On magic

05 Apr 2018

I think about magic often, and what that word means to me.

I think that magic means that something occurs, and we do not need (or really want to find) evidence of how it occurs. Magic means that the emotional truth of the occurrence is enough.

Cambridge is a place where atheism can feel like the predominant religion. There are not many people who are outwardly religious, although they might be inside.

But every time I had an appointment to see the ear surgeon, a man would sit across from me on the bus, urgently crossing himself, clutching rosary beads. He was not an old man and not a very young one either. Maybe in his thirties, slightly overweight, wearing brown leather shoes, a black peacoat, and on some days, a blue collared shirt, which is how I noticed that his eyes were blue.

In other words, he looked perfectly ordinary. The only reason he stood out because his prayers were so fervently strong, and everyone else on the bus was so mindlessly in transit.

Every bus ride I took, he would take too, even though the appointments weren’t all at the same time. He would sit, mumbling to himself, crossing himself, praying as the sun streaked through the bus and people bumped and jostled around him.

I live next to a big, beautiful cemetery. The first time I wondered if he was a priest and he was going to a funeral to lead a service. I grew up with so little concept of religion, even as an adult I’m not sure if all the words I just said are the right ones for that sentence. But he never got off at the cemetery.

The third time I shared a bus with him, I decided that it must have been more than coincidence. I eyed the man on the bus, and followed him ten steps behind as he took the subway, in the same direction as me, from Harvard. I sat with him in the same train car, but not in the same row, so that I could peek at him in my periphery.

I expected him to get off at MGH with me, because where else could one go in such feverish worry if not a funeral or a hospital?

But he didn’t.

After I got better and no longer needed to go to the hospital every week, I often wondered who he was praying for. But I never asked him or even spoke a single word to him, although we made eye contact once. The eye contact was neither warm nor suspicious, it was simply weary.

I thought that he might have been a magical creature and when you see a magical creature at work you should not stop to question their magic. I thought he might have been praying for me.

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Originally posted on Medium.

This is Mayfair Street in Northeast Philly.

It looks like any other street in the city, with little row houses packed together like sardines. Not unlike the Philadelphia row house I spent the first year of my life in after my parents immigrated from China to the States.

But if you squint at the vines crawling on the wire fences, you’ll see that there are bitter melons hanging off the vines, not just purple morning glories.

Yesterday morning I woke up way too early and hesitantly joined my sister and her friends to Get Out the Vote in Pennsylvania, a “battleground” state. Anyone who knows me knows that I hate approaching strangers, least of all to ask them to do something.

The day started off slow, with the sun beating down on a unusually warm November day. Most people were at work, and once a little boy peeped through the blinds — only to bolt the door shut.

Halfway down the street, I knocked on a door and an older Asian gentleman answered.

When I began my spiel, he gestured with his hands. Expected to be waved away again, I began to back off.

But when I leaned closer, I realized what he was saying was no to English, not no to me. Unfortunately, he began speaking in Cantonese, a language I don’t know a word of. As a last ditch effort, I tried to ask him if he’d voted in my third-grade proficiency Mandarin.

He replied!

Mr. Lee* (whose name I learned at the polls) told me people had been knocking and calling all week, but not a single person spoke a word he could understand. He tried to vote this morning, but it was too confusing.

He went home.

Did I know who he wanted to vote for, I asked? He did.

“The Woman,” he said.

Reluctant to abandon my check sheet of addresses and names, I called the voting hotline. Did they have translators at the polling station nearby? No one who spoke Chinese, no. I could, however, help interpret for a voter, and accompany them to the polls.

Ten minutes later, we walk together to Creighton Elementary School. Along the way, he tells me a little bit about his life. It’s isolating to not speak English here, but he’s too old to learn. Mr. Lee casts his first ballot, and we both get an “I Voted” sticker, me for the ride.

On our walk back to Mayfair Street, I ask him if any of his friends need help too. He calls some friends he can think of, but most of them are at work at this time of day.

A young woman in a Cal t-shirt runs past and he shouts her name and they start chatting faster than I can understand for a few minutes. Excitedly, she turns to me, and then runs down the street. “Let me just grab my ID!” she says in Mandarin.

Together, I go with her again to the polls — but unlike with Mr. Lee, there’s no time for small talk. Hurry, we have to walk fast, she says. She works 8am to 8pm so there’s no time for her to vote, but she managed to get someone to cover her shift just now. I add another sticker to my shirt, to the smile of the polling volunteer.

                                   Picture from Equality PA

In more than three hours of walking and knocking and trying to come up with a universal language with the people I meet, I’m able to help three voters make the long journey just a few blocks away.

For a scientist who is used to observing human behavior through “big” data, three seems like a defeatingly small number. But in terms of human lives, it is infinite.

Yesterday I was reminded that despite all the observations we can do from 3,000 feet, it’s important to get on our feet. Not only to be reminded of what’s at the heart of it all, but because many issues are impossible to comprehend without knocking on the doors of strangers.

By meeting potential voters like Mr. Lee, I realized that there was a real shortage of interpreters in Philly, especially for Asian Americans. Later, I learned that this has been a contested issue in many districts since the 2014 midterm elections.

Although Election Day was only a single date in the calendar, I have spent the past two years analyzing, speculating, and writing about the elections during my Master’s degree. Yet I rarely discussed politics outside of my circle of friends and colleagues.

If data science is about the art of drawing patterns from numbers, there is a stronger and more difficult art in drawing the human stories out of data. Although the introvert in me wishes to disagree, there is no way to write a story without looking at another human being in the eye.

In times of disappointment, when it seems so hard to move the needle forward, find solace and meaning in the words of Nobel laureate Toni Morrison. She reminds me of my purpose:

“To pursue the human project — which is to remain human and to block the dehumanization of others.”

* Name has been changed for privacy.

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Two pieces today.

Take this one with your morning coffee and cake– it’s Christmas Day, and whether you celebrate or not, you need something sweet because you deserve it.

Then, when you’re fully caffeinated and ready to face the New Year and the end of civilization as we know it, read “Learning to Die in the Anthropocene.” Sometimes, you need to look down into the abyss– I promise that you’ll still have to go to work tomorrow. So it goes.

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Living in Holland

09 Jul 2015

Eight days before my twenty-third birthday, I embarked on what can only be described as a truly magical journey to three completely contrasting cities: Reykjavik, Amsterdam, and Prague. Along the way, I met a number of fascinating characters– some of them related to me. Here is an excerpt of my great aunt’s life, which she handed me a photocopy of on my way to the airport leaving Holland. 

* note: interactive version cross-posted on FOLD, a new publishing platform made by some friends @ the Media Lab.

Living in Holland

(a completely unbiased autobiography

written by my great-aunt Lenore

for the AWCA)

I am Cantonese but was born in Shanghai, then and now the most cosmopolitan city of China. Already at birth I was touched by the American brush. Both my parents had studied in the States, my dad receiving degrees from MIT and Case Institute and my mom from Columbia University.

There were seven of us, four girls and three boys. I was ‘sister three’… and we were naughty. One day, to give you an example, our gardener was taking a nap, snoring with his mouth open and we put a spoonful of salt on his tongue. My mom scolded us… severely I might add.

After the happy years trouble came, first, the Japanese occupation and then, finally, the communist takeover. We had to flee and since my dad was Minister of Transportation, he had the use of a government plane and we escaped by flying to Taiwan just in time. This all happened a few months before I was supposed to graduate from high school. Fortunately the government in Taiwan granted my diploma, which enabled me to go study in Michigan.

I enrolled at Michigan State University and turned into a party girl, within the limits of decency. Although I didn’t study too industriously, I succeeded in becoming a member of Pi Mu Epsilon (mathematics honorary), Iota Sigma Pi and Sigma Delta Epsilon (chemistry honoraries).

After obtaining my MS in Physical Chemistry I was ready for the world. But was the world ready for me? I decided they and I were going to find out, but in a somewhat warmer climate than Michigan. Go West young woman! I descended upon innocent Seattle (those were the days) and by my first day I had fond a small apartment and a job at the Analytical Department of the University of Washington. All I needed was a husband. So, I spent my weekends dancing and dating (Sleepless in Seattle). The Chinese boys didn’t want me. They want their women, demure, soft-spoken and obedient. A loud-mouth like me was out of the question. So, I had to turn to other prey. At the foreign students club, Cosmo, I cornered Jack Wiegman, a student at the School of Communications, and made him my husband, like it or not.

After he graduated, we moved to New York, where I found a job at my mom’s alma mater, Columbia University. After only one year, out of the blue, I was approached by American Cyanamid, Princeton, NJ, who invited me to an interview and then offered me a position as a research chemist. I succeeded to invent two chemical processes. My boss quickly put his name to one and the other one I was forced to sell for the generous sum of one dollar.

My husband was transferred to Amsterdam and so I was back at point zero. I decided to interrupt my career by having a son. However, when he was two and an intelligent big boy, I felt he was ready for kindergarten and, for me, it was time to resume my career by joining a division of the Dutch Akzo Chemical Corporation in Amsterdam. To put it mildly: I didn’t like it at all. Fortunately, after almost two years, opportunity struck by way of an ad for a position as a research chemist at the Dental Materials Science Department of the University of Amsterdam. Thanks to my work in the States I was chosen among 40 candidates to become Hoofdmedewerker which you could roughly translate as Associate Professor. This you could call the turning point of my life. I came up with two more inventions but— it’s an old story— the head of the department tried to usurp the credit. I fought all the way to the Board of the University and won, but, of course, I had to move. I joined the Electrochemistry Department where I started in a PhD program. In 1979, I obtained the degree with the thesis “The Kinetics of the Hydration of Calcium Sulfate Hemihydrate and Cement, investigated by an Electrical Resistance Method”. (Wow)

To complete the bragging: I am listed in the Marquis Who’s Who in Science and Engineering (US) and also in the International Biographical Centre (Cambridge, England). I also have been a long-time member of the ACS (American Chemical Society).

Six years ago I suffered a stroke. Since then I’ve been confined to a wheelchair.

Now, I have time to catch up on reading and to play with my grandchildren who live in the same building, a canal house on Keizersgracht. And then, of course, there is the AWCA of which I have been a member 29 years.






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There is something about Trains that I Like. Out of planes and trains and automobiles they to me are the most romantic. Nine-eleven sort of killed flying and even before that I always hated being in the air. What a cruel trick this was, I thought, as a child, to call it flying but being so utterly trapped in my seat, the opposite of free.

Cars were nice enough; I just didn’t like driving them. It was as if all the worst stereotypes joined forces (Asian; woman; short-tempered; small) and at 5’1” I could barely look over the steering wheel clearly. Once I had a conversation in the basement of a boy I convinced myself I loved in high school, about what the spirit of a car looked like. The beer was brown and in a glass (this was in the end of college when I first learned that beer was meant for a cold tall glass) and he said the spirit of a car in its highest form was a thing of beauty, because really, this was the spirit of a free man. And when you drove that car, really, you were just taking that thing of beauty where it wanted to most go. I thought that was fine as long as a thing of beauty was driving the car itself and I was free to look at both.

But trains. Trains were lovely because you were always moving but you never had to worry about how. There was something blue collar about them and it was great; you ran down the stairs in Penn Station onto the platform with all the hordes of tired businessmen with their beer in brown paper bags the smell of artificial butter popcorn in the air; shooting the shit with the conductors, sometimes jolly more often tired. And best of all you could look out the window and see the grass roll by; it was best especially in New England when the leaves changed and when you rolled past Connecticut dreaming of what doctors and dolled-up wives were behind those white picket fences. Then you thought it would be nice to be invited somewhere fancy for a change because then you could wear sparkly things like the best of them and be admired, but you were raised too pridefully to ever desire such things. To be rich. To be a decorative. It was folly.

And you were always going somewhere. I am talking only about American trains, I can’t speak for any other kinds. It was the American train I loved with those dreams of railroads and going to New York with just a backpack, a handle of bourbon in it and a note from your sweetheart. Maybe going up North through Appalachians and all you had was some E.E. Cummings with you and some pen and paper to write the next big thing. You with all the drunks and suits and so long as it wasn’t St. Patrick’s day on the New Jersey transit it was all beautifully coarse. It was so Americana; and this to a little Chinese American girl was somehow the best thing of all, even if the Amtrak was making nothing but debt and really the tracks weren’t very safe, and no one could afford a damn ticket anyway.

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Preface: I am taking a class in Race and Racism this semester with Sally Haslanger at MIT, fulfilling my deepest desires of having classes in philosophy count towards my degree. I figured I would cross-post my weekly responses and thoughts here, so that you may read them and form a few thoughts of your own.

As we continue our discussion of race and its existence, I’m beginning to wonder if the question is of race itself at all but rather ethnicity, which seems to be far less of a hot topic in the national conversation.

If the past few weeks have been any indicator, there are literally centuries of philosophical, social, biological, and anthropological thought dedicated to the existence of race itself. All of it goes to show that the concept of race is one thing for certain– unclear and likely socially constructed if it exists at all, or some tricky combination of social and biological, as Philip Kitcher argues in “Race, Ethnicity, Biology, Culture”.

The concept of race in America is billed, literally and figuratively, as black-and-white, yet many of the problems of prejudice that make us uncomfortable refer to issues in shades of gray. Blanketing the discussion in a term which might not be defined in the first place obscures the conversations about what exactly it is that causes us unrest, and also leads to oversimplification, causing more harm than good.

Take for example the complex bio-ethical issue of racial profiling and racial categorization for the sake of medicine. Now, there are two strains of racial thinking to take into consideration: one is the examination of race and health for the sake of research, and the other, more immediate use for racial categorization is in individual patient treatment. If a patient engages with a health-care provider and self-provides racial information, is it appropriate to take that into consideration? Now, what if the patient does not explicitly denote his or her race? And what if a patient is found unconscious and unresponsive? In which (if any) of these cases is racial information relevant ?

Burchard (“The importance of Race and Ethnic Background in Biomedical Research and Clinical Practice”) argues that because genetic clustering corresponds roughly to the five major racial groups, and genetic variation accounts for medically significant differences in disease outcome, by transitive property it is important to consider race as a factor in treatment and research.

Root (“The Use of Race in Medicine as a Proxy for Genetic Differences”), in response, would classify the above as an example of mistakenly using race as a proxy for other, more accurate genetic factors. Such habits are dangerous at the individual level, leading to statistical discrimination. Furthermore, racial data should not be considered even at the research level, because this reinforces racial groupings that are detrimental and politically harmful. Racial profiling is unacceptable in medicine because it is often a bad indicator of ancestry or other more import factors, such as environment.

But what if race was taken out of the arguments entirely, and substituted with ethnicity? By the logic above, it seems that at least part of Roots argument for the immorality of race considerations disperses for ethnic categorization is far more associated with hereditary factors and cultural practices, and thus a better indicator of health. Burchard’s argument in favor of racial information due to the correlation of socioeconomic factors still holds if we were instead to consider ethnicity in lieu of race. Would we still feel moral discomfort towards the blatant use of ethnicity as a factor in healthcare?

My instinct tells me yes; profiling is still discriminatory under any name. It seems already that Burchard’s examples point to ethnic groups rather than racial groups; “Ashkenazi Jews, French Canadians, the Amish, or European gypsies” are not a race and neither are Japanese people. But would a patient willingly be labeled as a “Jew” or a “Mexican”, and “American” or a “French Canadian”, even if that label provides more accurate insight into his or her health than a broader category? Such a practice would appear to dig up a whole slew of political and social issues; possibly concerns of anti-Semitism and nationalist interests.

Too often, it seems that the topic of race serves as a proxy for the real issues that we fear to discuss– issues of xenophobia, class, and social categorization, none of which are black and white, and exist whether or not race does.


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Preface: I am taking a class in Race and Racism this semester with Sally Haslanger at MIT, fulfilling my deepest desires of having classes in philosophy count towards my degree. I figured I would cross-post my weekly responses and thoughts here, so that you may read them and form a few thoughts of your own.

In this past week of class, we continued to mull on foundational questions of race itself core to the discussion of racism. Once again, we asked– what is race, and does it exist, at all?

These are not questions that I had really considered before our class readings, and goes to show how ingrained racial thinking is on our minds. Even though I am quite aware of the notion of gender as a social construct, not once did the idea of race as a social construct occur to me, even after four years of schooling in a progressive college, whilst living in one of the most liberal and metropolitan cities in the world.

Sally drew this chart on the board classifying the views of some of the authors we read that I found very helpful.







Race Realist

Race Eliminativist


Social Constructionist


Thus, someone who believes that race is not biological is a race eliminativist; someone who believes that race is real, but only socially is a social constructionist, someone who believes that race is a real biological phenomenon is a race realist, and as far as we are aware there isn’t much of a name for people who believe that race is not socially real, since there are probably very few who think of it as such. Then there are also various combinations of the boxes above, and partial beliefs, such as race naturalists who believe that there are races biologically, but they could be very, very different from what we assume of races (and that is socially constructed).

Appiah, one of the thinkers we discussed, argues against the existence of race from two fronts– both ideationally (there exist no human beings that satisfy our assumptions of race) and refrentially (our usage of the term “race” have no human groupings to back them up). He might be someone we call a “race eliminativist”, although he approaches the concept from the usage of the term itself.

Yet, again, I argue, does this make the term any less valid? The ideational theorest would say that the concept/ideas associated with a term can be wrong and not apply to the referent– for example, when I say “I have arthiritis in my thigh”, when in fact, no one does. But clearly, there is some sort of pain in my thigh, and whether or not I refer to it as arthritis, it still exists.

What strikes me the most of all the authors we have read and discussed so far, along with our own discussions of race, is what appears the desire to seek biological or logical proof, of the existence or non-existence of race. There is such a great emphasis to dispute, with sequential logical proofs, whether or not race exists, when the ramifications of race existing and all the issues that come with it are overwhelmingly related to the fields of politics, economics, and social class that have very little to do with biology (aside from testing and treatment of certain diseases and genetics, which is not to be dismissed). We seek a logical, scientific proof of the existence of race, yet issues of racial thinking and racism clearly cannot be approached in such matters.

In the 21st century we laugh easily at the Social Darwanist who so ignorantly argues about the skull size and brain size of different races, as this is clearly “scientifically incorrect” and racist thinking. Yet, we neglect that the science was in fact “correct” in that era, for science is never an absolute truth, but a function of time and place. That is something we often forget– that science, is not objective but subjective, and grounded in its own system of human beliefs and ideologies. Behind every hypothesis is an inquiry about what we consider even worthwhile researching at all, and in every algorithm, human-chosen features to evaluate.

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Preface: I am taking a class in Race and Racism this semester with Sally Haslanger at MIT, fulfilling my deepest desires of having classes in philosophy count towards my degree. I figured I would cross-post my weekly responses and thoughts here, so that you may read them and form a few thoughts of your own.

This week’s readings in Race & Racism class have already brought a few new points to my mind concerning this topic, especially on the classification of “race” itself. Now, being a non-white person living in America (although the same likely applies for people of all colors, non-colors, whatever you may choose to designate yourself as) I have already spent a good deal of time (say, about 22 years) rolling this idea of “race” around my brainspace. The events of this summer certainly brought it to the forefront.

Still, in all this time, about 8,000 day’s worth minus a few years of color-blind babyhood, I never really challenged the idea of race itself as a classifier. That, I took for granted. It was handed to me on the first day of grade school: Look, you are the Asian kid in class (there was one other, a boy, I think, so if you want to be specific, I was the Asian Girl); those are the Black kids, these are the Hispanic kids, and I guess, everyone else is White. Racism is bad; everybody knows that, but yea, you’re definitely the Asian kid. Don’t call someone fat, but there’s nothing wrong with saying that someone’s White or Black, it just is.

This is what philosopher Blum (I’m not a Racist, But…, 2002) calls the “popular account”, and it is, he is very clear to state, wrong. Wrong as in false, but also wrong in the sense that it is morally detrimental. What’s wrong with racial thinking? There are a few key points:

1.Racial thinking divides us. It creates “moral distance” among those of different races. i.e. it becomes easier to antagonize the man who is not of my “type”. (102)
2. At the same time, it falsely groups us into categories all too easily stereotyped (103).
3. It suggests that we can’t escape our “racial fate” (i.e. “All Asians are good at math and like engineering”… oops) (104)
4. and finally, racial categories “evoke associations of superiority and inferiority of value”.

I think point 3 is especially important as it leads to the idea of racial immobility, i.e. you are born Asian and you die Asian because your parents are Asian, and this becomes especially harmful when considering statements 1, 2, and 4, unlike all the bad things that class categorization brings, because whereas in some places there is an idea of class mobility, really, I can’t think of many people who might believe in race mobility for a single person (at least not in America), unless they resemble closely enough another. It doesn’t matter how “whitewashed” I am, even if my entire adoptive family is white, if I wake up one morning and declare “I am white!” the person next to me might say in reply: “go the f–k to sleep”.

However, I am not sure that I am completely onboard with Blum’s rejection of racial thinking on a moral stance. It is true that there are many oddities to racial classification that suggest it to be unsound without an implicit cognitive model of race, i.e. why choose skin color and not some other physical attribute (such as hair color), why narrow the world down to essentially 5 races established a long time ago in the 18th century when there are many other groups that are quite distinct, (in fact, I admit I always considered race to be a genetic aspect, and was thoroughly surprised to learn that in fact there is very little genetic distinction between them (Does Race Exist, Bamshad & Olson, 2003)).

But I do not think it is the categorization and classification of people into races itself that is at fault, but how we do this and the assumptions we make while doing so. It is in fact precisely points 1-4 that are what’s wrong with our thinking of race itself, and not the acceptance that race exists. I am not sure there is such thing as a post-racial world. Colorblindness could be in fact, harmful.

Blum points out our reluctance to classify people by race as a hint to the incorrectness of the action, but if we did not associate certain races with negative traits then we might not hesitate so much, just as we might not feel it as taboo to point out, simply, that someone has brown or black hair, which is a way of categorization. Maybe at this point, the use of race is far too entrenched with negativity and harm that there is no more way to use the concept without hurt, but again, this is not in the categorization itself but the attributes we have prescribed to our method of doing so and the categories.

Whether or not race exists biologically, the worst possible thing would be for us to fear acknowledging that it is a very real thing in society. Even in my own conversations, I see this fear of speaking about race, fear of acknowledgment, fear of saying the word itself. This is what creates boundaries between us, not race, the concept.

Maybe the idea of race is all in our head… but that does not make it any less of a reality.

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Today, for the first time in years, I picked up a copy of the newspaper in the morning.

I didn’t buy it from the drugstore, like my dad would on Sundays when I was little. And I didn’t pick it up from the driveway, like I would have in high school, shaking off condensation from its plastic wrapper. Instead, I had literally picked up off the desk of another, when I saw it lying there. It wasn’t even fresh news; it was from last Wednesday, and he in turn had gotten it for free at the student center.

Still. It was attractive all the same, that copy of more-than-Yesterday’s news. I slipped it under my arm, and went out the door. I took it with me, on the subway, and felt more Manhattanite than I had ever felt in my life. Here I was, boots and all, on my way downtown for a coffee meeting, and here, by my side, was the New York Times. When i got to the cafe, I realized that I had gotten ink all over my fingers. I had forgotten that newspapers smudged, and it gave me a secret joy.

In 2014, it is widespread knowledge that newspapers are Dinosaurs. Printed news is rapidly going extinct and the new forms of Media that replace it suffer from existential and identity crises. Is longform a thing of the past? Is there even a need for Journalism School? Will it all just be listicles from here on out? (If so, I’m moving to Walden Pond.)

I maintain that there is, and always will be, a need for well-executed, professional Journalism. Whether or not there exists a profitable market, however, is another question. How do we ensure the financial means to support the field?

It’s a good question, one that neither I nor anyone else that I know of has the answer to. The transition from paper to digital isn’t a simple transcribing from one medium to the other. Profit models do not translate. Most significant are the psychological shifts that occur. Newspapers, and their institutions, are built on history, legacy, and tradition. By decentralizing news distribution with the internet, the castle collapses.

When you remove the physicality of the paper, you remove its nostalgic power. That is a great power, and it should never be underestimated in the human psyche. Turning the pages, familiar faces smile back– Dowd, Bruni, Bittman, Wells, bringing me back to familial scenes of kitchen tables and coffee. Jumping over paywalls, those same names feel antagonistic and elitist on the web. Whereas I would easily pay a dollar or two for a fat stack of paper, the Internet, with its culture of free information, incites the hacker in me to do everything in my power to take what I can.

Opening the paper on the subway is a symbol, one that denotes a certain level of education, class, and age. It is a desirable thing to own. On an iPad, a phone, or laptop, all of that is lost. It could be the Post, it could be Ulysses, it could be Fifty Shades of Gray– who knows?

The newspaper from WEDNESDAY, FEBRUARY 19, 2014 sits beside me still, keeping company with the coffee that has long grown cold. When I finish writing, both of them will go into the trash.

“All the News That’s Fit to Print”, it says, somewhat forebodingly.

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Nowadays it is conventional to believe that emotional eating is unhealthy, but the truth is that emotions are so strongly mixed into every ingredient of a meal that the two are inseparable.

Why is it that our memories of eating are often so much stronger, more vivid than our memories of anything else? First-grade strawberry birthday popsicles. Peanut-butter-and-jelly, half thrown away. Turkey for Thanksgiving, and then cold turkey the whole week after. I don’t remember, really, what dress I wore to the birthday; I don’t remember what I did after lunch in the cafeteria, and I can’t recall that year whether or not Grandma was at our house.

It’s not simply that perhaps I have an irregular preoccupation with food; there are for certain a great deal of people with less interest than I in cooking and dining, but then again also a great deal with more. Eating combines the physical with the social, with which the emotional is undeniably inextricable. Food memories are persistent because they involve strong stimulation of all five physical senses (seeing, hearing, tasting, smelling, and touching) all centered around a social function or a cultural dictation; eating a meal is both an event and an action and an indication. The food we eat (along with the food that we do not permit ourselves to consume) form little landmarks in our lives.

On a cloudy, chilly, groggy Friday like this, I pull out the warm memory of a feast at summer’s end. It nourishes my soul. It grounds my mind. It pulls me from the dark, floating, philosophical clouds above, to the concrete, Epicurean joys of physical Earth.


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