Cats with socks

I just ploughed through another 2000 words today for thesis! Interestingly, I found out that I really enjoyed writing the methodology section, as it felt like my research design belongs to me and me alone, and I am in control of how it is in order to address my research questions. On top of that, I get to operationalise as many things as possible within my own terms, which is the level of independence and details I am willing to go in-depth in order to make my research as relevant and as easy to comprehend as possible.

There are at least two topics I wanted to write about — one as an extension to the previous post on sociological storytelling, and another essay will be on the rise of tech overlords regarding the .amazon internet domain fiasco. However, it’s already late and I have another allocated hour of reading before bed, so, here links of things I have read, watched, and encountered over the past week!

  • “In Lithuania, to get lost while picking mushrooms is a common enough occurrence to have its own word: nugrybauti. This man was the first I had met with such a serious case of the condition, though since taking up residence in the woods, I have often been nugrybaves myself. You achieve a state of nugrybauti when the thrill of having spotted choice edibles slides into uneasiness, brought on by the feeling that the forest has changed around you. Your sense of direction scampers off, and you trudge around aimlessly over moss, under branches, and around the skirts of spruces, lost—until, much later, you are back on a familiar path, though not where you thought you’d be.”
  • Some very interesting insights from this interview with writer Adam Minter on discards, among others: “From that point, I slowly began to understand that people in consumption-based societies assemble their identities via stuff, and become very emotional when those identities — and that stuff — is discarded in ways that don’t match their values. Over the years I’ve come to the conclusion that consumers actually care more about how their stuff is discarded, than how it is manufactured.” So, what he did to address with people on how to discard and recycle their stuff is, “It’s a fairly simple lesson: don’t arrive at someone’s house with the intention of tossing stuff into the garbage.”
  • Jess Wade is a scientist on a mission. She wants every woman who has achieved something impressive in science to get the prominence and recognition they deserve — starting with a Wikipedia entry (and now on to about 270 and counting!).
  • If you’re wondering why cats and so many other animals look like they’re wearing socks, it’s a result of a gene mutation called piebaldism.
  • The introduction section to an upcoming book on how today’s technology emulates Foucaultian notion of everyday prison, especially involving black people: Captivating Technology: Race, Carceral Technoscience, and Liberatory Imagination in Everyday Life.
  • I just discovered Slow TV on Netflix, and now I am thinking of getting a projector so I can just let the whole (about 7 hours!) show play in the background.
  • Just Audre Lorde on a canoe.

On sociological storytelling

Daenerys Targaryen in Season 8 of Game of Thrones

I had been silent about Game of Thrones (GOT) because I only watched it once — and that is only for like 20 minutes — before turning it off because I couldn’t stand the gore. Like Harry Potter books (of which I had never read — yet), GOT books also came out during the time when I wasn’t doing financially well, so books were a luxury to me during that time hence I never picked up any. It felt too late now (is it?) to pick up after so many years, but I will think about it.

In the midst of the collective rage and outburst that is the ending of GOT’s final season, one thing I observe — is that people were unhappy and could not relate with the ending. Irritated fans even took the time to set up a petition to remake the final series. I guess in the state of today’s world, escapism comes in the form of sci-fi series such as GOT, Star Wars, and The Avengers — and the possibility of a remake gives the fans some sort of hope in a societal situation they no longer have control of.

There are several people of whom I wish that’s how I would grow up to write critically like “when I grow up”, and one of them is technosociologist Zeynep Tufekci — who, among many things, teaches at Chapel Hill, writes for The New York Times, spoke at TEDTalks, and wrote Twitter & Tear Gas: The Power and Fragility of Networked Protest. It’s also probably not an understatement to say that my doctoral research was, and still is, largely influenced by her writings and ideas.

Zeynep wrote an excellent review on why the ending of GOT no longer resonated with people. One of the biggest reason was, the author George R.R. Martin started the books within a sociological storytelling, whilst the Hollywood directors decided to take a shift into personal, hero/antihero narrative:

At its best, GOT was a beast as rare as a friendly dragon in King’s Landing: it was sociological and institutional storytelling in a medium dominated by the psychological and the individual. This structural storytelling era of the show lasted through the seasons when it was based on the novels by George R. R. Martin, who seemed to specialize in having characters evolve in response to the broader institutional settings, incentives and norms that surround them.

After the show ran ahead of the novels, however, it was taken over by powerful Hollywood showrunners David Benioff and D. B. Weiss. Some fans and critics have been assuming that the duo changed the narrative to fit Hollywood tropes or to speed things up, but that’s unlikely. In fact, they probably stuck to the narrative points that were given to them, if only in outline form, by the original author. What they did is something different, but in many ways more fundamental: Benioff and Weiss steer the narrative lane away from the sociological and shifted to the psychological. That’s the main, and often only, way Hollywood and most television writers tell stories.

On the agency of characters, and why it was acceptable for earlier seasons to have so many major characters killed:

One clue is clearly the show’s willingness to kill off major characters, early and often, without losing the thread of the story. TV shows that travel in the psychological lane rarely do that because they depend on viewers identifying with the characters and becoming invested in them to carry the story, rather than looking at the bigger picture of the society, institutions and norms that we interact with and which shape us. They can’t just kill major characters because those are the key tools with which they’re building the story and using as hooks to hold viewers.

In sociological storytelling, the characters have personal stories and agency, of course, but those are also greatly shaped by institutions and events around them. The incentives for characters’ behavior come noticeably from these external forces, too, and even strongly influence their inner life.

The hallmark of sociological storytelling is if it can encourage us to put ourselves in the place of any character, not just the main hero/heroine, and imagine ourselves making similar choices.”Yeah, I can see myself doing that under such circumstances” is a way into a broader, deeper understanding.

This is why the question of going back in time to kill baby Hitler, in order to destroy fascism, in essence, will not work:

The overly personal mode of storytelling or analysis leaves us bereft of deeper comprehension of events and history. Understanding Hitler’s personality alone will not tell us much about rise of fascism, for example. Not that it didn’t matter, but a different demagogue would probably have appeared to take his place in Germany in between the two bloody world wars in the 20th century. Hence, the answer to “would you kill baby Hitler?,” sometimes presented as an ethical time-travel challenge, should be “no,” because it would very likely not matter much.

On abandoning the notion of charismatic leadership in a world that requires a lot of institution building and incentive changes:

Destructive historical figures often believe that they must stay in power because it is they, and only they, who can lead the people—and that any alternative would be calamitous. Leaders tend to get isolated, become surrounded by sycophants and succumb easily to the human tendency to self-rationalise. There are several examples in history of a leader who starts in opposition with the best of intentions, like Dany, and ends up acting brutally and turning into a tyrant if they take power.

Varys, the advisor who will die for trying to stop Dany, says to Tyrion that “every time a Targaryen is born, the gods toss a coin in the air and the world holds its breath to see how it will land.” That is straight-up and simplistic genetic determinism, rather than what we had been witnessing for the past seven seasons. Again, sociological stories don’t discount the personal, psychological and even the genetic, but the key point is that they are more than “coin tosses”—they are complex interactions with emergent consequences: the way the world actually works.

Zeynep concludes the article by examining this notion of sociological storytelling and hero/antihero narrative against her area of the impacts of digital technology on society — and urging us to discard the techno-deterministic views and the constant idolisation of key players in tech, by seeing the bigger picture.

In German playwright Bertolt Brecht’s classic play, Life of Galileo, Andrea, a former pupil of Galileo, visits him after he recants his seminal findings under pressure from the Catholic Church. Galileo gives Andrea his notebooks, asking him to spread the knowledge they contain. Andrea celebrates this, saying “unhappy is the land that breeds no hero.” Galileo corrects him: “Unhappy is the land that needs a hero.”


The axiom of zero

I so badly wanted to write a review of Hanya Yanagihara’s book, A Little Life because I have so many opinions. But I am only 39% in and I was convinced by a friend who had read this book to reserve my judgment (which has been now scrawled over two pages of my Moleskine already) until I finish the book — all 720 pages of them — before spewing any thoughts. So I thought what I should do right now in the midst of taking a break between grunting and sighing while reading is to share one of my favourite lines from the book, which involves a mathematical concept called the axiom of zero.

A Little Life revolves around four decades of the lives of four friends — private, one with a dark past, described as ‘ethnically ambiguous’ Jude St. Francis, his best friend Willem Ragnarsson who is the most popular among women but whom appears to be oblivious of all the attention, artist JB (Jean-Baptiste) Marion who is the life of the party, and timid Malcolm Irvine who comes from a wealthy Upper East Side family. As the book progresses, Jude started to become the centre of the story — and we got to know in addition to his law degree, Jude pursues a masters in pure mathematics and the reason he is drawn to mathematics is because the concept is “a wholly provable, unshakable absolute in a constructed world with very few unshakable absolutes.” Imaginor, ergo est — I think it, therefore it is — more so than video, ergo est — I see it, therefore it is — like what applied mathematics would do.

While attending the funeral of his former mathematics professor, the eulogy reads:

People who don’t love math always accuse mathematicians of trying to make math complicated. But anyone who loves math knows it’s really the opposite: math rewards simplicity, and mathematicians value it above all else. So it’s no surprise that Walter’s favourite axiom was also the most simple in the realm of mathematics: the axiom of the empty set.

The axiom of the empty set is the axiom of zero. It states that there must be a concept of nothingness, that there must be a concept of zero: zero value, zero items. Math assumes there’s a concept of nothingness, but is it proven? No. But it must exist.

And if we are being philosophical — which we are today — we can say that life itself is the axiom of the empty set. It begins in zero and it ends in zero. We know that both states exist, but we will not be conscious of either experience: they are states that are necessary parts of life, even if they cannot be experienced as life. We assume the concept of nothingness, but we cannot prove it. But it must exist. So I prefer to think that Walter has not died but has instead proven for himself the axiom of the empty set, that he has proven the concept of zero. I know nothing else would have made him happier. An elegant mind wants elegant endings, and Walter has the most elegant mind. So I wish him goodbye; I wish him the answer to the axiom he so loved.

Oliver Sacks talks about people forming neural pathways as they read — some hear sounds, some are aware of the emphases of the words, some visualise the sceneries. I do too, and in this case I visualise how the characters looked like. Jude looks like Marc Anthony to me (the ethnically ambiguous part), Willem looks like Queer Eye’s Antoni Porowski (who is also a big fan of the book), Malcolm looks like Jordan Peele (he was described in the book as biracial), and JB looks like CSI’s Gary Dourdan (JB is of Haitian descent).

Queer Eye’s Antoni Porowski, who is a fan of Hanya Yanagihara’s A Little Life, found himself asking, “Am I Jude or am I Willem? I just find myself vacillating between the two characters.”

It should be noted that this book comes with some trigger warnings. The ones I encountered so far are depictions of self-harm, sexual assault, child abuse, and ableism. The book started slow, but once it had hit page 67 or so, that is when I was dropped with a hint that something bigger is going on in this book rather than descriptions of the friends’ lavish & artistic NYC lifestyles. Either way, I am refraining myself from explaining further, so I am going to read a few (hundred) more pages before bed, and a full review soon when I finish.

(P/s: Oh wow, there’s a theatre rendition for A Little Life, and here’s how the quartet looks like for the stage portrayal.)

On productive stupidity

I am feeling somewhat scared now.

I just walked out of this online workshop on Social Media and Social Network Analysis conducted by social media researcher, Dr Wasim Ahmed. It was brilliantly ran and I was very grateful for the online option offered, which is useful for someone 6000 miles away from where the workshop took place. Wasim took us through the basics of quantitative and qualitative social media and social network analysis, introduced us to a wide variety of tools, as well as talking about the ethical aspects of running social media research. It was a very invaluable experience and I was glad that I decided to join the workshop.

Now — I am scared because, after signing off from the workshop and as much as I had learned so much after over 2 years, every day I would discover that I still have so much to learn — and this is why I am awfully scared. Social network analysis is something entirely new that I have to learn by myself for my doctoral research (as well as it’s my research method of choice due to the nature of my research questions) and I am enjoying it. But I was somehow struck by the amount of work that would hit me, and that would mean more time, and that would also mean a longer time venturing into the unknown and finding out there’s more to know! I hope I am making sense, but if I don’t, do not worry — I don’t think I make sense myself.

Coincidentally, I came across this journal article on embracing stupidity (I would still add the caveat, “as long as we realise it and would want to improve ourselves) and working within some reasonable scope:

A Ph.D., in which you have to do a research project, is a whole different thing. For me, it was a daunting task. How could I possibly frame the questions that would lead to significant discoveries; design and interpret an experiment so that the conclusions were absolutely convincing; foresee difficulties and see ways around them, or, failing that, solve them when they occurred? My Ph.D. project was somewhat interdisciplinary and, for a while, whenever I ran into a problem, I pestered the faculty in my department who were experts in the various disciplines that I needed. I remember the day when Henry Taube (who won the Nobel Prize two years later) told me he didn’t know how to solve the problem I was having in his area. I was a third-year graduate student and I figured that Taube knew about 1000 times more than I did (conservative estimate). If he didn’t have the answer, nobody did.

That’s when it hit me: nobody did. That’s why it was a research problem. And being my research problem, it was up to me to solve. Once I faced that fact, I solved the problem in a couple of days. (It wasn’t really very hard; I just had to try a few things.) The crucial lesson was that the scope of things I didn’t know wasn’t merely vast; it was, for all practical purposes, infinite. That realization, instead of being discouraging, was liberating. If our ignorance is infinite, the only possible course of action is to muddle through as best we can.

Then I think about the vagueness and loneliness of Ph.D. programmes, and how most of the skills required to actually conduct a research (critical thinking, critical writing, structuring research, presentation, basic information architecture, etc.) are lumped into some hidden curriculums, where the students have to navigate around by themselves, which requires resilience and puzzle-piecing (Which workshop does what? How do I know which ones will benefit me? etc.), which is another skill by itself:

I’d like to suggest that our Ph.D. programs often do students a disservice in two ways. First, I don’t think students are made to understand how hard it is to do research. And how very, very hard it is to do important research. It’s a lot harder than taking even very demanding courses. What makes it difficult is that research is immersion in the unknown. We just don’t know what we’re doing. We can’t be sure whether we’re asking the right question or doing the right experiment until we get the answer or the result. Admittedly, science is made harder by competition for grants and space in top journals. But apart from all of that, doing significant research is intrinsically hard and changing departmental, institutional or national policies will not succeed in lessening its intrinsic difficulty.

In conclusion, we should also embrace productive stupidity:

Second, we don’t do a good enough job of teaching our students how to be productively stupid – that is, if we don’t feel stupid it means we’re not really trying. Productive stupidity means being ignorant by choice. Focusing on important questions puts us in the awkward position of being ignorant. One of the beautiful things about science is that it allows us to bumble along, getting it wrong time after time, and feel perfectly fine as long as we learn something each time. No doubt, this can be difficult for students who are accustomed to getting the answers right. No doubt, reasonable levels of confidence and emotional resilience help, but I think scientific education might do more to ease what is a very big transition: from learning what other people once discovered to making your own discoveries. The more comfortable we become with being stupid, the deeper we will wade into the unknown and the more likely we are to make big discoveries.

Fear won’t solve anything. So I guess my job now, is to be productively stupid and work within some attainable scope, so I will not feel inundated by more new things I will find out along the way.

(P/s: A year ago today, I passed my proposal defense!)

Against hyperthymesia

Black Mirror’s The Entire History of You — revolving around an alternate reality where everyone has access to a memory chip style implant which records everything they do, see or hear — is a perfect example of the curse of hyperthymesia.

I just finished reading a book called Filling the Void: Emotion, Capitalism & Social Media written by Londoner Marcus Gilroy-Ware, which is yet another critique (I am saying this because this seems to be the pattern of my reading materials for the past two years, given my research concentration) of social media and the society that takes shape around them, or shaped by them. I feel it is an excellent exploration of how social media is deliberately designed to “fill the void”, which is to offer some sort of emotional fulfillment within the affordances they provide — these are offered in terms of endless timeline scrolling, prompts to add birthday dates and other important dates, nudges to post if we ever be away from the social media network for quite sometime — which in return, were used to generate revenue for these corporations. Furthermore, even if these corporations started to take part in any social justice initiatives (as in the case of trying to amplify #BlackLivesMatter even after years of silence) it is shallow to place such faith in them as facilitators and guardians of social justice, knowing that their goal is commercial-oriented rather than the radical acts of saving the world, which could necessarily lead to some instability and not a favourite marketplace conditions that shall profit these businesses.

One section which caught my attention had to do with how social media platforms, especially Facebook, is deliberately designed around the idea of timelines and archives. It starts with how in 1700s, some Brazilian explorers in northwestern Brazil came across a tribe called the Pirahā, whose concept of language “refutes the laws of language discovered by Noam Chomsky”. Their language constructed their experience of time, where they do not remember or make meaning out of memory or abstract symbols of things that have been, or will be. According to linguist Dan Everett:

… they have no numbers, no fixed color terms, no perfect tense, no deep memory, no tradition of art or drawing, and no words for “all,” “each,” “every,” “most,” or “few”— terms of quantification believed by some linguists to be among the common building blocks of human cognition.

But most outstanding is:

The tribe, he maintains, has no collective memory that extends back more than one or two generations, and no original creation myths.

In essence, the culture of the Pirahā people has no intention to remember the past or create history in comparison to our postmodern late capitalism cultures which seek to remember so much, which is now embodied in the designs of our social media platforms.

Gilroy Ware adds some very good additional quotes on remembering and forgetting, and the privilege of choosing between which is which. Viktor Mayer-Schönberger wrote in Delete that in digital age, “the capacity to forget is both virtuous and necessary”. Shakespeare scholar Emma Smith argued that “we need to remember how to forget”, calling the insistence on remembering everything as hyperthymesis, both a blessing and a curse. Most importantly, we need to remember that a history of database by itself is highly dubious — citing on one of its first applications was to keep track of concentration camp inmates in Nazi Germany.

Puff of smoke

I have taken to watching more documentaries on Netflix this month — well that is until Black Mirror’s Season 5 is out! — and one of them is a mini series of documentary called Explained, which is produced by the people at Vox. Each episode talks about a variety of topics — for example astrology, water crisis, K-pop, political correctness, gender pay gap — and they are often narrated by celebrities such as Carly Rae Jepsen, Yara Shahidi, Samira Wiley, Christian Slater, and many more. Moreover, each episode is just shy of 20 minutes in length and it’s just perfect for me to watch in between writing breaks.

One of the episodes which I liked best talks about music as one of life’s vital forces that has the power to bring everyone regardless of gender, sexuality, backgrounds, ethnicities, etc. together. In the episode it also talks about the components which make up music — here we are introduced to the concept of beat, tempo, rhythm, pitch, harmony, and so on so forth, as well as talking about some few other animals besides humans who can keep a beat. As someone who had never had any formal music education, I really enjoyed getting to know all of these along with the idea that the creation of musical arrangements, like many other work, is a creation of the minds of geniuses and everyday I am in awe of this.

In its season finale, one of the special guests in the show was Jennifer Lee, or better known as the DJ/producer TOKiMONSTA. She talks about her previous struggle with this rare brain disease (TIL) called Moyamoya, which restricted the blood flow to the brain and caused her to lose any comprehension of music. TOKiMONSTA described living with Moyamoya, — literally means “puff of smoke” in Japanese — “I couldn’t tell there was a melody. It just sounded like a white noise.” Her neurosurgeon described her condition as being in a foreign country and not being able to understand what is being said, although recognising that it is a language by itself. TOKiMONSTA also supported this by describing her experience watching the show Portlandia while recovering, knowing she knew that the theme song was a song by itself, but she couldn’t recognise it as music. After undergoing her brain surgery where the neurosurgeon “took an artery from each side of her scalp and placed it on top of her brain”, “now my brain is fed from the top down, instead from the bottom up”, I admit at this point I was already losing track of what is placed where and was just relieved she is safe and cured, and now making such great music.

Song Exploder also has a great episode of TOKiMONSTA breaking down her song, Bibimbap.​​


Why we should design for our 73-year-old self

As an extension to the post on Oliver Sacks’ frustration about how the world is increasingly less inclusive towards the elderly — here is Don Norman, the father of user experience and usability himself, decrying on everyday design that are hostile to older users:

The number of active, healthy oldsters is large – and increasing. We are not a niche market. And businesses should take note: We are good customers often with more free time and discretionary income than younger people. Despite our increasing numbers the world seems to be designed against the elderly. Everyday household goods require knives and pliers to open. Containers with screw tops require more strength than my wife or I can muster. (We solve this by using a plumber’s wrench to turn the caps.) Companies insist on printing critical instructions in tiny fonts with very low contrast. Labels cannot be read without flashlights and magnifying lenses. And when companies do design things specifically for the elderly, they tend to be ugly devices that shout out to the world “I’m old and can’t function!”

Older users are often more experienced and better decision-makers. However, the only thing holding them back is that they face notable physical changes, and these anecdotes on these changes should be considered when designers want to design products and experiences inclusive to the elderly:

Vision deteriorates. The lens of our eyes harden, making focusing more difficult. I used to be able to read tiny text by holding it close to my eyes, but my inability to focus at close distances defeats that activity. Floaters and debris start accumulating inside the eye, which scatters the light on its way to the retina, reducing contrast and making it more difficult to see small, low-contrast objects. For the increasing number of people who have cataract surgery, the eye’s lenses have ben replaced with plastic, which usually have a fixed focus. (Artificial lenses that can be focused are under development.) A flashlight has become an essential item, whether the one built into many phones or carried separately, because illumination makes tiny type easier to read although even then, a magnifying glass might be useful.

Hearing decreases. High frequencies are first to go, which also tends to impair directional sensitivity, which in turn makes it more difficult to attend to someone in a crowded, noisy environment. Loud restaurants are torture. So, more and more, my wife and I select restaurants by their noise level rather than by their food quality. At home while watching TV, whether shows, streaming events, or movies, we always turn on the captions, which often block critical parts of the image. Even worse, when a film shows someone speaking in a foreign language, the film often translates the words, but so too does the closed captioning, and the two are placed on top of one another, making both attempts to help the viewer completely unhelpful.

Norman also noted that not only bad designs in terms of functionalities are abound, it’s that also they are aesthetically unpleasant:

Then there’s the aesthetic problem. When products are developed for the elderly, they tend to be ugly and an unwanted signal of fragility. As a result, people who need walkers or canes often resist. Once upon a time, a cane was stylish: Today it is seen as a medical device. Why can’t we have walkers and canes for everyday use, to help us in everyday life, to carry our packages, provide a way to sit when we are tired, or viewing some event, and yes, to maintain our balance? Make them items of pride, stylish enough that everyone will want one.

Norman ended by saying that all ailments impacting the elderly, are applicable for in all ages, and in general, all varieties of abilities. Closed captioning? Curbs? Noise-canceling headphones? Higher contrast lettering in phones and devices? Perhaps also dark mode? Almost anything that will help the elderly population, and inclusive of other disabilities, will end up helping everyone — which is why we should start to design for our 73-year-old selves.

Translation is magic

Page from a manuscript of Mantiq al-Tayr (Conference of the Birds), Isfahan, Iran, ca. 1610.
Page from a manuscript of Mantiq al-Tayr (Conference of the Birds), Isfahan, Iran, ca. 1610. Credit: Metropolitan Museum of Art Public Domains

Coincidentally, I just finished reading two books — G. Willow Wilson’s The Bird King (4/5) & Rabeah Ghaffari’s To Keep The Sun Alive (3/5) — that heavily referenced the poem of poet and mystic Farid ud-Din Attar’s, The Conference of The Birds (Persian: منطق الطیر‎, Mantiq al-Tayr). The masterpiece follows the journey undertaken by a group of birds to find the legendary Simorgh, of whom they deemed to be their bird king. The hoopoe, which is the wisest of them all, leads the entourage, where they have to overcome the great seven valleys to reach the land of Simorgh.

From Faena Aleph:

The hoopoe explains that in order to reach the dwelling of the simurgh, the birds need to cross seven valleys – the steps along which Sufis travel on their way to understanding the true nature of God. The first is the Valley of the Quest (Talab), where the traveler is freed from dogma, belief, and at the same time, from disbelief. The second, the Valley of Love (Ishq), moves travelers away from reason and closer to the feeling of love. The Valley of Knowledge (Ma’refat), third along the journey, is a place where mundane knowledge becomes useless. Fourth is the Valley of Detachment (Isteghnâ), where desires and apprehensions for the material world are let go. The Valley of Unity (Tawhid) is the fifth valley, where the birds learn that absolutely everything in the universe is connected. The sixth is the Valley of Wonderment (Hayrat), where travelers, fascinated by the beauty of the Beloved, understand that in reality they’ve never understood anything. Finally, in the Valley of Poverty and Annihilation (Faqr and Fana), being disappears entirely and becomes one with the universe, a timeless entity existing in both the past and in the future.

Some of the birds even perished along the way, leaving only thirty of them. As they arrived, they found out that they themselves are the kings they have been looking for:

While listening to the descriptions of these valleys, the birds are overcome with affliction and fear. Some even die at that very moment. Finally, the flock begins their epic journey during which still others will die of hunger, thirst, disease, or by falling prey to other animals. Just 30 birds arrive at the home of the simurgh where they realise a startling truth: they are themselves the simurgh. In fact, the word in Persian means “30 birds.” Finally, the birds understand that the Beloved is like the sun in that it can be reflected in a mirror. In other words, we all reflect God because we are God’s shadow and reverberation: nothing is separated from its creator.

To be honest, there were a few decisions towards the end in The Bird King that I felt didn’t morally connect with mine (for the sake of spoilers, I am not going to mention which). I also felt that towards the end, it starts to get draggy and the ocean scene lasts longer than it should have. However, after reading snippets of Attar’s The Conference of the Birds, I understood more on the relevance of the ocean, and ordered the poem translation by Sholeh Wolpé. This is from the Kindle sample which I have downloaded so I could read the first few pages:

The parables in this book trigger memories deep within us all. The stories inhabit the imagination, and slowly over time, their wisdom trickles down into the heart. The process of absorption is unique to every individual, as is each person’s journey. We are the birds in the story. All of us have our own ideas and ideals, our own fears and anxieties, as we hold on to our own version of the truth. Like the birds of this story, we may take flight together, but the journey itself will be different for each of us. Attar tells us that truth is not static, and that we each tread a path according to our own capacity. It evolves as we evolve. Those who are trapped within their own dogma, clinging to hardened beliefs or faith, are deprived of the journey toward the unfathomable Divine, which Attar calls the Great Ocean.

I have also taken to reading translator’s notes in every translated book, as they often explained the context as well as challenges in translating a non-English manuscript, which is hard (I have tried before!) and made me appreciate the work more. This is how Wolpé described translating Attar’s The Conference of the Birds (Wolpé is a native Persian speaker — whenever available, I always try to read work translated by the language’s own native speaker):

Translation is a scalpel. It cuts to reveal and heal. It is exciting and powerful. It bridges, it connects. It is violent but loving. It is death that leads to rebirth, and this new life rouses the appetite. It multiplies perspectives and widens the world. Translation is magic.

In the realm of literature, poetry is a god; the epic poem in particular contains the storytelling facets of the other genres as well as qualities unique to poetry, such as beat, tone, measure, and rhythm of songs. The poem is everything, and everything is held condensed within the poem. Hence, poetry is the most difficult form to guide through the process of translation intact. Like any god, poetry’s power lies in its appeal to the heart. The words swirl in the consciousness like atoms; they merge and make the matter of the heart possible. To facilitate the transference of power from one form, language, and time into another, a translator must understand that heartfelt power. She must own the magic of the poet on the other side of time and earthly boundaries. She must give the poem her own poetic voice.

I am also currently reading Han Kang’s Human Acts, another translated work which chronicles around the impacts of South Korea’s violent 1980 Gwangju Uprising. It’s a short book (less than 200 pages) but the gory details are unapologetically, matter-of-factly, almost dutifully told and to be honest I am still deciding about this book. More to come about it, maybe.

Where can you do the most good?

I still could not recover from how much I love the Netflix documentary Knock Down The House. It follows the journey of four women who decided to challenge their long-term incumbents and made headlines in the 2018 United States midterm elections. As a big fan of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (AOC), I am glad to see her journey as the face of the documentary as she ran against her opponent, Joe Crowley, who had not even resided in New York (he was staying in Virginia) remained unchallenged for 14 years — but also the fact that this documentary does not take the spotlight away from the other equally eligible three women candidates. We see Cori Bush, who vowed to make St Louis, Missouri much safer after the Ferguson unrest, Paula Jean Swearengin who was already fed up with the establishment Democrat representing her district who never seemed to do anything regarding the pollution that had caused cancer among her neighbours, and then we see Amy Vilela, who ran for Democratic primary in Nevada, who was the most personally invested after her daughter was refused treatment for not having the right insurance, which lead to her death. “No one should die because they don’t understand the intricacies of the insurance system,” Vilela said.

The documentary opens with AOC’s casual gender analysis while putting on makeup, “Getting ready, for women, it involves so many decisions about how you’re going to present yourselves to the world.” Throughout the documentary, Swearengin can be seen complaining about the comments she had been receiving about showing the proper emotions, “smile all the way” etc. While campaigning, AOC, despite knackered, kept a smiling face, and made this comment which got me heaving a sigh in solidarity, “I feel when I’m trying to be polite with someone, my voice goes up two octaves”. This experience speaks to many of us and proves that women often have to work harder than men regardless of any political affiliations.

Some very interesting observations:

  • AOC, commenting on the plight of the working people who sometimes had to work multiple jobs and with long hours, showing the disconnect between many leaders and their constituencies, who sometimes run just for the sake of winning elections, “You just do your best to survive. That’s been the reality of millions of people in this country. They feel like they’re just hanging by a thread. And they feel like no one’s fighting for them, and everyone’s just in it for themselves.”
  • The part where AOC held her flyer side-by-side her opponent’s and pointed to hers, “This is the work of a strategist!” Her flyer shows her face, the call to action to vote along with the date and venue and relevant details, and specific detailed demands. Crowley’s? It only showed that he was there to defeat Trump (?) and used vague words such as “deliver”, to which AOC said, “Deliver? Deliver is for pork!” There was also no call to action whatsoever on Crowley’s flyer — which highlights the importance of a call to action in political campaigns and the specificity of manifestos.
  • Despite some of them didn’t win, they exemplified a dedication for the people of their constituencies, and especially respect and love for their campaign team (Vilela said to her campaign manager, “You are the best campaign manager I could have ever had, and we started from not knowing shit.”).
  • AOC, comforting Vilela when she was defeated, “For one of us to make through, a hundred of us have to try.” I could not stress enough of how words have power, and AOC is good at wielding the right words in every situation, and this is something I need to learn to be better at.
  • Perhaps teared up a bit (OK, a lot) when AOC talked about her father’s death during her college years, “Losing him in a time when I was just figuring out the world was really hard.”
  • (Perhaps related to my thesis) Any movement can be deemed grassroots and/or leaderless but capacity building is still important and still can have an impact!
  • The title is referenced from the moment when Swearengin received a call from Senator Manchin (who defeated her), asking if they want to meet to discuss about her demands. When Swearengin hesitated, her friend said, “Ask yourself where you can do the most good.” Swearengin finally agreed. This phrase will reverberate with me all throughout the next few weeks. So good.

As a conclusion, please read this article on the rise of hyperleaders by Paulo Gerbaudo, one of the most current political trends perpetuated by digital media:

These modern “hyperleaders” invert the relationship between politician and party. In contrast to the representative model of democracy where politicians were figureheads and parties were the true repositories of power, the hyperleader may have a far larger social media base than their organisation. They float above the party, lifting it into the air through their personal visibility.