The literate city

On my way to yoga one morning, I selected five books for free off the stoop of a neighbor’s brownstone, halting my frenetic walk (I was late) to peruse the unsupervised pile. On my way back home an hour later, I picked up another four books from yet another generous house front. This another-man’s-treasure thing goes on all the time around here, so I’m no longer confused or suspicious (This must be a trick?!) by it. At the same time, I can’t forget how special it is. Around these brownstone neighborhoods, people leave out books left and right. There’s even a house with a standing red receptacle labeled “Lending Library.” I’ve checked it repeatedly; it’s definitely in use. This local circulation of books provides a glimpse into our neighbors’ interior, book-filled lives and still it’s only one of the signs. People here are reading so much that the fact spills out everywhere. It’s a bit of a dream.

Continue reading

The “semantics of love”

“Semantics of love” is not my term. D and I were at our usual downtown coffee shop when she said it. I didn’t understand at first, but she kept talking and it made sense. People say “love” to convey different things and in reference to different histories. For her, in Spanish, in Puebla, Mexico where she’s from, it’s not something she would ever utter to most friends, acquaintances or strangers. She thoughtfully counted on her fingers the number of people to whom she has said it. She explained the physical ache it denotes. Continue reading

Two Type A girls and Brooklyn real estate

At 10:45 p.m. two Wednesdays ago, my roommate and I got confirmation that our landlord was forcibly removing our third roommate because of her dog, reclassifying our 3-BR into strictly 2-BR only, and inviting us two to stay and swallow the costs of that change. By 11 p.m., we had decided that we wouldn’t; we were going to strike it out on our own. By 11:15 p.m. we were scouring the frenetic mess of housing websites and sending brokers polite but hurried messages (“Hi, we are two working female professionals… loved your listing… background checks are no problem… free for a viewing Thursday night?”). By 1 a.m., we were feeling it: the pressure cooker process of finding our new home in New York.

This process has been STRESSFUL, and the following are some of the observations we made along the way. Continue reading

Attempts to escape personalization

About a month ago, I was doing some hesitant online looking at an item from a rather expensive store called Anthropologie. Around that time, I also clicked through a promotional email informing me about Rodgers & Hammerstein’s “The King & I” on Broadway. Both situations were unusual for me: online shopping is foreign territory for me, which also explains why all my online ads suddenly turned into pictures of Anthropologie pants and “The King & I” logo. It was like that scene where Dumbledore claps his hands and all of the Great Hall banners go from celebrating Slytherin to Gryffindor. Obviously, my situation involved less magic and more browser cookies, search histories and a debate about the merits of consumer privacy. Plus, most people my age are familiar with this minor annoyance. I’m playing catchup on trendy issues, as usual.

Still, I’ve now spent a good month imagining what it must have been like when the Internet was shiny and new and online advertising wasn’t as pervasive. I’ve heard the Internet was hailed as a portal for exploration. I’ve heard it was going to help solve the problem of closed-mindedness. It was a Pandora’s box of surprises!

The Internet I know today is an echo chamber where my interests are repeated back to me. This is partly because I can’t escape myself. I gravitate toward the headlines that tell me what I’m already inclined to believe or support—”When it comes to clean water, some say Silicon Valley is all talk” and “‘No Kardashian Parking’ Signs Crop Up In Hollywood” and “South Korea is both exasperated by its wealthy — and obsessed with them—such that even if I’m learning something, it’s in the bucket of topics I’m already pursuing. But it’s also because the websites I see and the companies they advertise help feed those topics back to me, too. There’s a strong relationship between “customer engagement,” or keeping someone on your website for as long as possible, and “personalization,” or giving you more of what you’ve already picked. It results in the concierge service of the “Recommended for you” sidebar, a beguiling vicious cycle.

A more fitting analogy for the Internet might be a house of mirrors. In these freaky sideshows, one steps through the doors for a chance to look into a seeming infinity at every corner, an endless vision of distance and light and perspective. In reality, the visitor is in a tiny room, surrounded by mirrors, looking at himself, over and over again.

Continue reading

We the “social-antisocial” people

I was swept into a wave of bodies, all of us having just alighted from the train below ground and together marching up that stairway to daylight, ending on ground level. So many strangers, so physically close, jam-packed on a little stairway. But that cram was the perfect place to remember the beauty of being one single individual in a million—or, more specifically, one of the 26,000 stuffed into each square mile of Manhattan (and really more including commuters). No one was watching, no one was measuring, and we were all just going to our destinations, lost in our own heads filled with thoughts, agendas and memories. It was private. In the midst of crowds, I was totally on my own.

time out NY Continue reading

Ideology and eternity

The crazy thing about your ideas is that they’re invisible, to you. Spend a whole day analyzing your thoughts and what you think, but one harsh comment from an outsider is often far more useful. It’s hard to describe the box, when you’re sitting in the dark inside of it.

For example, Foreign Policy recently explained in pseudo-delicate terms how mainland Chinese citizens are being brainwashed. The article says that they couldn’t understand the Hong Kong pro-democracy protests because their language can’t even accommodate democratic ideals. The Chinese language prioritizes “the national interest, the dignity of the state, social stability, and the sovereignty and territorial integrity of the People’s Republic of China,” all of which is incompatible with the democracy stuff of those Hong Kong exceptionals. The article blames the Chinese government and its strategic “propaganda system… normalizing its use and injecting it into everyday discourse.” This is how the 1.335 billion people were primed to disregard the Hong Kong protesters. Of course, not all Chinese people are “brainwashed zombies,” the article relented… Continue reading

The self-centered system

Does the world revolve around me? What a juvenile question it seems. Only children are told to share and think about other people before themselves. So at 24 years of age, no one should be reminding me that the world doesn’t revolve around you. Yet the older I get, the more I see how encouraged I am to think exactly this way: to do things that serve only me, my personal happiness, my independent desires. I keep hearing slogans compelling me to find myself, know myself, seek myself, meditate on myself. We were warned against this thinking back when we were toddlers, which is why I find it so odd that this now standard adult protocol, to the point that not being self-driven is actually deemed naive or juvenile.

I’m not the only one wondering about this, though. Continue reading

The research process

In college, it was beyond me to imagine staying in academia like some of my peers soon would, committing so much of life to research a small piece of the world, hidden away, not making money or anything. It seemed so restrictive and myopic, and in a self-induced way, no less. Academia doesn’t enjoy a great rap from non-academics. It’s that last-resort hideout for people – the “intellectuals” – who can’t find “real” jobs. It’s that place where people go to do nothing except read all day, and say lots of theoretical things that can’t be proven.

Doing my dissertation showed me the value of the pooh-poohed humanities and social sciences. I see how the death of these departments would be a very ominous sign for our society. Continue reading