Returning to poetry

Roughly 7 years ago, I found myself in an awful place. I just managed to escape out of a toxic relationship and despite cherishing the newfound freedom with immense support from my wonderful network of friends — what would I do without them — I found myself terribly afraid of the future, especially since I was moving to London in a couple of months after that. In that moment of time, I found Sarah Kay’s TEDTalk video. That was how I started to dabble in poetry, however novice and average.

Sarah Kay’s video led me to find more amazing works of other contemporary poets such as Anis Mojgani (whom I flew in 2013 to meet in an event in Melbourne!), Buddy Wakefield, Andrea Gibson, and many more. I started writing some of my own poems, and participated in spoken word events in my university. I was told that despite the first impression of a taciturn, timid girl I emitted upon entering the stage, my energy when I was performing glued people to their seats. What’s impressive during that time I was at my lowest point — coping with the reality of my father’s passing, miles away from my home country — but also at the same time, I was the happiest in my completely new surroundings where I can start anew.

In a chapter of Teju Cole’s collection of essays, Known and Strange Things, he wrote about the poetry of Nobel Prize winner and Swedish poet Tomas Tranströmer, of whom he referred to his ‘ports of refuge’. “I turn to him when I wish to come as close as possible to what cannot be said. The new century has been full of dark years, and I have returned again and again to poets”, Cole wrote. His favourite book of Tranströmer’s poems is The Half-Finished Heaven. This was the volume that he “turned to the most during the horrors of the Bush and Cheney years.” Despite his fading belief in God, he “needed to somehow retain belief in a cloud of witnesses”, and his “hunger for miracle speech had not abated”. For this, Cole found himself refuge in poetry, specifically Tomas Tranströmer’s.

Cole isn’t alone in recognising and seeking solace in words. Poetry is political, according to Adrienne Rich. In her book What Is Found There: Notebooks in Poetry and Politics, she examined “the long, erotic, unended wrestling of poetry and politics”, touching on topics such as dealing with power corruption, art & capitalism, resisting defeatism in an ever-increasing challenging world, and the role of poetry in the immigrant experience.

It hardly matters if the poet has fled into expatriation, emigrated inwardly, looked toward Europe or Asia for models, written stubbornly of the terrible labour conditions underpinning wealth, written from the microcosm of the private existence, written as convict or aristocrat, as lover or misanthrope: all our work has suffered from the destabilising national fantasy, the rupture of imagination implicit in our history.

But turn it around and say it on the other side: in a history of spiritual rupture, a social compact built on fantasy and collective secrets, poetry becomes more necessary than ever: it keeps the underground aquifers flowing; it is the liquid voice that can wear through stone.

Poets newly arriving here — by boat or plane or bus, on foot or hidden in the trunks of cars, from Cambodia, from Haiti, from Central America, from Russia, from Africa, from Pakistan, from Bosnia-Herzegovina, from wherever people, uprooted, flee to the land of the free, the goldene medina, the tragic promised land — they too will have to learn all this.

At the 65th annual National Book Awards, Ursula K. Le Guin took to the podium while accepting the Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters, on writing, poetry and freedom:

I think hard times are coming, when we will be wanting the voices of writers who can see alternatives to how we live now, and can see through our fear-stricken society and its obsessive technologies, to other ways of being. And even imagine some real grounds for hope. We will need writers who can remember freedom: poets, visionaries—the realists of a larger reality. Right now, I think we need writers who know the difference between production of a market commodity and the practice of an art. The profit motive is often in conflict with the aims of art. We live in capitalism. Its power seems inescapable; so did the divine right of kings. Power can be resisted and changed by human beings; resistance and change often begin in art, and very often in our art — the art of words. I’ve had a long career and a good one, in good company, and here, at the end of it, I really don’t want to watch American literature get sold down the river. The name of our beautiful reward is not profit. Its name is freedom.

I don’t write poems anymore, to be honest I don’t think I am good at it — but if there is ever a need for one day for me, for all my writer friends to return to poetry as a way to keep the underground aquifers flowing, for freedom — then I am all for it.

Language we use

One of the things I enjoy as a copyeditor is having the opportunity to be involved with a great number of wonderful projects through the documents I edit. One such particular lesson is to learn — although sometimes indirectly — how to build a styleguide of inclusive language where everyone feels welcome and included, regardless of background, ethnicities, sexual orientations, etc. and many other qualities that make us all unique. Some of these styleguides vary according to the nature of the documents I was working on, but most of the times a lot of them serve as a generic framework for the other fields as well. One very important thing I learned is that you always default to put people first, instead of their characteristics e.g. instead of “a blind person”, use “a man who is blind”, instead of “drug user”, use “people who use drugs”. Buffer outlines some good principles of using inclusive language, especially in the tech industry. Some other useful resources include these ones from British Columbia Public Service and Emerson College, which also outline the principles of inclusive language taking into consideration of culture and ancestry, political beliefs, marital or family status, and power-based interpersonal violence.

I also recently read about the language we use to describe our data, if reframed, can help us to fix our problems. Consider all of these data metaphors (also this):

It’s the “new oil” that fuels online business. It comes in floods or tsunamis. We access it via “streams” or “fire hoses.” We scrape it, mine it, bank it, and clean it. (Or, if you prefer your buzzphrases with a dash of ageism and implicit misogyny, big data is like “teenage sex,” while working with it is “the sexiest job” of the century.)

Data is often described as natural resources that are ready to be captured, mined, and capitalised on:

Natural-resource metaphors abound in discussions of data. Whether it is extracting oil or managing floods, data is often conceived as a kind of naturally existing resource ready to be captured, mined, and capitalised on.

What if we reframe our data to a more humane language?

In the digital realm, the idea of data stewardship should extend to how we think about the responsibilities of those tasked with collecting, storing, and making money off of our personal data. It should also extend to the content moderators and other workers labouring behind the scenes to make our online lives liveable. When we do assign a human face to data, it’s rarely of those workers around the world who are actually doing the cleaning, extracting, and labeling—and these folks need consideration and protection too.

As we speak about the health — physical and mental — of content moderators, it reminded me of this article on why sending death threats on a peanut mascot should not be tolerated (and screw you VICE for running the article), the hidden consequences of moderating social media, and three types of content moderation strategies.

Our data represents every bit of ourselves, which is why it’s important to handle it with the humanely care it deserves! And this starts with reframing the language of our data to use people metaphors.

Ethics for data scientists ought to be as explicit about the power dynamics and historical oppressions that shape our world. This means acknowledging and codifying the complicity of data-driven work—from population data collection to algorithmic decision-making—in perpetuating racist, sexist, and other oppressive harms.

The metaphors we use to understand data are powerful. As digital media scholars Cornelius Puschmann and Jean Burgess put it, they’re “cognitively and culturally indispensable for the understanding of complex and novel phenomena,” including new technologies like data analytics, machine learning, and artificial intelligence.

It’s critical to treat data “ethics” not as an end, but as a starting point, and limiting conversations about the societal impacts and obligations of data science solely to professional ethics would be a big mistake. Because if data is the new oil, its benefits will no doubt come with a devastating cost.

How to start doing this? We can start with recognising and questioning why our systems are imbalanced:

Leading the way instead are scientists and engineers who don’t seem to understand how to represent how we live as individuals or in groups—the main ways we live, work, cooperate, and exist together—nor how to incorporate into their models our ethnic, cultural, gender, age, geographic or economic diversity, either. The result is that AI will benefit some of us far more than others, depending upon who we are, our gender and ethnic identities, how much income or power we have, where we are in the world, and what we want to do.

This isn’t new. The power structures that developed the world’s complex civic and corporate systems were not initially concerned with diversity or equality, and as these systems migrate to becoming automated, untangling and teasing out the meaning for the rest of us becomes much more complicated. In the process, there is a risk that we will become further dependent on systems that don’t represent us.

As companies are becoming aware of these repercussions and have taken initiatives to develop ethical guidelines — which is good — more questions should surface: on whose ethical grounds do we base the guideline on?

All of this means that the “ethics” that are informing digital technology are essentially biased, and that many of the proposals for ethics in AI —developed as they are by existing computer scientists, engineers, politicians, and other powerful entities — are flawed, and neglect much of the world’s many cultures and ways of being. For instance, a search of the OECD AI ethics guidelines document reveals no mention of the word “culture,” but many references to “human.” Therein lies one of the problems with standards, and with the bias of the committees who are creating them: an assumption of what being “human” means, and the assumption that the meaning is the same for every human.

One proven way to improve the engineering approach to be more inclusive to AI is by adding the social sciences:

This is why tech companies’ AI labs need social science and cross-cultural research: It takes time and training to understand the social and cultural complexities that are arising in tandem with the technological problems they seek to solve. Meanwhile, expertise in one field and “some knowledge” about another is not enough for the engineers, computer scientists, and designers creating these systems when the stakes are so high for humanity.

Artificial intelligence must be developed with an understanding of who humans are collectively and in groups (anthropology and sociology), as well as who we are individually (psychology), and how our individual brains work (cognitive science), in tandem with current thinking on global cultural ethics and corresponding philosophies and laws. What it means to be human can vary depending upon not just who we are and where we are, but also when we are, and how we see ourselves at any given time. When crafting ethical guidelines for AI, we must consider “ethics” in all forms, particularly accounting for the cultural constructs that differ between regions and groups of people — as well as time and space.

I have also finished reading Edward Said’s The Politics of Dispossession and caught a few pages where he stressed on the importance of the language we use. Here are some passages from the chapter ‘Identity, Negation, and Violence’ on the usage of the word ‘terrorism’ devoid of context:

I must therefore confess that I find the entire arsenal of words and phrases that derive from the concept of terrorism both inadequate and shameful. There are a few ways of talking about terrorism now that are not corrupted by the propaganda war even of the past decade, ways that have become, in my opinion, disqualified as instruments for conducting a rational, secular inquiry into the cause of human violence.

Contemporary “terrorism” is thereafter identified with terrorists, who, as I have been saying, are most often “our” enemies, and are Muslim, Palestinian etc. Similarly, “we” are the West, moral, collectively incapable of such inhuman behaviour.

On how should we operatively dissect the word “terrorism”, as the phenomena does not exist in a vacuum and is often produced out of political opportunities of the country, region, or group:

Terrorism, in short, must be directly connected to the very processes of identity in modern society, from nationalism, to statism, to cultural and ethnic affirmation, to the whole array of political, rhetorical, educational, and governmental devices that go into consolidating one or another identity.

There is a room for intellectual discussion that partakes neither of the expert discourse of counterterrorism, nor of the partisan affirmations about “our” identity. That kind of intellectual discussion may involve taking positions on specific political conflicts in which terrorism or state-violence is regularly employed.

Talking about terrorism can therefore become an occasion for something other than solemn, self-righteous pontification about what makes “us” worth protecting and “them” worth attacking.

TL:DR; words matter, contexts matter even more, hire social scientists (or consider a multidisciplinary team).

Calling bullshit

I have a habit of downloading Kindle book samples so I could read the first few pages before buying its physical copy (if I like it), but I was so deprived of a good book to read I just decided to purchase one, and now currently am regretting it because I am 6% through and it’s not even that good. Is there a German word for regretting an impulsive Kindle book purchase, that specific?

It’s not entirely surprising that I managed to finish the third season of Stranger Things in just two days (some people finished it on the very same day it was released!) and needless to say, I love it! I think it is the best season out of all three — although it works in the very format of Ariana Grande’s meme, Season 1 taught me love, Season 2 taught me patience, and Season 3 taught me utter pain and despair! Now I couldn’t get the Neverending Story song out of my head. I thought it will never get worse but some people are just enablers:

I’m a sucker for syllabuses posted online, which seems like a thing going on now — I could never remember any of my university course syllabus posted publicly or even anything remotely this interesting — so I am definitely enrolling in this course.

What do we mean, exactly, by ‘bullshit’ and ‘calling bullshit’ ? As a first approximation:

‘Bullshit’ involves language, statistical figures, data graphics, and other forms of presentation intended to persuade by impressing and overwhelming a reader or listener, with a blatant disregard for truth and logical coherence.

‘Calling bullshit’ is a performative utterance, a speech act in which one publicly repudiates something objectionable. The scope of targets is broader than bullshit alone. You can call bullshit on bullshit, but you can also call bullshit on lies, treachery, trickery, or injustice.

In this course we will teach you how to spot the former and effectively perform the latter.

Don’t dismiss humble acquaintance

I finished Normal People by Sally Rooney today. It’s still not for me, for the very same reason I wrote yesterday. And that’s OK, not all books work for everyone! Moving on.

A good friend visited me in my city the other day and we had a lot to catch up about (and stuff our faces with). Eventually the conversation took a turn into the question of our current social lives. She just moved to an island 45 minutes ferry ride from where I live — and here we are in our 30s, contemplating on how to make new friends in a place completely new to us. I have lived in this city for close to 4 years, and although I did make a few acquaintances, not all of them blossomed into some meaningful friendships. We then talked about our lives abroad, and how we missed elaborate breakfast and lunches with friends. I mentioned that despite loving how chill this city of mine is compared to Kuala Lumpur or any other busy metropolitan cities, I do miss having a company of friends around (my closest friends, aside from herself, are based in Kuala Lumpur). She said, no — “you miss having a quality company.” I suppose she’s right.

So how do we start having a quality company, if in our 30s where our social capital is depleting, and we have pretty much have some definite criteria of people we want to keep around — and to be honest, they’re not abundant and the sample is not too promising? There’s this article on making friends that appeared in my inbox today, which again, had some semblance to what I have written in my thesis, don’t dismiss the strength of weak ties (that’s the network theory of Granovetter’s by the way):

To begin with, don’t dismiss the humble acquaintance. Even interacting with people with whom one has weak social ties has a meaningful influence on well-being, Beyond that, building deeper friendships may be largely a matter of putting in time. A recent study out of the University of Kansas found that it takes about 50 hours of socialising to go from acquaintance to casual friend, an additional 40 hours to become a “real” friend, and a total of 200 hours to become a close friend.

If that sounds like too much effort, reviving dormant social ties can be especially rewarding. Reconnected friends can quickly recapture much of the trust they previously built, while offering each other a dash of novelty drawn from whatever they’ve been up to in the meantime And if all else fails, you could start randomly confiding in people you don’t know that well in hopes of letting the tail wag the relational dog. Self-disclosure makes us more likable, and as a bonus, we are more inclined to like those to whom we have bared our soul.

I also loved this article on learning about a new place through a grocery store, because that’s definitely what I did whenever I go travelling!

The secret museum in every city is a grocery store. It’s where you can grab and squeeze and not-at-all-weirdly smell indigenous produce. The fishmonger runs an aquarium. The butcher is a zookeeper. But groceries also hoard the culture’s guilty pleasures — its Netflix-and-chill snacks are in its potato-chip flavors (my native London favorite was a packet of sea-salt-and-Chardonnay-wine-vinegar crisps, and Marmite ones always hit the spot, too). Its childhoods are in its confections (I loved Icelandic Prince Polo chocolate bars, which are actually imported from Poland). I am constantly on the lookout for jars of gently tart zarour jam, so freely available in my mother’s hometown of Bethlehem, in Israeli-occupied Palestine. It’s the last tree that still bears fruit in her abandoned childhood home.

Or maybe next time I should try something new — become a library archive tourist, where “it’s like a museum but with no people, and where you have to do all the work, which is honestly my idea of a perfect vacation”.

Honestly, I badly need a vacation now.

We are all a library

I have been hesitating for a bit, but finally got myself a copy of Normal People by Sally Rooney today. This was because almost all of the ‘so far’ lists (for examples this, this, this, this, this, and this) would have it in one of the upper levels of the charts. So naturally I got intrigued.

Normal People tells of two young people, Connell and Marianne, who grew up in the same small town in Ireland. Marianne came from a wealthy family but she was not very well-liked at school, whereas Connell, whose mother worked at Marianne’s house, came from a middle-class family (in fact, it was only Connell and his mother) but was very popular. Along the years as they also made their way into the same college, their lives intertwined with each other as they waded through the challenges in their lives together. That is as far as I can tell, because I am only in page 66 so far.

At this moment, I am honestly still struggling to find my footing with the book. This is the thing about reading books that have received such high praises for me, granted I know not all books work for everyone — I already have high expectations of it and I want the magic to happen now. But it has been over 50 pages and I still haven’t found it. I told a friend it probably also has to do with the fact that I just returned from British-occupied Nablus, was still newly immersed in the Isabella Hammad’s beautiful and lingering prose (Rooney’s prose are exact and definite e.g. “Lately he’s consumed by a sense that he is in fact two separate people, and soon he will have to choose which person to be on a full-time basis, and leave the other person behind”), and was still recovering from a story spanning across multiple years — hence the problems in Normal People seem so individual at this point of time. Your previously read book has a significant impact on your next one, so it turns out.

But also, I am only on page 66, so I am really excited to read on and find out the appeal.

In another story, I just stumbled upon this amazing 4-piece gypsy jazz / waltz rock indie band from New Delhi called Peter Cat Recording Co., whose crooning music is reminiscent of Dean Martin, Peter Bjorn and John (in fact even better), and the psychedelic cabaret also reminds of a band of personal favourite, Beirut. My favourite tracks are ‘I’m Home’ and ‘Love Demons’.

There’s also this haunting passage on death and yet another theme of multitudinous of identities written by Joanne McNeil in her newsletter All My Stars:

I am reminded of these lines in Susan Orlean’s The Library Book:

In Senegal, the polite expression for saying someone died is to say his or her library has burned. When I first heard the phrase, I didn’t understand it, but over time I came to realise it was perfect. Our minds and souls contain volumes inscribed by our experiences and emotions; each individual’s consciousness is a collection of memories we’ve catalogued and stored inside us, a private library of a life lived.

We are all a library, I guess.

On the multitudinous of identities

I have to admit that I had a hard time reading the first few pages of Isabella Hammad’s debut novel The Parisian. Don’t get me wrong, the writing is absolutely beautiful. It made a delightful journey throughout this 600-page book set in Nablus during the dying days of the Ottoman Empire, Istanbul, Cairo, Montpellier, and Paris, added with some background of the geopolitics of the diaspora interspersed all throughout without overwhelming you on the slightest bit. Hammad, who was a student of Zadie Smith’s in the MFA programme at New York University, wrote interesting imageries where things do things to you instead of the other way round e.g. “umbrellas sprouted in the rain” or “the table smacks his hand three times”. On top of that, there are quite a number of Arabic and French colloquialism e.g. “Only a Parisian could be tellement fier du Languedoc” or “Are there any good restaurants for lunch? Ishi baseet, ya’ani, not too heavy” that could break your momentum while reading and made you reach for Google Translate. But I love how unapologetic she is with this decision of hers, and I also have to thank her for making me learn new Arabic and French words. In her words of her description of her character Midhat, “with the accidental definiteness of a person using a second language.”

The story to me, more so than about the effect of a nation and society on the brink of being ravaged by war, is about the multitudinous of identity pre and post-colonial times, especially as we kept hearing colonialism apologists saying “colonialism is good for you” or “you wouldn’t get train tracks if not for colonialism” (trust me, that’s an actual line I have heard). The main character, Midhat, was sent to Montpellier by his father in 1914 to study medicine, also as a way to escape being enlisted in the Turkish conscription. In Montpellier, he fell in love with his host’s daughter, Jeanette. When he found out that his host, Dr Molineu, was conducting an anthropological study on him as “the Muslim as a deviation from the onward progression” without his informed consent, he confronted him. Jeanette sided with her father, and Midhat left for Paris heartbroken. He enrolled in Sorbonne to read history and returned to his British-occupied hometown Nablus five years later, strutting his stuff around the streets of the city clad extravagantly in a suit and tie which earned him the nickname ‘The Parisian’, or al-Barisi. Years later, after he married a local woman from a wealthy Nabulsi family, a single incident invoked his memories of Jeanette. As his childhood friends were fighting for independence for their country, Midhat found himself rendered inept of recognising the world around him as he drowned farther and farther into his past memories.

On the question of identity as one grapples with the flawed idea of ‘colonialism helps’ and Eurocentric idea of progress, even if he is oblivious, Midhat found that “his life had become multiple” after he left France. As he talked to his friends and family and waded the narrow alleys of the city that resides in between two mountains, he “was learning to dissemble and pass between spheres and to accommodate, morally, that dissemblance through an understanding of his own impermanence in each.” His cousin, Jamil — who was involved in the Palestinian armed resistance against the British and Zionist forces at the time — wasn’t quite happy with how Midhat presented himself, given France’s colonial record in Palestine.

Everyone knew France was a cancer of imperial force, leeching life from Arab households. To be a Parisian in Nablus was to be out of step with the times, locked in an old colonial formula where subjects imitated masters as if in the seams of their old garments they hoped to find some dust of power left trapped. This was not precisely the case with Midhat, who seemed rather blind to the deep meaning of his costumes, and was certainly not striving for power or superiority when he meticulously crimped a mouchoir in his pocket and said, “Voulez vous?

There was some definite truth when it was said that anthropology was complicit with colonialism at its core — the handmaiden of colonialism — as was demonstrated by how Doctor Molineu conducted his study on the ‘backwardness’ and ‘deviation’ of Midhat as “L’oriental”, and Father Antoine in writing a book about the people of Nablus as he sought for stories, gossips, and insiders from the trustful, friendly locals, whose information turned to be useful to the British. As the modern anthropology progresses and evolves, it is good that about time we do a critical re-examination of these practices. Also as researchers, we need to think of the consequences of our work and how it could be used to inflict harm despite us not intending for it, as illustrated in this paragraph where Father Antoine regretted what he had done.

He knew all about the families, who had feuded, who allied. He knew the kinds of crimes committed and how they were commonly avenged. It had not occurred to him that those acts of retribution he sometimes noted might be something the British should police; he simply observed them from an anthropological view. And yet there they were, listed in his book, ripe for such analysis. The bloody scene of Nebi Musa pulsed in his mind.

The relationship between the women of Kamal and Hammad family is also certainly worth talking about. Um Jamil, or teta (grandmother) of Midhat is the embodiment of Asian mothers that I knew and grew up with — persistent, highly superstitious, and always on a good lookout for new gossips. Mothers outlive their sons as they perished, sometimes just in the streets right outside their doors. How far you would go for familial love, as Midhat ruminates, “we love our fathers too much”. Fatima and Sahar’s friendship — built only entirely on pleasantries due to the friendship of their husbands’ — was tepid to say at least, but very interesting.

There were only six years between them, but it was enough for Fatima to feel some conflict about treating Sahar as an equal. Over the years she had become as obsessed with status as her mother once was, and at times appeared to lord it over Sahar, a tendency which Sahar, an expert at managing condescension, and preternaturally capable of appearing both deferential and at ease, politely ignored.

In any nation, whatever happens, whatever policies men enforce, women are affected the most. The true enemy of women is not confined to their state or their enemy, but perhaps combined together — sing with me — pat-riar-chy! “Men claim to have principles but really they care about keeping power” This is also evident in the most recent news on the tweet about Quebec Education Minister Jean-François Roberge addressing how Pakistani activist Malala Yousufzai — the freaking Malala! — could teach in Quebec, but “like in other open and tolerant countries, teachers can’t wear religious symbols while they exercise their functions.”

They would prefer we taught them to embroider and left it there, I think. And hygiene, which they are obsessed with. The inspector calls it maintaining the status quo, keeping Arab girls at home… or maintaining tradition, he said. What’s comical is that it has become rather fashionable to send them to school. Every father in Nablus seems to want his daughters to learn history, and do you know why? To make appealing wives. Nabulsi men like good conversationalists. So in the end, I suppose they all have the same purpose in view.

I have seen a number of lists for summer reads this year. What I can say is, The Parisian — in all its brilliance, intensity, and technicalities — is not fit for summer reading. Not because it’s awful or weak or slow — how could I say that about the book that has received some glowing comparisons to Flaubert and Stendhal — but The Parisian deserves all your focus as you navigate a story teeming with love, betrayal, war, and the antics of a stubborn, unbreakable familial bond. This is not the read to lounge under the parasol as you tan yourself with. Be ready for gasps — good kind of gasps — and at the end of your read, you might find yourself trying to explain things by inserting ya’ani in between your sentences.

I am experienced enough

I think about this scene where Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez doing this speaking into existence thing from the documentary Knock Down the House all the time, particularly when I feel I do not deserve good stuff or I feel terribly nervous about embarking on new things. I may also have been practically shoving this link to everyone or been aggressively recommending people to watch the documentary because it is so good I have written about it, so if you haven’t watched it, please do.

On uncompetitive purposefulness

“If you want to concentrate deeply on some problem, and especially some piece of writing or paper-work,” Muriel Spark counseled, “you should acquire a cat.” (via Brain Pickings)

Something short tonight because the third season of Strangers Things is out today (!!!) and I am off to binge-watch. I just sat down today and was just mindlessly scrolling through Instagram and Twitter, reading my friend’s posts talking about their mid of the year achievements and couldn’t help being so proud of them. Whenever people ask me if turning mid 30s is going to get better, I would tell them yes, definitely is, for the fact that you longer dgaf and despite always looking forward to improve yourself, you are becoming more content. You have also come to a conclusion that other people’s achievements will in no way diminish your own, a concept — believe it or not — so foreign to some people sometimes.

I was reminded of this review Maria Popova of Brain Pickings wrote of the illustrated book The White Cat and the Monk, on resting into ‘their respective gladnesses in quiet camaraderie’ — the monk in his pursuit of knowledge, the cat in its own pursuit of predatory nature, as they sit together side by side — embracing the joy of ‘uncompetitive purposefulness’:

Written as a playful ode in the ninth century, today the poem lives partway between lamentation and celebration — it stands as counterpoint to our culture of competitive striving and ceaseless self-comparisons, but it also reminds us that the accomplishments of others aren’t to the detriment of our own; that we can remain purposeful about our pursuits while rejoicing in those of others; that we can choose to amplify each other’s felicity because there is, after all, enough to go around even in the austerest of circumstances.

In praise of boring UX

I changed my network settings the other day, which in turn means that I have to update all the devices inside the house with the new SSID and password. I forgot one device to update, and that is the printer with the wireless connection setup. The night before I left for the university, it failed to print stuff and I was getting agitated until I realised what happened.

Updating your printer configurations for the second time onwards feels like filing your taxes every year — it’s an annual event, which by right it is supposed to come easy for you, but it doesn’t. So I looked online for how to update connection using WPS (Wi-Fi Protected Setup), and this is how the manual, in all its myriad of buttons, looks like:

Instructions on how to set up printer network using WPS (Wi-Fi Protected Setup)

Evidently the method of trying to push multiple buttons doesn’t work, so before I grew even more livid I grabbed the USB cable and just set up the entire thing offline and before I knew it, the printer managed to spit out 50 pages worth of thesis chapters to be submitted the next day. It’s incredibly low-key, this USB cable method — which is why I am still holding on to my 2014 Macbook Pro — yet it still worked.

I came across this article today from Ryan Bigge of Shopify, in defense of incredibly boring UX, “…. clear and straightforward content, design, and code that solves key pain points. No surprise. No delight. It’s the non-design of IA Writer or the simple poetry of plain language.”

This paragraph resonates with my printer woes:

This problem isn’t unique to digital design. Here’s how you get extra hot water from a popular brand of dispenser: Press B twice. When orange light stops flashing press B, then A. Meanwhile, many push doors still have pull handles and most hotel thermostats remain incomprehensible.

In the proliferation of ‘unboring’ designs sprouting from the portfolios of Dribbble, designs without briefs, designs without consideration on the real business or societal problems, because, we don’t want it to turn out like the false missile alert case:

In an August blog post, Intercom’s Paul Adams criticised Dribbble by saying that “Too many designers are designing to impress their peers rather than address real business problems.” Adams argued that “the most important product design is usually the ugliest” and that designers should flood Dribbble with “whiteboard sketches, hand drawings, and back of the napkin problem solving.”

Multiple screenshots of weather apps on phones
“Hey Dribbble! You should take your umbrella today. Everything else here is just visual noise.” In other words, omit needless decoration. (Caption by original author)

On why boring UX works:

As Nielsen Norman Group UX Specialist Therese Fessenden argued in 2017, “A product must first, before anything else, satisfy a need and be useful.” That sounds obvious, but the obituary pages of Wired and Fast Company are filled the digital equivalent of chindogu.

“Only when a product is functional, reliable, and usable can users appreciate the delightful, pleasurable, or enjoyable aspects of the experience,” notes Fessenden. In other words, boring underpins delight —and sometimes boring is delightful. Popular apps like Pocket and Instapaper, along with Safari’s reader view, turn exciting into boring by rescuing content from the evil clutches of hyperactive design and indestructible retargeting ads.

Don’t get sucked into the technicalities of design — experiences matter, and/or rather, “do your best to serve users, not your ego”

Endless debates about indentations, rounded corners, and colour choices are UX’s version of the sunk cost fallacy. Nothing digital design can offer compares to the experiential joy of an Airbnb host in Dublin recommending the perfect nearby bar. Or a Chicago Lyft driver giving you a dozen amazing food and drink suggestions. Or cycling confidently through Portland at 11pm thanks to turn-by-turn instructions on a Pebble watch.

If you’re truly user-centric, admit that the most meaningful life stuff happens beyond the borders of tiny glowing rectangles. UX folks are brokers and intermediaries, not rock stars or ninjas. Your job is to swallow some boredom so people can live better lives.

Also, TIL chindogu.

Stories we read

I submitted three chapters of my thesis last week — which, added up to the total amount of five chapters already submitted. That would leave me with at least two, at most three more chapters to go. The meeting with my supervisor actually went very well — we talked about submission month (4 more months to go!) and planning for oral defense (sometimes before summer next year!).

Then, what?

To be honest, I have no idea. I’d very much like to get back into the workforce as soon as possible (note: looking to work for organisations such as The Engine Room, Data & Society, Tactical Tech, or any other organisations that work on bettering social and cultural issues arising from data-centric and automated technologies) but I also would like to schedule a trip to visit my friends in Istanbul and Beirut before that. We’ll see how it goes.

I read multiple interesting things this week. I am currently reading Isabella Hammad’s The Parisian, a story about a Palestinian man, Midhat in the time of World War I who was sent by his father to read medicine in France to avoid being enlisted in Turkish conscription. Caught in a spat between his host and his host’s daughter, Midhat left the house to stay in Paris and enrolled in history in Sorbonne. When he returned to his hometown, Nablus, he found himself in between identities — he was the guy who returned from Paris hence ‘The Parisian’, or al-Barisi —but also caught between the regional skirmishes that left his hometown in the middle of it all. This is a 600-page book of Palestinian geopolitics and the question of identity — something of a new challenge to me. To complement the reading, I also checked out two books from Edward Said from my university, The Politics of Dispossesion and After the Last Sky to get more context and background on Palestinian politics and the question of identity.

I need to get up to speed with my reading (what’s new) because I am also currently eyeing Jenny Odell’s How to do Nothing. I’ve been reading her articles — which is weird due to the manifesto of reclaiming your attention that Odell has been advocating — have been popping up on my social media timelines many times. If you’d like to take a sneak peek of her brilliant writing, read her keynote talk at EYEO 2017, and this Medium post on why solely absenting from Facebook will not help with your social media addiction.

It may be that refusal is only available as a tactic to people who already possess a great deal of social capital, people whose social standing will endure without Facebook and people whose livelihoods don’t require them to be constantly plugged in and reachable. . . These are people who have what [Kathleen] Noonan (2011) calls “the power to switch off.”

I especially like her analogy of using any social media platforms on your own terms is akin to Diogenes conforming to the normalcy of the society by giving a caveat, “I will participate, but not as asked,” or “I will stay, but I will be your gadfly.”

Then this paragraph in this piece in praise of museum cafes, about picking up obscure, overpriced books in museum bookstores is an absolute personal attack!

Maybe there’s a bookstore attached to it that sells the kind of book that seems like it’s for the average lay reader called, I don’t know, An Incomplete History of Evening Through Danish Portraiture and then you shell out $32 for it because you think this is what smart, rich people do and then you get it home and you open it to find a sentence like:

The advent of nocturnalization displaced a certain hierarchy of perception that had previously, though selectively, moderated the tension found in early modern writings on divisions between light/dark, Heaven/Hell, inside/outside, mouth/book, custom/exigency, that were necessarily complicated as the approach to dusk fragmented from a court-mediated, locally-centralized sunset experience, to an externally-mandated structure out of sync with the countryside entirely.

I have also been wondering about the proliferation of people saying things like “She can step on me for all I care and I’d be so happy” (it started with me browsing tweets with pictures of Cate Blanchett). Turns out this masochistic tendencies is actually quite common.

Devotion, by its nature, tends to invite agony. “Love has brought me within the reach of lovely, cruel arms that / unjustly kill me,” Petrarch writes, in Robert M. Durling’s English translation of “Rime Sparse,” a set of poems written in the fourteenth century. Shakespeare’s “Venus and Adonis,” published in 1593, describes Venus as a maiden who “murders with a kiss.” In the early seventeenth century, John Donne famously begged, “Batter my heart, three person’d God.” (A degraded Internet-era version of the poem, “Holy Sonnet 14,” might involve the impassioned poet pleading with God to choke him.) But this language appears to be spilling over. It may originate in a sort of erotic consecration, but love and pain, joy and punishment, seem increasingly convergent, at least in the ways that people express themselves online. Love may be timeless, but the half-ironic millennial death wish has become an underground river rushing swiftly under the surface of the age.

I have always tried not to judge people who read books who are not in line with my moral convictions and beliefs, but I do believe that some people read them to understand something they are curious about at the time when they are still evolving as a good person. As people improve, they might look back and say, “I have read this book when I was younger, I found that it was good, but now that I am more aware of what sort of ideas it could exude and influence, I know better. Nevertheless, I am glad I read it and learned from it.” I am saying this as someone who used to read Ayn Rand 10 years ago, and I probably wouldn’t be caught dead with any of her books now! Why I am telling you this is because I caught this quote under the review for All the Lives We Ever Lived: Seeking Solace in Virginia Woolf in this list of 2019 books to read so far that made me still think for hours, which says:

Read it to conjure Woolf, yes, but also to understand how the stories we read pervade our intellectual DNA and set down roots.

“Stories we read pervade our intellectual DNA, and set down roots.” That is going to stay for the longest time.