Monday, March 30, 2015

Suicide Prevention: The EQ Phone

I have an idea for a phone app to help reduce the incidence of teen suicide. I don’t need to tell anyone in Palo Alto, California what a blessing that would be.

The idea is based on three premises:

1. Changes in behavior that indicate deteriorating emotional health are known.

2. They are measurable with a phone’s hardware and software.

3. Kids love their phones, and an app of this kind would be welcomed by teens as long as privacy is assured.

Apple recently introduced ResearchKit and apps to monitor diabetes, Parkinson’s and other diseases. The Parkinson's app, for instance, detects tremors, gait irregularities and changes in voice. For emotional health, couldn’t we make an app that tracked indicators of deterriorating mental health? 

Signs of emotional trouble would be things like: little physical activity (accelerometer); staying home all the time (geo location); social media posts that have words and phrases correlated with despondency; social isolation, as evidenced by a marked reduction in texts and emails. No doubt there are many more that creative programming could capture.

Of course, this would require kids to put the app on their phone, but my impression is that most kids want help, they just don't know how to ask for it. They like their phones. They trust them like friends. The app could give feedback like, "Are you okay?” There are many behavior changes that indicate problems, and I'll bet a phone could monitor many of them. Using the cloud for analytical power, of course.

Privacy would be an issue. To get kids to trust the app, and maybe take its advice, the app couldn’t be ratting them out. Maybe some pre-agreed to 911 type message could work in dire circumstance, though.

I'm posting this because it's beyond my technical skills. Perhaps someone like Google or Apple or Facebook will take it on. Or just some gang of bright young programmers looking to make a difference. One precious life at a time.

Friday, March 27, 2015


I think I'm selfish. I've raised five kids. So that wasn't selfish. I'm not selfish with my partner. (What is the right term, anyway: lover; friend; inspiration; safety net; all of the above? Nothing with the cultural baggage of wife or even spouse. We need a new term. Partner makes it sound like it's not personal, just business. Although I'd gladly kiss her ring.)

So if I'm a decent father and whatever that other role should be called, if I make sacrifices for those I love, why do I think I'm selfish? Because, if I'm honest with myself, that's as far as it goes. At least as to anything like a formal commitment to someone or something else. I give money to charity, to homeless people. I ask strangers how they're doing, and I'm actually interested. But I don't have to. I can skip a charity appeal, a homeless person's plea. I can walk by a stranger and look the other way. No one judges me for any of that. Or I don't know they do. I haven't promised them anything.

I could change that. I could throw myself into a cause--lord knows there are plenty of worthy ones--but I don't want the obligation. I don't want others to depend on me. Like I said: selfish.

I've been a volunteer. I've served on non-profit boards. I didn't mind. Sometimes I even enjoyed it. But I rarely felt like I was adding much. Human effort is like an ant colony. That's the way it has to be to get anything done. I just don't want to be one of the ants. There are plenty of others, I tell myself. They don't need me.

Maybe they do, maybe they don't. Maybe I'm just rationalizing. Like those (not including me) who don't vote because they are certain that statistically their vote doesn't matter. They are right, of course, as to their individual votes; and completely wrong as to the aggregate effect of all votes. Democracy is the product of the voting ant colony.

If we all stopped voting and volunteering, we'd have tyranny and and an uncompassionate society. But if one of us drops out, no worries, right? It's a form of freeloading. As I said: selfish.

I worked as a lawyer and a businessman for decades. I got stuff done, but I was mainly a cog. If I hadn't done it, others would have. For the money, if not the humanity. There was one business I ran that I tried to remake into a better thing. I got the employees all excited and then couldn't fix the business fast enough to pay for all the debt I took on to try to remake it. Even that was something of a selfish endeavor. I was in it for the thrill of doing something fun and exciting. I was a pretty good huckster, but I couldn't deliver. What is that? Pioneering? Delusional? Generous? Selfish?

I've read The Selfish Gene. I understand what you're thinking about now.

For years now, I've sat on the sidelines of the fray. Kids grown. Partner needing only flowers and champagne. I've been writing because I've convinced myself that if I have something to say I can reach people through novels and essays. More people than I could reach any other way. For longer. Books live on. 

I suppose I've just traded one ant colony for another. There are thousands--millions?--of writer ants out there. We're not working together, so maybe that's why many of us accomplish so little. But we're dreaming together, in that separate kind of way of writers: I know you're out there, and I'm sending out good wishes through writer-ant telepathy. I feel your angst. I'm running around in circles too. You know like those individual ants when you disturb a line of them and the ones who are cut off from the others stagger around like they're drunk. When you see them, you think: they're going to be no good if they don't reconnect with their buddies. 

The difference is they have to be ants, but I don't. Or maybe I do. Maybe I'm just staggering around looking for a line to fall into.

Sunday, March 22, 2015


I've been trolling the darkest corners of the internet--where our most secret fantasies live--and still I haven't decided the best way to proceed with submission. I always open an incognito tab for this kind of research, as would any person who wants to be taken seriously after their online searches are hacked and revealed to a public with an insatiable appetite for the eccentric habits of celebrities. Also to prevent spam.

Should I reveal my fantasies? Or has that been overdone? Become a cliche. No longer a turn-on. Simply boring. Apparently the only cardinal sin is being boring.

Should I beg? That works for some, apparently. Although maybe not the ones I want to attract.

How about being mysterious? Keep them guessing. That could work. Unless they aren't that curious. What if I totally expose myself and they just yawn and walk out of the room.

In an effort to answer these frightening yet scintillating questions, I have scoured websites that offer advice to novices. Here is a sampling:

"Make me unable to put it down." Good. Unless it got tiring. 

"Keep it short." A bit counterintuitive.

"Be original." Really? After all this time, if I've thought of it it's a sure thing hundreds--millions?--of others have already done it. And moved on tho the next new thing. Even though, by this hypothesis, there is no new thing to move on to. Perhaps it's just a matter of offering personal discovery to someone coming of age, someone younger. But not too young, obviously. They have to be consenting adults.

"Set the hook." Apart from sounding painful--which is kind of the point, if we are honest with each other--this is perhaps the most intriguing advice. It implies dangling like a marlin, all sharp spear and glistening body. I'm not sure I'd be into dangling, though. I'm looking to close the deal. 

As you must have inferred by now, I haven't settled on a strategy. Perhaps I am too timid for the game. Perhaps I'll just set my novel aside and not submit it to agents after all.

Monday, March 16, 2015

For Crying Out Loud

It's almost a cliche now: homophobic one moment; son or daughter comes out and suddenly you understand. That's happened to so many people that gay marriage is legal now thirty-seven states. All in the last ten years. You have to call that a tribute to the power of empathy.

It happens anecdotally, on a less pervasive scale, in many areas. Someone you love suffers in the life-saving heroics of dying, and you become an advocate for hospice care. You are close to a woman working three jobs to send her daughter to college, and you become a supporter of education loan reform and free community college. Someone where you work gets pregnant with a child she doesn't want in a state with only one remaining abortion clinic and you write a check to Planned Parenthood.

What's the matter with the religious conservatives who want to defund Planned Parenthood? you might think. Don't they live in the real world? What's the matter with the so called fiscal conservatives who won't expand Medicaid in their states to relieve the suffering of their poorest citizens? Can't they see that people don't heal when their only medicine is a stern lecture about personal responsibility?

The answer is: No, they don't live in the real world. They don't see the suffering every day. They know about it, but they don't experience it. Just like we used to know about gay love when most of us didn't know (or know we knew) anyone experiencing it. Exposure--up close and personal--induces empathy. It's the way we're wired. But if it's not up close and personal, it's just background. Like graffiti. Someone ought to clean that up.

Which got me thinking this: what if the suffering of others was up close and personal for most of us? Would we be a better society? Would we care more? Would we do more to help one another? I think so. But how could we do that, expose more of us in our daily lives to the sufferings of others?

I don't think empathy retreats for government workers are what's called for. Or focus groups. Or sensitivity seminars for politicians. I think what we need to do is emote. Each of us. All of us. Show our feelings. Show when we're sad. Angry. Hurt. Desperate. Take our feelings to work and share them. Make show and tell day every day.

I know what you're thinking: that would be chaos. Maybe. But maybe not. There might be a break-in period, but after a while I think we might get good at sharing our problems. Many hands make light work, the saying goes. Just knowing someone knows your predicament, and cares about it, is almost like having a helping hand. And that person, the one who never dreamed you were having such a hard time, might be in a position to do something about it. Maybe she's your boss. Maybe she knows a social worker. Maybe she knows a state legislator. We like to help each other. It makes us feel good about ourselves.

We're the descendants of Puritans. We're capable of great humanity, but we're a little emotionally repressed. We have in our DNA that strict Puritan code of self-reliance, austerity and sacrifice. We expect it of ourselves. We expect it of others. But the reason so many of us are here today is that the Plymouth colonists clung to one another throughout those first winters of suffering and starvation. They got through them together. If they had said to each other, "Good luck, everyman for himself," the Native Americans would have been spared the Puritan Plague but the rest of us might be an asterisk in a history book written by another people.

In Plymouth, Massachusetts, in the winters of 1620 and 1621, the suffering of each was painfully obvious to all. In that environment, moral choices that benefited all were made. Now, when the suffering of many is remote to many, different moral choices are being made. We do not think our morals have changed--and indeed, perhaps they have not--but the way we apply them has. Too often now we apply them to principles, rather than to people. Need we be reminded that it's not principles who birth and suckle us? Nor principles who will hold our hand as we die.