Journalist/developer. Interactive editor @frontlinepbs. Builder of @HomicideWatch. Sinophile for fun. Past: @WBUR, @NPR, @NewsHour.
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Gavin Newsom promised to fix California’s housing crisis. Here’s a bill that would do it.

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Los Angeles resident BriAnne, who is currently homeless, on November 2, 2018.

A bold vision for denser construction, this time with more tenant protections.

California’s newly elected governor Gavin Newsom kicked off his campaign in 2017 with a bold promise to tackle the state’s housing supply crisis by creating 3.5 million new housing units by 2025. That would mean nearly quadrupling the pace at which the state issues permits for new housing units. The goal should be achievable considering the market price of California houses, but would require very ambitious changes to the way housing permitting works in the state.

As a candidate, Newsom did not embrace a specific framework to achieve the promise. But State Sen. Scott Wiener (D) from Newsom’s home city of San Francisco is out with a new version of sweeping housing legislation that failed last year as SB-827 but has now been reformulated (and renamed SB-50) in ways that should address some of critics’ concerns about displacement of existing renters. It also appears to have broadened the political coalition behind the bill.

During Jerry Brown’s last couple of years in office, California already took significant steps to start addressing the state’s housing crisis — steps that on their own could be game-changers for several American states. But California’s housing shortfall has become so entrenched that it’s going to take bigger changes to fundamentally move the needle on the state’s housing market. If Newsom wants to deliver on his pledge he’s going to need to endorse Wiener’s bill or something comparably ambitious.

The basic plan: upzoning near transit and jobs

Wiener’s bill, described by Politico as a plan to “spur housing development near transit, job centers” and the LA Times as a “bill to boost apartment complexes near transit,” does not directly require anyone to build any apartment complexes anywhere.

What it does is prevent cities and towns from banning apartment construction, at least in certain specified areas. Towns would be required to allow apartment buildings in any place that is either:

  • within a half-mile of a rail transit station;
  • within a quarter-mile of a high-frequency bus stop; or
  • within a “job-rich” neighborhood.

In the new special zones, regulatory parking minimums would be sharply reduced and zoning codes would have to allow buildings to be either 45 or 55 feet tall depending on local factors.

The biggest short-term impact of these zoning changes would probably be felt in neighborhoods that are already gentrifying and have a significant amount of housing turnover. Single-family homes that today are sold to flippers or to yuppies looking to undertake a gut renovation project would instead tend to get sold to small-scale apartment developers who would refashion them as denser structures.

The demand for density, however, is highest in rich neighborhoods where the price of land is highest. Units in these neighborhoods turn over more slowly, but the market demand for more housing is essentially infinite so over time it’s easy to imagine whole swathes of single family dwellings in Silicon Valley, Westside Los Angeles, Western San Francisco, etc. being converted to apartments.

One of several political challenges for SB-827 is that public conversation around the bill was dominated by the short-term impact on gentrifying neighborhoods even though the long-term impact on affluent neighborhoods is more important to Wiener’s long-term policy goals. So some of the key changes Wiener has made to the legislation aim to shift that conversation.

How the plan has changed: broader scope, more protections

Reformulated as SB-50, the bill addresses gentrification concerns in two ways.

  • It creates an exception to the exception, saying that developers may not use their new apartment-constructing authority to demolish buildings that currently house renters.
  • It allows economically vulnerable communities to obtain a five-year delay in implementing the zoning changes.

Under the new plan, low-income neighborhoods won’t see any change at all in the short term. And even over the longer term, today’s California renters won’t see any new financial incentives for landlords to sell to developers.

Instead, new apartments will be built on land that is currently used for owner-occupied housing and for five years that will only happen in richer neighborhoods.

Offsetting those two limitations is an expansion of the up-zoning Wiener has in mind. The original legislation mandated zoning changes in “transit rich” areas, but the new legislation adds the concept of “jobs rich” neighborhoods.

This concept is not precisely defined in the legislation, but the intention is pretty clearly to target suburban jurisdictions that like playing host to corporate office parks (and the property tax revenue they deliver) while excluding any new residents. The sea of single-family homes in Sunnyvale and Cupertino within convenient walking distance of Apple’s corporate campus, for example, seems ripe for some new homebuilding.

This “jobs rich” area happens to be some of the priciest land in America, full of modest-sized single-family detached homes that sell for more than $1.5 million. Replacing such dwellings with mid-rise apartments would be highly profitable and could over time drastically increase California’s supply of homes.

Such moves would not, of course, address the housing needs of the truly disadvantaged — low-income families need subsidies — but market rate building in in-demand areas would greatly reduce the price pressure on older housing stock in poorer neighborhoods, while also increasing the state tax base and making subsidies easier to offer.

Thus modified, SB-50 answers the main official political objection that was leveled against its predecessor, leaving us to see how much of a difference that really makes.

Housing vs. the interests of the privileged

In a liberal state like California, it’s natural for opponents of land reform to couch their objections in the rhetoric of affordable housing, gentrification worries, and anti-displacement. But the reality is that low-income renters’ interests rarely if ever carry the day in politics, as seen in the landslide defeat of a stringent rent control referendum at the ballot box in 2018.

SB-827 failed because anti-gentrification activists joined forces with comfortable homeowners in affluent neighborhoods to kill reform.

Some of the most strident anti-reform rhetoric came from places like Beverly Hills and the rich suburbs of Silicon Valley. After all, exclusionary suburbs didn’t get to be exclusionary because their residents were deeply worried about the possible displacement of working class people of color from poor urban neighborhoods. Their residents want to live in exclusive neighborhoods. That’s why they moved where they moved, that’s why their towns adopted exclusionary zoning codes, and that’s why they opposed changes that would force them to stop.

Wiener’s decisive move to address the gentrification worries while actually expanding the bill’s footprint into more suburban areas is a strong effort to broaden his coalition and cut the opposition off at the pass.

The problem with aligning your policies to squarely cut against the preferences of the powerful and privileged is that they have a lot of power and tend to win political fights. Wiener now has the framing as a progressive reformer that he wants, but that won’t necessarily translate into votes in the legislature.

This is where the governor-elect’s strong-but-vague commitments on the housing issue come into play. He says he wants a drastic increase in the pace of construction to add millions of new units. This is a proposal that would unleash a drastic increase in the pace of construction and add millions of new units. And if the governor is able to get behind something like this proposal and deliver, he’ll have a chance to leave his mark on the state and create a legacy of accomplishment to fuel his national ambitions.

* Correction: An earlier version of this article referred to SB-287 when it should have said SB-827 and was imprecise about the geography of the Apple Park corporate campus.

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4 days ago
Boston, MA
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The Algorithms of War

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RObocop.pngJust a riff on a recent NYT magazine piece about the debate around “autonomous weapons,” or machines that can make decisions about who and when to kill.  Spoiler alert: There’s no consensus about them.  Actually, not even close to being a consensus. Which is probably a good thing.

That said, it’s a good entryway to revisit the notion that we as an industry/profession could be doing a better job covering the multiple algorithms that now govern our lives, even if they aren’t literally designed to kill us.

Algorithms influence what news and information we see, how financial markets behave, where police put their resources, whether we can get loans and at what price, and much more.  And beyond that, they have to power – as do other automations – to reshape how we build and structure our world, beyond replacing humans.

As the NYT piece notes about the debates about autonomous weapons:

This argument parallels the controversial case for self-driving cars. In both instances, sensor-rich machines navigate a complex environment without the fatigue, distractions and other human fallibilities that can lead to fatal mistakes. Yet both arguments discount the emergent behaviors that can come from increasingly intelligent machines interpreting the world differently from humans.

Precisely.  Autonomous machines can and will go beyond replacing humans and potentially fundamentally change our world – not necessarily for better or worse, but certainly differently.  And even if they don’t – or before they do – there’s a good argument to better understand how they’re supplementing human decisions.

If a newspaper got a new editor, we would certainly interview him or her and try to understand their view of news; if your town got a new police chief, you’d want to know what he or she thought about stop and frisk.  Bringing in algorithms that assist – or make – those decisions isn’t far removed from bringing in new people to make those decisions. And yet we tend only to cover algorithms when they go wrong – such as when a self-driving car kills someone.  (Of which a bit more later on.)

To be sure, it can be hard to understand what’s happening inside a machine, especially one that’s been created via a machine-learning system that’s a black box even to its creators; but that’s all the more reason to expend the effort to dig into it. (Or at least write about it in a witty way, as Patricia Marx recently did in the New Yorker – it’s well worth the read.)

This isn’t a new rant of mine; self-referentially, I made this argument a while back and again not so long ago:

It makes a great case for why we need better coverage and understanding of algorithms, given how big a role they now play in our daily lives and how little transparency there is about how they work. That’s not a new idea – “algorithmic accountability” has been a rallying cry for some for some time now, not least from Nick Diakopoulos, now at Northwestern University, and Julia Angwin of Pro Publica. (I’ve made pitches for it as well – here and here, for example.) And the furor over Facebook’s algorithmically driven news feed, and how it was used to target particular audiences during the 2016 presidential campaign, is breathing new life into that drive.

(As an aside, Julia has left Pro Publica and set up a new news organization to cover technology issues, and Nick will have a book on algorithms coming out soon.)

But back to self-driving cars and the algorithms in them that determine how they deal with life-and-death ethical questions.  Perhaps, as this fascinating piece by Johannes Himmelreich in The Conversation notes, we’re asking the wrong questions.  Why are we focused on asking how self-driving cars should behave at crosswalks?

For myself, I began to question whether we need places called “crosswalks” at all? After all, self-driving cars can potentially make it safe to cross a road anywhere.

And it is not only crosswalks that become unnecessary. Traffic lights at intersections could be a thing of the past as well. Humans need traffic lights to make sure everyone gets to cross the intersection without crash and chaos. But self-driving cars could coordinate among themselves smoothly.

In some ways, this is akin to the question about whether machines can write better stories than humans.  It’s a perfectly valid question, but isn’t the better question how machines could change the way we find and provide information to people?

As the piece goes on to note, why try to have machines copy humans at all?

Furthermore, self-driving cars shouldn’t drive like people. Humans aren’t actually very good drivers. And they drive in ethically troubling ways, deciding whether to yield at crosswalks, based on pedestrians’ agerace and income. For example, researchers in Portland have found that black pedestrians are passed by twice as many cars and had to wait a third longer than white pedestrians before they can cross.

Self-driving cars should drive more safely, and more fairly than people do.

All of which is true – but too much of this work is being done behind closed doors, with decisions being made that will ultimately affect all of us.

Decisions made by engineers today, in other words, will determine not how one car drives but how all cars drive. Algorithms become policy.

And isn’t one of journalism’s key missions to cover policy?

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6 days ago
Boston, MA
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Cohort and Age Effects

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Younger people get very few joint replacements, yet they're also getting more than older people did at the same age. This means you can choose between 'Why are millennials getting so (many/few) joint replacements?' depending on which trend fits your current argument better.
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9 days ago
When do Millennials get to kill fake trend stories?
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3 public comments
9 days ago
Ha! :)
Atlanta, GA
9 days ago
Younger people get very few joint replacements, yet they're also getting more than older people did at the same age. This means you can choose between 'Why are millennials are getting so (many/few) joint replacements?' depending which trend fits your current argument better.
9 days ago
Younger people get very few joint replacements, yet they're also getting more than older people did at the same age. This means you can choose between 'Why are millennials are getting so (many/few) joint replacements?' depending which trend fits your current argument better.

Journalism has a focus problem: How to combat Shiny Things Syndrome

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Journalism has become too obsessed with technology-led innovation and must refocus on strategic approaches to storytelling, audience engagement and business development, according to my new report for the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism.

The report, “Time to step away from the ‘bright, shiny things’? Towards a sustainable model of journalism innovation in an era of perpetual change,” is the first research published from the Journalism Innovation Project, which I lead at the University of Oxford. (The Project is funded by the Facebook Journalism Project.)

According to this research, journalism has a focus problem. Unsurprising, you might say, given the convergent crises confronting the news business, including financial desperation that can drive defensive and reactive innovation. This problem was diagnosed as “Shiny Things Syndrome” by U.S. digital-born journalism veteran Kim Bui, who said it “takes away from storytelling, and we risk forgetting who we are. That’s the biggest challenge.”

Bui is one of 39 leading journalism innovators from 17 countries initially participating in this year-long project that seeks to put the “end users” — in this case, journalists and news organizations — at the center of the research process. Together, they represent 27 different news publishers — a mix of legacy and digital-born media. Others voices in the curated roundtable discussions analyzed for the project’s first report include editors and CEOs like Rappler’s Maria Ressa, NewsMavens’ Zuzanna Ziomecka, The Quint’s Ritu Kapur, and Kinzen’s Mark Little; managers from legacy media like The Washington Post’s Greg Barber, Reuters News’ Reg Chua, and The New York Times’ Francesca Donner; and industry leaders–turned–academics like Aron Pilhofer and Raju Narisetti.

Narisetti was perplexed about the failure of journalism to innovate sustainably and strategically and he gave voice to simmering frustration that cut across the discussion groups: “We have such a unique industry and we are so used to change every day, and yet we still cannot seem to innovate our way out of anything.”

Examples of the manifestation of “Shiny Things Syndrome” cited by the participants included fixation with artificial intelligence (AI), virtual reality (VR), automated reporting (AR), and over-reliance on social platforms for distribution (leading to panic about algorithm tweaks). The cure suggested in the report involves a conscious shift by news publishers from being technology-driven in their innovation efforts, to proactively audience-focused, business-aware and technology-empowered.

The report’s key findings

— There is a clear desire to pull back from the high-speed pursuit of “bright, shiny things” (i.e., the proliferation of new tools and technologies) and to refocus on foundational concepts of journalism innovation, “end user”/audience needs, and core elements of practice, especially within legacy news media contexts.

I just want to make sure that in all of the talking about platforms and change and the thousand things that we need to do, that we don’t lose sight of the journalism at the core of it. — Joanne Lipman, author and former USA Today editor-in-chief

— There is an identified need to develop research-informed, longer-term strategies designed to foster sustainable innovation.

I think when you’re in a newsroom mindset you’re basically working on the 24-hour cycle. You get the story done, deadline rolls around, you either did it or you didn’t do it, tomorrow’s a new day, we start again. But in product or strategy you can (and should!) slow down, do focus groups, assess and analyze. It was totally beyond the scope of how I worked before. — Francesca Donner, director of The New York Times’ Gender Initiative

— There is concern that efforts in the field of digital journalism innovation have been too focused on distribution challenges at the expense of content and business development.

“The reason the oxygen has been sucked out of our businesses is because it’s all gone to distribution without any going to content. How do we redefine it so the platforms don’t eat us alive?” — Maria Ressa, CEO and executive editor,

— There is evidence of significant change fatigue and burnout that risks impacting on journalism innovation efforts, in part caused by relentless pursuit of “bright, shiny things.”

We have been in this process of transition and change for more than ten years. We’re changing our own structure and workflows every few months. And my staff say to me “When will we be ready?” And I say to them “As long as we are in this profession we will never be ready.” This is a permanent process of change, but I feel a great desire for resting. They want to see the end of this process. — Wolfgang Krach, editor-in-chief, Suddeutsche Zeitung

These impacts are not uniform: smaller, digital-born news publishers indicated that they do not have time to “slow down,” or contain experimentation, because their survival depends upon it.

Yeah, chill and listen, and read, and think. I can agree with all of that. But we are three years old. Had we not organically innovated we wouldn’t be here. I have also seen how doing less can just slow you down and it can also be a justification for a lot of other things. We would be dead if we only looked at what legacy organizations were doing. — Ritu Kapur, CEO and cofounder, The Quint

— There is an evolving new set of innovation markers: The need to consider unintended consequences of technological innovation (such as gendered online harassment and viral disinformation); the role of diversity in audience development and divergent global contexts; growing media freedom threats and limitations.

In some cases, we’re all fighting for the same audience and yet there are huge chunks of the world that don’t have any credible news. We need to be working on that as much as thinking about how to make the Times or the Post or the Guardian better. — Reg Chua, chief operating officer, Reuters News, UK

— There is a need for innovation-oriented journalism research that:

  • Provides clear, foundational definitions of “innovation” in reference to journalism;
  • Develops a model framework (featuring core metrics or indicators) to support journalism innovation in a range of environments, and to enable impact assessment;
  • Produces transferable knowledge derived from in-depth study of identified innovative journalism practices through collaborative discovery processes.

I would just love it if this project would not fall into the trap of talking about the bright and shiny stuff, and instead talk about the foundational things. How do we define innovation? What does it mean? What are the frameworks for innovation that we can apply? And who is doing this well? — Aron Pilhofer, James B. Steele Chair in Journalism Innovation at Temple University

How do you slow down and plan?

The only constant in contemporary journalism is change, and innovation is essential to the survival of the news industry. But, as the report demonstrates, leading practitioners fear that relentless pursuit of technology-driven innovation can be almost as dangerous as stagnation. In the absence of purposeful strategy and reflective practice, ad-hoc, frantic, and often short-term experimentation is unlikely to lead to sustainable innovation or real progress.

While “random acts of innovation,” organic experimentation, and willingness to embrace new technology remain valuable features of an innovation culture, there is evidence of an increasingly urgent requirement for the cultivation of sustainable innovation frameworks and clear, longer-term strategies within news organizations. Such a pivot could also address the growing problem of burnout associated with “innovation fatigue.” To be effective, such strategies need to be focused on engaging audiences — the “end users” — and they would benefit from research-informed innovation indicators.

The Journalism Innovation Wheel

We’ve visualized the foundational work the Journalism Innovation Project is doing to develop adaptable new frameworks to support sustainable innovation in the Journalism Innovation Wheel. (It’s consciously the only remotely “shiny” feature of the report!). It illustrates the point that journalism innovation can happen among many different dimensions, often at the same time, combining, for example, new forms of storytelling with new business models, or new distribution strategies with new forms of audience engagement. In other words, while broad innovation is important, news organizations also need to identify specific objectives and dimensions along which they want to progress.

My head hurts. Can I get off now?

To be clear, my report does not amount to a call to stop innovating, nor justification for doing 
so, but it is a plea to avoid unsustainable approaches to innovation that fail to take account of potentially negative impacts — approaches that risk wasting time, effort, and money, without real returns.

The collaborative dissection of innovation strategies between experienced journalism innovators at the base of this research underscores the value of cross-cultural, cross-organizational, facilitated conversations as spaces for developing broad strategic approaches to innovation. Such approaches, involving time out from the daily production grind, allow for shared experiences, the cross-pollination of ideas, and the seeds of potential future cross-industry collaborations. So, while this research is not an excuse to stop, it is a call for more reflective practice, critical thinking, and collaborative problem solving.

There was also a strong emphasis among participants on collective action, openness, and cross-boundary knowledge sharing. “There is so much to learn, and everyone is nodding, nodding, because we’re all experiencing the same stuff. So, let’s pool our ideas and see what we can come up with,” The New York Times’ Francesca Donner said. For Durga Raghunath of the Indian Express Group, such approaches could beneficially be drawn from the ground floor of organizations: “Based on insight which is deeper, maybe bottom up from all our organizations.”

What’s next for the Journalism Innovation Project?

What could research-informed frameworks and indicators for sustainable journalism innovation look like? The need for enduring Journalism Innovation Project outputs was underscored by Raju Narisetti. “At a very high level, what can we extract from model [news organization] DNA? Thinking about it in that framework is more interesting to me than ‘Here’s how we go about doing XYZ,’” he said.

Maria Ressa suggested the project to begin with a reset: “If we have to create a new information ecosystem today, with distribution and content separated, what would that look like? What can we do that would be helpful, and how can we collectively use our clout to punch for that?” Greg Barber, The Washington Post’s director of newsroom product, wanted the Project to take it one step further, asking: “How do we become incubators for innovation?”

Responses to these prods are likely to involve research that collaboratively builds a model framework for sustainable journalism innovation based on extracting “good practice” indicators from exemplary news publishers that place an emphasis on strategic design. They will include illustrative deep-dive case studies. But most importantly, this research will be participatory: with journalists and news publishers — our end users — placed at the center of the project in the interests of supporting journalism’s endurance.

Julie Posetti is a senior research fellow and lead of the Journalism Innovation Project at the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism.

Newsroom photo copyright Tim Anger, used with permission.

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12 days ago
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The case for slowing everything down a bit

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A top tech exec thinks we need to slow down the internet a bit. He’s right.

Justin Kosslyn leads product management at Jigsaw, the Google (erm, Alphabet) subsidiary working on technological solutions to problems like online censorship and radicalization. Before that, he worked at Google News, Google+, and Google AdSense.

The experience must have radicalized him a bit, because in an essay published at Motherboard, he takes direct aim at not just one of Silicon Valley’s founding assumptions, but one of his parent company’s core business strategies.

“The philosophy of the Internet has assumed that friction is always part of the problem,” writes Kosslyn. But look around. The problem now isn’t too much friction; it’s too little. “It’s time,” he says, “to bring friction back.”

Our digital lives dispense with friction. We get the answers we seek instantly, we keep up with friends without speaking to them, we get the news as it happens, we watch loops of videos an algorithm chose for us, we click once and get any product in the world delivered to our doorsteps in less than two days.

Less friction means more time spent, more ads seen, more sales made. Tech companies lose customers during login screens and security verification, and as a result of slow load times. The country’s top computer science talent is paid billions of dollars to further reduce the milliseconds of delay separating our desires and their fulfillment.

But these technological wonders do not seem to have made our lives or societies more wonderful. Depression, anxiety, loneliness, drug overdoses, and suicide are rising. Productivity growth has slowed. Income inequality has skyrocketed. Politics is more bitter and more tribal. Donald Trump is president of the United States. Something is wrong.

Kosslyn is focused on digital threats: malware, phishing, disinformation. All of these, he says, “exploit high-velocity networks of computers and people.” But I wonder about the whole damn thing. Whether it’s all gotten so fast and so easy and so frictionless that we’re on an endless Slip ’n’ Slide down the chute of our own worst impulses.

Harder, angrier, faster, lonelier

I’ll start with media because that’s the space I know best. I’ve been digital since day one. I was a blogger before I was a journalist, and I’ve always preferred publishing online to publishing in print. It was, well, frictionless. You wrote something, you pressed publish, and there it was.

But as I look around today, I find myself yearning for a bit more of the friction of yesteryear. Twitter is almost perfectly frictionless — no editors, no formatting, built for instant reaction and in-group applause — and Trump is the result. YouTube, with its recommendation algorithm automatically directing us to more extreme content, is a powerful force for radicalization. Cable news is fast, reactive, competitive, and thus sensationalistic, tribal, and conflictual.

Friction creates space in the system where judgment can intercede, where second thoughts can be had, where decisions can be made. Look at organizations with longer time lags and more editors and you get better, calmer, more considered coverage. I believe that one reason podcasts have exploded is that they carry so much friction: They’re long and messy, they often take weeks or months to produce, they’re hard to clip and share and skim — and as a result, they’re calmer, more human, more judicious, less crazy-making.

Too much friction can be annoying — there are plenty of days I feel like posting something without waiting for an edit, and much news needs to be known quickly — but too little friction can be dangerous. It leads to reporting and commentary that’s reactive, ill-considered, wrong. I wouldn’t want to go back to the media of the ’50s. But I don’t want to double down on the trends of the present, either.

Let’s put politics and media, with its unique dynamics, aside. Socializing is frictionless online. It’s far easier to click around on Facebook than to plan a hike with a friend, a movie with a cousin, a day out of the house. It’s easier, but is it making us more connected?

The answer, empirically, is no. A new study paid people to limit their use of major social media platforms to 10 minutes a day, and compared them to a control group that didn’t make any changes. The result? “Participants who reduced their time on social sites saw a statistically significant decrease in depression and loneliness,” reports The Verge’s Casey Newton. “The control group did not report an improvement.”

Then there’s distraction. I feel it myself, right now, writing this piece. It is frictionless to click over to Reddit, to my email, to any of a million sites that will take my mind off the work of writing a column and refocus it on the easy sugar water of social media and viral content and Slack conversation.

Writing, by contrast, is full of friction. It’s hard and slow, and the words on the page fall short of the music and clarity I imagined they’d have. But it is, in the end, rewarding. It’s where I have at least a chance to create something worth creating. The work is worth it.

This isn’t a new problem, of course. It’s always easier to play a video game than to craft a presentation. But the ease and availability of distractions has skyrocketed with smartphones and broadband connections, while doing hard, productive work remains as maddening as ever.

Dan Nixon, an economist at the Bank of England, has suggested that the slow productivity growth across economies reflects the growing ease of distraction, which is overwhelming the gains of new technologies. “Distractions can directly reduce the quality of our work,” he writes. “An influx of emails and phone calls, for example, is estimated to reduce workers’ IQ by 10 points — equivalent to losing a night’s sleep.”

Worse, there’s evidence that all this is changing our brains, making them resist long periods of focus and crave more distraction. “If every moment of potential boredom in your life — say, having to wait five minutes in line or sit alone in a restaurant until a friend arrives — is relieved with a quick glance at your smartphone, then your brain has likely been rewired,” writes computer scientist Cal Newport in Deep Work.

Digital distraction isn’t an accident. It’s a business strategy.

When Facebook sends you a notification saying someone has tagged you in a picture, or when Twitter pings to say someone has mentioned you in a comment, they’re giving you a spike of anxiety and anticipation that raises the friction of not checking the platform. Cutting-edge behavioral science is being applied to the problem of how to make you pay less attention to your surroundings and more attention to your phone.

So too is cutting-edge lobbying. The blockbuster New York Times story on Facebook’s political tactics reveals a company paying off high-priced opposition researchers to make sure regulators don’t try to add the friction individual users don’t have the power to apply themselves.

And yet the world is full of friction that we recognize as valuable, much of it enforced by laws and regulations. Seatbelts in cars, restrictions on opioid prescriptions, banisters on stairwells. Silicon Valley, however, has developed a culture that prizes our instant impulses and erases the space we use to question them. And the result is, well, the world we live in. Trump isn’t just the president, he’s also the perfect symbol of our age — a frictionless id; a Twitter account in human form; a man devoid of the shame, social caution, and second thoughts that curb most people’s worst impulses.

“The internet is facing real challenges on many fronts,” Google’s Kosslyn concludes. “If we truly want to solve them, engineers, designers, and product architects could all benefit from the thoughtful application of friction.”

Change needs to come, but I’m skeptical it will come from the employees of companies that get richer by greasing the path between our impulses and their profits. Rather, it’s going to have to come from us rediscovering the value of things being a little slower and a little less efficient.

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20 days ago
Boston, MA
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Help! My Dad Is Making Brisket for Thanksgiving and I Don’t Know What to Bring as a Side.

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In celebration of Thanksgiving, chief political correspondent and champion pie baker Jamelle Bouie answers all your culinary questions and dilemmas. Read on for recipes.

Q. Brisket: My dad is hosting Thanksgiving this year for the whole family, and he’s going to smoke a brisket instead of having a turkey (this is Texas, after all). Any suggestions for side dishes other than the usual fare (beans, mac and cheese) that goes with brisket? Thanks!

A: I like turkey, but brisket is an excellent alternative for a Thanksgiving centerpiece. For side dishes, you should take inspiration from most barbecue restaurants, which serve brisket with pickled vegetables to compliment the fatty, smoky flavor of the meat. In addition to the usual fare, consider homemade cucumber pickles or pickled red onions, roasted vegetables tossed in a vinaigrette (like this roasted-carrot salad, sans the cumin crème fraiche if that’s not your thing), Southern-style collard greens served with plenty of hot sauce and vinegar, or green beans with caramelized shallots, toasted almonds, and fresh lemon juice. The idea for all of these sides is to brighten your plate with acidic flavors and also add a little color to the mix.

Q. Sweet Sweet Potatoes: I understand the versatility of sweet potatoes and generally enjoy them prepared in savory-forward ways most of the time. But on Thanksgiving, I just want to eat them in all their brown-sugar, marshmallow-topped glory, and then I feel slightly bad about myself for this. Is it actually so wrong?

A: Not at all! People should eat what they like, and traditional Thanksgiving sweet potatoes are a respectable option. I will say that, if I were making the dish, I would go for something with stronger savory notes, and less of the syrupy sweetness. This recipe does the trick.

Q. Pie Dilemma: Every Thanksgiving, my father and I have the same fight. I started baking pies for the extended family Thanksgiving dinner some years ago. I make at least two different pies. Every year, my father feels the need to go out and buy one or two more pies. He says it is for the sake of either “having variety” or “having enough.” I bought that the first year, which is why I started making two, sometimes three pies. I love doing this each year, but whenever my father goes out for more, it makes me feel like whatever I do is never good enough.

I’ve told him this years ago, and he said he didn’t intend to make me feel that way, just that he felt we needed more. And every year we go through the same argument. This year, I decided I wasn’t going to put myself through this again and told him he could buy as many pies as he wants and that I’m going to make a gluten-free pie for me (since I have celiac) and for anybody who wants to try it but that’s it.

Is this OK? I don’t want to leave people pie-free on Thanksgiving, but it always seems like people are too full by dessert anyway.

A: It is unfortunate that your father hears your concern but ignores it instead of stepping back or discussing another way he can contribute to the dinner. If he’s going to continue bringing pies, you might suggest a little coordination: He can bring more traditional pies, and you can bake gluten-free pies to accommodate yourself and anyone who is interested in trying something different.

If you can’t manage to coordinate, remember that his bringing pies, even if it’s against your preferences, will ensure guests have plenty of options, if they want them. And you should still bake something for yourself.

Q. Mashed Potatoes: Say the future of liberal democracy depended on the mission impossible of convincing your dinner guests that there is a better potato way than mashed. What spud-based dish do you serve instead?

A: I don’t serve potatoes at Thanksgiving. There’s already enough starch and butter in the meal, but if I did, it would be a pommes anna or potato and leek gratin.

Q. Beyond Tofurkey: I grew up in a family that starved me out of being a vegetarian, in a part of America with such a strong feeder culture it’s basically considered rude to have food allergies or restrictions. As a result, as a host and a cook, I am fiercely committed to making sure everyone at my table has something delicious to eat, and as a result of that, I have made a lot of lifelong friends with serious food restrictions who appreciate this deeply. Many of them come to my Thanksgiving because they know they won’t be poisoned by a relative trying to prove their serious allergies aren’t real (WHY IS THIS A THING) or just accidentally dosed by someone well-intentioned with no knowledge of cross-contamination.

I enjoy this—I’m an experienced cook and good at making the kinds of mix-and-match dishes to cook once but feed everyone. But where I really struggle is a Thanksgiving alternative main. I do a turkey and stuffing and heaps of all vegetarian sides. I’ve even mastered vegan gravy! But all my attempts the past few years at an alternative main have just flopped. I used to do stuffed pumpkins, but as I’ve stretched to accommodate more varied restrictions, they’ve gotten pretty sad and last year really felt like a crappy after-thought. I want to have some alternative to the turkey other than just side dishes. Any suggestions for a gluten-free, dairy-free, vegetarian, low FODMAP main dish that feels a little fancy/holiday treat–y (even if it’s not … all of those)? Or resources to explore?

A: For this particular problem, beans and grains are your friend. They’re hearty, filling, and can be combined with a variety of different vegetables, toppings, and dressings. And beans don’t have to be a problem with guests on a low-FODMAP diet; by using dried beans, soaking them, discarding the liquid, cooking them, and then discarding that liquid, you can reduce the amount of non-soluble carbohydrates.

My go-to source for beans is Rancho Gordo, which cultivates heirloom beans and offers resources and recipes. Their Thanksgiving guide, for example, features a wild rice and heirloom bean salad that should fit your bill. It involves medium-bodied beans, wild rice, roasted winter squash, winter fruits, Brussels sprouts, and a mustardy, herby vinaigrette. It’s easy to make and in my experience a crowd pleaser.

Q. Chocolate Request: For a person like me, who only likes chocolate desserts, traditional Thanksgiving desserts are gross. Apple pie, pumpkin pie, pecan pie—blech. What is a chocolate dessert that I can proudly serve on Thanksgiving without someone saying, “Brownies? For Thanksgiving???”

A: For a dessert that showcases chocolate, try this bittersweet chocolate tart, served with freshly whipped cream. If you simply want to include chocolate, I am a big fan of a French walnut tart with a chocolate bottom. It might seem similar to pecan pie, but it’s completely different, with the rich, almost savory flavor of toasted walnuts and golden brown, salted caramel. Whichever path you choose, you can’t go wrong.

Q. Traveling Side Dishes: I am traveling two hours on Thanksgiving to attend a family potluck-style meal. I have a slow cooker, a few baking pans, glass casserole dishes, etc., and I consider myself to be fairly savvy in the kitchen. But I am at a total loss for what to make for a side dish that will travel well for our two-hour journey. Ideas please!

A: For Thanksgiving, my dad makes a carrot soufflé that might be a solution to your problem. This isn’t as finicky as a traditional soufflé; it’s easy to make and will stand up to travel. You can make it the night before you travel, chill in the refrigerator, cover, and pack in a cooler for your Thanksgiving drive. It reheats well—when you reach your destination, just put it in the oven at 300 degrees for about a half-hour—and it will present well. It’s also good as hell.

Q. Post-meal predicament: What Marvel Cinematic Universe movie is most appropriate for post-Thanksgiving watching?

A: You want something that’s family-friendly and speaks to themes of the holiday. The former rules out Avengers, which has some moments that might be scary for children, the latter rules out some of the best MCU films, like Captain America: The Winter Soldier or Black Panther. I think your best bets are the Ant-Man series and the Guardians of the Galaxy films. Both are explicitly concerned with family—in both the protagonists are men trying to find a family or rebuild one—and both are basically fine for kids of all ages. They’re also pretty good and an enjoyable watch after you’ve filled yourself with food.

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20 days ago
Boston, MA
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