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.

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.

Rare Skills

“All of us who do creative work… you get into this thing, and there’s like a gap. What you’re making isn’t so good, okay? … It’s trying to be good but… it’s just not that great… The key thing is to force yourself through the work, force the skills to come; that’s the hardest phase.”

Ira Grass, quoted in So Good They Can’t Ignore You – Cal Newport

My goal for this weekend, and the coming week is to finish a book review whose length is around 2,000 words. I have been delaying the writing process for the past academic year, and it is the time that I need to send the book review to the editor. Yet, I have been struggling with the writing process so much. The overwhelming feeling that came out of my body every morning when I attempt to write a few lines is an imposter syndrome. What if I do not get the author right? What if I plagiarise a line in the book because I am careless? What if my writing does not read well? These questions come to me almost every time when I sit down in front of my laptop. Instead of directly tackling the writing task, I take a detour, and procrastinate by reading non-academic books instead.

The above quote reflects the self-doubt, and struggling process that I am going through now. It reminds me of the writing for publication process, when my writing skill is being honed. It is pretty painful, and the outcomes often fall short of expectations. When I wrote the first two book reviews for publication, I expected that the critique would come out strong, and the writing would read as if it was that of a novelist. Yet when the writing products finally appeared on paper, they read like that of a graduate student who is desperate for publications.

Yesterday I had to use one of the blog posts that I am most proud of on this blog, and submit it as a writing sample for a public-facing journal, I laughed at my writing. The product of two years ago is so laughable. It took me a lot of thinking and efforts to produce the piece. Yet now when I read it, it is really laughable.

Even now whenever I read blog posts on this blog that I first published about two years ago, I laugh hysterically. I was once so proud of the writing, those writing pieces took day to composed. Now they feel like products of a novice writer. Similar to Ira Grass I recognize that what I am “making isn’t so good… It’s trying to be good but… it’s just not that great.”

Once the moment of laughter was over, I also realized that I am practicing a craft, and all what I can do is to keep doing it.  I force myself “through the work, force the skills to come; that’s the hardest phase.” Over the past two years, my blog writing has improved a great deal. Before it would take me a whole day or a whole week to conceptualize a blog post. Now it takes a few hours.  I finally know how to discern what topic is appropriate for a blog post, and what is not. Now the process of producing a blog post has become second nature. The fear and the anxiety when producing something that has not taken shape have disappeared. Blogging is something I can handle.

Using the same craftsman mindset, I would only hope that by focusing on writing outputs, and practicing my skills on a daily basis, eventually writing book reviews and research articles would eventually come naturally to me. I wonder at what point my writing and research skills would become “so good that they cant ignore [me].”

Teaching (Dis)Satisfaction

This morning, when I woke up, I checked emails (a bad habit, despite the fact that I vowed to not be dependent on emails for information too much). What I found in my mailbox was a tempting email from Chronicle of Higher Education with title “Faculty Satisfaction Survey.” As a sociologist who is doing sociology of work, I am immensely interested in job satisfaction, and  workers’ experience. As a college instructor myself, this strikes at the heart of my daily experience. So I opened the email, followed the link, and went to the main article on Chronicle of Higher Education Website. The article has the title “How Professors View Students: the Most Satisfying and Challenging Part of the Job”. The article breaks down the term satisfaction into different dimensions such as whether students respect them, or whether professors think that they benefit students. This blog post highlights a few aspects of the survey.

First, in terms of data, the survey collects experience of 1000 faculty members. The research finds that most faculty members find teaching students to be “satisfying work”. Among all of faculty responsibilities: service work, research, grant writing, administrative duties, teaching stands out to be the most satisfying. Adjuncts are more satisfied than their tenure peers; professors at private institutions are more satisfied than their peers at public institutions. Overall professors are satisfied with teaching regardless of whether it is the main component of their professorship.

Most interviewees said that teaching students today is more fulfilling than teaching students in the past; they also all think that their teaching positively impacts their students’ lives.

The most confusing question in this survey is whether the professor’s job is respected by students. Many think that they are respected by their students. Yet, some have doubt, and humanities professors are the most concerned about whether they are respected by their students.

I think that the results of this survey certainly reinforce my belief as an educator that teaching is a very fulfilling job for a faculty member in higher education. From my personal experience, whenever I see my students’ enthusiasm about their own projects, or about a concept, I feel as if their energy is just transferred to me. Oftentimes, my classes take place early in the morning. If my students engage with me throughout the class time, I would feel extremely energetic for the entire day. Somehow there is a synergy between me and my students, and I believe that together we can accomplish something great. But if my students do not at all engage with me throughout the class time, and I have to do most of the talking, and explaining, I would feel like all of my energy is drained out after the class time. Thus, I would have absolute no more energy for other activities during the day. In other words, there are ups and downs during a semester. These ups and downs are contingent upon the group of students I get, and whether the materials are difficult to teach and to discuss.

Whenever my students feel that they are learning and exploring something new. They show that the are empowered; therefore, I am also empowered. I feel confident in my ability, and I trust myself more. This is a huge confidence boost for a young educator. However, if I encounter some criticisms in class about my ability to teach, or the quizzes or other aspects of teaching and structuring the class, I would feel down, and incompetent. That is when I need to reevaluate my efforts to transmit knowledge to the next generation. Put it differently, teaching requires some organization, discipline, and also self-motivation.

However, one should not forget about the dark side of teaching in a neo-liberal university. First, teaching is not the main job of a professor anymore. A professor is evaluated based on their publication track. They are not evaluated by how many lives they have impacted during face-to-face teaching/learning interactions. Second, they are overburdened with administrative duties. This time commitment reduces their time spending on doing research, writing grants, and teaching their students. Third, tenure tracks are disappearing. That means most newly minted Ph.Ds. would see themselves joining the underclass of the higher education industry. They will become ever more precarious, and suffering from economic anxiety, and also metal health issues. Research has shown that economic anxiety tremendously affects one’s perception of oneself, and negatively affects family life (for example, see Carrie Lane’s A Company of One, or Allison Pugh’s Tumbleweed Society).

In short, the survey from Chronicle of Higher Education provides the reader with a nuanced understanding of what college professors think about their teaching. Therefore, it reinforces our common beliefs about professorial duties. However, the survey does not situate itself among the sea of change in higher education. The positive findings that it shows does not cover the myriad of challenges and structural forces that shape professors’ life in the current economy. This survey does not at all serve as a beacon of light where Ph.D students and adjuncts look for in the age of anxiety and uncertainty. As American higher education is going through structural crisis, this survey does little to cheer the most important workers of the industry up.

 

 

Busy-ness and Setbacks

The month of March flew by, and I do not feel that I accomplished much over the period of 31 days. However, there were lots of activities that I took part in, and in the moment of each activity I did not feel that I wasted my time.

First I started out thinking that I would finish my orals test by March 20th. It did not happen. I had cold feet, and sent an email to my committee, and informed them that I would postpone it permanently. That did not sound like good news. I am also not particularly proud of having done this. The decision to postpone it affected my other activities including writing this blog. It took me almost two weeks to get over the feeling of unpreparedness, and incompetency. I did not have enough time to brainstorm any idea for a dissertation project. So my dissertation process is being postponed now until I could feel that I would pass the test without any difficulty.

At the beginning of the month, I made a promise to myself that I would write one blog post a day. I tried. The promise was broken by half after the exam got postponed. Yet in total, I published 13 posts out of 31, or 42%. That was not an extremely terrible result. In a lot of ways I did slightly better than the month of February.  It was still an improvement! Writing consistently every day was a challenge even when I write about my personal experience instead of about academic arguments.

On the brighter side, I presented a preliminary idea at a professional conference in my field: Eastern Sociological Society. After my presentation, I did not have much time to linger around to listen to people’s ideas, and swap contacts with colleagues. Instead I took an early bus home to New York, and resumed my orals preparation activity.  Still meeting a couple of new colleagues, listening to new ideas still made me feel like I belong to the larger organization of professional sociologists. In addition, it was a good experience to present my ideas, and got some encouragement.

A highlight of the month was the visit to Atlanta. I got a royal treatment from friends, and former professors there. They took me out for foods. They took me out to visit places that I never visited before. I did a Sunday drive through some of the most beautiful neighborhoods in the city with friends. How much I miss those Sunday drives in New York! The weather was good, and I felt good about myself each time I visited the city.

The most productive activity I engaged in was participating in an accountability writing group at school. The group was comprised of graduate students from different disciplines such as social work, social psychology, and French. As participants we had to submit 10-page writing every three weeks. When we did not submit our own writing, we had to write peer review comments for those whose writings were being critiqued that day. This activity gave me a different understanding of academic writing. Of course it takes more time for academic writing than personal blogging because academic writing requires some level of research, and some rigorousness in terms of argumentation. However, the basic is the same: as long as you practice it on a daily basis, you will figure out the formula, and will sustain your argument from one day to another. That was a great lesson that I learned from being a regular attendant of this accountability group.

 

Amazon’s Interface Change on Prime Pantry

Lately because I was so stressed out with my orals exam, I started shopping more on Amazon Prime particularly in the Prime Pantry section. Sometimes I would get very good deal, and if the total purchase is more than $35, they would ship it for free to my apartment. That is a good deal because honestly every week it would cost me more than $100 for grocery. Yes, grocery in New York is expensive. I acknowledge that Amazon does not treat its workers well, and that it is moving heavily into the monopoly direction. Yet like many Americans and consumers in the 21st century, I face a dilemma: If I choose to not make Amazon a behemoth, I should quit the platform, but since I am overly stressed, and did not want shopping to become another source of anxiety, I should reduce my various grocery trips to one Amazon shipment. It is surprisingly a common dilemma for many American households who do not have extra disposable income, and extra time to shop locally.  This dilemma has been a source of moral contention between me and myself, between me and my partner. On the one hand, I feel guilty giving more money to Amazon. On the other hand, I am very tired of going to various stores in New York, and feeling like I am overcharged for grocery items. After I awhile, I resorted to pure cost-analysis calculation, which is that I would save money instead of being stressed out about whether my individual action makes me feel good morally. In other words, I keep shopping on Amazon on a weekly basis.

Last weekend however I noticed a difference on Amazon Prime Pantry platform. When I searched for raisins, I could no longer see the cost associated with each item. The search came out on Amazon.com showed up as follows:

Screen Shot 2019-03-31 at 14.51.54.png

Before, one could search for an item, and see the price immediately. So an individual shopper compare brands, price, and whether there was any discount for each item. Now all the benchmarks are gone. I can no longer see the price for each item. In order to find out how much each item costs, I now have to click on each one, remember how much it costs, come back and click on others, then and compare the prices. This is simply inconvenient for a shopper like me. It’s possible that it’s just a test that Amazon.com changed its interface for Prime Pantry items only. However, it could be also a new strategy that the company has. Maybe it wants customers to spend more time on its website to compare the price, quality, and reviews.

What priorly brought me to Amazon, namely information transparency, has become somewhat more inconvenient to get at. Instead of saving my shopping time, the lack of information on the first search page makes me feel like I need to spend more time on the website. Now it takes twice the amount of time to shop for the same number of items. This inconvenience pissed me off for an afternoon. Yet it was still not strong enough to drive me away from the platform. I wonder when I will leave this platform altogether.

Automation and the Pain of Eating Out – Example from La Guardia Airport

A couple of weeks ago, when I flew to Atlanta to visit friends, I took a flight out of La Guardia (LGA). Because La Guardia was a much smaller airport than JFK, it took a lot less time to wait in line for the security. Thus I had a lot more time to spend inside the airport. However, since it was also a much smaller airport, there were a lot less things to do. One thing I had to do was to feed myself because the flight was around noon, and I had not had breakfast that day.

Then I discovered that other than a take-out deli-style restaurant, other restaurants at La Guardia had tablets for ordering. When I spent some more time to explore a few gates, I recognized that these tablets were also installed at various waiting areas. They looked pretty much like this one:

Image result for tablet at laguardia

Since I wanted to have a similar to eat-out experience at the airport, I had no choice but go into one of those restaurants where one must order with a tablet.

First, a waitress came out and greeted me: “How can I help you?”

I answered: “I need a table, and I prefer not to sit at the bar.”

Then she led me to a small table back near the kitchen, and away from the lobby which led to various gates at La Guardia. In many ways, that was ideal because I could stay away from foot traffic. As soon as I sat down, she started to explain how the tablet worked, and how at the end I could paid using my credit card at one of the credit card shaped tool next to the table. Suddenly what I saw was that my dinning out experience became more like a practicing cashier experience.

I had a brief time working as a waitress at a couple of restaurants in Berlin, and this dinning experience reminded me of everything I did not like about the job. First the tablet gave me a lot of options, and the waitress was not there to explain any of the options. I was a busy flight passenger, I did not have the time to go through all lunch options to figure out which one was the best for me. Oftentimes, when I eat out, I would look at a few options on the menu that I like, and then ask the waiter/waitress which one should I choose because it could be up to the chef that day to make something excellent, or it depends on the quality of ingredients that day. The server is oftentimes my best friend in deciding. In sociological terms, waiters and waitresses  are cultural intermediaries in these instances. They shape my taste, and eventually my consumption and how I spend my money. In case of the tablet waitress, there was no more cultural intermediary to consult, I would be my own waitress, deciding for myself which would best suit my time, budget and consumption. But the information given to me by the tablet was incomplete at best. Therefore, at the moment when I scrolled through various options on the tablet, I became instantly info-glut, and overwhelmed. My mind was paralyzed.

Furthermore, the tablet was up in front of me for the entire time that I came into the restaurant. After using it for about 10 minutes, I became irritated. In the time period, I was trying to cut down my screen contact time because I was going through a digital minimalism experiment. My goal was to cut down screen time, cell phone time in particular. In another blog post, I argued that urbanites, especially in New York, are increasingly over exposed to screens. I call this process “ubiquitous computerization:” that is, one is exposed to digital technology 24/7 even when one sleeps. Now my dinning out experience is also not exempt from this process. I am not a doctor, but I am aware that looking at a bright screen for along time is not good for my eyes. Plus, I do not have money to buy those blue light blocking glasses that potentially could help me deal with more screen time, and still protect my eyes. Then I finally decided to walk out of the restaurant because I could not bear the aesthetics of the tablets and their blue light that attacked my eyes and drained my mental energy.

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In many ways, I walked out because I was annoyed, irritated, and tired. I did not at all think about health consequences of looking at the bright screens of a tablet. Yet now reflecting upon the experience, I felt that I should be more aware of health consequences of those devices.

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However my experience seemed to be one of the extreme. The popular media, particularly the New York Times, gave me the impression that most travelers enjoyed having iPads installed all over La Guardia.  The idea is that customers of flights could instantly access information about their flights. They could use this time at the airport to entertain themselves. However, the experience sounds awfully lonely to me. Ipadization of La Guardia airport seems to contribute to the process of alienation of the self from society even more. The man in the New York Times article is a businessman. And he seemed to be enjoying using these tools for his business purposes. Somehow the image of  Ryan Bingham (played by George Clooney) in the movie, Up in the Air, came to my mind. Despite the convenience of business class seats, and various amenities Ryan gets at all airports, he ultimately travels alone, and feels lonely most of the time. If Ryan is the average, the stereotypical traveler for Airport designers,  maybe getting a meal via an iPad, and spending time more with an iPad instead of anybody else would be ideal. Instead of feeling lonely, he would be wired to the Internet, and maybe eventually he could chat with a female bot to spend his time, and get a dose of emotional connection with an AI chatbot.

Regardless of my experience, and my opinion, the trend is clear. We are all wired, and connected now. Ubiquitous computerization is here to stay. We are connected 24/7 through personal laptops, cell phones, and now free amenities at public transportation stations, and travel hubs. Digitalization is now transforming every aspect of our life: work, play, and leisure.

Digital Decluttering or Digital Withdrawal?

A few weeks ago, I read, and wrote a review of the book Digital Minimalism  by Cal Newport. The author argues that in order to live a fuller life, one should optimize for non-digital activities. The book lays out the arguments for why minimal use of digital technology is important, why not having too much contact with cell phones, screens makes one happier. It also provides a roadmap for a decluttering experiment.  That was precisely what I did. I followed the plan, and cleanse digital junks out of my cellphone, and emails. This blog post summarizes my decluttering experience.

First, I deleted almost all social media apps: Facebook, Twitter, Instagram. Those have been called  “weapons of mass distraction.”  Yet because I was not really addicted to those apps in the first place, I did not see any significant change. The app that gave me the most headache was Mail app, pre-installed in my iPhone. Before, I checked and answered emails every five minutes. Now, if I need to check emails, I open my laptop, and get access to them from my computer. Sometimes I still check emails on my cell phone. But instead of going to the normal email app, now I open Safari browser, and read emails from the website. It really slows down the effort, and sometimes the process discourages me reading and answering emails altogether.

Then I even go further to do deep cleaning of my mailbox. I un-subscribed to almost all un-important newsletters, or mailing lists that gave me no essential information; they simply flooded my mailbox with unnecessary information. By removing myself from emailing constantly, and freeing my inbox from unnecessary information, I suddenly have so much more free time. Theoretically, I can use this new free time to focus on my essential work which is to write my research papers, and reading for orals. Deep work needs deep concentration.  However, what I am going through could only be described as “emptiness.” Before I felt so busy like a businesswoman. Now I need to find a reason to find an email to answer to. Information stops flooding my consciousness altogether. I need to go to the New York Times website to read news.

From behaving like a digital addict, now I suffer from digital withdrawal. Now I open my emails 10 times a day, refresh the web browser every half an hour, and I still don’t receive new emails anymore. Before I could never read through all of the emails that I received on a daily basis. Now I don’t have anything coming at me, and I don’t know what to do about it. I feels like I am not pursued by people/companies any more. Suffering from digital withdrawal isn’t a comfortable feeling. I am still trying to fill the void of digital emptiness.

In Digital Minimalism, Cal Newport also suggested that after deep cleaning, one can also  re-introduce digital technologies into one’s work flow, and life activities. But one should only introduce essential tools that help one to improve the quality of life and work.

Newport suggests the following:

After the break, I determine what is important, and add back into my life. The three criteria to make sure that a technology is critical and necessary for my well beings are:

  1. It serves something that I deeply value
  2. It is the best way to use technology to serve this value
  3. It has a role in my life that is constrained with a standard operating procedure that specifies when and how to use it.

Having thought carefully about these criteria, I did not re-install anything that I deleted. I only dowloaded and installed a few new apps that restrict my cell phone use even further. For example, Moment gives me reports on how much time I spend on my phone. My goal now is to pick up the phone less than 25 times, and less than 1.5 hours in total a day. I was surprised by how many times I picked up my phone a day before the Mail app was deleted. It came around 50-60 times, and I often spent more than 2.5 hours on various applications.

The experiment has not been all liberating because I am still going through digital withdrawal. Sometimes I feel completely disconnected with the world. That is a very uncomfortable feeling. I recognize that I have “the fear of missing out,” which I never thought that I had. This revelation made me contemplate about the relationship between the self and society with regard to digital technology. How has digital technology altered one’s understanding of oneself in society? This is a question that needs some social theory to answer, and as of now I will just pose it as a question without any concrete answer.

The experiment nudges me to think deeper about minimalism in general as a philosophy. It basically means that one can cut down un-essential things in life in order to live a more fulfilling life. On a personal level, only cutting down my digital consumption already frees up my mental space, and I have more time to focus on important activities that bring me joy, happiness, and also success. I wonder whether this philosophy of “everything minimalism” can be applied to organizations and institutions. For example, can universities cut down on unnecessary, symbolic programs such as huge football teams, building new dormitories, etc, so students do not have to acquire unnecessary students’ debt for higher education? Can a society as a whole pursue a minimalist philosophy? Is it anti-capitalism, or is it simply a necessity in modern society.

Injuries & Stress

Before my first day at graduate school, one alum in my program mentioned in an email to me, saying that graduate school is a long period of time in one’s life. It would take somewhere between four to ten years. A lot of marriages could not even last that long. The average length of a US marriage that ends in divorce is about seven years, while the average length to finish a PhD in sociology is about 6.5 years. Many things can happen during this period. People fall sick many times. It seems that they fall sick more often during stressful periods such as qualifying exams, and job talks.

Yesterday, I woke up early and started preparing for my morning run (I am training for a half marathon). While brushing my teeth, and putting on my running gears, I tried to do some stretching for my neck muscles, and relaxed different joints. Then I shook my head, and strained my neck muscles. Originally I thought it was not serious, so I headed out for a run anyway. After about 15 minutes, the pain migrated to my brain, and my legs felt weak. The pain sensation somehow migrated throughout my body, and made my breath shorten. No longer able to bring myself to jog, I headed straight home, and made myself a tea instead. Throughout the morning, I felt clumsy. The pain did not disappear. It seemed to intensify after a while.  It affected my ability to take in information, and process it. I could not think straight, or remember what I read.

This incidence reminded me of how I sprained my ankle in the fall. One day I was going down the stair case (I live in a walkup), I fell on my right ankle, and sprained it pretty hard. I thought it was not serious, but I went to the doctor’s any way. They gave me a cam walker boot, and made me wear it for a week. That day I also had various meetings, and the boot followed me around. I felt like an incompetent person that day. Whenever I talked about anything, my pain would spread all over my body. Regardless of whatever I feel toward an argument or a fact, pain was the only thing I expressed. As a knowledge worker, I highly value my ability to think. On that day, I just could not even think. I could only feel, and pain was the primary emotion I had.

The two incidences shared something in common, which needs to be further interrogated. One morning I woke up, and shook my head. My neck got hurt. I stopped thinking properly. One thing I walked down the staircase, fell on my foot. My ankled sprained, and my brain hurt when I tried to think too hard. What is it this common cause?

My suspicion is that it is stress. I have been under a lot of stress since I started preparing for the qualifying exam. So I came up with the following hypothesis:

 Under chronic stress, people are more prone to injuries

Scientists have conducted research to look into the relationship between stress and injuries. Many have shown that the they have complicated relationship. It depends on a person’s genetic makeup, the level of stress, and the type of injuries. In my case, probably stress made my muscles tense up. So when I moved any part too hard, they are more prone to be displaced. Chronic stress can cause harms to various muscles:

Both tension-type headache and migraine headache are associated with chronic muscle tension in the area of the shoulders, neck and head. Musculoskeletal pain in the low back and upper extremities has also been linked to stress, especially job stress (American Psychological Association).

Being in front of a computer to read, write and do literature review, I do put a lot of burden on to my shoulders, neck and head. It seems that if I do not correct my sitting position, in a long run, I will suffer from various back and neck problems.

While permanent pain and neck injuries seem to pretty far-fetched to my situation,  the minor injuries I have gotten actually affected my ability to do my job well. As a knowledge worker, I place significant importance on my ability to think, read and write. These minor injuries do not affect my non-productive activities such as cooking, doing laundry or even joking. They really reduced my ability to concentrate, and focus on engaging in a sustained argument. In other words, they directly affect my productivity. In order to be prolific, and stay productive as a scholar, I ought to avoid both severe and minor injuries. While severe injuries are rare events, minor injuries could be avoided by lowering stress level.

One important issue that these minor injuries bring to the fore is the fragility of human body. I suddenly recognized how fragile I am, and that my body has limits. Sometimes I could not push it too far. Doing exercise, and taking care of it well through having proper nutrition are all what I am doing now. Yet, I also need to pay attention to my psychological health. The body and the mind are intimately connected. At times, when I could not pinpoint any cause of my injuries, I explained away by the aging factor. The common expression would be: “Well, my body can no longer do the things that I used to be able to do.” Now I don’t really think it is the right answer to my problem. Aging is just a way I normalize my injuries. There is actually a concrete cause that gave rise to these health-related issues that I could potentially solve with help from friends, family, and doctors if I pay enough attention to the underlying causes.

In a nutshell, stress seems to be a big elephant in the room for any Ph.D. student. If one wants to maintain a sane life during this long period of time, one ought to take care of one’s physical, mental, and also emotional health. Regardless of how one wants to accelerate the PhD process, it is more sustainable in a long run to take care of one’s own body.

 

Persistence: Necessary Virtue for Researchers

I just dusted off a research project that I conducted almost three years ago, and I am in the process of revising it for publication. This process has created pain, and some unnecessary recalling of fading memory. While struggling through this pain, and trying to normalize my article writing experience, I suddenly had an epiphany moment about research, writing, and my collaboration preference.

First, doing research and writing articles for publication are akin to training for a long-distance run, or losing weight. They all require daily practice, and consistency. If one wants to participate in a marathon, one should start training every day for months in advance. Running only 6 or 8 miles every once in a while does not help to with progress, or improving performance. I also have failed in many of my weight loss attempts because I simply lost track of my calorie count and or my exercise after the first few weeks, then I would go straight back to my former unhealthy habit of drinking beer before going to sleep, or snacking on ice-cream while watching a documentary. After a couple of weeks, my body bounces right back to where I started, and refuses to change. In other words, there is no positive outcome if the efforts are sporadic or inconsistent.

Similarly, doing research, and writing papers for publication require constant attention, and persistence. One cannot start a project, leave it aside, and come back to it three years later like I do. During the three years period, many things have changed, and that I forget my research questions at the beginning. My research interests have also changed in the mean time. It is absolutely a bad practice. Now I do not want to come back to a body of literature that no longer excites me every morning.  What this experience has taught me is that one should start and finish a project in a timely manner.  Each project should have the right to my full attention.

Regardless of how I feel like a loser in putting aside this project for so long, I will pick it up, and complete it. The idea of an unfinished paper bothers me a lot even though it seems to hinder the progress of my dissertation proposal writing. Whatever the case is, I will finish this paper, and submit it for publication in timely manner.

Second, having learned that I have tendency to put off writing up research findings, it seems necessary that I should find a writing partner, and an accountability group when it comes to finishing a project. At some point during one of my daily runs last week, I decided that I would never conduct another solo research unless it is my own dissertation project. I have recognized that I work awfully more productive when I work with another researcher. Something about the group configuration that forces me to stay on track, and stay productive. Hence, since that painful experience of having conducted my research alone, now I almost always ask to have a research partner before embarking on a new research project. Maybe I will do solo research in the future, but first I need to finish my first project in order to move on to the next one.

In conclusion, this writing experience has taught me that I need to start a project, and finish it in a timely manner, and that I need an accountability partner in order to keep myself on tract, and that I prefer from this moment on to work in a research group.

3 Things I Wish I Knew Before Grad School

When I was an undergraduate student, my only goal was to go to graduate school. I did not inquire too much about how much a professor made, or what a professorship entailed. Somehow I thought that I was smart, I did not have so much money, and I was attracted by the title doctorate, so graduate school seemed to be right for me. My questions for graduate school then had less to do with how to succeed in graduate school, and become a professor. They had more to do with how to get in, and where to get in.

Now having been in graduate school for almost four years, I wished I had talked more to graduate students, newly minted professors, and  senior professors before embarking on this journey. I should have attended professional meetings such as American Sociological Association or Eastern Sociological Society annual meetings and learned about how papers got produced. Also questions such as how much a typical professional sociologist makes, and how many hours do they work per day, what constitutes their workflows are too important to not be asked. Yet I had no idea what question to be asked, or how to ask a question, or to whom my questions should be raised.

Now looking back I wish to know more about graduate school, especially what it entails to be a professional sociologist, how this job affects my daily life, and my relationship with people around me. Particularly in terms of work flow, I wish know three things: Writing, Writing, and Writing.

Undergraduate term writing is bad training.

My undergraduate major was in mathematics and history. For history, I had to write quite a few papers every semester. Yet, I always seemed to pull them off by binge-writing them a week or two before the due date. I always wrote something because somebody asked me to write those papers. The rubrics of how the papers were graded were always clear. I also had writing tutors, and writing partners to help me with the editting throughout four years. I was not the most brilliant writer, but I could write term papers.

In graduate school, term paper writing skill was the worst thing that I had learned. Why? Because after having written term papers for four years, I accumulated a bad habit and a wrong mentality that one could binge write, and that would be fine. Being a scientist in any field  means that one should write on a daily basis. Binge-writing is exhausting, and un-healthy. Binge-writing makes one hate writing.

What should have I learned about writing in college then? Fiction and non-fiction creative writing. Why? This type of writing requires one to sit down and learn how to be comfortable with one’s own creation. Creative writing is not something one can binge over night. Oftentimes, it takes a long time to brainstorm, and gestate. The skill developed over a long period of time would help one cultivate the right mindset about writing: everything needs to be in moderation.

When I complain about my relationship to writing, my therapist suggested that sometimes I need to vomit words out. I don’t want to feel so disgusting, and violent toward my writing. My approach is more gentle, and I would love to have a strong, understanding relationship with my writing. Over a period of three and a half years, my writing has evolved from the binge mentality to moderation mentality: that is, I write everyday now, instead of writing whenever there’s a stroke of inspiration.  Inspiration comes and goes everyday, but it comes in a very small portion. Often my writing inspiration does not announce its entrance. It walks by me like a beautiful fashionista on 5th Avenue. I need to quickly take mental notes of how it looks like, and try to recreate the image of it when I have a moment to sit down in front of a computer.

My relationship with writing has developed significantly, and my philosophy about writing has changed 100%. I am no longer binging. I can no longer binge write in graduate school. And binge writing makes me hate my creation, and myself. Therefore, one needs to know that writing papers in graduate school is different from writing papers in college. One should not binge, but should think about it as a piece of creative writing.

Authenticity is more important than original.

I have written about writing authentically vs. writing an original piece. Yes, despite the general belief that one needs to be an original thinker, when it comes to writing, just write a genuine piece. Do not overshoot for originality. Do not create unnecessary more pressure for oneself when it comes to writing. Authenticity is the key to open all writing doors. If one becomes more comfortable with oneself, and one’s writing, graduate school would become an incubator for both great thinking, great writing, and authentic ideas instead of original ideas.

Writing is your day job. 

Now I learn what a day job of a professor is: writing. One has to become familiar and comfortable with writing on a daily basis. At least 30 minutes of writing a day is advised for early graduate students, then the dose increases to 1 hour a day, and when one becomes more advanced, it would go up to 4 to 5 hours a day. That is a lot of writing. And it is exhausting. Thus binge writing is no longer an option. One has to really develop a nice relationship with writing.

Elizabeth Gilbert in Big Magic suggests that one can charm writing by dressing up for it; inspiration would come. Other people suggest that one should show up for writing. What they mean is to sit at one’s desk at the same time everyday, and work with one’s writing. Now it has become clear to me that writing itself is a character in my life. I am supposed to develop a healthy relationship with it. It is more akin to my intimate partner than a dependent co-worker. Writing sometimes has a rough day. Other times it’s whimsical and moody. So my best bet is to have strong communication with it. My writing is like a teenager now. It has some identity issue, yet it is full of potential. Thus constantly communicating with it, and getting feedback from it are necessary.

In summary, I wished that I knew that I would have to develop a strong relationship with my own writing in college in order to succeed in graduate school. Binge writing is bad, and it should not be a skill or mentality taught in either college or graduate school. Authenticity is important, and one should stop worrying too much about originality. Writing is a character, and one needs to understand one’s own writing thoroughly and intimately in order to enjoy the collaborative process with one’s own ability.

Writing on WordPress is a Form of Procrastination

Since reading Big Magic by Elizabeth Gilbert, I have recognized that there is a huge contradiction in how I create writing pieces. One the one hand, I love exploratory writing where I can freely put out my thoughts to the world. This blog is the main platform where my opinion is expressed. On the other hand, I hate writing structured pieces such as a 3000 word report of data analysis. Originally I assumed that if I did exploratory writing well, I would be able to produce scholarly writing without any difficulty. What became apparent was that even when I mastered the first form of writing, the second does not become any easier. Lately following Gilbert’s advice about being a prolific writer, I started to be able to write a blog post on a daily basis. The prolificity model that she promotes has worked on me. Then another realization hit me: I procrastinate by producing on WordPress. How can I explain this contradiction?

Because my work requires a lot of researching and writing, writing on WordPress seems to be compatible to what I am supposed to do on a daily basis. It is no longer a hobby. My mind started to think about writing on WordPress as a part of my work flow. This is dangerous. It is procrastination. At the inception of this blog, it took me a lot of time and effort to think about a topic to write, and oftentimes one blog post took me a week or two to complete. Writing on WordPress was simply for me to practice my writing skills. After a period of one and a half years, I gradually shifted from writing reflection on my laptop, to write reflections, and suggestions for the wider audience on my blog. Something about the act of sharing my writing to the wider audience makes the blog a more appealing platform than writing my own diary. 

In many ways, this blog has help me achieve one goal, which is that my writing has improved a lot since the first post. It now takes a lot less time now for me to conceptualize one blog post, and write it from the start to finish. Yet I still suck at other aspects of blogging such as public sociology, audience engagement.

How come writing on my blog is so much easier than writing for a professional audience? I thought that more constraints could be liberating? Blog is a free-format writing, it should be more difficult. In the past year, I struggled writing a book review of only 400 words to submit to a journal, yet I would freely write 2000 words for a book review that I self publish on WordPress. My content creation activity on WordPress is emotionally and psychologically fulfilling. I derive some benefit from being a creative producer of some content where I can be in charge of the production and distribution process. However, all the financial gains do not go to me, but to WordPress because they can reap the advertisement money that my readers would see when they read my blog.

On WordPress, in order to be a content creator, and distributor, and using WordPress for free, I need to create something, while the financial benefit will not go to me anytime soon unless my blog is wildly successful. Given the focus of the blog (mostly on sociological topics including inequality, automation, immigration, urban consumption, or personal topics including going through graduate school, or running) I don’t think that it would be a super popular blog. Therefore, I do not think that I can monetize or have any economic gain via writing on WordPress. In a sense my graduate school, is subsidizing me to contribute to the growing enterprise of WordPress because I get paid from my school to do free intellectual activity on WordPress.

If I am strictly a rational economic actor, I should write to publish in professional journals more. They help me in a long run with my career prospects. Yet, I am addicted to writing and publishing on WordPress. What explains this addictive behavior?

One reason could be that I can freely create without having to censor myself, or having the fear that what I say is not intelligent enough, or not theoretical enough. What I express on this blog is solely my opinion, and it feels genuine. This is the freedom of form, and technical frameworks of WordPress allows that keeps me coming back to write more.  Even though most of my blog posts don’t attract a large number of audience, I feel that my urge to create something is expressed. Most of my readers do not comment on my writing, or engage with my opinion on certain topics. Thus, this blog is not really about initiating a discussion, or changing the discourse around certain topics.

Still what is it about this act of writing that makes me so addicted? Whenever I go out for a run, the first thing I want to think about is what are some ideas that I can explore on my blog. What will my next post be about? How should I write about it? This production cycle occurs to me almost on a daily basis. It has almost become second nature to me now. I wish that I have mastered a similar production cycle for my research work. How can I continuously brainstorm for the next research project, and how can I churn out something that feels genuine, and right, and good within the cycle of 24 hours? This is very challenging. How can I create the same flow in my professional life?

Despite various difficulties in my professional life, I have started to make some progress. For example, I wrote a Welcome to New York letter (the student edition) for a professional conference in sociology in the summer. The editor said my piece was charming. That comment really made my day. She clearly recognized the authenticity of that letter. Even though it took me two weeks to finalize the letter, I am now happy that I actually wrote it. Indeed authenticity is also a secret ingredient to lure the Big Magic in my profession to me.

Even though I have been spending too much time writing on WordPress, which would financially benefit somebody else instead of myself, I am gradually seeing the various benefits that it brings to me. Do I regret that I am spending more time on this blog than on my professional writing? Yes, but not entirely. I now actually wish that there are more platforms for me to express my opinion, and churn my thoughts into written pieces.

 

Signing up for Marathons

Over the weekend, I signed up for two races: one is the Shape’s women half marathon in New York on April 15th, and the other is the Philadelphia Marathon in the third week of November. After my announcement that I would start running, and training for races, suggestions of where to run, and which race to participate began to trickle in. Many told me to run for the world famous New York Marathon, or the Boston Marathon, both of which have a lottery system. I entered the lottery for the New York Marathon this year, and did not get it. So maybe I’ll have more luck next year. Currently, I am also looking for a third race to run in the summer. If you know of a summer race that will take place somewhere in the Northeast, please let me know in the comment section.

After I signed up for the two races, I found my motivation for training. My schedule has been busy lately. It has to do with preparation for the orals exam which will take place in the next three weeks. The only way that I prepare for the test is to read constantly for at least 6 hours a day. Every day I would fill out my schedule with reading from sun rise to sun set. Sometimes I become too lazy because reading takes a lot of mental energy. Then my body does not want to move. I just sit on a couch in my living room, which is connected to the kitchen. When I read, I drink coffee, or tea. When I feel hungry, I go to the kitchen, make some food, and then get back to reading. My body feels lethargic. My muscles often fall asleep. Basically I have stopped running for almost two weeks. The number on my Fitbit app does not look good. I average around less than 5 miles a day in terms of walking. That does not look good.

When I signed up for the races, I recognized that I need to be back in shape, and train for the races. Right before the snowstorm hit New York on Sunday, I saw a two hour window to run. So I put my shoes on, and headed to Central Park. Contrary to my expectation, the park was full with runners, joggers, cyclists, and of course tourists. We all tried to take advantage of the last hours when one could still see the sun, breath the fresh air.

It started out as a good run. I decided to not listen to any music. Instead, I followed advice from Digital Minimalism by Cal Newport that I should spend time to indulge in my own thinking. I figure if I run for an hour, and not listen to any music, I could do a lot of thinking. I used it for my intellectual development, my creative work, and creative living. I did precisely just that. I headed out without my regular Mp3 device. Instead I started running, and focused on my thought. I wasn’t easy at first because without earphones, my ears started picking up chatter around me, car noise, and other kind of noises. In other words, instead of the rosy pictures that I usually pain on this blog about running at Central Park, in reality I experienced all kind of noise pollution. These noises were not at all conducive to productive thinking. Yet I still enjoyed my run, and at some point started to brainstorm ideas for the next blog posts. In the end, within an hour, I came up with a few blog ideas, and eventually I did write them down for future use.

In the first 2.5 miles, nothing extraordinary happened. Then when I made a U-turn to go home, my left knee gave up. It started to hurt, and running was no longer an option. I started to walk, and slowly walked home instead. The walk was not the most productive time for thinking because my knee reminded me how fragile and limited my body was. My knee constantly reminded me of the pain instead of being a part of my body which I could rely on. I spent the rest of the exercise thinking about why my knee started to hurt at that exact moment? Did I put too much pressure on it?

Here are a few hypotheses that I came up with:

(1) My right knee started hurting the day before. Therefore, during the run I needed to shift the weight to my left knee, after a while the left knee gave up because of too much weight and pressure.

(2) I overkilled the run because I had not trained at all for the previous 7 days. I should not have run for 3 miles straight after many days not doing anything.

(3) I did not have the right shoes. My Nike shoes were good for walking, but not for running. I should buy myself a new pair of shoes that are appropriate for long distance running. In other words, I can buy stuff to fix my knee problem.

(4) My friend, who is a long-distance runner, suggested that because I did not warm up properly before running, my knees hurt. He sent me an article that specifies that runners need to warm up before each run, so that they don’t get any injury in a long run. Furthermore he gave me a formula for each exercise: 15 mins warming up, 60 mins running, 10 mins cool down. I contested that it would too much time. He argued that it is worth it because 85 mins of exercise could reduce all the stress that one accumulates during the course of one’s PhD career.

Three out of the four hypotheses (No. 1,2 & 4) have to do with my laziness, and cutting-corner mentality. I want to not put in the work, but want to reap the joy and benefit of long distance running. What they all point to is that I need to take this activity seriously, and that I can reduce the amount of time running, but increase the time warming up, and preparing my body to handle the demanding tasks of running almost 6 miles an hour. This requires a change of mindset. The other hypothesis has to do with how I treat my feet, and the financial investment that I need to put in in order to become a serious and committed runner. In other words, of course running does not require a lot of financial investment like yoga, or cycling, or fencing does, one still needs to put in some  minimum investment. One needs the right shoes, and sometimes right pants, and shirts. This change only requires some financial investment. In other word, it is a problem that has a market solution.

Over the course of only one day, when I registered for a couple of races, and after my knees got some minor injuries, I learned a few new running lessons: (1) If I set a solid deadline, I would put more time and effort in training; (2) in order to run in professional races, I need to take it seriously, which requires two changes: physical and emotional. I need to maintain my body well in order for it to perform well before, during and after the races. I also need to protect my feet, and have the right form when running in order to avoid injuries. Hopefully from now until the first race on April 15th, my body will not get any injury, and that I can breeze through the 13 mile competition.

Authenticity as a Way to Think about Scholarly Creativity

I don’t often think about the word “authenticity” when it comes to scholarly writing. My understanding is that scholarly work has to be original. Thus scholarly writing has to be also original. However, most of the times, when I talk about an idea, someone has done some “proprietary phrase coining” already: that is, they have already claimed certain idea, certain concept, and christened it with the most esoteric phrase ever. I often feel like I have no original thought, or have no potential to contribute to scholarly literature that I am consuming ever. I feel trapped.

Last week, when I wrote a review for the book Big Magic by Elizabeth Gilbert, something changed. Gilbert suggested that one should keep creating because it doesn’t matter whether somebody has created it before. What matters is that it feels genuine because it is created by you and not somebody else. The concept that she evokes is authenticity.

This got me thinking about the dull activity of writing literature review. By definition literature review is not original. It is a summary of prior research. I never got myself to do it right. I never get excited when I have to repeat what I know. I detest it to be honest. I cry my heart out every single time. I wonder whether somebody can teach me a hack so I can crack the code of literature review in sociology. It is a pain in the neck. It is the necessary chore like doing laundry but no body wants to do it. How can a scholar do it beautifully, and gracefully? Every time when I engage in a new project, I think that literature review is that which really holds me back. I ask myself: how can I read all the work, understand the fundamental ideas, yet I utterly fail to produce a summary of prior research and their findings? I feel ashamed of myself every time this happens.

Gilbert provides a different understanding of what it means to create and what it means to write. To Gilbert, a creative person has a burning desire to create something. It doesn’t have to be original, novel, or ground-breaking. As long as this person produces something that she desires to make, she is a creative person. This definition really gave me some relief. Being a scholar is to be original. This tremendous pressure has made me feel like a loser every time because I don’t feel like I am such an original thinker. Every single time when I thought of doing something new, some other scholar has already done it. Yet having read so much interesting sociology literature, I am burning with the desire to contribute to the field. Honestly I love sociology, and I want to make a dent in this world through this field. Suddenly something clicks. Gilbert’s advice suddenly makes sense.

By Gilbert’s definition, I am a creative person. I want to create something within the field of sociology. I am burning with the desire to write something, to create some research, and test hypotheses. Yet, a couple of things that are holding me back are literature review, and figuring out a good research question. In terms of literature review, I might not be able to write the most comprehensive summary of literature ever, but I can write an authentic one because I am the only one who sees the world that way. It will read like a paragraph written by me. That is more important than having a world-shaking literature review. This idea really gives me some hope.

Then I look more into the history of this idea, “authenticity.” In my field, sociology, I remember reading about”urban authenticity.” The concept was being used and scrutinized by Sharon Zukin in Naked City. Last time when I applied her conception of authenticity to urban consumption, I learned:

If authenticity is a state of mind, it’s historic, local and cool. But if authenticity is a social right, it’s also poor, ethnic and democratic.

The concept has to do with social right, poor-ness, ethnicity, and democracy in the urban context of gentrification. Yet in her book Zukin traces the historical development of the concept. It meant pretty differently at the beginning:

In Western culture the idea of authenticity arose between the ages of Shakespeare and Rousseau, when men and women began to think about an authentic self as an honest or a true character, in contrast to an individual’s dishonesty, on the one han , and to society’s false morality, on the other…. Men and women are authentic if they are closer to nature – or to the way intellectuals imagine a state of nature to be – than to the institutional disciplines of power.

Zukin establishes the intellectual history of the concept “authenticity,”  and shows that it arose somewhere between the ages of Shakespeare and Rousseau. Furthermore, she emphasizes that Rousseau changed our understanding of what an authentic individual is: to be closer to nature and further away from “corrupted or artificially constructed” institutional life of society.

Why should I feel that my piece of writing is authentic? Why should it be more productive and fulfilling than original? How can I make a claim of authenticity? What does it take to produce something that is authentic? How does it make a difference? Is it just another way to say the same thing?

I am not 100% sure how to answer those questions. One thing I know for sure is that the idea that whatever created by me is authentic because I was the one who brought it to life is enough. It does not matter if it is similar to my neighbor’s writing. It’s my own creation. I should be proud that I own it. Then I move on, and create something new. Maybe out of 10 authentic things, I will get one original thing, but the creative momentum is there. I am not bogged down by the tremendous pressure of being original all the time. No one can be original all the time. But everyone can be authentic 100% of the time. This is the beauty of this formula.

Digital De-cluster: Apps-Cleansing

Last week I wrote a review of the book Digital Minimalism by Cal Newport, which gave me some ideas about how I can make my life more simple so that I can focus on doing important things to my professional and private life. To summarize, the main idea is relatively simple: whatever digital tools you don’t need, eliminate it, and do not regret that you have left it out of your life. Do not internalize the fear of missing out is the big message. In Newport’s own words, the definition of this philosophy is as follows:

Digital Minimalism is a philosophy of technology use in which you focus your online time on a small number of carefully selected and optimized activities that strongly support things you value and then happily miss out on everything else.

Newport suggests three steps to take in order to de-cluster one’s digital life:

  • Step 1: Define your technology rules
  • Step 2: take a 30 day break
  • Step 3: reintroduce technology

Before taking those steps, I needed to figure out for myself what is important to my life at this point, and what are my goals. My conclusion is that I want to claim back my time and attention for three important tasks: (1) to get enough time to study for my oral exams; (2) to be able to focus to be creative with my writing; (3) to claim time for my hobby: running. With those three goals in mind, I started to clarify each step in more details.

In the first step, I defined for myself what optional technologies are. They include Twitter, Facebook, and all gossiping news channel on the Internet. I deleted all the apps that take too much of my attention. Almost all of them are social media apps including Twitter, Facebook, and Skype. I recognized that if I really need these platforms, I could go to their websites, and get information from there. Surprisingly all Amazon apps (Amazon Prime, Amazon Now, etc.) were also deleted. I discovered in the previous months that I spent way too much time on Amazon looking at consumer goods, and spending way too much money on unnecessary items such as sweet almond oil one extra pair of tooth brushes because they were on discount. Deleting Amazon helps me to get back my precious time, and preserve my little amount of money in my saving account. What is even more surprising is the biggest culprit of them all: EMAIL! Emails do really make me feel stupid, and be “enslaved” to other people’s demand.

The act of deleting these apps already made me feel so liberating. In order to de-cluster even more in the realm of emails, I started to unsubscribe to all mailing lists that I do not read, which keep crowding out my email space, and make me feel guilty that I do not read them. Yet, I know that this is only temporary because I will subscribe to many more in the future. That means I need to do an email purge periodically. Or the act of de-clustering should be done every once in a while. One should build it into one’s work flow. Maybe one should do de-clustering every other month, or once every quarter. Declustering also means re-evaluating one’s priorities in life in relations to work, and personal happiness.

Even though Newport suggests that one should take a 30 day break from technologies (which do not critically affect one’s professional life), I think a 2-week experiment could already tell whether his tips work. Therefore, I give myself a two week trial, and see if I can keep following his advice. This week is only the first week, that means I am only half way through step 2. In one week, I will report what happens in the next seven days, and what apps/ digital platforms that I think are necessary to re-introduce into my life.

In the past one week, the experiment has shown me that I have somewhat gained some independence from my iPhone.  Without the email app on it, the phone serves a few simple functions including texting, calling, and sometimes reading news. I feel less attached to it.

I especially need a period of uninterrupted time to study for my orals exam. Thus, this de-clustering experience really helps me to squeeze out some extra time for work, and gain me some peace of mind to focus on what is essential for my intellectual life.

What I find so powerful about Newport’s suggestion is that I am allowed to ignore the unessential things, and that I can be unapologetic about ignoring them. This is the “POWER OF IGNORANCE.” One is happier, and more focused when one’s ignorant really. In the age of info-glut, ignorance is a good virtue. One does not need to know everything. Wikipedia needs to know everything. Human beings should live an examined life, feel productive, and be able to contribute to society. I feel empowered by this. I no longer pay attention to trivial things. I don’t feel like I need to know everything.

One question after deleting those apps is how to use my time productively? Newport suggests that I can spend it on being not connected because unconnectedness is actually good for my mental and psychological well beings. For example, I could spend time alone, exploring my own thought, being uninterrupted by other people’s thoughts and opinion. That is to say, I should seriously spend time on giving credits to my own original thoughts. As a knowledge worker, I cannot agree more. He basically argues that my opinion and originality matter, and that in order to acknowledge their values, I need to spend time more with them, and more for them. Walking around the neighborhood, or in the park alone is one of the ways in which I can spend time on my own feet with my own thoughts.

This advice suddenly gives a different function into my daily walk and run. Normally I conceptualize that running and walking are physical exercise whereby the main focus is on my physical well-being. Hence, I often listen to a podcast or music to keep a fast pace rhythm, or to not have to focus on my thoughts. Now Newport changes this practice. He suggests that I should redirect these exercises functions: from physical to intellectual. I stop listening to podcast or music when I run in Central Park, and when I take a long walk from home to City College to teach. Cal Newport mentioned that he lives about a mile away from MIT when he was in grad school. To my amusement, and also surprise, I also live exactly 1 mile away from City College. This makes the walk to the college the more enjoyable, and more intellectual. This week, I spend the time to think about what I would talk with my students about,  how can I improve their learning experience, or how I can formulate the introduction to an academic paper that I am writing. I start to enjoy my walk all the more. Thinking does not require me to sit still at a cubicle with pen and paper. Thinking can happen anywhere as long as I can focus my attention. I have been doing it wrong all along by wasting my short attention span on listening to millions interesting podcast on the Internet, and taking my eye off the ball.

Overall, the experience has been delightful. By participating in the two-week self-imposed experiment, I learned a lot more about myself, how I spend time, and what my priories at the moment were.When the goals became more clear, I could adjust how I would achieve these goals, and how I could cut down on unnecessary activities. In exactly one week, I will report how I feel after the entire experiment, and what I think about the digital minimalism philosophy.

 

 

 

Ubiquitous computerization: The Case of New York

If you have seen Black Mirror season 1, you probably still remember episode 2 where character Bing is surrounded by TV screens 24/7. He lives in a world where everybody is surveilled, and measured constantly. It feels as if he was living in a reality TV show all the time.

Image result for black mirror season 1 episode 2

When I watched this episode the first time, I wondered what it felt like to be surrounded by TV screens 24/7. Later on I learned about the concept “ubiquitous computing,” which refers to when computing appears every time, every where, in any location, and in any format. In many ways, we are already experiencing this ubiquitous computing with portable devices such as smartphones, Apple watch, and Fitbit. We are connected 24/7. Our personal data is collected constantly.

Suddenly, on the way to work in the past few days, I realized that New York City is experiencing intensifying ubiquitous computerization. LinkNYC kiosks appear everywhere.  They help New Yorkers to connect with free Wi-Fi service instantaneously. And the Internet speed is exceptionally fast. Who wouldn’t want to use that? Increasingly, New York City is investing in tech infrastructure, and other social infrastructure in order to lure tech companies. Thus an intensification of technological infrastructure is inevitable.

image.jpgThe city is increasingly more connected. Inside the subway system, one sees more screens.

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So in addition to screen time from one’s computers, smartphones, and other electronic devices, one is now surrounded with more screens, planted by the city government in an attempt to modernize New York, and to make this city ever more connected.

Yet this attempt to make New York more and more connected should be met with healthy criticisms.  One the one hand, I see that there is an intensification of technology in our daily life. On the other hand, I do not see how cosmetic technological fix would make any meaningful change to solve an analog problem. Take the subway system for example. How can seeing more screens being put inside the subway station would fix the out-dated train system that has not gotten any new investment for decades? What one needs to fix the mass transit crisis in New York is not some new screens, but just solid century-old mechanical engineering. New Yorkers deserve clean stations, safe and functioning trains. Those bare minimum requirements have not been met for decades. Yet once the crisis broke out, the city and particularly its IT department wants to beautify those stations by exposing New Yorkers to more screen time. I don’t see how getting more screen time would improve the basic transportation needs for New Yorkers.

This experience leads me to think more about how tech would be able to “disrupt” or “change” or “make the world a better place.” Without doubt, technology has been able to enhance our experience in various aspects of life. Yet it has not been able to replace material production, and the core services such as transportation, which are still provided pretty much by human. In other words, I am questioning how the tech industry can substantially change the world if other infrastructure have not been well-designed, and well-implemented.

Another concern that I have about ubiquitous computing is its impact on our psychological health. In the book Digital Minimalism, Computer Scientist Cal Newport makes the point that in order to ensure our productivity, and happiness, we should limit our screen time. It is an important idea for workers and parents nowadays. I am already connected 24/7 via my smart phone. I am also connected to the world via the Internet through my laptop, which is often been carried around on my purse. Now, even when I go to work on the subway, and take a walk in my neighborhood, I can hypothetically be connected via LinkNYC, or other types of screens. This ubiquitous connection makes me feel dizzy, and stressed. No wonder why whenever I feel too stressed, and unwind, I want to get away to the Catskills or somewhere upstate New York, where big screens leave space for forests, creeks, and big sky. In other words, with ubiquitous computing, city residents are experiencing even more intense pressure on their mental and psychological well beings.

I wish there are more places in New York like Central Park where one can stay away from connectivity. In Manhattan, Central Park is the only place where LinkNYC has not intruded yet. It’s the last piece of land near where I live where I can still breath fresh air, and smell morning grass. This following map shows the coverage of LinkNYC.

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Originally, when I first watched Black Mirror, I thought ubiquitous computing was  science fiction. After only a couple of years, with the increasing presence of various devices in my surrounding including voice assisted tools such as Alexa, Siri, and smarter and smarter smartphones, I realize that this idea is becoming reality. However, one does not really know what the unintended consequences of this idea are to our wellbeing and happiness.

Hacker Culture Becoming Mainstream?

While writing review of two books: The Mastermind and Bad Blood, I noticed that organizations described in them consciously employed hacking as main ways to solve problems. In the case of the Mastermind, the entire enterprise where Paul le Roux built was centered around hack culture. He figured out various loopholes in the American health care system, and exploited those loopholes to sell painkillers on the Internet. In Evan Ratliff’s words, le Roux often hacks his way out of a situation:

Typical of Le Roux, the plan was kind of hack. Just as he had exploited a hole in the American healthcare system to sell painkillers, he planned to take advantage of a dysfunctional government to exploit the resources it couldn’t harvest.

Sitting in his headquarters in the Philippines, he could mobilize more than 1,000 employees across the world to work for his many companies. He hacked his way into becoming a mastermind of the dark web. In Bad Blood, Elizabeth Holmes’s team of engineers, and scientists at some point had to buy Siemens’s industrial blood testing machine, took it apart, and did reverse-engineering, hoping that they could shrink the German engineering  device into a portable size. They wanted to hack their way to success.

Hacker culture started out as a subculture of people who enjoyed “the intellectual challenge of creatively overcoming limitations of software systems to achieve novel and clever outcomes.” That is to say, originally it was confined pretty much among software engineers, and computer scientists. However since 1990, tech companies have been growing very fast, and drawing a huge swath of creative workers for employment. Companies such as Google, and Facebook encourage their workers to play while at work. They have become powerful organizations where their work culture is revered, and influential. From the periphery of the economy in Silicon Valley, they are now influencing politics, media, culture, and education. In other words, their work culture is increasingly becoming mainstream. Hacker culture is no longer a sub-culture.

Gradually the tech industry is now spreading all over the United States, and also around the globe. Companies such as Google and Facebook are no longer just sitting in the Bay Area. They have offices all over the world. They are going to main street of every city. In New York, they are closer to Wall Street, than to universities. Their workers are now bringing their creative vibe with them to every corner of the city. In a few years, I wonder whether schools, and universities will adopt this culture as a way to move forward in the twenty-first century. Will schools organize “hack” events where students identify loopholes in some systems, given it’s school system, food systems, healthcare systems, etc. Then they will think about a way in which they could monetize their hack by coming up with a solution to manipulate the loopholes that they identify. It seems the more loopholes the better for a hack culture. Will regulations and system designers learn from those hacks, and work with hackers to identify problems, and help them solve problems?

Hacker culture seems to be no longer contained in the tech world. It seems to spread outside of that confinement, and is inserting its influence in other industries. Put another way, hacker cultures is becoming mainstream.

Book Review: Big Magic – Elizabeth Gilbert

What do artists do when they are not inspiring, and having no new ideas for the next project? is the question that Elizabeth Gilbert attempts to answer in her self-help guide Big Magic. I read this guide with an eye for tips and stories about how one can lead a creative life on a daily basis especially when one has no big ideas in mind to turn them into successful projects. The author as a novelist, a writer writes from her own creative experience. She advocates for a creative living, within which an artist, an author can keep creating what they love most without being burdened by their art. In other words, in order to create something original, one needs to lead the life of a creative person. That is when “Big Magic” happens.

I have learned quite a few useful advice from this book. One is that I need to hone my skills daily even if I do not have any single idea that could potentially turn into a book project or something significant. The idea is that one needs to spend time with one’s craft as much as one can. Over time, one would accumulate enough knowledge, and skills in order to perform a task with speed, light, and also delight.

Second, one ought to talk to one’s fear. Creative and fear go together. They are strange bed fellows. Yet whenever one starts a new creative project, fear would creep in. Fear comes in different forms and shapes. The fancy version is perfectionism, while the normal version is anxiety. Two models of writers that Gilbert examines are perfectionism model, and prolificity model, and she advocates that one should be prolific rather than perfectionist. This is a common advice that one would receive if one is a working writer in the 21st century, where more is better than less. Her example of a perfectionist writer was Harper Lee, the author of To Kill a Mockingbird. Lee never wrote anything after the success of her novel because after the peak, there is only one way to go. Gilbert wish that Lee had written more regardless of the quality of the work that she produced after her novel. The idea was that one should “write and publish ruthlessly, and abandon it. Unapologetic about your creativity, and where it would lead you.” There is so much confidence, so much force in Gilbert’s advice. Everyone should roll out like a ball, and once your creativity is unleashed, never try to contain it ever again.

Another idea that I think is very important for burgeoning artist, writer is to define oneself, and claim one’s identity. As a teenage sociologist, I am still not comfortable with my professional identity. Therefore, I have trouble creating something, and put a label sociological on it. From now on, I will say

I’m a sociologist

And

whatever I create is sociological.

Gilbert states:

Speak it. This proclamation of intent and entitlement is not something you can do just once and then expect miracles; it’s something you must do daily, forever…. I’ve had to keep defining and defending myself as a writer every single day of my adult life – constantly reminding and re-rending my soul and the cosmos that I’m very serious about the business of creative living, and that I will never stop creating, no matter what the outcome, and no matter how deep my anxieties and insecurities may be.

I will claim my identity, and identity of my work on a daily basis. I will assert my ownership on it. This is the only practice that could help me assure that I am doing what is right for me, my career, and also my creative force in me.

One of the most strange advice that I think Gilbert gives is to be in a love affair with your creativity. “Stop treating your creativity like it’s a tired, old, unhappy marriage and start regarding it with the fresh eyes of a passionate lover.” Having a love affair means that one can squeeze every single moment out of a day to have time with this affair. Do I love sociology and writing that much in order to squeeze every single moment out of my day to spend time with them? I think my love for them is growing, but it is the kind of arranged marriage love, where love, compassion, respect are growing with time when two people have spent sufficient time to know about each other. Gilbert said no, you should not have that kind of slow-brewing emotion toward each other. You need to embrace your creativity with passion, with energy, with intensity like having an affair. This sounds scary to me because in my mind I know that an affair is something that is fleeting, something that is not sustainable. Maybe fleeting is the right feeling because every creative project is a fleeting affair. After one project goes, another one should comes right in. Anyhow, I think I get this. I will put force into each project, and embrace them with all time, emotion, and energy that I have in order to produce one that I am passionately in love with.

As an academic, I work from home more often that I’d like to. Lately I have moved my work station to school library where I feel as if everyone is watching me. I should stop goofing, and start focusing on my writing, or my reading. The presence of other student fellows makes me feel conscious about my work ethic. Gilbert suggests that one needs to dress up to charm one’s creativity. Do not wear pajama. Do not look sloppy. Put on a nice dress, put on some make up, put on some perfume. Everything nice is good. Let’s go on a date with creativity.  I swear to God, if this trick works, I will dress the best in my home office to create some sociological imagination from now on. No more pajama at the writing desk, no more peanut butter and pickle when I cant find inspiration. I will go out on a date with my creativity every time when I get to the work table. It sounds like fun, and it sounds like I’m embracing my collaboration with my creativity.

Being able to create something meaningful and beautiful is a choice and a privilege. Gilbert helps me to think about my relationship with my creative feeling and thinking. She suggests that one should treat creativity like how one treats a dearest friend because the relationship is the most stable one especially for a creative person. Without love and care, this relationship would not last. Therefore, one needs to embrace it, care for it, and grow it.

 

Book Review: Digital Minimalism

Struggling to get off Facebook addiction has been on of my problems for along time. I remember joining Facebook sometime after high school. It was  useful because it helps me to connect with friends, and find long-lost connections. Increasingly, it has become a tool which my parents use to keep updated about where I go, and what I do without having to ask where I have recently spent time. However, in college I started to be aware of my addiction to Facebook. During exam time, I would de-activate my account. At that time, I did not even have a smart phone. Therefore, I only checked Facebook feeds using a computer. Still it was a huge struggle. Then I read Deep Work by Cal Report, which suggests that in order to be a knowledge worker, one needs to stay away from digital distraction including social media, and emails. They are only there to distract. They don’t contribute to the base line of intense intellectual work. That was a brilliant advice. I started to turn off my cell phone during classes, and during work. Yet I was still hooked to Facebook until this very winter, when I decided to not check Facebook for weeks in a row. This purposely not checking Facebook has helped me claim back time to do something else more productive. Then Cal Newport published a new book: Digital Minimalism .

The book  is a non fiction, popular book, yet Cal Newport uses evidence from the most recent research on online communications and behavioral psychology to back his arguments. It starts with an observation that “social media is new tobacco.” Put it differently, social media are addictive, and it is not unintentional. He claims that tech companies encourage this behavioral addiction from users. The two mechanisms that these companies can keep users on their platforms are intermittent positive reinforcement and the drive for social approval. One is how the platform is designed, while the other has to do with the fact that as social beings, we yearn for social approval. Exploiting this combination by using designs, and algorithms that keep us spending numerous hours on their platforms is what social media companies are doing. This mindless spending time on these platforms and other digital distractions is bad for our productivity, happiness, and social relations, Newport claims. Therefore we have to claim back our happiness, freedom, and productivity by systematically rethink about our relationship with digital communication tools.

Newport’s solution is “digital minimalism,” which is a philosophy, and as a practice. He writes:

Digital Minimalism is a philosophy of technology use in which you focus your online time on a small number of carefully selected and optimized activities that strongly support things you value and then happily miss out on everything else.

In other words, one needs to be mindful of what is essential, and what is not. There are more distractions in the online world than what one wants. Therefore, one needs to be selective of what one is doing online (both with a computer, and with a smart phone).

Why digital over-consumption is bad?

Because it affects our psychological well-being, and destroys high quality communication. Citing various psychology and behavior research, Newport argues that digital over-consumption, and digital communication via text messages, facebooking, and tweeting increases our anxiety level. One can say that we are living in the age of ultra-anxiety because of the ubiquitous of the Internet. Everywhere one turns, there is a device that is connected to the Internet. We have to make a conscious decision now to stay off-line. And being constantly connected is not a good thing for human psychology.

It affects the quality of our communication, and friendship. Having one or two friends with whom one can rant for hours about a bad relationship, bad boss, or the traffic is better than being connected to 1000+ “friends” on Facebook, whose attention to you is less than 30 seconds. It is a trade off between quality and quantity. It seems to be counter-intuitive to think that in order to be happier, one needs to limit one’s friend circle. Newport argues that it is a natural process. Once one puts a cap on how many people one can care about, the number of such people would drop naturally.

The more conversation you want to have, the fewer friends you will have: Conversation-centric communication requires sacrifices. If you adopt this philosophy, you’ll almost certainly reduce the number of people for which you can uphold this standard will be significantly less than the total number of people you can follow, retweet, “like,” and occasionally leave a comment for on social media, or ping with the occasional text. Once you no longer count the latter activities as meaningful interaction, your social circle will seem at first to contract.

Because communication is so essential to human need, we have figured out how to do it right for a long time. Communication technology has really changed how we communicate, and thus changed our relationship with communication itself. If one wants to claim back our quality relationship, we need to claim back our ownership of time and of the ways we communicate because

You cannot expect an app dreamed up in a college dorm room, or among the Ping-Pong tables of a Silicon Valley incubator, to successfully replace the types of rich interactions to which we’ve painstakingly adapted over millennia.

At the end of the day, we can participate freely on various platforms such as Google, Facebook, and Twitter because these platforms sell our attention. This attention seeking economy wants to get as much time out of our days as possible.

Our time = Their money

Cal Newport doesn’t go quite far as critiquing capitalism, and the form of capitalism that these tech giants are creating. This topic will be discussed in future post when I review the book The Age of Surveillance Capitalism by Shoshana Zuboff. In that book, the author analyzes the new economic logic of our time where this attention-seeking quest has lent itself to a new form of capitalism. Cal Newport only suggests that we should contain our own behavior, and not give away our precious time and happiness to the tech giants.

He then advocates us to spend time alone, contemplate about life, and not be distracted by anybody including books, digital technology, and even our friends, and family. This is essential to a good life according to him. He argues that throughout history, intellectuals including Aristotle, Schopenhauer, Kant, Nietzsche have done that. They lived a happy and productive life. I think that Newport is biased in this argument. As an academic, and an author, his main activity is intellectual work. This is not necessarily the same for other people such as a housewives, a plumber, and a nurse. I agree that everyone needs down time for oneself: maybe to wind down after a long work day with a beer with friends. That is also fine to me. Besides, I don’t entire buy in the argument that Schopenhauer and Nietzsche actually lived a good life by constantly contemplating about life on their own. It’s a romantic interpretation of an intellectual’s ascetic life.

In short, by explicating what “digital minimalism” is, Newport advocates for a life without much distraction. It is a more balanced, and happy life when digital technology does not take charge of our lives. I agree with him that we need to de-cluster our use of technology,  and reclaim our time and attention to people and activities that truly matter to us.

Public Sociology: Podcast as an Effective Medium

In the previous blog post with the title We are All Public Scholars Now,  I argued that most sociologists have agreed that doing public sociology is desirable, and that the Internet has significantly lowered barriers to entry to disseminate scholar work, and to voice their expert opinion. Furthermore, I raised various issues that are associated with Twitter as a platform to engage with the publics. Twitter offers instantaneous access to public debates, but scholars can also get into polarized debates because of social network effect. In this blog post, I would like to focus on another platform where sociologists can also engage in public sociology: Podcast.

The five main ways that I have seen scholars engage with the public, and disseminate their work are as follows:

1. Public lectures

2. Traditional media (newspaper, talk shows, popular books)

3. Blog

4. Social Media (Tweet, Facebook, etc.)

5. Podcast.

Among those five categories, the first two are “conventional.”  Scholars have given public lectures, and talked to traditional media since the inception of the university as an institution. Increasingly I have seen that scholars write more popular books than academic books to engage with well-read audience who are not necessarily academic-oriented. Even when writing scholarly books, they try to eliminate academic language such as “As XYZ writes,” or “XYZ argues.” They try to stay away from those rigid academic language that does not flow in a normal conversation. For example, Richard Ocejo in his latest book Master of Craft, tried to “break the frame of writing academically,” and avoid “the academic shorthand.” These practices challenged him “to explain our concepts in other language and not rely on what we take for granted” (Scholars’ Conversation: Richard Ocejo).  Increasingly it has become blurring between scholar writing and popular/creative non-fiction writing. This shows that scholars have incorporated the idea of public-facing sociology into their knowledge production process.

The next three categories among the five categories only started with the rise of the Internet. Blogging has been a popular form to engage with the blogsphere. Increasingly more scholars start to use Twitter as a place to disseminate their work. Because scholars have used the first two ways to engage with their various publics, there has been an established protocol about how to disseminate their work via these routes. A scholar needs some credentials, which establish that they are an expert in certain field. Besides, there are various gatekeepers such as TV managers, anchors, and other network personnel that could facilitate or prevent a scholar to disseminate their work and engage with the public. With the rise of the Internet, and the decreasing barriers to entry to various platforms such as blog, social media, and podcast, scholars can now disseminate their work quickly, and cost-effectively.  They can avoid the middleman problem, and totally stay away from institutional gatekeepers that sometimes might not want them to voice their opinion.

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Sociologists Arlene Stein and Jessie Daniels in their book Going Public gave a timely advice to social scientists about how to be more of a public scholar, engaging with different publics using digital technologies. In the book, they emphasize that writing concisely, clearly, and not using jargon is the foremost important requirement for a scientist to engage with the public. Then they explore various digital technologies, and how they change the way scholars are doing their work. They give detailed descriptions of how to start and maintain a scholarly blog, or a Twitter account, and whether Facebook is a problematic platform to maintain scholarly presence. However, they do not mention anything about podcast as a communication tool to engage with the wider audience. This book is telling. Social scientists have written blog posts, written for the New York Times, yet few of them maintain a podcast where they could directly communicate with the wider audience. Why don’t we embrace this particular medium?

One reason has to do with the time cost of maintaining a well-run podcast. It takes a lot of time, and work to create and maintain a podcast. Even though social scientists have not come out and talk about their burnout problem as much as physicians do, they are nevertheless burdened with lots of administrative work on top of their heavy teaching load, and doing research. Maintaining a podcast? No thank you very much. Just the idea of starting a podcast, and making sure that people are listening to the podcast, and that it runs well is overwhelming to any busy scholar.

However, there are some good sociology podcasts out there such as the Annex, or Thinking Allowed. Both of these podcasts are exceptionally well-run by veteran sociologists in the English speaking world. I have written a review of the two podcasts on this blog about a year ago, and one can find out more about it here. SozioPod from Germany also does such a great job in bridging the communication gap between social scientists and the publics about social issues in the German speaking world. Those examples show that other than cost/benefit reason, there must be another reason that podcasting is a difficult market to crack for social scientists. It could be inherent to graduate school training that we all receive.

When writing a blog post, for the New York Times, a popular book, or simply tweeting, the main skill that one needs is to be able to communicate effectively in the written forms. In contrast, podcasts require a completely different skills set: story telling, conversational reaction with the host, some humor. In other words, the podcasting repertoire is completely different from the scholarly repertoire. In order to become a good scholar, one needs to think and write mostly. Even though teaching is a part of a professor’s work, it is not the main criterion where one’s evaluated as a scholar. The image of a socially awkward professor still comes to mind when one thinks about a serious scholar. Most of us are introverts who read more than playing with our peers outside during our childhood. During our grad school training, we become even more introverted because of the solitary nature of our work. Podcasting requires more than just knowledge. One needs to step outside of one’s comfortable introvert zone to talk to the audience, and to maintain that long-term connection.

In a nutshell, one does not get trained to become a good podcaster in grad school. This explains why most scientists have chosen to become public scholars on platforms such as blogs, and social media. There is “a skill consonance” between being a scholar and being able to maneuver those platforms. While there is “a skill dissonance” between being a scholar and being a good podcaster.  Therefore, even though the cost to enter the podcasting world has significantly reduced, scholars still have not moved into this space with a rapid number to engage with the wider audience.

 

 

 

Thinking aloud: An Inquiring Technique

While taking a walk with a friend in my neighborhood, I lent him my ears, listening to various problems that bothered him at that moment. Issues ran from a mathematical equation, to his relationship with his advisor, to his various job applications. Naturally I offered my thoughts on each of those issues. However, at the end of the conversation, both of us recognized that he didn’t really need any of my advice because at best I had partial information. There was no way that my thoughts or advice could be of any use to him. As an opinionated young woman, my impulse was to sprinkle my opinion on anything that I hear, while my friend only wanted to think aloud.

The incidence nudged me to inquire further into think-aloud as a thinking, writing, and teaching technique.

What is think aloud?

Merriam Webster Dictionary defines the phrase as to say one’s thoughts so that other people can hear them. For example, No, I wasn’t talking to you. I was just thinking aloud/out loud.

Collins Dictionary suggests that  if you think aloud, you express your thoughts as they occur to you, rather than thinking first and then speaking.

Both definitions suggest that first, the speaker instantaneously articulates a thought that occurs to him/her rather than carefully processing it before giving the information to the listener. Furthermore, the role of the listener is not so much as to listen tentatively and engage passionately in a conversation because the other person might not be in a dialogue mode. In other words, the listener was just there for companionship instead of being a co-thinker.

Thinking aloud could also be referred to a research protocol, where researchers gather data in usability testing in product design and development. My conception of the “thinking aloud method” relies on the same strategy:

Think-aloud protocols involve participants thinking aloud as they are performing a set of specified tasks. Participants are asked to say whatever comes into their mind as they complete the task. This might include what they are looking at, thinking, doing, and feeling.

Research participants simultaneously perform a task and verbalize how they cognitively perform the task in their head. In other words, in contrast to explaining how one does something after one thinks through the issue, one is articulating immediately how the thought process goes. As a perfectionist, I often think through an issue before articulating how I think about it. The idea of spontaneously coming up with a solution is foreign to me.  However, I have encountered this method in various situations.

The first time when I took a calculus class in college, the professor suggested that whoever could solve the problem could go up to the black board, show the class how  the equation could be manipulated, and articulate along what she did. I was able to quickly figure out how the equation could be manipulated on a piece of paper at my seat. However, when I got to the board, while showing my classmates visually how each step should be performed, I was tongue-tied. No word came out of my mouth even though I knew the perfect answer. The reason wasn’t that my English was bad. Simply solving a mathematical equation was a quiet and thinking endeavor for me. My prior grade school education in Vietnam taught me that mathematical thinking was individual thinking. The only thing one needed to do was to get an answer right. I was never asked to show anybody verbally how the equation could be manipulated step by step as I solved it. Mathematics was not supposed to be social. However, in an American college classroom context, learning was social. Simply it was a different learning exercise that I encountered. I was dumbfounded by my silence.

Apparently, in the two above situations, thinking aloud was a social exercise to help one think through a problem. In my friend’s situation, he was trying to think through his various professional and personal problems, however he preferred to think through the problem by verbalizing it. While in the second scenario, I encountered a thinking-aloud exercise that required students to articulate their thought processes while solving a problem. I didn’t understand it so much as a thinking aloud exercise, what I did was really thinking fully, and then re-telling, and justifying each step. In a way, thinking aloud is used in various contexts to stimulate one’s thought processes. As a scholar, I see that this technique is very helpful for many purposes. One can utilize it in at least three situations in the academe where this technique would be useful: formulating a research project, solving a problem, and teaching students a concept.

Formulating a research project

How can one articulate one’s thought processes to form a meaningful research project? The problem with graduate school is that it’s a lonely process. Many a times, one conceptualizes that it’s one’s own journey. However, it is not true. Most research projects are team efforts. Of course, the author of a dissertation is responsible for most of the work. But without a whole crew of advisors, peers, editors, and other scholars, the work could never be materialized. In this process, many experienced researchers would help a junior researcher to formulate a project by asking probing questions. These questions trigger various thoughts, dormant knowledge, and working hypotheses. In other words, the thinking-aloud method is already implicitly used in graduate school. Formulating a dissertation research is similar to formulating a novel. In writing either document, an author has to make millions of decisions. Thinking aloud brings in the social aspect of this seemingly solitary process.

Solving a problem

Creative thinkers solve problems that might not have answers, or nobody has yet figured out the answers. Therefore, in order for them to push the boundary of knowledge, they need an extra push, and support. Thinking aloud makes this process more humane. Instead of hiding oneself in the woods, and thinking through a problem. It is more productive to talk to people who share the same passion. They might be able to offer some insights, and nudge one along with one’s creative thinking. Thinking aloud is particularly helpful when an idea is vaguely forming in one’s head. Like a sculpturist, the thinker’s job is to add contours to this idea: that is, to add depth to a two dimensional object, or to add shape & substance to a non-material one. Thinking aloud adds vocabulary to this idea. The more one does it, the more the idea becomes more complex, and grasp-able.

Teaching

In many ways, teaching involves reverse engineering. I often find myself explaining what the author of a particular research did to my students. However, the better part of the teaching process is to explain what could have been done differently, or what could have not been done right, or whether there are alternative explanations.  This pedagogical imagination stimulates both my own thinking, and my students’ desire to learn more. In teaching, sometimes I ask students what the author does, and how could they do things differently. I let them talk, and come to their own conclusions. Instead of giving a lecture, I let other students wait until a particular student can think through the very question they ask, and give them counter-questions to complexify the issue, until they reach their own conclusion. This feels so satisfying when a student feels that they grasp a concept or knowing how to solve a problem. However, obviously this method would not work for a classroom of 100 students. It is very much a seminar style, where I can pay attention to each student’s thought processes. In other words, this method is appropriate for a small-class setting.

Potential conflict

The relationship between the speaker and the listener in the process of thinking aloud is symbiotic, yet this form of thinking could cause conflicts if both parties are not aware of what their role is in the relationship. The speaker is processing some thoughts, and trying to give an idea some flesh, and structure while the listener’s role is to facilitate this process by asking clarifying questions. In many ways, the speaker is not interested in the listerner’s opinions or advice about a particular topic of interests. Most important to the relationship for the listener is to ask questions. However, this subtlety is difficult to detect in daily interactions because as human beings we think our opinions matter. Having our opinions discounted hurts our feelings. Sometimes the first party, the speaker is simply not aware that they are thinking aloud. Hence the listener, the sidekick in this scenario has to do the work, figuring out whether they are playing the sidekick roles for a brief period of time. In order to avoid this confusion, and potential conflicts, the speaker should be aware that they are interested in exploring some questions, and would like to get some ideas, feedback from the other party. If this is clear from the beginning, the interaction would be meaningful and productive for both sides.

In conclusion, thinking aloud is a technique that anyone can employ for daily problem solving. To a knowledge producer, scholar, and a pedagogue, it could be utilized to formulate a problem, solve it, and teach others how to solve it.

Book Review: Bad Blood by John Carreyrou

About two months ago, all news media talked about the Theranos scandal, where the once unicorn startup had to shut down and liquidated because its founder, Elizabeth Holmes was indicted for wire fraud and conspiracy. Theranos was a health technology company that tried to “disrupt” the health care industry by designing a blood test device that used only a small amount of blood. This failure challenged many promises that Silicon Valley tech startups have been making all along: technology can solve many things fast. It raised many questions about Sillicon’s fake-it-till-you-make it and play-fast-and-loose culture. A couple of weeks ago while I was attempting to learn about AI technology, and its social, political implications. A social scientist mentioned to me that she was listening to an audiobook, whose name is Bad Blood to get a more nuanced understanding of the scandal. The book piqued my interest. I immediately requested it, gave it a read, and now feel that I have a better understanding of how Silicon Valley works.

What is Bad Blood about?

Originally, I thought that the nonfiction followed a traditional path of an investigative journalistic work where it would ask the questions such as who is Elizabeth Holmes, how did she come up with her startup idea, how did she make it a unicorn, why and how did it fail? In a lot of ways, it is a case study of how Silicon Valley created one of the sickest unicorn that was meddling with the health care industry. In a closer read, I found that my original thought was naïve. The book is more than just how Elizabeth Holmes rose to stardom and descended rapidly. It is a detective work where the author himself was involved in bringing down a tech darling from her unrealistic dream by exposing her lies and delusions. The book portrayed Elizabeth Holmes to be the charming, intelligent female antagonist, and the journalist at the WSJ, John Carreyrou, the author of the book to be the male protagonist, the detective who did not appear until very late in the story. Yet his journalistic instinct helped him paint an accurate picture of Theranos, its embarrassingly mediocre technology, sloppy management, and delusional culture of Silicon Valley. The shift in narrative from Elizabeth Holmes and people around her to how the journalist put the case together made the story much more convincing.

The female villain of the book is Elizabeth Holmes, the charming blond startup founder of Theranos. She dropped out of Stanford University  in 2003 to found a company that promised to test blood with a small device that could perform an array of blood tests using only one drop of blood. This promise was tempting to many investors, and corporate partners including a large swath of respectable venture capitalists, Wal-Greens, and at some point even the United States Defense Department. The book  structured chronologically.  In many ways it is a biography of a company. It has less to do with Elizabeth Holmes even though she’s a big part of it, who gave shape, form, and contour, and character to her startup. Therefore a significant amount of space in the book is dedicated to the complex character of Elizabeth Holmes. The underlying question around Holmes is why did shecreate what she created and why did she lie the way she lied to everyone?

In the process to answer this question, the author portrays other characters around her, and use the words of these characters to portray Holmes. He is like a sculpturist who creates contours and dimension to each character, and also shows the nature of relationship between different characters. What is the most striking feature of this person? How can one bring to the reader’s mind a 3-D portrayal of this character in this story?  He paints a picture of Elizabeth to be a horrible person, yet she’s very smart. She’s ruthless, controlling. Here’s Holmes from an ex-employee, a friend’s point of view, how Elizabeth was getting bad influence from her boyfriend:

In her relentless drive to be a successful startup founder, she had built a bubble around herself that was cutting her off from reality. And the only person she was letting inside was a terrible influence (her boyfriend). How could her friend [Elizabeth] not see that? (p.80)

Why did Theranos fail? The company was glutted with sloppy corporate governance, bad management, and despotism. Holmes hired her college roommate, boyfriend, and her incompetent brother to work as her closest people. She valued loyalty more than competency, and expertise. That’s not a way to go for a high-tech company. She might have over compensate because she’s young and tried to assert her authority over her well-trained brilliant employees. Her smartness could not really cover for her lack of training in the medical field. This insecurity manifested in making each department a silo. It translated in her obsession with leaking trade secrets out by surveilling her employees.

She had a vision that she genuinely believed in and threw herself into realizing. But in her all-consuming quest to be the second coming of Steve Jobs amid the gold rush of the “unicorn” boom, there came a point when she stopped listening to sound advice and began to cut corners. Her ambition was voracious and it brooked no interference. If there was a collateral damage on her way to riches and fame, so be it (p. 299).

The book really made the character Elizabeth Holmes appear like some body that one could spot in street of Silicon Valley. She was loved by the press. She was the woman engineer that everybody wanted to have in the male-dominated world of the tech industry. On her rise to stardom, the author writes:

Her journal interview had gotten some notice and there had also been a piece in Wired, but there was nothing like a magazine cover to grab people’s attention. Especially when that cover featured an attractive young woman wearing a black turtleneck, dark mascara around her piercing blue eyes, and bright red lipstick next to the catchy headline “THIS CEO IS OUT FOR BLOOD” (p. 208).

John Carreyrou was not afraid to criticize the press, including his own employer, the Wall Street Journal for having buy into Holmes’s promises early, and brought her from the periphery  to the center of national attention. This increasing publicity helped her raise money, and bring political and elite powerful people closer to her. Her company got valued a lot higher because of all those PR articles. This story makes clear the process, whereby a startup gets more funding via its inflated images portrayed by the presses. Then the press would give it even more attention for its successful rounds of funding. The startup is then swelling with funding, and flowery media images of itself. It’s a vicious circle.

One great thing about the book is that the author makes chemical and engineering processes read-able to the wider audience. What is high-tech is suddenly within grasp. For example, when talking about how a commercial blood analyzer might introduce errors, Carreyrou writes:

Alan had reservations about the dilution part. The Siemens analyzer already diluted blood samples when it performed its assays. The protocol Daniel and Sam had come up with meant that the blood would be diluted twice, once before it went into the machine and a second time inside it. Any lab director worth his salt knew that the more you tampered with a blood sample, the more room you introduced for error. 170

My favorite aspect of the book is its language: very matter-of-factly. There is no over flowery language. Everything is straight to the point. It is a long form of investigative journalism. It’s about the truth. There are great sentences for sure, but these great and stylistic sentences are not the main focus of the book. Now I understand my obsession with non-fictions when I was a teenager. When my English was not great, I preferred reading for information, and that I didnt have to guess what each symbolism meant.

Even though Carreyrou writes with a matter-of-factly tone, his superb writing skill really makes the book read like a movie. Each chapter rolls like a movie sequence. He zooms his camera at some characters, their stories, and then zooms out, and re-introduces them again later. Every character is presented to show the progression of the rise and downfall of Theranos. The book also reads like an urgent detective work. The sense of urgency is seeping throughout the book. Sometimes, it feels like one is watching a thriller movie.

As a sociologist, I must say that the book is very sociological. The author paints a  complex social network around Holmes, and how it influences Holmes’s decision making process. Theranos’s downfall is a social failure, not necessarily just the failure of a female startup founder. Carreyrou argues that it’s the fake-it-till-you-make it culture in Silicon Valley that contributed to this failure. Theranos was engaging in practices what other tech giants was doing with their products. For example, Apple, MS, and Oracle were accused of “vaporware,” a term to describe:

A new computer software or hardware that was announced with great fanfare only to take years to materialize, if it did at all. It was a reflection of the computer industry’s tendency to play it fast and loose when it came to marketing… Such over promising became a defining feature of Silicon Valley. The harm done to consumers was minor, measured in frustration and deflated expectations (p.296).

Holmes was just following the footsteps of those who she admired:

By positioning Theranos as a tech company in the heart of the Valley, Holmes channeled this fake-it-until-you-make-it culture, and she went to extreme lengths to hide the fakery  (p. 296).

However, she’s wrong. She’s working in the intersection between the tech industry, and the healthcare industry, where no “vaporware” is tolerated because it messes with human life. Computers and human beings are not the same. Legislation is still trying to catch up with computers, but human kind has had thousands of years dealing with illnesses. Life is invaluable, not disposable like an Apple computer.

When I first read Chapter 19: The Tip,  I thought well it looked like an Appendix in a sociological monograph, the end was coming. However, I was wrong. Instead, the chapter was the plot twist. And the I-character entered the story out. Carreyrou started narrating how he became involved in the project to bring down the unicorn. From then the story shifted to how the WSJ  published important investigative articles that showed the truth. This in effect alarmed regulators. They made regulators aware of all the wrongdoings that Theranos.  This is where the hero, the protagonist of the book was introduced.

While the book does a great job at telling the story of Theranos, and how journalists can work with regulators, and public policy makers to bring to light harmful practices, its main focus on Theranos, Elizabeth Holmes leaves many questions unanswered. For one, what is the fate of various early skeptics of Theranos? For example, the Fuisz’s, who was sued by Theranos early on because of a patent. Theranos really destroyed their family wealth in an expensive  legal battle. John Fuisz left his law firm because of reputational damage caused by Elizabeth Holmes’s accusations. Carreyrou seems to leave them out of the picture all together when his mission is accomplished: to reveal Holmes’s ruthless character.  It seems that the author deploys lawyer’s practice: to discredit the character of the defendant by showing the court how she has been treating people really badly all along.Yet, what others think, feel after Theranos was liquidated is not at all discussed. The battle is won. There’s no point of following up with other witnesses.

Dropping characters aside, why did Theranos failed? It’s the delusion and bad practices of Theranos, the author asserts:

Hyping your product to get funding while concealing your true progress and hoping that reality will eventually catch up to the hype continues to be tolerated in the tech industry. But it’s crucial to bear in mind that Theranos wasn’t a tech company in the traditional sense. It was first and foremost a health-care company. Its product wasn’t software but a medical device that analyzed people’s blood. As Holmes herself liked to point out in media interviews and public appearances at the height of her fame, doctors base 70 percent of their treatment decisions on lab results. They rely on lab equipment to work as advertised. Otherwise, patient health is jeopardized (p.297).

However, is this failure solely Holme’s responsibility? As a sociologist I see it to be the problem of the tech industry when it tries to disrupt a more established industry: healthcare, where a patent’s life is at risk. This is a more systematic failure of the Silicon culture, and business practices.  The line between faking it and lying about it is oftentimes blurred. All companies exploit legal loopholes to disrupt various industries. Holmes lived within the Silicon Valley universe, and had exercise her agency as what she was supposed to do. She was just following the herd, but she picked the wrong battle. The healthcare industry is not the same as the taxi industry or mass media.  One can lie about a hardware that has not existed, but one cannot lie about how a technology will not harm a patient.

My take-away after reading the book is that running a startup or any business is like running a marathon, not a sprint. One cannot force the race to be faster. It is a long training process where prior preparation is required to ensure a successful race. Another insight that I learned is that the quest to accelerate automation could bring potential harmful effects. Of course, automation can help with production, and various aspects of life. In healthcare, one must admit that human workers, particularly doctors, and lab technicians are magically accurate because their long-time training. They have hunches, and intuition which a machine does not have. Yes, humans make mistakes, but they also work wonder.

 

Why Reading Novels?

Every April, Agnes Scott College, my alma mater, organizes its famous annual writer festival. I got introduced to it my first year, took a creative writing workshop in my second year. Danzy Senna, a mixed race novelist, whose main themes deal with growing up as a mixed race person in American race-conscious society, showed me how one can write to provoke sensory experiences, regardless of whether those experiences are relatable to an English speaking audience. She urged me to include foreign languages: Vietnamese, Khmer. “Transport your audience to another world,” suggested Danzy. I benefited from Agnes Scott’s tradition of bringing great writers in to show students how to be a good writer. But it seemed no Asian writer was ever invited to give a workshop on writing. That changed in my last two months of college.

In early April, 2013, Gish Jen, gave a powerful public lecture on how she became a writer by dropping out of a business school. Additionally, there must be someone to break the stereotype that Asians do not become writers because writers dont earn money. Pursuing your passion was essentially the message.

During her speech, Gish Jen told us where her inspirations come from. Particularly, how to organize ideas, and develop a story out of an idea. The method is to keep a binder of words, phrases, sometimes quotes, and sayings. Then at a later date, sift through them, pick one good idea, and develop a story from that word. We’re all wordsmiths.

The image that stuck with me particularly was her description of tall ancient pine trees at Confucius Temple in Qufu, China. A month after her speech, I bought a one way ticket to China, and spent the summer there. Without any real meaningful connection to China.  I did have a few Chinese friends in college. One of my cousin studied abroad in Chengdu, Sichuan. Yet I knew not much about the place, nor I knew any Chinese word then. It was a bold decision. Two months later, volunteering at the Confucius Temple Complex, standing in front of rows of “ancient pine trees,” I felt accomplished. The trees were not really ancient and mysterious like those in Avatar.  They were well-kept, had more trunks and barks than leaves. Standing in the temple yard, I tried to absorb all the wisdom of time, air, water, and soil of the place. It felt sacred. “I have arrived,” I mumbled to myself while collecting soda cans thrown on the sidewalks by tourists. This experience showed me how imagination could influence me, it urged me to act, albeit on trivial matter such as traveling to another country. Gish Jen was persuasive in her argument that one ought to experience the place before really trying to describe it in own’s writing. Besides, I can relate to everything she told us that day. She had power of a great novelist. I could relate to her words, to her kinship stories, which spanned both the United States and China. At the end of the summer, I felt happy traveling in China, and seeing it partly through Gish Jen’s eyes, partly through my own curiosity.

The title of the blog post is “why should anyone read novels?” Reading novels is a luxury for many. In the age of “info glut,” few people have enough time to sit down, and read a novel from cover to cover. How many have patience to read Anna Karenina, a tome of almost 1000 pages? Yet “reading novels” is the advice that I constantly got since the first day in graduate school. “If you want to talk like a normal person, read novels instead of academic articles or books,” said one friend. “If you want to write well, learn it from good writers. Academics don’t make good writers,” advised my writing professor.

One suggested me to read works of fiction so I can talk like a normal person rather than like an academic. The other suggested me to read good novels to learn how to write well. There are two problems here. First, why academics get such a bad rap? Their writings are dry, full of jargon, and don’t mean much to lay readers. Second, why reading fictions is worthwhile for anyone who wants to write and read well? I will attempt to answer the second question. The first question will be dealt with in another blog post that focuses on something I call “academic habitus.”

So why reading novels? Because of good sentences, and more importantly  because of images that are embedded in each book. Recently I watched some videos in a Coursera course on creative writing. The teacher explained what makes good writing with a pyramid of elements.

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Any good writing would have all the layers. Occupying the bottom level are meaning, sense, clarity. In other words, sentences must make sense. At the second level, it’s about evoking sensory experiences that everyone has. I would argue that these senses are culturally conditioned. In other words, some senses make more sense to some readers than others. For example, bacon smell would mean a lot to my American friends than to my mother who came of age in a village in North Vietnam during the Vietnam War. Following these raw senses are voice, mood, and connotation. This is where the writer’s personality comes out, and where the reader remembers them as a writer. Then the last three layers deal with subtext, metaphor, and fancy stuff. I would also argue that these parts are culturally dependent, and they are the parts that distinguish ingenious works of fiction from basic good writings.

Almost always, good social science writers operate on the first three levels. They prioritize most on the first level. Sometimes they don’t even make sense. That means they are down on the basement of the pyramid: using esoteric, vague language. Yet if one looks closely enough, one would encounter good writings that cover all three levels. A few examples are Sidewalk by Mitch Duneier, Dealing in Desire by Kimberly Hoang, and Evicted by Matthew Desmond. Most good ethnographies are worth reading. The authors write with novel-quality in mind. However, social scientists almost always stay away from the top three levels of the pyramid. The boundary between the third and fourth level demarcates where a novelist begins, and where just common good writers end. Social scientists stay away from the meaning making project that novelists actively engage in. We want to analyze metaphors instead of creating new metaphors, and new literary associations. The subtext should be out of the door because it invokes speculation, and we’re not in a speculating business.

Now back to Gish Jen. She’s so good at evoking senses by just describing a few old pine trees. Her voice was strong because she made the experience personal: telling all stories from the first person point of view. The subtext? Metaphor? And fancy stuff I wasn’t sure about any of them. Yet I knew for sure that her writing urged me to imagine, and to act upon my imagination. My sensory experiences are evoked enough that I could not sit in Atlanta any more. I wanted to get in touch with my feelings by going to Asia. That’s it. Reading good works of fiction let one be in touch with one’s inner feelings, and emotions. That is why everyone should read them. We have suppress them enough in the modern world in order to be a good student, an efficient worker, and a strict parent. We barely explore what our feelings are. We manage our anger. We refrain from showing our raw feelings lest other people judge. This is why fictions are needed more than ever for both social scientists and lay readers alike. Let our imagination take hold, and be in touch with our emotion via someone else’s writing!

Theorizing and Thinking with Metaphor

In The Art of Social Theory (2014), Richard Swedberg teaches students of sociology how to theorize. The message is that every sociologist should learn how to theorize. It’s not a rocket science. The author shows how anyone can theorize using the tools they already have. This lesson is important for any sociologist regardless of their seniority in the field because the field places emphasis on theoretical contribution to any paper. One of the most interesting lessons in the book to me is the use of metaphor. Ever since, I paid more attention to how sociologists use metaphors, and have become more fascinated about metaphor and writing in general.

What is a metaphor?

According to Merriam Webster Dictionary:

Metaphor: a figure of speech in which a word or phrase literally denoting one kind of object or idea is used in place of another to suggest a likeness or analogy between them (as in drowning in money); broadly : figurative language — compare simile

A metaphor is a word or phrase that often to me provokes an image, which sticks in the reader’s mind about a scenario. The reader might not remember the entire argumentation, or the detail of a paragraph, but after reading an essay, they remember the metaphor and what it means. There are at least two components of the metaphor. First, it is easy to remember, and almost always it provokes an image. Second, the essay, paragraph, or the entire book explains what the metaphor means, and what context could another person uses the same metaphor. That said, in the context of sociology, often a metaphor is attached to a particular school of thought, a theory. In other word, the author of a theory uses a metaphor to illustrate his entire way of thinking about a phenomenon.

If it represents a theory, which is meant to be tested, then how can one do science with metaphors? This is the question that I still have not been able to answer. What I have done instead is to look at examples of how sociologists have been using metaphors for the purpose of theorizing. My favorite example is the game metaphor by Michael Burawoy in Manufacturing Consent. Honestly, I don’t remember what Burawoy argues, or how he comes to the conclusion that workers in a factory think of their work as a game. In an exploitative system, workers coordinate with each other in a playful manner such that they do not over-exploit themselves, yet come up with a way to beat the system for the advantage. By entering the game, and following its rules, workers participate in social reproduction processes. The metaphor is clever, because it reminds me of game theory, and also Bourdieu’s social reproduction theory. It’s a metaphor that works for lay readers and theorists alike. The metaphor stuck in one’s mind, and could be reproduced, and adapted for another context.

Adam Reich, whose recent book I reviewed a couple weeks ago, was a student of Michael Burawoy at University of California at Berkeley. In graduate school career, he published the first book, using his ethnography work prior to official sociological training. The book is  Hidden Truth. It focuses on young men’s masculine identity in prison, and how they make meanings of their lives inside and outside of prison. He theorizes what he observed with the game metaphor. Specifically he calls what young men involved in crime participate in “The Game of Outlaw.” Of course, it alludes to Michael Burawoy’s game metaphor.  Reich suggests that the game of outlaw allows young men escape the “monotony and subservience of a regulated life in which they have little chance of success and little control.” They participate in deviant activities to have a sense of control over their lives. Again this game also alludes to social reproduction of the dominant masculine ideology.

In preparation for this blog post, I encountered a story of Ramona Smith, the 2018 Toastmasters world champion of public speaking. She is a public speaker, who adeptly uses metaphors and body language to win both heart and mind of the audience.  Her speech is not a theoretical exploration, but a story of her life struggles. In order to demonstrate various episodes of life struggles, she uses the metaphor of a boxing match. It is simply brilliant. Besides, her metaphor is enacted on stage through her bodily performance. Performing arts is powerful, especially when it is coupled with powerful words. The messages transmit well, and the audience can relate to the emotions provoked by each aspect of the metaphor. While I can no longer recall any of Smith’s life struggles, I remember that her life has been like a boxing match, and she continues fighting both inside and outside of the ring. She has successfully created a dent in my mind.

In conclusion, metaphors are literary tools to push the reader imagine. This literary technique has been used effectively by sociologists and others to make their points across. I am intrigued and happy that sociologists are using more literary tools to make their prose more accessible to the public, even when the theory behind the work is difficult to grasp.

Why writing 700 words a day?

“Follow the rule of 700 words a day.”

Internship Coordinator, Fulbright Economics Teaching Program – 2012

“Why?” asked 4 interns.

“You will need the writing skills and stamina when writing various papers, theses, and dissertations later.” responded the coordinator.

During the summer of my junior year in college, I did a research internship at the Fulbright Economics Teaching Program in Ho Chi Minh City. The intent was to see whether I could have a research career later on. It was the first internship in my life, whose requirement was to write 700 words a day regardless of the content. The interns were not asked to do much substantively because we were supposed to know what we did there as a research intern: doing independent research. Four interns made an eclectic bunch. Two were undergraduate students (including myself, and another student), the other two were master students in public policy at Harvard Kennedy School of Government. We shared an office, talked about development issues, where to find good foods in the city, and how annoying the monsoon season was. It turned out we talked less about development economics, and more about foods. It was the first time I learned what it meant to be an independent researcher: entertaining ideas with colleagues, and more importantly WRITING every day!

I didn’t follow the coordinator’s instruction consistently throughout the summer. My patience level was relatively low. I felt uncomfortable sitting in front of a computer to write dry economics literature review. It was depressing. Frankly, I did not have a research project that I was passionate about in Vietnam in order to write a concise literature review that was relevant. Additionally, my passion with economics was up for being questioned during that time. My mind and heart were not really in the research work during the summer. Rather my fun-loving nature led me to various adventures such as helping migrant children in the city, learning German, and traveling to Cambodia. In other words, I came unprepared, and my project left un-finished.

The unfulfilling experience aside, the writing lesson stays. Now being an advanced doctoral student, I understand the importance of writing on a daily basis.  The lesson my internship coordinator told me 6 years ago has been gradually unraveled in the past few years during my doctoral training. The tip is elegant and simple: only 700 words a day, no more!

Why 700 words instead of 1000 words or more?

My first year academic advisor suggested that as an academic one should write around 1000 words a day. That amount of words would make the length of a book review. I tried, and failed. The goal was a bit demanding for a first year graduate student.  Almost always after the first 300 words, I ran out of substantial things to say. Now having read more literature, and having learned about important questions in my sub-fields, I could write more. Yet, writing somewhere between 1000-2000 words still takes so much energy. My mind often feels exhausted after 1000 words. Besides, one has to edit a substantial amount of text. However, the feeling of having produced a beautiful, well-structured, well argued text to the world is amazing. I am hooked with the gratification of being able to produce some good writings that the reader enjoys. That said, having considered  various writing advice for an academic, I recognized that my internship coordinator in Ho Chi Minh City was on point: 700 words a day is a decent and manageable goal. As an academic, one has to do research, teach, and do admin work. The rule of 700 helps to preserve mental and physical energy to do other tasks in a sustainable manner.

The academic journey is a marathon, not a sprint. In order to do the job well, one needs good training, perseverance, and more importantly preserves energy for a long run. The metaphor of a marathon highlights the importance of having a reasonable writing goal, but being consistent with it. So I’ll stick to the rule of 700, and see how it pan out this academic year and beyond.

 

 

Creativity and Criticality – Productivity Function for a Knowledge Producer

In the climate of a tough job market, graduate students are encouraged to publish more and earlier. One hears publication pressure stories from friends, colleagues, and reads on the Chronicle of Higher Education. They are staying in graduate school longer to maximize the number of publications before going on to the job market. Everyone tells you that publications are the key to the job.

However, the saying “publish or perish” in academia does not show what it takes to be a prolific researcher. In order to answer that question, I look to another field, namely creative writing, for inspiration. Viet Thanh Nguyen, a scholar and a Pulitzer prize winner, in an Op-Ed on the LATimes, entitled “In praise of doubt and uselessness” intimates his struggle as an early scholar, and an aspiring writer. The essence of his struggle is to walk a balance between being critical as a scholar, and being creative as a writer. He praises “slow thinking”  which would eventually lead to higher productivity as scholar and writer. The article got me thinking about two sides of the same coin of being prolific scholar/writer. My biggest take-away is that the two aspects: CRITICALITY and CREATIVITY are intertwined all the time in one’s intellectual development.

In a grant writing workshop, one of the senior students in my program commented that in graduate students’ training, we learn how to be critical first, then learn how to be creative later. This comment keeps coming back to me when I hear that students are encouraged to publish more now. If the goal is to publish more, it means that one should pay more attention to creativity, and that creativity should be encouraged, and valued more. In other words, there is a mismatch between what the labor market tells students, and what the graduate program is typically structured. The model of training students to be critical first, and be creative later has become obsolete in the highly competitive academic market. I would argue that in order for graduate students to get more out of their graduate training, they should be encouraged to be creative from day one. In order to make the case for encouraging creativity, I delineate scholarly productivity into two constitutive elements: criticality and creativity. I assume that productivity is a sum of criticality and creativity, whose slopes and whose graphs might not complement each other, rather they could hinder each other at points. My hypothesis could be captured by the following function:

Productivity = Criticality + Creativity

Criticality Function

Why criticality? As my friend stated, students are trained to be critical first, and then creative later. As a new student to professional sociology, one is supposed to learn the various aspects of the field. This is the foundation building phase. During this time, students often accumulate preexisting knowledge, and think critically about extant theories, research designs, and findings. In other words, one is in the process of becoming a critical consumer of knowledge. Many people have learned what it takes to become a critical consumer of knowledge even before graduate school. They accumulate these skills during their secondary school, college, and even master’s programs. In other words, one’s criticality at a graduate school level  does not really start at point 0. In graduate school, the more one reads, and engages with the texts, and conversation with other scholars, one becomes more critical. The following graph demonstrates how one’s criticality grows during the training period.

 

criticality

 

The horizontal axis shows the number of years in graduate school, and the criticality is measured by papers published. It is reasonable to assume that a first year student has not published any critical review of literature yet. Therefore they all start at point 0.

But criticality is not the only element that one cultivates during one’s graduate school training. Assuming that one is very good at this aspect, maybe one could write very good literature reviews, book reviews, or close reading of the existing texts or research. However, this aspect doesn’t totally guarantee the originality of one’s scholarly outputs. How many graduate students only write book reviews and critical reviews of literature in a given field? How many scholars have become important in their fields because they have written very critical, and well-informed reviews of literature? Possibly very few. That said, one needs to acquire more than just critical skills in one’s graduate career.

 

Creativity Function

 

The second element that one subconsciously cultivates during one’s graduate student life is creativity. At the end of the day, crafting one sentence at a time is what knowledge producers do to make their research known to the scientific community. One of the most important requirement for any scientific endeavor is originality. That is to say, one has to be creative in order to create something original. However, creativity is not often being emphasized  and encouraged in graduate training. In the black box of scientific knowledge production, the idea of being creative is not valued enough. Creativity and criticality are interrelated, but yet one ought to cultivate creativity in order to be a creator of knowledge instead of merely being a consumer of knowledge. In many ways, graduate school turns one from being a consumer of knowledge to be the creator of knowledge. The underlying assumption is that during the training period one would turn from a pure consumer of knowledge to become a critical consumer of knowledge to an innovative creator of knowledge. Yet this process is not linear.

creativity

The above graph shows the kind of function of creativity of a graduate student that I have in mind. I assume that at the beginning as graduate students especially in social sciences get to know the field, they are not scientifically creative yet because they have not acquired enough knowledge, tools, and haven’t learned the tricks of the trade. If left to himself/herself, the graduate student would take a few years to figure out how to produce the first paper. Somewhere between year 3 to year 4 would be a reasonable time period when they produce the first researched paper of publishable quality. My assumption is that creativity is a convex function because after one figures out how to write the first couple of papers, one would be able to produce more in term of quantity, and in a more efficient fashion. As creative writers often say: “ideas beget ideas.” The first few original ideas are the most crucial ones because they get the creative engine started. After a point, the number of papers (output) would grows very fast, because one is already familiar with the knowledge production process.

 

Productivity Function

 

When bringing the two elements together,  one would get a graph like the following, with productivity to be measured as a function of creativity and criticality. Theoretically, because the two creativity and criticality functions have different shapes: one is convex, and the other concave; the sum of them would be a function whose slope is a lot less steep. It looks more like following:

add_productivity

The slope of this graph is positive, which shows that the more time one spends in one’s graduate program, the more productive one becomes. However, the productivity function does not rise as fast as the other two, as the absolute value of its slope is smaller than that of the other two. I would argue because graduate students currently are trained to be critical before they are encouraged to be creative, their criticality hinders their creativity, and the original ideas that they could potentially come up with. Sometimes being ignorant of what has already been produced in the field gives one more room to explore ideas. Ultimately, as a graduate student, one ought to walk a fine balance between the two elements.

In the book The Professor is in, Karen Kelsky argues that the first paper is the most important  in one’s scholarly development. She even calls it the “power of one.” In other words, her conception of a graduate student’s scholarly productivity looks more like the following graph:

real_productivity

As stated above, a graduate student in social sciences in general publishes their first solo-author paper between their third year and fourth year. In the highly competitive academic job market as what a Chronicle of Higher Education article shows, students are encouraged to publish paper as early, and as many as possible. That means, the point at which they start to publish has been pushed to the left on the horizontal axis. Students have to start to publish at day one. Sometimes they come in with publications already.

Above is a linear common story of how a graduate student could navigate their scholarly development. I have delineated one’s productivity into two elements: creativity and criticality. What is missing in the picture is the advisor who plays an important role in one’s academic well beings as a scholar in training. In an ideal world, the advisor could help ease the student out of the publication process. The ideal invention is to flatten the steep slope of the creativity curve through helping the student to turn a nascent idea into a publication. In this way, the advisor and the student implicitly agree that they value creativity more than criticality in the early stage. If the advisor and the student agree that the student must accumulate a certain amount of knowledge before the student can enter any knowledge-producing project, then they follow the old training model. If the professor helps the student all along the way by coauthoring with the student at every point during her graduate education, then the resulting productivity function would have a steeper slope because she can produce more.

With all possible combinations of creativity and criticality considered, I argue that as students enter graduate school, the program should inform them what productivity model they prefer their students to follow. Does the program emphasize a lot of productivity? Does the program train a diverse body of students, who want jobs both within and outside of academia? Again graduate students come in with certain critical skills already, which they got from their previous training. However, in order for them to be able to become a producer of knowledge, they should know from day one that their creativity is very important as well.

Back to Viet Thanh Nguyen’s thesis that it’s a struggle to balance being a creative writer, and being a rigorous scholar. I agree that each identity emphasizes different skills, but both encourage originality and knowledge production. Therefore, the scholar should also be creative, and learn to be creative from day one in their training as any creative writer would.

 

Acknowledgements: I would like to thank Dipendra Misra for having spent significant time discussing different productivity models with me, and for providing all the graphs. All graphs were created using Python.