go Uber go. yay.

So, Uber has launched its driverless car service in Pittsburgh, under the ruse that it is a benefit to humanity.

According to Raffi Krikorian, Director of Uber Advanced Technologies Center (ATC) in Pittsburgh, “We think it can make transportation cheaper and more accessible for the vast majority of people.”

Except that there already are cheaper and accessible modes of transportation. They are called buses, trains, subways, vanpools, and trolleys. Public transportation is the cheapest and most accessible forms of transportation for people in urban areas.cityatnight

But what about rural areas, you ask, where there public transit is poor or nonexistent? Good point, but last time I checked, Pittsburgh is not a rural area. Presumably, the delusional Krikorian is talking about Pittsburgh, where Uber is testing this technology, not some hypothetical future service in Wyoming.

Pittsburgh already has public transportation. The Port Authority of Allegheny County operates more than 700 buses and more than 80 light rail vehicles in Pittsburgh and the surrounding area. I guess Uber finds this unimportant.

Every dollar spent on driverless cars ($300 million by Uber alone, according to this article) is a dollar not spent on improving the accessibility and reliability of public transportation. And yes, it is a zero-sum game, people.

As I have said before, this plunge into autonomous cars is ill-considered. But it’s the wave of the future! you say. Maybe it is for the Silicon Valley elites, but unlikely for the vast majority of people.

This is not making our lives better, folks. Someone needs to pull the plug.

Maybe I Am Smarter Than NPR

It was once pointed out to me that, more often than not, things that seem like a great idea but never really become popular are probably just not very good ideas.

This is counter to the school of thought that there are All These Great Ideas out there that Nobody is paying attention to, but would Really Change Things As We Know Them if we would just embrace them. I have been a victim of this way of thinking on many occasions, so I know how seductive it can be.

So I have this idea for solving the ongoing problem of uncivil online conversations. This is a real and growing problem.giphy

The problem is so bad that NPR announced last month that they were discontinuing their online comment system for their news stories. This is despite the fact that Scott Montgomery, managing editor for digital news, has said that they “believe strongly in the value of audience conversations about the news and our work.” This is in spite of eight years of trying to make it work. This is in spite of saying they wanted a “forum for infinite conversations.”

And they finally threw in the towel. According to Ombudsman Elizabeth Jensen, they got “overwhelmed” using staff efforts to keep the conversations free of spam and trolls. They upped their game in 2011 and again in 2012, “trying to find a workable solution.”

But they seem to have never considered one potentially workable solution. As I have discussed before, the biggest problem with online comments is that they are anonymous and free of charge. One way to fix that is to charge money for the privilege of leaving a comment. It would provide revenue and encourage more thoughtful discussion.

NPR–like most news organizations–is operating under the perception that online comments must be free, or not exist at all. Why they have not considered a compromise option is a mystery to me.

In real life, the exchange of money serves many purposes. One of them is as a gauge of how much you really want something. Do you value it highly? You pay more money. Don’t care? You look for cheap or free.

This is basic economics.

When people leave nasty, uncivil comments on news sites, it is because they have nothing at stake. So it seems obvious that NPR and other news services would find a way for their readers to care more about the things they say.

Make them put their money where their mouths–or keyboards–are.

But maybe this just isn’t a good idea.

Wanting to Be Seen

There’s a TV commercial for Nationwide Insurance featuring Mindy Kaling. In the commercial, she does all kinds of goofy stuff, until right at the end she says “Can you see me?”

The gist is something about how you are not invisible to the insurance company.

It’s memorable and funny. Sadly, however, this situation is, in many ways, all too true.

In modern societies, a vast majority of people are essentially invisible to each other, passing through their daily lives in buildings and on the streets, anonymously. Never speaking, never touching.

Our lives are empty because of this.

In his new book Tribe: On Homecoming and Belonging, Sebastian Junger says “A person living in a modern or a suburb can, for the first time in history, go through an entire day–or an entire life–mostly encountering complete strangers. They can be surrounded by others and yet feel deeply, dangerously alone.”

He goes on to say that, in a style of living that is most ideal to the human mental state, “day after day, month after month, you are close enough to speak to, if not touch, a dozen or more people.”

This is something that has been on my mind in recent years. In a desperate attempt to feel closer to one another, we turn to so-called social media. And a lack of privacy is not always a bad thing. In fact, privacy has an ugly twin. It’s called loneliness, which can be deadly for some vulnerable people.

Wanting to be seen, to be understood, to be truly known is a very human feeling to have. Without it, we find ourselves, according to Junger, in a civilization “deeply brutalizing to the human spirit.”


I can’t recommend Tribe highly enough. It is a short, easy read, and Junger presents his well-considered thoughts in an engaging fashion. It should be required reading for anyone living in a modern, westernized society.

A Name So Odd It Could’ve Been Made Up

My oldest sister was named Cecilie.

That is not a typo. It is not Cecile, or Cecilia. It is Cecilie (pronounced similar to Cicely Tyson‘s name, but with a short “e” on the first syllable).

My other sister, Jennifer, and my brother, Peter, and I have extremely common names. But Cecilie’s name was as uncommon as ours was common. It was in the polar opposite direction from our names. It was as if my parents began naming their children with a heavy dose of uniqueness, and then changed strategies when number two arrived. With child three and four, they went the straight Biblical route.

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Cecilie and me, about nine months before she died.

I feel that Cecilie didn’t like her name much. As the years went by, she seemed more and more tired of the spelling corrections and the pronunciation corrections. My mother once mentioned that she had offered my sister the opportunity to change her name, but she declined. Perhaps my sister was too invested in it by then. I don’t know what name she would have preferred. She never told me.

In fact, no one in my family ever talks about why Cecilie had such a painfully unique name. It is like a taboo subject. We talk more about why my uncle is gay than we do my own sister’s given name.

Maybe I’m the only one who finds it odd that we have two classic Biblical names, one name that was the single most popular name for newborn American girls every single year from 1970 to 1984, and then we have Cecilie, a name so odd that it could have been made up, like Dweezil.

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Names carry a lot of weight. People name children after themselves, sometimes to the third or fourth generation. They name children after their parents or grandparents. Some people make sure everyone in the family has the same initials. Family (last) names can influence who you are and how people perceive you. Kennedy, Bush, or Schwarzenegger, for instance.

So to question one’s own parents about why a name was chosen over another seems to flirt with one’s own existence. For instance, my father was the third in his family to bear his name, and many thought that his first-born son–that’s me–would also carry the name. Instead, I was given a completely new name.

I have some issues with my name, but to ask why I wasn’t named after my father would make me appear ungrateful. After all, I am healthy and independent. It’s what’s inside that counts, right?

In addition, I find it hard to imagine myself not being Matthew at this point. Would my life have been different if I had another name? Would Cecilie’s have been?

My sister’s life was not an easy one. She had an undiagnosed mash-up of Tourette syndrome, possibly some minor brain damage, and something from the Autism spectrum. She had scoliosis beginning when she was a pre-teen. And she died in 2009 from ovarian cancer a few months before her 48th birthday.

So maybe her name was the least of her problems. But I still wonder.

It Is Hard to Be Kind to Your Parents

It is hard to be kind to your own parents.

Wait…I know that sounds harsh, especially on Fathers’ Day, so let me unpack that a bit.

I think there may be a reason that the Bible tells us–in fact it commands us–to honor our fathers and mothers. Think about it. Why would the ancient Hebrews need God to come down out of Heaven and tell them to honor their fathers and mothers? Is it perhaps because it is not an easy thing to do?

Kindness has been defined by some as empathy and respect for another person.

Me and my dad, 1974.

Me and my dad, 1974.

Empathy is the ability to really be inside another person, as much as that is possible. You can do it with siblings and peers. Can you really empathize with your parents?

Parents, by definition, are of an older generation. They are shaped by social and economic forces that did not shape you. They try to pass their “values” down to you, but out of context, those values can be quaint to the point of being meaningless.

Also, parents change over time just like anyone else. Their parenting styles evolve, their belief systems evolve. No matter how much we’d like them to remain the same person we knew as children, they are not, and neither are you.

My mother used to say that each child in a family is raised by a slightly–or sometimes wildly–different person. That would mean that my view of my father and mother is different from that of my brother and two sisters. And it is. My brother, who is younger, is much angrier at my folks than I am, for good reasons. Some writers publish childhood memoirs, only to hear from brothers and sisters that they didn’t remember it that way at all.

Parents also have privileges or struggles that we often don’t have. This can make us sad or angry at them. It can make it very hard to be kind. So how, exactly, are we to empathize?

As for respect, that is also complicated. Respect is something that must be earned from another person. To demand respect because of your position, age, wealth, or any other reason, results in bullying and hypocrisy.

Am I saying that parents must earn our respect? Yes, I am in a way. We cut them a lot of slack, because they are our parents. But ultimately, they have to earn that or risk losing everything that a family is supposed to stand for.

So, it is hard to be kind to one’s own parents. We do it anyway, because we are expected to–by our society, by our culture, by God. But let’s not reduce it to greeting-card sentimentality and phony familial relationships.

Let’s be honest about how hard it can be, and then forgive ourselves for not always being very kind.