Penny for a Thought

Welcome back to Penny for your Thought. Topics are overrated, but you are allowed to think about what the thought might be in reference to. Submit a Thought (not a Thot) if you wish. Also, the form was updated, and you can find out how in its description. 

Form can be found here:


“My favorite movie is Big Fish because it is a unique story with amazing cinematography.  It celebrates stories, imagination, love, and seeing things in different ways! It gets me right here (points to heart)!” 

– Adva, Staff

“I’m thankful I have enough time in my life to think deeply about my values” 

– Anonymous, Second Year Student

“No matter where you land on the political spectrum, The Bell Curve, by Richard J. Herrnstein & Charles Murray is worth a read. It discusses the relationship between socioeconomic status and intelligence, equality of opportunity, and the consequences of large scale migration. If you’re interested, it’s pretty easy to find a free PDF online.” – Anonymous

“Speed Racer” 

– Anonymous, Third Year Student


– Anonymous, Third Year Student

“The following is an email that I sent to my sister in 2006. She replied to it last week/13 years later. Unrelated second paragraph included for my own on-brand-Librarian time capsule lolz.

‘I have one final left, in two and a half weeks. The rest of that time I plan to spend reading books and seeing blockbusters. We saw Mission Impossible 3 last night and if you do anything in life, it should be to see that movie. It’s all that you could ask for in a movie.  There’s even a scene where Philip Seymour Hoffman beats up another Philip Seymour Hoffman!!!

My new form of procrastination is Wikipedia. They have EVERYTHING on there. Today I won a fight about zorses, in that they do exist. Wikipedia proved it. I LOVE Wikipedia.’

2019 notes: I still all-caps LOVE every Mission Impossible. If you want a truly terrible Mission Impossible movie, just watch Hudson Hawk (but don’t).” 

– Maggie Anderson, Staff

Why I Love America

It is far too easy when discussing politics to get dragged into the dirt. To have your view muddied and dirtied until you see only the negatives. This is not necessarily a bad thing. How else are we to try to improve what is broken? But it is a limiting perspective. The news doesn’t help. We read of tragedies and crises, peril and hatred. This series of articles has been no different; we’ve viewed the future of America through a lens of partisan conflict and thinly disguised bigotry. But that’s not the whole story. So for this, the final article in my series, I want to leave you with something different. I want to tell you why I love America.

Because I do love America. Truly, deeply, and with all my heart. It is my home, from my birth until my death. There is no place else I would rather live; no place else I hold in higher regard. I do not hesitate to say that the United States of America is the greatest country on the face of the earth, and it is with nothing but the utmost pride that I am able to utter the words “I am an American.”

There are many things that make America as amazing as it is. Our devotion to liberty, our history as the world’s oldest and most storied democracy, and our breathtaking national parks. Today, however, I want to focus on one thing in particular, that which this whole series has been about: Diversity. America is perhaps the most diverse nation to ever exist in the history of humanity. We comprise people from around the globe. Within a matter of decades, the third-largest country on earth will be a majority-minority country. This is unprecedented in the history of humanity.

Of course, America is by no means a perfect country, nor would I ever claim it to be so. But as we’ve discussed, so many of these issues can be traced back to our diversity. It is the price we pay, but it is a trade I would take any day. One of my biggest pet peeves is liberals holding up European countries (especially Nordic countries) as examples of superior countries. “Why can’t we have healthcare like Sweden?” they ask. “Why can’t we be more like Norway?” they ask. Certainly, these countries are not bad, and their policies are indeed great, but the implementation of their policies is facilitated by their homogeny. These are not diverse countries, and they would not be the same today if they were. It’s easy not to be racist when there is no one to be racist to. It’s not uncommon in European politics to see far-right parties embrace universal healthcare, but to do so in conjunction with strict immigration policies. The message is clear: universal healthcare, but not for brown people. Do not mistake liberal policies for liberal attitudes. The European migrant crisis of the last decade has laid this all clear. The sudden appearance of millions of people from North Africa and the Middle East was met with a surge of far-right parties and the near implosion of some countries (*cough* UK *cough*). Racism is a problem of exposure to diversity, and no country has experienced as much exposure as the US. 

It can sometimes seem as if the US lags behind the rest of the world, but in reality, the opposite is true. We are pioneering the future. We are creating a truly global and accepting country in a way that no one else ever has. Yes, our policies are often less progressive than other countries, but as I have already mentioned this is due to our diversity. Healthcare, gun control, zoning policies, abortion rights; all of it is deeply mired in our struggle with diversity. 

The path is not an easy one. The election of Donald Trump should make that clear enough, but America has persisted in the past and will continue to do so today. Our history is one defined by progress in the face of hardship and bigotry. I have faith that America will emerge from this episode stronger for it; that we will continue to lead the world. I understand how hard it can be to be hopeful in these times, but I implore you to try. We are moving forward as we always have. We have no national language, no state religion. American is not an ethnicity, only a nationality. One defined by your capacity for freedom and acceptance. The Great American Experiment of our founding lives on but in a new form. No longer is it just about democracy; democracy has proven itself around the world. Instead, it’s about democracy AND diversity. It’s about learning to break down the barriers between peoples and build a nation in the image of a truly global community. 

This is a journey we take together. Not all those who express hatred or bigotry are beyond redemption. Nor should we seek to cast them out or proclaim them as nothing more than ignorant racists. They are folly to the same vices that afflict us all. Jealousy and envy, fear and anger. They are just as American as anyone else, and we should treat them as such. Don’t just lambast them for their disagreements; instead, help them to understand. We all share the same goal: To make America a better place. For all our differences as to what exactly this might mean, we all do so with the same reverence and love for the concept that is America. 

I leave you with this. While diversity might be the source of our hardship, it is also a source of our greatest national beauty. Even when times feel dark and it looks as if we are sliding backwards, I urge you to remain hopeful. The path we walk is treacherous, and we will never emerge unscathed, but I never doubt that it is the correct path. It is with unwavering faith that I can say “I love America.”

My Story: Being Trans at Olin

You have all heard in vague terms about the transphobia present at our school in the form of a list of demands, but I want my personal story to be heard. This article has no agenda and this isn’t a call to action. If you see me around campus do not thank me for writing this or tell me you didn’t realize. I just want to give people a window into how this has affected me as an individual, not me as a co-writer of the call to action, not me as a member of a group. Because this issue is important and it’s personal. First and foremost I have felt unheard, and I refuse to let those feelings consume me.

It all started when someone I considered a close friend began to manipulate me with transphobic beliefs as I was in the process of coming out. I confided in her about my dysphoria, and she shot me down in a way that was framed to be for my own safety but really just taught me that what I felt about my own body couldn’t be trusted. I began to internalize the feeling of not being worth listening to, feeling isolated by my identity because what I thought I wanted wasn’t what I should do, and I became depressed. I went to her because I saw her as someone who would believe me and would speak against the societal norms that told me I couldn’t be who I thought I was. Instead she just increased my feeling of isolation without me even realizing it. I felt a need for her approval and wanted her to like me, despite her showing generally little respect for me. I found other people to talk to about my gender with and came out more publicly, but I still have trouble accepting that my friends are going to believe and listen to me.

After many more incidents with her involving me and my friends, I realized how she had manipulated me. During an appointment with a Colony Care therapist where I attempted to discuss what happened and how I felt because of it, my therapist showed me that the adults in my life would not believe me. She told me that it was a misunderstanding without even asking for my side of the story. When I interrupted her to tell her the very serious things that had happened to me and my friends, she put words in my mouth and said I “suspected” that the harasser was transphobic. She continued on to tell me multiple times that this is the real world, and that we should have more discussions with our harasser. This left me in a state of panic. I felt so small and insignificant, as if my feelings did not matter even within the context of my personal therapy appointment. I then spent the next three months without a regular therapist while dealing with all of this.

At the same time, all summer while working on campus I felt like my voice was being heard just enough to placate me but not enough to change anything. I felt like I was being humored so that I would shut up, and I had to fight to be taken seriously. Nothing was changing no matter how hard I pushed, no matter how unsafe I felt, no matter how much it got in the way of my ability to do my work. My feelings once again did not matter.

These repeated incidents of being unimportant and small have deeply affected my self-esteem. When I am having a hard time (which is frequently), I struggle to feel worthy of help, and I struggle to feel like I can give any valid contributions to conversations. I still struggle to believe that I was harrassed “enough” to warrant feeling as bad as I do. Even as I am writing this article, part of my brain is telling me that I am making this up and that it’s my own fault I feel this way.

I feel like I am simultaneously tiny and taking up too much space. I have nightmares where I am trying to communicate with a close friend but they keep raising their voice and not hearing me, until I am screaming at them and they get upset that I am yelling. There is no balance between feeling unheard and being “too loud.”

I had to drop one of my classes and frequently miss my other three because of the emotional energy it takes to walk out the door or do my work. I sit in my room and take care of myself in the ways I know how to, and I get off campus as much as I can, but in the end I have to continue to be a student here, and I am pissed that my opportunity to learn was taken away from me. All I want to do is dig myself an appropriately deep grave in POE, hang out with my friends, and learn math, and my passion for those things is gone.

Institutionally, things are getting better. But I know that as things change here, as the school continues to listen to their students and do what is right, I will also continue to be traumatized by what has already happened, and these ideas that have become ingrained in me will take a long time to unlearn. It will be a long and hard process to make all of the changes we are hoping for in order to turn Olin into the place we know it can be. Yet even if those changes were instantaneous, I would still be here feeling the real-life effects of being ignored.

Aside from the actions we take, we need to heal as individuals and as a group. Olin is supposed to be a space where we all feel safe and accepted, and it will take work on all of our parts to get there. That comes in the form of showing support for the efforts we are making to change Olin policies and practices, as I have seen so many of you do, but it also means finding ways to allow people space and time to heal while still including them in the broader community. I’m not sure what that means or how to go about doing that, but that is for all of us to figure out.

Alma Matter and the Meaning of Community

I have the privilege of sitting in an office on the second floor of Milas Hall, looking out on the parking lot which is currently framed by beautiful trees in full foliage. As I sat at my desk looking out the window one day, I got to witness people seeing and embracing those they love and have not seen in a while. I was sharing, at a distance, special reunions that are all part of Family Weekend at Olin, something that was not recorded, was not viewed by others and that everyone gets to experience sometime

As we all know, family has many different elements, and kindness starts in the home. Well, when people are away at college, the campus is their home. 

I worked at the Holy Cross College main library for a couple of years. As a part-time employee, I was invited on a campus tour (that happened to be given by my 5th grade teacher’s son!). During the tour the campus guide, Tommy, mentioned that Alma Mater means “other mother.” I truly never knew this information. Per Google – “Your alma mater is your old school, college or university. It’s generally used as a positive term, implying reverence and loyalty for the nurturing qualities of the institution. Alma mater comes from two Latin words meaning “nourishing or bountiful mother.” 

When I walk around campus and see students I try to smile and say hello, remembering this is their home away from home. We want them to feel welcome and embraced while here—no matter their differences. 

In looking outside, seeing sweet embraces of people reconnecting, I hope that feeling at Olin, along with simple kindness, can flow back into an intimate, interesting, hopefully, welcoming community for everyone

Penny for your Thought

Welcome back to Penny for your Thought. Last month’s edition talked gently about the climate change march and had other exciting thoughts. This month’s edition was organized around two topics (with the ability to ignore the topics) that were Book/Movie Recommendations and What You Are Thankful For. 

If you are interested in submitting something for the next iteration of Penny for your Thought, December’s Topics will be: Small Reflection on This Semester and What you are looking forward to next semester. Again, topics are only suggestions and different thoughts are welcomed.
Form can be found here:

Book and Movie Recommendations:

“The documentary Avicii: True Stories is the masterpiece of the eon.” – Anonymous, Third Year Student

“The Overstory, by Richard Powers, really is magical. If you’re feeling apocalyptic about climate change and needing to gather some perspective, this is your text. The deep wonder of trees is the book’s real subject, told through a dozen characters in interrelated stories. The best books reframe the world so we see it with new eyes, and this is one of those.” – Sara Hendren, Faculty

“Jupiter Ascending may not have been a particularly intellectual movie, but it was fun and campy. I rewatched it recently on Netflix, remembering very little about it beyond the fact that it was bad, and found myself genuinely enjoying it. The pad scene and the “I love dogs; I’ve always loved dogs” will never not be funny. Plus, it was directed by the Wachowski sisters. “ – Anonymous

“Sneakers (1992 Film)” – Steve Matsumoto, Faculty

“I read Educated by Tara Westover and it was an incredible memoir of self-discovery that’s at times horrific, unbelievable, and beautiful. (TW: physical abuse, violence, hateful language, religious extremism). The author grew up in a Mormon fundamentalist family that idolized anti-government extremists and put her to work scrapping metal in a junkyard when she should’ve been (but wasn’t) in 7th grade. She endures physical abuse at the hands of her loved ones which turns more psychic when she starts to put distance between her old life and the new one she’s clawing together for herself in college, then grad school and beyond. Tara’s perseverance, even in the face of hardships that will scar her forever, is a remarkable thing to bear witness to. This was one of the most powerful books I’ve read in some time.” – Callan, Staff

“The Power, by Naomi Alderman, is a very powerful book. It made me rethink my role as a feminist and the role of revolution in society. Highly recommend.” – Emma Pan, Third Year Student

“Borne or Annihilation by Jeff VanderMeer are both weird dystophians that explore technology and environments. Borne is more heavy with biotech with Annihilation being a look at climate change (in a non global warming sense). Borne and Annihilation are often under $5 as ebooks.” – Erika A. Serna, Third Year Student

What You Are Thankful For:
“I’m thankful for my friends walking through nourishing conversations with me” – David Freeman, Third Year Student

“Thankful for: Modern medicine.” – Rick Osterberg, Staff

“I’m grateful for the black comfier chairs at the tables in the library” – Anonymous, Fourth Year Student

“I’m thankful for getting feedback that actually makes me reflect on why I interact with people the way I do and what I may be able to change to be a more effective communicator” -Anonymous


“Three men check into a hotel. They each pay $10 for a total of $30. Later, the manager realizes that the room only cost $25 and gives the bellhop $5 to return to the guests. Along the way, the bellhop decides that $5 is hard to split between 3 people and pockets $2. He returns $3. Now the men paid $30 initially, with $10 each. They each got $1 back, totaling $9 each for $27. The bellhop has $2 totaling $29. Where is the remaining $1?” – Anonymous

“We’re just the stories we tell about ourselves.” – Anonymous

“you’re doing a great job :)” – Anonymous

“Strong magnets are reverse hammers.” – Zack Davenport, Fourth Year Student

Coming Soon: Innovative New BOW Play

You need to meet Jenny Chow. She’ll be visiting in late October and you’re going to love her.

She’s a robot and she’s amazing.

Jenny was created by Jennifer Marcus, the lead character in the play I’m directing this fall as part of a BOW initiative. You’ll like Jennifer too, or at least you’ll recognize her, and maybe, just maybe, you’ll see some of yourself in her. Jennifer is a 22-year-old California girl with astounding engineering skills. She was basically an academic rock star in high school. As she says in the play, “I got a job reengineering obsolete missile components after I lost my job at the mall.” 

But in the past few years, things have started to go downhill. Jennifer has obsessive-compulsive disorder and that makes it hard to leave her house. It’s put a ton of strain on her family and she’s in constant struggle with her parents. She’s recently become consumed with meeting her birth mother in China, but since she can’t leave the house, she creates Jenny to fly across the Pacific and find her. Yeah, there’s a lot going on in this play.

Jenny is a lot like Jennifer. She’s kind of Jennifer’s idealized version of herself. And that means she’s not the hypersexualized, glossy, white-and-chrome robot from so many movies and TV shows – the ones predominantly designed by and for middle-aged white dudes. What would a robot look like if it were designed today by a 22-year-old Asian-American woman to represent herself? 

Come find out!

The Intelligent Design of Jenny Chow will have four performances on the Sorenson mainstage over at Babson (an easy walk from Olin): Thursday, October 24 at 7pm, Friday, October 25 at 2pm and 7pm, and Saturday, October 26 at 7pm. You can get tickets here: (Student tix are $5, but if this poses a hardship for any reason, please let Jon know and he will make sure that finances do not stand between you and this play!) It’s likely that some of the performances will sell out, so we’re strongly recommending you get your tickets in advance.

The cast and crew includes students from both Olin and Babson. Our very own Emma Pan is playing Jenny. Jonah Spicher plays her Dad.  We’ve also got an amazing team of Oliners (including Eamon O’Brien, Peter Seger, Lacie Fradet, Katie Thai-Tang, and Jasper Katzban) working on creating the technical world of this play.  The students are supported by an all-star team of professional designers who have created Jennifer’s two-story house and have a ton of theater magic up their sleeves to surprise and delight you.

In addition to major funding from BabsonArts, and The Empty Space Theater, the production is supported by a BOW Presidential Innovation Grant, and the three college Provosts said they hope it will be “a common text across the three colleges.” There are somewhere between 10-15 courses across the BOW colleges requiring the play as a class assignment, everything from Machine Learning (Olin), to Intro to Acting (Babson), to Cross-Cultural Psychology (Wellesley), to Foundations of Management and Entrepreneurship (Babson). 

We will have a brief (15 min) curated conversations after each performance to talk about the many ideas the play provokes. I’ve certainly been thinking a lot about what it means for me to be at the helm of the team telling this story and I’d love to talk with you about that. It’s going to be awesome.

This play is hilarious and sad. It’s intense and quirky and challenging and fun. It gives us so much to talk about.

We hope you’ll join us!

(And, don’t forget to join FWOP in November for their hilarious, campy romp through the ABBA-fueled world of Mamma Mia! Two big plays on campus in one semester – could we be any luckier?!)

Maintaining Relationships at Olin

The purpose of this piece is as an auxiliary to the relationship panel. It answers some of the more important questions I remember hearing last year. The three questions that I will address here relate to familial and romantic relationships. The opinions expressed herein are based on my own experiences, and I know that other people are in very different situations. Thank you for reading, and I wish you all the best.

How can I stay close with my family?

My family and I send each other letters. You know, those things that take a week or more to get from Massachusetts to South Texas and vice versa. The idea behind this is that when I receive a letter, I’d know the happenings at home without stressing about replying quickly.

When I get a letter, I already know that everything that’s written is dated. I read it and laugh knowing that much of what was written has already happened. I’d always know how the chickens were doing one week ago. I’d know that my brother was going to a chess tournament or that my other brother broke a toe, but by the time I knew the tournament would have already happened or the toe would have already been in a cast for days.

I’m also still in my family’s group chat. They did offer to make one without me so that I don’t receive all their superfluous messages, but I opted to stay. It’s a good way to still be present with them despite being so far away. I get the messages from my parents and brothers that say “headed home” from work or school. I get messages that ask, “Do we need anything
from the grocery store?” And I like to reply, “Yes, eggs.”

We also video chat. Not every day or every weekend, but just whenever we want to see each other. I use my laptop and they crowd around my father’s phone at the dinner table. We exchange funny stories and update each other on the more immediate happenings, short term plans, and general thoughts. I also get to see my younger brothers and how they’re growing and they get to see me descend into madness as the semester progresses.

Will my family miss me when I get back?

I’d say, probably. My two youngest brothers are in the 6th and 9th grades. When I first went off to college, they were excited that I was going somewhere far away. When I returned home for winter vacation, they saw me as more of an adult. I had experiences that they could only imagine. They wanted me to tell them what snow felt like and what the people over here were like.

My parents also treated me more like an adult. They began to ask me questions about the changing social aspects of Boston and the rest of the U.S. At some point, my father heard the term “whitewashing,” on the news and asked me what it meant. I defined it for him and asked if he’d never heard it before. He replied that it meant something different when he was younger. Being away from them for so long also meant that I noticed their oddities more so than before. After spending the day working with my father, I asked my mother, “has he gotten weirder, or am I just noticing it?”

Will my long distance relation-
ship fail?

Heck if I know. If you’re carrying over a relationship from college, the most important thing to know is that it will be different. The amount of time that you can dedicate to each other will diminish proportional to the intensity of the curriculums that you and they pursue.

In my case, I was an engineer and she was an architect. We weren’t able to talk until late at night, and even then sparsely. We both had deadlines that made it hard to maintain the same level of communication that we had in high school. Despite that, we tried our best to send messages throughout the day. We’d share what we ate, the cool things we’d see, and more so that we’d still feel present in each other’s lives. We’d wish each other happy birthday and she enjoyed getting letters from me. And, of course, we cherished the times we got to see each other during the vacations.

But, maintaining a relationship that is not close by takes effort. We’d both lose sleep because we didn’t want to stop sending text messages. I didn’t actively pursue a friend group because I felt secure with having her. I didn’t join many clubs because we wanted to set aside time for us. Had the relationship lasted, this may have been fine. I would have invested in a relationship that would have lasted through college and beyond. But that’s not what happened.

She ended the relationship in the Spring. While I only know the “why” that she told me, I think that the burden of the relationship had become too much. I’d like to think that a relationship ends when one of the people in it isn’t getting what they need out of it, whether it be support, attention, affection or something else.

If you take my story to heart you might think that long-distance relationships are destined for failure, but I’m just one data point. I’d like to think that if you’re both mature individuals who understand the ramifications of a long-distance relationship and believe that the relationship you have is good, then I see no problem in putting effort into keeping it alive. And, if that is the path you choose, I wish you the best of luck.

Democracy at Its Limits

Now that we’ve had a look at the key parties and issues of American politics, let’s take a step back and look holistically at the effects of demographic change on the future of American democracy. In particular, I want to discuss constitutional hardball. While this is by no means unique to our time it represents one of the biggest threats to democracy in America today. Cheery stuff I know, but don’t won’t worry, this series won’t be all doom and gloom.

You’ve likely heard a lot about how polarized US politics is today. Not only are politicians less moderate and less likely to reach across the aisle, but voters too are finding less common ground. If you remember my writings on the two political parties, you can probably see how race plays directly into this. Shifting demographics force parties to either try to capitalize on the change itself, or to the backlash, two diametrically opposed sides. Politically, one of the most dramatic effects of polarization is the increasing frequency of constitutional hardball. Constitutional hardball is a term used to describe actions that are technically legal but that go against norms or historical precedent. 

For an example we can look to the demise of the filibuster over the past decade. The filibuster forced legislators in the Senate to have more than a simple majority (usually 60/100 votes) to pass laws. This can be frustrating for lawmakers who may have a majority, but not a larger supermajority. However, it was generally considered the norm as it (ostensibly) promoted cooperation and compromise between the parties. In an increasingly polarized world this is less appealing, especially since it can be repealed with only 50 votes. Under the Obama administration Democratic lawmakers removed the filibuster for some presidential nominees. Under Trump and the Republican party this trend has accelerated dramatically. Most notably they removed the supermajority requirement for Supreme Court nominees (allowing for the confirmation of Gorsuch and Kavanaugh). And now some Democratic presidential candidates are considering removing the filibuster all together if elected (assuming they had a Senate majority).

While both parties have engaged in constitutional hardball, it is the Republican Party that has been largely responsible for it’s increasing prevalence today. Voter ID laws and gerrymandering get much of the media attention, but the most egregious examples came after the 2018 midterm elections. After a Democratic governor was elected in Wisconsin, the Republican governor and legislature passed a series of bills stripping the governor’s office of power, leaving the new governor unable to make any significant changes to laws. Similar stories played out in Michigan and two years earlier in North Carolina. 

Constitutional hardball is, by definition, technically legal. It nonetheless presents a massive danger to democracy. It prevents the government from accurately reflecting voters by suppressing turnout or lowering effective voting power. This erodes trust in the institutions critical to democracy. It also increases polarization, meaning the whole thing is a positive feedback loop. 

All of this presents a challenge to the Democratic party as they battle over the future of the party. Constitutional hardball often takes the form of a power grab. Parties alter the rules to favor themselves in the future. The problem then is that it can be hard to win if you refuse to play too; at the same time, playing only increases the danger to democracy. Beyond the discussion of abolishing the filibuster entirely, Democratic circles have also discussed stacking the supreme court (adding more seats to force a majority) and splitting California into multiple states (to increase Senate representation). These proposals are not without merit, but they are both controversial examples of constitutional hardball. There is no right answer here. Democrats are stuck with two bad options: try and maintain norms and risk losing political power indefinitely, or fight fire with fire and risk destroying the foundations of American democracy. 

If it’s any comfort this is not without precedent. Despite what it might feel like, we have gone through more contentious times as a country and emerged intact on the other side. The 1970’s saw politically motivated bombings occur nearly every week. The specter of fascism nearly took hold on the years in preceding WWII. We had a bloody Civil War that killed nearly as many Americans as all other wars combined. These may seem like dark times, and in many ways they are, but this is not apocalyptic. American democracy is the oldest in the modern world; it will not be destroyed without a fight. 

Through all of this though let us remember the theme of this series: race and demographic change. Constitutional hardball and polarization is a reaction to changing demographic change in America. It’s easy to see issues as being bigger than or unrelated to race, but the point I am trying to make is that race effects every single aspect of American politics, not just the ones explicitly associated with race. From healthcare to gun control to the filibuster, race drives everything. This is why studying the effects of demographic change is so important. To borrow the words of Ken Burns, I want to see race “not as a politically correct addendum to our national narrative, but at the burning heart of it.”

Next month will be the final article in my series. I’m going to leave the topic a surprise, but I hope it can be a poetic and satisfying end to these articles. I’ll see you then.

How to Change the World as an Engineer

Dear Students,

As engineers, you have a greater ability to affect the future of the planet than almost anyone else.  In particular, the decisions you make as you start your careers will have a disproportionate impact on what the world is like in 2100.

Here are the things you should work on, for the next 80 years, that I think will make the biggest difference:

  • Nuclear energy
  • Desalination
  • Transportation without fossil fuels
  • CO₂ sequestration
  • Alternatives to meat
  • Global education
  • Global child welfare
  • Infrastructure for migration
  • Geoengineering

Let me explain where that list comes from.

First and most importantly, we need carbon-free energy, a lot of it, and soon.  With abundant energy, almost every other problem is solvable, including food and desalinated water.  Without it, almost every other problem is impossible.

Solar, wind, and hydropower will help, but nuclear energy is the only technology that can scale up enough, soon enough, to substantially reduce carbon emissions while meeting growing global demand.

With large scale deployment of nuclear power, it is feasible for global electricity production to be carbon neutral by 2050 or sooner.  And most energy use, including heat, agriculture, industry, and transportation, could be electrified by that time. Long-range shipping and air transport will probably still require fossil fuels, which is why we also need to develop carbon capture and sequestration.

Global production of meat is a major consumer of energy, food, and water, and a major emitter of greenhouse gasses.  Developing alternatives to meat can have a huge impact on climate, especially if they are widely available before meat consumption increases in large developing countries.

World population is expected to peak in 2100 at 9 to 11 billion people.  If the peak is closer to 9 than 11, all of our problems will be 20% easier.  Fortunately, there are things we can do to help that happen, and even more fortunately, they are good things.

The difference between 9 and 11 depends mostly on what happens in Africa during the next 30 years.  Most of the rest of the world has already made the “demographic transition”, that is, the transition from high fertility (5 or more children per woman) to low fertility (at or below replacement rate).

The primary factor that drives the demographic transition is childhood survival; increasing childhood survival leads to lower fertility.  Counterintuitively, the best way to limit global population is to protect children from malnutrition, disease, and violence. Other factors that contribute to lower fertility are education and economic opportunity, especially for women.

Regardless of what we do in the next 50 years, we will have to deal with the effects of climate change, and a substantial part of that work will be good old fashioned civil engineering.  In particular, we need infrastructure like sea walls to protect people and property from natural disasters. And we need a new infrastructure of migration, including the ability to relocate large numbers of people in the short term, after an emergency, and in the long term, when current population centers are no longer viable.

Finally, and maybe most controversially, I think we will need geoengineering.  This is a terrible and dangerous idea for a lot of reasons, but I think it is unavoidable, not least because many countries will have the capability to act unilaterally.  It is wise to start experiments now to learn as much as we can, as long as possible before any single actor takes the initiative.

When we think about climate change, we gravitate to individual behavior and political activism.  These activities are appealing because they provide opportunities for immediate action and a feeling of control.  But they are not the best tools you have.

Reducing your carbon footprint is a great idea, but if that’s all you do, it will have negligible effect.

And political activism is great: you should vote, make sure your representatives know what you think, and take to the streets if you have to.  But these activities have diminishing returns. Writing 100 letters to your representative is not much better than one, and you can’t be on strike all the time.

If you focus on activism and your personal footprint, you are neglecting what I think is your greatest tool for impact: choosing how you spend 40 hours a week for the next 80 years of your life.

As an early-career engineer, you have more ability than almost anyone else to change the world.  If you use that power well, you will help us get through the 21st Century with a habitable planet and a high quality of life for the people on it.

How to Read for Fun

Do you want to read?  Have no idea where to obtain the books you want to read? Have no idea what to read? Never have time to do it? Don’t have any of those problems but want to kill some time?

I gotchu. 

“I have no idea where to find the books I want to read.”

Libraries are perhaps one of the greatest things that exist.

Our school library has a collection of fiction books that I happen to love very much (East of Eden by John Steinbeck, On Beauty by Zadie Smith, Moby Dick by Herman Melville, No Country for Old Men by Cormac McCarthy are just a few of my favorites that are on the shelf). If you’ve read through the entire fiction section of the school library I believe that you will feel a deep sense of inner peace in your heart. DISCLAIMER: I haven’t done this and thus cannot confirm the truth of that but I just…feel it in my bones. Anyhow, feel free to prove me wrong (this would require reading through the entire selection of fiction).

BUT if none of those titles interest you particularly or you’re looking for a specific book that the library doesn’t have, we are within reasonable walking distance of not just one but two (2) free public libraries! The Wellesley Public Library and Needham Public Library are capital F Free to borrow books from, and all it takes is a library card! I cannot endorse getting a library card enough, in part because both libraries are part of the Minuteman Library Network. What’s the benefit of this? Minuteman Library Network has an Overdrive library, which is to say that they have an online catalog from which you can read books ONLINE. IN YOUR BROWSER. DOWNLOADED AS A PDF. SENT TO YOUR E-READER. You don’t even have to return the book; Overdrive will automatically remove your loan after your time is up, so you won’t incur any late fees. But wait! there’s MORE!! The Minuteman Library Network has partnered with several other library networks in the Greater Boston Area/Eastern Massachusetts, so not only do you have access to the MLN Overdrive Library, but like, 10 other network’s libraries as well. This gives you online, free, legal access to basically any book you wish to read (If it’s not there, you can request they obtain it).

“Okay, now I know where to find the books, but I have no idea what to read.”

I have a few recommendations, but I’m only recommending ones that I’ve read or reread within the past 6 months (so you know, we can discuss if you have feelings about them). There are so many others, but I need to start somewhere. Also: I personally really enjoyed these books. If you don’t end up enjoying them there will be no refunds or take backsies, you’re just gonna have to live with it. 

East of Eden by John Steinbeck

Steinbeck is one of my favorite authors, if not my favorite. He makes the land come alive, and his stories always strike something deep within me that makes me feel like more of a Human Being. This is my favorite work of his. 5 of 5 stars.

The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck

A story of resilience, hope, displacement, family, the land and the people of the United States of America, and how we sustain ourselves and one another, among other things. 5 of 5 stars.

Fleishman is in Trouble by Taffy Brodesser-Akner

The novel debut of the author, one of my favorite journalists and profile writers. A modern novel (just came out this summer!) about marriage, divorce, love. The writing is sarcastic, observant, critical, and compassionate. Thoroughly enjoyable to read (and maybe more accessible than the books I’ve already mentioned). 4 of 5 stars.

On Beauty by Zadie Smith

I was in China this summer and spent 8 hours in a café reading this book. I skipped lunch. I cried in public like 4 times. I laughed to myself with total disregard for embarrassment. Another modern novel about marriage, divorce, love, family. This book made me appreciate my mom a lot more. Probably my favorite book I’ve read this year. 5 of 5 stars.

Severance by Ling Ma

Another modern novel, but this time not about marriage or divorce. Somewhat sci-fi apocalyptic in premise. A bildungsroman. Yeah, I cried to this one, too. 4 of 5 stars.

Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind by Yuval Noah Harari

A non-fiction book! Had me thinking about SO much stuff I’d never considered before, and if that’s not the mark of a good book, what is? I learned a lot. Structured well and written in a very accessible way. Good/5 stars.

Weapons of Math Destruction by Cathy O’Neil

Another non-fiction book, which was the Olin summer reading book the year before this one. I’m not supposed to give my opinion (lol) but I think it’s got a lot of great content that everyone at Olin should be aware of and have floating in the back of their heads, or in the front. Also Good/5 stars.

Crime and Punishment by Fyodor Dostoevsky

I think about this book all the time. A classic for good reason. It’s good, really good. 5 of 5.

The Count of Monte Cristo by Alexandre Dumas

If you’ve ever wanted to read a like, 5 season TV drama as a book, this book is like that. Entertaining to read, and the embodiment of a dish served cold. 3 of 5 stars.

Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen

I finally got around to reading this one and it wasn’t at all what I expected. If you like flirtatious banter in 1800’s British aristocratic society, this is the book for you. If TCoMC is a drama, this one is a RomCom. 3 of 5 stars.

Additionally, here are books that I am reading or plan on reading Soon™:

  • Spring Snow by Yukio Mishima 
  • Range by David Epstein
  • On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous by Ocean Vuong
  • The Solitude of Prime Numbers by Paolo Giordano
  • Normal People by Sally Rooney

“Okay, yeah alright, that’s all well and good but I don’t even SLEEP these days and you must be delusional to think I have time to slog through a 700+ page book like Moby Dick or Crime and Punishment or literally anything that will take me longer than 15 minutes to finish.”

That’s fair, we’re all busy people. If reading and finishing a book is something you want to accomplish, make it a goal to read 5 pages a day during a meal or on the toilet (maybe don’t do this one with library books). Maybe before you sleep, in which case, you’ll either fall asleep to the book or you’ll read exactly 5 pages or you’ll get engrossed in the book. There’s no losing scenario I can conceive of (but I’d be happy to learn about your losing scenarios).

If reading and finishing a book isn’t something that interests you, but you still enjoy reading, there are some very talented journalists and short-form writers (ok I don’t know if this is the correct terminology but I’m gonna roll with it) out there that put out some thought-provoking, moving, or just plain enjoyable to read articles and/or short-form pieces. These take generally 5-20 minutes to read, and are much easier to consume in one sitting. Here are some pieces I thought were Good for some reason or another and journalists I look forward to reading on a semi-regular basis: 

Taffy Brodesser-Akner wrote Fleishman is in Trouble, and is one of my favorite celebrity profile writers. What’s a celebrity profile? It’s a partially biographical piece written usually after a 2-3 day interview, and when done well, makes me feel like I’ve learned more about myself, as well as about the person in question. Here are two of the ones written by Brodesser-Akner, and another one that isn’t:

I always look forward to what Jia Tolentino writes for The New Yorker (and she has a new book out that I haven’t gotten around to reading yet that’s in the school library!). Here are some of her recent articles that I’ve enjoyed:

Two recent articles in The Economist that I valued reading:

If you got here, dang bro. That’s a lot of reading you just did. Hopefully this was helpful. Send me your book and article recommendations. I’ll send you more if you want them.