Anxiety while Reading Social Theory

I have to admit I’m a shallow, and lazy reader. I prefer reading texts that are simple, and clear in prose. My most recent read that I cherished, and learned so much from was Ellen Pao’s memoir, Reset. The narrative is relatively linear. Everything is told in a chronological manner. Ellen Pao is a to-the-point storyteller. The messages are straightforward enough that I did not have to read the book twice to get any deeper meaning of life. The main message is that the tech industry has a deep structural problem in lacking diversity, and it has been paying only lip service to improve the situation. The solution is that VCs and tech CEOs should be agents of change, by creating and shaping inclusive organization policies and cultures.

Now I am in the process of writing my dissertation, I have bigger theoretical, and philosophical questions that require close readings of certain philosophical texts. There’s no reason why I should not set time aside to do these readings. I ought to read them at some point, and I have decided that now is the time for me to engage with social theory.

While contemplating about the different epistemological worlds that the left and the right in the United States are living in right now, I was recommended to read Black Feminist Thought by Patricia Hill Collins, and The Racial Contract by Charles Mills. I was elated at the challenge. Yet I have to admit that my anxiety and fear of philosophy, and social theory did give me some reservations about how much from the texts I would understand, appreciate, and be able to engage with.

Regardless, I am giving these texts a read, and will document my reactions toward them in the next few blog posts.

Production of culture

I am copy-ing this list as a reading list for cultural production.

Code and Culture

[Below is a recent list Peterson wrote outlining the production of culture perspective. You can view it as an update to his ARS with N Anand. Pete wrote it to accompany a talk he gave and circulated it to some friends. I copy-edited/tagged it and am posting it with permission. If you know links for any of the non-tagged citations email me or put them in the comments and I will update the post. –Gabriel]

| Richard A. Peterson |

Examples of works written in the spirit of the Production of Culture Perspective

Created for the working conference
Euro-Pop: The Production and Consumption of a European Culture
Villa Vigoni, Lake Como, Italy 9-10 June, 2009

Richard A. Peterson

A. The production of culture perspective focuses on the ways in which the content of symbolic elements of culture are shaped by the systems within which they are created, distributed, evaluated, taught…

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White Habitus – Racism without Racists

In his seminal book Racism without Racists (2006), Eduardo Bonilla-Silva defines the concept “white habitus” as “a racialized, uninterrupted socialization process that conditions and creates whites’ racial taste, perceptions, feelings, and emotions and their views on racial matters.” This concept explains certain idea of white solidarity, and white identity that I am currently trying to understand in the American context.

Bonilla-Silva goes on to explain: “One of the central consequences of the white habitus is that it promotes a sense of group belonging (a white culture of solidarity) and negative views about nonwhites.” Scholars often stay away from discussing the effects of active social isolation from ethnic minorities by white Americans. Bonilla-Silva doesn’t shy away from such a difficult topic. He points out that this kind of habitus develops a sense of identity, a sense of belonging, and a shared experience. Further exploration of white solidarity and identity in contemporary America under Trump is a difficult task. In the past two months of my reading on the subject, the book that deals the best with this topic is Dying of Whiteness by Jonathan Metzl.

September Reading List

I am not going out to restaurants, I also not using the subway to travel anywhere. The COVID-19 Pandemic has helped me save some money. I spent this ear-marked money on books. Because of work from home, and school’s work from home policies, access to physical books has become very limited to me. I don’t do well with e-books. Reading e-books does not help me retain information. Words come in and out immediately whenever I read things on my computer screen. I need to hold a physical book in order to think slowly what the author means.

Following is my reading list for the last 10 days of September: Dying of Whiteness by Jonathan Metzl, Red Pill, Blue Pill by David Neiwert, Talk of Love by Ann Swidler, Summoned by Iddo Tavory, and The Age of Surveillance Capitalism by Shoshana Zuboff. These books have been suggested to me by colleagues, friends, or advisors. They are fall broadly under three categories: whiteness studies, ethnography/cultural studies, and digital capitalism. I still read scholarly articles for information, and research. Yet when it comes to reading for critical engagement, research and pleasure, I still prefer books. I am not entirely sure my dissertation will turn into a book, but I cannot deny the appeal of having my name on a monograph published by an academic publisher. Let’s wait for a couple of years to see where and in what format I will end up publishing my research.

Book Review: Ghost Work

I have planned to read Ghost Work by Mary Gray and Siddharth Suri for a long time. I bought the book when I visited a talk by Mary Gray at Data and Society about a year ago. Since then the book still sits on my bookshelf. The general theme of the book is about the necessary unseen human labor behind the seamless automated systems. The core concept of the book is the idea “paradox of automation’s last mile.” It refers to the phenomenon whereby when Artificial Intelligence becomes more advanced, it would create “temporary labor markets” to solve “unforeseen and unpredictable tasks.” Furthermore, the grater paradox of automation is that “the desire to eliminate human labor always generate new tasks for humans.” In other words, automation cannot and would not in a foreseeable future, rather automation reconfigures work, and reorganizes human input in the production process.

In the authors’ own words, on-demand service work is necessary because we do not know when machines need human input:

“As machines get more powerful and algorithms take over more and more problems, we know from past advances in natural language processing and image recognition that industries will continue to identify new problems to tackle. Thus, there is an ever moving frontier between what machines can and cannot solve. We call this the paradox of automation’s last mile: as machine progress, the opportunity to automate something else appears on the horizon. This process constantly repeats, resulting in the expansion of automation through the perpetual creation and destruction of labor markets for new types of human labor. In other words, as machines solve more and more problems, we continue to identify needs for augmenting rather than replacing human effort. This paradox explains why on-demand services – commercial ventures that combine humans and APIs to source, schedule, and deliver access to goods and services – are more likely to dominate the future of work than AI and bots alone (p.176).

The authors interview workers in the United States and India, and bring them to us. They go behind the API curtain, and reveal to us who the workers are, what are their aspirations, and why they work for on demand platforms. This book is comparative on many levels. First, it compares workers in different countries: The US. and India. Second it compares experiences of workers who work for multiple platforms: Amazon Mechanical Turk, Microsoft Internal On-Demand platform, Amara translation service, and LeadGenius. The diversity of platforms, and countries allow us to see a picture of an emerging global on-demand labor market, which performs million of tasks, which vary in complexity. This book therefore enables us to see what is often hidden and abstract.

The authors then provide institutional background on why the on-demand labor market has become necessary in the digital revolution. They also show us how on-demand labor market is not a new system. Before the industrial revolution, many women and households took on the job of sewing the last buttons to clothes before the textile industry figured out how to automate the process, and confined the work within the walls of garment companies. This inclusion of non-institutional labor is important in the process of automation.

As they walk us through lived experiences of their interview subjects, the reader recognizes heterogeneity of human labors in this on-demand market. What becomes apparent is that since the market does not have a clear requirement of educational background, training level, etc, it allows for a diverse labor force with different levels of training, different levels of education, and coming from diverse racial, ethic, and religious backgrounds. However, this heterogeneity of labor supply, and diverse forms of tasks also create inefficiency, and friction because workers have different levels of skills, and that requesters/ employers have to define the tasks themselves. The authors show that this system involves a lot of transaction costs for both workers and employers. The two sides have to put in the time to find the right match, and to explain to each side how to do the task as intended. Workers avoid the problem of looking for tasks by creating social networks outside of the platform. They rely on social media, online forums to find the right tasks. As the author outlines this problem of transaction costs, I wonder whether building a well thought-out communication platforms for on-demand workers and employers would be a potential solution for the various transaction cost problem in this market. This is a technical solution for the current inefficiencies in this market.

One theme that I observe in this book with other Gig economy books that I have read in the past year is that workers in this economy are subject to algorithmic arbitrariness. Workers are suspended, and kicked out of the platforms sometimes randomly, and sometimes according to rules that are not taking their real life situations into account, while workers have no recourse, no where to complain. This shows the power of platforms over workers, and that workers though important to platforms’ profitability are not treated as assets but expandable number that could be eliminated at will.

Gray and Suri explain:

“The worst expression of algorithmic cruelty is disenfranchisement. Under the guise of safety, systems designers make it easy to block or remove an account in case a bad actor tries to cheat the system. This adversarial stance means that good workers are sometimes misinterpreted as shady players. Inevitably, mistakes are made. A worker changes an address, loses her internet connection, or shares an IP address with another worker. Each one of these things is potential red flag. The algorithmic system sees the flag as a possible security threat and, with no one at the helm to distinguish friend from foe, the worker is penalized. The penalty may look like being blocked or suspended, or having an account deactivated. Again, in an ecosystem in which workers are seen as interchangeable, the system automatically eliminates what it deems bad apples. The sad irony is that even the best – intentioned and most seasoned workers can get caught in the dragnet.” 86

Workers are dehumanized through the process of de-identification. Mturkers become lists of numbers. This reminds me of how Jewish prisoners given a number during the Holocaust. Giving a working human being a code to interact with is so dehumanizing for both sides: the requesters, and the Mturkers. The authors though qualify this statement by saying that in case of workers who come from discriminated classes (gender, religion, etc), not being identified by names and gender sometimes giving them advantage.

At the end, I feel that the book presents a good narrative of what is going on in the tech economy. However, as a sociologist of work, one question remains unanswered is the question of “work process” among on-demand gig workers: Why do they work so hard for very little paid, and why don’t they quit? What is the average tenure of an on-demand gig worker working for an on-demand platform? The authors point out the 80/20 Pareto rule to create a typology of three group of workers. However, I want to know among those who make on-demand work their full time career, why do they work so hard for little pay? Another question is why they not call them gig workers? What is then the difference between gig work and on-demand work? Aren’t they the same?

To answer the question what keeps they in the game, the authors provide a partial answer: many of them are in the game for the cognitive benefit of it. They learn new things, keep up their skills (most of these answers come from Indian subjects). However, my sense is that because the book is not an ethnographic research, they can never quite get at the process that workers rationalize the decision to remain in an exploitative labor scheme.

Besides, How about their American counterparts? Why are they working so hard for little pay? The answers are either implicit or not satisfactory. Implicit in the sense that they work for various reasons. One, the workers population are so heterogeneous, they should have different reasons why they work in this sector. Thus, they should also have different reasons why they stay. Is there anything about the on-demand aspect of this that keeps them stay? Is there anything about the brandname (Amazon.com, or Microsoft) that make them stay? These questions remain open.

Finally, as a methodology enthusiast, I feel the book to be not transparent in its methodology. Who were involved in the interviewing process, who was contacted, who was doing the interview, etc. These pieces of information is absent. As mentioned earlier, because the book is not explicit in whether ethnography was involved at all, readers cannot really picture the embodiment aspect of online/on-demand work.

Because I care so much about reproducibility of research, the book does not have a methodological appendix that makes me cringe. I know that it is produced for popular audience, but as a scholar, a researcher, a scientist, I want to know how many people they have interviewed, how did they interview them, how many in person, how many remote. How did they avoid positionality biases being MSR employers, privileged, and at times employers of those ghost workers.

Overall, I agree with the authors that there’s a global ghost work sector that is increasing in size because of the increase in demand for human in the loop tasks from various tech companies. They are working outside of the formal employment structure, and they are subject to the whim of the platforms, and being exploited by requesters because of the platform design. However, I think the book has not answered many questions, and one of which is methodological, and another is theoretical.

Despite many questions that I have, the book is a starting point of a long over-due conversation: who are the human workers who power machines. How can we as society protect them, and enable their creativity for our better future. The book is both practical, and hopeful that we actually will continue to need humans in the loop. The book also provides one practical solution for job training program at the city level that I really like: supporting public education, and letting residents to take college classes that they would want to take in order to benefit their work. This similar program enabled me to audit courses at Humboldt University, Free University and Goettingen University during my stay in Germany. It plugged me into the intellectual environments of those excellent public universities, and through those courses I had also made long lasting friendships. I’m all for investing in public universities and making their courses available to those who pay their taxes to support such excellent public education.

Book review: After the Gig

This semester, I am teaching the class The Sociology of the Gig Economy at Hunter College. This is a master’s level class where graduate students in social science research, and honors undergraduate students will explore various issues of the gig economy. I am pretty excited about the content of the class. After our first meeting last week, I have become even more excited about the participants. Throughout the semester, students and I will engage in a few public pedagogy projects whereby we produce content and knowledge for public consumption. This is my first time experimenting with such an idea. I think there will be challenges, but hopefully we’ll be able to create solid content for public consumption.

In the process of preparing for the class, I have ordered like 20 different new books in the summer. Most recently I finished reading the book After the Gig by Juliet Schor. As the name suggests, it is a book about the gig economy.

I categorize this book as an empirical examination of the gig economy from the sharing economy point of view. This book is on my bookshelf physically placed next to Uberland by Alex Rosenblat, and Hustle and Gig by Alexandrea Ravenelle. I have reviewed Uberland for Sociological Forum, and really appreciated the book’s approachable language. Alex Rosenblat does not use heavy theoretical language to make her point across. That is Uber drivers come from a diverse backgrounds, who have different reasons why they become taxi drivers. Yet she’s able to show that over time, Uber has engaged in shady practices to increase surveillance and control over its workers, its customers, and critics like herself. When it comes to Hustle and Gig, I appreciate Ravenelle’s clear argument: that is, in the gig economy, companies shift risks onto workers. And her solution to this risk shifting problem is to advocate for changes in the independent contractor category. The government needs to make gig companies recognize these workers as their workers. So instead of getting a 1099 form, these workers should get a W2 form like other “organization men” in William Whyte’s words.

How is After the Gig different from the other two gig economy books that were also published by University of California Press? I think the answer has to do with its approach, scope, and the consumption aspect.

First, Juliet Schor approached the gig economy phenomenon from the sharing economy point of view. That is, she used the consumption, anti-capitalist discourse of the gig/platform economy as the spring board. For example, throughout the book the idealist discourse is being problematized. This discourse makes the argument that the sharing economy promotes collaborative consumption, environmental conservation, and financial independence. While the other books I mentioned above focus exclusively on the workers and how platforms use data and algorithms to discipline workers, this book looks at other aspects of the platform economy: collaborative consumption, environmental conservation and then economic gains for workers.

Second, this book relies on data collected by a team of researchers that look at many for profit and non-profit platforms. This is a marked research design difference from the other two research projects. Trained as an economist, Juliet Schor is able to show the reader what the economics of the platforms is. I really appreciate her non-jargon explanation of how economics works in this economy. In order to keep workers poor and dependent on platforms, Schor argues that we need to understand two important concepts: algorithmic control and policies of precarity.

What is algorithmic control?

To some extent, algorithms are self-learning entities that change without human intervention. But on labor platforms they are also paired with policy decisions made by real people.

In other words, platforms use both automation (algorithms), and policy decision making to discipline workers. While it takes almost nothing to start on any platform (Uber, Taskrabbit), platforms can fire workers anytime (through deactivation mechanism). This high cost of job loss is really high for gig workers.

Schor and her team argue that “platforms have ushered in fundamental changes in the organization of work.” They are parasites, who do not pay tax, and just use public resources (roads, etc). They subsidize consumers through venture capital money, and then compete with public services (public transportations).

Similar to what Alex Rosenblat’s argued in her book, Schor also argues that the platform economy has ushered in a new labor regime. Specifically, we observe a retreat from control, or direct-human control. Employers allow for a wide range of work hours, a wide range of workers with different educational backgrounds, etc. Similar to historian Louis Hyman, and communications scholar Mary Gray, Schor also highlights the similarity between this system and the pre-factory era home-based “putting out” system. Platforms as accepting more heterogeneity among its workers allow for a more diverse workforce. Yet, this also means that we’re facing with more inequality within this economy.

Finally, Schor examines a few case studies of non-profit sharing platforms, and shows the readers why they fail, and how they fail. She argues that sometime the setup lacks “a value proposition” and operates based on “ideological commitment.” In other words, their economic activities appear to be not durable, and would soon fail when economic situations change, and other social dynamics (such as status positioning) kick in.

In conclusion, Schor documents the rise of commercial platforms, and attributes their growth to the fact that they have offered something of significant value to users: consumers get lower prices, and providers get extra income with flexibility. However, looking at consumers and providers alone is not enough. The platforms have plenty to gain from these activities such as power, and consumers’ data. Thus Schor calls for more regulations in this market in order to protect consumers, providers, and society as a whole.

Baking and Culture of Measurement

I have been obsessed with baking Asian cakes such as mooncakes, anpan, Hokkaido bread lately. My tiny New York City apartment kitchen has been filled with baking ingredients and tools including five different types of flour, different molds for different cakes and bread. The basic equipment and ingredients are readily available in my home.

However when I started making mooncakes for example, I ran into the problem of recipes. In order to get a hang of baking techniques, I often go to Youtube, and observe how other people from different countries make mooncakes, and Hokkaido bread. Once I read a few blog posts, and watch a few videos, I seem to get a conceptual hang of the workflow, and feel that I can comfortably make a new type of bread without much difficulty. However, people often say that baking is a science. That means, what determines whether a cake is a success or not lies in the precise measurement. This I found to be a troubling issue especially when making Vietnamese cakes.

I found recipes in Vietnamese on the Internet to be very underwhelming. Most of the time, the measurements are not precise, which throw me off. Whenever I found a ciabatta recipe for example, the instruction is full with details that I feel happy about actually not reading the extra story that the writer tags along to personalize the food making experience. I would go straight to the end of the blog post, look at the recipe, get a general idea of the workflow, then I would go to Youtube and find videos to see how the recipe actually is executed, and certain steps that could never be verbalized in writing.

This general workflow helps me with many cuisines: Chinese, German, American, Mexican and Mediterranean. But when it comes to Vietnamese food particularly Vietnamese recipes that I remember as kid growing up in Vietnam, I find lots of frustration. I often find the writing to be dry, not detailed enough, and it leaves me with an unsatisfactory feeling that the author does not try to make sure that I’d be able to re-create the same experience. This realization made me think about a culture of writing cookbooks, recipes, and blogs. Each recipe takes a lot of care to master, and then to write a blog post to explain what one does. This is a lot of labor and care. What sets the Vietnamese recipes and Western cuisines recipes apart for me now is this level of care, level of appreciation.

I believe that there are many Vietnamese recipes out there that people need to try. Yet, in order to figure out what they are, one needs a class of cultural producers who would be able to introduce these different recipes online, and then popularize it in the world. This is such a cool idea for a Youtube channel, and food blog. I hope that a class of young talented Vietnamese people out there are doing precisely this: to make sure that Vietnamese recipes are accessible to the culinary world, and treat Vietnamese foods with care, and patience.

Topic Modeling makes Bayesian Cool

I have been obsessed with topic modeling for more than a year now. It is an NLP technique that actually has important applications in social science research. This is a big feast for computational methods, and for a social scientist like me.

When I first learned about topic modeling, I spent a lot of time trying to learn how to make it work. Besides, I also wanted to know how I can use this cool technique in my research concerning race/ethnicity, immigration, etc. I was not concerned at all about the mathematical underpinning of the method.

This all went well until I learned Bayesian statistics this summer. Now I see Bayesian everywhere. I finally understand that under the hood, Bayesian inference makes topic modeling such as LDA, or STM possible. This eureka moment really elated me.

It turns out that I have been using language of tuning hyper parameters without really understanding what goes underneath the entire process. Now with some basic Bayesian statistics, things start to make more sense to me, and I feel more confident in explaining how topic modeling works.

Baking is a science

People say baking is a science, and cooking is an art. I enjoy baking much more than cooking because oftentimes there are precise description, and precise measurement of how much ingredients and materials one should prepare before making a cake. Until I tried to make moon cakes, a type of cakes that many East Asian countries eat during the Moon Festival. It’s my childhood favorite, and I miss eating the kind that one can only find in Vietnam (bánh thập cẩm, or mixed flavor).

I followed a few recipes found on the Internet and Youtube. Results have turned out to be dried, and not so pretty.

Then I tried my hands in making mochi ice cream. It’s even more difficult.

Mochi Ice Cream - Kirbie's Cravings
Picture: Kirbie’s cravings

What I figured out during the two failed experiments is that making Asian cakes is so much more complicated that I had thought. I expected that unlike making a croissant or tarte tatin, I at least have an idea how they should taste like at the end. As a born and raised Vietnamese, at least I have the moral authority to say that the cake I make taste like what Vietnamese people in general would consider good. What I recognized at the end though making these cakes has less to do with measurements, ingredients. It has a lot more to do with techniques, equipments, and whether one has a clear expectation how the final products should taste like. So in many ways, baking is also an art. Making these cakes is more like cooking a bowl of Pho than making a tres leches cake.

These Asian goodies are supposed to be moist, soft, and delicate. They are not supposed to be chewy or fluffy. They cannot be made using a ready made cake mix. They take a lot of time to make, and the process is pretty involved. One cannot cut corner and expect the output to be pretty or tasty.

This baking process reminds me of the scientific endeavor that I am engaging in at this moment. When one embarks in a research project, one thinks that they have a clear idea what to do, until they figure out that there are many steps in between. Then they become confused, and frustrated. The science of baking, and making pastry is not opaque especially in the Internet era where many recipes are available for consultation. The opaque part lies in the details how one should mix what kind of flour, and which one goes into the oven first, and how much egg coating should one put on top of the delicate almost ready mooncake.

These baking experiments made me realize that in doing any project, patience is key, and that figuring out the perfect procedure takes many trials and errors. Translating it to doing science, maybe writing papers over and over again helps one write better papers. Maybe having one solid idea and then translating it to written words would eventually become easy once I figure out how to not cut corner?

Applications of Bayesian Thinking

I struggled with understanding how to use Bayesian statistics in my professional work. More specifically, I am struggling understanding the building blocks of Bayesian statistics. What I do see is that Bayesian statistics involves probabilistic thinking, and very clever sampling of data distribution. On the higher level conceptualization, the ideas of prior belief, and updating your belief to get a posterior estimation are intuitively appealing. However, when it comes to mechanics of applying Bayesian logics, I am struggling a lot.

This struggle does not deter me from enjoying reading about Bayesian logics being applied in real life situations. Recently I listened to a Data Skeptic podcast episode about data representations, data visualization, and how we citizens or audience are unconsciously being educated about statistics through reading and interacting with very well-thought out work of data journalists and data scientists at news organizations. The specific example that professor Jessica Hullman mentioned is an example from the New York Times’ interactive graphic representations of inequality in America. The interactive exercise asks the reader to provide their prior belief about inequality in America, and then presenting them with data, thus nudging them toward updating their belief. This is such a brilliant statistics exercise from a very well-respected news organization in the US. I wish that more news organizations in the world exercise what the New York Times does: using data journalism to educate the public about social issues in a scientific way.

For those who would want to listen to the podcast episode, it could be found here. Let me know what you think about Bayesian statistics, and how one can implement Bayesian statistics in social sciences.

What Journal to Publish in?

My mentor often says that before submitting a paper for publication to a journal, one has to do thorough “market research,” or to have a general understanding of what the journal is about. My understanding is that each journal is a cultural institution, and the job of a researcher is to make explicit those cultural norms. Relying on this explicit knowledge, they could make a more informed decision about the venue.

A friend came to me today with a set of related questions:

Where does one look to find out simply what the background of a journal is — which discipline(s) it covers, how long it’s been around, what its mission is?

I thought about these questions for a while, and came up with a 6-step procedure to figure out how one should categorize a journal:

  1. Read the journal’s self-description
  2. Read the Wikipedia’s page of the journal
  3. Examine the chief editor’s profile. The chief editor’s background is indicative of who the potential authors and the audience should be.
  4. Examine a few articles, and see who are the authors
  5. Use the advanced search function on Google scholar, and find articles published in the journal, read the articles titles published by the journal.
  6. When the journal is interdisciplinary, look at a few issues to see which disciplines the authors come from.

This might be different from how other academics do their “market research.” I’d be interested in learning more about how other people decide where they submit their work, and why they make such decision.

Bayesian Struggle

Bayesian Fun
Picture credit: GA Tech

I am currently attending a statistics summer school at ICPSR (University of Michigan), one of the most renown methods training grounds for social scientists. I had applied to the summer program before, but never participated because I could not afford it, and that I did not really want to go to Ann Arbor in the summer. But this year, amidst the Covid19 Pandemic, ICPSR became a possibility at least financially, and also due to its online format I never have to go anywhere outside of my apartment to attend it.

My experience has been great so far. I’ve got to meet with really smart and self-driven PhD students, researchers, and professors from all over the world. This is really exciting. We have been doing trivia on Zoom, swapping tips, tricks and talking about each other research interests on Slack.

My enthusiasm to learn more stats got curbed immediately when the Bayesian statistics class started. The reason that I signed up for the class was simply that I’m interested, and I want to know more about probability, which I never formally learned as an undergraduate student, and is currently not offered in my graduate program. I soon recognized though that the class has a lot of formal mathematical proofs, and probabilistic theories, and math axioms, something that I missed doing, yet my math knowledge not quite sufficient to do abstract derivatives. I forgot most of my linear algebra, and differential equations after almost a decade doing ethnographic work, and reading social theory.

The class started from the simply and elegant Bayesian theorem:

Use Bayes' Theorem to Investigate Food Allergies — Count Bayesie
Photo credit: http://www.countbayesie.com

It then became a full length discussion on how to use different priors, different sampling techniques, and how clever mathematical manipulation can get you very far. My head is been spinning, and I feel seriously doubtful of my intellectual ability.

One good thing that comes out of this experience is that I have been reading a lot more because Bayesian logics does not appear intuitive to me. I’ve been watching a lot of Youtube videos about Bayesian applications. I am curious at what point this world view would make sense to me.

To get a sense of what this Bayesian world feels like, and thinks like, I watched this funny, and engaging YouTube video:

The presenter makes it feel so easy. She naturally incorporates concepts such as conditional probability of A given B, and the probability of A, or of B in her speech. It feels as though she lives her life in a Bayesian way, and thinks like a Bayesian. Then she provides example of how a person would be able to use the Bayesian theorem to calculate the probability that their blind date would share their interest in Star Wars given what they already knew about the world. This sounds very nerdy, but it works for some people. I wonder how many people actually think like this. Certainly I am not one, and I am also not surrounded by Bayesian thinkers on a daily basis.

Ok this video makes Bayesian interesting, and applicable in real life. How about moving a little bit further? I have not been able to understand all the assumptions, and sampling techniques in doing Bayesian statistics, but probably I can ask relevant questions that highly technical people could answer. The whirlwind of deep learning seems to be sweeping every corner of the scientific world, how do Bayesian statisticians, and applied Bayesian people survive and adapt? I found that Bayesian people are making themselves relevant, and pitching their work to the deep learning and machine learning communities. For example, most recently at NeurIPS 2019, one of the most important machine learning conferences, there was a workshop called Bayesian Deep Learning, where presenters and speakers pitched various ideas about how Bayesian statistics is relevant to machine learning, and vice versa. This is very exciting. So Bayesian statistics is not a dying field that I’m stumbling into now. It’s evolving as the field of statistics is getting more and more exciting.

I still have a lot to learn during this summer program. It feels very bizarre to go back to do derivatives, and doing matrix algebra. Yet, I am excited about learning new things. Math always makes my brain hurt. But like one of my math professors often said: “Doing math is joyful thinking.” I should enjoy this process of writing and following proofs. Sometimes I even wondered had I remained doing math since college, what would I have become?

Deep Listening: Engaging with Respect

When I first started college in the United States, I struggled. I struggled with English because as a non-native speaker, the first year was very difficult. Every student had to take English 101, first year seminar, major, and minor required classes. Even before school started, the incoming freshmen were asked to read a non-fiction book, and created original and innovative responses to it. I was overwhelmed. Nobody had ever taught me how to react to a non-fiction book. What was expected of me? How would the deliverable look like? I performed well if there’s a clear guideline of what deliverable I should provide. But when the deliverable is anything possible, I became paralyzed.

I arrived in college with the feeling that I was insufficient because I could not produce a creative response to a non-fiction book. Then in the first orientation week, I saw my peer products displayed at the fine arts department, I felt both awed by what they were able to create, and felt inadequate because I was not creative, and that I failed to bring with me any artifact. I was trying to figure out the American college system, and American higher education culture.

Then English 101, a required class, started. I was both excited, but nervous, and sometimes dreaded that I had to go to English classes. As a high school student, I never excelled in English, or Vietnamese. I never got good grades in these subjects, or felt the urge to write any poem, or wrote a good literary analysis. My high school writing was mediocre but logical. I often got away with writing a very dry essay that hit all the points instead of writing a flowery essay that makes the reader feel good. I kept the same attitude toward English, or maybe the fear of humanities subjects when college started. My English professor also looked very strict, and the readings were very foreign to me! We read Othello, old English poems, and Tony Morrison’s Beloved. I had virtually no cultural background to be able to comprehend the texts. My only tool was to pretend that literature speaks to all humanity regardless of the reader’s race, ethnicity, cultural background and lived experiences. Later on, I learned that this assumption was very wrong.

English 101 was the class that took most of my time, yet I felt really inadequate in it most of the time. Until one day, I had to make a presentation about a reading in class. I don’t remember what the presentation about any more. The only thing I remember now is that it was a 10-minute presentation about an author, and their work. My job was to summarize the author’s life, and their literary works. The only and the most important thing I remember though is the feeling that I had during and after the presentation. My peers were listening to me very attentively, and asked questions after I presented. I was of course nervous, but they were all paying attention to me, my powerpoint, and did not care much about my broken English. I felt empowered. I felt respected. I felt engaged. It was definitely the first time that I recognized the power of being listened to. My expectation was that nobody would listen to my presentation because I did not really know what I was doing. I also never took English seriously. Yet the fact that my peers and my professor took me, the topic and the subject matter seriously, I felt elated.

That moment of feeling respected, recognized, and centered was decidedly a turning point in my approach toward higher learning. It was also the moment when I recognized how empowering it could be for a speaker to be able to summon his/her audience’s attention.

In this blog post, I am arguing that when one engages in deep listening, or paying attention to the interlocutor with empathy and appreciation, one gives agency to one’s interlocutor by giving them respect.

As human beings, we all want to be treated with respect. It’s an instinctive desire. I had such a low expectation of how my peers would treat me in an English class, thus when I was treated with respect, I felt elated, happy, and empowered. What if we use the same practice for doing research? What if deep listening as a way to show respect to a research subject is a principle in doing qualitative research?

During the Covid-19 Pandemic, everything has been moved online. Now everyone knows what Zoom is, and conducting research interviews has become so much easier than before because teleconferencing has become normalized as a social practice. My argument is that in the 21st century, where more activities are conducted online, sociologists should also conduct their research online. I think that conducting interviews online should become a part of interviewing methods. It should be in one’s research repertoire, in one’s tool box. This research environment is not ideal for a lot of projects. However, as researchers we should make do with what we have.

In the current situation, when researchers interview participants online, we need to practice deep listening, and pay attention to it more than ever. What does it mean? It means letting subjects sufficient time and care to elaborate on their points, and giving them virtual space to feel comfortable. I think psychologists have done this very well when we all transitioned online. Now all psychotherapists are offering online therapy. They use virtual spaces very well. They use virtual platforms to elicit deep emotions, deep connections, and deep openness with their subjects. Sociologists should learn this deep virtual listening practice from them.

What constitutes deep listening then? There are three basic components of virtual deep listening: (1) establishing virtual rapport, (2) maintaining eye contact and attention, (3) asking follow-up questions.

Establishing virtual rapport: Establishing quick rapport to any person is an art. A great field worker often incorporates humor, and the ability to relate to the interlocutor in the first five minutes of interaction with a new interview subject. Establishing a virtual rapport presents a challenge because the interviewer is no longer being physically in the same place as their interviewee. This physical distance creates a challenge because relating to somebody virtually is a very different skill than relating to someone in the same physical space. It seems that podcasters have figured out how to establish quick rapport with their interlocutors very quickly. I would love to know how they do this. What are some tips, and what should one pay attention to?

Maintaining eye contact and attention: this is true when a researcher interview some one physically. It is even more true when an interview is done virtually. Maintaining eye contact via Zoom is very difficult. Sometime we do not know whether we are looking directly at the other person in the eye. This act of staring at a screen for too long might lead to Zoom fatique, the feeling of tiredness, anxiousness or worry with yet another video call. Yet in order to get the best interaction, and that to help the interviewee to come forth with their life stories, paying attention to what being said, and how they say it is utmost important. Paying attention to details is always the best working guideline.

Asking follow-up questions: As I interviewed podcasters for a research on the podcasting industry, I learned that not everyone is a good podcaster because they do not know how to ask follow-up questions. This point relates to the previous point about paying attention to details. I have the habit of taking detailed notes when people talk. It’s a very good practice to get things visually in front of you when you want to know what is being said. Many a times, I used my notes to come back to points that the interviewee said, and I needed more elaboration. A superb fieldworker does not take detailed notes. They only need to take mental notes, and write down very short notes. Then when they go home, they will fill in the blank what is missing from their notes. This is a great mental exercise. I strongly believe that a good fieldworker has very good memory. I am often afraid of losing track of the conversation, thus I take notes of everything. Remember asking follow-up questions for further elaboration is always helpful when the interviewee talks about a social concept using their own words, and to construct their social life through their own lens.

In conclusion, deep listening is an important practice for everyone in this busy world where technology makes us more isolated than ever. For a researcher, deep listening helps us connect with research subjects because it is a way for us to give our interviewees respect. In the context of virtualizing research, deep listening is even more needed because it can help us to bring down the physical distance of a Zoom call. All in all, I would encourage everyone to think about different ways in which deep listening could be practiced, and how it is being applied in different contexts.

Audm vs. Diversity in the Age of #BlackLivesMatter

While America is experiencing a social revolution lead by Black Live Matters activists, every individual, every institution is forced to pay attention to the question of diversity, inequality. At the same time, as I am reading news coming from different sources about Covid19, and social justice, I feel that I appreciate the good work that journalists do. I read about the troubles that journalists of color are going through. Newsrooms across the nation are grappling with the racial inequality conversation that the nation is having. I want to support their work, especially supporting good works by journalists of color.

Then I found Audm, an app that reads high quality news articles aloud. The company has recently acquired by the New York Times. Some observers have said that this acquisition marked a turning point in the New York Times’s approach to audio content, and audio production. The New York Times has beefed up its audio content production. Its the Daily podcast is one of the most popular podcasts in the world. The news organization is now behaving more like a tech company than a newspaper company. Its Data Science department is staffed with some of the most well-known data scientists in the world. Its constant acquisition of startups makes it looks like Amazon, a website of everything. I wonder at what point all of my news source would come from some organization that is associated with the New York Times.

At first, I rejoiced at the idea that now I can listen to the highest news content by a very cool app. It felt authentic, and intimate like listening to a podcast. At the same time you’ll get to know the most important information out there written by the best journalists in the industry. Then after having listened to a few articles, I found one pattern: all of my news is read by white men even when the news was written by a brilliant writer of color, or a female writer of color. This does not sound right to me. Instead of giving power to the writer, curating some of the most important content to readers, the app and its voice over staffs reproduce a type of “audible inequality” in the voice over industry. If there’s diversity of writers among New York Times staffs, I’d want to also have diversity in voice over actors.

Even when second generation Asian Americans born and raised on American soil, they have a distinct voice that is different from a middle age white man’s voice. For example, a Vietnamese young writer would have a voice that has been nourished by their migrant parents who came to the US, overwhelmingly in the aftermath of the Vietnam War. This person has been raised within a community that is still grappling with the idea that they are now a minority group in an increasingly diverse society. The young writer has been nourished with fish sauce, and Pho, and a history of the Vietnam War, and growing up being told a model minority student. The voice that this young individual produces is representative of all of those lived experiences. It is unique and distinct. I want to listen to an article written by a Vietnamese talented journalist, being read by a talented Vietnamese voice over actor. In that process, an intellectual work (the article) benefits two knowledge workers (the writer, and the voiceover actor) of color.

What is happening now is that the writer of color does the difficult work of producing a piece of intellectual work (the article), and it is read by a white middle age actor, who benefits from the first person’s work, and reproducing the stereotype that only white voice actors are talented because their voices are featured. This reality incurs symbolic violence on the talented writer, and reinforcing existing income and racial inequality that upholds the current economic structure. When the audience does not critically think about what they listen, they gradually acquire an association that there’s no talented voice actor of color out there. This is especially damaging for young people of color who would dare not go into a field like voice over because they never saw any people like them in the field.

To conclude, I suggest that Audm, and by extension the New York Times, should diversify its cast of voice actors. If an article is written by a writer of color, it should be read by a voice actor of color. On a broader scale, the audio industry itself should diversify. There are plenty of opportunities for voice actors of color to contribute, they should be given roles and opportunities where appropriate. As of now, I will not subscribe to Audm. I don’t think my money would be well spent here. I would rather read the article written by the talented writers of color, and imagined how they would sound in my head rather than listening to the app, whose voices do not represent the real writers. And then donate money directly to an artist of color on Patreon, where I know for sure that I directly contribute to their creative work.

Attention Economy 101

I am trying to figure out the concept attention economy, its genealogy, and how I can apply it in the contemporary media landscape. My first step was to check Google n-gram to see when the concept most in vogue. Here is what I found:

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This graph basically suggests that the concept was used a lot in Google books between around 1995 to 2013. It was most used around probably 2004. Then the frequency reduced.

The same diagram is rendered a bit differently when I chose to smooth out over the period of one book.

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This figure shows two peaks: possibly 2003, and 2007, after which point the mentioning of the phrase “attention economy” gradually dies down.

Now let turn to Google Trends to see how and whether this phrase shows up

This Google search term mirrors the Google Book results. I think the only difference is that Google trends are search terms floating on the internet, while Google ngram reviewer reflects the term being mentioned in books.

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This figure shows that the term “attention economy” was used a lot between 2004 (the year Google Trends started documenting terms I guess) and 2008. Then the interest in the term died down. The number seems to pick up a bit since 2018 until now, but it does not look significant.

If you compare the term “attention economy” with “attention” only, the result is pretty revealing:

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The red line represents the search result for “attention,” and the barely recognizable blue line represents result for “attention economy.” The overall trend for “attention” seems to go up a bit, while the trend for “attention economy” is almost zero. This is weird. I wonder why people no longer use the term “attention economy.” Does it mean it is out of vogue? Sometimes a term is defined, and then being criticized for not being able to capture a certain phenomenon, then it completely disappears from our linguistic circulation.

According to Wikipedia:

Attention economics is an approach to the management of information that treats human attention as a scarce commodity, and applies economic theory to solve various information management problems. Put simply by Matthew Crawford, “Attention is a resource—a person has only so much of it.”

This concept should be understood within the context of the digital economy and the information economy because only when there is a flood of information that attention becomes a rare commodity. And since information is so cheap to come by, companies such as Facebook, Twitter, and other platform companies are designing software, and platforms intentionally with the idea that attention is rare, and that they should design interfaces that capture the most attention (measured by how many minutes or seconds a persons spend scrolling on their platforms).

This concept clearly came from economics, and being applied to different economics-related fields such as marketing, management, user research. As a sociologist, I need to ask, so how are social relations formed, sustained, and reproduced in this economy? What are some characteristics or attributes of this economy should I pay attention to? Is an attention economy on Youtube different from an attention economy on Tiktok, on Twitch, and other platforms. How does it work differently on Instagram than on Twitter? What are some advantages and disadvantages of this economy to content creators, and their audience? How does this concept illuminate the podcasting phenomenon that I am examining?

There are lots to be said, and examined here. I am excited about the concept, and I am looking forward to learning more about it, and how to use it in my future work.

Life After a Manuscript Submission: Freeing Mental Space

Last week I submitted in a blog post manuscript for a center that I’ll be affiliated with in the next two years. Once the blog post was submitted, I felt very good about myself. I felt that I could start investing my time on something else such as writing posts for my own blog. During the writing process, I imagined what my life after the submission of the manuscript could look like. I dreamed that I could spend more time watching Netflix. I imagined that I would be more productive writing my personal reflections. I imagined that I would spend more time reading, and writing for other “important” research. I imagined publishing research articles.

Now the manuscript was submitted, I felt a sense of relief, but I still have not picked up anything that I thought I would do yet. I have another blog post to write for a well known public-facing blog in my discipline. I am slowly but cheerfully moving on to the next publication projects. My mentor once made a remark that writing momentum is what I am looking for. Once I get in the flow, I would be able to produce writing regularly. Every publication is in and of itself a project that takes a lot of brainstorming, writing, editing, and revising work. However, I feel like I have figured out the process, and that I am onto the next big thing in my life after each piece is turned in, getting comments, and suggestions from editors. I think I am gradually getting into this publication flow.

Once a manuscript is submitted, I feel confident about my ability to write, and that I have things to say. My mind is looking for the next challenge that I should engage in. Today, I emailed another editor about a new manuscript that will be due by the end of the month. They responded immediately. They were responsive probably because I have submitted a manuscript to them before. Now I am stacking projects on my plate. “One project in, another project out” is my current modus operandi.

I figure out that my work flow for each writing project includes (1) coming up with an idea (2) figuring out a theoretical framework (3) collecting thoughts, evidence, documents, arguments, (4) talking to friends, colleagues about my ideas, and the direction of the essay (5) coming up with counter-arguments to see how I can improve my writing even further.

For example, for the blog post that I am hoping to send out by the end of this week, I am still collecting data. I have written at least half of the post to figure out what I am thinking. I really practice the idea “I am writing myself into knowing.” Having the first draft done is always the most challenging. Once it is done, I can strengthen it by adding or dropping certain arguments, and/or evidence. My essay is half done now, and I feel good about the progress at least. My goal for today is to dust off the first draft, take a look at it, develop it a bit more, and send it out to get immediate feedback from my writing partners.

In the process of writing the above-mentioned piece, I recognize that I am not yet a fast writer. I am not yet at the level where I can produce an op-ed for a newspaper in less than a week. My writing often takes somewhere between two weeks to a month. Once I submit these hypothetical manuscripts, they are no longer topical. The world has moved on to new issues, new social phenomena. The writing process also takes a lot of emotional and mental energies. It is exhausting to write about current events as well because we’re still living them. Our minds are still trying to figure out what is the meaning of what has just happened. Sometimes, I feel being distanced from an event might help with comprehending it. Yet, if I give myself time to think about an event, and write about it, maybe I’ll understand it a bit more, and I will also help other people understand it through my writing.

As writers, scholars have words to express their thoughts and arguments to the world. However, being too slow of a writer might hurt their chance of having their ideas heard because if they are too slow, the world has moved on from the issue that they write about. Timeliness is key in writing as well as in other areas of life. It’s a misconception that academics and intellectuals have all time in their lives to think about the world, and carefully craft each sentence. Writing has a lot of hidden pressure, and anxiety. In the digital age, producing timely work is more important than ever.

Following are a few guidelines about writing for contemporary society:

  1. Timeliness: Producing good work, solid work, but the speed at which one produces should be quick. The news cycle in our contemporary society has become so fast. If a scholar does not address an important issue, they might be working at the margin of society, and that their ideas would never become relevant.
  2. Being relevant: Addressing issues that are relevant to different communities of audience is an important skill. Scholars often communicate with different audiences. Figuring out what issues are relevant to which community is an important first step.
  3. Framing the issue in a theoretical way: Attaching contemporary issues to bigger sociological debates is a trick that sociologists do in order to make sure that contemporary issues speak to timeless theoretical debates. This is a skill that graduate students like myself take a long time to learn. We’re still figuring out what the theoretical debates are. In order to relate a contemporary event to a theoretical debate, and write about it in an intelligent way, one needs to practice, and think a lot.
  4. Solid research: Before writing anything, one needs to gather evidence, and do solid research. Opinions without facts are useless.
  5. Jargon-free communications: Graduate students tend to synthesize other people’s ideas a lot to show that they are well-read, and that they understand dense social theory books. Yet in order to make a theoretical idea digestible to the mass public, one ought to know how to convey that idea without using sociological jargons. This is also a very difficult skill to learn. It takes patience and lots of practice to master.
  6. Feedback: As in any creative project, getting immediate feedback from trusted friends and colleagues is very important. Feedback is gold in the publication game.
  7. Develop a working relationship with journal editors: if one has a working relationship with editors, they would be more welcoming one’s next ideas, and next projects. Thus developing a solid working relationship with journal editors is very important. At the end of the day, academia is a reputation-centered economy. One has to develop one’s own reputation, and that one’s reputation is also judged by others. Reputation is currency in a knowledge economy.
  8. Submit and move on to the next piece: Having the next piece in the pipeline is very important. Once a piece of writing is submitted, the author should start another project immediately. This is to keep the momentum going. I cannot emphasize enough the importance of a publication cycle, and that the more one writes, the more one would be inspired to write more.

“Ideas beget ideas.” This idea never gets old. Whenever I get a publication out of the door, I feel happy about myself, and I feel inspired to write the next piece. Maybe one day, one of my pieces would become influential. Maybe one piece would become viral. Maybe my writings would change someone’s mind, and have some policy implications. As of now, those are far-fetched. My only writing goal now is to produce consistent work regularly. I prefer the productivity model at this point. At some point in the future, this productivity model might turn into a high-impact model. As I am still learning the ropes of publishing, the productivity model is most relevant.

Price of Living in a Poor Neighborhood

New York City is a strange place. The housing market is extremely tough for young families, and newcomers. Today I was curious to see how my neighborhood, Central Harlem, which is considered to be a poorer neighborhood than many other neighborhoods in the city. I googled to see the stats of the neighborhood with a specific emphasis on the housing market. Its median household income is $47,708 about two-thirds of the amount in New York, $67,844, and about two-thirds of the amount in United States: $61,937. In other words, I am living in a less wealthy neighborhood of the city. Its poverty ratio is 25.1%.the rate in New York: 13.6%, and nearly double the rate in United States: 13.1%.  My neighborhood is also poorer than New York City in general, and poorer than the United States.

However, when I look at housing value in my neighborhood. This is what I found:

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If a person owns a house at all, 50% of the houses have values of $671,000 or more. That’s a lot of money. It’s more than double the amount in New York, and more than double the amount in United States.

Here’s the further breakdown of the housing values in Central Harlem:

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I have always known that housing is expensive in New York, but when I look at housing values in my neighborhood, I was actually very surprised. 35% of owner-occupied housing units valued at 500,000 to 1 million US dollars. This is an exorbitant amount. 15% of the owner-occupied units are valued over 1 million US dollars. If I was to buy a housing unit (an apartment, or a house) in Harlem, and if I was a college professor at one of the local colleges with salary around 100K a year, given that I could save about 20% of my salary to buy a housing unit, it would take me at least 25 years to pay for a $500,000 apartment.

This calculation makes me realize two things. One, I do not think a college professor can buy a good house in Harlem. Maybe I have chosen a wrong career for financial stability. Two, if I want to remain in academia, I will join an exodus of New York emigrants to the suburb where housing is a lot more affordable than Manhattan. Manhattan squeezes out the middle class families.

At the end of the day, it’s such a contradictory existence. While my neighborhood is on paper poorer in terms of wealth, and income than other neighborhoods in New York City, its housing value is twice that of the city average. How are my neighbors getting by with  this precarious financial existence? What are some psychological and social impacts of both poverty on the lower end of the socio-economic spectrum, and housing pressure on the middle class, and upper end of the income ladder?

I have been living in this neighborhood for almost four years now. As a sociologist, I am immersing myself in the neighborhood experience, and getting to know “public characters” of the neighborhood in different aspects of life. The term public characters in Jane Jacobs’s definition are “often people like storekeepers, barkeepers, and pastors … By thinking, talking, and interacting out in the open, these people create our public life” (Eghbal). I am currently following the new public characters in the digital era in the New Harlem. My public characters are business owners, and tech founders. I would argue that in the new economy, business owners, and tech founders are creating a new kind of culture, and creating new kind of public life. This public life though is privatized, and operating around commerce.

I love this neighborhood, and feel that I have things to contribute. However, at this point, I am still not sure how I would be able to contribute to the enrichment of people from Harlem. So far, I have been struggling with the idea that I’m a gentrifier who is displacing somebody that I never got to know, and that I’m contributing to future waves of gentrification because with me, there are new restaurants and commercial places.

In a nutshell, living in Harlem is full of surprises on the cultural fronts, but on the economic fronts, the neighborhood is structurally difficult for everyone.

Principle Component Analysis

Today my goal was to figure out principle component analysis in R. This is something that I have been trying to understand for quite a while now. This takes some time to conceptual understand what PCA does. My RStudio is still arrested in an experiment. I wonder what kind of project I can use PCA for. Unlike the experiment I did yesterday with visualizing a text corpus in R, the experiment today is computationally expensive, and conceptually confusing. At the end of the day, I feel that I have not accomplished anything meaningful, and that my ability to use machine learning has not increased a single bit.

This summer I will be attending the ICPSR summer institute to study Machine Learning for Social Science Research. One of the lectures has to do with how social scientists have used PCA in their research. I need to ask the professor how I can use it in my own research. I need more examples in order to fully understand how it is used.

Figuring this particular machine learning module is both conceptually and technically challenging at this point. I wonder what kind of dataset should I use in order for this particular technique to be useful.

Sometimes, it takes a well-designed exercise for me to fully grasp what the particular technique does, and how I can use it in my future work.

WHAT DOES IT ALL MEAN I SO CONFUSE - Jackie Chan Meme - quickmeme

Visualizing Data as Discovery

I have been obsessed with data visualization lately. My go-to tool at this point is till R, which I have been told over and over again that it’s not as versatile as Python. However, it’s the matter of path dependence, and that I am used to figuring out how to to ask the right questions in R in order to get desirable results.

With Python, different steps that I need to figure out to get desirable results are still black boxes to me. While writing this blog post, I have realized that I really need to master the Python programming language this summer. I have gotten down the basics. It is the matter of practice. Thus, this is the right time for me to actually sit down, and become really familiar with python, and be able to produce work using python programing language.

Back to the issue of data visualization. Today, I spent 8 hours straight trying to figure out how to create stacked chart in R. I have been trying to create it for quite a while. It started about 4 weeks ago when I promised my research partner that I would create a stacked chart figure for our text mining paper. I asked all people I know around to help me. They all did not deliver. Today, it turned out, I rolled up my sleeves, sat down in front of my laptop, and figured how to create the chart. My final result is not as clean as what I would have liked. It’s nowhere close to a scientific journal level quality. But the figure conveys the main idea, and that it is sufficient for me to draw some conclusions from the data.

This is the figure that I produced after a day trying to create it. Besides, it also took some serious conceptual understanding of what this figure actually represents. In other words, I learned both the technical skills, and the conceptual understanding behind the process of creating it. legend18

What I did was that I downloaded a corpus of text from the subreddit podcasting, a community dedicated to creating podcasts. My goal was to create a stacked chart that demonstrates different topics over time. The topics are represented by trigrams. Specifically, I calculated top trigrams per month, and charted them over time. Even though I downloaded all content from the subreddit, which started in 2010, I found that trigram chart only matters once I narrowed down the date range to 2016-2020.

The resulting figure shows that the subreddit started with accepting promotional podcasts, then became dominated with weekly podcast discussions, and technical discussions (such as mic, mixer audio interface). One topic that remains central over time is the different podcast distribution platforms (Apple Podcast, Google, Spotify).

The overall topics concern with technical aspects of producing content, and the different main platforms that one could distribute episodes, as well as finding shows. From these various topics one can conclude that in the past 5 years of the previous decade, the podcasting community focused a lot on the technological aspects of the field.  Technology matters from both sides: creation and consumption. Thus, it seems that the main driver of the podcasting field so far has been the sheer development in technology both for content creation and content consumption. What is surprising to me through this exercise is that the discussion about how to monetize a podcast doesn’t show up at all  in the top trigrams per  month analysis. This raises a question about whether the goal of being able to make money from producing a podcast ever a goal for a podcaster.

After spending my weekend working on this little project, I actually felt good about my product. I felt that I actually spent a day building something, and that at the end of the day, I actually saw the result of what I built. This satisfying feeling made me recognize how much I actually appreciate coding. One computer scientist I followed wrote in his newsletter that code doesn’t lie. One knows the exact effects of all the actions. When the final results are not attained, no way bullshitting would help.

More visualizations will come out of my work in the next weeks to come. So far, I am very happy with my progress in learning data visualizations. The more I get into visualizing data, the more I understand the importance of being able to use charts and graphs to understand the social world that we’re living in.

Community Gardens in NYC

This week, I attended a presentation about community gardens in New York City. From a sociological point of view, it turns out that community gardens can be considered an extremely interesting social phenomena. For example, community gardens could be points of ethnic and racial conflicts (see research by Sofya Aptekar). During the talk, I figured out that there are two community gardens on my block. This is wild. I have walked by them many times, and have seen people hanging out in them. But I have never walked in the gardens, or started planting any trees. And my digging into the community garden data available on NYC OpenData reveals extremely interesting patterns.
6clusters
The dataset provides 536 data points for data analysis. This is indeed an incomplete dataset because I learned that there should be about 600 community gardens in New York City.
Then I did a k-means clustering analysis to create different clusters. I simply went on Github  and got some off-the-shelf python code that do spatial clustering.  Then I altered the code such that it works with my computer, and my data. After trying 3, 4,5 and 6 models, I concluded that 6 clusters look like a reasonable model for this dataset. The above figure is the final result of the cluster analysis. One can do more fancy GIS visualizations. I think that this figure is already very telling about spatial clustering of community gardens in New York City.
The common wisdom is that community gardens are located in the low-land value areas.  This figure certainly supports the sentiment, but it also shows a more complicated picture. The dense clustering areas are black dots or those community gardens in the Bronx. Then there is a dense area in between Brooklyn and Queens. The rests are pretty sparse. Looking at the map, one sees that Upper Manhattan is grouped with the Bronx (black dots), some parts of Queens, Brooklyn, and lower Manhattan, and the Upper West Side are grouped together. Then the middle part of Queens is its own cluster. And outer part of Queens is another cluster. Staten Island is another world in and of it self.
I showed this map immediately to a colleague and she confirmed that the map captures what the literature says. The literature says that community gardens are mostly located in low land-value areas, relatively low land values, with ethnic and racial minority populations, and all on city-owned land that the city took control of because the building owner did not pay property taxes for three years.
So that’s my attempt at getting a handle of k-means clustering. I’ll be working more on k-means clustering for other projects. The more I use this technique, the more I think that there are lot of ways that I can use it in different projects. Over the summer, I’ll improve my python skills to write my own k-means clustering code. As of now, I am happy learning and working with other people’s codes.

The Professor’s Daughter

I finally got around to finish the novel, The Professor’s Daughter by Emily Raboteau. I was hooked from the very first page. However, it took me about two months to finish reading it because of the Covid-19 pandemic. The healthcare crisis took away my attention to concentrate on anything other than the virus itself. Now when a new normal has been established, I could go back to my reading-novels routine.

The novel explores black/white identity through the lens  of a mixed race female protagonist. She is a daughter of a famous African American professor at Princeton, and a white Catholic mother. Her brother died early when she was in college, and her father left her mother for an African American graduate student. All the identity questions are examined through complicated, entangled relationships within her family, and to an extent her extended family, then friends, and lovers when she’s grown up.

The writing is extremely approachable. The book started out when Emma, the main character, was a child. It follows her journey into teenage years, and then to early adulthood. It reads like a memoir. Maybe it’s partly a memoir by Emily Raboteau, whose father is indeed a very prominent figure in African American studies at Princeton. Yet, I could also feel that the story is constructed. It’s another world.

The book is so relatable. It’s the growing up story of a person who is struggling to come to terms with her identity. Being an acute observer, the main character reveals a world of inequality, of cultural clashes, and of minority struggles. I can relate to the main character’s experiences on many levels. On one level, as an introverted child myself, I observed the adult world around me, and could not make sense of it, until one day I decided that I was more of an adult than the adults who were supposed to raise me. On another level, the book revealed the other side of academia, the side of the providers of education. Emma’s story is a story of growing up in the shadow of a famous academic, who is so smart that people around him are afraid of him, or not being able to relate to him at least on the intellectual aspect of life. That’s the struggle of many academics. I can hardly discuss what I do to my parents because neither would they understand nor are they interested. So I stopped my communications with them. My obsession with some small details about the world of online extremism is none of my parents’ interests. Probably they would ask me why I study a phenomenon so endemic to a Western society to start with. Such question is legit, but it also does not explain why I would be so obsessed with figuring out an answer to explain why such a phenomenon happens in a place and time that it happens.

I started this reading project back in February, my female novelists month. The moment I put down the book The Tiger’s Wife, by Téa Obreht I started this current project. Weirdly, how I call reading a novel a reading project? My mind seems to think of everything I do in life now as a project: cooking project, baking project, composting project, writing project, etc. My life is compartmentalized into different projects. They are all running in parallel at the same time. They have different processes, and different end points.

Reading one book after another, I could not help but compare the two writers’ writing styles, narratives, and pacing. Both utilize very fast pacing. Both are very intelligent. Both are very interesting. However, The Tiger’s Wife has a more exotic feeling to it. It transported me from New York City to a far away place in the former Yugoslavia, while The Professor’s Daughter transported me to a familiar place of Princeton. Both books are narrated from female protagonists’ points of view. They are sensitive to women’s experiences. They are full of energy, and I feel like I am apart of the story.

Now getting back to my new normal, I am hoping that I could use this quarantine time to read more books, more novels, and more interesting narratives. Maybe I should also write a few short stories myself being sheltered in place.

Book Review: Minor Feelings by Cathy Park Hong

Since I was racially assaulted in public a few weeks ago, I have been thinking a lot more about the rising anti-Asian sentiment in America resulting from Covid-19. Being stuck at home with a laptop, I read more about different ways racism against people of Asian descent manifests, and how the victims deal with this new social reality. One author who popped up quite a lot in my search was Cathy Park Hong. I read a few op-ed pieces she wrote, and they all referenced her recent book Minor Feelings, which explores the question of identity as an Asian American, specifically Korean American, born, and raised in America.

Hong defines minor feelings as :

the radicalized range of emotions that are negative, dysphoric, and therefore untelegenic, built from the sediments of everyday racial experience and the irritant of having one’s perception of reality constantly questioned or dismissed. Minor feelings arise, for instance, upon hearing a slight, knowing it’s racial, and being told, Oh, that’s all in your head … [M]inor feelings are “non-cathartic states of emotion” with “a remarkable capacity for duration.”

These feelings are emotions that an individual experiences pertaining to their racial existence. They sometimes make the individual doubt themselves whether their interlocutor was being “racist or racial” toward them. These were experiences that the majority around them do not feel, and the racial minority person does not have the language to describe. Thus these feelings remain “minor,” sometimes inconvenient, sometimes frustrated.

These feelings are so specific to American society that they “occur when American optimism is enforced upon you, which contradicts your own racialized reality, thereby creating a static of cognitive dissonance.” America is a place full of contradictions. On the one hand,  it is a neoliberal land, proud that it offers every one opportunity. On the other hand, it’s an old capitalist society that thrives on the back of people of color since the onset. Depending on what part of America, an individual wants to see, they would see different parts.

Then Hong goes on relating these feelings to her own experience growing up in America as a minority person: “To grow up Asian in America is to witness the humiliation of authority figures like your parents and to learn not to depend on them: they cannot protect you.” Second generation often has to defend their parents. They are forced to grow up, and deal with the cruel society, which takes no excuse when humiliating your parents, and everything you think should be respected. You take their pains, and humiliations as your own because at the end of the day you see yourself in them.

The word “minor” is aptly used in this book to describe the fact that Asian Americans’ uncomfortable feelings about their existence in America. Their feelings are so “minor,” so minuscule that the mainstream society does not care. No-one would take their silent sufferings seriously:

The indignity of being Asian in this country has been underreported. We have been cowed by the lie that we have it good. We keep our hands down and work hard, believing that our diligence will reward us with our dignity, but our diligence will only make us disappear. By not speaking up, we perpetuate the myth that our shame is caused by our repressive culture and the country we fled, whereas America has given us nothing but opportunity… Racial trauma is not a competitive sport. The problem is not that my childhood was exceptionally traumatic but it was in fact rather typical.

Asian Americans are quiet, keeping their heads down, and their hands work. Asian Americans are so quiet that they become invisible. But being ignored, and being condescended to are daily experiences that they lost any belief in themselves, and their abilities.

Shame is an integral part of the minor feelings. It works insidiously to keep the victims’ heads low, and their mouths shut.

My parents are those who survivor instincts align with this country’s neoliberal ethos, which is to get ahead at the expense of anyone else while burying the shame that binds us. To varying degrees, all Asians who have grown up in the United States know intimately the shame I have described; have felt it oily flame … Shame is an inward, intolerable feeling but it can lead to productive outcomes because of the self-scrutiny shame requires.

Shame is a feeling that binds us. If you fail, your parents feel shameful for you. If you fail, your community feels shameful for you. Shame is both an individual, and a collective experience.

After the racial assault incidence, I felt more solidarity with the Asian community in this country.  Reading Hong’s book made me realize the indignity that has troubled them for decades even centuries. The concept “panethnicity” explains this feeling that I have with other ethnic groups.  I used to embrace the bright, positive, optimistic part of American society, and ignore the dark history of American racism. Covid-19 whips racist residues to the surface.

I find comfort in reading Hong’s book. It’s deeply personal, but also deeply structural. It’s a memoir not of herself, but of many Asian American artists who are trying to come to terms with the racist society that they were born into and raised. The book both liberates and troubles me. It frees me by giving me vocabulary to describe my intimate ontological feelings. It troubles me by revealing the ugly face of American society that I refused to see for a long time.

This book is also very refreshing from the point of view of race/ethnicity studies. It was written as an autobiographical exploration by a poet. Her references are very different from what I would use for my regular scholastic exploration. Normally, whenever I want to understand Asian American experiences in American society, I would go to sociology giants in my field such as  Dina Okamoto or Jennifer Lee. Hong instead cites literary giants that she admires. I see her professional inspiration, and aspiration in the book. By reading the book, I was  introduced to a world of intellectuals who study race/ethnicity issues from a very different perspective from mine. Many a times, I can feel that she is talking about a concept that I might know how to express in sociological terms. However, she talks in a way that is more relatable, more lyrical, and also more humanistic.

Sometimes she speaks for me: “At the time, I couldn’t relate to some of the Asian American fiction and poetry I came across. It seemed, for the lack of a better word, inauthentic, as if it were staged by white actors. I thought maybe English was the problem. It was certainly a problem for me.” I feel unheard many times. When I look inside into the world of books, my experience is also not recorded anywhere. My quest for self understanding both in the real world, and in the fictional world yields no fruit. Maybe I am just waiting for that book to be written. Or maybe someday I will write a book myself.

The book shows me that I am not alone in resisting to write about my own racial experience: “I still clung to a prejudice that writing about my racial identity was minor and non-urgent, a defense that I had to pry open to see what throbbed beneath it. This was harder than I thought, like butterflying my brain out onto a dissection table to tweeze out the nerves that are my inhibitions.” This precise feeling that exploring one’s own racial and ethnic identity is “minor,” as not “important” leads to the fact that there are not many materials for me to use to understand my experience.

Many a times, I feel my story has not been told. I feel my history is incomplete. I used to think that Americans did not understand me. Then I went to graduate school, and started to hang out with historians of Vietnam. I learned that archives of the Vietnam war just opened up. At least more will be told about the Vietnam War, but as of now, the history remains incomplete. But my experience, my people’s experience are not only about the Vietnam War.

For a person with an incomplete history, sometimes I become incomplete myself. I am confused in American society, because I do not fit the mold of the Vietnamese refugees or their second generation. People’s preconceived notions me fall apart when we talk. That’s the minor feeling that I am experiencing in American society.

Unless we are read as Muslim or trans, Asian Americans are fortunate not to live under hard surveillance, but we live under a softer panopticon, so subtle that it’s internalized, in that we monitor ourselves, which characterizes our conditional existence. Even if we’ve been here for four generations, our status here remains conditional; belonging is always promised and just out of reach so that we behave, whether it’s the insatiable acquisition of material belongings or belonging as a peace of mind where we are absorbed into mainstream society. If the Asian American consciousness must be emancipated, we must free ourselves of or conditional existence.

Even in the writings of Viet Thanh Nguyen, I do not find myself. His writings are sensitive to Vietnameseness, but not femaleness in me. His writings are sensitive to the sufferings of the Vietnamese refugees, but not those who grew up in post-Vietnam War  impoverished North Vietnam like my parents. His writings were about downward social mobility, when a middle-class Vietnamese family in South Vietnam became working class in America without any belonging, and their social networks. How about my family living in the north of Vietnam suffering impoverishment, and Cultural Revolution-style poliies, and pulling their own bootstrap to survive through “Thoi Ky Bao Cap” or The Subsidized Era? These stories are not told, and I could not find myself in the pages. I could sympathize with people’s sufferings, but my Vietnameseness is different from those that I have read in the pages in America, and from the mainstream American’s imagination of what a Vietnamese person should be.

In this sense, my uncomfortability, my frustration, and my invisible existence resemble what Hong calls “minor feelings.” They are inconvenient, but not world-shattering to the majority population, or even in my case my co-ethnics in the United States.

Teaching How to Code Online and in Person

I just finished the carpentries instructor training, which allows a potential instructor to join the Carpentries community. What does the Carpentries community do? one might ask. The Carpentries “teach foundational coding and data science skills to researchers worldwide.” Their data science teaching workshops operate mostly through enthusiastic certified volunteer instructors.

I still need to complete two more steps in the “checkout” requirements, including doing a 5-minute teaching demo, and attending a teachers’ guided discussion online in order to be certified as an instructor.

How did I hear about the Carpentries? A mentor at Hunter College attended the training last summer, and mentioned it in passing last summer. The name piqued my interest. I went online, learned more about the program, and filled an application to attend an instructor’s training. It took about seven months since I applied until I heard back that I could attend an instructor’s training workshop either online or in person.

Because of the lockdown, many of my regular activities have been canceled, or postponed. I found that this is the right time to get the certificate. So I registered for a  two-day online workshop.

My experience? Very positive. I learned a lot about coding, and how to teach people to code both online and offline. I spent two days to learn how to teach coding with more than twenty people from around the country. Participants came from diverse backgrounds. They were professors, librarians, PhD students, post-docs, and educators. I found that I benefited from learning from their diverse experiences. Specifically, during many breakout sessions, I had a chance to learn from a statistics professor, a post-doc in neuroscience, a few computational linguists, a geographer, and a couple of librarians. This group of professionals really made my being at home more interesting.

Learning about Teaching: The workshop made me consciously think about building blocks of teaching another person a set of skills. The workshop provided a mix of education, psychology concepts for instructors to understand how people absorb information, and learn new skills. It was empowering to learn about what makes students learn well, and what prevents them from learning.

Learning about Participatory/ Live Coding: At this point, I am still conflicted about participatory coding pedagogy. What it means is that instructors demonstrate live coding in front of a group of participants. On the one hand, it helps learners participate in the thought process, and engage with the instructor’s programming process. On the other hand, it feels pretty taxing on the part of the instructor. There are many variables that the instructor has to control for. Unlike having a code that is already written in advance, the instructor has to improvise on the fly at times. I find this to be cognitively demanding, unless the instructor is very experienced at talking about technical steps.

I want to know why this is a good pedagogy for teaching beginners to code. In my experience, doing live coding with students often distracts students from the fundamental statistical concepts that I want to convey to them during the class. In my Data Mining class, I used to do live coding. But then I realized that I had to compromise on the materials that I wanted to teach them. The entire time, my focus was on whether my students were able to type correctly a line of code, or whether there was any execution issue in the process. It was not effective in the sense that many of those issues might have nothing to do with the class materials. Thus I decided early on in the class that live coding was not helpful for the purpose of my class. Instead, I provided students with the Rscript in advance, and they could use it to run while I was giving them a lecture on random forests, or support vector machine.

Now reflecting on the instructor training workshop that I just attended, and my own experience in teaching people to code, and use the R programming language, I realized a few things. One, live coding is helpful for beginners. In other words, it would be beneficial if I organized workshops to teach my students concepts at the beginning of the class. Maybe I could use one or two lab sessions to demonstrate how to use various lines of code. Then in the second and third parts of the course, I could provide already written scripts to demonstrate statistical techniques, concepts.

In other words, the instructor training workshop highlighted the different emphases that one would want to teach. The experience was indeed refreshing because I was challenged to ask questions about my own personal practices, and what would be considered as ideal in teaching novice learners how to use programming languages.

The workshop also piqued my interest in conducting a workshop to show people how they could use different programming languages to achieve their research goals. Once I get certified as an instructor, I would love to contribute to the carpentries community by offering my own workshops on text analysis in R or in python.

 

Cultural Intermediaries in an Infoglut Era

I am constantly looking for new things to read, not so much for things to watch. Every month, there are many new movies and TV series that are added to Netflix and Amazon Prime. I don’t really get excited that new movies are added to the database and are available for my consumption. What gets me really excited is news that some original novels that receive great approval from the reading public.

Most recently, I read The Tiger’s Wife by Téa Obreht. The novel has non-linear narrative, and being told from two different points of view: a grandfather who lived in the past, and a granddaughter who lives in the contemporary world. The idea of having a tiger moving about in a snow-covered area somewhere in the former USSR triggered my deep imagination.  Many elements in the novel work for me: the narrators, the scenery, and the language. It’s fast-pace, mesmerizing, and full of surprises.

I constantly seek recommendations for novels and non-fiction readings from my friends.  Other times, I rely on the crowd wisdom of the internet. Most reliably, go back to the New York Review of Books (NYRB). In many ways, I  trust NYRB more than the other channels. I trust its institutional reputation, and the workforce that powers the content that the institution publishes. NYRB has introduced me to many books that I would never have discovered otherwise. This week, I received an email from new York Review of book about a new comic:

 

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This is such a refreshing email during this strange time. The email introduced readers to a French comic graphic novelist, Blutch. I never heard this name before, but the illustration is very tempting. There’s not much information in English about him. Wikipedia article about him has only French and German versions. I can barely read French, but German is not a problem.  The author looks like an interesting figure in the contemporary French comic scene. Besides, I had no idea about French comic books. This email introduced me to something that I never knew before, but would love to get some information on.

I went to the internet, and found his comic books in French. My French level is not that high, but the illustrations just look really cool. They re-sparked my interest in French. I feel like by simply skimming these pages, I could acquire some new French vocabulary.

The process of discovery was just so much fun. I got lost in the weeds of information for hours.

This experience reminded me of an important concept in sociology of culture: “cultural intermediaries.” They refer to occupations and workers who engage in the process of production and circulation of symbolic goods and services.

In the specific experience of getting books to read, I rely on three sources: individuals/ personalities I know, reputable institutions, and the internet. By relying on individuals  whom I know, I rely on my social network. The fundamental idea behind this mechanism is homophile. It works as follows: if I am friended with people whose interests are similar to mine, whatever interests them, and whatever they have approved to be good, and interesting, there would be high probability that I would enjoy what they enjoy. Thus I could save time by vetting the books.

Institutional cultural intermediaries are institutions like NYRB. I do not know employees of the institution personally, but I have had prior experiences relying on the institution, and these experiences have proven to be reliable. The institution’s reputation is what I rely on mostly. The idea is that if many people have relied on the institution, and that they had successfully use the information provided by the institution, then I could also rely on the institution. There is a temporal aspect in evaluating an institution’s reputation. The institution has existed long before I was born, and possibly will remain when I die.

Finally the internet is a melting pot of both good and bad recommendations. Sometimes I could rely on Amazon’s reviews. Other times, they prove completely a waste of time. Many databases, and websites use recommender systems to recommend books to users. However, other than Netflix, I find these different recommender systems to be not yet useful, or that they are not yet tailored to my interests. There is a social dimension in taste, and cultural transmission that algorithms seem to not have figured out. In other words, algorithmic or probabilistic models are not sufficient in capturing nuanced human cultural consumption and changing tastes. Thus, I leave algorithmic cultural intermediaries outside of my analysis for now.

It’s worth noticing the differences between the first two mechanisms.

First in terms of similarities. Trust is the big factor in both scenarios. In the first scenario, it’s the intimate trust. And the second scenario, it is public and social trust in institutions.

The first mechanism relies on my dyadic relationship between me and my friends in my social networks. There’s a high level of intimacy. But it’s also small in scale.  I could quickly evaluate whether I should trust a friend or not, and by extension their tastes in certain things. This mechanism cannot be scaled up. It relies solely on my small social network, and whom I know.

In the second mechanism, I have less power to control what the institution does, and whether it suits my interest. The institution is often a multi-purpose institution, and it sometimes or most of the times do things that I have no interest in. For example NYRB does not always recommend things that I would enjoy. But in general, I respect what the institution recommends. I think that the books and the reviews that they publish are of high quality. They might not suit my interest, but if they do, they are very spectacular. I have to take a leap of faith that the institution does what it is supposed to do based on its social reputation. Over the course of almost four years, I have benefited from NYRB’s main core business: creating content about books.

To this end,  I think a few lessons learned here is that cultural consumption still relies mostly on cultural intermediaries through social network, and social institutions. In the Web 2.0 age, and the rise of new cultural intermediaries such as recommender systems, and mass reviews on Amazon, and other websites, I would want to know which channel influences consumers’ consumption behaviors the most. Furthermore, is there any new cultural intermediaries occupations that  were born out of the Web 2.0 era, or that algorithmic recommender systems would also automate all of these occupations through probabilistic modeling, or that new occupations would be created because of the new spaces that algorithms create.

 

 

 

Laundry, Modern Life and Hand Work

I have definitely become more OCD with the lockdown.

As capitalism has come to a halt, my once regular daily activities such as going to work, performing research tasks, and reporting to my advisor, boss, research partners stopped. Now being stuck in a tiny apartment in New York City, I am trying to fill in the time with activities that make my mind and my physical body active.

I have always thought that I would never become a housewife, a title I detested. Now, I am stuck at home. What I have been driven to is no longer my library with hundreds of books in many different languages. What I actually find comforting is cleaning the house, washing clothes by hand, and keeping my kitchen spotless. Now I enjoy reproductive activities such as sewing DIY face masks, taking care of house plants, and most interestingly spending fifteen minutes a day to hand-wash clothes.

This new-found enjoyment challenged my prior assumption that reproductive activities were not as enjoyable as productive activities. Reproductive activities could be very therapeutic.

More importantly, it is the question of hand-work vs. intellectual work. My life before Coronavirus (BC) was very intense in terms of cognitive work. When coronavirus pandemic hit, I was reaching the point of cognitive overload. During the first few weeks of Covid-19, I expected that the situation would soon be over. So I had no change in my behaviors toward intellectual work. Now the American and the world economies seem to be both going toward recession. Productive activities are slowing down. I feel that I can take my time, and not focusing too much on my productive activities. This is when hand-work comes in. I am cleaning, and disinfecting my apartment at least 3 times per day. I wash piles of dishes twice a day. Then, I wash clothes by hands also twice a day. These were activities that I did only intermittently before coronavirus pandemic. At least one thing I see as silver lining during this period of time is that I have become more OCD, and paying more attention to cleanliness of my living environment.

On Hobby and Meaning of Life

“Why don’t you have a hobby?,” asked my roommate recently. I thought I had one such as writing this blog. It turned out blogging about my lived experience, and applying sociological theory on myself is technically not a hobby. Ultimately the question whether blog writing constitutes a hobby depends on the question of intent. It is an activity that I enjoy immensely because I derive meaning out of writing things about my life, my studies, and my research. Yet it is still a work-related activity. My intention from the outset was  to improve my writing, and my understanding of sociological theories. All taken together writing this blog is more work-related than most of my other time-consuming activities that I have engage in. Writing this blog entails doing research about a subject matter, understanding it, summarizing it, and giving some opinion about it in a succinct and intelligent manner.  When taking the process apart, there are a lot of cognitive steps that involve. Yet, by this point writing a blog post has more or less become second nature. As soon as I have an idea, I can muse on it, and write a blog post to express my thinking and feeling about a subject. So a potentially work-related activity could gradually become a pastime, leisure activity once one figures out the formula, and make it easy, effortless, and enjoyable.

Now back to the idea of my not having a hobby. The above comment at first hurt my feelings because it suggests that my life is incomplete or that I am too career-focused, or that I never ask a deeper question about the meaning of life, or how to live life to the fullest. Then I took a step back and ask a few questions why it is the case.

What is a hobby? 

It became clear that I was confused about what defines a hobby, and what it does to me. Wikipedia defines it as follows:

hobby is a regular activity done for enjoyment, typically during one’s leisure time, not professionally and not for pay.

This definition captures the idea that hobby is what one does during one’s leisure time, the purpose of which is not for pay. From a sociological point of view, a hobby is what one does outside of the productive realm. It pertains to the reproductive realm in human activities.

Sociologists of leisure study hobbyists, and hobby activities such as chess playing, tour guide, quilting, etc. They basically study how we create meaning through hobbies, and how do hobbies then reshape us in the social world. They notice that the distinction between a hobby and a paid activity is blurred in many situations.

The relation between work and leisure can also be unclear: research indicates that some individuals find skills that they have acquired at work useful to their hobbies (and vice versa), and some individuals have used leisure activities to advance their work careers. (Wikipedia)

This is particularly true for people who work in entertainment industries. For example, when I interview podcasters, some professional podcasters say that they enjoy doing it so much as hobbyist podcasters, so they quit their former job to become professional podcasters. Some hobbyist podcasters have been able to negotiate with their employers to create new positions, or to negotiate a raise. Musicians  also enjoy playing music as a hobby.

Why do I not engage in a hobby? 

Personally I do not have a hobby that I regularly devote time to. I never thought about the question. I dabbled in playing guitar for a while. Then I also tried the ukulele. None of these instruments panned out. There were three main reasons non of those musical activities stuck: (1) having no time for myself outside of work, (2) no childhood experience in having a hobby, and (3) no reinforcement mechanism.

First, I have not had enough time to follow anything through, and moved beyond the beginner’s level. Most of my time has been spent on studying sociology, improving my writing, trying to finish my dissertation, and leaving graduate school. Graduate school life is so overwhelming that I have totally given in, and not questioning why I have not carved out  time for my own personal enjoyment. This is partly my fault of not drawing a clear line between graduate school, personal life, and having a clear definition of what makes life meaningful to me as a graduate student, and in general a person. I was very busy trying to learn the tropes of becoming a professional sociologist. This identity-formation process has taken over, and I have forgotten that besides being and becoming a sociologist, I am also a full person with life history, and personal interests. Becoming a sociologist does not erase these multiple facets of life. Becoming a sociologist simply means that I have accumulated a different way of seeing, understanding, and analyzing the word that is specific to the profession of sociology.

Whenever I do not spend time studying, doing research, or writing papers, I would teach, or do administrative work that would take another huge chunk of time. After my work day, I often feel extremely exhausted. Time compression was what I feel on a daily basis. I feel that I am constantly on the move. There is constantly something that occupies my mind. There would be no space available on my calendar for a recreational activity such as playing music. I have been totally overwhelmed by work.

Now suddenly because of Covid-19, a lot of my work-related activities have been canceled. A big chunk of time  has been freed up. And I start thinking about how I can use my time in a meaningful way. The question of having a meaningful but yet not work-related activity came to the fore, while I realized that prior to the Covid-19 Pandemic, my life was so consumed by work.

Second, possibly having a hobby was not something that I was raised to think that it would be an important part of life. Did I have a hobby when I was a teenager? The answer is no. I could not recall if I did anything for fun in high school. Most of my fun activities involve some academic activities such as learning English on my own, or I would spend much of my free time playing video games, or watching Korean dramas. Did I create anything with my hands such as crocheting, or knitting. I did a bit of those, but I never stuck to one activity for a long time. Most of what I did was solitary. Possibly, I downplayed the importance of these activities by saying that they would not contribute to my academic advancements. I think I still have this attitude.

Third, I have had no reinforcement mechanism, which could mean having a regular schedule to practice guitar, or to be a part of a community of hobbyists. Being a part of a community of practice is very important. One could practice ukulele for a long time, but if one does not use the skills, it would be stale at some point. I feel that this is the social aspect of having a hobby that makes life even more meaningful.

In short, I have downplayed the benefits of having a meaningful hobby, overwhelmed myself with work-related activities, and not being a part of a community of practice. Now I want to ask a more philosophical question about why and how a hobby would make life more meaningful, and fulfilling especially for our contemporary life.

Why should one have a hobby? What is the problem of having no hobby? Is it the problem of contemporary life? 

Looking at my experience, I realized that it is not unique. It is very representative for a lot of people living in a capitalist/modern society which values productive activities by giving a money tag to each activity. Even if one engages in a hobby activity, there is also the question of monetization, that is how one can make it a money-generated activity. Living in such a society, one would unconsciously prioritize productive activities, while giving little attention to recreational activities that bring joy, fulfillment, and happiness to one’s life.

My experiences growing up as a teenager in Vietnam have been a story of social mobility, and then surviving in another society. Now Covid19 Pandemic suddenly provides me with an opportunity to reassess on what has been my priority, and the emotional cost that social mobility meant to my well being.

On a societal level, the crisis presented an opportunity for serious structural changes. I can feel that these changes are coming in the economic, political, and cultural realms. On the personal level, the crisis presented me with an opportunity to reflect on what is the priority of my life, and ask the question what makes life meaningful, and worth living.

A healthy hobby is essentially a part of the question “what does it mean to live a good life?” I asked this question to my close friend last week. In our exchange, I recognized that I have read the answers to this question many times. But most of the time, I encountered writings by men, whose answers based on their lived experiences. My original thought was that the question was fundamentally gendered. However, my friend reminded me that the question by nature is not gendered. The answers could be gendered because it is important to ask who gets to ask the question. The person who could ask such question is in the privilege position to have time to contemplate on a philosophical journey. The one who comes up with the answer, and provides answers to that question is also in a privilege position  because they actually have time to pursue a hobby or some activity that is meaningful while the majority of the population are still striving to survive.

To this end, I think that the question why I do not have a hobby has answers rooted in both the personal, and the societal. On the one hand, I have been neglecting the emotional aspects of my well-being. On the other hand, I live in a society that downplays non-monetary benefits of leisure activities. Going forward, I am determined to correct this empirical imbalance by introducing a regular activity that makes me happy, and reducing the amount of work-related activities to live a meaningful and fulfilling life.

How to Structure your Day during Lockdown

One of my favorite listserves that I have subscribed to is called The Broadsheet curated by Kristen Bellstrom and sponsored by Fortune. It was recommended by a female startup founder at an all-female startup luncheon I attended a while back.  It has showed up in my mailbox every morning since.  I have the tendency to over-subscribed to listserves, and then un-subscribe to them once I discover that I never read the content, and that they would flood my mail box with irrelevant emails. This particular listserv is written by a female journalist for female individuals who are interested in business, and the startup world. It is not only relatable, but also knowledgeable. I read it whenever I have time.

One issue that has become particularly of interest to everyone is productivity during the time of Covid 19. Academics are not known for being productive. They are known for being absent-minded, and not responsive to emails mostly. Business people particularly women are on top of things, and seem to have figured out a formula to be productive. So I think maybe I can learn a few things from them. The story being highlighted  in the issue on productivity is about an editor who has 7 kids, and how she juggles homeschooling more than half a dozen kids, and her editorial/journalism work. What she has to manage on a daily basis sounds terrifying for me. I do not think that I can manage seven small humans who all need to be taught at the same time. Besides, how can one focus on one’s work especially intellectual work that academics and editors engage in? It seems that the formula is about figuring out a routine, being disciplined, and following one’s own rules and principles.

My productivity especially in the realm of writing has decreased.  I clearly see how Covid19 hurts my work and life. Now my mental health has been back to normal, and that I have accepted that this situation of shelter-in-place is a new normal. And I choose to work with what I have.

In order to be consistent with my research and writing, I propose a three prong approach: (1) following an 8-hour work day (2) negotiating time and space with roommates, (3) having a good meal and relaxing after a hard working day.

Following an 8-hour work day

Cal Newport argues in his Deep Work book that for an intellectually demanding work such as what I am engaging in, one can only work for a limited number of hours during the day. Maybe it’s four or five hours. But those hours must be counted as “deep work.” They must be quality hours of work that bring about new insights, and intellectual breakthroughs. I have been trying to follow this advice, and tried to allocate a specific number of work hours per day for intellectual development, and solving difficult sociological problems.

Yet, for the type of work that I am doing, sometimes there are administrative work that  involves, and sometimes there are also teaching tasks. Now, I have figured out that I would dedicate at the most 16 hours of my work week for teaching, and I am fighting hard to keep the number of teaching-related hours under control.

At the beginning of this period of ab-normalcy, I watched news on TV like at least five hours a  day. Each morning I dedicated an hour simply to watching Governor Andrew Cuomo’s press conferences. Now I sort of feel numb by the stats that he gives out each morning. The sense of immediacy has gone. Now the situation in New York City is so bad that no number, and doomsaying can scare me any more. I am so scared that even going downstairs to throw the trash has become an extraordinary effort, which needs some serious planning, and coordination. The period of trying to make sense of the situation is over. I am now settled into a routine that I would not go out, and that my body is now adjusting to serious physical inactivity.

The question becomes if I dedicate 8 hours a day to work-related activity, how do I do that? Waking up early like a business woman is my answer. Waking up earlier, and drafting an action plan for the day would be the answer. My most productive hours in the morning would be solely dedicated to writing, and producing thought-provoking ideas. Currently I have two small papers to revise, and resubmit, and one big paper to improve, and submit. They all need hours of work each day. The small papers sound very deceptive because for every 1,000 words of academic writing, they required countless of hours of thinking, discussion, writing, re-writing, editing, and revision. This is simply the nature of the line of work that I am in. Then the bigger paper seriously requires very deep understanding of statistical knowledge that sometimes I read  a fundamental research paper I get a headache by the amount of assumptions and lemmas that a paper proposes.

In short, academic work requires an endless number of hours of writing, and coming up with interesting ideas. I feel that I should have known this by now, but so far I still have not been able to dedicate the right amount of time and effort into producing more academic-worthy writing materials.

Negotiate with Roommates for Space and Time Alone

In the early 20th century, Virginia Wolf wrote an essay entitled “A Room of One’s Own” to argue for a literal and figurative space for women in literature. A woman writer, which I am, needs a physical space, which is hers in order to express her ideas, her personality, and her identity. This physical space is an extension of a writer. I advocate for each person to have their own corner either in their house, a library, or their office. This space should be explicitly theirs.

Now my roommates have accidentally become my office mates every day. It is interesting to peak into their working lives during work hours. Every once in a while I would eavesdrop their office conversations via Zoom calls, or Teams meetings. However, this excitement of being apart of someone else’s work life wore off after I figured that it would interfere with my own work, my concentration, and ultimately my writing.

What to do about this situation? 

Every one of us has to work for a certain number of hours in the day. We live in a small apartment in New York City. And the shelter-in-place situation would not go away at least until mid-summer. I have figured out a solution: to talk with them about my physical space, my share of the home. Be it the bathroom, the living room, the kitchen, or even the closet, I want to have my own space to create my things, to be creative, and to be lost in my own world. This is something that I crave for. Having an honest conversation with them is the first step. The conversation entails that I acknowledge that since the beginning of the lockdown, I feel I do not have enough physical and mental space to be creative. I feel that I am struggling to be on top of my writing, and behind on deadlines. I need their support, understanding, and corporation. In return, I would also give them my support, my understanding, and that they are entitled to their own space in the apartment.

My therapist has told me many times that I am averse to conflicts. I am very bad at confronting people when it comes to my needs. Sometimes I become very angry because I could not convey what I want to people. At first, my go-to solution was to wake up very early before every one in the house so I could use the living room. In the early hours, the living room is all mine, and I could make a cup of coffee, and start writing about whatever that comes to my mind. Once I could churn out some pages of reflection, and creativity, other writings would come naturally to me. Ideas beget ideas.  Thus even writing simply about how to make a certain dish for dinner would also trigger interesting research ideas, which would lead me to think about interesting research projects. I have been waking up early, and started my day early to avoid confronting my roommates for a while. But once they all wake up, and go about their own business around the apartment, having work meetings, and sometimes chatting while I think intensely about some ideas, I totally lose it. I get agitated because my peace and  space are disturbed, and I get totally distracted.

How do then deal with conflicts?

If it was 5 years ago, I would simply move out. Every time when I had a disagreement with roommates, I would move out in the past. Now it’s not really an option, especially during a pandemic. Besides, I have grown up a bit. I have learned how to deal with conflicts a little bit better. At least, I now learn how to express how I feel, and what I want more directly to people around me. The way that I express these ideas has been rough, clumsy, and not at all diplomatic, but I get my message across. The gist is that as a person engaging in social science research, I need quiet space to read, write, and think about ideas that are interesting, inspiring, and engaging to me. This message has been pretty clear I think. But the execution of it has been pretty clumsy on my part. Sometimes my identity as a sociologist, a writer is taking over everything else. I demand quietude 24/7, or time on my own, or no TV for more than what my roommates could handle. That’s when I realized that I do not draw a line between work and life, and my roommates’ presence would remind me that my work has totally consumed my life.

My accidental office mates, i.e. roommates, have been quick to call me out whenever I do not take my sociologist, writer hat off in my daily life interactions with them. Sometimes they complain that I do not have a hobby such as watching a TV show, reading a non-academic book. The academic identity is too overwhelming. My real identity, my real human being have been buried, and thus not developing accordingly. Regardless of whether my work life has overwhelmed my personal life or not, I need an accountability mechanism, which my roommates are mostly responsible for now. I appreciate that they listen to me, and that they would call me out if I do not follow through with what I said.

Drawing a clear boundary between work and life

Regardless of whether I finish my work during the 8-hour work day, rewarding myself with a good meal in the evening has been the one thing that I have been looking forward to. Most of the food that I have at home now is dried food such as pasta, lentils, and chickpeas. Fresh foods such as vegetables are not abundant now because I could not go to the physical grocery store. Playing with the ingredients that we have in our fridge has become both an economic and culinary calculation. This night time cooking activity has become a demarcation as to when the work day ends and when the leisure time starts.

A small New York apartment now has become a place where all of my roommates hang out, work, study, and also become frustrated. They are entitled to their space, and I learn that the apartment now has more purposes than just a place for sleeping and socializing. Now the once sleeping only place has become a gym, a co-working space, a professional chef’s kitchen, and also a shelter against Coronavirus.

In closing, the point of this blog post is about disciplining, separating life and work, and having a transparent and clear line of communications with roommates or accidental office mates. These three points would ensure that one can maintain a mentally balanced work life while sheltering at home.

Calm Music for Coding

Lately I have been coding a lot in python. Whenever I do it, I want to listen to some calm music to focus on the tasks at hand. Coding is not unlike writing, or doing physical exercises. One needs to focus, but if there is some music in the background, it helps with the flow. The only time that I need complete quietude is when I read an academic book, or a novel that requires me to immerse in the world created by the authors. Deep or intensive reading does require minimal to no noise around. But when I engage in creative activity such as writing, and coding, I happily welcome musical distractions.

I have been spending quite a lot of time on Youtube listening to different kinds of music. My favorite lately is the song Itsumo Nando Demo, or Always With Me. It’s the ending theme song of the movie Spirited Away. I have never watched or finished the movie myself, but the theme song is so beautiful. And I have listened to at least three different renditions of the songs.

The first rendition and still my favorite is sung by Pomme, a French singer, who introduced me to the Japanese song. I have to confess that I am quite obsessed with Pomme’s singing lately. Particularly, she performs with an autoharp, something that I did not know exist before stumbling upon Pomme’s singing on Youtube. Additionally, there is something that is so genuine, so authentic about the way that Pomme incorporates the autoharp into her songs. It’s the authenticity that really draws her music every single time. After watching her Youtube videos for a while, I also want to buy an autoharp and learn how to play it as a hobby.

Then, I kept looking for more songs that are similar to Itsumo Nando. Whenever Youtube suggests anything, I would listen to it. What I found is amazing orchestra performances of theme songs in Spirited Away or other Japanese anime movies. The following is one such performance:

 

Similar to running, dancing, or working out, writing and coding also require certain rhythms, and feelings. And now most of my inspirations have come from theme songs in Spirited Away.

Routines Disrupted

All of my routines have been disrupted, but new routines, and even new communities of routines/practices are  being formed. This development is an example of human resilience. In face of crisis, our lives keep going, and we use our amazing abilities to re-introduce normalcy and routines into our lives.

All of my once normal activities such as going to school, socializing with colleagues are no longer a part of my daily planning. I feel that I no longer have a writing group to talk to. I no longer wake up at 6AM in the morning to read new research articles, or reading novels, and trying to crunch out 3 pages of reflection. I started wake up at 11AM, wandering aimlessly around the apartment until 3PM, and then began my working day at 4PM. There are no structure, no goal, no aim, no boss to report to, and no accountability mechanism other than my roommates to talk to.

There is a confluence of factors why my day structure has been broken. Main reasons are that the regular schedule has been disrupted, my deadlines have been pushed back for a couple of months. People are all trying to cope with the new realities of the pandemic. Communications have become more intermittent. The lack of physical activities affects mental health clarity. I have been more forgetful lately. Other distractions such as learning another skills creeped in. And most importantly without social interactions, I feel that my motivations have gone down.

One month into the crisis, people have figured out new routines in the absence of the old ones.  I have started an online writing group with academics who live and work in the Northeast. This is a new exciting introduction in my life. My personal philosophy is that routines are good for long-term work, and easy to automate. Thus I try to have as many tasks planned out as possible. I am taking a long view here because this new writing group of more experienced academics would be my accountability parters in a long run.

Aside from this new development, I want to ask the questions why has my writing routine been disrupted? What lessons do I learn from this recalibration process?

One reason is that I have used this pandemic disruptions to stay away from my main goals: working on my dissertation project to graduate, and finishing up projects that have been delayed.

Excuses and Distractions 

A global pandemic is abnormal, but regular works also need attention.  As mentioned above, I have been using the extra time to learn python. My mind is occupied with python exercises, and how to understand certain concepts well. As long as I do not understand them well, I do not want to move on to my next tasks. Part of my personality is that I become obsessed when it comes to understanding something.  I was  doing my own python bootcamp, and coding like 5 hours a day until I became exhausted. The results after a few weeks of intensive coding were pretty fulfilling. Now I am making use of these new found skills in new research projects. This is good news.

Some of my students in my Data Mining class have also informed me that they have been using the extra time to learn more machine learning, and that they want to ace the class that I am teaching. From the point of view of an educator, it is also great news. What I have done is  introducing a way of discovery, and a method of studying to them, and that they go out and discover knowledge on their own. It was the best news that I have received in the past several weeks.

But by any means, these distractions regardless of how they help in a long run stand as short-run obstacles, and would hurt my writing productivity.

Writing

Writing is supposed to be the main way that academics communicate with and to the world. I used to not want to write at all. I had to force myself into producing written materials via this blog. After four years, writing has become a more regular activity. It is no longer a work-related activity. It has become a life style. Now I use writing to think through a problem, to feel certain things, and to relax as well.

Once the pandemic started, I dropped writing. It’s a learned behavior that has not yet become second nature to me. I am curious to know what do people who writes for a living feel about the disruption. Is writing a part of their bodies, physiology? Do people feel itchy when they do not produce any word? I do not have such feeling. Without writing for a day, I am totally fine. I do not miss writing at all. But I do not feel good about myself because I am not doing what I am supposed to do.  So I have been struggling to fight this feeling between natural and forced, between what I love and what I am supposed to do.

Now my mental health is getting back to normal, and that I am no longer obsessed over the number of people who have died during this pandemic, I feel that I need to get back to my long term development activities: writing for publication. One question I have been asking myself is what conditions are conducive for writing ?

Clear pandemic is a very bad macro-structural condition. Then how could individual  resiliency come in and compensate for the external forces? I wonder how do people like Stephen King, who once wrote that he has word diarrhea, produce writing under such circumstances?

Words don’t come to me easily. I feel envious to those who can produce 3,000 words or even more within a day. Every single time, when I sit down to write, words come very intermittently. The most number of words I can produce per day is like 2,000 words over the span of 8 hours. That means I constantly think about what is a good argument to put into that piece of writing, where can I add a supporting  sentence, and what kind of evidence I should provide to make the article a complete whole.

Technically, during this time of social distancing I am entitled to undivided hours to focus on writing. I do not have to take care of children or elderly parents like many of my colleagues. The only thing between me and my writing, and my dissertation is my inertia of not having any idea, or not being motivated enough to write anything.

So the question comes back to motivation, being inspired, being interested, and being on fire to write about something that one deeply cares about.

This realization reminds me of the nature of writing. It is not only a form of communications, it is also a mental, and phenomenological experience. One does not simply sit down to write something cogently without being interested in the subject matter. Whenever I feel very interested in a topic, having a firm understanding of the subject matter, and having clarity in my mind about what I am arguing for, my writing is crystal clear, persuasive, and at times even beautiful. I could totally produce a lot of words if I have a lot to say. Of course the first draft is only my personal draft which is to clarify my thoughts, and arguments, and to get the words out. But definitely the piece would improve in the subsequent versions.

To this end, I think clearly the pandemic is not necessary an obstacle to my writing routine. The obstacles are mostly that I do not have a clearly defined goal, and a realistic timeline to accomplish it. And fundamentally I am not on fire, not inspired to produce a piece of writing, or that I am afraid that I do not have anything to say about a particular topic.

Death Rates by Race in New York City

A week ago, a big newspaper in New York City created a GIS mapping of death rate per population in the city. Some of the hardest hit neighborhoods are located in Queens and the Bronx. From the figure, one can speculate that the poorer neighborhoods seem to have higher death rates. This is alarming. One could not help but asking why? There have been many theories proposed on the news, and by the media. For example, people in the poorer neighborhoods are overwhelmingly contributing to the essential workforce such as delivering groceries, mail, nurses, etc. They could not afford to stay at home like the professional residents in more wealthy neighborhoods such as in Midtown. These are still hypotheses, and need to be tested. But they sound very reasonable.

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This morning NYC released some preliminary racial breakdowns of COVID19 deaths. The report is incomplete because some labs and hospitals do not report race. The result is as follow:

The early data shows that of those who have died from coronavirus in the city, 34 percent were Latino residents, while 28 percent were blacks.

Black New Yorkers have the highest crude death rate: 23.1 out of 100,000 people. Latino New Yorkers have the second highest reported death rate, 21.3 out of 100,000. But adjusted for age, the death toll is slightly higher for Latinos, who have a death rate of 22.8 versus 19.8.

The released data represents only 63 percent of reported deaths in New York City because according to the city, the vast majority of cases are reported by labs and often did not have race or ethnicity data.

Both rates for blacks and Latinos are significantly higher than of whites, which have a crude death rate of 15.7 per 100,000, and an age-adjusted death rate of 10.2

Asians have the lowest death rate from the disease. Among those who have died, 7.2 percent were Asian.

The high death rates among Latino and Black New York residents have been highlighted in different news segments. Many advocates and NGOs have argued that the death rates were high because not only they were essential workers. The disparity between hospital capacity in poorer neighborhoods in the Bronx and in Manhattan is huge. This is a contributing factor. Thus, they propose that the city and state should put more workforce, and resources into hospitals, especially public hospitals in poorer neighborhoods. This is also a very sound argument for public infrastructure investment during critical times.

The surprising result to me in particular is that Asian communities have the lowest death rate. Why is it? In popular media, Covid19 is called a Chinese virus by both the president and by a big group on social media. New York City Police Department has to established a hotline for hate crime against people of Asian descent during the outbreak. The number of attacks against Asian Americans has spiked up. People stay away from Asian Americans at the beginning of the outbreak. Individuals of Asian descent were told to be virus-carriers in the media, and on social media.

Now we do know that most of cases  in New York City have linked to Europe rather than to Asia. In other words, it’s not the different Asian communities that spread the disease, but an average American who had link with Europe during the early months of the pandemic spread the disease to their communities.

I would also argue that Asian American communities have multiple channels of health information, and preventive knowledge. They read news, and participate in discussions about how to prevent themselves from not getting sick, and from not spreading to other people.

Take a look at this graph:

 

Infection Trajectory: Which Countries are Flattening their COVID ...

China’s number has been debated as whether it reflects reality, or that the Chinese government has heavily undercounted the number of cases. But China alone is not the whole story. The countries that have been able to “flatten the curve” are South Korea, Singapore, Japan, Taiwan and to a degree other less developed countries such as Vietnam (NO DEATH!), Thailand (32 deaths). While the majority of countries in Europe struggle to contain the disease even with heavy testing.

Neither this graph nor this blog post is not about Asian exceptionalism.  I am trying to argue that on the global level, Asian countries seem to have instituted the right strategies to contain the spread of the virus based on their knowledge of the previous outbreak such as SARS, H1N1. In terms of preparedness, they seem to be prepared to deal with this new outbreak given their public health capacity, already in place from the previous epidemics. Second, in terms of educating the public, from early days, various governments told citizens to wear masks whenever they go out. They shut down schools since early January because schools and big gatherings of people such as concerts, festivals are ticking time bombs for spreading this virus.

In the meantime, in New York City, the vortex of the global COVID 19 storm, the city government told the public that public schools remain open because for a group of students, schools are the only places they could get meals. Teachers should go to teach. As an educator myself, I would love to teach my students, but I could not fathom the reason why I should go to class, require my students to be present, and expose them to a high level of risks. Any reasonable teacher would say no, we will not teach at school. We can deliver food to our students using our own cars, but bringing them to schools, and exposing them to various levels of risks of transportation, and community spreading of the virus are damn right stupid.

Additionally, health experts in this country told the public in the beginning that you did not have to wear masks. Only sick persons should wear masks. Since the community spreading level of this disease is exceptionally high in New York City, this advice is logically flawed. Many people who are asymptomatic, and also pre-symptomatic do not know whatsoever that they are virus carriers. If they do not wear masks, they would simply shred viruses to people and leave trace of viruses wherever they go.

This leads me back to the fact that Asian American communities have been listening to contradicting advice from authorities from different countries. On the one hand they listen to advice from authorities from their home countries (South Korea, Taiwan, Japan, China, etc) that going to schools is strictly forbidden, wearing masks outside of your home and checking temperature before going into any building are must’s. On the other hand, their local health authorities, and leaders in the United States said that they don’t have to do anything other than not going to work. Clearly there is something wrong. The discrepancy is huge, and after a few weeks, they see that those countries that follow strict preventive measures on a population levels such as Japan, Taiwan, South Korea have been able to flatten the curve relatively fast, while in New York City the curve is logarithmic, meaning the number of cases and deaths are increasing exponentially. So of course, one has to listen to the right information to protect both themselves, their families and their communities. What became apparent to me is that the different communities’ behaviors depend on where they get information, and whether they act upon the information they receive.

As a social scientists, I cannot help but think about the different reasons why different racial groups in New York City bear different death rates. This public health pandemic exposes many things that have gone wrong in leadership in American society, and by extension developed countries around the world. At the same time, from the individual and communities levels, I think there are resiliency, and coping mechanisms that are distinctive during this time. Once the crisis is over, I am sure that many social scientists would dig deeper in those different communities to learn about their coping mechanisms during the crisis.

 

What Makes a Good Life?

I love reading Cal Newport’s writings about productivity. One of his most popular book is called Deep Work, which advocates for an undivided attention way of working for cognitively demanding professionals. The basic idea is that undivided concentration on cognitive tasks that would provide the most returns in the labor market place. This is a solid advice for an ever changing, and demanding labor market for young people.

However, as a sociologist, I cannot think of this idea in isolation with the cultural, and political economy changes of the workplace in the twenty-firsts century.  For white-collar workers specifically, we are seeing more “venture labor” (Gina Neff, 2005), more “upskilling” to remain relevant, and more flexible work. Changing your way of life by waking up at the godly hour of 5AM to do intellectual contemplation, and write your next academic articles is precisely what a new webtech-urban economy demands of highly skilled workers.

This economy demands cognitive capital of its workforce, and integrates their full beings into the productive society. It is no longer the case that workers can go home, and rest. Workers now do not only contribute their labor, but also their ways of life to the economy. In the most recent blog post, Newport features his emerging idea of a deep life. The blog post is called “amplifying meaning with environment.” He suggests that to have meaning in life, some practitioners derive meaning out of their craft. I agree that working with hands is very meaningful because it’s fundamentally physical labor that provides one with instant gratification by showing how one can sees one’s fruits after a period of hard labor. This is very different from intellectual work such as writing research paper, which takes a very long time to see the end result, and sometimes the end result is not what one would expect.

The examples that he gave have to do with crafting, but not the kind of low level artisanal crafting by village artisans, or fair trade craft from a third world country. The examples that he show feels like a part of the maker movement, which is a very specific cultural movement in the United States and Western Europe. It is a technology-based extension of the DIY culture. Somehow in my mind it is a very male-dominated, American-centric cultural movement. It reminds me of the image of American fathers, who would run away from childcare, house chores by going down to their basements, and create something with hands using their “masculine”-coded tools such as hammers and drills.

The idea of maker spaces is just a more polished version of an American basement, and a more communal version of daddies getting together, and making something. Feminist researchers, or any female persons would think: one’s person meaning making activity is another person’s childcare, and house chore meaningless activities. What one would often not see is that while one group would engage in meaning-making activities, there is a host of unfulfilling, unpaid reproductive care activities that women have to shoulder. This is the social cost of meaning making that no-one would talk about.

The behind the scene, the less glamorous picture of a women taking care of the house, the babies, the dogs, and the grocery shopping is often blurred out of the picture. These activities seem to be not thought of as meaningful because they are not recreational, not for oneself but for a household. If a woman derives meaning out of these activities, she is said to have feminine traits or being a motherly figure who enjoys taking care of her kids, and beautifying the house.

Personally, if I could afford to have time alone for myself, I would definitely do horseback riding, or going on a trail, or hiking, or building a tree house, or canoeing, or building a tree house, etc if my finances allow me to afford those activities.

I am wondering how imbalanced it is in the maker spaces. Fundamentally is the question what does it mean to live a meaningful life a gendered question?

It is like me going to the gym and looking for a female personal trainer. Most of the gyms in my neighborhood are staffed with young, healthy looking, muscular men. They do body-building for a living, and enjoying the process as well. Where are the female personal trainers in my neighborhoods? Do they simply funnel themselves into becoming yoga and zumba teachers in the fitness industry?

Looking through the various ideas between living a meaningful life and living a productive life, I feel one the on hand confused, and on the other hand troubled.

An essential question in Western philosophical thought is “what does it mean to live a good, meaningful life?”

The first time I took a philosophy class, I thought that this question was such a first world question. It’s such an indulging question. It’s a question that a person can only ask if they have time to think about their lives. In other word, a person whose mind is occupied by this question is a person who has the luxury of choice, and luxury of time.

Where I am coming from, Vietnam, my parents, my relatives never asked such question when I grew up. They were busy surviving, taking care of their children, and taking care of their elderly parents. Their lives were occupied with money-making activities because everybody was born in poverty that having an extra amount of money was more important than thinking about where to go next for a vacation, or whether building a tree house is an essential recreational activity.

So my question becomes, upon whose labor, and whose time can a person whose essential question is to live a good life, a meaningful life operate?

It’s the people in the backstage who run childcare, grocery shopping, cooking,  laundry. It used to be women’s work. Now it’s immigrants of color’s work.

Sometimes I ask myself  why I am not asking such a question: “What does it mean to live a meaningful life?”

Now reflecting upon it, I think my answer is that I have been too busy surviving. The question that occupies my mind more often is “what does it take for me to get a good job in an increasingly volatile labor market?” Where will I get the next paycheck in the next 12 months?

These essential material questions occupy my mind most of the time. Instead of finding a craft for a hobby or a living, I am participating in a “grind” called academia, and the race to the bottom of publishing academic articles lest that without enough publications I would join the adjunct labor force one day.

So when do I have enough time to think about what it means to live a good life? What activities give me meaning? Is it true that creating something with hands would reduce my existential anxiety? Or is it simply that one can create something and find meaning out of it once the existential crisis is solved?

I know that this is a chicken and egg question, but the point I am trying to make is that the question about our material well-being, and security is often downplayed, while the question about meaning of life is often over-asked. I think one should think about these side by side. I acknowledge that during time of anxiety, one can still find life meaning. But the modal feeling of one’s life at that point would be anxiety instead of internal calm, and satisfaction that a generally happy person would feel.

What I am advocating for is that finding meaning in life can manifest in many ways. Be it crafting, podcasting, doing sport, or simply me right now having the pleasure of doing “Just Dance” for 30 minutes a day amidst the coronavirus pandemic. General material and emotional security should be fundamental, and a holistic approach to life satisfaction is better than zooming in on any singular aspect.

Social Distancing and Digital Nearing

As everyone at least in New York City is practicing “social distancing” to “flatten the curve,” I want to take a step back to reflect on the concept, and how it has been not taking serious in the United States, and elsewhere by the lay population.

First, the concept “social distancing” is very confusing. My advisor emailed me one day, and accidentally wrote “social distance” instead of “social distancing.” Given that we’re sociologists, the concept “social distancing” is syntactically  close to what we know “social distance.” The first concept comes from epidemiology, which refers to an individual-level physical activities within their social networks, while the second concept comes from sociology, and refers to “constructed social” distance between different social groups. In other words, the former is individual-level, while the latter is measured on a group or collective level.

According to Wikipedia,

Social distancing, or physical distancing, is a set of non-pharmaceutical interventions or measures taken to prevent the spread of a contagious disease by maintaining a physical distance between people and reducing the number of times people come into close contact with each other. It involves keeping a distance of six feet (two meters) from others and avoiding gathering together in large groups.

This definition makes it clear that this is an epidemiological term, not a social science concept. Furthermore, the definition of the concept seems to be very Coronavirus Pandemic-specific. In other words, lay people’s understanding of the concept seems to be tied particularly to what we are experiencing now, and being removed from its epidemiological roots.

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Using the talk function on Wikipedia, I traced back how the term has been edited. The definition has been changed as recently as on March 21, 2020. An editor specifically requested that one should add a clarification term “physical distancing” immediately behind social distancing because the term itself is vague, and could cause confusion among general public. The edit was an immediate response to a terminology change that WHO made. Looking at this change, one could say that the Wikipedia page was mainly a product of the Coronavirus pandemic. To confirm this hypothesis, I went to the history tab of the page, and found this segment:

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The creation of the page started fairly recently in 23 April 2017 by a user called Cmacauley. The the third edit with substantial changes happened on March 11, 2020. In other words, during the period of 2017-2020, nobody was interested in contributing to the page. The majority of public outside epidemiological and health circles did not know what the concept referred to until the third month of 2020. No wonder when WHO first dropped the term to the general public in early 2020, everyone was confused. In terms of mental preparedness, we have been extremely underprepared for this pandemic.

As a social scientist, I felt unease about using Wikipedia for the concept, and how abrupt it seems to me. It feels as if we just discovered the concept yesterday because of Coronavirus. So I went to Google Scholar to look for academic articles that have used this concept. For example, in the article “Targeted social distancing designs for pandemic influenza,” Robert J Glass and colleagues (2006) proposed that instead of making every one practicing social distancing, one should do cluster social distancing to prevent a pandemic. Using social tracing through social networks, they cluster potentially infected people into five different social groups, and that these different groups should practice social distancing differently. This idea is similar to what Harvey V. Fineberg proposes recently in the prestigious New England Journal of Medicine. In order to fight Covid19, Fineberg  recommends that we should sub-divide the population into five groups and treat them accordingly. The groups are: (1) the infected, (2) presumed infected (people with symptoms), (3) exposed individuals; (4) those who known to have been exposed; (5) recovered people.

Google Scholar searches made it clear to me that the concept “social distancing” has been used by public health experts for a long time. And it refers to an act of isolating  an individual from their social networks, and society to stop an infectious disease from spreading.

Now the concept has been questioned by the public, especially in the United States, who has found it confusing, and that the majority of the population did not take the concept and the practice seriously enough even now.

WHO has now made a change, and calls it “physical distancing” to mean that actually one has to maintain a physical distance with anybody else outside of one’s household. This is a literal description of how it should be done in practice. This change makes it easier for the public to follow. At the end of the day we are social beings, and we need social interactions.

One thing that many people have adapted to during this time is to move their socializing activities online while keeping a real physical distance away from each other. I call this phenomenon “digital nearing.”

In the era of digital social networking through various platforms such as Facebook, Twitter, Tiktok, it is clear that one does not really socially “distance” away from one’s friends, and family members. That aspect of social life could be maintained via digital technologies. However, the real world distance between two physical bodies should be maintained.

For example, this past Friday, I had a busy day talking to many people from the morning until 11PM. It was the most social day that I had for a long time. Each phone call and Skype call lasted for at least an hour. I have never caught up with so many people.

What I recognized was that by practicing physical distancing while doing “digital social nearing,” I have become more social than ever before. I maintain a strong line of communications with my friends, a family from afar.  Suddenly in time of crisis, I recognize that caring for other people could be done in a way that is effective for both sides.

In conclusion, I am not proposing that the entire field of public heath has to change their knowledge by ditching an important and effective concept in their field: “social distancing.” But given that we’re living in a digitally connected world through different social media platforms, the concept has become highly confusing for a lay person. Therefore, the field should make it clear that the concept is social distancing but in practice it is about a real measurable physical distance between two living bodies. And one can conduct social activities pretty much online for the time being such as a house dance party, a Happy Hours drinking, chatting, catching up online, etc.

 

 

Covid19 Disruptions and Adaptations

We are living amidst one of the most severe global pandemics in human history. The number of people infected by the novel virus Coronavirus has increased to more than 1 million. And the number of deaths is more than 60,000 people world-wide. These are grim milestones for the world to observe.

Living in the midst of the Covid-19 vortex in New York City, I am facing disruptions, changes and uncertainties. The city is covered by a heavy feeling that death is encroaching on our lives. I know people who have died of the virus. It is no longer something that one hears on the news. It’s near, and close. Every morning when I open my windows for some fresh air, I hear ambulance sirens. They are scary sounds.

When the lockdown started, I felt that my life was totally disrupted. Everything had to moved online. My writing, my communications, my teaching, they all changed. Three weeks have gone by. I have gradually gotten used to new routines. Some of my old habits are also getting back to me. For example, once I wake up, I start making some coffee, preparing my tasks for the day, and thinking about what I can accomplish for the day in terms of intellectual development.

I used to think that it was boring to stay at home without any social interactions with my neighbors, and friends. Now we all get adapted to the new way of life. Yesterday I had Zoom Happy Hours with friends. I would talk on the phone with my friends, and relatives from far away. Socially speaking I feel like I do not miss much because I maintain regular communications with people whom I care about.

In terms of physically activities, I was unhappy for a while because being confined in a small apartment in New York City with roommates 24 hours a day is a difficult task. I need some lone time to do my own things, and to remain reflective about life. That was difficult at first, but now I have figured out a routine where I could spend time for myself, writing my own thoughts, getting lost in my own imagination, fancying about some adventures. Sometimes I would also recall some bits and pieces of past experiences to evaluate my past actions, and judgements. It’s also a chance for me to indulge in nostalgia, a rare feeling for those who live in a future-oriented city like in New York.

Feelings aside, my body has demanded some attention. The more I hear about physical bodies being deteriorated because of Coronavirus in the news, the more I feel that my body is crying for attention. In the first two weeks of the confinement period, my body ached everywhere. It was not used to extreme inactivity. My feet and legs wanted to go out for a run, and rush through crowded streets of New York. Now they have to be confined on a couch. But I still feel that my entire body is not adapting right. It needs at least some daily physical activity.

I found a solution!

Esport is the answer. I have an Xbox at home. There must be some games that require physical activities. I was right. There were many games that need physical activity. I found two of them.

The first one is called Just Dance. According to Fandom, it is the #1 dance video game series in the world. I gave it a try. One can simply dance with the videos using one’s cell phone to sensor one’s body movement. The equipment investment was not a lot. The game costs $40. Well I thought to myself, now I do not have to pay for public transportation or order food from restaurants. This is money well spent.

Just Dance® 2020 for Nintendo Switch - Nintendo Game Details

I was definitely surprised by the game. It reminds me of karaoke bars that I used to go to back in Vietnam. The only difference is that now I do not have to sit in one place, and sing songs that I find corny. Besides, there is also caption for each song in the game, so technically one can both dance and sing. This doubles the amount of fun. I simply follow the figures on the screen, and dance along.  Furthermore, I can join with hundreds of people all over the world to do dance competitions. The social aspect of it was so fulfilling.

I shared the idea of the game to my nutritionist, and she suggested that it is a good idea because one should do 30 minutes of cardio exercise every day. That’s it. I am doing fun work-out with hundreds of strangers all over the world for 30 minutes a day. I must say that this is the most fulfilling discovery for me since the beginning of the outbreak.

After playing this game for a few days, I have decided to invest into a Kinect, an Xbox accessory device that would feel one’s body movement. That means I would no longer need to hold on to a cell phone while dancing. Once the device arrives, I will try out the next game that I found: Zumba Fitness, World Party. There are not as many reviews of this game online as the previous one. But it is a free game for me. So I’ll give it a try in the next coming weeks.

Zumba Fitness: World Party | Xbox One | GameStop

These new digital additions to my life have made a confined life more tolerable, even enjoyable sometimes. I feel that I can productively engage in writing academic articles,  reading new research, meeting with advisors, and collaborators. The process of normalization has started. Life carries on amidst chaos, and confusion.

 

 

Salvage the Bones

Since I have a long weekend this week, I devoted one entire day to read the novel Salvage the Bones by Jesmyn Ward. Last week, I wrote that I have not spent much time reading novels lately, and I felt bad about dropping my habit. Thus, this weekend I tried to make up for this slacking behavior.

Salvage the Bones is set in Mississippi. Its protagonist is a black teenager who grows up in a family of four with two older brothers, and a younger brother. Her mom passed away when she gave birth to her youngest sibling. Her dad takes care of them ever since. The novel has a very interesting structure. Its entire narrative is set in 12 days, and each day is one chapter in the book. Each day one learns more about the protagonist, from the background of her parents, her grand mother, her neighbors to her being pregnant with a neighborhood boy. Then the final chapter is about Hurricane Katrina, and how she revealed to her father that she’s pregnant.

There are two specific aspects of the novel that jumped out to me: (1) the description, and (2) its tempo, rhythm. By description I mean all the scenery in Mississippi, its water, its landscapes, its people, its foods, and even the sounds of birds, and how the dogs move around. Everything reminds me of my southern experience. The moment I started turning the novel’s first pages, Alabama landscapes started coming back to my mind. I miss the shape of humongous southern oak trees, whose branches can cover an entire yard. I miss the taste of sweet tea, spicy gumbo soup, and the smell of the Gulf of Mexico.

The various scenes in the book took me through various memories of Fairhope Alabama.  It reminded me of a Madi Gras parade that I went to.  It reminded me of moon pies. It reminded me of picking up kumquats in somebody’s huge garden. It reminded me of pecan pies. It reminded me of gospel music, and going to church to understand the cosmologies of  Southern folks. It reminded me of my favorite time in Pensacola. It reminded me of my many walks along the Mexican Gulf.

The book has power like music, reminding me of memories that are not yet lost, but almost fuzzy in my mind.

The book also has a very specific tempo. Even though the entire novel is supposed to happen in only twelve days, I felt as if it was twelve long years. It is the slow, smooth southern living that makes up both the description and the tempo of the book. It feels like the author has an intimate, even soulful connections with the South. The tempo comes out in description of the field, the yard, the house. It comes out in how people talk to each other. This is the first time I feel like when I read a novel, I can hear some music in my ears. Even though there is no singing or no music scene in the novel, I could feel as if there is country music or soul playing in the background.

Sometimes spending my Sunday for myself, reading for my own enjoyment is such a novel idea. But this novel idea really helps me to feel like I actually live for myself at least for a few hours a week.

Buddha in the Attic

I often heard that established scholars do not have time to read. They only write, and publish because they read things a long time ago. Once they have begun their career as professors, researchers, and scholars, their job is to produce publication. The joy of reading for the sake of reading is put on the back burner. They can read, but it should not be their priority. Lately I can totally relate to this experience, I have NO TIME TO READ. Why? I have been involved more in different research projects, and they take a lot of time. One day I woke up and started creating tables and figures for a publication. And then once I started looking around, it was already 4PM. My brain was already fried after an intense section of doing academic work. Then instead of indulging in a beautifully written novel, I opted for a movie. In other words, visual and light entertainment after a long day of intellectual work was more digestible.

However, I still make an effort. At the beginning of the year, I wrote down on my New Year’s Resolutions that I want to add more novels to my intellectual and cognitive diet. I have attempted this resolution many times. The result so far is that I only have finished one very small novel in the past 2,5 months. This is terribly slow reading for me. However, I am happy that I have read the book in addition to following through with my own personal goal.

The novel that I just finished reading is Buddha in the Attic. It follows a group of young Japanese women who moved to the United States as the equivalent of mail-order brides in the early 20th century.  The narrative follows their arduous journey to the United States, and then their first day of marriage, their lives in California, and then their raising kids, and also more importantly how they disappeared from California landscape during World War Two. The book is a complete journey from the beginning to the end of their existence in the United States.

Lately I have thought about the power of story telling and narration a lot. As a writer myself, I care about clarity of thought, and using the right words, and the structure of an essay or a novel. However, my realm of expertise is academic papers. My writing is confined within the wall of established sociological writing for academic journals. This is a very specific genre which requires formal training to be able to publish in. However, this academic training does not equip an academic to become a wordsmith. We, the academic tribe, are going for arguments, clarity of thoughts, and sufficient evidence. Writers and other types of story tellers though are going for description, narration, and the power of imagery. They totally prioritize something that I am not at all familiar with how to produce, but familiar with how to enjoy their products.

The book Buddha in the Attic does such a great job at capturing the sentiments of young Japanese wives in a foreign land. It also does such a great job of describing the scenery of farms for me. It transports me to the Western frontiers of the United States in the early 20th century. It did everything right that even though the story is not being told from a one singular person’s point of view, one can see the group’s dynamics, and see the landscape clearly in front of one’s “internal” eye. This is the power of imagination. This is the power of good story telling that I do not yet know how to produce.

When I interviewed podcast producers, they also told me that audio-storytelling is the highest quality that they are going after. If you do it right, one person told me, it has “cinematic” quality to it. This is the most provocative statement that I have heard in such a long time. Good story tellers can bring about imagery that make the audience or the reader feel as if they are being in a movie. This power of imagination that is so native to story telling is absolutely lacking in other genre of writing.

Now whenever I pick up a book, a podcast, or a movie even, I must ask myself the questions: Does it do a good job in telling a story? Could I imagine myself being a part of this entire universe that they try to put me in? What elements of storytelling that really gave me the kick?

 

Publicity as Freedom

Lately I have been thinking a lot about the nature of content production in the Web 2.0 Era, where cost of production is low, and that barriers to distribution have disappeared. Take blogging for example, it came of age in the Web 1.0 Era, which started an entire revolution of digital writing. Then social media came out, and everyone could contribute content on various platforms. These two factors things combine, and then you add the fact that content is distributed for free, and consumed for free. The result is that journalism as we knew it is disappearing. Digital content production disrupted journalism, news production, and news consumption.

The term that sociologists and technologists use to describe the above-mentioned process, whereby consumers also produce content for consumption is prosumption.  This term is very apt in describing what we are experiencing in the Web 2.0, when content is offered for free at no cost. Consumers are used to this free-of-charge content practice, and demand that information is always provided for free. The result, producers do not getting paid for their products.

When talking with podcasters in New York City, I learned that they always put information about their private life out there for their listeners to consume. This is  interesting. However, there is a delicate balance between how much intimate information should one reveal, and how much information should be kept private.

The following paragraph in Status Update by Alice Marwick explores the ideas of freedom, transparency, and openness in the Web 2.0 era:

[Facebook and other social media platforms] frame openness as socially beneficial, but the tools and culture of the Web 2.0 have evolved to promote a particular kind of openness and transparency because it drives profit to social media companies, not because it furthers freedom and democracy (p. 236-237).

Before this little excerpt in the book, Marwick begins by making a distinction between openness and transparency. She argues that openness is to make everything completely available to the public, but it might not be necessarily useful. Whereas, transparency is to make information both public, and meaningful to the public. In the case of Web 2.0, the public here is any networked audience. She then makes the case that social media platforms such as Facebook, and Twitter promote the idea of completely open, but this might not be a good idea. The quote above provides insights to how platforms benefit from users-generated content, and at the same time  they are creating new kinds of subjectivity for their users. This paragraph makes me think more about the question of subjectivity for people whom I have interviewed. What is the kind of subjectivity that podcasters experience when they start producing podcasts?

 

 

One Step at a Time

I am training for the United Airlines NYC Half Marathon . Recently I trained indoor because I find it more comfortable than running in Central Park. My training schedule is really light lately because I have had many deadlines that are coming up in my academic life that training for more than an hour a day would be too demanding. Thus I constrain my training down to only 30 to 45 minutes a section. This proves to be an interesting psychological experiment.  I seem to savor each minute of the workout more.

As I mentioned a few weeks ago, once I started having a trainer at the gym, I like to go to the gym more. It has become a social experience, where I recognize the people there. The experience has become less an isolating thing when I get on the treadmill and get no encouragement even when I do the right thing. Now I start getting positive reinforcement, which makes me addicted to this physical, social and also psychological experience.

Github for Teaching Social Science

I never thought that Github was a great teaching tool, until I attended a few workshops that strictly used Github to teach participants data analytical skills. Then I recognized that when fancy powerpoint’s were not the main focus, and my aim is to teach students skills, I can simply use Github to present the same amount of information. That was quite an epiphany!

I love git. It is one of the most simple, and elegant tools that developers have come up with. On Github, I can learn how to write nice codes from other people. My current goal is to learn Python, and I have been learning quite a bit from Github. Whenever I run into an R problem, or not knowing how to implement certain machine learning techniques, I explore Github.

Now my exercise is to include Github in my teaching repertoire. This is quite a new experience. This semester I am teaching a data mining class. I want to see how much I can teach my students to use Github in their own work.

Following are five reasons why I think Github is a suitable pedagogical platform for my class.

Interface: Before I used Blackboard to organize the materials in my class. Every professor I talked to, made it clear that Blackboard was such an insufficient tool for any kind of teaching. It is old like stale bread. It’s difficult to use, and it’s not catered to specialized information. It’s designed in the Web 1.0 era for information organization, many features and tools have now become absolutely obsolete. Now in the Era of Web 2.0, students demand more interactive tools for their educational purposes. And for the purpose of my class, I think Blackboard is a ill-fitted choice. 

Furthermore, critics of Blackboard would say that it is a proprietary platform where students information disappears into their database. Students do not own their information, but the company does. I feel a need to give back students’ ownership of their intellectual property. In my class, I want students to create something, and this is totally theirs.

After Github  being acquired by Microsoft, critics started to talk about whether user-generated content on Github belongs to the individual contributor, or to the platform. However, for now, I am ignoring this problem, and let my students learn about the platform’s utility first. Then at the end of the semester we will talk about the implications of Github being acquired by Microsoft.

For an educational purpose, my Github class project is sufficient. It is affiliated with my name, and I could carry it from one institution to another without being afraid that it would disappear into a private company’s database.

Platform for self-discovery: What I love about Github and coding is that Github is a place where beginner coders can learn from experienced coders. I want to make it available for students to do their own self-discoveries. For this learning how to code purpose, Github is obviously superior to Blackboard. Students can start learning how to code here, and the platform will be with them after the class is over.

Organizational: I organize the materials based on weekly reading, and assignment. This is very helpful for me because my class page GitHub is what my students can follow, and implement on their own time.

Interconectivity:  Hyperlinks are essential in my class. My philosophy is that I would make the materials as cost-effective as possible for my students. All of the textbooks are free, and that whatever they need to know they are all online. Using this philosophy, hyperlinks are important because materials freely available on the internet are actually very good, and useful for my students’ data science journeys. In this sense, Github is great because not only it is a self-contained platform, it can also be linked to many other online resources.

Archivability: Teaching is also a creative activity. During the process of teaching, my students and I generate so much content, which should be considered as important creative content of the Web 2.0 Era. We need to preserve this content for future use. Most of teaching activities that I had engaged with before did not take in to consideration this archiving aspect. Professors and educators were never asked to perform archival work. It was a historian’s job. However, I would argue that as we live in an info glut world, and that we generate so much information, we need to archive what we produce properly, especially when the content has educational and informative value.

For this purpose of archiving teaching content, Github is my own archive. I will not enter the grind of creating such materials, and then they would disappear down the rabbit hole of Blackboard, or some other companies’ databases.

In principle, one needs to do three copies of the content: in one’s one computer, on the cloud, and in another external hard-drive.  As of now, I have at least backed my class materials in two places: my laptop and Github. Eventually, I will have to save my teaching materials in an external hard-drive. But as of now, I think I can delay this backing step until the end of the semester.

In conclusion, Github is a great platform for teaching how to code. It is and simply as a place to keep information about science, and teaching science. In many ways, Github represents the future of education, where students instead of being confined in the walls of educational institutions, they are plugged into a field of studies and practice.

 

Data Analytics and Sport

I am currently reading the book Watch Me Play by T. L. Taylor, which studies streaming of games and esports. One of the chapter specifically talks about sport markets, and how women are growing streaming audiences. This following paragraph shows that even when esports steaming companies use data analytics about their markets, they might not be able to capture the fast growing audience, and would not be able to account for audiences that have been traditionally not thought of as audiences of sport.

One of the most significant problems with quantitative data in the domain of gender and leisure is that it is usually unable to capture fast-shifting changes in cultural patterns as well as preferences. And more often than not, these so-called data are captured in huge swaths with no rigorous interpretative work as a component of the analysis. While such approaches are meant to get at “actual behavior” and not claimed identities, in practice they lag too far behind what are really complex constellations of practices and how people understand themselves – engagements that shift far too quickly for quantitative models to usually account for. Some platforms have come to understand the ways that other variables may actually be more salient than gender. … The problem lies in our often misattributing to gender what might otherwise be better understood through not just other variables but a specific intersection of them, of which gender may be just one. 191

Taylor’s observation that using of data in leisure and gender does not necessarily capture the complex realities on the ground. This paragraph made me think about the datatification of sports in America. Probably American sports are one of the industries that hire the most data analysts, which quantify everything including how different genders view sports differently or not.

Running indoor in the Winter

Running outdoor in the winter was not a fun experience. Lately, I spent more time grinding on the treadmill more than spending time outside. Grinding is quite not the right word. Somehow though I feel happy running on the treadmill. Of course the scenery was very boring because most of the time I would see other people run on the treadmill next to me, or weigh lift in the weight lifting area.

It is not quite “grinding” because I have a short term goal, which is that in about 6 weeks, I will participate in a half-marathon. This is something that I am very looking forward to.

My goal for this next half marathon is to reduce my time by half an hour. This is precisely the reason why. I feel that running on the tread mill is actually an amazing exercise because I do not have to bear the cold outside, but I can precisely measure my progress.

In the next few weeks, I actually have to increase the number of miles that I run every day in order to make sure that at the end my legs are ready for a half marathon outdoor. This training process requires more hours than I expected before. Yet, this is quite fun.

 

Personal Trainer – Community Formation

Even though I have been living in the Central Harlem area for almost three years, I have not made a lot of friends in the neighborhood. Sometimes, I still feel like that my staying in Central Harlem is transient until very lately. Now many store owners have recognized  my face. They would acknowledge me on street whenever I walk by their establishment.

Recently I have gotten a personal trainer, based on my nutritionist’s recommendation. I go to a gym in the neighborhood, and simply signed up for a program there. After I started my training with the trainer,  he would say hi to me anytime I go to the gym. One day he stopped me in the middle of my “grinding” on the treadmill, simply to say hi. It was a special interaction. Regardless whether I have a section with him or not, he would acknowledge that I was there. This is a new kind of feeling of attachment that I have in the neighborhood.

A feeling of community has slowly developed between me and different individuals in this neighborhood. I wonder when is the point when one truly feels belong in a neighborhood or a place. What are the factors that make up this belonging feeling? Does it have to do with the physical locations such as buildings, statute, museums, bakeries, or does it have to do with human interactions, and social relationships such as the relationship and interactions that I have with the local baker, a wine store worker, and a trainer; or does it have to do with the quality of those relationships? What is key in making one feel belonged?

 

Working with Women vs. Working with Men

One standup comedian recently shared with me:

When male comics get together they want to show who gets the best jokes. They compete for jokes, as if to win a game.

When female comics get together, we build something. It’s collaborative rather than competitive.

Both male and female comics want to create jokes. Their ultimate goal is to make the audience laugh, and that their jokes are remembered. However, their work culture is different. This acute observation about the cultural difference between how female comics and male comics work got me thinking about my own work experience in a predominantly male environment, and a predominantly female environment. I somewhat shared her sentiment about the comfortability of working in an all female environment when there’s no need to compete against another colleague.  I have been asking myself is it true that when I work with women, they try to build things together, while men want also work together but with an underlying competitive current? If it is true, why is it the case? 

When I was in high school, being in a mostly male environment such as in math teams, and computer science teams, the message that I got from my social environment was that in order to survive and excel,  that being competitive was necessary. I adopted my male friends’ behaviors. Sometimes, I also played video games with them, and tried to blend in by using their jokes, and operated according to their logics. I could be very competitive. But I was never proud of this, or I never found myself to be in my own skin if I have to turn a competitive mode on. Being competitive is and has always been exhausting. 

Then a sudden break happened when college came around. I ended up at a women’s college. Being surrounded by women all the time. Living and working in a new culture of collaboration, I felt more relaxed about the surrounding environment.

Now being in graduate school, sometimes I get confused about the messages coming at me from the social environment. Sometimes, it is competition. Other times, it is cooperation. Yet, what I have recognized in a long run is that I am more comfortable with female collaborators around me. I feel like I get them, and they get me. Why is this comfortability of working with women? I could and can work with men too, and the results can be very satisfactory. This weird feeling of not being able to articulate clearly my thought bothers me because of my analytical nature.

But now thinking more about the female comic’s observation at the beginning, I have to acknowledge that is the same observation that I have had for a long time. I just never had the guts to say what it actually is.

The Power of Calendar Invites

I have never been really a productive person. As a sociologist, productivity sounds to me as foreign as electric cars to a user of public transportation. Yet lately, I actually have to pay attention to productivity particularly in managing how many meetings I can handle each day. One caveat for me is that those meetings have to be again “productive” in a sense that they have nothing to do with administrative work. My meetings are now either about improving a skill that I have, or to work on my dissertation, or to work on some research projects.

The secret that I found in the past couple of weeks of serial meetings was Outlook calendar invites. I never understood why people used outlook calendar invites until this very point in my life when meetings can be very scattered. This tool has been really helpful. Now, before agreeing to a meeting, I have to check my outlook calendar. I used to think that outlook calendar was a thing of the past, but no, it is still very relevant. I do not (yet) have a secretary, so I have to do the secretarial job of organizing the work days myself. So well a little tool for productivity, and that I still rely on Microsoft products really much.

Four Hour Work Days

A recent article on Wall Street Journal about a company in Germany that allows employees to work for five hours a day has triggered debates between me and my graduate student colleagues. There is one condition though, the employees have to give up their phones, and refrain from checking emails and social media to boost productivity. From the point of view of the company, it is a productivity experiment. The company, Rheingans Digital Enabler, a consulting firm, reported that their employees deliver similar outputs in a 25 hour work week, as in a normal 40 hour work week.  Business Insider uses this case as an example of flexible work for employees. Employees despite being controlled for an intensive 5-hour work day, have more time to do things outside of work such as “drawing portraits.”

As a sociologist, I read the experiment as an organizational experiment towards flexible work in a digital world. I also read it as a productivity experiment to cut work hours, while increase profits for the company. The article never mentions anything about whether the employees’ salary was affected by the experiment. Even assuming that the company does not cut their employees’ salary for the fewer number of work hours, if this experiment is taken to the societal level, where every company institutes the same policy, I wonder what would happen to workers’ paychecks. Would firms argue that because workers do not work as much, their paycheck should be reduced? If salary as the whole is not reduced, then hourly wage would increase significantly. Would the economy as the whole allow such development to happen? There are many questions around this phenomenon if the experiment is scaled up. Or is this a scaleable solution for the entire economy at all?

A few days ago, I entertained the topic of how many hours to work per day is enough at a lunch discussion between me and my graduate students colleagues. As graduate students in the American higher education system, which prioritizes productivity, which is measured by how many publications one is able to publish in a year, we are constantly under the pressure to publish and be involved in more research projects. All of us are juggling finishing classes, acquiring new skills, writing for publication, and also teaching undergraduate students. The amount of work that we handle is beyond description. If graduate school is a full-time job, we feel as if we are handling two or three full-time jobs at once, and each job is equally intellectually and emotionally taxing as the other. We all experience burnout, fatigue at some point in our graduate career. One advice that we often get is to prioritize publications because they are what get us jobs at the end of the tunnel. It means that in order to go through grad school, we try to publish as many as possible, and pay minimal attention to others if possible. It is then shifting the formula to: do two or three full-time jobs, but do one really well (research), and do crappy jobs in others (teaching, finishing classes). Regardless, we still have to spend a lot of hours as if we do all of them really well. For us, it is simply not a question how many hours we work a day. The question became why do we work so hard?

Our lunch discussion went on, we started asking ourselves in a perfect world where we do not have to chase after productivity, deadlines and there is no pressure of joblessness as PhD holders, how many hours would be enough to carry out our work, and that we still derive meaning from our work? One person proposed that we, not only PhD students but everyone, only need to work for four hours a day in order to feel fulfilling from our work. While the company in the Wall Street Journal article is trying to improve productivity by cutting down employees’ number of working hours per day, we were trying to ask an existential question about the meaning of work. All of us take it for granted that work is meaningful, and as humans we need work to feel like a member of society. Thus we all agree that a base minimum amount of work is necessary. I pushed the conversation further. Let imagine that we only spend 4 hours a day in productive work. What could we do within those hours, and what could we do with the rest of the time, and how would it be meaningful?

Together we brainstorm about the ideal 4-hour work day.

I personally would first work in the morning, and spend the rest of the time doing “re-productive” work such as cooking, cleaning, learning music, taking care of my family, and being involved in other social activities in my neighborhood, and my community.

I proposed that I would work from 7AM to 11AM in the morning to do my intellectual work such as reading for work, doing data cleaning, data analysis, and teaching. Then after 11AM, I would have a good meal that I prepare for myself instead of getting fast food prepared by some under-paid restaurant workers. Then I could spend time on learning a new song with my ukulele, and improve my Chinese with a Chinese native speaker.  Then, I could also go to the gym, or go for a long walk after all the art and language lessons. Finally, in the evening or afternoon, I would catch up with friends, family, and spend quality time with them.

During this exercise, I learned that I could derive as much meaning out of non-productive activities (such as playing the ukulele, learning Chinese, going for a walk, and hanging out with friends and family) as from my intellectual work. I would use the time to explore something that I never had time to do before, or never had time to bring them to the next level. I could only improve my Chinese and spend time learning a new language such as Spanish or French if I have more time.

I could not help but ask myself, why are we then working so hard? Is it path-dependency, or is it the constant fear that there would not be any job at the end of our training? A recent article about 25 multinational companies that laid off workers in 2019, while their profits increased significantly, points to the trend that return-to-capital and automation is getting higher, while there is less for a need of workers. In other words, fewer people would be needed to perform the same amount of work every year, while profits are increasing every year. The total number of jobs are disappearing as a result. It seems clear to me that instead of preparing for the workforce to work harder to compete for a few jobs that are left, the workforce should be prepared to think about a future of work where jobs are not abundant, and that one should not derive meaning mainly out of work. In other words, everyone should be asking the questions: if I only work  4 hours a day, what kind of jobs would be desirable? How can I support my families during those 4 hours? And what else is meaningful to me outside of work?

These are the questions that I think everyone should be asking ourselves now. The questions about meaning of life, and what does it mean to live a good life became important again for individuals in the second half of the twenty-first century as they once were for Greek philosophers.

How to Accomplish Goals?

In the last two blog posts, I reflected on what I accomplished in 2019, and then outlined the goals that I would like to accomplish in 2020. In the process of writing, I realized that some of my goals took a lot less effort to accomplish than I had expected. So instead of simply writing down a list for the purpose of reflection, I left my table, got out, and accomplished some small goals. For example, in the blog post New Year’s Resolutions, I stated that I wanted to improve my Chinese level to at least a knot. While writing the resolution, I realized that I could be one step closer to my goal by simply taking out my Chinese textbooks, reading a few paragraphs, and learning 20 more new words or idioms per day. And that is precisely what I have been doing in the first few days since the beginning of the new year. The process of refreshing my knowledge of Chinese, filling holes in my knowledge, and acquiring new skills made me think about the question: How can I actualize my New Year’s resolutions, and accomplish any goal in general? This blog post outlines a few steps that I think are essential to accomplish goals.

I. Aim high 

“Shoot for the moon. Even if you miss it you will land among the stars.” —Les Brown.

The above saying suggests that if one sets high goals, even when one does not accomplish the original goals, they still end up somewhere better than the beginning. This works for my running target for example. Lately I have been training for a half marathon. Every other day, I would try to log in at least 6 miles. However, if I only set out to run 6 miles, I would end up running only 4 miles. In the past two weeks, instead I set my goal up to 8 miles or 10 miles, and I would end up finishing 6 miles in a breeze. It feels so satisfying each time because I know that I hit my minimum requirement for training, at the same time I almost accomplish my goal: 8 miles per run.

What are the psychological processes that one undergoes when goals are reasonably set higher than what they were supposed to be.

This reminds me of a philosophical discussion that I had with a mentor in Germany. My anthropologist friend insisted that utopia does not exist, but it is important to think about a utopian scenario to improve our contemporary state of affair. I never quite understood the philosophy behind his belief. My takeaway from our discussion was that our world is not perfect, but if we think of the conditions under which our society is perfect, then we can clearly see which parts could be improved, and work on them accordingly. Additionally, humans are idealistic creatures, we love improving our world. Therefore, thinking of a perfect scenario would drive us to work toward this goal. Then as the above saying goal: if we aim for the moon, even if we do not accomplish it, we will land among the stars. So even if we do not end up in a utopian and perfect world, our world is still a lot better than it was before.

Still this goal setting mentality does not completely explain the mental and psychological processes that I experience while striving to accomplish a goal. Plus, this method does not mention the time aspect of goal setting, and achieving them. If a goal takes more time like speaking a foreign language, training for a marathon, or changing one’s diet habits, it takes a long time, and aiming high is not sufficient in helping one to accomplish these types of goals.

II. Goal Reminder

If a goal takes a long time to accomplish such as learning a foreign language, one needs to remind oneself of the goal. This requires reflection, and occasional reminder of where one is in relation to one’s original goals. This could be accomplished through multiple means. For example, I like writing blog posts, and writing reflections in my journal. This self-reflexivity reminds me constantly of where I am in relation to my end goal. In the program UNSTUCK: The Art of Productivity writing coach Kellee suggested that in order to get through the initial inertia against academic writing, I should write freely three pages every morning. This would help my body and mind purge out all toxicity, frustration, and anxiety out of my system. Thus it would leave me with a good feeling of accomplishing some writing, and leave out any self-doubt. I have been following this exercise for almost a year now, and I think it is tremendously helpful in terms of helping me drive away the initial fear that what I have been writing is not good. I personally do not write every morning, but I try to write my 3 morning pages as much as I can.

I still do not know the psychological process that I go through when I write down three pages in the morning. Yet I do know for a fact that after writing them, I feel good about myself, my work, my day. This satisfactory feeling really elevates my working life.

III. Accountability partner 

Sometimes writing for oneself is not enough. Hard and stubborn goals need some external push. For example, learning a language is not a solitary process. It is a social process where one needs to practice the newly learned language with other speakers of the same target language. Now when I think more about it, anything that I do has a social dimension to it. For example, I used to think that doing research is a solitary process, whereby an armchair scientist just sits in his study room, and comes up with theory to explain certain phenomena. Now being actively involved in doing research, I realize that doing research is a social process whereby researchers actually communicate with each other about their hypotheses, concerns, and ideas about where the field is headed. These processes, and goals involve multiple people. Thus, one needs an accountability partner, who would provide moral support, and encouragement along the way. A strict accountability partner could also be honest, strict, and let the other person know that they are heading in the wrong direction.

Having an extra mind to think with is always a blessing in doing research for me. Recently, I also come to ask for help from a nutritionist because I do not think that I can change my life style on my own. A recurring appointment with her keeps me in track with my diet and exercise plans.  In other areas, an accountability partner could be a friend, a significant other, or an online partner. Having someone else to remind you of what you set out to do is a very sustainable way to pursue some intangible goal that might take a long time to achieve.

IV. Resetting goal

Setting goals and achieving them are not a linear process. Sometimes, there are setbacks, and breakthroughs. If one is deviating away from the original goals, one should reevaluate where one is, and reset the final goal. This is the evaluation process that I think most people ignore. Simply sitting down, and evaluating accomplishments along the way are necessary steps that would eventually help one to accomplish the final goals.

In conclusion, I will follow the above four steps for my goals this year. I hope that I will be able to stick to as many of my principles as I can.

New Year’s Resolutions

2020 is approaching. I believe that most people write their new year’s resolutions after the new year has started.  But it is just a matter of a few hours for me. Writing a new year’s resolutions before the year ends might actually be a good way to start a new year with motivations, and goals for me to look forward to. This blog post documents a list of items that I would like to accomplish in the coming year.

First and foremost I plan to submit a dissertation proposal. This is a hoop that I need to jump through in my PhD life. Many people think that it is simply a formality. I however think of it as a mark of progress, a moment of initiation that I have become a part of the profession. When I write a proposal, I put my heart and soul to ensure that it reads well, and that I will not make a fool of myself in front of a panel comprised of seasoned sociologists. Ideally I would submit it in April, and defend it in May. Technically, there is no difference for me to defend in May or September. However, in terms of  timing is imperative for me to have it defended before the beginning of the summer. During my research career, I have recognized that winter breaks and summer breaks are the most productive times for an academic. These are quiet times when students do not bother me with grades, and colleagues are not going after me for committee and administrative work. These are periods when my mind completely immerses in solitary academic work. My mind and my being are not divided into million pieces where I have to fulfill duties and responsibilities.  Thus, having my proposal defended by June would allow me to spend the entire summer to work on my dissertation. This precious time would help me to move forward in my academic development. Then in the fall I can spend time on applying for jobs. If I do not make the May deadline, everything would be postponed for at least a semester. And time-wise, it would mean I have to wait for another academic year to graduate. I would rather give the job market a try one year earlier than one year later. This means I am also aiming to apply for a few jobs this coming year as a measure of progress as well.

Second, in terms of publication, I need to submit more articles. This year, I submitted two articles and 4 book reviews for publication. Out of all these submissions, two book reviews have been published or in print, and one article is still under review. This is good news. This entire process has taught me that in order to be published, one must submit. The more one submits, the more articles one would eventually publish. My goal this coming year is to send more papers for publication. The more I send, the more publication chances I will harvest for myself. For this coming academic semester, I aim to send two book reviews, and two articles for publication. Two articles are already under way. Hopefully they will get finished soon. Having ideas, and creating a pipeline for publication are a big part of an academic workflow. The year of 2019 for me is the starting point of the publication process. I am happy seeing that I have had some successes with academic publication. One could only hope that the year 2020 would be better.

Third, health-wise, I want to become healthier by changing my diet, and improve my workout routine. Currently, running is my go-to exercise. It helps me think through problem while sweating out excessive negative thoughts, doubts, and anxiety. I will add new songs to my mp3 to shakeup my running routine. Besides, I will keep a regular meeting schedule with my nutritionist. She has helped me change the way I think about food, metabolism, and how I can eat healthier. After changing my diet only for only two weeks, I have started to feel that my life style improves a little bit. This is good news. Hopefully these new habits would stick.

Fourth, I want to read more novels. I accomplished this goal in the first half of 2019 by adding amazing novels into my creative work diet. But once the summer kicked in, I stopped reading novels. My excuse was that I started picking up new research projects, and learning new skills. Regardless of the excuses, dropping my creative work consumption was a bad development. I want to come back to this goal. The rationale is that reading novels helps me acquire words, phrases, and ways of writing/thinking like writing experts (novelists). A friend told me a long time ago that reading novels helps an academic to speak like a normal person. In his mind, academics speak in a bizarre tongue that is foreign to most people. Thus an academic must be mindful of how to utter certain thoughts, and make them digestible to most people. This certainly requires a lot more work from a scientist who is already overburdened with teaching, researching, grant writing, and endless committee work. However, this also makes the highly abstract ideas popular, and actionable. I endorse with this point of view. Yet my laziness has gotten in the way, and I have stopped doing this for the past half of a year. In 2020, I would like to read one novel a week. This resolution is also an absolutely acceptable excuse to read good stuff that is produced outside of my profession: sociology. Last week, I found a list of the best 20 novels of the first decade of 21st century on lithub.com. I will start from there.

The fifth goal is to travel to new places. I was born in the year of the horse in Chinese horoscope. It is said that those born in the year of the horse love traveling, and cannot stay still in one place. They are brave, and full of energy for discovery. I would like to use this energy to travel to far places to see new things. So far, my immediate-term plan is to travel to Canada in the summer. Specifically in the first two weeks of June, I will be attending a digital humanities summer institute, and an (un)conference in Victoria, Canada. My plan is to use this opportunity to see the Canadian landscape, and see how it is different from America. Besides, the institute is located right next to the Pacific Ocean, so maybe I will be spending time swimming in the Pacific Ocean. This would be brilliant. 

The six goal is something that I always want to come back to: learning languages. There are two languages that I still have not been able to say that I know much about them: Chinese and Hindi. My goal this year is to improve my Chinese. I have gotten my textbooks, now I need to actually improve these languages. Every day I need to do a little practice. Another language that I have put aside for so many years is French. My French level has been fluctuating around beginner’s for so long. I need to make a push to go to the intermediate level. This is an embarrassment because I actually took one year of French in college.

Seventh, maybe I want to learn a craft, acquire some art skills.  Actually, I wonder how one could use computational skills to create art. For all purposes, data visualization is also an art. How can I actually create something really beautiful using R, or python? Not only are they languages for statistical computing, they are also versatile languages for creating beautiful visualization works. I wonder what kinds of projects can I create. This is an open puzzle, and I would love to come back to this idea in the coming blog posts, and coming months. If I can create something beautiful, I will definitely showcase them on this blog, and my publications.

Finally, to be open to opportunities, discoveries, and new directions in research and in life.  This year, I was pleasantly surprised when I discovered that I liked coding, and doing research using large scale text data. I have spent a significant amount of time in self-learning, and acquiring new skills in this area. Thus, being open to new ideas, new projects, and new opportunities would be the final resolution for me. It is an open challenge. At the same time this solution allows for surprises, and I love a good dose of surprises this coming year.

So those are my 8 resolutions that I have for the coming year. I hope that I will be able to accomplish many of them, and they will help guide my decision making process, time, and energy spent in the coming months.

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Goodbye 2019! Hello 2020

The year 2019 is almost over. As the new year is approaching, I want to reflect about my blog writing goals, and evaluate how this blog has performed in the past 362 days.

First, 62 posts (not including this one) have been published this year. In total, I wrote 52,891 words. Each post averages 853 words, which is similar to the length of an op-ed. Most posts were published in the first six months. March was the most productive month, when I published 13 posts. August and November were the inactive months, when I only wrote one blog post each month.

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Content-wise, most of the posts can be categorized into 5 groups: digital technology, book review, running, general sociology, and a miscellaneous category.

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Interestingly, I wrote a lot of book reviews this year.  This development was partly because I love reading book, and partly because I was preparing for my orals exam. Writing a book review helps me remember the most important points in the book, and also help me to think through how I think about the book.  Additionally, this exercise helps me mature in another arena: writing for scholarly publication. This year, outside of writing blog, I have also published two book reviews in scholarly journals, and submitted four book reviews. The process of publishing a book review on a scholarly publication is very different. It is much more time consuming than publishing a book review on a personal blog. However the starting point is pretty much the same. It goes as follows: reading a book, summarizing its main points, identifying its shortcomings, and placing it in the general developments of scholarship.  The most important difference is the target audience. One has to ask the question: to whom am I writing this piece for. In the end, I enjoy this process very much, and I will for sure write more book reviews for multiple venues this coming year. As a scholar, my goal is to submit more book reviews to scholarly publications. Eventually, I hope to submit my book reviews to general-audience-oriented venues such as The New York Review of Books, or The LA Review of Books. I love reading, and I would not stay away from an opportunity to write about the books that change the way I see, and think about the world. This process is addictive. I am hoping that in the year 2020, I will be able to submit 6 book reviews for publication.

A related category to book reviews is general sociology. Many of the blog posts were dedicated to deep understanding of social theory concepts. For example, in Assimilation vs. Isomorphism , I compare the two concepts: “assimilation” in immigration, and isomorphism in organizations studies. These two concepts at first sight seem to be a world apart because they are used to describe processes that are applied to different things: a group of people, and organizational practices. The first concept, assimilation, is about people, sub-groups becoming more similar to the mainstream, the larger group. In other words, this is a process of becoming more similar. Whereas, isomorphism describes the constraining or homogenization process that forces one unit in a population to resemble others. In my mind, both processes yield similar results: units within a population become resembling reach other. However, one difference is that assimilation does not imply a direction. It is totally possible that the smaller group changes the larger group, and they reach a middle group by becoming something in the middle. On the other hand, isomorphism seems to suggest that in the environment there are strong elements that force a unit to resemble the rest in the population.  By comparing and contrasting two concepts, I was able to clarify for myself what each concept means, and when to apply it. This was tremendously helpful in preparing my exam. I predict that there would be fewer of these posts in this coming year, because I no longer have to take any exam except for defending my dissertation.

The second largest category that I have been writing a lot more about is the development of the digital world, or digitization of everything in our daily life. I think we are observing a new economy, and a new way of life, and I want to use my sociological imagination to think about how this phenomenon affects an individual’s subjectivity. This is much a Foucauldian way of looking at the world, but I do think that as Internet of everything is taking over the world, our subjectivity in this world is changing. One growing sub-theme of this category  is computational social science and machine learning. This is the methodological dimension of studying the digital worlds. This is an exciting area that I am getting into lately. I am acquiring coding skills, and analyzing big data (especially text data). This is my new arena of intellectual development, and I expect that I will dedicate many more future blog posts about methodology in data science, and machine learning, and how new developments could be applied in social sciences.

The running category gains some posts this year. I am very proud of this non-intellectual activity that I do out side of my academic life. I finished two half marathons: one in April, and another in October. I totally enjoyed both races, and also enjoyed the training process. My goal for next year is to do 4 half marathon races (2 in the spring), and 2 in the fall, and one marathon in the fall. I will enter the New York marathon lottery again. Lately I have been training in door, which is not as good as training outside in Central Park, but it is a good substitute. My goal for 2020 is to keep running even more. I am just in love with this solitary activity, and that I see much resemblance between running and being an academic.

My overall goal for the blog this coming year is to increase the number of word count. Every year, I try to raise the word count number for my blog. At the beginning of 2019, I hoped that I would be able to each 100,000 words by the end. The idea is that each year, I would be able to produce the number of words which resemble that in a publishable academic book. The goal for 2019 was not reached. So I will keep the same goal for  this coming year 2020: 100,000 words. Below is the summary of the number of words that I have been able to produce in the past three years.

 

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Since I established the goal of writing 100,000 years in early 2018, I have not been able to reach this mark. The chart actually shows that I wrote less in 2019 than I did in 2018. The difference is about 2,500 words. The question is why I have produced more or less the same as in 2018. I thought that I had become more productive in writing, and it has taken less time to produce each blog post. The first chart in the beginning showed that I was in active in two months: August and November. Maybe, by simply producing a few more blog posts in those two months, I would be able to produce some more words. Actually, it does not really help that much. The above histogram suggested that I only reached 52% of my goal in producing 100,000 words. Assuming that I was to produce the same length blog posts, which is about 850 words long, I should write about 120 blog posts to reach my goals. In other words, I need to double my output in the year of 2020. This would require a substantial rethinking of the content of this blog. How could I meaningfully increase the number of blog posts, and the diverse content that I write about? 

As we are saying goodbye to 2019, I want to say that I have started publishing, and this feels good as a young scholar. I have to thank this blog for my writing habit. I have become much more comfortable with writing short and long pieces by simply producing words. The more I think about it, the more I see that writing blog has helped me to calm my fear of writing.  It should become a required activity  for scholars. I have seen academics use blog as a place to jot down thoughts, reflect on what they learn, and articulate early ideas, and then develop them in to full-flesh papers later. This way of using blog posts as a starting point of an academic article is something is definitely a productive idea, and I think I will incorporate this practice into my scholarly repertoire in the coming years.

Next year, I think my blog posts will be organized into similar categories as above mentioned categories. I predict that I will keep writing book reviews, but I will those that directly contribute to my intellectual development.  That is to say, I will read more specialized books, and write about them. I have already had a few in mind that I would love to share on this blog. I will keep reflecting on books that shape me and my intellectual development. I will keep writing about my running, and different exercises for sure. Possibly, I will also write about dieting because it is something that has been bothering me lately. I recently met with a nutritionist to talk about diet change. I hope to be able to take it more seriously, and see positive changes in my life. On top of running, a proper diet is a must.  I will also keep writing about publications, ideas, how to write papers, and how to write papers for publication. I also will write about computational social science, machine learning, which is an arena that I am venturing into, and I have been very happy that I discovered it. I am looking forward to the Winter Digital Institute at CUNY – the Graduate Center, where I will learn how to use Python to analyze text data. I blog about the institute daily in January.

Finally, I hope that my readers have learned as much from sociology as I did this year.

Happy New Year, and see you all in the new year.

 

 

 

Technology vs. Social Problems

Our society has entered a phase where many people believe that more technological innovations seem to be solving every problem. New York City is spending money on building more incubators and accelerators to speed up creation of startups. Higher institutions across the country are opening data science master’s programs to channel a large chunk of the educated workforce into high tech. The speed at which technological innovations happen is astounding. However, does more technological innovations solve persistent social problems such as inequality, racism, sexism, and radicalism?

Maybe no, and I would argue that the obsession with technological innovations is unhealthy.

First, I want to foreground that I am not advocating for impeding technological innovations. I think they are necessary, and that they are inevitable for an advanced economy.  What I am looking at is the ideology that more technology is better, and that more people study and work on technical problems would make society a better place. This ideology is flawed, one-sided, and potentially could cause unintended consequences.

Second, I posit that more technically advanced developments might not solve the existing problems that are embedded in social institutions. These institutions have been created by humans to accomodate for human flaws, and human relations.  No well-designed algorithms can account for all human eccentricities. Besides, social institutions also change. This creates a constant need for changing technology as well.

Third, personnel who solve technological problems might not be the best people who can solve social problems. They are sure good at identifying technological problems. They are also solution-oriented in their approach. But the social world is full of intricate social relations that do not have a one-to-one direct relationship. A social world is comprised of different social systems that if one system is changed, it might cause reactions from another. This requires a big-picture thinking from those who understand this complex arena.

Fourth, I am not advocating that social scientists who often conclude at the end of their research “things are complicated” as the sole problem solvers. However, I think their understanding of the complex social world might provide an important perspective that data scientists, computer scientists should learn from, and should collaborate with.

Currently our society has become obsessed with coming up with new technological innovations, but we are unwilling to try to see whether they would work in practice. More importantly, before we even figure out how one problem could be solved without any technical expertise, we already try the most expensive, most sophisticated, and most advanced tool out there just to demonstrate our prowess is laughable. Methods that are out of date are not irrelevant as long as they are able to provide a simple and elegant answer to a complex social problem.

I particularly see the obsession of applying newest tools such as deep neural networks in studying a social problem is unhealthy. Sometimes, practitioners of such approach  do not even try to understand the social problem, and try to see where the problem comes from and how to solves without any technology. They want to quickly build a sophisticated deep neural network model whose architecture is comprised of 20 different layers of information. Then finally they create a predictive model that spits out a few number, and claim that their model is better than any existing model, or methods. Then with their credentials, they go around, and convince public policy makers, program managers and others to implement their models because there is a convincing base-line model whose results are not as impressive as their model. At this point, I think as machine learning, and predictive analytics are catching up with the social world, people with decision making power in any organization should at least equip themselves with basic knowledge of these new techniques to anticipate whether they are necessary and important for their organization. The social world must push back, when the technical world is encroaching on us. Not all technological advancement is necessary, and not all of them is pushing toward progress.

In conclusion, the question: does more technological innovation solve social problems? Well, it’s complicated. One needs to reflect on it more. But as of now, I believe that obsession with technological innovation without healthy reservations, pushbacks is dangerous.

Alternative Knowledge vs. Expert Knowledge

Lately I have read news and scholarly articles that examine the rise of alternative media, alternative right, alternative facts, or climate change mis-information. Many of the texts and talks question the sources of all of these “alternative” things. I started asking myself the question what is “alternative” about these developments? Why should one read, consume, and spread alternative of any kind?

The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines alternative as “different from the usual or conventional.” The literal meaning of alternative is that it does not follow conventions, or norms. Etymonline.com  gave an overview of the word’s historical development: 

1580s, “offering one or the other of two,” from Medieval Latin alternativus, from Latin alternatus, past participle of alternare “do one thing and then another, do by turns,” from alternus “one after the other, alternate, in turns, reciprocal,” from alter “the other” (see alter). Meaning “purporting to be a superior choice to what is in general use” was current by 1970 (earliest reference is to the media); in popular music, by 1984 in reference to pirate radio. Alternative energy is from 1975. Related: Alternatively.

 

Alternative is related to the verb “alter,” and it refers to “a superior choice to what is general in use.” How so? I am thinking about the alternative right, and alternative media. Not only are they not superior to the established  right, and legacy media, they are also harmful and threatening the bedrocks of society by destroying democratic institutions. How are they superior?

At what point has the word alternative started to carry the meaning of “dangerous and threatening” to established social, political and cultural institutions?

A few days ago, I felt like I had a glimpse of an answer to the stated question after having an appointment with a nutritionist. The reason for the appointment was that I have been trying to change my diet, adjust my sugar level in my blood, and that my cholesterol level is low, but bad cholesterol is high. My general physician asked me to talk to a nutritionist to have a dietary change. The appointment was very pleasant. It lasted for almost an hour during which the dietician asked me a list of questions about my meals, and the time that I have them on a daily basis. She asked me questions such as what do you eat for breakfast? How many different items? How much of each? Do you drink enough water? What do you drink throughout the day? Do you snack? There are a few food replicas in her office that I can use to estimate how much I eat for each meal. She recorded each answer, and typed it on her laptop. After 30 minutes, the software or maybe an app produced the final answer. I learned that I have not been eating enough. There were a few problems. One is that I have slow metabolism. I do not eat enough; thus my body does not metabolize accordingly. Second, I am supposed to eat snacks between meals, which I do not eat. So we discussed a meal plan change, and she emailed me a nutrition change document.

Everything the nutritionist told me sounded very intuitive, which I was supposed to know already. Or the information that she provided also felt like it should be available on the internet. On the way home, I could not help but wonder why didn’t I Google this information before coming to meet her. It was one thing that my physician recommended that I should meet with a specialist. It was another thing that I did not educate myself by at least Googling about some nutrition 101 information. Yet, given my nature of trusting expert knowledge, it felt reasonable to meet a trained specialist to absorb the information even if it felt like the information was readily available on the internet.

One danger of finding information on the internet would be that I would follow a diet plan without checking whether it fits with my metabolism, and my life style. That’s a risk. Besides, if I do it on my own, there would be no accountability mechanism where another social actor would enforce the social contract that we drafted together. Had I followed a plan found on the internet, I would have been me and the faceless crowd. I would have fell back into my previous diet pretty soon after a couple of weeks. With a human expert, I have a monthly meeting with them to make sure that my body changes as desired.

This experience helps illuminate my original question a bit: what factors contribute to the rise of alternative knowledge? I have a few hypotheses:

Hypothesis 1: The internet contributes to the rise of alternative knowledge.

Hypothesis 2: With the rise of alternative knowledge, expert knowledge is in decline.

Since information and so-called crowd-produced knowledge are so readily available at one’s finger tips, finding alternative ways to solve some problem seems to be too easy. However, whether one can trust this type of alternative knowledge is another question. How does alternative knowledge changes how we interact with established institution such as medicine, and schooling? I personally could have totally just relied on information found on the internet to change my habits. Instead, I chose to meet with a human expert because I have tendency to seek approval from an authoritative figure even when I doubt that they did not know much more than I do. I believe in their credentials, and that they have established themselves to be reliable. Many others choose to only follow what they find on the internet. This development is scary to me.

Trusting information on the internet when it comes to medical problems, schooling, and many other things is an exercise that one should take with caution. I could not help but think about the idea that one not only needs to have digital literacy, but also digital discernment, which I define as

the skill to analyze, contextualize and triangulate online information, and to realize at what point one should consult a human expert to comprehend the information or to discard it as non-sensical.

This ability has implications for raising children in the digital age. How many people in the age of social media, fake news, and deepfakes actually have this skill? How many people recognize that they are paralysed by conflicting and sometimes blatantly wrong information being floated on the internet? What does it mean for education institutions, and contemporary society to equip their students and citizens with such a skill?

In short, in the digital age, we need to be able to discern and classify information that we find on the internet. I hope that someone has found a way to think through this problem from a social science perspective.

Red Pill Blue Pill by David Neiwert

David Neiwert examines “new conspiracism” in the age of Web 2.0, and how it is linked to online radicalization. Following are a few paragraphs about epistemological bubbles that have emerged on the Internet in the past 30 years:

Like the hypercool hero Neo in the films, true believers in the alternative universe of conspiracy theories are absolutely convinced that the epistemological bubble into which they have submerged themselves is the real reality.

The red-pill metaphor is a very provocative, and effective metaphor for people to be attracted to, and used when they transition to an epistemological bubble of the extreme right.

The universe of conspiracy theory constantly recruits new followers on the Internet. Somehow, this movement sounds like a spread of a new religious movement:

Sorting out good information from bad has become seemingly an overwhelming task in the age of the Internet and social media. Some people have stopped trying. Others have embraced the abyss, as it were, by diving into the epistemologically malleable and manipulable world of conspiracy theories, a zone where normative rules of evidence and factuality need not apply.

October Reading List

I thought that I would have read a lot during the month of September. It simply was not true. Reading is labor for an academic (more precisely for an aspiring academic). I finished reading half of the books in my September reading list, and was also able to write a summary of one book for my dissertation project. That was an accomplishment. Being engaged with a scholarly book in reading and writing is a very labor intensive activity. To keep the momentum going, I will be reading the following books in the month of October, or more like the remaining two weeks of October.

The books are organized around four themes: platform content moderation, racism, diversity in tech, and organization studies.

Dying of Whiteness

This books aims to examine:

how particular American notions of whiteness—notions shaped by politics and policies as well as by institutions, history, media, economics, and personal identities—threaten white well-being.

Students’ Reflections

When students submitted their final exams, some sent me notes saying that they had a productive semester together with me despite bumps and also Covid19!. Following are a few that I exceptionally appreciate

“Your class was one of the more useful ones I’ve taken in my master’s program.”

“Thank you so much prof for all your patience, communication and feedback really made this semester very smoothly.”

These feedback really made my heart smile! Teaching has gradually become more enjoyable to me because I can now motivate students my students to give more to the class, and to their final projects.