Category Archives: personal

Reflections on online cruelty and kindness

This morning, I read an interesting reflection on dealing with online cruelty in the New York Times by Stephanie Rosenbloom:

In the virtual world, anonymity and invisibility help us feel uninhibited. Some people are inspired to behave with greater kindness; others unleash their dark side. Trolls, who some researchers think could be mentally unbalanced, say the kinds of things that do not warrant deep introspection; their singular goal is to elicit pain. But then there are those people whose comments, while nasty, present an opportunity to learn something about ourselves.

Easier said than done. Social scientists say we tend to fixate on the negative. However, there are ways to game psychological realities. Doing so requires understanding that you are ultimately in charge. “Nobody makes you feel anything,” said Professor Suler, adding that you are responsible for how you interpret and react to negative comments. The key is managing what psychologists refer to as involuntary attention.

When I checked her reference, I found that Rosenbloom made an error with her citation of research, along with failing to link to it: the 2011 report on teens, kindness and cruelty on social networking sites by the Pew Research’s Internet and Life Project she cited found that a vast majority of young people (88%) had “seen someone be mean or cruel to another person on a social network site,” not 69%. That percentage refers to a happier statistic: “69% of social media-using teens think that peers are mostly kind to each other on social network sites.

On that count, I’m glad the author chose to end with a reflection on kindness and the psychology involved with focusing on positive comments and compliments, as opposed to the negative ones. Anyone who wants to see how a positive feedback loop works should look at how Justin Levy’s friends & networks are supporting him, or how dozens and dozens of friends, family and strangers supported me when I lost my beloved greyhound this week.

I’m not sure about the New York Times editor’s summary — that the “Web encourages bad behavior,” through anonymity and lack of consequences.

I think that what we see online reflects what humans are, as a mirror, and that what we see on social media (which is really what is discussed here, not the World Wide Web) is 
1) a function of what the platforms allow, with respect to the architecture of participation, and
2) what the community norms established there are.

Compare newspapers’ online comments, YouTube comments and Twitter to what you find in the comments at Ars Technica, BoingBoing or even, dare I say it, in the blogs or public profiles I moderate. As Anil Dash has observed, the people who create and maintain online forums and platforms bear responsibility for what happens there:

It’s a surprisingly delicate balance to allow robust debate and disagreement on politics, current events, technology choices, or even sports (hello, tribalism) while guiding conversations away from cruelty, anger, or even hatred, whether we lead a classroom or an online discussion. The comments we allow to stand offline or online largely determine the culture of the class, town hall or thread they’re made within:

While people bear always responsibility for their own cruel actions or words, it’s incumbent upon those of us who host conversations or share our thoughts publicly online to try to respond with empathy, kindness and understanding where we can, and with polite but resolute moderation when others do not respond to those tactics or attack our friends and communities.

[IMAGE SOURCE: Amanda Lenhart, Pew Research Center]

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Remembering Jean H. Hepner, beloved grandmother and Fells Point community activist

I’m still processing the death of my grandmother this weekend, on Saturday night. I haven’t shared any updates anywhere about it online. I’ve gone through several stages of grief, from disbelief to numbness to acceptance and deep sadness. You never know how long you’ll have with some one. Some times, they’re gone in an instant.

News of her death was in the Associated Press yesterday, along with local news yesterday.

The circumstances of her passing feel at once banal and extraordinary. My grandmother and her longtime partner, Ben, were driving back home from visiting his son and grandchild, just outside of DC. According to state police, around 6:30 PM he hit another vehicle on the Beltway and lost control of their car, hitting the jersey barriers on the right before veering across the road to hit another on the median and come to a stop.

Passersby pulled over and quietly committed an act of heroism, pulling them both from the car before it caught fire. I’m grateful to these good Samaritans, who may well have saved Ben’s life and tried to save my grandmother.

After the Maryland state police arrived and saw the extent of her injuries, and called in a helicopter to medevac her to the Maryland Trauma Center. Sadly, she passed in flight, despite the efforts of the paramedics and the doctors and nurses in the ER. [Virgil Ruben Carlson passed away from his injuries one week later.]

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My sister, thinking of “Mom Mom” this morning, shared an item from the “Fells Pointer,” a publication from the neighborhood that she and my grandfather, Dr. Walter Ray Hepner Jr., moved to in September 1968.

My grandmother not only renovated the 18th century townhouse that she, my grandfather, uncles and a troop of Boy Scouts rescued from ruin, in other words, but became a pillar of the early community of preservationists who moved into the then-decayed houses of Fells Point and then fought to protect the entire historic neighborhood when government officials sought to run an expressway through the area.

As my sister Susanna Brennan Buchta noted in her remembrance of her, our grandmother was both “an indomitable spirit and community activist”:

“…she and her fellow members of the Society for the Preservation of Federal Hill and Fells Point probably saved Baltimore. Without their efforts to stop the expansion of I-95 straight through our historic Inner Harbor, Baltimore could well have become another Detroit. Instead, we got our ‘second wind’ and a beautiful waterfront attracting millions of visitors and capital to invigorate vibrant neighborhoods.”

These neighborhoods are now the jewels of the Baltimore of today. While the city still has immense challenges, from poverty to crime to urban blight, the revival that began in the late 1960s and fiercely defended by men and women like my grandmother in the “expressway revolt” will endure for decades to come.

Jean Harvey Hepner had just turned 90 as 2014 rolled over. She lived a long, full life, raising 4 children, including my mother, her eldest. She leaves behind dozens of grieving family members and friends, including this eldest grandchild who is grateful for last Christmas, when Mom Mom was able to meet and connect with Allegra, her first great-grandchild, and the six weeks in the summer of 2005 when I stayed with her in Fells Point, finishing renovations that my grandfather had begun in the 1980s.

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Today, I’m remembering nearly 4 decades of my life with her, from the wonders of Boxing Day to the fun of egg hunts on Easter to halcyon summer days on the coast of Maine. I’m glad that we had the time to visit the Robert Long House in Fells Point and walk around the beautiful garden that she had painstakingly, methodically researched and planted with the flowering plants and herbs that would have been present in colonial Baltimore, when the house was originally built. My grandmother knew an enormous amount about plants, a passion and knowledge base that she passed on to her children over the decades, along with any number of other things.

One of the most precious gifts she ever gave me was a perfect Meyer lemon from the tree that resided in her sunny drawing room on Fell Street. I made one of the best lemon-butter sauces of my life with that fruit, and reserved the zest from the skin for many deserts and dishes to come to boot. My grandmother would have approved of that thorough use. As a child who came to age during the Depression, she reserved, preserved and even hoarded all kinds of things, from string to hardware to any number of baskets, button and doodads that I found fascinating as a child.

I still have an index card, somewhere, inscribed with her simple, spectacular recipe for Maryland crab cakes, although I stopped needing to consult it long ago: some skills, once your grandmother teaches you to do them, become engraved in your memory for lifetime.

I miss you so much already, Mom Mom.

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Frager’s Hardware fire leaves burn scar in the heart of Capitol Hill

Frager’s Hardware, a Capitol Hill landmark beloved by generations of Washingtonians, was ravaged by a fire last night. Across my neighborhood, people are waking up to the reality of a devastated community hub. Mike Debonis captured the intensity of last night’s events on a liveblog at the Washington Post.

The Capitol Hill institution has been part of the fabric of residential life for generations of Washingtonians. For many residents, Frager’s was part of home. Thankfully, no one was killed in the blaze, although two of the dozens of DC firefighters to responded to the 4-alarm fire were slightly injured bringing it under control.

As the fire burned last night, people already began calling for Frager’s to be rebuilt, just as Eastern Market and the Tune Inn were after fires swept through them. Frager’s general manager Nick Kapalanis vowed to rebuild Fragers and DC Mayor Vincent C. Gray said the city would support him in the effort.

What was inside of the scorched walls of those buildings is gone forever. While the owners, city and community of Fragers’s can — and many hope, will — build a beautiful new hardware store to serve the community between the U.S. Capitol and the Anacostia River, the contents and character of the 93-year old institutions are reduced to smoldering rubble. Something irreplaceable lies in ruins.

Walking around those crowded, claustrophobic aisles and basement felt like shopping in an unfamiliar city center preserved from a previous century, similar to the medieval city centers of Europe or Boston’s North End. I loved it. I spent years in renovating old houses in greater Boston and instantly appreciated how special this neighborhood hardware store was.

Over years, you might learn what was where and how to navigate to it, but you were always better off asking one of Frager’s employees, who always knew where anything a given need for a given weekend project or months-long remodeling effort might be. In many ways, Frager’s staff acted much like London cab drivers, using “the knowledge” to help residents get from Point A to Point B in their journey.

Frager’s was one of the best examples of an iconic American institution that in many ways exemplifies our national character: the neighborhood hardware store. We’re a nation of tinkerers and fixers, backyard hobbyists and garage mechanics. Our basements, barns and workshops hold multitudes of weekend projects, finished and unfinished, with boxes and cans of the extra parts and fasteners that we might need in the future.

Tom Bridge, writing for “We Love DC,” captured this sentiment well this morning:

I can only think of one thing to do today: appreciate your neighborhood and city institutions. By fire or by tragedy, they may leave before we’re ready. This city is full of many beautiful, incredible places like Frager’s, places that can’t easily be replaced or rebuilt, that are unique to our place and our time, special threads that hold together neighborhoods and communities. Our communities need places like Frager’s the same way they need schools and fire stations and hospitals. They’re just not the same without them.

Help Frager’s rebuild if you can, or help make sure your own institutions stay healthy in your community, it’s doing DC a good deed, and that truly matters.

In recent years, Home Depot and Lowes have offered a bigger, brighter options to consumers, standardizing and automating the sale of building supplies. As any long-time customer has learned, however, it’s a rare “big box” retailer that achieves the service, function, feeling and forum of a local hardware store like Frager’s, embedded within a community.

Fragers, down on Pennsylvania Avenue, has provided all of those bits, bolts and much more to thousands upon thousands of DC residents for nearly a century.

This morning, Frager’s is closed. It may be rebuilt, bigger, brighter and more beautiful, but it’s going to be many months before this burn scar in the heart of Capitol Hill heals. Our mental maps are left to trace the contours of a landscape that now only persists in our collective memory.

Postscript: a reader emailed and shared a link to donate to the Frager’s Fund. To make a contribution, just click the “Donate” button and write “Frager’s” in the dedication section. The fund is administered by the Capitol Hill Community Foundation (CHCF), a registered 501(c)(3) that helped rebuild Eastern Market after it burned in 2007. CHCF will also use the funds to support the 65 Fragers employees displaced by the fire. Contributions are tax-deductible.

For more on the morning after, read “Fire at landmark hardware store prompts DC to remember Fragers.”

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On unwiring


For the last decade, I’ve thought about going offline like Paul Miller. Turn off, drop off, tune in to life offline.

I’ve never done it. Thinking back, I don’t think I’ve been fully offline more than a month since 1999. I do periodically unwire. A night out here, a long bike ride there, a long weekend in the woods.

The last time it truly happened for more than 24 hours was in January in Anguilla, where I took long hikes, paddles, swims or went sailing without a connection. (I didn’t attempt a tweet during my kite boarding lesson.) Or last August, up in Cape Cod. Vacation is now virtually defined for me as being offline, without commitments. Before that trip, the last truly offline time was my honeymoon, in Greece, where, again, there was (often) no connection to be had.

I may still choose to share my experience and stay connected while I’m on vacation, or “paid time off,” as my former employer calls it, but doing so was always on my own time, at my own choosing. Each time I disconnect, I’ve learned something valuable about myself, both in terms of the person I’ve always been and the man I’ve become.

I’m glad Paul Miller did this and shared his experience. I think such reflection is important and the insight derived from it has always helped to shape and guide my subsequent choices about using technology.

In particular, his shift to finding other distractions, from games to television, was a reminder that we have agency in our own lives. We can choose whether and how to maintain our relationships, our minds, our bodies and our professional, intellectual or recreational pursuits, whether we’re connected or not.

It’s tempting to blame “the Internet” for poor choices or bad habits — and there are reasons to be cautious about how games or social networks tap into certain innate aspects of human behavior — but my personal experience with the network of networks has been enormously empowering and uplifting.

Your mileage, of course, may vary.

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It’s time for a national conversation on gun violence in the United States

Our hearts are broken today“-President Obama, wiping tears from his eyes this afternoon.

I heard his comments on the radio, driving back to DC. I teared up, too. I’ve been mostly reading and listening today, not writing or reporting. I’m thankful I was not responsible for covering breaking news at a media outlet or on the ground in Connecticut, trying to sift fact from fiction or interview bereaved parents or photograph traumatized children.

I can write now with certainty that 27 people were killed by a gunman in Newtown, Connecticut, including 18 children in an elementary school. It’s one of the worst shootings in our nation’s history.

My Facebook feed is full of people offering prayers, voicing anger and frustration, and, happily sharing pictures of their own children. One of my friends announced the birth of his first child. Amidst grieving, new life and joy.

As the reality of this tragedy settles in, this moment may still be too raw to decide exactly what the way forward should be. In the wake of dozens of mass shootings in the past several years, there’s more interest in doing something to prevent them.

What, exactly, we should do to prevent more mass killings should be up for debate, but losing 18 children like this is unbearable. What science says about gun control and killings is not clear, though the literature should inform the debate.

If today is not the time to have that national conversation, many people would like to know when. A new White House epetition asks the President to set a time and place to debate gun policy. Another asks the White House to immediately address gun control through legislation*. As difficult as it may be to navigate the politics of gun control and the 2nd Amendment, that time may have come. That conversation should be balanced by one about mass shootings and mental illness, which is the other significant factor in these events.

In his remarks this afternoon, laden with the emotion that so many of his fellow citizens were feeling, President Obama said that “…we’re going to have to come together to prevent meaningful action to prevent more tragedies like this, regardless of the politics.”

As a country, we need to be able to have a national conversation about what to do next that does not vilify those on the other side of the debate.

I hope our Congress, our Supreme Court, our President and my fellow citizens are ready to work towards preventing more days like today in the year ahead.

The White House epetition to introduce legislation on gun control gained more than 197,000 signatures since its introduction. It was one of the fastest growing White House epetitions to date. By the end of the weekend, it became the most popular epetition in the nation’s history. (Another epetition subsequently passed it in popularly.)

RESPONSE: “We Hear you”

On the evening of December 20, President Obama responded to 32 different epetitions related to gun violence in a video posted on YouTube. It was the first direct response to a White House epetition by a President of the United States.

Earlier in the day, Vice President Joe Biden held the first meeting of a task force formed by the White House to look for ways to reduce gun violence in schools. On December 21st, the National Rifle Association called for armed guards in schools to deter violence.

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Trumping Trump on Twitter

This is the most retweeted tweet I’ve ever tweeted:

It blew up so much it attracted Donald Trump’s notice. He responded:

I dream of the day that I get nearly 1,700+ retweets of a story instead of a sentiment. Apparently I touched a nerve. It just kept going and going and going.

By the numbers, my tweet was amplified five times as much as Trump’s, with a bit less than 10% of the followers. On particular count, I may have “trumped” the real estate mogul on Twitter, although I think it’s safe to say that this is an imperfect gauge of public opinion. He also shows no signs of shifting his course.

On a more qualitative level, Trump’s @mention of me exposed me to a day’s worth of emotional feedback online. I received many negative @replies on Twitter when the @WhiteHouse retweeted me last July. The angry responses after Donald Trump @mentioned me this week, however, were worse in scale and composition.

As I gain more surface area online and in the media, through television appearances, I’m finding that I’m encountering more hate, fear, ignorance and anger everywhere. Honestly, I have a hard time not responding to people online. I’ve never liked seeing broadcast journalists and celebrities ignore people, even angry viewers or fans. It’s not how I’ve worked over the last decade and I don’t intend to change.

As I gain more of a platform to focus attention on issues that matter, this won’t get easier. The Internet mirrors what is worst in humanity, along with what’s best in us. The Web is what we make of it. It’s a bitter reality, though I think it’s been part of the public sphere as long as we’ve had one.

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RECIPE: Wicked good wild Maine blueberry pie

Earlier tonight, a friend asked for my recipe for blueberry pie. Technically, it’s my mother’s recipe. Here’s how I make it:

INGREDIENTS:

2 1/2 cups of flour
1 stick of butter (8 tablespoons)
4 oz of neufchâtel/cream cheese
1/4 cup cold water

1 quart of wild blueberries (or more, depending on pie dish depth)
4 tablespoons of Minute tapioca
1 1/4 cup of sugar
1 tablespoon of cinnamon
1 ounces of milk

DIRECTIONS:

Combine berries with 1 cup of sugar and tapioca in a bowl at least half an hour before baking, preferably 2 hours or so. Set aside.

Preheat over to 425 degree F.

Sift flour into large mixing bowl. Cut butter and neufchâtel into flour in small pieces. Pinch pieces of shortening between fingers until no globs remain. Add cold water, mix until dough comes together but no longer. Split into 2 balls, chill in fridge for 4 hours. (Possible to use immediately if needed but try to plan ahead!)

Dust countertop/big cutting board & rolling pin with flour. (If you have access to a ceramic rolling pin, chill it prior to baking.) Roll out first ball of dough until it’s 1 inch wider than pie plate diameter on all sides. Fold into half and then once again to transfer into plate, then unfold after moving it over. Press closed any cracks.

Add filling. Roll out the other ball of dough, this time making an oval (for lattice) or circle for closed pie. Slice into 1/2″ strips. Weave into lattice over the pie filling. (If pie top is one piece, make sure to cut 8 1″ slit into it to allow steam to escape.) Press the top and bottom crust together with two fingers to form a wave.

Brush the top of the piece with milk. Sprinkle with cinnamon sugar.

Put pie into over in the middle rack, preferably with a cookie sheet below it to catch any overflow. (If you have a crust protector, put it over the edges.)

Bake for 15 minutes at 425, then reduce heat to 350 degrees F. Bake for 45 minutes. Check to see if blueberries are bubbling. If not, check back periodically every 10 minutes. If crust is browning too fast, reduce heat further to 325.

Let cool for at least a few minutes — filling will be boiling hot and will gel as it cools. Goes well with cold milk, tea or a la mode.

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