Whale of a time

It was Herman Melville’s 200th birthday yesterday. It transported me back to my teen days, when my school hours would last from morning till about 2 pm. My mother taught in another school next to mine, and her session did not finish till 4 pm as she had to stay back to do some administration duties. While waiting for her, I would often spend my time in the library reading through all the books I could get my hands on, as someone who comes from a middle-class family whose parents were not able to afford luxuries such as books during that time. This is probably why I have so much affinity to the library and the whole concept of it, and highly against the idea of libraries growing obsolete in the time of “digital age”, or anything like that.

As much as I have read Moby Dick as a teenager, I admit that till now I had never looked much beyond the pages and examine the underlying themes — the idea of the whale itself to symbolise greatness, the gap between social classes, the sea as a place of transition, and the insight into the lifecycle of a whaling industry — and also one we had never discussed within our school’s education system. I might reread it and take notes of these tips.

I have also been thinking about books we have read during our younger days, of which we couldn’t fully resonate or understand, but we could then after picking them up again after so many years (I still could not understand the appeal of The Catcher in the Rye and On The Road after so many years still, sorry). But I guess the point I am trying to make is, for even an accomplished (?) writer such as Herman Melville, he still managed to find the right book at the right time when he read Shakespeare for the first time, as mentioned in Why Read Moby-Dick?:

… the novel truly began in February 1849 when Melville purchased a large-type edition of Shakespeare’s plays. The eyes that would become so inflamed during the composition of Moby-Dick were already beginning to bother him. “[C]hancing to fall in with this glorious edition,” he wrote to a friend of the large-type volumes, “I now exult over it, page after page.”

Melville’s example demonstrates the wisdom of waiting to read the classics. Coming to a great book on your own after having accumulated essential life experience can make all the difference. For Melville, the timing could not have been better, and in the flyleaf of the last volume of his seven-volume set of Shakespeare’s plays are notes written during the composition of Moby-Dick about Ahab, Pip, and other characters.

Everything is a Story

Guess who has two thumbs, corkscrew curly hair, tons of coffee on a daily basis, and manages to write 2520 words today for her final two chapters of her thesis? It me!

It definitely is a big deal since I could not find myself writing any long-form articles or documents of any kind with proper structure and planning for about two years (for some reasons I’d rather not disclose) so I am quite proud of myself. On top of that, I am currently still on track for thesis submission this year — and for that I am super grateful my mental and physical health, among others, have been cooperating with me this year to achieve this goal.

I came across this article today on the proliferation of vertical videos — something akin to Instagram Story — in China. China, in every aspect to me, runs things a lot differently than the rest of the world — media (both traditional and social media), commerce, politics (trails mysteriously) — and it’s interesting to find out that there is a growing number of Chinese dramas built in a vertical format to cater to the growing audience who watch dramas through smartphones.

Then there are also some instances of how big media companies would also publish their articles in the form of Story format, not on Instagram — but on their very own platform. Kottke wrote about it, along with some examples and common characteristics of this format, most prominent is the display of progress meters and navigation by swiping or tapping on the left or right side of the (vertical) screens.

Finally, there is also this brilliant article by Ian Bogost on how stories are overtaking social media. It also struck me that the fact we kept referring to this format as ‘Stories’, “a collection of images and short videos, with optional overlays and effects, that a user can add to over time, but which disappears after 24 hours” is just both smart and terrible by itself, and we attribute this to Instagram — have we referred to this format as ‘Snaps’ though, even when the fact that Snapchat practically invented it?

That name is vestigial now, because it’s only incidental that an iPhone or a Pixel is a telephone. Instead, it’s a frame that surrounds everything that is possible and knowable. A rectangle, as I’ve started calling it.

The rectangle now frames experience. Information is rectangle-shaped, retrieved from searches in Google or apps or voice assistants. Personal communication comes in the form of a list of bubbles spilling down a rectangle. The physical world can be accessed by a map scaled to the boundaries of the rectangle, which can also provide way-finding through it. Music, movies, and television appear on these screens, and increasingly there alone. The rectangle is also an imaging device, capable of capturing a view of the world in front of it and the operator behind it.

I kind of have a love and hate relationship with Instagram Story — I post often but only to selected few, but I would find myself spending hours scrolling through everyone else’s before bed. It’s terrible, I know! Not to mention it is also littered with ads with every few scrolls but I hate to think that I still continue watching the stories after dismissing them.

The liveness of smartphone-authorship, combined with the ephemerality of the Story format, makes it a catalog of the experience of holding and looking through a rectangle almost all the time.

I also definitely could relate to this decision of framing / segregation of content according to these two platforms, as I do this: properly curated content shared on (Instagram) Story, but cats cats cats on Snapchat:

The Instagram version, as my son concluded, is “about pretending you’re living a lifestyle that is so exclusive you can only get a glimpse into it for a few hours before it disappears.” On Snapchat, it’s mostly a series of personal moments for your friends.

I’m not sure where the future of content verticality is heading, or if there’s anything new coming up (there definitely is!) but it’s crazy to think that it is almost impossible for us to disengage — because there are always corporations who would find the trends useful and find ways to contain us.

The point of writing

I guess I have come across this before but I was recently made aware (or reminded) of from Stranger Things 3 of what is called the Baader-Meinhof effect, or ‘frequency illusion’— the effect that happens when you start seeing the same things in succession after being mentioned to you, or encountered upon it the first time. Our brain essentially has the ability to recognise patterns, and when it comes across two or more things in succession after we are made aware of the first one, it begins to alert us of these multiple successions. So it might seem that it is a coincidence, a serendipity — but actually, your brain is connecting these events for you and disregarding the rest, blinding you from them.

Speaking of serendipity, I also got to know yesterday that the word ‘serendipity’ originated from an old Persian story, The Three Princes of Serendip. An Italian author heard the story from another person, who had translated the Persian tale into Italian, which is then translated into English. It tells of three princes in the country of Serendippo, who discern where one camel had been and had done based on small little clues they found along the way. It is a little bit of Sherlock Holmes-y detective story, in fact.

Speaking of patterns as well, I am in the midst of reading Jason Fagone’s The Woman Who Smashed Codes. It tells about Elizebeth Smith Friedman, the first woman cryptographer, who managed to decipher more than four thousand Nazi messages and in return, saved innumerable lives. Her life story, lauded as another the new Hidden Figures (although I would say, let Hidden Figures be remarkable in its own ways and The Woman, in another, without comparing them both) is a story of put together from “a puzzle that was fragmented by secrecy, sexism, and time”. In the book, it is said that codebreaking — what Elizebeth did — “is about noticing and manipulating patterns. Humans do this without thinking. We are wired to see patterns.” The only thing is that codebreakers are trained to see them more deeply and analytically.

In all my greediness, I also picked up reading Tear Gas: From the Battlefields of World War I to the Streets of Today, an epub copy of which I have purchased a long time ago but have never managed to read as of yet. Self-explanatorily, the book tells of the social history of poison gas, weaving through the intersection of business, the military, and science from the trenches of World War I to the Occupy movement today — and all of them poorly handled ethically. I was seething reading through the pages. It got to my attention that, as a combination of today’s political climate and my role as a Political Sociology grad student, everything I read today makes me furious. How do I handle this, knowing that I can back away into the comfort of my own life, knowing I have the privilege of deciding what I can risk, when there are others who have no choice and live these very lives?

This is when I was reminded of the words from Alexander Chee’s How To Write An Autobiographical Novel:

When fascists come to power, writers are among the first to go to jail. And that is the point of writing.

Sometimes, when I got frustrated at myself for being so non-confrontational in the times of arising conflict, I know what I am good at — writing. So I will write.

When war comes—and make no mistake, it is already here—be sure you write for the living too. The ones you love, and the ones who are coming for your life. What will you give them when they get there? I tell myself I can’t imagine a story that can set them free, these people who hate me, but I am writing precisely because one did that for me. So I always remember that, and I know to write even for them.


This is for the unwanted

A black and white photograph from Ara Güler showing four small boys playing in the backstreets of their flats, with hanging clothesline above their heads.
Credit: © Ara Güler

I just finished reading the new book from Elif Shafak, 10 Minutes 38 Seconds In This Strange World, possibly my fifth Shafak’s book I have read. The title lends itself to a finding of a research, however unproven, that whenever one dies their mind will stay alert for another exactly 10 minutes 38 seconds. I was always been told by the elderly in my family that during this duration, your mind will go through a replay of key moments in your lives — from your childhood all the way through your last few seconds.

Needless to say I have always loved every story about Istanbul — both the poetic evocation of it (as one Turkish friend once said of how I felt about the city — until he supplied me with every journal and news article possible about the political climate of the country) and the beautiful mess hidden within its sprawling small streets. 10 Minutes 38 Seconds tells a story about a sex worker called Leila, who found herself dead in a city dumpster. As she drifts away for good, Shafak does what every writer knows how to do well, and perhaps especially she does it extremely well — Leila is instantly humanised as her mind takes her back to her childhood home in Van, all the way to her early years in Istanbul till she starts to make friends with all the unlikeliest people to be seen together: a Marxist, a transwoman, immigrants, a woman with dwarfism, someone who flees home to escape domestic violence, and a childhood friend with a secret life. Their friendship, despite personal differences and social standing, strengthens out of love and especially respect for each other. Leila, despite who she is to the world, has loved and is deeply loved. Her death does not stop her from telling her story, and one that should not be silenced.

Until the year 1990, Article 438 of the Turkish Penal Code was used to reduce the sentence given to rapists by 1/3rd if they could prove that their victim was a sex worker. Legislators defended the article with the argument that “a prostitute’s mental or physical health could not be negatively affected by rape”. In 1990, in the face of an increasing number of attacks against sex workers, passionate protests were held in different parts of the country. Owing to this strong reaction from civil society, Article 438 was repealed. However, to these days, there’s still been a few, if any, legal amendments in the country towards gender equality, or specifically towards improving the conditions of sex workers.

This is a story for the unwanted, the unworthy, and the unidentified of İstanbul — and in all cities, in an amalgamation of all our identities, who deserve better lives.

No more self-erasing

I have been having body aches for the longest time, and judging from how long I often sit working in front of the computer, I guess it has to do with some muscle tension in my shoulder and arms area. I haven’t gone for a massage for the longest time as well so I called my cousin, who seems so resourceful when it comes to this area, to look for a masseuse to come to my house.

So she arrived today and got to work. While working (i.e. her kneading my body like a dough and sometimes twisting my body around like a pretzel, it HURTS but in a good way) we chatted about a lot of things. M the masseuse, turns out, is also a certified therapist. One thing she learned while taking certifications as a therapist was how to appreciate our own body — of which over the years have performed numerous tasks for us, either menial or to some considerable extent — through speaking to ‘it’. For example, if your eyes are hurting because you have been working on the computer for too long, take a short break, close your eyes and thank them for letting you do your job for as long as you have lived. She mentioned in one of the classes she was required to attend, the instructor made all the students hug and thank their own selves because more so than often, it’s our own body that we often neglect more so than others’. The whole room cried, she said, as everyone came to this revelation. Needless to say, she has now become my favourite masseuse.

It just so happened that before she arrived, I was reading this essay from The Paris Review called The Crane Wife. The writer, so sick of having the idea that she often had to ask for affection or any signs of it from her (cheating) fiancé — “this was like us going on a hiking trip and him telling me he had water in his backpack but not ever giving it to me and then wondering why I was still thirsty”, called the engagement off and went on a fieldwork to study whooping cranes for a novel.

I need you to know: I hated that I needed more than this from him. There is nothing more humiliating to me than my own desires. Nothing that makes me hate myself more than being burdensome and less than self-sufficient. I did not want to feel like the kind of nagging woman who might exist in a sit-com.

These were small things, and I told myself it was stupid to feel disappointed by them. I had arrived in my thirties believing that to need things from others made you weak. I think this is true for lots of people but I think it is especially true for women. When men desire things they are “passionate.” When they feel they have not received something they need they are “deprived,” or even “emasculated,” and given permission for all sorts of behaviour. But when a woman needs she is needy. She is meant to contain within her own self everything necessary to be happy.

The title of the essay comes from Japanese folklore about a crane who tricks a man into thinking she’s a woman so he would marry him.

She loves him, but knows that he will not love her if she is a crane so she spends every night plucking out all of her feathers with her beak. She hopes that he will not see what she really is: a bird who must be cared for, a bird capable of flight, a creature, with creature needs. Every morning, the crane-wife is exhausted, but she is a woman again. To keep becoming a woman is so much self-erasing work. She never sleeps. She plucks out all her feathers, one by one.

“To keep becoming a woman is so much self-erasing work.” I think about this so very often when we undermine how we feel in fear of being seen as needy or demanding, especially when we do so for the comfort of others. This is something I definitely need to learn to stop doing.

I also came upon this article on why creative geniuses were mostly men. Discarding the idea that they are born to be more superior than women, this is what we should understand:

… what struck me most about these creative geniuses – mostly men – was not their schedules and daily routines, but those of the women in their lives. Their wives protected them from interruptions; their housekeepers and maids brought them breakfast and coffee at odd hours; their nannies kept their children out of their hair. Martha Freud not only laid out Sigmund’s clothes every morning, she even put the toothpaste on his toothbrush. Marcel Proust’s housekeeper, Celeste, not only brought him his daily coffee, croissants, newspapers and mail on a silver tray, but was always on hand whenever he wanted to chat, sometimes for hours. Some women are mentioned only for what they put up with, like Karl Marx’s wife – unnamed in the book – who lived in squalor with the surviving three of their six children while he spent his days writing at the British Museum.

Unlike the male artists, who moved through life as if unfettered time to themselves were a birthright, the days and life trajectories of the handful of female artists featured in the book were often limited by the expectations and duties of home and care. George Sand always worked late at night, a practice that started when she was a teenager and needed to take care of her grandmother. Starting out, Francine Prose’s writing day was defined by the departure and return of her children on the school bus. Alice Munro wrote in the “slivers” of time she could find between housekeeping and childrearing. And Maya Angelou got away from the pull of home by leaving it altogether, checking herself into an unadorned hotel room to think, read and write.

Also related: Women did everything right. Then work got ‘greedy’.

On citogenesis, and no distinction of resistance

I just finished writing a 400-word article outlining an image from colonial Malaya for a workshop I am attending tomorrow. The organiser apparently mistyped my email and sent the assignment to some Ana Fauzi out there, and just forwarded me the email. The assignment entails all workshop participants to look for an image of our interest taking place during colonial Malaya and which institution/archive/personal collection the image belongs to, along with a few words on why we choose the image, why the image is connected to our decision to participate in the workshop, and what we hope to learn. I chose this image and wrote a whole article about it to be presented to the workshop tomorrow.

I finished reading André Aciman’s memoir Out of Egypt today, on his life as a boy with his Sephardic Jew family in Alexandria and their daily lives and struggles as President Gamal Abdel Nasser came into power and called for pan-Arab unity in Egypt. As Nasser began a series of nationalisation and reforms in the country, his anti-imperialism government decided to expel people of British, French, and Israeli nationalities and roots — and to this extension, the Jews as well. His story of the state of exile can be compared to those of Edward Said’s Out of Place and Gini Alhadeff’s The Sun at Midday, who, like Aciman, were also largely raised in Egypt. I have several thoughts about the book, of which I will write about later.

Today I learned that there is a term for lies that were cited on Wikipedia which were then picked up as a reliable citation: citogenesis. And there’s a whole listicle of them. Could you also guess the longest Wikipedia entry? It’s the Timeline of Russian Interference in the 2016 United States Elections.

Also, I couldn’t stop thinking of this passage from the article on Black-Palestinian solidarity:

For Brown, many of the conversations she heard in Palestine resonated with similar issues in the United States, such as “dealing with the obsession over ‘non-violence’, the fear of being co-opted by those who would call themselves allies who don’t experience oppression quite the same to as us.” She said the nonviolence piece struck her the most: “A [Palestinian] sister said in a meeting that until recently, [Palestinians] didn’t have the distinction between violence and nonviolence — it was all resistance. I think that is so powerful as Black Americans find themselves caught up in this faux binary of good versus bad protester, and that assignment, to one or the other, is often handed down by those in power.”

How to ask good questions

I think the biggest thing that put me off presenting on conferences or talks of any kinds is not about the presenting part — which, despite self-claiming to be struggling with stage fright, is something I have managed to deal with this year — but more towards dealing with the Q&A session. I presented at a conference late last year on something that I have worked very hard on, and something that was fully endorsed by my supervisor. The presentation went great. The Q&A though, if I could call it Q&A, was horrible. No one was moderating properly, and largely those commenting — yes, commenting instead of asking questions — were just that, commenting. There were no slivers of curiosity, no questions that could help me dig deeper into that piece of work. I felt like I was being grilled in a proposal defense, which at that time was apt because it was what a proposal defense was supposed to be. At the end of the supposedly Q&A session, I asked, “so, the questions?” and I was met with bored looks of experienced academics ready to pounce on the next early career researcher in line, like me.

I thought of better ways we could carry ourselves as presenters, askers, and moderaters as well when it comes to Q&A sessions. I find that in local conferences, a lot of people look forward to Q&A sessions as a way to flex how much they know, and how many complicated words they can fit in as the presenter stands in, drafting their answers mentally in their heads so as not to appear poorly knowledgeable in front of their audience, even though this is the field they have been pursuing in all their lives. This is something we need to change. I feel also local moderators are too ‘polite’ to step in when the audience does not ask, “not a question, just some comments”, or if their questions are not framed properly, long-winding, or go over the allocated time. As a presenter, we must also equip ourselves with the skill to diplomatically and eloquently answer questions — something that I myself also am currently trying to improve on.

Denise Yu has some good illustrated guidelines on how to ask good questions during a Q&A session:

This post initially started as I had wanted to write about how Nick Cave answers questions on his blog The Red Hand Files, where fans would submit questions and he would answer with such poetic thoughtfulness. I thought that if I were to present again, I would probably prepare something like this, maybe on a Padlet, and if ever someone wants to say “more of a comment” instead of a question, that’s where I should direct them.

Nick Cave was sent in a nasty question today by a homophobic fan who asked him if he gets “tired of all the pretentious fat lesbians who enjoy your music?”. He answers on how anonymity does not shelter you from spreading your hate to another:

I do not believe that your anonymity protects you, any more than I believe the anonymity of the hate trolls on social media protects them. I feel that there are psychic pathways that exist between us all, and that the negativity we create eventually finds its way back to us.

I especially like how Cave frames this answer in dealing with people full of hate, that it’s a trait resulting from their limited experiences, and not one that defines them, “your words extend only to the margins of your own individual evolution” — and at the same time, Cave centres this around his other fans, “my fans are smart enough and sufficiently forgiving” — who might still have some stirring hateful thoughts inside themselves due to their surroundings — and their capacity to be so much better:

I think my fans are smart enough and sufficiently forgiving to understand that your words extend only to the margins of your own individual evolution.

On borders and digital agency

An image from ‘‘Blue Sky Days’’, a photography work of Tomas van Houtryve showing an aerial view of  students in a schoolyard in El Dorado County, California.
An image from ‘‘Blue Sky Days’’ of students in a schoolyard in El Dorado County, California. Photo credit: Tomas van Houtryve

Been researching on borders, immigration, and digital agency since last week and felt compelled to share some resources I came across in today’s post:

The very insightful book Violent Borders, of which I tore through in two days. The book posits the idea that borders are inherently violent constructs, and that they are “a governmental technology that is used to create, discipline and contain an orderly population inside a bounded territory.” Borders, like technology, are not innocent, and subject to some systemic harms that seek to strengthen the status quo that will benefit some privileged few.

“While asylum seekers are required to provide significant amounts of personal information on their journey to safety, they are rarely fully informed of their data rights by UN agencies or local border control and law enforcement staff tasked with obtaining and processing their personal information. This paper analyses how the vast amount of data collected from refugees is gathered, stored and shared today, and considers the additional risks this collection process poses.” Data protection and digital agency for refugees.

“One key struggle is obtaining meaningful consent. Often, biometric data is collected as soon as migrants and refugees arrive in a new country, at a moment when they are vulnerable and overwhelmed. Language barriers exacerbate the issue, making it difficult to provide adequate context around rights to privacy. Identity data is collected inconsistently by different organizations, all of whose data protection and privacy practices vary widely.” Investigating digital identity in the migration and refugee context in Italy.

“Data collectors and data brokers hold power. This is why surveillance technologies can be so alluring. International organisations that deploy large-scale identity collection systems can become the largest data brokers in a crisis region. The responsibility these organisations have to those they serve goes beyond data protection and privacy. It’s about upholding the human dignity of those who have been stripped of the ability to provide food for themselves and their families. Forcing them to submit biometrics further erodes their senses of agency.” Stop surveillance humanitarianism.

“The walls of the future go beyond one administration’s policies, though. They are growing up all around us, being built by global technology companies that allow for constant surveillance, data harvesting and the alarming collection of biometric information. In 2017, the United States announced it would be storing the social media profiles of immigrants in their permanent file, ostensibly to prevent Twitter-happy terrorists from slipping in. For years, Customs and Border Protection agents have asked travelers about their social media, too.” The real wall is no longer just at the (physical) border.

Then, from the same article, think about this: “If you zoom out enough in Google Earth, you’ll see the lines between nations begin to disappear. Eventually, you’ll be left staring at a unified blue planet. You might even experience a hint of what astronauts have called the “overview effect”: the sense that we are all on “Spaceship Earth,” together. “From space I saw Earth — indescribably beautiful with the scars of national boundaries gone,” recalled Muhammed Faris, a Syrian astronaut, after his 1987 mission to space. In 2012, Mr. Faris fled war-torn Syria for Turkey.”

“We didn’t cross the border. The border crossed us. We have always been here.” In 2014, author Teju Cole published an essay on the topic of immigration, entirely on Twitter. Here’s the full post in a proper essay form.

“A view from the great height is irresistible. It is twinned with the ancient dream of flight. For millennia, we have imaginatively soared above our material circumstances and dramatised this desire in tales from Icarus to Superman. Things look different from way up there. What was invisible before becomes visible: how one part of the landscape relates to another, how nature and infrastructure unfold. But with the acquisition of this panoptic view comes the loss of mich that could be seen at close range. The face of the beloved is but one invisible detail among many.” Teju Cole on drones and geographies of aerial violence.

“A refugee’s academic training and intellectual interests travel with them wherever they go and follow their flight. If refugees are given the necessary resources, networks, and opportunities, they can reconnect with their true identities.” On refugees, expertise, and employment.

More books that contextualise migration crises rooted in the violence of capitalism, legacies of colonialism, and racist state narratives from my favourite radical publisher Verso.

Listen also to musicians, Syrian Yousef Kekhia’s Hal Ard Lamin (Whose Earth Is This?) and Egyptian and Palestinian Moseqar x Haya Zaatry’s Borders and Promises.

On libraries and flight shame

I haven’t flown since November last year, and while I look forward to flying again soon-ish, I might want to reconsider the option. It was said that a flight across the Atlantic, say specifically New York to London, puts an extra 1.6 metric tons of carbon dioxide in the air, and costs $60 in environmental damage. This equals to a round trip for a 15-mile car commute every day for one year, and even much sadder, we managed to put a polar bear out of its home as it destroys a chunk of polar summer sea ice cover about the size of an office cubicle. There is a word, or multiple words for this guilt in multiple languages. In English, it’s ‘flight shame’, of course. The Dutch call it vliegschaamte; the Swedish call it flygskam; and the Germans, Flugscham.

I often thought about how, if I weren’t who I am today — I am not quite sure what I am at the moment, an academic, a writer, a freelancer, a student? — that I would probably be a librarian. I haven’t had the slightest idea of what the job of a librarian entails (you definitely would need some form of formal education or training, as librarian Jon Michaud got his Master’s in Library Science), but I like it that it has to do with books (of course), curating the selection of said books, organising events relating to books and literature, and reading books in my free time (although I am not sure this is what librarians even do, or allowed to do in their free time). I am not sure I would enjoy shushing people who make noises in the library though. I definitely would not enjoy doing whole loads of paperwork. Basically, I like the idea of having the authority to decide and be involved in the concept and practice of having a whole repository of knowledge that could change the world under one building.

I think a lot about how libraries are probably one of those places where you are allowed to be in as long as you want and without the expectation to spend any money whatsoever. “It’s easy to forget just how radical an idea the public library is. It is the ultimate third place—a place that is neither work nor home, where people interact with other members of their community. It’s a place where social status is leveled, where there is no barrier to admission, and no one is stigmatised. In our divisive digital age we need such spaces more than ever,” says librarian Jon Michaud. I also think of some stories where libraries become the places where the homeless and the immigrants find refuge from the harsh weather or the hard life on the streets, and where some of them go just to read and to apply for jobs too. I love how some of these libraries recognise how these people use their spaces and begin to serve and respond to their needs better. I love stories that give hope such as this, especially in today’s current challenging political climate.