New kind of poorly paid hell

Edited FoodPanda logo with angry eyes and a hand balled up in a fist as a counter-narrative to the company’s initial logo (‘mogok’ stands for ‘strike’ in Malay)

In this week’s We’ve Had Enough of Greedy Employers Who Overwork and Underpay People, and in today’s extension of how much you should care, as Malaysian FoodPanda riders are on work strike in protest against the new payment scheme — on rethinking the impact of automation and surveillance on workers:

Before hailing the wonders of automation, let’s first consider the well-being of those farm workers who put food on our table. Are their voices included in the conversation? What will be the impact on them and their families? And how do we ensure that innovation and change also lead to labour protections that lift the standards for all workers?

On the impacts of the digitalisation of day labour as gig work, as a new kind of poorly paid hell:

Troublingly, the people most likely impacted by this unprotected, precarious physical labour (that can be secured without an in-person interview) are those on the margins of the workforce: men and women of colour who are disproportionately targeted by the criminal justice system; probationers, parolees, and others who may have work orders and are thus forced to work against the threat of incarceration; and immigrants without documented status. This reality makes digitalised day labour that much more exploitative and in need of close regulation. But with mandatory arbitration clauses, class action waivers and membership in an association that likely does not represent their interests, workers have very little means to resist or push back against abusive practices.

It was good news in California, as a bill was approved for app-based companies to finally treat workers as employees, rather than contractors, which makes them eligible for many job benefits and incentives. The bill will affect at least a million workers — including ride-hailing drivers, food delivery couriers, construction workers, janitors, etc. — who had been on the receiving end of a decades-long trend of outsourcing and franchising work. It’s about time we exemplified California’s Assembly Bill 5 to recognise workers’ rights of all kinds and implement fair labour practices.

For more on ride-hailing apps, worker classifications, and algorithmic management, read Alex Rosenblat’s book Uberland.

On aural experiences

Suffice to say, just like everyone, I tend to get sucked into an overthinking spiral over something sometimes with no significance at all e.g. why is Chipotle not pronounced as Aristotle, or compote like Capote, or what’s the political economy of Agrabah etc. And today I was reminded that a lot of times we only assign certain verb, action, or medium (video rather than music) with certain platforms e.g. “I’m spending my time watching Netflix” but not “I’m going to listen to Spotify” for no reasons other than it sounds weird?

Speaking of sounds, I was reminded of a couple of sound-based (not music) projects I encountered over the years. I have taken to listening to this podcast called Ottoman History Podcast, on well, Ottoman history on Spotify (see, we are always super specific when it comes to aural experience!) for no reasons other than I am a curious person and this podcast is brilliantly run and curated too. There’s this episode where they talk about the sounds of Islamic Berlin — where they interviewed a musicologist Peter McMurray who talked about his recent field recordings and ethnographies he conducted among various Turkish communities in Berlin. In the episode they also shared two sound clips on the acoustics of the Turkish communities in Berlin, and we listened as Islam found its place within a European city. I did a little digging and found McMurray’s thesis which spoke of the subject.

There’s also this project, Cities and Memory, a global collaborative sound project where there is a sound map of currently more than 2,000 soinds already featuring two sounds of the very same place: the original field recording of the place, and a reimagined sound that presents the place and time as somewhere else and somewhere new. The project is also available on Spotify, if you want to start listening to it and take part.

During a trip to Bali, I saw a friend of mine pointing his phone towards a religious procession taking place at one of the temples we visited. I thought he was taking a video, but I realised his phone camera wasn’t properly in focus anyway. He then said he had been recording sounds of places he visited during his travels, and shared them on his Soundcloud (although for the life of me I forgot to ask for the link) so not only other people could listen to them, but also once in a while he would listen back to them and be reminded of the places he had visited. Kind of like flipping through a photo album, but for sounds.

I love this whole low maintenance tracking items just for the sake for recording or maintaining them, much like these examples I have talked about before. My own ‘logging things just for the sake of logging them’ has only been my 1-second every day videos, which my own consistency surprised me as I am not the most patient person, and especially since this year I haven’t traveled much. But maybe it’s good just to log them to see how much I have progressed, or not, because “perhaps you’ve had to compromise something good so that you could do something great. [ ] consider thinking of it from a place of celebration. Instead of feeling regret over what you didn’t do, celebrate what you did do.”

September 2019

Every day I take a 1-second video using the app 1 Second Everyday (https://1se.co) to record what’s happening in my life. This is for September 2019 — where I finished writing the first draft of my entire PhD thesis, & plus-oneing a friend for his convocation.

Do you actually care about other people?

Phoebe Waller-Bridge, writer and star of comedy series Fleabag, surrounded by her Emmys

Phoebe Waller-Bridge, writer and star of comedy series Fleabag, surrounded by her Emmys

I’m always happy to receive Jocelyn K Glei’s newsletter in my inbox, for she always shares all the insightful articles and links on productivity, and more importantly, on hurrying slowly, which is a quite clever wordplay on moving at your very own pace in this very fast-paced world without ever losing yourself. She mentioned she had been ‘steeping’, like tea — which is a clever metaphor to think of if you ever find yourself slowing down, gathering your thoughts, letting them be richer and flavourful before sharing them with everyone else. I like that very much. It feels a lot like what I have been doing these days — found something, wrote in my Moleskine, flipped through the pages in a day or two after, found the connections, wrote something here.

I have been thinking also about how writing had been some sort of litmus test of the state of my mental health. When I was healing from severe burnout 2-3 years ago, I couldn’t bring myself to write. I left my newsletter dormant — which is still dormant now because I am still trying to pick up the momentum but also I have been reading a lot I am having trouble to pick up which books to feature — and I couldn’t even write for no one’s consumption, not even for my personal journal. It is pretty indicative because I believe writing had opened many interesting opportunities in my life, and if I stop, then the opportunities are put on hold. It was even hurtful at that moment because it seems indefinite. I am happy now that I get to write again.

Speaking of burnout, Jocelyn shared a link to Anne Helen Peterson’s newsletter — of which I just subscribed to because they all seem interesting — on alleviating burnout, not just for yourself, but also on others:

…think deeply and consistently about how your own actions, and standards, and practices create burnout in others.

That can be as simple as not being the one who emails at 9 pm on a Saturday (just because it feels fine to you, and maybe not even like a personal burnout behaviour, doesn’t mean it’s not creating expectations of always-on-ness in others). How you act — as a manager, as a co-worker, as a partner, as a parent — has ripple effects that extend far past the immediate relationship.

I noticed also last year that I stopped responding to one-liner messages (e.g. hey Zana) with no context in the beginning, of which people would only fill in when you answer it, even hours after. Not only it’s unproductive, but I also think it’s rude and manipulative. Somebody put up a good guideline for these No Hello chats, and I wholeheartedly agree.

What I learned from my own resilience in healing from burnout is this very thing: to spend a bit of time caring about others. I no longer send texts to people I work with after 5 pm according to their timezones (and I also stopped responding after my own office hours, much to the chagrin of some but they were OK when I explained) and if I have to send an email late evening or during the weekends, I would schedule them to go the day after in the morning during their office hours. If I want to talk to friends about heavier topics, I would text them beforehand to ask if they have the mental capacity for that kind of discussion, and will only proceed if it is OK with them. Of course, like a lot of things e.g. climate issues, burnout is one of the results of deeper causes e.g. company culture mismatch, organisational overlook etc. but it is good to think of how we can also improve on interpersonal levels, such as the examples above.

Then there’s also another whole level of caring which involves more societal and systemic changes, as Petersen has exemplified in the case of Uber vs their drivers here:

I thought of this earlier this week, as the California legislature passed AB 5, a “controversial” bill that forces gig economy companies to classify their employees as….wait for it….employees. (If you’re not familiar with the long gig economy employee saga, the narrative, in short = companies like Uber, Handy, DoorDash, etc. got off the ground by classifying their employees as “independent contractors,” thus immunizing themselves from labor laws and/or calls for ethical employee treatment.) But under AB 5, all those “contractors” become employees subject to California labor protections/benefits, which means: unemployment insurance, paid parental leave, overtime and mandatory rest breaks, workers comp, at least a $12 minimum wage, health care and/or health care subsidies, and, most important of all, the right to unionize. 

Uber et. al. are furious, and Uber has indicated it will litigate the ruling, arguing that its drivers aren’t, uh, central to its business model (of driving cars!!!). It’s unleashed a bevvy of counter-PR, suggesting that the law would FOREVER CHANGE the rideshare industry and CREATE GREAT INCONVENIENCE to users. (The reasoning = Uber will be forced to decrease the number of employees if it actually has to treat them like employees, which will decrease the number of people driving in your area).

Which returns us to the question of creating burnout in others, and how it relates to the actual economy. Are you willing to embrace that truly slight inconvenience — and maybe pay a few dollars more — so that a person’s job is significantly less shitty? Think about in practice: are you willing to wait five more minutes for an Uber so that, when you get in, you know that your drive has health insurance and is making a living wage? Are you willing to have slightly less so that others can have significantly more? Or, as I like to think about it, do you actually care about other people?

If you’re actually serious about treating burnout — yours, your partners, your future children’s — you have to be serious about treating it for people you might not even know. If you want to actually make life better, more livable, less of a slog for yourself, that involves making it better for a whole lot of other people as well. For that, you don’t need a self-help book with an asterisk in the title to blunt the profanity. You don’t need a better organisational app. You just need to legitimately and actionably care about other people.

On a happier note, did you know Fleabag — THE Fleabag series which just bagged FOUR awards at the Emmys (Outstanding Comedy Series, Lead Actress in a Comedy Series, Directing for a Comedy Series, & Writing for a Comedy Series) — started as a Kickstarter campaign with only 54 backers?! Time to work on that project we have been putting on hold now.

Sort of like an exhale

I guess this is the year where I reread the books I have read from a few years ago. At the top of my mind, the books that I have reread this year were Bruce Chatwin’s Under the Sun (I definitely had an absolutely different take especially reading it again right after finishing an Edward Said), Frankenstein (although this time it’s the annotated version for engineers, scientists, and creators), Verso’s Book of Dissent, and lastly Muriel Barbery’s The Elegance of the Hedgehog, which baffled me since I rated it only 3 stars on Goodreads 7 years ago. After finishing it, I understood why.

Barbery as a philosophy teacher showed up a lot more so than as an author in this book. There were also several hints of casual racism — I am not sure if it was written from the perspective of the 12-year-old Paloma the character or this came from Barbery’s perspective herself — but either way, none of these views got called out. A few sections in the book that I enjoyed strangely came from Paloma’s daily journals, of which she grouped into two: Profound Thoughts, a collection of interesting ideas; and Journal of the Movement of the World, a collection of thoughts about the movements of the body and things. Paloma was portrayed as an intelligent, articulate 12-year-old who somehow was unhappy in her otherwise very privileged life and was contemplating suicide, as these insights from her journals show so.

I realised these days that instead of jumping to post links or thoughts to Twitter as soon as I could, as I used to, I would write briefly of what I thought or found out in my Moleskine. If they do make it to long-form blog journals such as this one, so it would be. Somehow this is a great habit, and I am enjoying it — it gives me a longer time to ruminate on things and write better. Or maybe I don’t have anything to say much, but I still want to write or yell into the Internet void without judgment (as Twitter often has no problem to offer). As Nora Ephron had been saying:

… one of the most delicious things about the profoundly parasitical world of blogs is that you don’t have to have anything much to say. Or you just have to have a little tiny thing to say. You just might want to say hello. I’m here. And by the way. On the other hand. Nevertheless. Did you see this? Whatever. A blog is sort of like an exhale. What you hope is that whatever you’re saying is true for about as long as you’re saying it. Even if it’s not much.

I might want to start something new next year — that is, just logging things I observe every day. I started this year by following Austin Kleon’s logbook format, but I got sidetracked and I never picked up the project back again. Spencer Tweedy’s observations of daily fleeting moments are also delightful and less maintenance, one that also reminds me of Georges Perec’s An Attempt at Exhausting a Place in Paris. Just the perfect size and length to exhale.

Then what?

I have been away for a few days to travel to attend a friend’s convocation — of which he kindly asked me to accompany him — which also lead me to think of two things with my impending thesis submission myself (I have submitted a notice of submission which basically means I have given my word to submit the final draft in entirety in December). One, I noticed now that whenever people asked me about my research topic, I no longer unconsciously made myself small to evade the talk — not because I didn’t know how to answer it, it’s because I dreaded telling people about my research in Political Sociology. One thing about the mention of politics is everyone has opinions about it, and everyone thinks they are right and they have no qualms of trying to educate / shove it down others’ throats, whether or not the person they are talking to is an expert, has a PhD, or just another layperson. And sadly because I am a non-confrontational person, most of the time I’d just nod begrudgingly and waved it off politely. Well, after close to three years now, I no longer wave it off. It struck me of how comfortable I was in discussing my research and fielding questions diplomatically in a conversation yesterday, and if that is not growth, I don’t know what is.

But also, second, it struck me how scared I am that my journey is also about to come to an end. There’s that question, then what?

I almost didn’t manage to edit my thesis draft today. When I was younger I would often wonder how long my body will somehow deteriorate, and crumble under the smallest physical exertion. I guess it didn’t take long. I am T-3 years in reaching 40, and one whole day of travelling could render me with fatigue enough to last for at least two days. 6 years ago I could work full time and do my MA full time, and today my body fell into exhaustion by itself the moment I thought of those days. But today I got up anyway and managed 3 hours of editing work. My advisor said to me yesterday as he walked me out of his office, “You’ve come a long way. This is almost your final stretch.” I have heard many horror stories of my PhD colleagues having to deal with their difficult advisors, that lead me to think that I must have done something right to deserve a professional mentor so knowledgeable, so supportive, so trusting, and know the right thing to say for someone who, despite always being called an overachiever all her life, has always doubted her capabilities every single day.

I am so, so scared.

The matter of living

A panel of comics explaining on the protection of minorities from New Naratif web magazine

I have been writing more than reading this week (or more like editing) so when it comes to the end of the day when this blog demands its portion of content, I am embarrassed to say that I could not offer much today. But I come across this comic on the protection of minorities from New Naratif as part of its explainer series, and it’s just so timely and very important. I’d like you to read it too. Also related: portraits of Ellis Island immigrants in their traditional garbs and all, all anxious to start a new life in an entirely new country, because the matter of living is no laughing matter.

On languages & fluency

Something interesting I learned about languages today:

Italians are some of the fastest speakers on the planet, chattering at up to nine syllables per second. Many Germans, on the other hand, are slow enunciators, delivering five to six syllables in the same amount of time. Yet in any given minute, Italians and Germans convey roughly the same amount of information, according to a new study. Indeed, no matter how fast or slowly languages are spoken, they tend to transmit information at about the same rate: 39 bits per second, about twice the speed of Morse code.

And there’s this thing about not one language is better than another:

The “crystal clear conclusion,” he adds, is that although languages differ widely in their encoding strategies, no one language is more efficient than another at delivering information.

The real problem, isn’t about delivering the information, but it’s this:

… he says, instead of being limited by how quickly we can process information by listening, we’re likely limited by how quickly we can gather our thoughts.

I figured I should pick up Spanish back again now that I have started watching Spanish series on Netflix — first Elite, and now La Casa de Papel. In entirety, I could speak and understand about 4 languages — although 2 native and almost native (English and Malay), and the rest are conversational (Spanish & Turkish). I also found it funny that due to the fact that I am a Muslim and we are taught to recite Quran from as early as we could remember, a lot of us non-Arabic speaking Muslims could read some of the Arabic words and letters but have no idea what they mean, unless we learn the Arabic language from the start.

We always think of ‘fluency’ to indicate ‘native-level proficient’, but it turns out even the most eloquent speaker in another language which they were not raised with were still not perceived as ‘fluent’ by their native speakers, as in this case:

A “heritage speaker” of Italian, I’d been living in Italy for two years when I overheard a receptionist refer me to me as “that foreigner who doesn’t speak Italian”. I was confused, then gutted. That one casual sentence launched a journey that resulted in my being forced to acknowledge that while I had grown up speaking Italian at home and was fluent, I was not by any means proficient.

Daniel Morgan, head of learning development at the Shenker Institutes of English – a popular chain of English schools in Italy – says that fluency actually refers to how “smoothly” and “efficiently” a second language (L2) speaker can speak on “a range of topics in real time”. While fluency may denote a degree of proficiency, it does not automatically imply accuracy – the ability to produce grammatically correct sentences – nor does it imply grammatical range.

Fluency is then, gauged through The Council of Europe’s Common European Framework of References (CEFR) for Languages, which groups language learners into concrete proficiency levels:

A1: Capabilities range include basic introductions and answering questions about personal details provided the listener speaks slowly and is willing to cooperate.

A2: Can describe in simple terms aspects of his/her past, environment and matters related to his/her immediate needs and perform routine tasks requiring basic exchanges of information.

B1: Can deal with most daily life situations in the country where the language is spoken. Can describe experiences, dreams and ambitions and give brief reasons for opinions and goals.

B2: Can understand the themes of complex texts on both concrete and abstract topics and will have achieved a degree of fluency and spontaneity, which makes interaction with native speakers possible without significant strain for either party.

C1: Can understand a wide range of longer texts and recognise subtleties and implicit meaning; producing clear, well-structured and detailed text on complex subjects, showing controlled use of organisational patterns, connectors and cohesive devices.

C2: Can understand virtually everything heard or read, expressing themselves spontaneously, very fluently and precisely, while differentiating finer shades of meaning even in highly complex situations.

With the exception of Malay, I am still not fluent in any of the rest of the other languages, so it seems.

Is it right because it has always been like that?

I finished writing my thesis today! All 257 pages, 59986 words in entirety. Surely it sounds like it calls for a celebration, but there is a huge amount of editing work to be done till next month. And so onward I shall do so.

Some things I have been consuming around the Internet, and outside the ‘Net too:

  • I have wanted to visit Iran for the longest time. Right now, I’d just be content viewing and drooling at all the pictures and descriptions in Alex Shams’ Twitter thread.
  • WITI on why Goodreads right now already works so well (for some), despite its frictions. I am one of those who frequent Goodreads to track the books I read, participate in reading challenges, and sometimes weigh out options of book purchases through the reviews, and I love how it, at this point of time, still not heavily algorithmised unlike other social media platforms.
  • Speaking of crowds, Nadia Eghbal writes on the effects of overcrowding on offline and online communities. The gatekeeping of locals from the places they inhabit, can they be akin to the dark forest?
  • I am currently obsessed with Elite, a Netflix Spanish series set in an international school filled with ridiculously attractive students, murder, sex, and manipulations. Some call it Spanish Riverdale or Gossip Girl. Expect lots of plot twists and super close face-to-face interactions between the characters, which couldn’t be comfortable?

I was outraged by some form of injustices last week, and my shoulders hurt as I felt helpless. So I reread my copy of Book of Dissent, all dog-eared, highlighted, and spine broken. Some sayings from the book:

  • “The ultimate aim of the government is not to rule, or restrain, by fear, nor to exact obedience, but contrariwise, to free every man from fear, that he may live in all possible security, in other words, to strengthen his natural right to exist and work without injury to himself or others.” – Benedict Spinoza, 1670.
  • “No man can be king by himself nor reign without people; whereas on the contrary, the people might subsist of themselves.” – Stephen Junius Brutus, 1579
  • “Just take four or five hundred women who are free from attachments, put bayonets in their hands, then see what a time they’d give you.” – Tarabai Shinde, 1882
  • “The people are the root of the nation. If the root withers, the nation shall be enfeebled.” – Donghak Rebellion, 1894
  • “Don’t waste any time in mourning — organise.” – Joe Hill, 1915
  • “Is it right because it has always been like that?” – Lu Xun, ‘Diary of a Madman’, 1918

How to teach a computer to ride a bicycle

A visualisation of an unsteered bicycle, shown in an academic figure

I don’t often leave home these days, and there is ever a day in a week that I ever do, it’s Friday. It’s the day my mother goes to her religious class in the morning, and as I drop her off at the building I drive to any nearby cafés and read till she texts me.

I looked through my email of newsletters today and found this issue of The Margins guestwritten by Andrew Granato. He wrote about the climate change of the abandoned Internet, where he revisited the old websites in the 2000s — ones before the advertisers decided it was a good idea to place all their ads across your pages and track your every movement, ones where you could experiment with all sorts of projects and abandon at your own cost and you are not obliged to monetise on them anyway, ones where you could safely scream into the void.

This whole paragraph was what reminded me of how fun it was to tinker with every bit of CSS glitter on Myspace, and the glee that I rekindled as I built my first Twitter bot this year:

I think the main thing that is being lost in this shift is the (relative) ability to experiment freely and have a culture that reflects that option. The old internet was less overtly commercial and more willing to suspend disbelief about something that was obviously dumb if there was fun to be had from it, and so you could screw around and float in a sea of people doing the same thing and it wouldn’t matter at all. It was often innocent in the sense that people didn’t much assign real meaning to it, so you could start things and abandon them in this other sphere of life without feeling like it was even really you that was doing it.

Also TIL, link rot — where a combination of website redesigns, name changes, intentional website discontinuations, and various random other factors and errors result in some fraction of web links becoming nonviable constantly. “The web is in a constant state of erosion”, Granato adds.

Finally, there is no end to academic wonders — as I found this academic paper called It Takes Two Neurons to Ride a Bicycle, where the author attempted to teach a computer how to ride a bike. I haven’t read the whole thing in entirety yet, but I was taken a fancy to the instabilisation of an unsteered bicycle, visualised above.