Let’s not let the answer be an echo

I have somewhat of a routine every Friday. That is, to wake up early, send my mother to her religious class and while waiting for her class to end in about 2 hours, I would pick up my spot in a café somewhere to read journals or articles.

This morning, I decided to read a paper by designer and scholar Sasha Costanza-Chock on the principles of design justice. The paper posits that the existing design processes reproduce inequalities in what Black feminist scholars call matrix of domination: white supremacy, heteropatriarchy, capitalism, and settler colonialism. These can manifest at all levels of design processes, from designers to intended users, affordances and reaffordances, scoping and framing, design sites, governance, ownership, platforms, systems, narratives, and so much more. It also proposes that the idea that sometimes designers reproduce these values not because they are inherently evil, but because of the structural forces and the powers that be — available resources would often be allocated by and to the privileged — that lead them to these decisions. By understanding the oppressive systems we could cause in all aspects of our design processes, we can do better by countering them within the design justice framework, which was also built on the theory of intersectionality — a theory by Black feminist Kimberlé Crenshaw that reconceptualises race, class, and, gender as interlocking systems — and one that must be taken into account whenever we decide to evaluate how our designs should do no harm. The principles are outlined in Design Justice Network website, and while it is a living document, it is one that is comprehensive enough at this point of time and one that I am going to be referring constantly when the need arises one day (for work, for uni, etc.)

These days I think a lot about words and actions that I could do to reduce harm, especially when it seems like the world is being thrown to the wolves. I hope I have the conscience to distinguish which affiliations are doing good, and to have the strength to distance myself from ones with questionable practices, and perhaps call them out. I am not always vocal — that’s one of my regrets, but I am trying although more so than often I have to put my mental health first and foremost — but I always had hoped that I have used, and will continue to use my skills and talents for good. I hope I am not engaging in complicit silence over the oppression of others, and if I do I hope I have the awareness to recognise it and take action on it.

In the poem A City Like a Guillotine Shivers on Its Way to the Neck, Ukrainian-born poet Ilya Kaminsky addresses the problem of complicit silence, “At the trial of God, we will ask: why did you allow this? / And the answer will be an echo: why did you allow this?”

Let’s not let the answer be an echo.

Your luxury is someone else’s accessibility

I had to wake up extra early today to do some chaffeuring tasks for one of my aunts — that’s what you have to do when you’re taking care of elderly folks, among others — and ended up not taking a nap (the ‘housekeeping‘ of brains) the entire day. I resumed to read A Gentleman in Moscow today, gleefully underlining the words and sentiments and literary references, and deciding to forgo the urge to track my time in my Toggl app as I always did as a way to track the amount of time I do things everyday. It’s almost obsessive.

Today I discover that on average, 33% of Americans get less than 6 hours of sleep and an alarming 70% of British people get less than 7 hours of sleep on a daily basis. I have no idea of the average hours of sleep of less than something something hours Malaysians get every day, and I could safely attest I am part of the percentage. I always told others how envious I am of people who would fall asleep the moment they place their heads on the pillow, for I could not. I might also be envious of Washington Irving’s Rip Van Winkle, who upon drinking a magic tonic in the Catskills Mountains, woke up 20 years later to find the Revolutionary War had ended, his wife had passed, and his kids all grown up. There was also a joke that we Malaysians made about a man who fell into a coma in 2003, when Mahathir was still our 4th Prime Minister, and woke up this year to find out that 93-year-old Mahathir is still in reign (he actually reassumed his office as the 7th Prime Minister after our 14th general elections in May 2018 — there was like a whole kosher, but nothing less than sensational, Game of Thrones happening).

I also discovered once I was an accidental polyphasic sleeper. Most people are monophasic sleepers, where we sleep in one big chunk and another chunk of wakefulness. But some people are also biphasic or polyphasic sleepers, where their sleep is divided into two or multiple smaller chunks per day. It was said to be the favourites of superachievers such as Nikola Tesla and Leonardo Da Vinci, and was often heard within the compound of bragging rights of tech bros (as far as those I have known) as a way to ‘hack their bodies to achieve maximum productivity’. If you think it sounds like bollocks it’s because it is, and also because there is very little data to back up the theory that polyphasic sleep enhances anything within the human system. The reason I said I was an accidental polyphasic sleeper was because somewhere in 2013, I was doing my MA full time and working full time at the same time, and these two were achieved within two different timezones. It felt like having a superpower to be able to do that at that point of time, but as your body ages it would take a toll on your health (living specimen: me), so I wouldn’t personally encourage it unless there is no choice whatsoever.

Two days ago WITI shared some thoughts on empathy and accessibility in its gerontology edition. As an able-bodied person, I have read so many accounts of places, products, and practices disregarding thoughts or courtesy for old people and people who have disabilities. My elderly mother personally experienced this in airports, where the hallways to the departing gates stretch miles and there were not always buggies available whenever they (old people and people who have disabilities) need one. I am all for this initiative by this architecture firm, who designed a 30-pound suit which ages the researchers and designers 40 years just by donning it.

Samantha Flores and Mike Steiner with the Dallas-based architecture firm Corgan each donned the suit — which weighs about 30 pounds and adds four simulated decades — in public settings like an airport to better understand the challenges elderly people face simply moving around.

They say the idea behind the experience is to apply that firsthand understanding to make their building designs more empathetic and accessible.

“One of the things that we really took away from the staff that ran through the scenarios is that having the hearing and the sight losses is really isolating,” Steiner tells Here & Now’s Robin Young. “So even though I was at the airport [and] I did not have a flight to catch, I couldn’t understand half of the announcements. The losses that you have can be a little bit overwhelming.”

Some other related reads:

This is how civilisations heal

I couldn’t decide whether to get Pachinko or A Gentleman in Moscow at the bookstore today, so I got both. Honestly, such a good problem to have.

I started to read A Gentleman in Moscow the moment I got home, clutching my prized bounty. I’m only on page 49 so far, and it has been delightful. Literary references were scattered everywhere in the pages. I enjoy playing guess of which literary piece this was from, but more so than often I needed help in the form of online search. The setting of the book was during 1922’s Moscow, and it tells of a Russian aristocrat, Count Alexander Rostov who was sentenced by a Bolshevik tribunal to a house arrest in an attic atop (non-fictitious, totally real) The Hotel Metropol for writing an allegedly seditious poem. “Let us return our attention to the poem,” the prosecutor said. “Coming as it did — in the more subdued years after the failed revolt of 1905 — many considered it call to action. Would you agree with that assessment?”

The Count answered, “All poetry is a call to action.”

There is an entire section in a chapter of the book where the Count could not wait for an appointment at noon, and while doing so he decided to read some chapters off Montaigne. There was a whole description of how one struggles to focus through a difficult book and time feels so slow especially when we are expecting something in the few hours to come, something all of us could probably relate — but unlike Amor Towles the writer, could put into words:

Until suddenly, the clock strikes twelve, “that long-strided watchman of the minutes caught up with his bowlegged brother at the top of the dial. As the two embraced, the springs within the clock’s casing loosened, the wheels spun, and the miniature hammer fell, setting off the first of those dulcet tones that signaled the arrival of noon.” I somehow know that this is going to be another book I would not stop talking about whenever someone asks (or not).

When the Count mentioned how all poetry is a call to action, it reminds me of this piece by the legendary Toni Morrison. Following the presidential re-election of George W. Bush, Morrison was struck with the feeling of dread. When a friend called, she confided she was feeling depressed to the point of being unable to work or write, when her friend interrupted, “This is precisely the time when artists go to work — not when everything is fine, but in times of dread.” She was reminded of how some great works were written in the prison cells, in hospital beds, in gulags, in conditions where one was expected not to work — but they did anyway.

“There is no time for despair, no place for self-pity, no need for silence, no room for fear. We speak, we write, we do language. That is how civilisations heal.”

Lists lists lists

Today that I learned that someone wrote a book specifically on my favourite thing ever: lists.

The book is called The Checklist Manifesto, written by surgeon Atul Gawande. I believe he wrote the book after he helped develop WHO’s surgical safety checklist — a 19-item list over the course of three stages of surgery — following the incident involving a wrongly operated person in Nairobi. In the book Gawande described two types of ideal checklists: DO-CONFIRM, in which you complete the tasks from memory and then go over the checklist to see if you have missed anything; and READ-DO, which is a checklist where you have to perform step-by-step.

Today’s Quartz Obsession — which is also my new obsession — speaks specifically about checklists. Everyone make checklists: surgeons (as illustrated by Gawande), astronauts, Chipotle’s managers, the president, tech people, my mum, and many others. I have heard this story before: Van Halen famously included a clause in his contract specifying that local promoters needed to provide the band with a bowl of M&M’s backstage, with brown one removed. If they were to find one brown M&M in the bowl, it was the indicator that the promoters didn’t read the entire contract, which included a number of safety important provisions. Author and semiotician Umberto Eco even went a bit morbid by claiming “we make lists because we don’t want to die“, citing some literary examples of how even Leopold Bloom in James Joyce’s Ulysses made a list of all the things he found in his drawer, and Homer listing down all the warriors and ships in The Iliad.

Those who know me, know how obsessed I am with lists and that I have lists for almost every task in my life. It is the most practical way or tool of — for the lack of a better phrase — quieting down the noise in my head. I view my brain as very high-end computer RAM — and like a computer RAM, if it gets bogged down with too many software and tasks running, it will be jammed. One way to reduce this mental load is to write down things in lists, so my brain is capable of taking and processing more information. Also, it’s highly useful! As someone who spent the last 7 years as a web project manager, I had no idea how to run, launch, debug, or maintain any projects without any proper checklists. I am also still struggling with the idea that some people often refuse to make lists of things they need to do, only to forget things at the end of the day and cause inconveniences whether to themselves or to others. It is even said that checklists could save lives in hospitals, and if there were some increase in mortality rates, it was likely that the medical teams treated checklists as insignificant.

So sit down and make that list!

Screaming into the Internet void

Possibly one week into Instagram hiatus now. There definitely was the temptation to log in and just scroll endlessly into the night like before, but upon clicking on the icon app and was met with the sign-in page, I was reminded of my own personal promise to stay away from it as long as I could. Was there FOMO? Not quite, because I get my news from Twitter — which, I think would slowly receive the very same fate with Instagram too (I have long stopped logging in to Facebook) — and I could catch up with friends over other backchannels (Whatsapp, Telegram, iMessage etc.). The only app I kept logged on is Snapchat, which, to be honest, is a ghost town — except for the previous few months when they introduced the gender-changing filters and Snapchat saw an increase in sign-ups.

There’s this article today on Snapchat and why some of us (i.e. me) seek refuge in this confusing app from the grinding utility of the Internet. One of the reasons I stopped using Instagram because I noticed I was getting too obsessed. I spent way too much time on it — particularly Instagram Story — that it started to become detrimental in a way that I become obsessed about what to post next and how to make it ‘proper’. When I thought about the idea of ‘proper’, I questioned, “who did I decide to make it proper for?” I am not an influencer, and I believe my personal friends I have on Instagram couldn’t care less whether my Stories were proper or not, they’d love me nevertheless (I hope). That was when I realised I was spiraling, and like quitting sugary drinks, I had no problems quitting things cold turkey.

The problem with Instagram, and perhaps other social media platforms as well also, is that it has started to become too embedded in your lives. I have heard of employers who conduct social media checks on their potential employees’ personal social media accounts before hiring them, and some even go to the trouble of calling aside their current employee in order to tell them to take down a personal post on a personal social media account, created before joining the company.

Perhaps more than anything else, what has sucked all of the joy out of the social internet in its current form is its exhortation to be useful. We have arrived at a version where everything seems to be just another version of LinkedIn. Every online space is supposed to get you a job or a partner or a stronger personal brand so you can accomplish the big, public-record goals of life. The public marketplace is everywhere. It’s an interactive and immersive CV, an archive. It all counts, and it all matters.

Also, where it clearly resonates with me:

I want to confess things out loud and be ignored. I want to say the things I can only say if I believe that I am nowhere.

Not to mention — this is also another confusing phrase when you think of it, since I explicitly want to mention about it — I am also very fond of this flying tumbleweed in the article.

Allegro con brio

I was never a musician, and was never trained as a musician. Which is why when I heard about the word allegro con brio today, which means ‘at a fast tempo, and with spirit’ (literally, ‘with brilliance’) my heart swells. It is not because it is a foreign word, although I have an affinity to learn bits and pieces of non-English words everywhere, but because of the nature of the word. With brilliance, at a fast tempo. It reminds me of a friend who celebrates her birthday today. A Leo, someone who moves at a fast tempo, with absolute brilliance, not a step out of place.

There’s this bookstore located in Chongqing, China, that I am dying to visit. Mirrored panels lined its entire ceiling. Zigzag staircases help form its whole entire perplexing interiors, creating the illusions of multiplicity and grandeur. The store was inspired by the stepwells in Rajasthan, India — which is why it seems familiar — where huge wells were located below ground which can only be accessed through successive flights of stairs. It looks like something out of a sci-fi movie — one of those from Christopher Nolan’s perhaps — or something out of the pages written by Carlos Ruiz Zafón, where cherished and threatened texts are protected within a secret labyrinthine library.

It somehow feels hard to write at least 300 words today here, but that’s also partly because I managed to write 2814 words tonight for the thesis. When I got to know that PhD students were to write at least a 60,000-word thesis, I used to think “what am I going to write about?”. Now, as I am 60% close to completion, my worry shifts to “how am I going to edit this out?” (my current word count for the whole thesis is 34, 056, and it has the potential to bloat.)

Speaking of numbers, and especially of 300, did you know: if you add all the integers from 1 to 24, the answer is 300? Or that a hedgehog’s heart beats 300 times a minute (what)? Or that Britain has up to 300 earthquakes a year, but most of them are too small for them to notice? Or that John Steinback wrote East of Eden using 300 pencils? And of course, that movie with Gerard Butler, the one coursing with masculinity and oily abs and super short shorts.

And with that, signing off for the weekend.

The misery does not validate the work

I managed to plow through another 1451 words today for the Findings chapter of my thesis. The chapter, as forewarned (by my advisor, who sees that brevity isn’t one of my strongest suits) can easily reach 100 pages.

‘Plow through’ is a funny phrase actually. It implies the act of persevering or forcing your way through, and it sounds like a physically and/or mentally demanding activity. In another definition, it also implies the act of slow progress through difficult or boring, like reading a very long-winding book because you have somehow personally imposed upon yourself the rule of finishing every book you start, or writing a dull report the boss makes you write. It can be this or that, and that’s how confusing English can be.

Today I learned about the existence of diaeresis, which refers to the two dots seen over vowel combinations to make sure that they are pronounced separately. These are words like ‘coöperation’, to indicate that the ‘coop’ in the word is pronounced ‘co-op’ and not ‘coop’; or ‘reëlect’, to indicate that it should be pronounced as ‘re-elect’ and not ‘reeh-lect’. Apparently, they do exist (I am today years old as I found out about it) — The New Yorker was pretty obsessed with it and even included diaereses in its style guide. If you think that is confusing, it is even pronounced “die-heiresses”.

When I was about to enrol in my doctoral programme, I bumped into someone within my work circle who had acquired her own doctorate. When I told her about it, she sniggered and said, “Good luck”. I was feeling particularly bothered about it, so I asked her what she meant, to which she said, “Good luck, because it will be tough.” And I was like, “OK, so everything is challenging. Do you have any tips?” She said something along the lines of “it’s so tough” again, “prepare to cry a lot”, and “it is just the way it is” when I asked if there’s anything she had learned, so one could take note and make it easier for others. I didn’t receive any satisfying answers beyond “it’s tough because it is meant to be.”

And that’s really mind-boggling about this whole “it’s tough because it is meant to be” notion. I get it, every single experience in your life can be challenging. But if there is any opportunity for you as someone who has experienced it to dispense some tips to others to navigate it, or open the door for others, why not do it? What is this whole prevalence of “I suffered so others must too” mentality in academia, or any industry in general?

(If I ever do the whole “I suffered so others must too” attitude in any smallest sense, please please smack some sense into me. You have my permission.)

As I went through the deluge of quotes pouring in in remembrance of Toni Morrison, a lodestar whose work helped upend an entire literary canon of bringing the light of African-American identity, this whole passage from her speech delivered in 1981 caught my attention:

We need protection in the form of structure: an accessible organisation that is truly representative of the diverse interests of all writers. An organisation committed to the rights of the few. And we need protection in the form of clarity, a knowledge of the limits of individualism and the private, indulgent suffering it fosters. We have to stop loving our horror stories. Joyce’s Ulysses was rejected fourteen times. I don’t like that story; I hate it. Fitzgerald burned out and could not work. Hemingway despaired and could not work. A went mad, B died in penury, C drank herself to death, D was blacklisted, E committed suicide. I hate those stories. Great works are written in prisons and holding camps. So are stupid books. The misery does not validate the work. It outrages the sensibilities and violates the work.

Remember this: the misery does not validate the work.

Discarding the ephemerality

It’s my second day of my hiatus from Instagram today.

It’s definitely too early to talk about what I have learned over my ‘digital detox’ — if I could call it that, because I still practically live on Twitter — but I have thought a lot about how Instagram Story have somehow rewired my photo taking habits. My Instagram account is bloated by comparison to others. I have over 4000 photos uploaded to my main feed/page, which was a result of my daily photo-taking habit when I was studying and staying abroad. Those were the times when none of the Story format were available yet, so everything is up on the main page and you could easily view them without having them disappear in 24 hours.

Then there’s also that habit of deciding on multiple apps to take the photo when you come across something worth photographing — do I just take it on the native iPhone camera app, or straight away on Instagram story camera — but then, the formats don’t fit with each other (Instagram story dimensions are 1080px by 1920px, whilst the camera 750px x 1334px). If taken using the native app and uploaded to Story, some dimensions might change and I have to do prior editing. But if I were to take the picture using the camera view on Instagram Story, the resolution turns out to be poorer and further edits might diminish the quality of the whole photo.

So there, the whole (personal) conundrum of just taking one photo if I factor posting it to Instagram Story. I know not everyone is as obsessed with this as I am so it’s definitely a personal problem, and I WANT to be taking proper photos like before — taking it slow and steady to compose a proper caption and whatnot. Discarding the ephemerality in this fast-paced world of it all, you know.

It’s still two days into the hiatus so far, so we’ll see how it works soon.

Give up the shit that weighs you down

Photo of author Toni Morrison in black and white, as she faces away from the camera.
Photo: David Levenson/Getty

Toni Morrison passed away today.

Like many works of literary geniuses, I began to read her work fairly late in life. I began with Song of Solomon, where I stumbled upon my most ever favourite quote of hers: “You wanna fly, you got to give up the shit that weighs you down.” It has always been used in the context of personal/individual advancement in ads about yoga or fitness, which made me cringe now but something I was also guilty of (the purely individual advancement part, not the yoga or fitness part). But we all know Morrison’s writings, like many of activists’, will never be purely intended for the good of one individual person. It is always for the collective good. “You wanna fly, you got to give up the shit that weighs you down” as the idea of flight, refers to the imprisonment of African-Americans, the designed segregation of their folks from the entire country, and the systemic racism and oppression that leads to their poverty. “The shit that weighs [you] down” could symbolise to the imprisonment created by these conditions, and this is something Milkman, the character in Song of Solomon is struggling with as he tried to ‘fly’, to achieve his freedom.

The racial dynamics in my country is, without doubt, is different than what Morrison and her fellow black folks experience in the United States. But as someone who belongs to one of the majority ethnic groups in Malaysia, reading Morrison, it had lead me to believe that even if one person isn’t free, none of us are. I could not call myself an ally if none of the marginalised people whose voices aren’t heard enough to make a change in the world would not consider me so, and this is something I have to earn.

“I tell my students, “when you get these jobs that you have been so brilliantly trained for, just remember that your real job is that if you are free, you need to free somebody else. If you have some power, then your job is to empower somebody else. This is not just a grab-bag candy game”.”

I feel absolutely devastated right now. It feels selfish to feel so, when she had done so much and I have not even started anything much. However, I am grateful for the opportunity to live in the same time and space as the light such as Toni Morrison. All I can hope is that in the very near future, all of us could achieve something even the smallest slight of her achievements, and to be able to do good for others too. Thank you Toni, for teaching us so much. Rest in power.

Related:

NOSMO

I made a decision to log out of my Instagram account, uninstall the app, and go on indefinite hiatus today.

There are two reasons mainly. One, is that I decide to place myself within some personal crunchtime towards submitting my thesis in all its entirety. I am happy that this is going well so far, and to be honest, I am still doing well despite still logged in to Instagram, or other social media platforms. Second is perhaps to deter a more destructive habit that I have developed — that is, mindlessly scrolling through the Instagram Story of everyone in my list till I eventually fall asleep. It was ridiculous. It has come to the point that I would not be able to fall asleep without a phone in my hand. So I decided I had to do something.

I am also feeling personally, or maybe collectively, bogged down with all the terrible news in the world. The climate emergency and the indifference of our leaders and the corporations who caused this, the growing anger and grievances of people around the world — Sudan, Hong Kong, and today Kashmir, among others — against the leaders and their governments (this is pretty rich coming from a Political Sociology candidate whose area is social movements and technology), the rising fascism, oppression etc. — in short, issues that make me feel helpless. It is also my privilege that enables me to log off and be able to miss out, while there are others who live out there in constant fear, and that makes feel even more helpless.

Over the weekend I have also been thinking about the idea of being bored productively. I know, it is such a contradiction. However in three studies done by the people at Australian National University which looked at boredom’s effects on idea generation, negative emotions like anger and frustration, and differences in responses to dullness by personality types, it shows that boredom led to more creative ideas and higher productivity. But! “Only those individuals with a high learning goal orientation, high need for cognition, high openness to experience, and high internal locus of control showed a significant increase in creativity when feeling bored,” the research team found. Which means that, doing nothing still requires some effort.

How does it feel to be truly bored? To be experiencing la noia as the ‘most sublime of all human emotions‘? To be bored enough to write a poem dedicated to the feeling, describing it ‘world-weary’ and ‘soul-destroying fiend’? Or paint it? The Dutch have a word for when you don’t know how to be bored — niksen, which literally means do nothing, or be idle. “Stop doing everything right now. Congratulations, you just did a niksen. It is essentially sanctioned daydreaming.” It isn’t necessarily easy (!) as boredom can lead to rumination, and rumination can lead to increased heart rate and trouble sleeping. You know, like those 2 pm mental movies playing in your head as you tried to drift off to sleep. Trying to be bored is even hard work!

I was also initially worried about FOMO before I tried to log off Instagram just now, but I happened to stumble upon this Doug Belshaw’s blog post over tea on how to deal with this overwhelming feeling of just being, especially in this highly technologised world (“the decisions I made about tech are decisions I make about life“). He shared these commandments from Kathy Sierra’s 2006 blog post — which is surprisingly still relevant — on how to consume Internet things smartly:

  • Find the best aggregators
  • Get summaries
  • Cut the redundancy!
  • Unsubscribe to as many things as possible
  • Recognise that gossip and celebrity entertainment are black holes
  • Pick the categories you want for a balanced perspective, and include some from OUTSIDE your main field of interest
  • Be a LOT more realistic about what you’re likely to get to, and throw the rest out.
  • In any thing you need to learn, find a person who can tell you what is:
    • Need to know
    • Should know
    • Nice to know
    • Edge case, only if it applies to you specifically
    • Useless

In any case also, let’s turn FOMO into NOSMO — which is Jenny Odell‘s reformulation of the four-letter acronym and it stands for ‘Necessity Of Sometimes Missing Out’.