Writing

On Nature

I’m at peace when there are few humans around me. When I’m experiencing the sheer beauty and vastness of the scene before me and it’s just me and the world – a silent yet devastatingly expressive entity. I revel in my existence and my freedom, and feel truly, deeply grateful for being there to witness such a moment.

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On Unconscious Bias

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You know, it’s funny. Sometimes, it takes days, weeks, months or even years to reflect on things that have happened to you and decide whether those experiences were good or not. Nearly three months after the event, I find myself offended and saddened by something I ignored at the time. I was on a cruise, about to begin an afternoon of kayaking in New Caledonia. The French kayak company owner tried to start a conversation with me by asking what I thought was “Are you on the cruise?”

He had a rather thick accent and didn’t fully grasp English vocabulary, so I paused before answering, thinking of other possible words of similar phonetics that would apply in this context. I couldn’t come up with any, so I said “Yes”. 

Then later when we had a break, we had another short exchange, and that’s when realisation dawned. He had actually asked me if I was on the *crew*. The ship crew. I didn’t hear him ask anyone else the same question. I was dressed in casual clothes, like everyone else. What was it that made him assume? What was it about my appearance that made me different? Well, I was the only person of colour on the tour. Is that what it was all about? Or am I reading into this too much?

I thought about it some more after learning about these brilliant online tests for unconscious bias and realised that we all have them, and some are more conscious than unconscious! I must say that it’s a sad reflection of the world economy and order that none of the wait staff I encountered on board were Caucasian and yet all of the ship’s entertainment team was, with the exception of one possibly Hispanic dancer (an assumption of my own). My point is this: it’s not enough to admit we have unconscious biases. We have to ask ourselves – why? And what next? Because if we don’t answer these questions, nothing will ever change. And I will never realise my dream of becoming a cruise entertainer! 

 

 

The Positive Stimulation Series – Part 2: Why is Research Boring?

I think the fact that research is so boring to most people is the reason why researchers themselves are not regarded as universally interesting or popular people. Their output only caters to a bunch of nerds that seem to get off on the same topic. Which is why their only source of entertainment is conferences. Research is behind the scenes stuff. Our world has improved phenomenally thanks to scientific research, but Nobel Prize winners and other prominent researchers are not popular figures because they simply don’t elicit that kind of hair-raising, laugh out loud, visceral emotion. When the average person hears about research, the reaction is something like, “Cool. Thanks”.

I think back to this lecture by Professor Brian Cox on how the universe works. I found it interesting – but why? At the time, I thought it was his public speaking skills that made the difference. He was able to simplify very complex topics and make them relatable to laypeople. But now I wonder – was there something more to it? Did I like the lecture not because of the way he delivered the speech, but because of the way I felt? Is relatable learning a form of positive stimulation?

When you can connect the dots and learn something new, that’s a good feeling. Not as good as comedy or sport, but it still registers as stimulation. Lack of learning stimulation explains why kids disengage from school when it isn’t making sense to them. Instead, they seek stimulation from other, less academically productive sources like games or friends. To be honest, it’s what I did also, to an extent. And now that I think about it, most of the positive stimulation I derived from studying for all these years came from the pleasure of fast comprehension. It can explain why I sometimes feel down about the PhD – because I’m no longer at the top of my game when it comes to learning. I feel like I’ve hit a brick wall, and it’s the most demotivating feeling. That’s why so many of us procrastinate – because we don’t want to be in a state of negative stupor. We naturally seek out those activities that make us feel good, and like we’re working towards something positive. So while this Wait But Why post on procrastination is very relevant to me, I can also add that my willingness to stick at a task and achieve a state of flow is related to my mental capacity to exist without positive stimulation for more than a few minutes.

Perhaps the lesson I can take away from this is that the difference between persistent people and procrastinators is that persistent people are better prepared to withstand long periods without even the smallest pieces of positive stimulation to sustain them, in the knowledge that their sacrifice will gain them ultimate positive stimulation in the long run. No pain, no gain. The weak ones break the diet regime and reach for the pizza; the strong ones suffer in the short term, even if that short term can last for years. It’s like the two marshmallow experiment about delayed gratification.

It is an important realisation to understand that a PhD is naturally not as stimulating due to its inherent nature (some people find it highly stimulating, but that’s because they’re passionate about the topic itself). In my case, I think I was more attracted to the high I derived from academic achievement. Other highs, like writing and listening to music, were merely hobbies. A career in those fields was out of the question. I guess over time, things changed for me. I began to develop and grow in other fields. I derived more and more positive stimulation from activities that were deemed financially unproductive. As I began to enjoy those activities more and more, I guess I liked research slightly less, particularly in the second half of my PhD. To add to my woes, emotional trauma halfway through my studies severely reduced my tolerance for negative stimulation. It fuelled my craving for good feelings. That wasn’t necessarily a bad thing – after such a horrible upset, positive stimulation is the best medicine – but now, as I consider myself mostly recovered and now find research fascinating and fulfilling, it is time to wean myself off this drug. Because that’s what it is – an addictive drug. When you look at poor people living in developing countries, you can see that they have never experienced the high doses of stimulation to which we in the Western world are accustomed. As a result, they live with less and are actually happy with less. The same goes for previous generations. This brings us to the existing movements around minimalism and mindfulness. These concepts teach us to derive pleasure and stimulation from simpler things. It’s all about reducing the dose of drug that takes us on a rollercoaster of emotions, and learning to stay calm and conscious of our individual goals. Positive stimulation is something like a legal drug that drives the entire world. Whoa.

The Positive Stimulation Series – Part 1: The Business of Positive Stimulation

I had a thought the other day about what makes people beloved, successful or popular on any scale. I think the answer is positive stimulation. Think about it; our lives would be dull as heck if we didn’t engage in activities that make us feel they are worth living. That’s why we enjoy entertainment in all forms, and love those that entertain us. Of course, stimulation can be negative also, but even experiencing the bad times can help us appreciate the good. I think it is possible to become very popular over time if you become a supplier of positive stimulation.

Nurses are loved by the public because they bring light to a dark situation. Entertainers and sportspeople trigger feelings of excitement and release. A good friend or partner is regarded as someone that uplifts you and/or makes you laugh. Another interesting group is models. Fundamentally, they provide positive stimulation by allowing us to derive pleasure from their beauty. It’s like they’re walking works of art. But because they are also human, many of us seem incapable of mentally separating ourselves from them. We are sold the idea that we too can become similar works of art if we buy certain products. And that is simply not true. Human-driven art can be dangerous for this reason. Additionally, in this age of breaking down role definitions and stereotypes, we will ourselves to believe that we can be anyone and do anything. But I think we need to apply some limits here, or at least wait until the concept of art is redefined with general consensus before diving head first into a career that will belly flop because you simply don’t look the part, and won’t for some time. Of course, there are pioneers that clear the way – ethnically diverse lead actors and larger models – but I think what they are doing is providing a new kind of positive stimulation to growing audiences with increasing market power. At the end of the day, what we see in pop culture at this moment in time is what makes good business. So these pioneers have tapped in to a growing market. They are not social activists in my opinion (as much as they may purport to be) – they are actually shrewd businesspeople seizing opportunities. They offer a new brand of positive stimulation that connects more readily with certain groups of people. For example, when it comes to ethnic diversity on television, people of colour such as myself were deriving plenty of positive stimulation from ethnically homogeneous shows like Seinfeld. It’s just that with ‘ground breaking’ shows like Master of None, we are experiencing a new and exhilarating variety of positive stimulation. It resonates particularly with the ethnically diverse, but it is also refreshing for those who are not. And that is why traditionally unpopular faces have suddenly become so bankable. It’s not about social change and representation – all you have to do is follow the money.

On a related note, when you think about positive stimulation as a resource, social media activity can be appraised in a new light. Take the attention-seeking people that post mundane things or show themselves off. It’s about attracting attention for the purposes of validation, approval, and an appeal to the most basic of human needs – to feel wanted and loved. It is essentially a request for the ultimate form of positive stimulation. It’s emotional fuel; it’s what keeps us going. And these kinds of posts signify a deep hunger that calls for refuelling through donations of positive stimulation. Unfortunately, many of these ‘emotionally needy’ aren’t in the business of giving back, and if they do, it is not a fair trade. Thankfully, there are others that don’t publicly solicit positive stimulation, but by providing it to others, they receive it in turn. This creates a wonderful cycle of giving and receiving. And it’s what we should all aim for. After all, you wouldn’t accept presents without giving some too! The same attitude applies for emotional gifts.

Anyway, that’s my theory: people in the business of giving positive stimulation do well, because let’s face it, that’s what we’re all ultimately looking for. It makes us feel like life has some meaning and that it’s worth living. It can be in the form of good food, fun exercise, an emotive movie, shopping, socialising, or watching entertainers and sports. And some lucky people can actually derive positive stimulation from work, which may explain ‘workaholicism’ in some. It’s basically the old cliché about loving what you do expressed in a different way. I don’t think this cliché is the best way to state life’s aim, because it places a burden on individuals to 1) have the capacity and/or will to love something so fiercely and 2) dedicate their lives to it with abandon. I am one of those individuals that have felt the pressure and even a degree of guilt when I haven’t loved my work most of the time. It’s as if I’m incapable of love; lost and unhappy. But I don’t think that’s true. There are many things I enjoy, but I don’t think I could make a career out of any of them without becoming skilled in the craft first, potentially losing my identity and financial security in the process. This path is possible in the aspirational sense, but unlikely in the practical. As Elizabeth Gilbert said in her book Big Magic, it is foolish to give up your day job in pursuit of a distant creative dream, but at the same time it is important to remain in tune with what stimulates you, and cultivate your craft passionately and naturally without the burden of financial expectation.

Analogous Encouragement for Reluctant Writers

If you are perpetually reading and researching topics, or reluctant to start writing and keep writing, it feels:

Like running the tap, but never actually taking a shower.

Like packing your suitcase for a trip, but never making it out the door.

Like trying to learn a sport by watching others, but never playing it yourself.

Like rehearsing fervently all year for a musical, then hiding behind the curtain on opening night.

Like mastering theory without doing the practical.

Writing is an active component of research, though you may be sitting while you do it. It’s the next step. It’s taking the red pill. Preparation is great, but there can be such a thing as too much. Nerves are normal, but are they hampering your goals?

People don’t want you to stink.

They don’t want you to be a hermit.

They don’t want you to stay on the sidelines.

They want you to perform!

They want you to show off your knowledge!

So freshen up! Go on an adventure! Play a game! Sing and dance! Do what you think is right…and write!

Let’s Get Social

Facebook and other forms of social media are all about networking – we advertise what we are up to in an attempt to link with like-minded people. The Twitter and Instagram platforms use hashtags to do so; in the Facebook world, the fact that you usually have to be a ‘friend’ of a person to view their content is the commonality you share. Facebook, as a result, potentially exposes you to diverse material, because your friends and acquaintances will probably have varied interests (unless you belong to a cult). These interests are more diverse than the Twitter or Instagram feeds to which one subscribes. Also,when it comes to range of content, news channels are a great source.

Facebook is an online local community – it’s a way of keeping in touch en masse. And that’s great, because it would otherwise take far too long to do so otherwise, and besides, the most unlikely of partnerships and networks can blossom in ways that would never have been possible offline. So it’s important to read news feeds as a way of staying connected. Online social networking builds (yes, builds) social skills and capacity, facilitates teamwork and enhances one’s sense of community. My offline world is different from my online world, as it should be. And I feel that in the information age, one cannot (and should not) exist without the other.

Tasneem xo

Review: Scrivener (Part 1)

This week marks 19 months as a PhD student! It’s been…interesting, to say the least. The first nine months were spent swimming in a sea of literature and drifting from island to island, seeking refuge and sustenance. I was discovering new worlds, but eventually realised that if I wanted to make any real progress, I would need to start mapping my travels and organising my mind. And that is when, via the beacon of light that is the Thesis Whisperer blog, I stumbled upon what has become the navigational cross-staff for my thesis – and it goes by the name of Scrivener.

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In a nutshell, I would describe Scrivener as a super-streamlined take on the traditional word processor that is tailored to writers producing long documents, such as novels, screenplays, and, of course, theses. But it’s so much more to me than a fancy new brand of word processor – because it gives us writers a place for all of those side notes, ramblings and crazy random ideas. Ideas that usually have no place in a traditional draft and are simply cast away on a scrap of paper that vanishes when you need it most and magically resurfaces when you least expect it.

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Introductory Scrivener Tutorial

The toolbar across the top of the window, unlike Microsoft Word, is thankfully sparse and equipped with basic formatting and navigation tools. Just enough tools to get that crucial first draft out of your mind and onto the screen.

The navigation panel on the left is similar to Word’s once you add headings and sections to your document – except there are a few more goodies in Scrivener’s.

Sidebar Menu

Not only can you create sections and sub-sections, but you can also insert entire PDF files and photos, web pages or even audio for quick reference. No more trawling through folders for that file you know you had somewhere!

You can create sections for anything you wish – it doesn’t have to go in the final document. And all deleted items are kept in the trash folder until you manually delete them, so no need to worry about losing things forever.

Tasneem xo

8 PhD Lessons Learned at the Halfway Mark

I’m now officially halfway through my PhD (if I finish in three years, that is). How time flies! Here are some lessons learned at the halfway mark that I hope will help new and experienced researchers alike in their quest for productivity and success:

1. Create a comprehensive filing system
Filing will be mindlessly time-consuming, but helps organise your thoughts in the long term.

2. Handwrite more often
I know I’m researching in the field of informatics, which is all about electronic administration of health care (this includes electronic methods of data entry and access), but research has shown that hand writing aids information retention and creativity. I miss the days of writing furiously with my Pacer pencil on loose pages of lined folder paper, as messy as it was. I also use this awesome software called Scrivener which helps me organise my ideas, but nothing beats a good scribble!

3. Communicate more
With supervisors, administrators, researchers in your field and friends and family! All of these people need to know you’re alive and researching.

4. Establish balance and moderation
Excess is never pretty!

5. Be more decisive
First – plan. Secondly – write (and think) within your plan. A life without goals is wayward and ultimately unfulfilling. So is a paper without structure or purpose!

6. Read, read, read
Not all of it has to be work-related.

7. Each and every action or task must have a purpose
And that purpose needs to advance you in some way, shape or form. Be RESULTS oriented. Which brings us to GOALS – start broad and funnel down to specific tasks and time frames. Map out, hierarchically and chronologically, what you want and how you want to get there.

8. What other people think (beyond the boundaries of supervisory and constructive feedback) is not a primary concern
Identify those you can trust. Love and acceptance from a precious few is all you need. Those are the relationships you need to cultivate. You will never be able to please everyone, so stop trying.

The Real Hunger Games

I finally got around to seeing the Hunger Games films last night (well, the two that have been released so far). I hadn’t read the books, and for the purposes of entertainment without the need to lambast every deviation from the ‘true’ storyline, this was a good thing. This is what I knew about The Hunger Games going in:

  • The first film featured Jennifer Lawrence’s breakthrough performance
  • She must have done a good job
  • Young people are sacrificed for something or other in some kind of sick yet public game in an alternate universe

And I wasn’t wrong. We are introduced to Katniss Everdeen, a seemingly free spirit determined to get on with the job and make the best of what little she and her family have in the 12th and final district of a land ruled with an iron fist. The theme of love, friendship and family ties is displayed to us early on; the shared struggles of a family appeal to our emotions and allow us to appreciate the increasingly apparent strength of our leading lady, and give our attention to a worthy character’s cause.

Fear is never far away in the Hunger Games. The drab, greyed outfits that Katniss and her sister Primrose wear and the foreboding train ride towards tragedy and misery are all too reminiscent of World War II. One can see why Katniss is steely – the annual selection of young ‘tributes’ by one of the most unfortunate lotteries imaginable has, naturally, hardened her and sparked a smouldering distaste for authority. Each year’s Hunger Games reminds District 12 and its neighbours that peace comes at a price. The message is seemingly well-intentioned: rebellion and war are indeed destructive and the masses must be reminded of this. And reminded powerfully, by offering a boy and girl from each district to participate in a televised fight to the death. Sacrifices for the greater good are justified, are they not? The answer to this question lies at the heart of brewing public discontent and in the minds of the chosen few charged with leadership and the keeping of ‘peace’.

Love and bravery abounds in Katniss, who offers herself as the first ever voluntary tribute upon hearing the terrible news that Primrose has been chosen. Katniss demonstrates the unexpected strength that can come from adversity, and that our choices not only define us, but set our direction on the moral compass.

How humans deal with fear depends upon a great many things, and the various ways in which humans attempt to do so are quite well-portrayed in The Hunger Games. This is evident in the stark contrast in attitude between District 12’s male tribute, Peeta Mellark, and Katniss. Peeta resigned himself to death before the Games had even started; Katniss, on the other hand, felt that winning was the only option. Then we see the infuriating resignation and cynicism of Haymitch, a man who has travelled beyond fear and emerged into mysterious (and drunken) territory.

So far, it seemed that despite its promising characters, this was little more than a futuristic teen action/survival film. But the next few minutes really began to pique my interest and fuel many trains of thought.

We are introduced to the big city centre of the land of Panem, known as the Capitol. Though its citizens are garishly dressed by real-world standards, it seems almost fitting. I’ve been a city girl all my life, but can imagine how it would feel to travel to the city from the country for the first time. Dresses and suits that seem so impractical in the name of style, concrete as far as the eye can see, and crowds that must be entertained for sanity’s sake. Katniss and Peeta, along with the rest of the competitors, are thrust into the limelight. Some are well-prepared, but Katniss evidently struggles to adjust to the world of fakery for the purposes of entertainment, and tries her best to concentrate on the task at hand. However, she realises that this is not enough; the cynical but wise Haymitch reveals to her the realities of survival in the public eye, such as the need to mingle with and impress those with power and money for sponsorship. There are stark parallels between this fictional Capitol and other real-world cities and political hubs, including Hollywood. The films held my interest up to this point…now they had my full attention.

Through the challenges that she faces during the Games, Katniss demonstrates a strength of character that belies her physical capability, and serves us a much-needed lesson. The nuances, politics and gameplay within high society, the need to gain and maintain power, to control the masses, and to stamp out revolution in the name of an unjust peace are also very cleverly portrayed within the Hunger Games series. The inequalities and injustices that abound in our world; the fight to survive, compete, and thrive – these themes are ever present, screaming for our attention and awareness, and reminding us of our evolutionary roots. Whether we cast ourselves back to ancient times when warriors killed each other for sport, or forward in the future to forcefield-bound competition arenas with virtual obstacles, we as humans invariably compete – for attention, for power, for freedom, or for love. But if I were to take one message from The Hunger Games, it would be this: although we must compete for the things we want or need in this world, let’s all try to be more like Katniss Everdeen and be a good sport about it, because compassion never goes astray.