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:

Screen Shot 2020-06-02 at 6.57.09 PM

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.

Screen Shot 2020-06-02 at 7.00.13 PM

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.

Screen Shot 2020-06-02 at 7.24.57 PM

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:

Screen Shot 2020-06-02 at 7.29.01 PM

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.

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.

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.

FullSizeRender.jpeg

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?