What, at this moment, are you meant to know?

It actually felt good to just, write, in reference to the previous post. I was worried and had been stress-dreaming — you know those kind of dreams you get when you are stressed, which usually involves sitting for secondary school exams for subjects you no longer had any proficiency of in waking life (Additional Maths! Physics! Chemistry!) — and upon writing them down, the anxiety somehow subsided. I don’t know how to tell you, but writing does work sometimes.

Today in Nick Cave’s The Red Hand Files, among a flurry of questions, he was asked, “Why do you write?”

One of the reasons I write is because it allows me the freedom to move beyond the declared world into the uncanny and unfamiliar world. As a songwriter I have made a commitment to uncertainty and to embrace that which I do not know, because I feel this is where true meaning exists. It allows me to write songs that have within them the spirit of enquiry and reciprocity. It leaves me open to chance, a sense of open-ended potentiality, and fills me with a devotion to the mystery of the world with its deep oceans and dark forests. This notion of uncertainty, of doubt, contains an enormous amount of creative power and is always accompanied by a state of yearning for something beyond certitude, beyond comprehension.

Essentially, amidst all of these poetic, flowery verses — he writes to find out what he still does not know, and with writing, he can go beyond what he has been certain before.

In the recent The Convivial Society, L.M. Sacasas was reminded of W.H. Auden questioning our acceptance of “the notion that the right to know is absolute and unlimited.” In the age of information deluge like today, Auden posed a solution to know what needs to know (emphasis mine) — a solution of both reducing the collective anxiety of having/wanting to know everything at once, and a question of a moral responsibility of needing to know the important things at the right moment:

“We are quite prepared to admit that, while food and sex are good in themselves, an uncontrolled pursuit of either is not, but it is difficult for us to believe that intellectual curiosity is a desire like any other, and to recognise that correct knowledge and truth are not identical. To apply a categorical imperative to knowing, so that, instead of asking, ‘What can I know?’ we ask, ‘What, at this moment, am I meant to know?‘ — to entertain the possibility that the only knowledge which can be true for us is the knowledge that we can live up to — that seems to all of us crazy and almost immoral.”

Then there’s also the question of, who decides what’s the important things to know at the right moment? Maybe that’s the question for another day.

What I learned today:

  • Diglossia: The condition when a society has two languages or dialects that almost everyone speaks, each of which serves a distinct social function.
  • Columbusing: When one, usually from a more privileged community, discovers something that’s existed forever. Also, cultural appropriation.

Writing a behemoth

My thesis currently stands at a 304-page of a behemoth!

Like many others, my journey did come with its own set of struggles. I think I was pretty lucky compared to others: I have the capacity to take a break from full-time job to pursue a PhD, I am blessed with a supportive academic supervisor and loved ones who — at the very least, believe in my own capability, want the best for me, and let me figure out things on my own without being too overbearing — and many other privileges. I joined this PhD forum of a sort on Facebook and almost every day we kept receiving posts on how everyone else struggled: a loved one passed away, financial problems, problems with supervisor, lack of motivation, no idea where to start writing, etc.

My struggle at this exact moment, in this one of my last stretches of thesis submission, is the fact that I have been fussing feel I haven’t done enough to properly articulate the points of my thesis to my future examiners. And so every night, so far at least 25 revisions (someone please come and intervene), I have been trying my very best to make sure the points could be understood by the barest layperson. This is especially amplified after I came across theoretical physicist Sabine Hossenfelder’s post on the communication gap between what you know about your research and what other people understand:

These are people who have – in some cases over decades – built their own theoretical frameworks, developed personal philosophies of science, invented their own, idiosyncratic way of expressing themselves. Along the way, they have become incomprehensible for anyone else. But they didn’t notice.

So they have their potentially brilliant insights out there, for anyone to see. And yet, no one has the patience to look at their life’s work. No one makes an effort to decipher their code. In brief, no one understands them.

This is also something symptomatic among academic researchers. We all have brilliant ideas, but if we walk into a room full of audience who are not in the same field for instance, yet our talk/presentation is catered to that audience otherwise (or perhaps the only audience who would understand our research is ourselves), then what good would it be?

At this point of time, this is a whole at least 453-word of my anxiety unfolding itself. If I go on, I could write something akin to Ducks, Newburyport, which is another behemoth. I guess at this point of time, I could just submit the whole 300-page, let the near future Zana worry about it, and wait for things to take care of itself.

Know her name

I tend to be very picky with books I buy these days. I had slowly transitioned from not buying any Kindle copies — because, Amazon — but what I often do though before I pick up any paperback or ebook from other publishers (check out Haymarket, Verso, and many others) and bookstores is to download Kindle samples and read the first few pages to see if I would like them or not. If I like them, then I’d decide whether I want a personal copy for myself.

I downloaded Chanel Miller’s Know My Name today, knowing full well I am still bloody livid reading her statement after her harrowing experience years ago. Chanel is an excellent writer, a talented illustrator, and no doubt, a strong person. My heart swells for her after reading the first few pages of her book, as she reclaimed her own name — after years of being referred in court documents as just Emily Doe — and her identity, refusing to be defined by the assault and by ‘belonging’ to the man who raped her, “I am not Brock Turner’s victim. I am not his anything.” “My hope is to undo these beliefs,” she wrote, ‘beliefs’ referring to degrading thoughts the victim themselves begin to think about themselves as their narratives are taken away from them. “However you chose to identify and exist in this world, if your life has been touched by sexual violence, I seek to protect you.” The strength and power of Chanel Miller — know her name — as she offers reassurances to survivors everywhere as she herself rises above her devastating experience and finds her own power and agency in a world that would still continually place importance in race, gender, and wealth gap when it comes to justice, or everything else for that matter.

All of the above were just gleaned through reading just the first few pages. I am definitely getting a copy of my own. Know her name.


No way to trade the Earth

Creative director and artist Matt Jukes makes these lovely prints of “misremembered landscapes and nearly forgotten memories”.

I picked up David Wallace-Wells’ The Uninhabitable Earth — which is an extension out of his essay with the same title — this week, despite being terribly terrified of the prospect of the Earth burning us alive and sinking us under rising seas and deluge of biblical floods, among other possibilities. We all know about how bad the warming is already right now, and it is going to worsen over the years — but if you want to know the scale of how bad it is going to get, read this book. The first line is already anxiety-inducing, “It is worse, much worse, than you think.” Reading this book as I underlined numerous phrases and annotated in the margins with notes equivalent of terror and despair, you might think Wallace-Wells is an alarmist. He is not — he is a realist and the situation is as really as alarming, and that we (also extending a louder “take action!” to politicians and corporations) should shake off the complacency and do something. Move over, Stephen King, this is the scariest book I have read ever — and even better (or worse?) this is absolutely REAL.

I am not sure how I came about this post on writing today by poet Rishi Dastidar. “Don’t write what you know,” Dastidar wrote. “Because you know it. Where’s the fun in regurgitating that?” I feel like there are some truths to this. A lot of things I have written are driven by my curiosity to get to know things outside of my own expertise (e.g. my PhD thesis), and while the blank screen/paper can be particularly scary the first time around, it feels so liberated to be able to fill them anyway. “Write to know,” Dastidar said, similar to Aciman’s notion in his own collection of essays, Alibis, “you write not after you have thought things through, you write to think things through.”

Something to think about over the weekend:

Design for its time

I’m loving this effort by the New York Public Library in providing bite-sized novels through the Stories feature on their Instagram account which are now already read by over 300,000 (!) people — somehow proving that it’s not that today’s generation reads less (we’ll get to this bit later too), it’s just that their reading habits are shaped by the medium they consume, and in the case of smartphones, one they have problems putting down. Although the idea isn’t entirely new, it’s still groundbreaking in its practice:

There have been many attempts to update books for the digital age: Beyond e-readers like the Kindle and Nook, designers have tried to take advantage of the visual, context-aware nature of the internet to make reading more interactive. A project called Ambient Literature publishes stories that pull in details about your location, the time of day, and the weather for a story you can read only on a smartphone. Others have redesigned the digital reading experience for the browser, making it more pleasant to read a book on your computer.

I have been trying to get my nephews and nieces to read more, instead of being perpetually glued to their phones browsing through Facebook and video games, to no avail. I do understand this partly stems from their own upbringing and surroundings (I was brought up by parents who read at every chance they have, and I was forced imposed to read at least a book every few months when I was young) — their own parents hardly read, there is nary a trace of books in their own houses — so I have been trying to get them to read lighter reading materials e.g. comic books or graphic novels. But it wasn’t true also about the idea that today’s generation doesn’t read, in fact I felt they are exposed to more text than we do: their social media timeline, of which they spend mostly their time on these days. It was more of deep reading vs simply scrolling through. And if we did get them to read classic works by way of scrolling through, then the NYPL project nailed it.

It reminds me also of this blog post by design educator Jarrett Fuller, who like me in 2000s, as a design student was exposed to the works of celebrity designers — although largely white men (Paul Rand, Stefan Sagmeister, Milton Glaser, etc.) — and got so excited by the prospect of researching and dissecting works by these designers, but now initially dumbfounded by how little the younger designers know about these individuals, rather they knew more about styles or what’s trending based on what they see on social media platforms.

At their age, we read blogs to find out who was doing the most interesting work, but those don’t exist anymore. My students aren’t reading It’s Nice That or Eye on Design. They are on Instagram, on Behance, on Pinterest. Their design awareness, sensibilities, and taste is constructed through likes, pins, and retweets. They might not know the name Michael Bierut or have heard of Wolff Olins but they’ve seen the work. And they’ve also seen work from countless other designers flying below the mainstream design press radar.

But this isn’t necessarily a bad thing, as a work of design should not particularly be attached to individuals — let’s discard the myth of the whole solo genius thing — so Fuller redesigned his course so that his students are able to learn these styles and why they like (or dread) them, and further reflect the whole impact of these design and styles.

In every class I teach, at both the undergraduate and graduate level, I’ve started requiring students to keep a visual journal — a dedicated place to keep images, PDFs, videos, photos — a simple attempt to encourage them to be more thoughtful about what they are consuming and saving. I try to build time into class for students to reflect on the work they are finding, and at the same time, I’m sharing the things I’m looking at and thinking about. (And I make it clear that what I share isn’t always an endorsement.) Together we try to figure out why we are drawn to these things. Or repulsed by them. Or why they are trending. Or where they come from. We talk as a group about art movements and trends and gaps in history. We lean into the aesthetics, the contexts, the politics, and the ideologies that may or may not be embedded in the work. We dissect the visual moves the designer did and why she may have made those decisions. We find out more about the designer, of course, but we let the work speak for itself. Just because it came from a particular designer or a particular studio doesn’t mean it’s automatically great. Some of the best moments I’ve had in the classroom are when the students start debating these ideas — amongst themselves, without any guidance from me — trying to formulate their own point of view.

And I quite like these two approaches today, a lesson to design things for its time.

The good job

I have been thinking about work (since I will be returning to work soon, as my doctoral journey is almost over) particularly on the subject of setting boundaries. I have been practising this with my freelance clients — no, I could not send over a 2,000 word proofreading work in 2 hours; no, I could not copyedit a 90-page document in 2 days — and once I explain to them that it is unfair for a work to be rushed as some details might be overlooked, that works of which one has spent some considerable amount of time working on often have better quality, and give them a new deadline that we can both agree on, they would usually say OK unless there were some pressing deadlines. I enjoy freelancing and I enjoy doing work for fields and areas I had never been involved in before, especially organisations that do good e.g. organisations that work to increase awareness for women’s rights and gender equality, organisations that highlight the harms technology can do for the marginalised, and many more. But I also feel like after PhD, I want to be more involved in these projects more than just copyediting and proofreading their documents, possibly something that involves more of research and community management. I have done great things and I believe I am capable of doing greater things. But first things first, which is: get that PhD, sis.

Anne Helen Peterson’s Substack newsletter the collected ahp has been one of my favourite newsletters now, ever since Jocelyn K. Glei featured this post of hers on alleviating burnouts for yourself and for others collectively. Her latest post talks about making things better for people at work, those “seemingly small practices has your manager or boss (or you, yourself) put in place that had made work less shitty, less of a life-sucking slog, or just more enjoyable”. The responses she got ranging from installing seltzer machines at work, to more profound ones such as more flexible working hours, no email after 8 pm and weekends, no obligation to explain for taking sick time, and many more. In lesser words, “everything I can think of involved being respectful of my time.” These things should be normalised, and in an ideal world lesser than these should not be accepted — employers might have different ideas (I’m ready to listen) other than the excuse, “we need to set ground rules so our employees won’t cheat”, can you imagine hiring someone to work with you and not trusting them in the first place?

Once you’ve internalised a standard of work, no matter how shitty, as just the way things are, it’s natural to express gratitude when it’s ameliorated in however small a way: It was a game changer when I started a job where my boss didn’t ask for a doctor’s note every time I had an appointment. It was huge when I could be ten minutes late and then work an extra ten minutes at the end of the day. It made a huge difference when they actually allocated a room for nursing.

That expectation of gratitude — and its flipside, the label of ungrateful when we ask for more — is at the crux of our current conversations about labour, but it imbues so many other millennial experiences. You should be grateful you have phones, grateful you have a job, grateful you’re driving Uber instead of in the coal mine, grateful you got to go to college, grateful you’re not at war, grateful you don’t live in North Korea, the list goes on. But here’s the thing: you can have an underlying sense of gratitude while also asking for things to be different, for your work to be less dehumanising and all-consuming and in service to a never-ending drive for profit and growth, with only the barest minimum returning to you.


For, not over

If I were being asked (not that I have ever) of books I have read more than five times, I could name these three: Jonathan Safran Foer’s Everything is Illuminated, Milan Kundera’s The Unbearable Lightness of Being, and Neil Gaiman & Terry Pratchett’s Good Omens. I remember reading the first two at the same time in 2004, which resulted in very interesting dreams where the two different settings of the stories overlapped — one set in the 1968 Prague Spring, and another set in 1940’s Western Ukraine — but otherwise revolves around a few similarities: there’s a tale of returning to the home that was no longer how it was after the war, there are some sort of tug-and-war relationships going on between some couples, there are dogs in both stories, and that within war and atrocities and existential dread, people find ways to go on with their lives and make sense of them through art and literature — somewhat like a framework to guide them through — whatever’s left of them. I read both of them back when I was too young and didn’t quite have the access and the language to understand a lot of themes in both books (e.g something like this) yet I kept rereading them. So there must be something, as I embarked on rereading Kundera’s Lightness this week.

There was a paragraph in the book which caught my interest. Sabina, a Czech photographer fled the aftermath of the Prague Spring, found herself in Geneva. She soon began a love affair with a Swiss professor, Franz. In this section, Franz spoke of how enamoured he, a European, was with Sabina’s country — a notion that Sabina did not share (emphasis mine):

Whenever she told him about herself and her friends from home, Franz heard the words ‘prison’, ‘persecution’, ‘enemy tanks’, ’emigration’, ‘banned books’, ‘banned exhibitions’, and he felt a curious mixture of envy and nostalgia.

Sabina protested. She said that conflict, drama, and tragedy didn’t mean a thing; there was nothing inherently valuable in them, nothing deserving of respect or admiration. What was truly enviable was Franz’s work and the fact that he had the peace and quiet to devote himself to it.

The words ‘prison’, ‘persecution’, ‘enemy tanks’, ’emigration’, ‘banned books’, ‘banned exhibitions’ were ugly, without the slightest trace of romance. The only word that evoked in her a sweet nostalgic memory of her homeland was the word ‘cemetery’.

Franz, an academia, in this case, has done a classic mistake of being an academia: as he fails to acknowledge his privilege, he sets on to romanticise the struggles of others (or their subjects of fieldwork or data) purely for the sake of academic attainment, totally disregarding the voices of those who actually lived those struggles — who might not be ready to relive those memories all over again.

Perhaps if they had stayed together longer, Sabina and Franz would have begun to understand the words they used. Gradually, timorously, their vocabularies would have come together, like bashful lovers, and the music of one would have begun to intersect with the music of the others. But it was too late now.

I think this is something I have also learned in my progress of doctoral research. My area is especially contentious — social movements and protests — and coming from a country which protests were often nonviolent and mild, to say at least, it was easy to get caught in the romanticisation of the acts of dissent around the world as people fight for their demands — Hong Kong, Iraq, Egypt, Indonesia, Bulgaria, Sudan, etc. — which had been ignored for the longest time before, to be heard.

Maybe there’s one thing to remember if you are writing for a subject you do not have personal lived experience of: What could we do to write for them, instead of over them?

Related: A thread on criticism towards the Extinction Rebellion movement for disregarding the voices of structurally oppressed activists and communities when it comes to combating climate denialism.

The unlikeliest SEO strategist

In one of the things I did not expect to find out today: the conspiracy theory that Boris Johnson gamed Google search results around his reputation, although then quickly debunked by this Wired article:

For one thing, Google search results are weighted towards behavioural factors and sentiment of those searching for terms — which would mean that such a strategy of polishing search results would be shortsighted. The individual nuances of each user are reflected in the search results they see, and the search results are constantly updated.

“What we search for influences what we find,” says Rodgers. “Not all search results are the same. That front page of Google, depending on what I’ve searched for in the past. It’s very hard to game that organic search.”

Credit: WIRED

I’m not sure about the fact that our search results were affected by own behaviours though, as I am a fan of Dr Safiya Umoja Noble’s work, Algorithms of Oppression, which speaks about how biases against people of colour are highly embedded into these supposedly neutral search engines. In the book, she presents the argument that more so than the search results reflect the users’ biases, it actually reflects the algorithmic harms intended by who created them — the designers, the developers, the product managers, the VCs, etc. those who were involved in the creation of these search engines.

First page of search results on keywords “black girls,” September 18, 2011. Credit: Safiya Umoja Noble, and TIME.

Definitely this is a topic that should be filed under: For Further Reflection.

To Waldenpond or not to Waldenpond

Unhacking webcams by putting up a toy camera that displays different scenes, part of a speculative design project by Dutch designer Pia-Mari Stute that produces fake data to protect the user’s privacy.

There’s this bit about Waldenponding — essentially meaning to deal with overwhelming usage of technology by leaving it all behind, or in its crude definition, “smash your smartphone and go live in a log cabin to reclaim your attention and your life from being hacked by evil social media platforms” — that I read a few months ago and one that I kept contemplating to do. It seems tempting to just delete all your social media platforms and go live in a literal log cabin somewhere all by yourself — although knowing I won’t survive just as long, give and take, at most 2 days? It’s also tough because I find a lot of useful information, journal articles, book recommendations etc. through social media platforms, believe it or not, and as a result, I read better and learn to form my opinions much more critically. Author Venkatesh Rao also said, it is “a terrible philosophy at both a personal and collective level.” So (some of) you decide to leave, leaving a void in the attention ecosystem that the big companies have been generating through multiple algorithmic pyrotechnics, and return to slow(er) media, leaving those who are vulnerable to disinformation to continually amplify more disinformation, and guess what? That is essentially an attention hack by itself e.g. “powerful religious leaders telling smart people to check out and unplug from information flows. That way, they get the power”. Entirely plugging out is also an act of privilege — “Should we all just leave Facebook? That may sound attractive but it is not a viable solution. In many countries, Facebook and its products simply are the internet.” Not to mention, some immigrants who live abroad keep in touch with their friends and families back home and everywhere else around the world through social media platforms, in some cases, the only way for them to contact each other altogether. It’s more of a point of letting us use the platforms at our own discretion.

So I think at this point of time, there’s this definite argument on the value of Waldenponding, and if one ever decides to do so one day, then like Rao said, “at least you’ll have a better idea of what you are choosing and why.”


Eats, shoots and leaves

Quartz Obsession today speaks about the hill I would gladly die on: Oxford comma. In the master stylesheet where I list down grammatical technicalities to check as I edit documents, along with ‘replace dashes with em dashes wherever possible’ is to ‘check for the possibility of Oxford comma’. Turns out, I am not alone — a lot of people are just as passionate about it as much as I do. Just like a lot of causes, Oxford comma — also called as serial comma — divides people into two camps: those for and against, those who think it’s sufficient vs those who think it cramps up writing style, Harvard & Oxford vs Associated Press — it even created a divide among dating apps users, almost a social signifier. There’s also a Twitter account, and musicians such as Vampire Weekend were inspired to create a song expressing their disdain towards Oxford commas. “The song is more about not giving a fuck than about Oxford commas,” the band’s lead singer Ezra Koenig said.

But as someone who learns throughout the years that striving to be grammatically correct is synonymous with reflection of my privileges — for example I have the educational luxury to go through a decent school system where I had all the resources to apply and practise what I learned, I have the financial luxury to be able to afford all these resources to learn them, I am able-bodied mentally and physically to learn language and other matters at a normal pace and not hindered by any disabilities, and many more privileges I have overlooked and must recognise — as long as what it’s written is clear enough for us and our readers, then Oxford comma or no comma, does it really matter?

It’s about intent and clarity. Use the Oxford comma or don’t use it; just make sure you’re not creating overtime work for someone to figure it all out.