, and that hate has trumped love.

Evil has conquered good. Division has conquered unity. And in a very real way, straight, Christian, white, and male has trumped gay, Muslim, black, and female. It feels like that’s the case, doesn’t it? And on some level, it is – no matter how hard we try to erase this night from the history of our great nation. But no matter what the truth is tonight, the beauty of America is that we can change tomorrow.

Understanding Jon Cruz: Role Model, Family Friend, Convicted Felon

To compete in the Tournament of Champions is to take your place among the crème de la crème of high-school debate; it’s like making the NFL playoffs, but far more difficult. And for nerds.

At the end of my junior year, I had earned three “bids” by winning smaller regional tournaments, and had thereby qualified for the 2008 TOC. Standing at my gate in the Delta terminal of the Minneapolis airport, I did all that I could to not visibly freak out on account of my excitement. After countless hours of research and practice, only a two-hour flight and one night of sleep separated me from competing in the tournament of which I had dreaming for the past three years.

When I landed in the Promised Land of Lexington, Kentucky, however, I quickly realized that something was terribly, terribly wrong: my coach was nowhere to be found, and time would make clear that he wasn’t sick or delayed. He ghosted, and didn’t show up for the most important tournament of my career. Even more, my parents and I found that he had neglected to book me a hotel room in Lexington (~800 miles away from my hometown of Lakeville, Minnesota) and he didn’t even enter me in the tournament. And, of course, as it was now the night before the first round would commence, the registration deadline had passed. Just three hours after my bright-eyed reminiscence in the MSP airport, I had no hotel, no team, no coach, and no place in the tournament.

Enter: Jon Cruz. Jon was 24 years old, very young for a debate coach and younger than I am today – and yet, he had already led the Bronx High School of Science program to be the lodestar of the debate community. His program was massive, recruiting four times more students from each graduating class than mine had in total, and by all accounts he displayed immense care and was an impactful mentor for every one of his 200+ debaters. Given his incredible workload both as a coach of his four TOC-qualified debaters and as the chief correspondent for the “Victory Briefs Institute” webpage, the most-visited site for both debaters and their parents who sought real-time tournament results, he had no free time with which to help me. I mean, the guy hardly even knew me: I hadn’t attended his debate camp, the aforementioned VBI; I wasn’t a big name on the national debate circuit, just eeking out my bids in small Midwest tournaments; I had attended a round-robin tournament he organized a year earlier, but was just one of ~15 debaters there. And yet, in this time of need, Jon Cruz went out of his way to help me.

I’m still unclear on exactly how Jon learned of my predicament – my mother may have reached out to him, or I may have bumped into him in the tournament hotel’s lobby (that entire weekend is something of a stunned blur for me to this day) – but long story short, Jon successfully petitioned the TOC’s organizing committee to suspend the rules and reschedule the first two rounds of the tournament to allow me to compete. And, as icing on the cake, he offered to let me stay in a hotel room with his four debaters (in which I ultimately slept in a desk chair; it was better than the alternative of homelessness, given that all the area’s surrounding hotels were sold out for that weekend).

And so, just a few more hours removed from my realization that my nominal coach had abandoned me to have a mid-life crisis, I had a hotel. I had a place in the tournament. And, in an intensely meaningful way, I had a team – and a mentor to look up to in Jon Cruz.

On Friday, September 23rd, 2016, Jon Cruz pleaded guilty to one count of receiving child pornography, a charge that carries a five-year mandatory minimum sentence and a maximum sentence of 20 years. This plea after over a year of pre-trial litigation and processing. He was initially charged with producing, receiving, and possessing child pornography in March 2015.

Upon Further Review: Why I Write

When people first hear that I wrote a book, they generally think that I’m nuts – either admirably or clinically – and embark on a line of questioning that can occasionally sound accusatory: Why write a book? Didn’t you get writing out of your system in college? How could you even find the time?

These are all good, well-intentioned questions – and I’ve wondered how to answer them ever since I started writing Agnostic-ish as a recent college graduate. The truth as I came to understand it was that I didn’t have just one motivation, but a whole host of them. I wrote my book because I thought that I had a message worth sharing, one that I thought could do some good for folks from my hometown. I wrote to help myself stay relaxed after work, to connect with my family and friends, and to challenge my assumptions about Christianity. And, in the words of Tim Ferriss, I wrote to “scratch my own itch” for a book about religion that wasn’t vitriolic or divisive or out-of-touch with modern science. It takes a village of motivation, I found, to pony up and write a book; without any one of the aforementioned, I’m not sure that I could have written a (faux-)professional, (debatably-)readable final product.

But those answers aren’t really satisfying, are they? Most folks seem to agree that they’re not, and upon further review, I agree. The real reason for why I wrote a book is deeper – it must be – and after reflecting more on the question of “why,” I think the best way to uncover the truth may be to first turn to a broader question: why write at all?


The future always comes too fast and in the wrong order.

ALVIN TOFFLER – RIP – 1928-2016


It’s hard to remember the days before it came, but harder to forget those that came after. They warned us; they warned me. But I didn’t listen.

In the beginning we were all just surprised. No other word, really. Everybody, and I mean everybody, said that it could never be done. We didn’t listen, of course, being Explorers and all. They had been telling us what we couldn’t do for more or less forever, far as we could tell, and every time before we had proved them wrong. And we did it again, I guess, when we first brought it about.

The Future

The future is already here, it’s just not evenly distributed.