Staten Island Half Marathon 2020

Last Sunday I participated in the Staten Island Half Marathon. I registered for it because I wanted to run a half marathon before participating in a full marathon in Philly in November. Another reason is that I have never been to Staten Island. So I figured it is not a bad idea to run a half marathon for 3 hours (yes 3 hours), and enjoy the scenery.

The run was a blast. The weather was perfect. Fall has just knocked on New York’s door. The sky was crystal clear, and it was a bit windy in the morning, but not at all cold during the day. The run was very nice. We were running and jogging along the coast, and through neighborhoods. I had a chance to see a lot of huge suburban houses in this borough. Some of the houses are well decorated for Halloween.

When the run was over, and I received my medal for having finished the run without injuring myself, I headed toward my friend’s house in the neighborhood for brunch with her and her boyfriend. It was also a great time because we talked a lot about our common interests, food, the run, and life in general.

At the end it was a great Sunday, though my feet and knees became hurt in the afternoon. The after-effects of having run a half marathon went away two days later. And I spent my Monday at home to recover.

Here’s me at the finish line:

 

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Trying to pose in front of a camera:

 

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Book Review: Zeynep Tufekci’s Twitter and Tear Gas

During the summer of 2019, I started learning, and picking up computational social science at summer institute for computational social science (SICSS). The summer institute was very informative. I learned a lot of new skills, especially it made me fall in love with R programming language. Then I also started experimenting with python. Now I am all in for R when it comes to statistical analysis, and teaching. Simply it’s intuitive, and it’s FREEEE. I even got a part-time research assistantship because I can do statistical analysis in R.  Aside from learning how to use R for various kinds of quantitative and qualitative analyses, I began to work with social media data. This really opened me up to different kind of questions. Twitter, Facebook and various other social media platforms have become important places where discourses take place, are spread, and infiltrate to our social life. At the end of the summer, I started joining a computational social science lab called (CaretLab) at Hunter College.

Currently at CaretLab, I am collaborating with other members in two projects both using social media data. These projects brought me into different fields of expertise that I have not had much experience. Like a good scholar, I read “literature” for what I do not know. It simply means that I find books, and articles about social media, and start acquiring knowledge about this social phenomenon. In my field, sociology, many people have cited Zeynep Tufekci’s Twitter and Tear Gas  because it is one of the first monographs in sociology that looks at how social media shapes, changes a social movement or whether social media is an important component that makes or breaks a social movement. I started reading the book.

One of the premises of the book is that social media could be considered as the 21st networked public sphere, where people discuss politics, and social issues such as black lives matter, the rise of Trump. Even academics are increasingly engaging in public debates on social media. Some academics get their knowledge out faster on Twitter than through other traditional means such as contacting news outlets. Journalists are active on social media, and repeatedly quote and misquote tweets from academics, politicians, and celebrities. Recently Trump lost a first amendment case lawsuit   because he blocked Twitter users from tweeting at him. The court decided that as a public official, the president of the United States, Trump cannot block Twitter users. The results of this lawsuit is significant because it legitimizes Twitter as an official public channel where public officials discuss policy matters, and what they say on Twitter should be taken as official.

The rise of Twitter and the likes raises the question how does the networked public sphere influence society, and shape individuals’ behaviors in that society? Twitter and Tear Gas  starts to answer the question from the social movement angle. The book is well written, well theorized, and well researched book.

The book is organized in three parts. Part I is titled “Making a Movement.” It looks at various factors that make a social movement a movement in the digital age. This part delves into the definition and attributes of a networked public sphere, and considers how it affects the ways social movements form, how rebellions take off. Part 2 is called “a protester’s tools.” It examines various aspects of social media as essential tools for organizing social protests. In this part the author makes explicit how she uses capacities and signals theory of social movements as main theoretical frameworks for the various social movement cases in the book. Finally, “After the protests” is the final part of the book. In essence this part is about the outcomes of protests that are examined in the book, and how the government responds to those protests using digital tool or not. Eventually, Tufekci shows that government and powerful actors start to adopt the strategies that activists use to suppress movements, and come up with new strategies such as disinformation to maintain the status quo.

The book starts out with a discussion about how digital media challenges social scholars to pay attention to the HOW question. How is a social movement organized? Tufekci writes:

In much popular writing about social movements, the how of organizing is mentioned only as an afterthought. Logistics and practical details are generally undramatic and do not lend themselves to journalists’ narratives, which tend to be focused on the deeds of a few leaders. Great speeches and successful boycott campaigns are remembered; the organizers who oversaw the transportation of hundreds of thousands of people, under tense conditions and sometimes significant repression, are largely forgotten.

She further points out the difference between social movements in the 21st century, and those of the past:

In contrast to the past, when movements first built up capacity over a long time and only then could stage large protests, today’s movements that are initially organized mostly online generally start the hard work necessary to build a long-term movement after their first big moment in the public spotlight. 61

She argues that social movements now become big very fast, and enter the public spotlight before building necessary capacity such as leadership, and institutional alliances. One can think of Women’s March, MeToo, BlackLivesMatter, and Occupy. All these movements became big very fast. Yet the impacts of those movements are difficult to pin down. They are all 21st century movements. Participants could easily organize using social media’s affordances. It is both a curse and a blessing when a movement can get attention from the public so fast, but fails to further other long term systematic changes.

One central term of the book is network internalities:

Network internalities are the benefits and collective capabilities attained during the process of forming durable networks which occur regardless of what the task is, or how trivial it may seem, as long as it poses challenges that must be overcome collectively and require decision making, building of trust, and delegation among a semi-durable network of people who interact over time. I contrast these with “network externalities,” an established phrase that is often defined as an increase in benefit from a good or service when the number of people using that good or service goes up. For example, a fax machine is more useful if there are many people using fax machines. In contrast, network internalities refer to the internal gains achieved by acting in networks over time.

Simply these are gains over time. So if one thinks about practices and skills that a population gain through organizing a progressive movement, one thinks of network internalities. Furthermore,

Network internalities do not derive merely from the existence of a network – something digital media easily affords – but from the constant work of negotiation and interaction required to maintain the networks ass functioning and durable social and political structures. Building such effective networks is costly; they are not “cheap-talk networks” in the sense that people are merely connected to one another. Instead, people have invested time and energy and gained trust and understanding about the ways of working and decision making together. Sometimes, doing seemingly pointless or unimportant work gives groups the capacity to do more meaningful things under circumstances, like negotiating with adversaries and shifting movement tactics. Building network internalities can be viewed as similar to building muscles. There is no loss in terms of getting there if you drive a car instead of biking to the place, and you can climb a mountain by carrying your own gear or by having a Sherpa carry the gear. However, if the next steps require muscles or mountaineering experience, the capacity gained by biking or carrying one’s own gear is a benefit in itself and may be crucial to be the person’s ability to respond to the next challenge. 76

And more:

Technology can help movements coordinate and organize,  but if corresponding network internalities are neglected, technology can lead to movements that scale up while missing essential pillars of support. In the past, organizing big protests required getting many people and organizations to plan together beforehand, which meant that decision-making structures had to exist in advance of the event, building the network internalities along the way. Now big protests can take place first, organized by movements with modest decision-making structures that are often horizontal and participatory but usually lack a means to resolve disagreement quickly. This frailty, in turn, means that many twenty-first century movements find themselves hitting dangerous curves while traveling at top speed, without the ability to adjust course. Although participatory leaderlessness and horizontalism are a source of strength in some ways, it is also a treacherous path over the long haul. 77

If I could, I would quote this entire book on this blog post. One reason for me to find many things “quote-able” from this book is that I do not have any background in social movement. So every line looks valuable to me. I have to say that Tufekci is a very good writer. She is a thoughtful writer, and knows how to write to defend her position well. After reading the book, I asked myself: if I have to take one part away, which part would I eliminate from the book. I could not answer that question. Everything seems relevant and well thought-out for me. If this blog post makes you interested in the book, the good news is that you can download it here for free.

 

 

I Passed Qualifying Exams

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Two weeks ago, I passed my orals, which is a qualifying exam in my PhD program. The exam was intensive. It lasted for two hours. I finally can claim that I have moved to the next level in my graduate studies. The dissertation phase thus has officially started.

Statistical learning as Self-discovery

This summer I participated in the Summer Institute for Computational Social Science (SICSS) at Hunter College. The two week intensive institute served as introduction to computational methods for social scientists. I learned a great deal: from how to scrape Twitter data to learn how to use unstructured machine learning to find topics that in a large corpus of text data to how to use machine learning to work with big data. Honestly, it was the most interesting summer institute that I have participated in since the beginning of my doctoral training.

The summer was almost over, but I still wanted to learn more machine learning skills to work with big data (both text data, and quantitive data). I volunteered myself to work with a methods lab at Hunter College after the institute over so I can interact with other scholars who use machine learning methods for their work. I also started to study on my own how I can use R to do clustering, and machine learning. It has been a great journey so far.

Currently I am reading the book An Introduction to Statistical Learning by Trevor Hastie, and colleagues. It was recommended during the institute for those who want to learn more R. The book is full of examples, and how one can use R to go through the examples at one own pace. Most importantly, learners can watch the videos that the authors have produced to walk them through the materials. Learning by doing is the best method for statistical training in my opinion. As a visual, and audio learner myself, reading alone is never sufficient. I want to hear people speak, and bring the message home for me. It has been a great journey so far.

As an undergraduate student in mathematics and economics at Agnes Scott College, I enjoyed doing problem sets, and solving mathematical problems. The book An Introduction to Statistical Learning   is just right for me because the authors actually show me the mathematical foundation, and reasoning behind various statistical techniques (such as OLS, Lasso, Decision Trees). At my graduate program, I have learned most of those techniques in various statistics classes. However, the fundamental critique that I had for those  classes that I took was that there was not enough explanation of why certain techniques were used. The focus was on how to use certain statistical software to run a technique. In other words, I felt an immense sense of the lack of foundation, and the sense of not knowing things despite having done the work. One day in an email exchange with a data scientist, I was told that statistical languages should not be the focus in one’s training. One should learn how statistics works. That was the awakening moment when I recognized that I put my attention in the wrong place. Ever since I had a secret desire to learn statistics well. 

So this summer, I really took a step back to evaluate my statistical knowledge, and now I am trying to learn it well. All in all, I feel that I like self-learning, and self-discovery. Throughout my education, writing is self-discovery. Now statistical learning is also self-discovery for me.  

 

 

Summer: Refreshing Chinese

Learning and refreshing my knowledge of a language has been a recurring summer theme for me for the past five years. In the last two summers, I refreshed, and improved my German. This year, I am back on learning more Chinese vocabulary. Over a course of learning new languages for the past 20 years, I recognized that the essence of learning and being able to use a language fluently is having sizable vocabulary, and knowing how to use it well. So in essence my language learning journey has been a word hoarding endeavor.

Another thing I have recognized is that I like to “binge-learn:” that is, I cram a lot of words, and grammar items in one sitting. This learning period would extend for a couple of weeks. Then my brain would be completely overstuffed with new Chinese words that I barely use on a daily basis. Then my brain stops learning, and starts to venture to something else. Learning new words stops being fun.

In the past two weeks, I dusted off an old set of Chinese textbooks: A Course in Contemporary Chinese by Taiwan National Normal University.  There are six books in the set. I finished the first two books in Taiwan three years go. So this year, I took book No. 3 and 4 out, and aimed to learn them over the summer. Books 3 and 4 are at the intermediate level. That means when I finish the two books, I can confidently say that my Chinese level is intermediate. That is when I can hold a conversation well in Chinese, and could possibly read some short news articles.

Studying on my own is pretty boring especially for a difficult language like Chinese. So I decided to get some help from a native speaker. I found a tutor on Italki.com, my go-to website when I want to learn a new language. So far I have been able to learn a lot of Chinese and Hindi on this website. There are many people who would speak to me in their native tongue. I found a community tutor from Taiwan, and we have been studying together for the past two weeks. We simply go through one chapter in the textbook at a time. The teacher helps me to understand the usage of each new word, and new grammar items that I cannot possibly understand on my own.

Additionally, I also listen to a Chinese podcast. As for how I do anything else, I also binge listen to podcasts. Some people on Italki.com suggested that I should listen to 喜马拉雅FM, or Ximalaya FM, or Himalaya FM. I found it on Apple Podcast App, and started listening to it. What I did not know is that the show that I found on Apple podcast app does not fully describe how useful Ximalaya FM is for Chinese language learners. According to Crunchbase, Ximalaya FM is an online sharing platform for audio content. That means, it is more or less equivalent to Soundcloud.com for an American audience. There are lots of content on this website, and one can hear Chinese spoken by many different types of people (old, young, female, male, etc.).

The show that I listen to on a daily basis has this icon:

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The content of the podcast is pretty diverse. That means I can listen to different discussions, lectures, and even short stories on it. Yet the majority of show hosts are men. I did not like that part. Furthermore, since I have studied Chinese in Taiwan, and continue to prefer the Taiwanese pronunciation of certain words, Mainland Chinese pronunciation sounds harsh to me sometimes. Especially when “r” at the end of a word is pronounced.

Despite these two concerns, I am enjoying learning new words, and listening to a variety of audio content on this podcast. In the next couple of weeks, I will also try to go to the website, and listen to the content on the website to find out my favorite Chinese female voice, and southern accent.

 

Fictional Worlds

If I could re-do my undergraduate studies, I would major in English literature. I never quite figured out why I was never into reading novels when I was a teenager. However, the art, and appeals of fictional work became more clear to me after having taken a writing for publication course. Something about the genre of novels was not intuitive and native to my way of thinking before. Now having read probably hundreds of them in the English language in the past decade, I recognized an already proven truth: that is, fiction is one of the best art forms on earth. Something apparently clicked.

Reading a novel is an act of exploration. Each novel transports the reader into a completely different world. It is very different from reading non-fictions which value facts, analyses, and arguments. Novels often describe a world that might not be real, but believable enough that it is able to suspend readers’ desire to know about facts, and truth. Sometimes they ask moral questions, create dilemmas that one can relate to. Sometimes a novel is being told from the point of view of one character. Sometimes it is told with multiple voices from many characters. These voices orientate the reader’s understanding of how this fictional world develops. The power of fictional works lies in their description, and imaginativeness.

One could argue that watching a movie or TV show would give the same effect. Of course, visual presentations of a fictional world could transport the viewers to a different world. For example, the movie It  show a world of a fictional New England town, where children have their mysterious, and scary adventures during the summer months. It is so relatable that one might believe that town does exist. Yet novels ignite another level of imagination. While a TV show would give everything away, fictional work leaves room for interpretation. TV shows would often do the job of interpreting on behalf of  the viewers. Reading a novel is an active endeavor; watching TV is a passive activity.

To me reading a novel is a much more fulfilling daily activity than binge-watching something on Netflix. Time is an important factor here. Watching TV is instant gratification, while reading a novel is delayed gratification. One can hardly finish a 500-page novel in one sitting. Thus one has to go about doing daily choirs, and other activities. During that time, the story is still unraveling in the back of our mind. Our brain works its wonder, and fills into the void where the author left off new details. We are actively filling in the details that are not described in the novel.

Recently I just finished three novels: The Book Thief, To Kill a Mockingbird, and The Poisoonwood Bible. The first was written by a male author, and the main protagonist is a female teenager. The other two were written by two famous southern female novelists. Each novel brings me to a completely different world, and presents me with different moral dilemmas. All somehow deal with biting social problems of the time periods in which the stories are set. For example, The Poisonwood Bible weaves historical narratives of the Congo before and after independence, and how these historical events have an impact on each female individual  of a missionary family. The independence of Congo is the watershed event in the novel. It determines what goes on within a white missionary family, in a rural village in the Congo. Then it affects all of their lives once the Congo gets independence. How does the Congo change these white individuals? This is the central question that I kept in mind when reading the book.

Choosing what novel to read is sometimes a dilemma. I wish somebody just hands me a list of must-read books to make my life easier. Yet if that was the case, it would take the fun of coming up with my own list out of the entire process. Along the line of trying to read two to three novels a week, I decided that I would read mostly from female writers. Among the three aforementioned novels, I love The Poisoonwood Bible. The author, Barbara Kingsolver writes with grace, sensitivity, and humanity. She is insightful when she describes family dilemmas, and racial/ethnic conflicts. She is observant when describing how the landscape in the Congo or Southern Georgia would look. Her femininity permeates throughout the novel. It is this femininity that I am longing for. She shows that a female writer does not have to write like a man. She does not have to over-rationalize, or make blunt jokes  in order to be appreciated. The key is to have one’s own voice, and one’s own understanding of the world. 

Another goal of my summer break is to refresh my Chinese language. I am secretly hoping that someday my Chinese would be so good, I could read and write in Chinese. Then I could explore the fictional landscape of this language. It must be so different from what I am used to. My dream is to have a personal library with three equally distributed sections of English novels, Chinese novels, and German novels. The perk of knowing more than one language is that I can explore the imagined worlds in those languages. Again, if I could do a second bachelor degree for fun, I would study English literature.

Society of Fear by Heinz Bunde

The phenomenology of fear illustrates the kind of society in which we live.

Heinz Bunde

Sociologists have long been interested in the relationship between the self and society. This topic aims at asking the question of how the self interacts with society, how it is shaped by larger societal forces. I just finished reading the book Society of Fear by Heinz Bunde, a sociologist at  Hamburger Institut für Sozialforschung  that examines the question of the self and society in the current era. This book is a collection of essays that are loosely connected by the theme of fear, and anxiety. At the heart of all the essays are why and how different types of fears affect us individuals and collective well beings in our current era? These questions bring out the fundamental fascination about the self and society that has fascinated sociologists for more than a century. Furthermore, this book also highlights various philosophical questions from existentialism and phenomenology about freedom and constraints. After reading the book, I recognized that there is an underlying connection between the book I read last week: At the Existential Cafe, and this book. The authors in these two books are fascinated with the question: how do societal forces shape individual lives?

Following are a few passages that I really enjoy:

Anxiety in a shrinking world:

When population growth declines, the countryside becomes a suburb, and the conquest of the world reaches its limits, then interpersonal relations becomes tighter and more inescapable, and the self must try to adapt to others and come to terms with them in a “shrunken and agitated” world. Then individuals are no longer rewarded for their obsession with proving themselves, but instead for their ability to adopt the perspectives of others, respond resiliently and flexibly to changing situations, and find compromises through teamwork. The psychological gyroscope that maintains internal equilibrium is replaced by a social radar that registers the signals sent by others. The self becomes a self of others – and then faces the problem of forming an image of itself from the thousands of images reflected back at it.

Bunde argues that the self in our time is not referenced to any higher being. Now we have relational self: that is it is defined in relations to others.

On love, and partnership in modern society, Bunde raises a similar question to those that Sartre asked more than half a century ago:

It seems that the self cannot get by without attachment. But attachment is frightening because the freedom of the self becomes dependent on the freedom of the other. The formula of this paradoxical situation is freedom through entanglement.

Sartre was motivated to interrogate the extent and limits of individual freedom, given certain social constraint. Bunde uses the case of partnership to argue that freedom in love and freedom to choose one’s partner is paradoxical. One is not entirely free if one chooses to have a partner because then one’s freedom is dependent upon the other person’s freedom. One’s freedom to choose another is dependent upon the other person’s freedom to choose. Thus it is an entangled situation.

Bunde spells out his social theory here:

Anxiety [is] perhaps the only a priori principle in modern society about which all members of society are in agreement. It is the principle that applies absolutely when all other principles have been qualified.

We are all united in the sense that we are anxious. Modernity brings with it deep psychological fear that we do not know where it comes from. It is so pervasive, and it defines who we are in relations to others:

Through concepts of fear, the members of a society come to an understanding about the conditions of their co-existence: who moves forward and who is left behind; where things break and where chasms open up; what is inevitably lost and what might yet survive. It is through concepts of fear that society takes its own pulse.

As human beings, we are constantly looking for meanings of our social lives, and it is stressful:

Anxiety springs from the knowledge that everything is open but nothing is meaningless. Our entire lives seem to be on the line at every single moment. We can take detours, take breaks or shift our focus, but these actions must make sense and contribute to the fulfillment of our life’s purpose. The fear of simply drifting through life is hard to bear. The stress of anxiety is the stress of the search for meaning, and this cannot be alleviated by any state or society.

He then goes on examining different social types such as social climber, statesman.

On no account does the social climber want to appear narrow-minded, provincial, or stressed. But cosmopolitanism, ease, and self-confidence are not so easy to learn. This is the source of the deep-seated alarm we feel when we see how casually and tastefully someone can decorate a home, how affectionately and purposefully they can raise their children, and how they can be so mindful and disciplined toward themselves…While the old-style social climber fights against a crowd of others whom he believes want to see him brought low, the new social climber quarrels with himself because, for him, the journey is the destination.

In the age and time when social mobility is such a rare thing to find, social climbers, those who actually move up from his social position, are more anxious than ever because the process of moving up itself has now come to define who he is.

On politics and emotions:

Politics without passion, without emotional energy, without the dynamics of psyches encountering and repelling one another, and without fear and desire is no politics at all.

He reiterates the message: in our modern time, we would expect that our society to behave rationally, yet we see over and over again primordial instincts such as fear, and anger to be the main driver of our collective endeavors.

On women’s empowerment, and men’s masculinity:

The more secure the new woman was within herself… the greater her understanding for men and their fears. And men also had to realize that they would often construct a “false self” as part of their defense against emotions, fears, and desires for dependence.

Women seem to gain more power all over the world, while men are going through various kinds of masculinity crisis. It seems necessary now more than before that we need to learn how to reconcile the new image of men in relations to the new woman. Who could the new man be when we know for sure that the new woman is more empowered, more sure about herself, knows more about the world? This question circles back to Simone de Beauvoir’s The Second Sex, in which she argues that a generic woman is defined as the other of the default typical human: a man.  Since Beauvoir’s writing, a generic woman has become more heterogenous. She comes in different size and shape. She is now able to exercise her agency a lot more. Yet the default image of a man has not changed so much. Why is it the case? If the two are relational – one cannot exist without the other – then why don’t an average man change? Isn’t it be natural to ask that the first sex should also evolve accordingly because at the end of the day we are social and relational beings?

This book gives much food for thought. It is typical of German academia when the author presents constructed theory, and exploration. Yet as an empiricist, I cannot help but ask how can one construct a case study of society of fear? How can this book turn into a research agenda? How can we examine the degree of anxiety in our age?