PROTOTYPING: DEFINING AND VALIDATING DESIGN DECISIONS

Every summer, interns at Moment (which is now part of Verizon) solve real-world problems through a design-based research project. In the past, interns have worked with concepts like autonomous vehicles, Google Glass, virtual reality in education, and Voice UI.

For the 2018 summer project, the premise is to design a near-future product or service that improves mobility for people with disabilities using granular location data and other contextual information. Darshan Alatar Patel,Lauren Fox, Alina Peng, Chanel Luu Hai and Alexis Trevizo are interns at Moment/Verizon in New York. Darshan is pursuing an MFA in Interaction Design from Domus Academy in Milan, Lauren is an incoming junior at Washington University in St. Louis pursuing a BFA in Communication Design, Alina is pursuing a BA in Philosophy, Politics and Economics (PPE) with a Design Minor at the University of Pennsylvania, Chanel is pursuing an MFA in Design & Technology at Parsons School of Design, and Alexis is pursuing a BS in Integrated Digital Media at NYU. They’re currently exploring the intersection of mobility challenges and technology in urban environments. You can follow the team’s progress this summer on Momentary Exploration.

How we used prototyping, a quintessential part of the human-centered design process, to get closer to our final concept.

After weeks of research and ideation, our team came up with Thea, the concept for an artificially-intelligent, on-the-go navigation assistant for the blind and visually-impaired community. Thea utilizes a wearable haptic pad and a voice-activated user interface to communicate granular directionality. Thea first interprets a user’s natural speech, similar to voice assistants like Siri or Alexa, and then provides non-intrusive audio and vibrational feedback.

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In the design process, we went through a phase of prototyping to unpack our research and generate a tangible representation of our product concept. This enabled the transition from initial ideation and conceptualization, to actual creation and solidification. Through multiple prototyping iterations, we determined how Thea would look and feel from a user’s behavioral perspective. Ultimately, we were able to deepen our understanding of Thea’s potential, improve gaps in our design, and to some extent, bring Thea to life.

PROTOTYPING THE FORM FACTOR

Initially, we had difficulty in determining Thea’s form, so we made paper prototypes of different types of wearables. Some of our rudimentary concepts include vibrational necklaces and belts that provide 360° positioning, and a circular patch that provides cardinal directionality. By constructing models with low-fidelity materials, we were able to make adjustments quickly and inexpensively. This first step provided us with an element of three-dimensionality to our illustrations. As a result, we gained an experiential view of Thea’s visual attributes.

Rudimentary paper prototypes.

Rudimentary paper prototypes.

Eventually, we decided on a haptic pad, packaged in the form of rectangular strips. These pads could be placed on any part of the body that the user would deem optimal, enabling a tailored experience. Users could also wear multiple pads that allow for left and right signals to be distributed on separate, wider areas of the body, which deviates from a mere single-piece form factor.

To build the pad model, we played with materials like silicone and kinesiology tape. The tape — made of cotton fiber and polymer elastic and typically used by athletes — provided structure without restricting the body’s range of motion. Likewise, silicone is flexible and comfortable, and at the same time, offers mechanical resiliency that can support vibrations.

3D Model of Thea’s form factor.

3D Model of Thea’s form factor.

PROTOTYPING THE HAPTIC LANGUAGE

After we decided on the haptic pad shape, we then had to figure out the nuances of the vibrational pulses by creating a pseudo haptic language. The pulses should help orient the users and prompt them to turn a certain way or number of degrees, or walk a specific amount of steps. We wanted Thea to be able to communicate information in an instinctive way that adheres to the user’s body movements. In order to prototype our haptic language and determine how exactly these commands are conveyed, we employed the technique of bodystorming.

Early haptic language prototyping stages.

Early haptic language prototyping stages.

We first took a trip to Visions, a rehabilitation and community center for the visually-impaired, to meet with a youth group. There, participants tested and identified the optimal part of the body for the haptic pad. Although we designed Thea to be rather open-ended in terms of where on the body it could be placed, we found that when the pads were worn on both shoulders, users had the easiest time navigating. With this feedback, we later conducted another in-office bodystorming session.

For the internal session, one of us would walk around the office blindfolded. Another would walk behind the blindfolded person, providing directions while tapping on his or her shoulders, to simulate Thea. These taps let us to physically experience what Thea’s vibrations would be like — we steered the user to different areas of the office through turn-by-turn steps. Bodystorming allowed us to put ourselves in the user’s shoes, simultaneously testing our concept.

Interactive bodystorming to get a feel for the pad’s vibrations.

Interactive bodystorming to get a feel for the pad’s vibrations.

We decided on the haptic language to be a series of quick consecutive pulses cascading down the pad. This provided the most intuitive directionality, for turning left and right. We also determined that a steady, rhythmic pulsing would indicate a forward motion, and the quick pulsing would indicate the need to stop.

Thea’s quick, consecutive pulses indicate directionality.

Thea’s quick, consecutive pulses indicate directionality.

Ultimately, bodystorming propelled us to take our idea out of abstraction. Interacting with the youth group and with our office surroundings revealed flaws in our design and ensured the success of our key decisions.

REFINED LO-FI PROTOTYPING

When we determined Thea’s form factor and haptic language, we subsequently wanted to create a more refined prototype by actually engineering the vibrations onto the pads. This would act as a backbone for Thea, representing its sensory skeleton.

Refined prototyping of Thea’s vibrations.

Refined prototyping of Thea’s vibrations.

We assembled a quick circuit with vibration motors, wires and the Arduinocomputing platform. This circuit enabled us to envision the cascade of pulses, and showcase complex design interactions in a simplified experience.

The motors are via wires to an Arduino circuit board.

The motors are via wires to an Arduino circuit board.

Building these prototypes ultimately allowed us to continuously refine and validate our design decisions, making Thea inherently more valuable for the visually-impaired community. Essentially, prototyping is a critical part of the iterative human-centered design process — enabling us to get closer to the final product concept with every step of the way.

I TOOK AN IMPROV CLASS...


At the start of 2018, I made a resolution to live each day as uncomfortably as possible - whether it meant wrangling over a controversial point in a seminar class, or taking spontaneous trips to Center City without my wallet. In March, as part of my stint of discomfort, I signed up for an Improv 101 class on a whim at the Philadelphia Improv Theatre, or PHIT for short (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Philly_Improv_Theater) - 10 minutes from Penn’s campus. 

Each week, I’d spend two hours on this strip of Sansom Street. Lined with gems like the Helium Club, a world-renowned sports comedy club (ComedySportz), and the Roxy Theatre (a brainchild of the Philadelphia Film Society), this was place so packed with history, yet pulsated with a youthful creative energy that constantly renewed itself. I quickly realized that I’d stepped onto sacred dramaturgical ground. 

As a Jersey broad trying to navigate the waters of a long-standing Philadelphian theatre culture, I walked into my first class, wide-eyed and without expectation. I was curious to learn more about performance art - as I’d never channeled an art form as physically and emotionally-challenging before. And each trip was one that I never took for granted. 

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First off - I was completely blown away by my instructor. With a stacked resume, he had a history working for NBC, teaching across acting clubs in LA and Chicago, and regularly competing with sketch comedy teams. To come into contact with a person of such high caliber a mere 10 minutes away, was a testament to just how lucrative the city’s resources were for anyone who wished to dabble in the craft. He was verbosely digressive - but all of his sentences woven with experience and packed with a lightheartedness that was perfect for a beginner like me. I soon settled into the clunky pace of the introductory class’ judge-free zone - where we would pause often, laugh and deconstruct. 

Improv 101 has also allowed me to make friends who I would have never met otherwise (and we all talk in a Facebook Group now!). As the youngest and only college student, I was initially intimidated by the older adults in the room - some at least twice my age. But over time, I was able to open up and freely speak my mind. Among those - a filmmaker for Glass (directed by M. Night Shyamalan, in theatres 2019), an actor in Creed II, a former Penn grad, a budding fashion designer, a fiery political scientist, a man who commuted weekly from Delaware just for this class. These adults led real lives, but for a brief fraction of their week, they’d take the time to come together and create passion-filled, comedic, occasionally tragic dialogue - which grew into complex characters, relationships and storylines. 

At the end of all of this, I was most shocked by how much I’d stopped censoring my decisions. How boldly outspoken I’d become. How I was able to think more quickly on my feet than ever before. My biggest takeaway was actually a principle that I learned on my first day of class - the golden rule-of-thumb in improvisational comedy: “yes, and -.” Essentially, any thought or sentence that you construct, whether haphazardly or deliberately - will take up a space in the performance. It will add information and attach itself to a meaning that can be further developed along the way. Those who improvise after you must then follow the same train of thought, and expand your idea. They’ll add their own flair, their own humorous commentary - but the flow must be logical. In order for the show to go on, the people you are working with must agree to your decision (by metaphorically saying “yes”), and continue with decisions of their own. This, in turn, fosters acceptance and cooperation among everyone involved in the scene. Rather than putting down someone else’s suggestion, we’d always find a way to strategically work together to build it up. 

It is decision after decision, layer after layer, that drives the success of a scene. Over the past 8 weeks, I have had delightful and intelligent epiphanies, coupled with visceral feelings of complete liberation. As a creative student, I’ve had moments that have inspired me to the point of curing my writer’s and artist’s block. I’ve pushed myself to dive in and commit completely to new ideas, while channeling my range of emotions into their most expressive manifestation. This limitless art form has allowed me to become more open-minded and flexible, as well be more receptive to others’ propositions. “Yes, and -” is a lesson that I learned to incorporate into my daily life. It allows me to create open lines of communication in any team that I am a part of. 

My instructor once said to me during a critique: “Alina, you’re a really great student of improv. That’s what I’ve noticed about you. You recognize that you’re a student, above anything else. You listen and focus so intently.” And that has meant more to me than any other praise I’ve received for my dramatic performances and occasional witty one-liners - because although I can have notable moments, at the end of it all, I’m just here to learn and improve. In between the dynamic characters that I’ve played and all of the laughs, it’s been a wonderful ride. As someone who’d looked to break out of the Penn bubble this semester, I definitely tapped into an off-campus community that I’m now glad to call myself a part of. The Philly improv scene provided me with a low barrier to entry to learn something new, and countless opportunities to make a complete fool out of myself. These Philly natives were undyingly passionate. As someone trying to live uncomfortably in 2018, I was definitely no match for those who made a living out of improvisational art: individuals who laid shackled to their creative beds and threw themselves into situations of uncertainty everyday. They’re willing to overcome their doubts and self-restraints time and time again, for the hopes of putting on a great performance. 

I just had my last class today, and I’m going to perform in my final class show next week. As a novice, it’s surreal to have accomplished so much in such a short period of time. At the end of it all, I’m honored to have been a student of improv, welcomed into the most encouraging, thought-provoking community by such open arms. Cheers! 

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-Alina

REFLECTIONS FROM A TRIP TO SINGAPORE

Lush greenery against a concrete jungle. Glittery glass metropolis meets tropical oasis. Aerial walkways that extended into misty pockets of endless possibility. It was mind-blowing that a place like this actually existed on Earth - yet there I was a month ago, experiencing the calm sanctuary in all of its glory, that pulsed with the heartbeat of an underlying hustle.

At the minimum, this trip was mind-expanding. At the max, life-changing.

I traveled to Singapore on a career exploration trip, sponsored by my school. Amidst the board meetings with Penn alumni and networking events with high-profile executives, I felt like I was at an extremely pivotal moment in my life. Innovation was at every corner of the rooms I skated through, between every phrase that danced on people’s tongues.

Before I went on this trip and was doing things like, having face-to-face meetings with the Google Head of Singapore, a Wharton alum (!!!), I wasn't fully aware of just how many resources were at my disposal. It was an absolutely visionary, chaotic realization… and somehow, as ill-versed as I was in business jargon, and as confused as I was about what I wanted for my future, my brain felt a strange sense of comfort knowing that I had so much room left to grow. I was a mere child in the eyes of these industry giants, but completely unfazed by it.

If you’re ever the smartest person in a room - then maybe, you’re standing in the wrong room. Embrace your lack of knowledge.  


 

This trip made me want to work in the tech field, and in Asia more than ever. I learned that although technology in Asia is growing rapidly, there are still countless amounts of marginalized regions and neglected populations that need help. And through technology, we can deliver basic necessities to some of the most underserved parts of the world.

For one, localization of Internet services should be a goal. There is a space for privileged people of the first world, like myself, to champion bringing wireless Internet access to developing regions and uplifting individuals out of abject poverty. There are a lot of places where people are digitally illiterate and merely have no knowledge of the services that exist to better their lives (they’ve historically been operating without the Internet, so they don’t realize they need it, or that it could actually help them!) For example, picture an elderly woman selling food and handmade goods in her roadside shack in an inner Mongolian suburb. She could benefit tremendously from having the knowledge that applications like Alibaba and eBay exist, promote her products online, and potentially sell directly to people across her country - or even across the world.

This trip also allowed me to dissect the Asian tech industry's strengths and weaknesses as a whole. As a continent with advancements in fintech and adtech (i.e. strong mobile transactions systems, a prevalent ecommerce culture and successful rideshare applications), Asian businesses have progressively challenged its Western counterparts to become leaders in their own rights. But Asia still lacks developments in artificial intelligence and virtual reality. As California remains a titan in this space, growing AI/VR in Asia might be the next big step to improving basic infrastructure, like Asian transnational transportation systems (with automated cars!) and education (learning through headsets!)

On the flipside, the more technology extends its reach, the more socioeconomic inequality could deepen. People tend to blame the cause of this stratification on immigration, and the larger cause could be attributed to technology - with the wealth gap widening between rural dwellers and the Jack Mas of the world. But with constant broadband and communication expansion efforts, the playing field could be leveled enough for integration to happen. It’s a twisted, complicated road to globalization - but opposing technology is not how we get there. Encouragement is the only way.

My trip to Singapore allowed me to tackle a personal uncharted territory in my knowledge bank - and I solidified my passion for technology and the Asian business landscape in the process. My confidence and career aspirations manifested as much as my trepidations did - but being in the world’s coolest, most hybrid city made me realize that international linkage is inevitable. Interpenetrative flow of the world’s digitized systems is occuring at such an explosive pace - and even as a self-proclaimed tech news fiend, it’s hard to keep up. But it is humbling to know that despite all of the progression, there is still so much work to be done - much more than can be accomplished in a lifetime. And a lifetime’s work can be fulfilling enough, so long as one keeps striving to create change and help others along the way. 

-Alina

ARE SOCIAL MEDIA AND POPULAR CULTURE GOOD FOR US?

With a rise in technologies that allow us to reach a widespread audience, inevitably comes an astronomical rise in social media personalities. The commodification of the self is a relatively new concept that makes people wonder about the implications of popular culture, and how they affect our businesses and lifestyles.

There are often two perspectives that prevail when we think of popular culture. On one hand, we ask ourselves, is pop culture going to ruin us? Will it dumb us down? If we think about it, our Facebook profiles are just really long self-promotional advertisements that we create everyday. If this is the case, then are we all just relinquishing ourselves to mere cogs within the grander enterprise of Facebook, mercilessly subjected to the wheels of capitalism?

On the other hand, we can argue that popular culture is actually providing us with more liberty to show ourselves to the world. The idea behind the commodification of the self is full-disclosure, as someone cannot build a brand without doing so. Although stretching the truth and glorifying one’s persona is a tactic to gain more viewers, elements of authenticity and transparency are required to make one’s followers feel an intimate connection. YouTubers who "vlog" and celebrities who Snapchat are just two examples of this phenomenon.

But it seems as if it has become the social norm to broadcast one’s whereabouts. For example, we can no longer attend concerts without people sticking their phones in the air to record - because did you really go if you didn’t tell everyone about it? One can argue that this makes people forgo their true enjoyment of the music, because they are so concerned with others’ reactions to their posting of the concert. But another can argue that by posting, these people enjoy the concert even more, after they know that there is an expectation put on them to have a great time. This raises interesting questions that plague both our observants and participants. Does the requirement to constantly update the world on what we’re doing, heighten the experience, or does it distract us from being in the moment? Does our obsession with the virtual world fail to get us tune with the real world, or does it allow us to encapsulate these moments from the real world forever, so that we can foster a deeper understanding for them later on?

Even twenty years ago, people did not create and manage digital versions of themselves - but this is a new kind of labor that is rapidly taking over the Interweb stratosphere. Millennials are now dubbed employers of the “gig economy,” as the nature of work has forever changed after recognizing the performative possibilities of social media. Even within our traditional spheres of academia, we succumb to this gaining momentum of the commoditized self. Students are buffing up their LinkedIn profiles and publicizing their achievements. Even teaching is becoming part-time, with adjunct professors who pursue their own research on the side.

It is now becoming common for people work from home, through occupations like “consulting” and “recruiting” and “blogging,” for companies that are thousands of miles away. Many people work freelance as opposed to permanent jobs. We are all becoming more involved in the “start-up” culture, labeling ourselves as “entrepreneurs” and “CEOs” of our own entities, heightening our sense of self-creation and our ability to self-market.

The eagerness for us to continuously self-brand is propelled by our perception that we have followers on our social media accounts. We assume that these followers have an invested interest in what we are doing, as all followers require a leader. And our status as “leaders” consequently flatters us to keep putting out content into these online spaces. But do these followers truly care about us, or “stalk” us as much as we’d like to think? It can be argued that these social media outlets constitute passivity, or even subversive participation from most. For the average person, the commercialized parameters of Facebook, Twitter and Instagram do not sincerely afford such creative productive opportunities, as their ability to influence is limited.

Ultimately, when analyzing social media and our relationships to it, we should strive to move away from binaries, and instead, look at their effects and ramifications from a more critical, even standpoint. We live in an era where we’re all becoming more increasingly involved with the Internet and our interactive selves. So are social media and popular culture ultimately good for us? For now, the answer appears to be: both yes and no.

SPRING BREAK 2K17

After a week of midterms, I finally arrived at San Francisco with my best friend. Having been born in NYC, raised in Jersey, and experiencing one year of school in Philly - I was in desperate need of a change of coast. Despite the chilly weather, we explored much of the hotspots that the Bay area had to offer, in downtown Center City, as well as in Berkeley and Presidio. We filled our bellies with food, met up with friends (old and new), and photographed every view in sight. 

Here's some snapshots from our trip, as well as destination recommendations if you ever decide to visit! 

1. Baker Beach - 

Hands-down the best beach in the Bay Area - it has a reputation for having stunning views of the Golden Gate Bridge, and it's tucked away in a clean, wealthy part of Presidio (Can I move here when I'm older?) There were also a ton of cute dogs on the beach that day for some reason... 

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2. Ghirardelli Square -

Small shops, dazzling lights and a lot of geometric greenery. Gardens were perfectly manicured and the buildings were rustic and homey, while still maintaining a modern feel. If Soho and Princeton had a baby...

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3. The View - 

Our first night, we had dinner on top of the San Francisco Marriott Marquis (dubbed, The View). The small plates were delicious and super European (lots of focaccia, artisan cheeses, etc). But being directly in the heart of Union Square was the most exciting part - this place truly does offer the most stunning overview of all of downtown SF. I give it 3 C's: it was classy, chic, and comfortable.

Word of advice: get there early to snag a window seat. We went at an unconventional time (on a Monday night), but it was still filled nonetheless!

4. The Palace of Fine Arts - 

I felt like someone had transported me directly to Greece or Rome - seriously, the lagoon views bridged with the wide rotundas and tall columns felt so out of place in a modern city like San Francisco, but there was an aura of authenticity that you can't find anywhere else. It's a culmination of the East and the West; it's an energized piece of art that rightfully holds its own ground. We went during the day, but it'd be better to go at night when they turn the lights on, and you're able to see the reflections in the water.

5. San Francisco City Hall-

This... was the one of the most aesthetic buildings I've ever seen in my life. Absolutely insane. I've visited the one in Philadelphia, and it did not resonate with me nearly as much as this one did. We came at a time when there were quite a few weddings going on; we actually watched a few couples get married here! When you walk in, you're immediately hit with a grand staircase in the foyer that directly cascades down to your feet. Coupled with 3 floor layers that extend upwards, I felt like I was royalty in the wide majestic space. I also have a weakness for white marble (future home inspo)!

6. UC Berkeley Botanical Garden- 

We stayed with our friend at UC Berkeley for a few days at his on-campus apartment. While there, visiting the garden was such a treat - I feel like it's underappreciated because it has its name associated with the school, but honestly, it has views that could bolster its reputation to National-Park status. There were diverse plants that spanned the globe, and the layout of the entire garden was actually geographical (ex. they had areas entitled "Asia," "Africa," "The Mediterranean," "California Native," "Australasian," etc.). Admission was inexpensive too!

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6. Financial District - 

Very commercial and preprofessional. Life seems super fast-paced here, but there's a ton of cool restaurants and tall buildings! 

Thanks for a wonderful week, California. It's always a pleasure, and I'll be back for sure (in the near future, hopefully? And when it's not too cold!)

 -Alina

THE DANGERS OF THE SILENT MAJORITY (THOUGHTS ON A UTOPIA RUN BY DONALD TRUMP)

It used to be that 70% of people didn't know the truth. The other 30% did. In a world like this, there were a few vocal individuals in that 30%, forthright about the threat of a society dominated by ignorance and lies. These vocal individuals banded, uniting against their opposition and encouraging others to follow suit, trying to gradually turn that 30% into a 40, then 50... and if the number could just get to 51, maybe they'd stand a chance. 

But the harder these people pushed, the more the 70% began to push back. The 70% was not as visible as the 30%; not nearly as bold, blunt or brash. They did not have any novel arguments or particularly keen insights. Instead, the 70% only twisted what the 30% requested. As the 30% demanded change, the success of the 70% came from resisting that change - by upholding traditional mannerisms and current ways of life. "Times are moving too quickly!" they said. The prosperity of this group laid in remaining stagnant and content in its stagnation, as change naturally bred danger. (The thought of having newcomers? Too ludicrous. The fact that people now CHOOSE when they want to have children? Just absurd! The idea that two people who don't look like me and my partner can also have their relationship officially government-approved? Why!?) Science, diversity, and intelligence all created sentiments of budding fear for the 70%. 

Meanwhile, the 30% ran their mouths in objection. However, many protestors in this population soon cut the race short, giving in before their time was up. Some, on the other hand, ran until they were beat and breathless - too breathless to continue the fight any longer. A select few ran differently. These individuals were special. They stepped outside the bounded lines of their verbal tracks and broke constraints - until they were ultimately disqualified. Stripped of all chances to win, they lost their voices and succumbed to miserable ends. And soon, hope among the 30% started to diminish.  

As the majority soon began to overpower the minority, complacency followed. The 30% became more silent with each passing day. Their numbers began to dwindle, and people converted to take on the influence of their contemporaries.

Soon, 99% of people no longer knew the truth. We were left with 1% who did. But where were they? If they spoke out, they'd be prosecuted, utterly hated. In the backs of their minds, in the depths of their consciences, they were true. But on the surface, they'd lose everything - and no one was willing to take the risk. They'd be considered too radical, too nonconformist, too weird! And their beliefs were simply not enough to sustain them. They were too shackled to the chain of outside opinion to break free. Fear held them down and prevented them from speaking out. 

It becomes too much when 100% of the people no longer know the truth. Here, we live in a vulnerable, provincial world - a feeding ground prone to brain-washing. At first, this placid population might seem pleasant, like a little utopia, free of controversy and contention. But it breeds selfishness and greed for outsiders - the perfect opportunity for a power-seeker to swoop in and prey. When 100% of people are sheltered from the truth, we only have one side. A side that is unprogressive and easily-manipulated. A world prone to takeover by one leader. One king, perhaps. One al-mighty, one God, even. And for America, it was one man named Donald Trump (lolz).

When we can't own our minds, then we no longer have our minds. If we are so conditioned to behave a certain way, then we will get to the point where we can no longer tell the difference between right and wrong. If we are so frequently force-fed perspectives, and merely gulp them down without challenging the way they taste, then we lose the values that make us so fundamentally human. We need to process and analyze. More importantly, we should constantly be asking ourselves, why. Without this, we reduce ourselves to the limitations of artificial beings. If that is the case, then what makes us any different from robots? 

When it gets to this point, when we've relinquished our minds to some higher, propagandized force - all we have left are our core survival instincts. The compulsions that constantly tell us to "stay alive," no matter what. But in this one-sided, Trump-led world, these primitive urges are played. Imagine someone holding a gun to the heads of all the radicals and saying, "You can’t believe in your ideology any more. If you do, then you die." Their minds would subsequently reject the ideology. "I don’t want to die," they'd say. But after everyone is threatened this way, who's left? We'd all be gone then. Merely alive, but not truly living.

To live is to be free. And in this world, we most certainly do not have our freedom.