On novelty, and burnout should make us angry

A few months ago a friend came to visit and we talked about projects we could venture into, if we had all the right resources: financial, skills, time, etc. (of which I think skills would be no problem, the other two, on the other hand, would pose some slight problems). She mentioned about an entrepreneur / motivational speaker she heard, which seems to be sprouting like wild mushrooms amongst our community at the moment, again, if you have all the right capitals — social, cultural, financial, network, etc. — who held a ‘clinic’ for bloggers to ‘make money’. I don’t endorse the money-making method through ads, affiliations, and product placements (of which products are usually health-related products not endorsed by our Health Ministry and bordering dangerous anyway — think of skin whitening products, detox tea, etc.) not only for the fact that they can be a bit hokey, but also because they lack novelty. Novelty here is defined in a sense of something that will last, that will endure, despite the changes in trends in media or features of the platforms, of which ad marketing don’t usually do — you got your audience, they stepped in, they looked away, they don’t stay. They aren’t organic, and they usually don’t return. Meanwhile, you are happy talking about purely the high numbers of one time customers you acquire after running the ads, devoid of context, not because your products are good and speak for themselves. I told my friend the methods proposed by the ‘clinics’ won’t work long, and if we ever want to find ways to market our products effectively, whatever they may be, there is no easy or fast way to do it. Good ideas are time-tested ideas, like all good things should be. (Maybe a useful supplementary read: The new dot com bubble is here: it’s called online advertising.)

I have been thinking about novelty ever since design Twitter was talking about the proliferation of Behance / Dribble designers. They are good and they do this to build their portfolio, sure, but a lot of the UIs they posted on these platforms are devoid of the context of the design briefs or the real world scenario of which many designers out there were often presented to work from. In return, a lot of the UIs were purely aesthetic, merely pushing pixels, and as we all know, designers are more than just pixel pushers.

There’s also the conversations among STS (Science and Technology Studies) Twitter that I found myself in after enrolling into PhD. There were so many instances where people in tech overlooked the work of the STS researchers, which were often conducted with social sciences and humanities in mind, and plunged right into tech solutionism in order to solve some real world problems. The problem is exactly that — they are real world problems, and if you don’t heed the findings of social science researchers on whose work are built on the foundation of people and society, then you’d lose its novelty.

There was a WITI edition where Noah Brier talks about the his neophiliac tendency to music and books, of which he refers to a previous edition about ‘news peg’ — a term to refer to releases or events that quickly becomes the catalyst for an endless spree of op-eds — “It is better and more freeing for places to write about what is interesting and meaningful, even if it is completely decoupled and floating in space, far from something that needs to generate sales.” I guess looking at the broader picture, we should be discarding move-fast-break-things and instead move-slowly-do-things-more-meaningfully, now will that new motto work?

Unrelated, but still good things:

  • Questions to ask yourself before asking for someone’s help.
  • “My burnout made me desperately angry and resentful. But I’ve come to see that burnout should make us angry. It’s a side effect of an economy that is rigged from the start, where work no longer ends at the end of the workday and our agony is used to sell us bath bombs and expensive yoga retreats that we can’t afford.”
  • A very insightful thread on navigating and respecting boundaries regarding unloading emotions, even among your closest friends.

More than just data points

I received news from my supervisor that I have another week to receive feedback about my thesis corrections. Which means, I have another week of possibly lounging around. I say possibly because one could never think how hard it is to just lounge around without any sense of guilt finally creeping in before one starts conjuring some tasks to busy oneself, which includes checking books out of the library and reading them voraciously in this longest one week of awaiting what sort of pummelling feedback one would receive.

Which is why I am thankful when the third season of The Crown Season 3 dropped this week, because it means I have the entire week to binge the entire season while obsessively fact-checking the events through the Internet. I LOVE Olivia Colman, but I was somewhat skeptical as to how the third season would fare seeing how fantastic Claire Foy, Matt Smith, and the rest of the original cast were, but I was so wrong. Olivia Colman, Tobias Menzies et. al owned the new season effortlessly and almost without friction, almost made me forgot how these were different people altogether off screen, and Helena Bonham Carter as the lively Princess Margaret was iconic. At this point of time I am convinced that if there was an entire movie where Olivia Colman was just to sit down and read her entire grocery list, I would still probably watch.

The best and most heartbreaking episode? Aberfan. Look it up first if you want — or don’t — either way, be prepared with lots of tissues.

Olivia Colman as Queen Elizabeth II on The Crown Season 3

I’m very amused upon finding this article on a slew of new start-ups who want to help people manage their relationship the way they would with sales leads. In turn, your friends and your families are turned into data points, and we all know our relationships are not something to be measured solely through quantifications, but this is somehow what this is turning into (I gagged at the mention of ‘quantified self movement’).

The most recent class of start-ups to come out of the prestigious Y Combinator accelerator program included three such companies, Axios reported in August, under the headline “Startups’ New Frontier: Optimizing Your Friendships.” In fact, there are so many personal-CRM apps, you might need a spreadsheet to keep track of all their names and taglines—each a little remix of the others, contorting adorably around the limitations of the friendship-software vocabulary to say, ultimately, the same chilling thing.

There’s Dex, “a tool to turn acquaintances into allies.” Clay, “an extension of your brain, purposefully built to help you remember people.” “Forgetting personal details?” Hippo “helps you stay attentive [and] keep track of friends, family and colleagues you care for,” for just $1.49 a month. Plum Contacts sends reminders to message your friends, and rewards you with cartoon berries that “indicate how strong your relationship is.” “Build the relationships you always wish you had,” the UpHabit site promises.

There are more! “When life gets busy, sometimes we need to be reminded to enjoy our most meaningful relationships,” the creators of Garden write on their website. “Your relationships are secured for today!” the activity-completion page on Ryze announces once you’ve taken care of all your “following up.” Ntwrk promises to make its users into better friends, mentors, siblings, salespeople, and networkers; reminders to reach out also come with a summary of “what you last chatted about.” Social Contact Journal provides anniversary reminders and prewritten message templates.

Not everyone is a fan of this — including me, and this is coming from someone as a radical planner (my friends’ birthdays are plotted across the Google Calendar with reminders a day before, and I personally remember close friends’ birthdays):

But when he told some of the people on the list about it, they didn’t care what colour they were coded—it was the list’s very existence that they said signals something awry in a friendship. “They were bothered because I transformed our friendship into something on a Google Docs and not something that was lived,” he says. “They don’t like the mediation of technology helping our friendship growing stronger.”

I guess the problem isn’t largely with the quantification of yourselves into rows and columns on a spreadsheet, it’s going back to the fact that behind all of these data points — the ones you’re plotting into spreadsheets and inputting into these apps of whose personal data will be taken anyway (there is this question about ethics too as you input personal details of your friends into this app without informed consent and these apps have them at their disposal) — that these are actual human beings. But I also do understand some people need this way of quantification as a way to audit the quality and direction of their relationships with their friends and families, so I guess, some bit of balance between both?

Some related, some not:

Teach thy tongue to say I do not know

I just came back from attending a very intense and useful workshop on ethnography, an anthropological method that I always find very interesting and something which I have always wanted to learn. For those not in social sciences, ethnography is the systematic method of studying people and culture. The ethnographer in the practice of classic ethnography would stay with the group of people they are studying for months and sometimes up to years doing participant observation, in-depth interviews, recording, and other non-intrusive methods in order to document their values, their activities, their attitudes, their practices, and many more. This is a good introduction to the practice of ethnography, if you would like to know more.

I always loved (but then who didn’t) a well-researched and well-organised workshop, and I was glad to know that this workshop was one of them. Every speaker who talked about the experiences of doing ethnography — with indigenous people, with a marginalised community, among the migrants, among the village folks in Langkawi, etc. — definitely knew their research topic very well, even after some of them have conducted the research years ago.

One of the biggest questions about anthropology that I still had till this day is how to deal with the idea of anthropology as the ‘handmaiden of colonialism’ — which what it was rooted in. This, strategically as I had in my mind, is quite limited as this was how classic ethnography started, and academia has the reputation as not being completely flexible in its whole technicalities. But I was awestrucked when the keynote speaker, Dato’ Dr. Wazir Jahan Karim, who conducted her ethnography among the indigenous people in Carey Island, kindly answered my question by relating to her own experience, “I deviated from the classic ethnography approaches to show more humanism despite the protests from my professor. After all, we have to prioritise the people.” There were also many wise anecdotes coming from Dr. Wazir, among them “minorities everywhere experience a form of cultural genocide” hence “find out how these communities can progress in their own native ways, instead of inflicting our ways upon them.” Also as a curious person, I sometimes have a number of questions to ask at the end of the session, but I found that these questions were practically already answered in those talks themselves e.g. “how do you deal if the results of your research indeliberately inflict harm upon the community you’re studying?” (answer: you yourself must be aware of the politics and your own biases yourselves, if it happens, fix them) and “how do you deal with Hawthorne Effect with the people you are studying?” (answer: reframe interview questions in a form of chats, not a rigid set of interview questions. Built rapport. Make friends. Be friends.)

We also observed that some of these researchers still kept in touch with the families of whom they were staying with during their research till this day, even calling among themselves ‘dad’, ‘mum’, ‘sister’, ‘brother’ etc. “Unlike some Western researchers who came to study people and then go home to their privileged lives in their first world country,” one of them remarked, and I noticed the shade. “They are practically family,” one of those speakers beamed while speaking about the family she had been staying with. One of the participants asked, why the attachment? One of the speakers said, “Maybe it’s the social activist in us. Maybe we care too much.” And in that whole few minutes, the infamous superiority of academia we are often presented to is discarded — the certainty or the perception that you must have all the answers, the technicality, the effrontery, the performativity of intellectuallity — dispersed, just humanity, just the maybes. There was also a question posed (of which I forgot what it was about) but one of the speakers comfortably said, “I don’t know, but that’s a great question. I guess we have to find out.” I am aware that this might be the barest minimum here, admitting you do not know, but it is comforting hearing that from experienced researchers. My faith in social science and academia was restored, and I am glad that I took the time to attend this workshop.

Ben Shahn's 1954 painting Maimonides, shown here with one arm raised and the other holding a book in which is written a statement attributed to the sage that says "teach thy tongue to say I do not know and thou shalt progress."

Ben Shahn’s 1954 Maimonides, shown here with one arm raised and the other holding a book in which is written a statement attributed to the sage that says “teach thy tongue to say I do not know and thou shalt progress.” (via Austin Kleon)

Some related, some not:

  • “Whatever inspiration is, it’s born from a continuous ‘I don’t know,’” said the poet Wislawa Szymborska in her 1996 Nobel Prize lecture.
  • Now reading Comparative Revolutionary Movements while waiting for my on hold copy of Hannah Arendt’s On Revolution, TIL: The word ‘revolution’ derives from astronomy, that was initially used by philosophers to imply a cyclical process in human events, and that it entered common political parlance only after the French revolution of 1789.
  • “Like offering thoughts and prayers after a mass shooting or natural disaster, listening and learning become ways to offer condolences without committing to the messy, crucial work of preventing tragedies before they come to pass.”
  • Chanel Miller does not give a damn. Prepare some tissues.
  • “I shall love you always. No matter what party is in power; No matter what temporarily expedient combination of allied interests wins the war; Shall love you always.”

No more whoopsies

I came across this very insightful talk by Ethan Marcotte called the World Wide Work, in which he talked about automation, power, justice, and labour in the tech industry. They all might be big words to some of you, but because this is because they are just as important, and Ethan made some good points in the power of collective in making sure we as the people in the tech industry no longer overlook the harmful impacts we could inflict on other people as a result of our products and processes. It was explained in many forms of analogy — one of them refers to my favourite natural formation of all, the murmuration of starlings — and in stressing our very own individual potential in the industry and how we can become stronger and even more capable of making change as a whole community, like starlings as well, “individually, starlings are beautiful. Collectively, starlings become a wonder.” But that’s not all about it, Marcotte navigated the issue around the tendency of treating web and technology industry as apolitical, and enlightening us on how the power and greed of the elites — who owned the means, of whom we served, and who might also be some of us — could in return will be unintentionally reflected in the technology we build.

Unintentionally.

Not long after I posted the link to Marcotte’s talk on Twitter, The Engine Room co-founder, Alix Dunn posted a separate tweet referring to Tim Berners-Lee’s talk at ODI Summit, in which he said, “People are people and systems are weird, so we need to think about unintended consequences of the things we build.” Dunn quote tweeted, “I wish we could stop using the phrase ‘unintended consequences’ about harm in tech. It implies a) that positive intent of the maker matters and that it should be assumed b) that ‘thinking’ about possible harms is the bar for responsibility and c) that whoopsies is sufficient.” I read through it again and it gives me a change of perspective, the same way I came across how we should not talk about these harms as biases — for it insinuates individual accountability instead of the systemic flaw to which it originated — and thought about it, ‘unintended’, who am I kidding?

I felt like times and again when I talked about ‘whoopsies’ in tech (according to Dunn) I would often use ‘unintended’ or ‘nothing out of malice’ to hedge and pardon our doing. That’s internalised. As someone previously / on break from tech, I recognised that the ‘whoopsies’ happened and more so than often “it was never out of malice” — here we kept telling ourselves we are not avowed racists or classists like Robert Moses, who built an overpass bridge so low that buses which carry people of colour and less affluent could not go through to access the beautiful parks of Long Island — we are not bad people, it’s a thing we overlook, we didn’t mean it, we are just doing our job. But we have to recognise that in today’s world where there’s a wealth of information and resources coming from all directions that could educate us, there is no more room for apologies. We need to make space to recognise what harms we can inflict upon others in many ways. ‘Whoopsies’ are the typos you found on your papers the day of your submission, ‘whoopsies’ are when you accidentally stepped on a colleague’s shoes. ‘Whoopsies’ are not for when you run over people with your company’s self-driving car and certainly not for when you murdered someone in cold blood. (Serious question: what kind of moral compass these tech CEOs have? No wonder we are so screwed!) And that’s our job to make sure that in our products, our processes, our policies, our culture etc. that we do not overlook people who might not be able to experience the world as privileged as we do.

Earlier this month also I came across this article on the importance of empathy by product manager Can Duruk, recounting his moral dilemma between navigating work as sets of data and placing himself in the shoes of the users for the products he was involved in doing (oh the familiarity). He tells about a documentary on air traffic controllers he watched:

In it, the controller was talking about how he had to stop thinking of the planes as giant aluminum tubes full of people because that’s the only way he could function. You could see him tensed up as he spoke. He didn’t mean to belittle the hundreds of lives he was responsible for, he kept repeating. Just the opposite. He meant that the only way he could keep his composure, the only he could function with so many lives on the line was to not think about them.

Needless to say, I am horrified. But I was glad that in some ways, like Duruk, I too understand how he might have come to that solution. But we decide that this is a terrible, horrible idea, this idea of not thinking of people — one that doesn’t warrant a ‘whoopsie’ — even though none of us had ever been responsible for the thousands of lives of others. But if we think about it, maybe we do — perhaps not all thousands at the same time, but in a chain of events? I hate to think about it, but I hate more if I spend my life not caring.

Some related, some not:

Hope is participatory

A sculpture of a boy with colourful Dorritos coming out of his face, done by artist Seth Globepainter

Seth Globepainter in Bordeaux, France

I have been contemplating whether I should write the reasons why I decided to pursue a PhD following this post last week. Among the questions that popped up in my head was, to whom I owe these justifications to? Of which the answer clearly was: No one. But I read Jia Tolentino’s Trick Mirror last week — what an amazing set of essays about life as a millennial, politics, culture, feminism and many more, please get the book — and came upon this excerpt of hers in the first few pages of the book, where she says, “When I feel confused about something, I write about it until I turn into the person who shows up on paper: a person who is plausibly trustworthy, intuitive, and clear” and I couldn’t nod fast enough as I mutter to myself, “That’s it, that was exactly how I often deal with things so this is how I should approach this too.” So while I do not owe anyone else any justifications for the reasons why I do decided to pursue a doctoral research — of whose common end product is often centered around the idea of “a waste of time unless you want to be a lecturer” (I quoted someone verbatim, and the idea isn’t true at all which I will come back later) — I feel I at least I owe myself the clarity of mind and the chance to put what I have been thinking about on paper.

I was 35 when I enrolled in my PhD program, which is to say in the least words as possible, somewhat late in my or anyone else’s postgraduate career. Almost everyone I knew in my school was under 30. Some of them did fast track — which means they did well in their degree studies and got accepted into the PhD program without a Masters degree, which sometimes enabled them to have a PhD before 25. Unlike a lot of people I knew in my school as well, I did not have the need to pursue a doctorate to advance in my career. I was doing OK in my job at the moment, and I have always been resourceful and strategic to execute a lot of tasks, given I have enough information. My acquired skills over the years, in measurement with countless others with the same skillset in the industry that I know of, do not necessitate a need for another degree. By embarking on this rite of passage — enrolling in a mentally demanding postgraduate program in my mid-30s — it was a privilege, an option, a luxury, more so than a requirement.

At work, I remember there was a point of time where we were commissioned a project to design an internal app for a corporation, some sort of similar to one of those SAP platforms. The app would make the work multiple times easier and faster for everyone in the labour chain. However, there was one catch: it would result in layoffs of hundreds of people in the company who had been doing the job manually over the years. I kept thinking about this till today — how much of technology that I had helped bring to fruition had, in one way or another, bring harm to other people? If I have worked in a project where the new app or software would lead to hundreds of the client’s employees being laid off, was I also complicit in it? Sure, they get compensated financially, but are they also compensated in time and energy in going around to find other jobs? A lot of companies aren’t exactly empathetic to potential employees with a history of involuntary suspension — how do we measure the total mental compensation? I remember that this also happened at the same time where fiascos involving Facebook’s invisible hands into the fate of democracy had been slowly unearthed. Zuckerberg might have never predicted, or even deliberately designed his product to have this much harmful effect, but he can do something about it now — but would he? Will we have the same moral compass?

It is with this exact overthinking that I decided to read Sociology to understand the implications of technology on a collective, societal level.

In 2017, as I walked into the halls of my new university, I was also recovering from a massive burnout. Like a lot of people, I used to, and was internalised to, equate my productivity with my self-worth — which only very recently I realised the problems with burnout is more than just individually inflicted, or wasn’t individually inflicted at all. We launched multiple projects weeks after weeks but because there were so many other projects coming our way, I felt we didn’t get the chance to even celebrate. We moved fast and solved more things, which was great, but I felt I needed to slow down. I felt I needed time and space more for broader learning, deeper thinking, and a more meaningful rumination sort of way to figure things out. I’m only in my third — and hopefully final year — but I really enjoy this process of honing my research and writing skills, this whole journey of focusing on a set of answers that you yourself found the gap to, devising the research design as to how to find the answers, critically questioning your methods and ethics, and seeing the project to completion.

I admit it wasn’t the only path for one to spend years to read and write deeply — anyone can do so given the right conditions — for academia is also famous for being the space where it never allows one to learn things broadly and deeply given how deeply embroiled in politics it can be. But I come from the tech industry. In my experience, we didn’t really have the luxury to do those (learning broadly and deeply) in a long-running list of tasks whose deadlines are always yesterday. In return we overlooked concerns like above, not always out of malice, but out of the culture of moving fast and shipping faster — how much of technology that we had helped bring to fruition had, in one way or another, bring harm to other people? I might never have the answer for this academia vs industry anyway, but at this point of time, entering a few years of grad school seems to be the only way I could afford to hone my writing and research skills, on top of other skills I have acquired over the years.

I also do not believe it when people kept saying the only career path after PhD is academia. I have met a lot of people in the tech industry with a PhD. The founders of Ludwig, the English sentence search engine — whose app has helped me tremendously in my research writing — were PhD graduates and built Ludwig out of their very own necessity of wanting to search English sentences to find out if they are correct. One PhD also isn’t equivalent to another, and definitely does not translate to one fixed career path. The possibility is endless, one has to only learn to spot the opportunities.

Evidently with the skills I have developed, I want to do greater things. I say this a lot with the vaguest idea of what this great is operationalised as — as I saw my definition of great changes from building a highly intuitive and engaging UI (an undergrad case study) to benefitting businesses through innovation culture (my MA thesis) and advancing to understand the social implications of emerging technologies on politics (my ongoing PhD thesis). Now taking a look at this trajectory, I feel like I am exactly where I needed to be — that my growth through formal education has progressed from learning how design and technology to benefit individual users to businesses to how this will impact on a societal level, which is something the industry I had been involved in for the past 12 years ultimately needed. It is pretty vague at the moment, but the gist is this: I want to do greater things with the skills I have developed, and at the same time be mindful of the harms the industry and I have been complicit for perpetuating in all throughout the years, and do something about them. This means doing it on a more collective scale, breaking the trope of techno-determinism — no longer for any specific individuals or groups of people or businesses, but the society as a whole — as a way to make reality the vision of the industry that was initially touted to empower everyone regardless of any parts of their backgrounds.

At this point in time, I am pretty terrified when I think about my upcoming viva voce. But someone told me to reframe it this way: “Think about it, it’d be perhaps the only time you have a group of the smartest people you have ever come across to be fully invested in your research.” I might also not have the exact answers for the questions I have, but at least I am now better equipped with ways to find them out.

Some related, some not:

  • “Light, not heat.” Overheard on Twitter, of which context refers to the way social network platforms, especially Facebook, are designed to reward content driven by communally negative or extreme comments or reactions, and how we should know better. Light, not heat. (I lost the link, if you know whose comment it belongs to, let me know and I’ll be happy to credit.)
  • To be planet-centric, designers need to be diverse and inclusive in their influences and practice.
  • Hope is participatory — it’s an agent in the world. Optimism looks at the evidence, to see whether it allows us to infer whether we can do X or Y. Hope says, “I don’t give a damn, I’m gonna do it anyway.”

What are words without a reader?

I have to be honest: it’s disheartening to hear many unsolicited opinions on how having a PhD, or any form of academic degree really (remind of the once perverse trope of CEOs who were school dropouts only to find out later that, surprise, they come with safety nets in the form of rich dads) will not do anything for your career advancement, especially if it comes from your loved ones. Very often, the idea of this career advancement is related to the very same neoliberalism and capitalistic idea that we all have begun to inherit — that in a very rough summary, everyone’s worth is tied to their jobs, and any job should be making a lot of money, and if you are not making much money, you are the weak link, therefore, you are not contributing much to the society. The insinuations I have heard day to day is along those lines: why pursue study if you won’t make much money anyway?

I have to admit it is a privileged, and somehow shallow, statement to make that you won’t work for money (more than often the phrase ‘will work for passion’ is really a code word for companies to make you work extra mile and not reimburse you anyway). After all that’s literally what jobs are — an exchange of labour for some amount of financial compensation that is equal to that amount of labour. But we need to also think about the fact that intellectual advancement is just as important, and while one does not have to be in academic to do so, some people might want to do so. The system that’s broken here is the one that heckles people for having an ounce of interest or desire to pursue higher education, and then further punishes them with steep study loan that leaves them in near poverty all throughout their lives (I hear heckling here, “you asked for it!”) and the lack of a promising career where they want to do just as great things as they have done while in higher education. How many people who step out fresh of universities, only to be demotivated by the soul-crushing jobs that refuse to even pay minimum wage? Which, some of these, extends for years?! All of this returns to the question posed by Anne Helen Peterson, that I couldn’t stop thinking of: do you actually care about other people?

The next post that will follow, possibly tomorrow, is, despite no one asking, about why I do PhD. I have a lot of answers, but I haven’t given time and thought to sit down properly and articulate them in words. I often froze whenever asked, and ended up answering like, “Because I have some questions and I wanted to find out about them” to which a friend once said, “Bullshit”. Does she actually care about me to say that, you think?

I came across Robin Sloan’s — who wrote Mr Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore — delightfully written newsletter this week and read through the archives, to which I found these excerpts from Week 33:

A record can play in an empty room; a Netflix show can stream while its presumed viewers are otherwise absorbed by their phones. Words, however, cannot do anything without a reader. This is the great consolation, and the great confidence, of writing: that these words I’m typing (now) are being reanimated in a living mind (now).

Thank you for giving these words of mine a piece of your attention.

Some related, some not:

  • People: Yo tech people, we have a problem of overlooking the harms we inflicted upon people and the society with the products we have designed. We need to fix it. Tech people: Listen, it’s not you, it’s me, doing this dopamine fast.
  • I don’t know who needs to hear this, but listen: People don’t fail because they lack resilience; they lack resilience because circumstances have set them up for failure.
  • I’m having trouble revamping my CV for days, of which reasons for these troubles were unclear to me. After putting this post into writing, the reasons are now crystal. Figuring out the roadblock is the first step, fixing it will be next — which is why I don’t worry whenever I find myself procrastinating, because laziness does not exist.

The way your blood beats

There isn’t a day that doesn’t go by where I haven’t thought about the fate of my submitted thesis. How much headache my arguments have given my supervisor — especially that brevity isn’t my greatest strength when it comes to writing? Was I clear enough in articulating my arguments? Whose perspective that I have overlooked or indeliberately excluded while writing a document devoid of social interaction and collaboration with everybody else? Which ideas that have gotten obsolete within these two weeks of submission? What tiny typos —which evidently often surfaced at every moment of document binding — I have made, which would make my supervisor and examiners question the quality of my work? More importantly at this point of time, which part of these posed questions above are legit concerns which should be weighed seriously and productively, and which are just mere worries out of my control?

The more I thought of it, the more I came across some emerging takes on today’s social movements, especially as the world is in upheaval these days — Lebanon, Hong Kong, Iraq, Algeria, Sudan, Chile, and many more. One of those includes this newsletter post from Alan Jacobs, on the rise of leaderless movements (literally the area of my research). He started with the report by Nick Taber, giving a glimpse on Hong Kong’s movement which acts without any formal leadership, and how much this reminds him of the model of distributed action in a novel called New Model Army — envisioned in the way that collectivised and non-hierarchical organisations of mercenaries took over the European political scene in the book. The leaderless strategy of the Hong Kong protest was also mentioned by Maciej Ceglowski, who was at the front line of one of the protests:

The protesters learned in 2014 that having leaders was a weakness. Once the leadership was arrested, the heart went out of the occupy movement, and it lost momentum. So in 2019, there is no leadership at all. The protests are intentionally decentralised, using a jury-rigged combination of a popular message board, the group chat app Telegram, and in-person huddles at the protests.

And if people were asking “why so many protests?!”, other than giving the belligerent answer of “we’re SO tired of everything!” and at the same time, being so tired to list down what these everything were — send them this article:

Afflicted by what the anthropologist David Graeber calls “despair fatigue”, protesters are putting their bodies on the line because it feels as if they have no other choice – and because those who rule over them have rarely seemed more vulnerable. Most have spent their lives under the maxim “there is no alternative” – and now circumstances have forced them to widen their political imaginations in search of something new. As one poster proclaims in Chile: “It’s not about 30 pesos, it’s about 30 years.

On a personal note, I have received many requests for a number of interesting opportunities lately, which, some of them are entirely new but I know I could figure them out given some sufficient information. This is scary, but exciting, but also scary — but still exciting!

“Best advice I ever got was an old friend of mine, a black friend, who said you have to go the way your blood beats. If you don’t live the only life you have, you won’t live some other life, you won’t live any life at all. That’s the only advice you can give anybody. And it’s not advice, it’s an observation.” – James Baldwin, interviewed by Richard Goldstein, via Stacy-Marie Ishmael.

I think I am slowly heading the way my blood beats back again. Like how this spectrometer that made her way menacingly through a small German town, proclaiming by appearance, by potential, and by function how important her existence is. Look at her.

he spectrometer for the KATRIN experiment, as it works its way through the German town of Eggenstein-Leopoldshafen in 2006 en route to the nearby Karlsruhe Institute of Technology.

Scrolling

The downside of living in a small city, despite the tranquility is the lack of books that I want. Note that it’s not the lack of books by itself — this city has bookstores of all kinds strewn throughout it — but the books that I want. Making things more complicated, I want physical books, not Kindle — one of those where you could run your hands through the pages of what used to be trees and now the no-longer-tree found their place inside your home. I want books that didn’t need to be ordered and awaited for 1 to 5 weeks (looking at you Book Depository, although I’m trying to wean off you because you are also affiliated with evil Amazon) — I want to find these books in the local bookstores near to where I live and bring them home straight away! I thought of a friend who is currently a history postgraduate student in Melbourne, who is often seen touting and reading all the titles I want (he’s currently reading Jia Tolentino’s Trick Mirror, of I have heard nothing but wonderful reviews of) while clutching iced coffee — also how dare he steal my aesthetics — and was struck with a longing for a city where I could just hop out of the house and pop into the nearest bookstore to find all the titles I want. Once you are almost paralysed with endless options, you finally walk out with the book in your hands, you have the choice to go straight home to indulge in your new purchase, or stop by one of those cafes and order one of those iced coffees and sip them while flipping through the pages. Local bookstore, close to the house, all the titles I want, iced coffee — is that too much to ask?!

All of us book reader traditionalists who still insist on reading physical books already knew this, that paper books can’t be shut off from afar. The idea that Amazon, or any other e-book providers, can decide how you own or not own your digital library is not of a new knowledge, but this is something we all should know, because it is the closest thing an authorarian government who used to confiscate books would do, only (in Tyra Banks’ voice) make it digital:

Having learned this, I went along and had a closer look at the then-current Kindle License Agreement. There was some simply petrifying stuff on there. For starters, then as now, you don’t “own” Kindle books, you’re basically renting them. (“Kindle Content is licensed, not sold, to you by the Content Provider.”)

Amazon’s current terms of use now specify explicitly that they can look over your shoulder while you read. Check this out!

Information Provided to Amazon: The Kindle Application will provide Amazon with information about use of your Kindle Application and its interaction with Kindle Content and the Service (such as last page read, content archiving, available memory, up-time, log files, and signal strength).

They can change the software on you whenever they like, or just shut it down completely, without so much as a by your leave:

Changes to Service; Amendments: We may change, suspend, or discontinue the Service, in whole or in part, including adding or removing Subscription Content from a Service, at any time without notice.

That is how a totalitarian state might go about confiscating books, if they wanted to. There is nothing in this agreement to stop Amazon from modifying the Kindle software to make it impossible for you to read any of your own files on the device.

More on books, Andy Mathuscak published an article on why books don’t work:

Unfortunately, these tactics don’t come easily. Readers must learn specific reflective strategies. “What questions should I be asking? How should I summarise what I’m reading?” Readers must run their own feedback loops. “Did I understand that? Should I re-read it? Consult another text?” Readers must understand their own cognition. “What does it feel like to understand something? Where are my blind spots?”

These skills fall into a bucket which learning science calls “metacognition.” The experimental evidence suggests that it’s challenging to learn these types of skills, and that many adults lack them. Worse, even if readers know how to do all these things, the process is quite taxing. Readers must juggle both the content of the book and also all these meta-questions.

[…]

This “grain” is what drives me when I gripe that books lack a functioning cognitive model. It’s not just that it’s possible to create a medium informed by certain ideas in cognitive science. Rather, it’s possible to weave a medium made out of those ideas, in which a reader’s thoughts and actions are inexorably—perhaps even invisibly—shaped by those ideas.

If you read further you’d understand the problem is not about the books, it’s how if we want to absorb and retain knowledge in any medium, we need to put more effort rather than just sit and read. This might include designing the medium to maximise information retention, which is what Matuschak had done with his Quantum Country project. The site runs so slow on my 2014 Macbook Pro I gave up halfway reading it, so if you decide to give it a try, let me know if the project works in term of absorbing and retaining more information for a longer space of time.

Also, stumbled onto this illustration in the Apple Ile manual today on how ‘scrolling’ was, or perhaps originated, which still fascinates me to no end.

The impermanence of things

We took Teddy Jules to the vet today — it has to do with his UTI problem and his bladder again, which incessantly creeps back onto him whenever he gains significant body weight — and came home with a small plastic bag full of his medications of all sorts — liquid and pills and tablet, big and small, cut in half or quarter or to be taken in full size, of all sorts of colours and odour. The vet also drew blood out of him. An area near his neck was shaved, and I was asked to stay outside as the vet and her assistant did the procedures but I was allowed to watch from outside the glass door. I saw his paws winced, and I winced along. We came home and he slept the entire day, I joked that he napped so he would skip his meds but I knew he was tired of the travel. He’s 9 this year. Just the last few nights I was thinking how Teddy Jules is like the Charles Boyle of the house — he’s the sweetest boy ever, he’s happy for his friends, he welcomes everyone who comes to visit with wide open paws and a friendly squeak, and is wildly possessive of me (like Boyle of Jake Peralta). Monty, the oldest at 12, is Captain Holt of the house — he has one perpetual expression (annoyed), he isn’t entirely fun and he hates physical contact, but he has his sweet moments. Eleven, sassy and slightly mean, is definitely Gina Linetti. Sometimes, in a typical obsessive pet owner way, I looked at them and muttered under my breath, “you have no idea how much you have brought me happiness”.

I have two senior cats now, and that evil, worrying thought that pets would leave us soon (as are people too) and that we couldn’t guard them against fleeting time (a phrase I borrowed from illustrator Lucy Knisley). There is a Japanese phrase I learned a few months ago after reading a novelette of the same name by Ken Liu. It’s a phrase almost alien to the Western society that seeks closure and the desire to cling to the idea of things and happy ending. It’s called mono no aware (物の哀れ), a challenging perspective to define but “what comes most easily to mind is the beauty of the cherry blossom; the flower blooms intensely, yet only for a short period of time each year”. It’s recognising that not all things are permanent, and because of this, “therefore bittersweet, tinged with mourning, and yet also capable of recognising the beauty of change in itself”. It’s scary and almost unfair (well to be honest, actually rudely unfair) to venture into mourning pre-loss, but I am going to try to stick to mono no aware and cherish the season of the cherry blossoms for as long as I could.

Teddy Jules, the guardian of books

Question your models of the universe

A digital manipulation art from graphic designer Mariyan Atanasov, where photos of apartment were manipulated to look like the blocks from the Tetris game.

Urban Tetris, by graphic designer Mariyan Atanasov

I first read Maria Popova’s Brain Pickings back in 2006 when it first started, as someone newly adjusting to a working life in a fast-paced corporate world and was in a need of some beautiful, inspiring writing on life and whatnot. Thirteen years later today, it is still going strong — and ever flourishes with more daily lyrical discovery on literature, arts, science, life and many more — and still continues to be one of my favourite websites. Following the anniversary, Popova shared 13 lessons she has learned from writing and maintaining the blog. Some of my favourites (emphasis mine):

… Build pockets of stillness into your life. Meditate. Go for walks. Ride your bike going nowhere in particular. There is a creative purpose to daydreaming, even to boredom. The best ideas come to us when we stop actively trying to coax the muse into manifesting and let the fragments of experience float around our unconscious mind in order to click into new combinations. Without this essential stage of unconscious processing, the entire flow of the creative process is broken.

[…]

Be generous with your time and your resources and with giving credit and, especially, with your words. It’s so much easier to be a critic than a celebrator. Always remember there is a human being on the other end of every exchange and behind every cultural artifact being critiqued.

[…]

You are the only custodian of your own integrity, and the assumptions made by those that misunderstand who you are and what you stand for reveal a great deal about them and absolutely nothing about you.

[…]

And my absolute favourite of all: Question your maps and models of the universe, both inner and outer, and continually test them against the raw input of reality. Our maps are still maps, approximating the landscape of truth from the territories of the knowable — incomplete representational models that always leave more to map, more to fathom, because the selfsame forces that made the universe also made the figuring instrument with which we try to comprehend it.

Some thoughts for the weekend, from Auden: How should we like it were stars to burn, with a passion for us we could not return?