Thank the human alarm clocks

Suzani textile from Tashkent, Uzbekistan, by Madina Kasimbaeva. Image description: A spread of a Suzani textile from Tashkent, Uzbekistan. Floral motifs adorned the entire spread, made up of the earthy colour combinations (red, brown, green etc.) against a dark navy blue background.

In the previous edition of Courtney Martin’s the examined family, she quoted a line from Sharon Salzberg’s Real Change, which asks:

How many people need to be doing their jobs well in order for you to be able to do your job well?

The idea that we are never sole individuals, that we are social beings first and foremost, and that the achievements and successes we have built are sustained on the actions of other people in close proximity or peripherally around us, is never new, but something that needs to be reminded from time to time. I realised this specifically as I wrote down my acknowledgement section of my thesis as I tried to include the names of everyone who have helped me tremendously throughout my project while trying to keep to the page limit (brevity isn’t my strongest suit). Not only that, however substantial the amount of work comes from my own blood and sweat, much of them was guided by the previous work of the scholars and the learned of the past and the current — this whole standing on the shoulders of giants. This almost always made me emotional and grateful for others who opened the doors for other people. And that is how I would always strive to do too, once the doors are opened for me, I will keep it open for others, particularly those who had to jump through more systemic hoops than any of us less marginalised folks do in order to achieve their lifelong dreams.

I think about this article by Rebecca Solnit and specifically this phrase a lot, particularly after encountering (sometimes, well-meaning, passionate, new) activists who insisted on knowledge gatekeeping — a symptom that sometimes are prevalent among academics too (and also something I must have done in the past, and have reminded myself every time I found myself being judgmental too):

I wanted to yell at some of the people I run into, “If you think you’re woke, it’s because someone woke you up, so thank the human alarm clocks.” It’s easy now to assume that one’s perspectives on race, gender, orientation, and the rest are signs of inherent virtue, but a lot of ideas currently in circulation are gifts that arrived recently, through the labours of others.”

When the cathedrals you buid are invisible, made of perspectives and ideas, you forget you are inside them and the ideas they consist of were, in fact, made, constructed by people who analysed and argued and shifted our assumptions.

Solnit also shared a beautiful passage Black Lives Matter co-founder Alicia Garza wrote in the wake of the 2016 election:

This is a moment for all of us to remember who we were when we stepped into the movement — to remember the organisers who were patient with us, who disagreed with us and yet stayed connected, who smiled knowingly when our self-righteousness consumed us. Building a movement requires reaching out beyond the people who agree with you. I remember who I was before I gave my life to the movement. Someone was patient with me. Someone saw that I had something to contribute. Someone stuck with me. Someone did the work to increase my commitment. Someone taught me how to be accountable. Someone opened my eyes to the root causes of the problems we face. Someone pushed me to call forward my vision for the future. Someone trained me to bring other people who are looking for a movement into one.

There is also a fitting Zulu sayingUmuntu ngumuntu ngabantu, which basically means ‘a person is a person through other people.’ 

Do you have a list of the human alarm clocks that you wanted to thank?

Reading in my tabs:

  • What we can learn from the world’s largest fully remote company.
  • This position paper by the Indigenous Protocol and Artificial Intelligence Working Group is a great resource for folks interested in designing and creating AI from an ethical position that centres Indigenous concerns. Thank you The Engine Room for sharing.
  • The lesson of COVID-19 is that scientific and technical expertise stripped away from humane wisdom — social, moral and political knowledge of what matters, what we value, what needs preserving, repairing and caring for together — is a mere illusion of security. It’s an expensive life raft lacking rations, a compass, a map or a paddle. It cannot carry us safely into the futures we all need to build, for our nations, humankind and for coming generations of life on this planet.”
  • “Hustle culture isn’t the wave anymore. Not by a long shot. Now it’s discernment and shrewd allocation of resources and boundaries galore.” Author Mary H.K Choi on working through a pandemic.
  • I was on Readwise free trial once, and I loved that it sent me daily snippets of what I have highlighted from my Kindle and Instapaper to my inbox — that way it refreshes my mind about what I have read and learned and found interesting. Recently I learned it had added more useful features, such as grabbing clips of podcasts which will be automatically transcribed into texts, and they will be sent to my inbox. Honestly, I have a long list of things to get and do and help when I am financially secure, and I am adding Readwise subscription to one of them.
  • What does it mean to love the life we’ve been given? / To act well the part that’s been cast for us?”

STATUS BOARD

  • Reading: Paulo Freire’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed, rereading Jonathan Safran Foer’s Everything is Illuminated, and Pablo Neruda’s bilingual version of Los Versos del Capitan in an attempt to learn Spanish.
  • Listening: This Earshot episode about Kylie Webb, who compiled her ‘sonic bucket list’ — a list of “11 sounds that I want to commit to memory” after being told that she has a condition that at some point she will lose her hearing.
  • Watching: Netflix’s The Social Dilemma, which is, uhm, OK. (I have a lot of thoughts actually, but it might require another edition.)
  • Food & Drink: Still under enhanced lockdown, and making anything out of the pantry leftovers — today it is super fiery nasi goreng belacan idc.

Will this enlarge me, or diminish me?

No clever reflections this week — because, busy (!!!) which is a funny state to be in in the midst of the pandemic. I mean I love what I am doing but the concept of needing everyone to work in order to survive, not because we want to? What a perverse concept don’t you think? 

This week I am thinking of this WITI edition that speaks about the pipe organ that miraculously remained intact during the fire at Notra Dame cathedral last year. This year, the work to restore the pipe organ began. The work, which would include dismantling, cleaning, and reassembling in the hands of a team of skilled labour and artisans, would also involve another six extra months to tune the organ. The whole timeline would take about four years, and the organ is expected to play for the first time since the restoration work on April 16, 2024. 

WITI talks further about the trade-off between digital and analogue artisanry in the times of this digital age, but I couldn’t help finding the parallel between the pipe organ and surviving any form of trauma, even if it looked like it, or us, survived the situation intact. The work it takes to heal is not quite linear or as straightforward — even though it, or us, seem fine on the surface (after the dismantling, cleaning, and reassembling) and one does not often talk about the extra work of recalibrating the harmful values we have internalised, or the boundaries we have failed to set (the work of tuning). It might seem I am likening you, or us, who survived the trauma of any kind, to a pipe organ the way religious zealots have likened women to some wrapped lollipops, but I hope it does not transpire as so. But even so, if you, or us, need extra time for tuning, it’s completely OK.

Reading in my tabs:

STATUS BOARD

  • Reading: Paulo Freire’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed, Ocean Vuong’s On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous, and translating Pablo Neruda’s Los Versos del Capitan in an attempt to learn Spanish.
  • Listening: This Earshot episode about Kylie Webb, who compiled her ‘sonic bucket list’ — a list of “11 sounds that I want to commit to memory” after being told that she has a condition that at some point she will lose her hearing.
  • Watching: The only Jurassic Park sequel we needed.
  • Food & Drink: My town is under enhanced lockdown right now, which sucks — but it sucks less when a neighbour dropped some bananas in front of our house and we got to make some pisang goreng (banana fritters) today.

Never the great leveller

About last month before the schools and offices were reopened in Malaysia, I set up a video call for my mother as one of her weekly rituals to talk to her grandnieces. Only about 10 minutes in the video call, Aufa, 7 years old, decided to throw tantrum and wailed to her mother, who was perched attentively by her side, that she does not want to “do video” anymore. “Too many video,” she lamented, “video with teacher, video with Ustazah (for her Quran class), video with friends, video with Tok Teh (my mother), no more video!” We ended the call abruptly, abiding by the request of the disgruntled child.

There is no back to normal now, a reality that I have slowly accepted as I no longer number the days of the (semi) lockdown on the top of my journal page on a daily basis. Just like the anxiety-inducing needle during the 2016 US election, it’s an imposed feature I decided to do away with and no longer pay attention to, as it would no longer serve me or my mental health.

At the end of The Plague, Albert Camus writes: “The plague bacillus never dies or vanishes entirely […] it can remain dormant for dozens of years in furniture or clothing […] it waits patiently in bedrooms, cellars, trunks, handkerchiefs and old papers.” It is here to stay, mutating in many ways that we, somehow as resilient social creatures will find ways to navigate as we always do. Like Camus’s plague however, our unconsciousness stays with us — in a sense, somehow we still use a language that serves the ideology to think that the pandemic is a great leveller that renders us homogenously by going through the same kind of struggle, when it fact it does not.

Consider the Zoom video calls, which is a great example of the blurring the line between the distinction of the digital public and private sphere, not only when it comes to the work hours boundaries (which had been relinquished ages ago when we had Whatsapp, emails and Slack on our phones), but also clearly physical boundaries. When we turn on the video on Zoom calls, we are essentially inviting everyone into our personal space. In the very same setting we can probably see “a menagerie of rooms and homes, some generic or simple, others less so. […] The Zoom background immediately crosses the professional-personal boundary and eliminates any illusion of in-office equality. It’s as if everyone had just said their salaries out loud.” This is, after all, just one of the instances, we have not even talked about the digital divide — globally, only just over half of households (55%) have an internet connection, according to UNESCO. Even in the developed world, 87% are connected compared with 47% in developing nations, and just 19% in the least developed countries. Not to mention, being cooped up within the same four walls of the Zoom frame does not necessarily level the same amount of space one takes up. Someone is bound to hog the conversation and interrupt people all the time. Mansplaining would just find ways to manifest itself despite all platforms.

This week, about 1.2 million consumers in Selangor and Kuala Lumpur were affected by the water disruption caused by the effluent polluting in Selangor River. I saw a tweet going around, “tua muda miskin kaya, masalah air menimpa semua” (young old, rich and poor, the water cuts affect all) and scoffed as the timeline served us posts and pictures of folks booking Airbnbs and hotels out of state for their “MYR200 per night” showers, along with an Instagram post from the wife of the Selangor Chief Minister showing her family swimming in their private swimming pool. In the very same vein, other folks were lining up to fetch water for their homes from the water tankers, carrying pails and buckets of multiple sizes.

Is this a form of disaster capitalism, a term made popular by Naomi Klein to describe how societies, during times of catastrophe, become accustomed to capitalist practices? I don’t know, it could be. And just how capitalistic societies function, for those who cannot compete, fail. What a perverse ethics, that in fact, lacks ethics, in the words of Paulo Freire.

Coronavirus, or any disaster for that matter, is never a leveller. It just exacerbates what you see on a daily basis, if you care to pay enough attention.

Reading in my tabs:

  • 7 intersectional feminist principles for equitable and actionable COVID-19 data.
  • Must read: “When my Beloved died, a doctor told me: The last sense to go is hearing. When someone is dying, they lose sight and smell and taste and touch. They even forget who they are. But in the end, they hear you.” Writer Jesmyn Ward, who wrote Sing Unburied Sing, Men We Reaped, and Salvage the Bones among others, lost her husband to the coronavirus. This is her moving essay on grief, personal and collective.
  • “This work examines how Western tech monopolies, with their desire to dominate, control and influence social, political, and cultural discourse, share common characteristics with traditional colonialism. […] By drawing examples from various parts of the continent, this paper illustrates how the AI invasion of Africa echoes colonial era exploitation.” Abeba Birhane on the algorithmic colonisation of Africa.
  • A group of researchers realised that China’s Baidu blanked out parts of its mapping platform, so they used those locations to find a network of buildings bearing the hallmarks of prisons and internment camps in Xinjiang. Here’s how they did it.
  • “[…] scholar Saidiya Hartman bemoans as “the demand that this suffering be materialised and evidenced by the display of the tortured body or endless recitations of the ghastly and the terrible,” only for very little to change. […] If wider society recognises data’s limitations, it, too, can move on from overly relying upon it as the only proxy for evidence.” While data that demonstrates racism might be useful in clarifying the things we already know to be true, it has limited power in terms of shifting public opinion. Also related: This essay on the ethics and aesthetics of protest videos.
  • “As a product leader, I ask myself: ‘Will users regret using the product I build? Ten years from now, how will we look back on the human impacts of what we create?’ The Ethical Explorer Pack is the perfect set of conversation starters to think through and futureproof the product development process.”
  • I’m nerding hard on this idea of digital gardens. “These creative reimaginings of blogs have quietly taken nerdier corners of the internet by storm. A growing movement of people are tooling with back-end code to create sites that are more collage-like and artsy, in the vein of Myspace and Tumblr—less predictable and formatted than Facebook and Twitter. Digital gardens explore a wide variety of topics and are frequently adjusted and changed to show growth and learning, particularly among people with niche interests.”
  • “These studies provide a reminder that intellectual humility doesn’t occur in a vacuum, and that our relationships can shape how defensive we are about our own knowledge and beliefs. To be more open-minded, it helps to feel loved and respected. Of course, this also works in reverse. If you wish those around you to be more open, consider whether you provide them with the respect and understanding to let down their defences.” How to foster ‘shoshin’, or ‘beginner’s mind’.
  • Oh if I were to have all the time and financial privileges in the world to just learn, I would enroll full-time in this Anthropology + Design course.
  • My new discovery down the Internet rabbit hole: Asknature.org is a free online tool where you can search thousands of nature’s solutions to various challenges.
  • Brace yourselves for the nostalgia: a museum of Winamp skins.
  • Young seeds that have not seen sun, forget and drown easily.”

STATUS BOARD

August 2020

Every day I take a 1-second video using the app 1 Second Everyday to record what’s happening in my life. This is for August 2020, where I had the opportunity to work within some feminist spaces and learned how to work with care and safety, a notion I have always wanted to be involved with and champion!

Mentally I am here

“Everything that you fought for was not for yourself, it was for those who came after you.” — Howard University alumnus Chadwick Boseman provided words of inspiration to the Class of 2018 during Howard University’s 150th Commencement Ceremony on Saturday, May 12 in Washington, D.C.

If you have survived grief before, you would understand there is no linear way the whole Kubler-Ross stage runs — you would almost experience denial first, with anger, bargaining, and depression filling in the between interchangeably, and when you thought you had reached the end with acceptance in sight, in then waltzes in the retrogress. I would know, for most of the time, I linger way too long in the anger phase, trying to fend off every faux positivity dispensed by sometimes well-meaning, although less informed people to look for the silver lining in my father’s passing. Bleurgh shut up.

Chadwick Boseman’s death, and the revelation of his diagnose of colon cancer over 4 years ago, brought out the lingering anger in many of us, also particularly me. Out sprouted all of these faux positivity, inspiration porn Twitter accounts going, “Chadwick was in 5 movies while battling cancer, what excuse do we have?!” I don’t know man, I am sure Chadwick loved what he was doing, and he probably had more resources than other Black men and women out there trying to fight for their health insurance and rampant racism that are currently structurally killing them, but try to not romanticise how someone had to work through illness and/or a disability? Or do better and try to hire disabled and/or chronically ill people for once, so for once no one should live without fear of losing housing, food, or health insurance? I don’t know, make something easy for some other people who don’t have it easy as you for once?

And Malaysians, it’s not lost on me that while you are currently mourning the death of a Black man — just a few weeks ago your beloved Malay, fair-skinned sweetheart was called out for cultural appropriation after she chose to don a traditional Indian attire for a commercial photoshoot. While she half-heartedly apologised for the ‘oversight’, citing her choice to do so was out of her fondness for the Bollywood culture, the rest of us (I’m saying ‘us’ because as long as this racism is still going on, I am still complicit in it and need to do better) chose to cyberbully the Indian girl who called her out, tossing every single racist, stereotypical language her way, further proving her point that we only love the Malaysian Indian aesthetics where they suit and benefit us, but not the people. I don’t know, like, listen to other people who look different than you are, and are treated differently than you are and not as well are you are, in a country where racial politics is still widespread, for once?

Someone mentioned to me the other day that the year 2020 has been “a ride” so far. I’d like to add that it is like being on a ride on an engulfed roller coaster carriage whilst donning a surgical mask, with leering patriarchy catcalling “hai kak long you’re looking good cium sikit eh sombunk” on the carriage behind you, and murder hornets swarming around your heads on the carriage in front, bringing buzzy news about the largest ice sheet melting in Greenland, all the while having power-hungry politicians ready to push you for your own demise from the carriage, and having the lesser evil of the other side of the politicians ready to catch you from below, only letting you fall to the ground once someone hails them as the hero. Fun.

Mentally, I am currently this paddling forlorn dog.

Reading in my tabs:

  • The size of the Beirut blast compared to other accidental explosions and conventional weapons in this smart data visualisation.
  • Inside the Turkish start-up that wants to be your “personal butler”.
  • “This tool kit and website brings together on emergent best practices, workflows, and tools that communities, educators, mutual aid groups, designers, artists and activists are using right now to host gatherings, and how design needs to change to best suit people, right now.” Responsible design for digital communities.
  • “[W]ithout the hearing aid I can come unstuck, plunging below the surface layer of Toronto into the city that lies beneath — a place full of monstrous shapes and shadowy figures, where clarity is only found in small moments of concentration, as I lean in to listen with my brow furrowed and neck crooked. I didn’t know then that my balancing line between different cities was the same line between a pre- and post-pandemic world, where everyone is forced to join me in a dimension of muted sound.” Ben Berman Ghan is partially deaf, and this is his essay on newly quiet cities.
  • “She also suggested that we may get it wrong when we focus on individuals — on chief executives, on social media activists like her. The probable answer to a media environment that amplifies false reports and hate speech, she believes, is the return of functional governments, along with the birth of a new framework, however imperfect, that will hold the digital platforms responsible for what they host.” How technosociologist Zeynep Tufekci keeps getting big things right. I researched leadership emergence in a leaderless networked movement for my PhD, and Tufekci’s work had been instrumental in guiding my thesis.
  • Practical Data Ethics course, run by fast.ai and USF Data Institute, covering disinformation, bias, ethical foundations, privacy & surveillance, Silicon Valley ecosystem, and algorithmic colonialism.
  • Catherine D’Ignazio and Lauren Klein’s Data Feminism is available for free online. I plan to get my own copy once my budget permits.
  • I mean, if you want to get into it — 600 pages on boxes as world-making devices.
  • The Zooms in my life.
  • “Listen to me. There will be a day when the world will need you most — be alive on that day.”

STATUS BOARD

The moon is drifting away from us

Image description: Four panels of comics drawn by illustrator Hasanthika Serensina, from an article in Electric Lit called What It’s Like to Lose Your First Language. The caption above the first two panels wrote: “Scientists say there is a process to how you lose a language. It’s called language attrition.” The first panel contains: A part of a pocket watch visible against a black background, with the caption: “First you lose the word. Then you lose the grammar. Last you lose the sound.” The second panel contains Part of a hand holding the pocket watch visible against a black background, with the caption: “But scientists don’t believe the language is completely lost.” The third panel contains: An old white man in a suit holding the pocket watch against a black background, looking towards the reader, with the caption: A process like hypnosis, for example, might be used to help recall. The fourth panel contains A black background, with two speech bubbles. The first speech bubble is captioned: “Stop!”. The second speech bubble is captioned: “I don’t want my first language back.”

After fostering three stupid kittens (who are still here) who showed in my yard and almost made their way into the car tyres, my home office, my precious space, was almost dismantled completely to let these dumdums roam / zoomie around without causing much damage (‘much’ is an understatement). The wires are coiled and kept away safely, the second monitor shelved in another room, and my favourite swing arm standing lamp (which I call my ‘focus lamp’ as when I switched it on to work on my thesis, the rest of the world in my peripheral view can wait for a few hours) folded away. Precious books I referred to more often than the rest that I kept on a stool next to my desk were also returned to the shelves, no more hierarchy, as it was feared that one, or two, or three of these furry sprightly babies would run into them and lest they’d tumble to the ground and hurt them. For a few months, I worked on my laptop from my dinner table downstairs, occasionally pushing my files and papers away to make space for actual dinner to be served on the very table.

After graduating, I was sickly worried with the neverending job hunt in this pandemic and this recession that got me nowhere. Plus, as the Malaysian economy ‘reopens’, companies which had never been accustomed to WFH were so eager to drop the idea altogether and return to the office, so the remote working option — which is the option I am opting for — is out of the picture for most of them. I am not looking to elaborate more on this absurdity on requiring newly hired employees to uproot their lives and relocate across the country solely for work when the pandemic is still ongoing and the precarity of the economy is still hanging by a flimsy thread, ready to snap at any second. So as the kittens grew up and it seemed much safer to return my home office, my precious space, to its previously welcoming state, was put to a halt.

A month ago, I had been getting a steady requests for paid work, which I am grateful for my wonderful circle of friends. In one of the first few stints I was going to be commissioned for, I spent hours sitting on a stool (for one of the kittens had claimed the chair as his own) typing and transcribing hours of workshop materials. As a result, my back felt like a twig about to snap if I were to move in a slight haste. That weekend I decided this was it — maybe if I return this precious space of mine, this home office, to its state of former glory, some magic will invite itself back in — physically (as in my back will never hurt again) and mentally (*this, obviously, requires more work). So I had to apologise to the Chair Stealer Kitten as I reclaimed my chair, dusted off the work table, placed the monitor in its appropriate angle again, rearranged the stationeries and my favourite books (the hierarchy is back) and decided to forgo working from the dinner table altogether.

*In accepting all of these wonderful jobs I was entrusted with and lined up for me, I am also forced to face head on with my previous workplace trauma and my healing. It helps a lot that one of the work I am doing with deals with the idea of care and safety, a notion somehow I felt disconnected with after so many years. There are these safe and warm voices from all of the talented people who recommended me saying I am totally qualified to do all of these — which of course I am! — but there are also all of these strange, foreign, vicious voices I anticipate to emerge from one of the chat backchannels telling me I will screw this up and they will never expect any less. This is also another topic I do not want to elaborate further, except to let you know I am learning to lean towards the good voices (which are real present people) rather than the past voices, so I am good and there is nothing much to worry about. I am sharing the lesson from Foreign Bodies on trauma (although the edition is on intergenerational trauma):

Don’t believe everything you think! Traumatic events are watershed events in most people’s lives: there is a “before the accident” and “after the accident” so to speak. Because of the nature of how big these events are and their impact on life, it’s normal for your thinking patterns to feel very much unlike yourself. It’s important to recognize: “Hey, this isn’t really me. I need some help to feel and process like myself again.”

And a thought: What if we thought of emotional trauma the way we do physical: as a wide class of wounds whose healing is unpredictable, whose scars take different forms?

Reading in my tabs:

  • How did the Internet get so bad?
  • The virus isn’t simply a health crisis; it is also a design problem.
  • The furor with a grading algorithm for the A-level exam results for thousands of UK students shows why algorithms are never neutral. Also, too many AI researchers think real-world problems are not relevant.
  • Platform data do not provide a direct window into human behaviour. Rather, they are direct records of how we behave under platforms’ influence. So, always ask, what purpose does the measurement initially serve?
  • “[A]ll parts of who we are are present in this work, especially when it’s around racial justice. And so, we should be carving out space for people to just name their limits and also name their vulnerabilities and saying, ‘I can’t right now….and that’s fine.”” On Black activism and burnout, and how the well-being of activists is interrelated with the well-being and sustainability of social movements.
  • “[A]s I am writing this, my lumchum is encased in a bag covered in stripes and musical dinosaurs; I am sheepish but largely unfazed by this. A cursory survey of my friends and family has found that on average, chaochaos tend to stick around well into a person’s thirties, forties, even fifties. You never buy a new one because you want to, but because you are forced to. There is also no telling which pillow will do it for you. Much like love, it just happens.” An ode to the chaochao, or the ‘smelly pillow’, a must-have in every Malaysian household that I remember (including mine).
  • A volunteer-run guide that will help you set up a tablet for an elder isolated by COVID.
  • Can’t afford Masterclass(es)? Here’s masterWiki, “stolen from MasterClass, republished as wikiHow”.
  • Universe is an app that allows anyone to design a web page on their phone, no code needed. Perfect for individuals as well as small businesses, as it can handle the merchandise, manage inventory, shipping, and operations on the back end. There might be limitations, but I am excited to see where this might lead. Thank you WITI for the link.
  • Books with unusual but brilliant structures.
  • So TIL that the moon is drifting away from us and honestly can you ever blame our sis
  • “Come celebrate /with me that everyday/ something has tried to kill me/ and has failed.”

STATUS BOARD

  • Reading: Angela Saini’s Superior: The Return of Race Science. I also just finished Silvia Moreno-Garcia’s Mexican Gothic and honestly, what a ride! I am not always into horror novels, but I am enjoying every bit of Moreno-Garcia’s book — part Lovecraftian, part Alfred Hitchcock, all Gothic setting — very much.
  • Listening: I’m loving this mellow indie number from this South Korean duo called Mukimukimanmansu, recommended by Fiza Pirani of Foreign Bodies. Also, I have no music background whatsoever, but I am enjoying this delightful documentation of transit chimes by chord interval.
  • Watching: My weekend Youtube rabbit hole adventure had lead me to the discovery of Two Minute Papers, a channel featuring short, well, 2-minute videos created by a professor who reviews science-related research papers. Also, sign me up for this kind of work stress!
  • Food & Drink: We made pulut kuning today to send over to the neighbours’ houses as a kenduri (feast) now that I have levelled up as Dr. Zana Fauzi!

To be chopped up in peace

This week’s illustration by the ever brilliant Bangalore-based Sonaksha Iyengar, whose work revolves around the ideas of self care, body image, gender, feminism, social justice, community care, and inclusion. Hire her for your illustration needs!

This week I am thinking of the trust I am bestowed to be allowed in one of the many opportunities where I get to reflect how to consider care and safety in the work we do, and the spaces we share with others. I am also thinking of how honoured I am to have amazing, talented, and self-actualised friends who would never hesitate to invite me along in their journey of growth and learning.

This week my heart is with my friends and everyone in Beirut, in Belarus, in Zimbabwe, in Palestine, in Kashmir, in Xinjiang, and elsewhere. It is depressing to think that the list is still going on. Not to forget all of us in this Bolehland, having to contend with the audacity of our political leaders obsessively mired in their drive for individual power, while the country and the world is ravaged with a deadly pandemic and a debilitating recession. How dare. It feels futile to even hope. But wherever there is hope, there is resilience. Wherever there is resilience, there is action. Wherever there is action, there is change. What better way to alchemise anger, tire, and hope than to turn them, one day at a time, into action. After all, in the words of Ursula K. Le Guin, “Any human power can be resisted and changed by human beings.”

I also couldn’t stop thinking of this incredible photo of Frida Kahlo and the accompanying letter she wrote to Diego Rivera before her leg was to be amputated, or in her words, “to be chopped up in peace”. Whenever I think of how I want to express myself, I want to do like this exactly.

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Frida Kahlo takes a family photo, wearing a 3-piece suit and holding a cane, 1924.⁣ ⁣ Nearly 30 years later, in 1953, she writes a letter to Diego Rivera as she awaits surgery to amputate one of her legs.⁣ ⁣ "I’m writing this letter from a hospital room before I am admitted into the operating theatre. They want me to hurry, but I am determined to finish writing first, as I don’t want to leave anything unfinished. Especially now that I know what they are up to. They want to hurt my pride by cutting a leg off. When they told me it would be necessary to amputate, the news didn’t affect me the way everybody expected. No, I was already a maimed woman when I lost you, again, for the umpteenth time maybe, and still I survived.⁣ ⁣ I am not afraid of pain and you know it. It is almost inherent to my being, although I confess that I suffered, and a great deal, when you cheated on me, every time you did it, not just with my sister but with so many other women. How did they let themselves be fooled by you?"⁣ ⁣ "…Let’s not fool ourselves, Diego, I gave you everything that is humanly possible to offer and we both know that. But still, how the hell do you manage to seduce so many women when you’re such an ugly son of a bitch?" ⁣ The reason why I’m writing is not to accuse you of anything more than we’ve already accused each other of in this and however many more bloody lives. It’s because I’m having a leg cut off (damned thing, it got what it wanted in the end). I told you I’ve counted myself as incomplete for a long time, but why the fuck does everybody else need to know about it too? Now my fragmentation will be obvious for everyone to see, for you to see… That’s why I’m telling you before you hear it on the grapevine…"⁣ ⁣ "…I’m writing to let you know I’m releasing you, I’m amputating you. Be happy and never seek me again. I don’t want to hear from you, I don’t want you to hear from me. If there is anything I’d enjoy before I die, it’d be not having to see your fucking horrible bastard face wandering around my garden.⁣ ⁣ That is all, I can now go to be chopped up in peace.⁣ ⁣ Good bye from somebody who is crazy and vehemently in love with you,⁣ ⁣ Your Frida"

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Reading in my tabs:

STATUS BOARD

  • Reading: Sasha Costanza-Chock’s Design Justice and Chigozie Obioma’s An Orchestra of Minorities.
  • Listening: I return to Ibrahim Maalouf‘s music every so often.
  • Watching: Audrey Tang, Taiwanese digital minister, on how digital social innovation can empower democracy.
  • Food & Drink: Ordered Korean spicy fried chicken from 4Fingers. Also, we have rambutans! My prefered way to eat them is to peel the rinds off, keep the peeled fruits in the fridge for a couple of hours, and consume them cold! The Instagram consensus, where I shared a Story on this, agree with the method.

We cast a shadow

(Announcement: I started a Substack! The content, while pretty much similar to the blog, is more polished since, well, there are audiences. The pressure hit me the moment I sent out my first edition and realised I have to commit to sending this out x times y month/week and that there are people, most of them very smart and articulate and informed, signed up to read my shit. But there’s the challenge, and let’s see how long I can keep up with it. *nervous laugh*)

Joy Buolamwini, founder of Algorithmic League Justice, found that she had to put on a white mask for the facial detection program to “see” her face. Image from Data Feminism, via Deep Dives.

I am currently halfway into Maurice Carlos Ruffin’s brilliant satire We Cast a Shadow, and the question that had been the running theme in the book, in my mind, was: How much racial trauma— just like every other trauma — can affect how much you navigate the world that never intends for your safety, and how you treat other people who look like you, and the people you love? 

Ruffin’s We Cast a Shadow started as the protagonist, an unnamed Black man, tells us his name does not matter, “I’m a phantom [and] a figment.” He’s an associate at a high-profile law firm, and he’s standing in the midst of an annual party dressing up in a Zulu chief costume, trying to vie for the attention of the shareholders along with other two Black coworkers. Those who succeeded will be promoted, those who failed will be sacked. Our protagonist, despite the humiliation and a minor setback involving a wardrobe malfunction, bags the promotion. He is now the new chief diversity chair in a committee where none of the others looks like him (clue: they are all white) but not as a shareholder (which means there is no pay raise). In order to get the pay raise, he has to create a campaign for the firm to create the illusion that they care about ‘the community’ (read: Black people) which lead to the protagonist venturing into his childhood fenced-in ghetto to film the people he grew up with. 

At the heart of it all is the people he loves most, and the reason he is chasing the pay raise: his biracial son Nigel. Born with a birthmark as only “a fleck of oregano” in his eye area, the mark eventually developed and darkened as he grew up. In an attempt to contain its growth, he makes his son takes a whitening cream that burns, and that Nigel is made to wear a hat wherever he goes. The issue, it seems, is much more than a skin condition. 

A dark-skinned child can expect a life of diminished light. 

Growing up with racial trauma throughout the years, the protagonist is determined that the world is not going to change, in a sense it is going to become even more racist so they are the ones who have to adjust themselves to the world…

Somehow the grinding effects of a world built to hurt me have not yet eliminated my every opportunity for a happy life, as is the case for so many of my brethren. The world is a centrifuge that patiently waits to separate my Nigel from his basic human dignity. I don’t have to tell you that this is an unjust planet.

…even if this means having him to do the undignified things like filming his Black neighbours and brothers for the campaign in an attempt to participate in his company’s performative activism, in so that he would make enough to pay for his son’s ‘demelanisation’ procedure that would not only remove his birthmark, but also give him an overall whiteskin. 

On the question of survivorship bias

A few weeks ago, Al-Jazeera produced a documentary titled Locked Up in Malaysia’s Lockdown, which reported the inhumane treatment to the migrant workers arrested during raids in areas in capital Kuala Lumpur that were placed under tight coronavirus lockdowns. Human rights activists and informed citizens alike condemned the arrests, the poor treatment, and the clampdown of freedom of speech and media independence as the government threatened to deport Rayhan Kabir, the Bangladeshi man appearing in the documentary (update: he had been arrested 😦 ) and also towards Al-Jazeera (update: their office had been raided and computers seized).

Over Twitter, someone created a petition demanding an official apology from the news publication for ‘tarnishing the good name of the Malaysian government” and that […] they have no valid documents whatsoever, and we feel that the treatment given to them by our government is more than humane”. While it had been gaining traction, someone pointed out that the person who started the petition is, by any funny chance, a migrant themself. They, at a stroke of luck in a form of the genetic lottery, is fair-skinned, a privilege that afforded them some substantial space of privilege in a country so permeated with xenophobia and colourism, despite not being a Malaysian themself.

Would they say and do the same if they was also born brown and Bangladeshi as Rayhan? Would we also listen to them, or would we also come marching with pitchforks demanding for their documents to be checked and deported?

The term survivorship bias is defined as “your tendency to focus on survivors instead of whatever you would call a non-survivor depending on the situation.” In Ruffin’s book, the Black protagonist narrates as:

I am a unicorn. I can read and write. I have all my teeth. I’ve read Plato, Woolf, Nikki Giovanni, and Friend. I’ve never been to jail. I’ve voted in every election since I was eighteen. I finished high school. I finished college. I finished law school. I pay taxes. I don’t have diabetes, high blood pressure, or the itis. If you randomly abduct a hundred black men from the streets of the City and deposit us into a gas chamber, I will be the only one who fits this profile. I will be the only one who survives. Is it because I’m better than the other ninety-nine? No. It’s because I’m lucky, and I know it.

He says this while at the same time, admitting, albeit subtlely, about the racial trauma he grew up with. He attempts to paint himself as ‘different’ from other Black people, and he is horrified Nigel is friends with another Black girl at school. But he grew disillusioned with the world, and he was tired of fighting, and in an attempt to maybe protect his son from feeling so as well, he asked himself, “What if I can ensure that my boy is not perceived as a black man? What if he is simply a man?” It’s a simple question, but it was loaded with the notion that when you are something other than white, you are not a human being.

There may be beauty in my blackness and dignity in the struggle of my people, but I won’t allow my son to live a life of diminished possibility. I see a constellation of opportunity that those of my ilk rarely travel to. I see my Nigel at the center of those stars.

If there’s anything to call Ruffin’s protagonist, is that he is not a malicious person. If I were to read this book a few years ago, unaware and uninformed, I would have quit halfway because of how shallow he seems in disregarding and not appreciating of his own roots to the point he is willing to change his son’s appearance altogether. He should have stopped, but his experiences were not ours, and if we are not Black none of our experiences will never amount to the gravitas they had shown despite it all. We will never know — but we can keep questioning, how far will we go to ensure safety to our loved ones in a world that would seek to harm them anyway?

Reading in my tabs:

  • “Growing up in Lebanon taught me that an explosion resonates across time, that the shock reverberates forward into your life, and the pressure reconfigures the landscape of the mind. I know that it comes to shape everything you think you deserve from the world.” If there’s one thing you want to read about Lebanon, the explosion, and the long-running issues their people had to endure, make it this one by Lina Mounzer.
  • Why is America so afraid of TikTok? And what’s in it for Microsoft?
  • The 5 biggest little lies tech CEOs told Congress.
  • AI issues are rooted in colonialism, and here are their five manifestations: algorithmic discrimination and oppression, ghost work, beta testing, AI governance, and international social development. Three ways to overcome them: context-aware technical development, reverse tutelage, and solidarity.
  • “It is only a matter of time before Slack and its competitors go from being tattle-tales to being more like HR Robocops.”
  • “We also need to recognise that the way women get dragged into the role of primary caregiver isn’t always explicit — it’s insidious. Maybe a husband tells his wife that she’s just “better” at handling the toddler’s tantrums, or that the 10-year-old won’t listen to him the way she listens to their mum. He doesn’t remember the name of the kids’ pediatrician — because he’s not the parent who takes off of work when they’re sick — to make their appointment, so his wife might as well do it. He has no idea what his daughter’s shoe size is, or even that she needs new shoes at all. It’s the “myth of the male bumbler” — the absurdity of men believing themselves fit to run the world, but unable to figure out how to do the laundry or put a child down for a nap.” The pandemic isn’t forcing mums out of the workforce — dads are.
  • “Encased in gold aluminum, the sweet treat was a glowing orb that concealed the pains, joys, and dreams of immigrants between layers of crushed hazelnut and chocolate filling. It was a secret handshake, a sign of respect and good taste. It was a symbol of “the good life,” a tangible thing that vividly encapsulated social and economic aspirations in a way no other food item could.” How Ferrero Rocher became a status symbol for immigrant families. My family and I don’t come from an immediate line of immigrants in our country, but I do remember feeling overjoyed everytime my dad came home from work and brought home a pack of three Ferrero Rochers (the smallest), which was also how I knew it was his payday. That, or a monthly dinner to the local KFC or the Viennetta ice cream.
  • “I find this framing troubling. Most obviously, it shifts responsibility for global emissions from systemic actors like fossil fuel companies and governments onto individuals. By doing so, it gives corporations a pass while placing moral responsibility on people who live within systems where they are not free to make carbon-neutral choices. It accepts as inevitable the neoliberal order that has driven the climate crisis, and insists that our responses to this crisis take place within the same system.” Is it OK to have a child when the world is literally slowly burning?
  • Is there a word for this strange dissonance that I feel when I see and hear spring unfurl its beauty all around and yet the air is heavy with the news of death?”
  • You want to see my data? I thought we were friends!
  • You write in order to change the world, knowing perfectly well that you probably can’t, but also knowing that literature is indispensable to the world. In some way, your aspirations and concern for a single man in fact do begin to change the world. The world changes according to the way people see it, and if you alter, even by a millimeter, the way a person looks or people look at reality, then you can change it.”

STATUS BOARD

  • Reading: Sasha Costanza-Chock’s Design Justice and Maurice Carlos Ruffin’s We Cast A Shadow.
  • Listening: Drive & Listen, which pulls dashboard cam videos from YouTube and pairs them up with local music channels so that you can feel like you’re cruising around in a foreign city, blasting the radio, all while sitting at your desk.
  • Viewing: Did everyone miss how good On My Block was? The series revolve around a group of four teens living their lives in a rough inner-city LA neighbourhood. Many great themes around friendship, trauma, navigating racial identities, and challenging the antiquated idea of masculinity, among others.
  • Food & Drink: Made grilled chicken to have with brown rice today!

The lull of the anthropause

As an Internet Elderly™ who had been spending my time online since I was 15 — that has been aeons ago — I am equally baffled and fascinated by the phenomenon that is TikTok. It’s social, it’s political (to the point it is nearly banned in America) — two criteria that should have immediately made me jump into launching research about the platform, but not yet as far.

Because of the pandemic, I haven’t seen my nieces and nephews for over 130 days, despite living only half an hour away from some of them. We had occasional video calls, but they were just not the same. Over the first few months as we kept having the calls I sensed we experienced some Zoom fatigue, so they were getting less and less frequent. Texting and normal calls could never replace in-person interactions, so I just missed seeing them in their natural habitat as kids, loud and exuberant and disgusting but just as lovable.

One of my nieces had been re-posting the TikTok videos she did to her Instagram. Most of her posts were ones where she did some form of dance where the anatomy of the dance is almost identical of all the other TikTok dance videos I came across — the TikTok dancer would often stand in one place, the choreograph would always include some intricate and sequential hand movements, sometimes followed by a hip wiggle, complete with a facial expression that was devised in a way that the dancer would lock eyes with the viewers all the time. The moves are fast and formulaic, and I observed that she improvised the moves to every different music on other different TikTok posts. I never knew if she had devised a choreograph of her own, but I am tempted to ask her one day. The movements seem easy, but I gave up trying after a while. It’s very fascinating to me because I have always known how dance techniques have always been influenced by their spatial and temporal limitations

For ballet, the confines of a stage instruct choreographic patterns that cater to the rows and tiers of seated audience members. Breakdancing was developed on the streets of New York City, where cardboard was used as a surface on which the technique was perfected. TikTok dancers are ruled by the necessity to fit their choreography within the restrictions of a one minute time frame if they want to appeal to the attention span of an average user.

There is also a social aspect to TikTok dances, as the article suggested. Some of the dances my niece did included her younger brother — who tried to emulate how his sister did and failed spectacularly, but still cute. It’s also something fun you can concoct with the rest of your family, in the case of this Malaysian family who, amidst having to celebrate Eid in the middle of the pandemic lockdown, posted this video that had managed to garner 9 million views.

Humans, despite all our shortcomings, have the way to adapt to every terrible situation we are thrown into. These social platforms might be prone to the abuse of power given any opportunity, but along the years they have served as ways for us to get in touch with each other, or to offer a window into one’s soul — to get to know how one is truly is, or what things they like. The pandemic might have brought us farther in distance from each other, but in a way, these TikTok videos of my niece doing the things she enjoys is the closest thing I could get in a time when being out and touching any random doorknobs seem like radical action, until it is safe to do so.

Reading in my tabs:

STATUS BOARD

  • Reading: Sasha Costanza-Chock’s Design Justice, Mercè Rodoreda’s Death in Spring (Translated from Catalan: La mort i la primavera), and Maurice Carlos Ruffin’s We Cast A Shadow.
  • Listening: “You don’t get to pick your family of origin or the place you grow up. But you do get to choose your friends, and those choices say something about the kind of world you want for yourself.” This episode of Call Your Girlfriend on navigating relationships with deep divides of identities, which makes me grateful for my small circle of friends and how our differences brought us together. Also, this is exactly how I sing Taylor Swift’s Exile.
  • Viewing: This 14-minute stop motion animation set in Mumbai about a father-daughter relationship. The animation took 8 years to make! The details! Check out also the behind-the-scene video.
  • Food & Drink: We made nasi impit and peanut sauce as a delayed Eid dish.