Potentially my last HRC blog post (as a resident almost definitely)

…and it’s been a good journey. I’m still not sure how I feel about blogging as a medium, but it’s grown on me over the past two years. Certainly the blogging initiative seems valuable to me so long as some direction is provided, because it can provide me with deadlines, something I really appreciate.

But where is it headed next? I think that the primary gap in the HRC blogging community at the moment is in its interactivity. Whether the burden is on the platform or on the students (or some combination), there needs to be a push for more interaction amongst authors and readers. My comment section is a veritable desert, and I’ve seen blogs much more entertaining or helpful or wise than mine that are faced with similar issues. Having comments in response to your work reinforces that you ought to keep writing, validates the things you say, and revises the discussion in interesting directions. What can we do to bring more of that in to play?

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Narrative Justice

Is something that I’m becoming more and more interested in. What is about stories that have the power to do more than entertain? Why do we as humans seek out narrative above the stochastic? What makes it both comforting and challenging, sometimes simultaneously?

I think one of the best ways to answer these questions is to tell stories yourselves. Something about narrative doesn’t really become inculcated until you practice creating them rather than mere consumption.  What would it look like if each person in the HRC wrote at least one story a year (or danced a story or filmed one, or played one on guitar, so long as it’s an original story)?

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AboliShop Goes to Washington

Here’s a blog post I co-authored with Kwamina and Nick about our time in DC. It’s all available at this website.


Popular culture has pegged Washington, D.C., as the home of the bureaucrat, a city where red tape rules.  Our time in the capital is a testament to the narrowness of this idea.  While we don’t pretend that we got a full picture of the federal government during our brief stay, the experiences we shared speak to a government that still has compassionate members and is made up of individuals that see love as “central to this fight.” This was a phrase that Ambassador Luis CdeBaca used as he spoke during the presentation of the President’s Advisory Council on Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships report on “Building Partnerships to Eradicate Modern-Day Slavery”.  This event was one of many meetings we attended during our two days, a time spent better understanding government intervention in human trafficking and developing further the ideas that were awarded first and second place prizes in the USAID C-TIP Campus Challenge.

Our two winning concepts – AboliShop a web browser application that helps online shoppers make smart choices by alerting them to products that may have forced or exploited labor in their supply chains, and a Mxit trafficking hotline that marries Africa’s largest social network with existing hotline technologies – were tuned and refined by a variety of trafficking experts while we were in Washington.  This refinement process has seen us through to the other side, where we are now in a position to move toward making these products available for public use in the near future.

During our time in Washington, USAID connected us with a variety of groups, from religious leaders to large corporations to passionate activists, all aiming to end trafficking on a global scale.  We saw much of the public sector’s commitment at the White House Forum to End Human Trafficking and the private sector’s commitment at the Google announcement of their Global Trafficking Hotline Network. Our discussions with these groups made a difference in the future of AboliShop and the Mxit trafficking hotline and also reshaped the way we will be involved in the fight on a personal level.

As for the future of our projects, we want to see AboliShop become a common, not a niche, experience for online consumers, which will only be possible with the energy and resources of groups willing to work alongside us.  Africa is in desperate need of trafficking hotline resources, as the existing hotlines are both sparse and limited by a variety of factors. We hope that we can be part of the solution to this problem, joining the organizations already working on the ground to grow the African trafficking hotline network.  Keep an eye out for news from AboliShop and Mxit in the days to come.



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The Big Idea: Freedom

I’d love to get some community feedback on a potential submission for “The Big Idea”, which the College Council announced recently as an opportunity for community input. Something I care deeply about is freedom.  Most recently that love for freedom has been expressed through my work with various anti-trafficking groups, as well as my own work with AboliShop and the Challenge Slavery community. What I think is beautiful about using “Freedom” as our Big Idea, is that not only is it not limited to a particular field if we only focus on human trafficking in the present day, but it also can be contorted to talk about morality and justice, humanitarian duty, responsibility, and rights, opens plenty of doors historically to talk about the trans-atlantic slave trade, and plenty of doors creatively to talk about freedom of expression. I’ll certainly be ironing out details and consulting community members for the next few weeks prior to actually submitting this as a possible big idea, but I’d love to hear from the HRC about what “Freedom” as a Big Idea could look like. What are your thoughts?

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The White Tiger

A few months ago, I was doing my laundry pretty inattentively and managed to wash an entire novel, The White Tiger by Aravind Adiga, along with much of my clothing. I spent a lot of time drying out the book, but it never quite reached the condition I was hoping, so when I found out that everyone in our reading group was interested in going through it as our final book for the semester, I was really excited. The reason I’ve been so intrigued by this book is its description as one of the “preeminent descriptions of modern India” or something of the sort, and not just by one person.  In addition, the quote on the front cover describes it as an experience not unlike reading Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison, a novel I truly love.  If even one of the two rings true, I’m sold. If both, it may be the best book I’ve read in awhile.

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Challenge Slavery Updates

It’s been a little while since I’ve updated the community on the Challenge Slavery competition, and conveniently, I can let USAID do much of the speaking for me, but we won! Kwamina, Nick, and I were awarded both the first place and a second place prize for our submissions to the competition and will get to speak with USAID representatives about how we can make these things a real part of the fight against human trafficking. For more information on what comes next, check out Challenge Slavery’s blog post here.

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I never realized that I hadn’t updated the community via blog about the results of the Challenge Slavery Tech Contests.  Nick, Kwamina, and I found out a few weeks ago that we made it through to the final round of the competition. In the next few days, we should be hearing back about the results of the competition. We’re both anxious and excited to hear about how USAID assessed our submission. In case you haven’t seen our work yet, here’s the most recent demo we’ve made for AboliShop. Let us know if you have any questions at all! We love to entertain discussion about it, including how it might be improved. Thanks for all the support from both the HRC and the Virginia Tech community!

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Thinking, Fast and Slow: Regression towards the mean

Something that Kahneman focuses on for a good portion of Part 2 of Thinking, Fast and Slow is how System 1 struggles to think statistically.  This section, the most recent I’ve read, has definitely been the most frustrating of all his writing so far. He brings up some really strong points about how statistical anomalies ought to be treated in light of regression towards the mean as one of the dominating principles of any activity that can be evaluated numerically.  However, I think Kahneman probably puts too much weight in regression’s explanatory power. He at no point during his discussion mentions that if we were to apprehend all of the explanatory variables in a given situation, we could accurately predict, every time, the outcome of a given trial.

The example he uses is the ski jump in the Winter Olympics. He found that the commentators were providing causal explanations for runs that were different only in that regression towards the mean occurred. However, if I could measure wind speed, the friction of the snow, the angle from the jump, the skier’s body position in the air, etc. in order to know literally everything that physically affects the distance of the jump, I would know exactly where the jump would end up. I would not need to account for regression towards the mean because the model is perfect.  He briefly goes over how correlation and regression are related, but he doesn’t spend enough time, in my opinion, on how high correlations are valuable in ignoring regression as the sole explanation for a given trial. Sometimes we really can know things that affect a given model beyond what statistical anomalies exist, and I think Kahneman tends to ignore that.

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Thinking, Fast and Slow: System 1 and Sum-like Variables

I apologize for how incoherent the following will be. The idea is a fresh one, and I’m still struggling to articulate it.


Something that sparked some of the first original thoughts I’ve had while reading Thinking, Fast and Slow came about when Daniel Kahneman was covering how System 1 deals with valuation of joint products. In short, economics assumes that prices are sum-like in nature, essentially that the value of a stack of goods is determined by summing the individual prices (not account for things like bulk discounts).  In short, again not accounting for these other factors, the value of a good with 5 more of something than another good will cost 5 more (forget the absence of units if you would).  An alternative, and an important alternative at that, would be that the price of the goods is determined by averaging the price of the individual constituents.  In the case above, a good with 5 more will not cost 5 more but somewhere around 5 over the number of the goods (the additional product is averaged over the units).

Here’s why this distinction matters. System 1, the “thinking fast” system, cannot deal with sum-like variables, making thinking fast a difficult thing to do when creating economic models. But since the average consumer doesn’t use their System 2 frequently while at the grocery store, it might be valuable to introduce System 1 thought into some System 2 economic models. As current models of supply and demand are dependent on utility functions that assume sum-like evaluations of utility, they lapse in functionality when System 1 interferes with the rational consumer model. In order to account for this lapse, something that behavioral economics focuses on as a field, it might be possible to reorient the way we calculate utility such that utility is an averaging variable instead of a sum-like one. What exactly that looks like mathematically is something I’ve yet to apprehend.

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Thinking, Fast and Slow: An Introduction

The next book we’ll be reading as a group is Thinking, Fast and Slow, by Daniel Kahneman. In this post I’ll be introducing the text and my thoughts prior to diving into the text. Thinking, Fast and Slow is a less technically saturated version of his primary research, the psychology of judgment and decision making. It includes some of the discoveries that led to his Nobel Prize in Economics and tackles “System 1” and “System 2”, or “fast” and “slow”, the two very different methods of thinking that the brain uses to come to conclusions.

Last semester I read Predictably Irrational by Dan Ariely, one of the premier behavioral economists in the world right now. Many of the studies that he talks about in his book are similar in nature to the results that Kahneman covers in Thinking, Fast and Slow. Because of that, I come into reading Kahneman’s text with a bit apprehension, having been disappointed with the disjointedness of Ariely’s conclusions. Behavioral economics is an important new field, dealing with whether or not rational consumers are actually rational at all, but I’ve yet to see conclusions that can lead to wide-scale models that can replace the major work that economics has done to model consumer behavior. It’s my hope that Thinking, Fast and Slow provides more psychological meat to create more meaty economic conclusions, but I would be lying if I said I wasn’t skeptical about that possibility. I also recognize my own inabilities to understand behavioral economics with enough depth to be a complete critic or champion, and so I hope that that understanding will develop as we read.

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