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Reviews | What I learned from talking to strangers


For the editor:

Re “Strangers are good for us”, by David Sax (Opinion guest essay, June 17):

As a faculty member of a university pharmacy department, I developed an elective course in geriatric pharmacy that focused on understanding the geriatric patient.

Part of the course required the student to approach any very old stranger and strike up a conversation. Some were reluctant to do so.

The results were enlightening: students helped cross the road and carry packages, and one student took a lonely senior for coffee.

All reported the feeling of having accomplished a worthwhile mission, of having brought a ray of light into the life of a complete stranger.

Janet Landau
Port Washington, New York

For the editor:

Kudos to David Sax for saying the right thing, that technology in the name of bringing us closer together actually drives us further apart.

How often do you see two people at a cafe table, crouching over their device instead of talking to each other? These things are social poison!

Personally, I will not be drawn into the Apple universe; I’ll stick to a simple flip phone. It’s time to ignore Big Tech’s selling points and reclaim our common humanity.

Waul McMahan
Redding, California.

For the editor:

While David Sax argues that technological change and the pandemic have alienated us from deep human interactions, modern life has sparked a thirst for community.

From Covid-19 to uprisings against police brutality, international conflict and the fight for reproductive justice, the world has had a transformative experience. Yet, without denying the great suffering that has occurred, it is in times like these that strangers have come together in a spirit of solidarity to support their fellow citizens, defend basic rights and connect with the natural world. .

The past few years have powerfully revealed how vulnerable and dependent on each other we are. It remains to be seen whether the solidarity that we have collectively created will last. But as Mr. Sax argues, we should experience the subtle ways in which a stranger’s smile, question, or palpable gaze can nurture a precious sense of connection.

Maria Clara Cobo
Quito, Ecuador

For the editor:

Reading David Sax’s article reminded me of an experience I had in the summer of 1987 when I had just graduated from high school in Manhattan. I was doing a grueling data entry job that provided an hour’s respite in the middle of the workday for lunch.

My best friend had lent me his Walkman, a state-of-the-art device that allowed you to listen to music privately with headphones. During my lunch hour, I would go to a nearby park and sit on a bench, having fun, numbing myself to the songs of my favorite pop stars.

One day a woman approached me while I was zoned out on the park bench and started talking to me. I took my headphones off so I could hear what she was saying and found out that she was basically scolding me for wearing headphones in public.

I defended myself: “It doesn’t hurt you!”

To my surprise, she replied, “But it hurts me!”

I was at a loss for words. Feeling irritated by this unwelcome interruption to my lunch break, I put my headphones back on and stared at my feet until she was gone.

I have never forgotten that encounter. At the time, I called this woman “crazy”. But looking back in the context of our current situation, I now suspect that she was truly the sane one.

Liz Rogers
Dummerston, Vermont.

For the editor:

Regarding “The United States is losing its military advantage in Asia, and China knows it”, by Ashley Townshend and James Crabtree (opinion guest essay, nytimes.com, June 15):

I agree with the authors’ call for increased resources in the Indo-Pacific, but I disagree with their singular focus on improving US military resources in the region. Instead, the United States must focus on increasing diplomatic and development resources in the Indo-Pacific if we are to effectively counter China’s growing aggression.

Over the past decade, US foreign assistance to East Asia and the Pacific has hovered around 3-5% of the world’s total US foreign assistance in our core budget. US aid to the wider Indo-Pacific region has barely exceeded 10% of the global total over the past five years.

An overemphasis on defense resources will continue to allow Beijing to employ political and economic coercion with impunity. It is precisely these actions that often prevent regional partners from working more closely with the United States on deterrence than Messrs. Townshend and Crabtree hope to reinforce.

Certainly, the United States must maintain a solid military position in the region. But any discussion of expanding US resources in the Indo-Pacific must begin with diplomatic and development resources.

Friend Bera
The writer, a California Democrat, is chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on Asia, the Pacific, Central Asia, and Nonproliferation.

For the editor:

Regarding “Is the thin blue line getting thinner?” by Jay Caspian Kang (Opinion, Sunday Review, June 12):

I was a sheriff’s deputy from the 1980s to the early 2000s, in Los Angeles and Seattle, and I can tell you there was an uphill struggle to find qualified recruits. This is not a new problem. I have long advocated for much better pay and benefits (not just for cops but for all essential services) to improve the candidate pool.

But what this job requires is more a “vocation” than a search for a salary. Police officers must be guardians, warriors, social defenders and many other personalities to be effective. And every time there is a “bad shoot” or any other criminal or negligent behavior by any of us, it defiles us all.

Of course, the discouraged staff leaves. Self-defeating slogans such as “defund the police” do not help.

Cops need to be trained in community policing. My fellow deputy ministers and I have used it to good effect in some of our most problematic areas. We won over the residents by showing that we really care about them.

It is a difficult profession. We know it. But the real solution lies in creating sincere alliances with communities. Without it, it’s rinse and repeat, forever.

MacKenzie Allen
Santa Fe, New Mexico

For the editor:

Regarding “The Wonderful World Only Animals See,” by Ed Yong (opinion guest essay, June 21):

After a year dedicated to promoting biodiversity and planting more native plants on our five-acre property, I pointed out to my husband that the big difference between experiencing the typical manicured lawn landscape that we are used to and what we have forged by allowing our earth (plants and animals) more self-determination is that instead of a static scene that is the same every morning, I see and hear a slightly different landscape every day .

There are new plants finding a place to grow, a greater variety of birds taking up residence, and evidence of more activity behind my back: peach trees and oak seedlings growing where squirrels have planted peach pits from compost and acorns, a groundhog bringing him new kits come out from under the bridge for their first outing over clover and grass, a hawk and a fox setting up stakes for their prey early in the morning.

My 90 year old husband replied, “The human imagination is nothing compared to what nature has to offer when you stop trying to control it and learn to live as a part of it.

Janis Richter
Rochelle, Virginia.

For the editor:

Regarding “Microsoft removes AI facial analysis tools” (Business, June 22):

Microsoft’s artificial intelligence emotion recognition tool is being phased out because biases related to subjects’ age, race, gender, or culture may make it inaccurate or unreliable.

The presumption that a impartial Emotion recognition tool would be acceptable is weird. Such an app would reinforce intrusive marketing, government overreach, and vicious personal attacks to an unprecedented degree.

Jeff Freeman
Rahway, New Jersey