I came across this Twitter thread from Professor Suma Ikeuchi of University of California, Santa Barbara. It answers a lot of my questions, and embodies my own personal views on the importance of good story-writing in ethnography. I'm embedding the thread here for my own personal reference:
Very insightful advice. One that I shall often go back to, I'm very sure.
Till the next.
-ccj, Duvanson, 6th June 2021, 5.54am
It took me just one day to finish this one. A lovely novel, I highly recommend it. Sharing below my review from GoodReads:
Big Fish by Daniel Wallace
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
I watched the Tim Burton's movie at home with my brother a long time ago, when I was still a college student. My brother got all moved because he said the movie reminded him of my father. Tall tales, endless daddy jokes, the absence, the infidelity, the difficulties to connect.
I don't remember the movie that much, and can't decide if it makes a big impression on me, but I do like this book. Reading it you'll realise that it's almost plotless, and apart from Edward Bloom, no one else in the story develop that much. But these are not the novel's strength. The magic, to me, lies in the writer's ability to lure readers into the wonders of the tall tales and the myths and the half-truths, and in the mental journey of deciding which stories to believe and which way they should be interpreted.
William, Edward Bloom's son, is telling a story about his dying father - reminiscing about his life from childhood to present, as it had been told to him, and as he remembers it. Edward wants to be a great man and thinks of himself as a great man. This is evident through the tall tales he told about himself, how "nobody doesn't love him" (David Wallace seems to be fond of double negatives like that), how even animals succumbed to his "fabled charm," how he had saved the lives of so many people (including a mythic creature such as a half-fish river lady), and by whom he was occasionally saved in return.
The whole novel is about the life of one man told in a series of parables and metaphors. If we can sift through the myths and fables, the emerging image is that of a man from a poor background who came from a small town where the dwellers are often stuck in a humdrum of a world without dreams and ambitions, but this man rebels and breaks away, pursues his dreams and makes a successful and decent life for himself. He marries a girl he likes and who likes him (though not without a fight), is blessed with a son whom he dotes on. He becomes wealthy, and very busy. He's on the move all the time - because of his business, and also because he's having an affair with a young lady somewhere. He returns home when the young lady breaks off with him, and stays home for a long time after being diagnosed with a terminal disease that eventually leads to the end of his mythical "immortality."
Because these stories are told from the perspective of William the son, we can catch a glimpse of how this son perceives his father. He clearly adores his father. He looks up to him. He thinks he's strong and handsome. He used to love his jokes and stories, but over time he becomes tired of them, especially when he realises that his dad is using the jokes and stories to evade serious conversations. He wishes for more chance to get to know his father, to create a closer bond with him. He's mad about him being absent all the time.
Despite his anger and frustrations, William still clearly loves his father so much. He's careful about how he wants to tell the story of his father's death. oscillating between the desire to express his frustrations and to preserve his father's image of himself as a "great man." William has to tell the death-bed story in four "takes", each reflecting in gradually exaggerated and more dramatic manner the reality of his relationship with Edward. But the one he finally settles on is the one which ends with his father not dying, just transforming into the "big fish in a big pond" he always aspires to be.
I'm still not certain if I can relate the character of Edward Bloom to my father just like my brother has been able to, but I can sure see myself in Edward Bloom. In fact, if we want to be brutally honest, I think Edward Bloom represents all of us. Edward wants to be a great man - don't we all? And I'm not just referring to the desires to be successful, or to make a name for ourselves. I guess everyone wants to be remembered in a certain way when one dies and leaves the world. Everyone wants to have a legacy. Everyone wants to do something good that people can remember forever. We all want our stories to live on beyond our lives on earth.
At the end of the day, it matters not if Edward Bloom is indeed a big fish in a big pond. All that matter is that he at least is, in the eyes of his son.
View all my reviews
On to the next book. Take care!
-ccj, Duvanson, 4th June 2021, 7.25am
Just finished reading this book yesterday, and I'm very happy. Sharing here my review from GoodReads:
The Elements of Eloquence by Mark Forsyth
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
This is an entertaining little book filled with wisdom and amusing facts on rhetorical figures. Anyone who loves the English language, or the beauty of languages and beautiful writing for that matter, will definitely enjoy this little gem. It has 39 chapters, each dedicated to explaining a particular figure of rhetoric in the most illuminating and delightful manner. Reading it gives me the chance to revise more familiar rhetorical figures like alliteration, antithesis, assonance, anaphora, metonymy and synecdoche, personification, and hyperbole; but also less familiar ones (at least to me) like polyptoton, hyperbaton, hendiadys, catachresis, epizeuxis, zeugma, and scesis onomaton.
To explain each rhetorical figure, Mark Forsyth draws examples from great writers, poets, playwrights, pop artists, rock and roll singers, movie actors and actresses, politicians, philosophers, and God (I mean the Bible). His writing is fun and engaging; it's hard for me to put the book down. The book claims to offer "tricks to make the most humdrum sentiments seem poetic or wise" (from the blurb on the back cover), and it doesn't disappoint. The blurb also says that the book will show how I can do the same - Forsyth concurs in the introduction part of the book thought-provokingly titled 'On Cooking Blindfolded': "Shakespeare got better because he learnt. Now some people will tell you that great writing cannot be learnt. Such people should be hit repeatedly on the nose until they promise not to talk nonsense any more" (p. 2).
I'm still not better at writing after finishing the book, but I'll definitely never going to read any written sentence in any language in the same way ever again. This is a book that I would want to go back to often - to refer to, to learn from, to contemplate. I think if all writing teachers can just make the teaching of rhetorical elements as entertaining, anyone who wants to write beautifully can learn how to do so, if they want to. At the very least, understanding of rhetorical figures can certainly afford humans the chance to discover a more in-depth appreciation for literature and beautiful writings.
In the penultimate section of the book, the 'Peroration', Forsyth reveals his hope for the book: to dispel "the bleak and imbecilic idea that the aim of writing is to express yourself clearly in plain, simple English using as few words as possible" (p. 201). And he goes on to say, "To write for mere utility is as foolish as to dress for mere utility" (ibid). (Can I show this to my academic journal editors? :P )
Without figures of rhetoric, "we would merely be us: eating, sleeping, manufacturing, and dying. With them everything can be glorious. For though we have nothing to say, we can at least say it well" (p. 202).
I think that aptly recapitulates what The Elements of Eloquence is all about.
View all my reviews
That's all for today. Till the next post!
-ccj, Duvanson, 3rd June 2021, 9.23am
I just finished my first MasterClass with Roxane Gay, on Writing for Social Change, and I'd like to share my thoughts about it. First of all, I really like Roxane Gay. Watching her MasterClass feels like sitting right opposite her, listening to her spewing words of wisdom directly at me, and just to me. Yes, it does feel personal, and I think that's what I like about it the most. Roxane has the ability to engage with people in a way that makes you feel comfortable and accepted. She's wise yet approachable, authoritative yet non-judgemental, established yet relatable. Learning from her is an inspiring experience.
Roxane's MasterClass is short - it consists of 20 videos ranging from around 3 minutes to 15 minutes in durations. But it's a comprehensive course. It starts with Roxane sharing her experience of writing as a black feminist, and how she has challenged ideas and minds through her writings. Then she goes on to sharing the technical aspects of writing, i.e. how to get started, the writing process, the writing 'toolbox', how to do research, how to self-edit, how to consume and criticise culture, and how to write about trauma.
It also includes segments called 'The Writer's Workshop,' which feature three aspiring writers reading their work to Roxane, and giving her the chance to comment on them. These workshops are super helpful and are my most favourite part of the whole MasterClass. It helps me see more clearly how the theoretical matters discussed in previous lessons can be put into practice.
The final part of Roxane's MasterClass deals with the 'business sides of writing.' I like the part where Roxane is being honest about how keeping a day job can emancipate a writer from the burdens of having to worry about monthly bills, and as a result provides more spaces and time for creativity and explorations. Something I've been pondering upon and thinking about. Roxane also talks about other practical aspects like how to find an agent, how to get published, and how to become a good literary citizen.
Works of art
As for MasterClass itself, I must say I'm blown away by the quality of the production. The videos are works of art in themselves. On top of that, a downloadable workbook is also included in the class resources segment. I downloaded it expecting to find a PDF containing bullet-point notes or a condensed summary of all the lessons. Instead, I found a beautifully crafted 28-pages e-book with detailed notes and high-quality photos. It's definitely not just a summary of the course; it provides a wealth of additional information not covered in the video lessons. It goes beyond my expectations, and needless to say, I'm very impressed.
Worth the money
The MasterClass costs USD180 per year (which is about MYR700). Annual subscription will give me access to all available lessons on MasterClass for a year, so it sounds like a great investment. I've been contemplating on subscribing to it for a long time, but I keep hesitating. Then my ever proactive friend Yanyi Lee registered first and received a promo of free 7-day membership which she could offer as a gift to anyone she fancies, and of all people she decided to give it to me. I used my 7-day free membership to watch Roxane Gay, and I'm glad I did.
I know it's a bit too early to say, but I'm convinced that I won't regret the money I spent on this.
Now I'm learning The Art of Storytelling from the amazing Neil Gaiman. Will post an update as soon as I'm done.
-ccj, Duvanson, 21 May 2021, 6.02 a.m.
I would like to start sharing my book reviews from GoodReads on this blog, so here's the first one:
Our House is on Fire: Scenes of a Family and a Planet in Crisis by Malena Ernman
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
This book is jointly written by Greta Thunberg, her parents Malena and Svante, and her sister Beata. It relates the family's journey that leads towards Greta's historical school strike for climate change in front of the Swedish parliament building in August 2018. I picked it up expecting to read accounts of fights for environmental protection and the climate crisis, but what I discovered was more than that and I was pleasantly surprised.
Written from Malena's point of view, the book describes the family's struggles with being different - not just because they're fighting for a cause that's often looked at with cynicism by most people (especially by First World's privileged upper-class population who have been benefitting so much from environmentally-destructive economy), but also because both Greta and Beata suffer from neurological disorders that make everyday life more challenging compared to most people. Greta has Asperger's, OCD, and eating disorder; while Beata has ADHD, OCD, autism, and misophonia. Malena herself was diagnosed with ADHD in adulthood.
People say autistic people see everything in black and white, they see no shade in between, and they tell a thing as it is. In that sense, and especially when it comes to matters as black and white as the climate crisis, autistic people are a gift to the world. I've been following Greta's work for quite a while and I'm always in awe of her ability to focus on what matters. She never sees the need to respond to hatred, abuse, and vitriol - her dogged determination and relentless assertiveness are enough to shut negative people down.
Despite its simplicity of message and style of writing, I find this book moving and thought-provoking in many ways. First and foremost, of course it makes me think about the environmental crisis, how much damage I've contributed as an individual, and what I should do to help change things for the better. I'm never a climate change denier, but I confess that I'm a lukewarm laggard, and I belong to the group who clings to false hopes in future technologies that haven't yet been invented. Technologies that can purportedly suck all excessive CO2 from the air and solve the problems once and for all. I also belong to the group who thinks switching to 'green products' and driving hybrid cars are enough to mitigate the damage. But of course I'm wrong.
Secondly, the family's story also makes me think more deeply about inclusivity and acceptance. Because of their multiple conditions, the Ernman-Thunberg family always feel like they don't belong anywhere. School is a struggle for both Greta and Beata. Admins and teachers are not always supportive of the children's needs for differentiation - which comes as a surprise to me honestly. I naively thought countries as progressive as Sweden would fare better in matters like inclusion, but apparently I'm wrong. I'm also very unimpressed with the school's manner of handling Greta's bullying by her peers. This part of the book, I guess, is what touches me the most. I mean, the environment message is important and it does spur a repentant mode in me. However, the experience of being an outsider is one that always resonates the most because I, too, grew up thinking I don't belong anywhere. I, too, was a victim of bullying - simply because I'm different. Now that I'm a teacher myself, I feel more strongly than ever that children should be allowed to work alone if they want to (as opposed to forcing them to work in groups even if they're uncomfortable), and to encourage them to speak up only when they're ready (as opposed to awarding points for 'participating' - this is forcing students to speak even if they're not ready, and is seriously damaging for those who have issues speaking in public. I failed a paper for one particular semester just because I chose to remain silent during group discussions).
All in all, we need to stop being judgemental towards kids who seem socially awkward (these kids don't do it on purpose. Believe me, I know). The best thing we can do is to let students learn at their own paces and in ways that are most convenient for them. Greta has selective mutism, but would you be able to guess that judging on how eloquently she delivers her speeches? The best thing we can do for some children is to just let them be.
Last but not least, there's an emerging trend which seems to point towards adults' (especially politicians, people in power) tendency to think it's okay to pick fights with children over causes they don't want to bother about. It's okay to disagree with anyone about anything, but it's never okay for someone with prominence and privilege to bully young helpless kids. We see it in Greta's fight over environmental issues, we see it in Malala Yousafzai's fight against education inequality for girls. Closer to home (Malaysia), we see it in Ain Husniza's fight to #MakeSchoolASaferPlace, we see it in Veveonah Mosibin's experience of being a victim of digital inequality during the pandemic. These are just a few examples. What's wrong with adults?
In short, I highly recommend this book. It delivers important messages, but it's very easy to read and surprisingly a page-turner, too.
View all my reviews
I've been a GoodReads member for many years, but last year was the year that I started to update my shelves and to post reviews more consistently. I think it's a good way to keep track of books that I've read. More than that, it's a good way to force myself to put my reflections down in writing. It's also a great way to motivate myself to read more books.
Go here if you're interested in connecting with me on GoodReads, We can share thoughts on books, and discuss bookish stuffs together :)
Till the next.
ccj, Duvanson, 16th May 2021
I've decided to take a break from social media for a while. I don't have much appetite for Facebook, Instagram, or Twitter anymore these days, but I still need to keep them because of Going Digital ELT and other research-related work. I guess what I can do is go back to the old way of using social media, which is by logging in through my laptop. Having the apps on my mobile devices makes it too easy for me to succumb to the arbitrariness of scrolling mindlessly through the feeds and stories and photos and memes for a hundred times a day, and afterwards wonder where the time flies.
This unfruitful activity is taking so much space in my life, when I know I should be doing other more important stuff. So I deleted all social media apps from my devices, but kept the accounts.
So what are these 'more important stuff' about? Here are some:
There's clearly a pattern here - and one that's not too hard to fathom.
There are lots more, like spending more time in prayers and studying God's words, serving and loving my family and friends, exercising (yesss!!!), and getting enough sleep. But these are important things that don't cost money. Interestingly, I think I'm slightly better at utilising free stuff than I am at deriving full benefits from my investments (except for the exercising part).
Anyway, I'm putting these here as a way of establishing accountability. I'll try to post my progress for each commitment (both paid and free) on this blog as often as I can.
Soli Deo Gloria.
-ccj, 15 May 2021, 9.01am
The most memorable assignment during my undergrad studies was for the English Literature course. It was a group task where we had to rewrite a Shakespeare play of our choice and then performed it in front of our lecturer and our classmates. Our group's version of The Merchant of Venice required Antonio (a part that I had to play) to perform a soliloquy. I wrote a sonnet for him - just for fun.
For Each Passing Season
Shall I compare life to changing seasons
And man to the plants that conquer the earth?
For each passing season there are reasons
And the reasons define mere mortals worth.
In summer time, the reasons are budding
In spring they blossom, in autumn they fall
Then cold winter leads to reasons fading
Bitter snow buries the reasons and all.
Mere mortal I am, and my winter is
Fast approaching and fast coming to end
My reasons and my seasons and my bliss
My joy and my pain and the whole life I spend.
Final farewell my fellow friends for now
I'll bow to my vow, if you would allow.
Here's a recording on SoundCloud
Antonio recited this in prison when he learned that he was unable to pay moneylender Shylock the amount he had borrowed on behalf of his friend Bassanio because his merchant's ship was lost at sea. Shylock demanded to be compensated with "a pound of flesh," or in other words, he wanted to physically hurt Antonio - perhaps to kill him. So the sonnet was some sort of a farewell message. The way I interpreted it, Antonio was quite ready to die for the sake of his friend. He saw his imminent death as a "season," - it was sad, even tragic, but it was also certain and inevitable. Through his soliloquy, Antonio expressed a sincere desire to "bow to his vow," - to answer the call to honour life's natural precepts in the most respectable manner.
Writing the script and performing with my group members were fun, enjoyable times. English Lit was without a doubt one of my favourite courses. But not long after, something shocking and devastating happened which changed the way I wanted to look back at this memory. Just a few months before our graduation, we received news that JC Ng, the beloved lecturer whom we did the Shakespeare assignment for, had perished in a plane crash. She was 33. From being a piece created playfully to remind myself of the good old days, Antonio's sonnet suddenly transformed into something that reminds me of her tragic end, of the fragility of life, and of how brief our candles are - as Shakespeare himself would put it.
Flip sides of the same coin
The Book of Two Ways by Jodi Picoult was the first fiction I read this year. The story's main theme is death, though it also deals with questions about life and what-ifs, about love and forgiveness, and about human desires and the pursuit of dreams told through the subjects of Egyptology, quantum physics, multiverse, Irish superstitions, and the job of a death doula. It starts with the main character's brush with death when the plane she was on crashed unexpectedly.
A plane crash. Of all things.
Reading the book brings me back to my memory of the late Ms JC, to my Antonio's soliloquy, to my fear of flying, and also perhaps to my thoughts about death and dying which I've been entertaining since last year. I don't think I'm alone in this, though. I guess pandemic-ridden 2020 had forced a lot of people to think about life and death in ways they never did before.
One of the questions I find myself asking is this: Am I afraid to die? Dawn, the book's main character, said that fear of death is a common thing - indeed all fear is a fear of death. Fear of flying is definitely a fear of dying in a plane crash. Fear of snakes is a fear of being bitten to death. Fear of height is a fear of falling to death.
Maybe I do fear my own death - but I guess I fear experiencing the death of my loved ones even more. I guess I'm not alone in this. A lot of married couples I know seem to prefer dying before their spouses do - it's easier to be the one who leaves than to be the one being left behind. I found an echo of this in the book, when it mentions how "every story is a love story," i.e. "love of a person, a country, a way of life." Hence, "all tragedies are about losing what you love" (p. 67). Picoult also writes:
I'm thankful to start 2021 with Daisy Christodoulou's new book, Teachers vs Tech? The case for an ed tech revolution, published in March 2020 by Oxford University Press. In this post, I like to share my personal notes and reflections on some of the important key points.
Christodoulou, who is the Director of Education at No More Marking and the author of Seven Myths of Education (2014) as well as Making Good Progress? The future of Assessment of Learning (2017) - is also an English language teacher. This has made the book all the more appealing to me. To deliver some of her arguments, she offers lots of examples and anecdotes from classroom experiences that resonate with my own. Of course, there are plenty of examples from other subjects like mathematics and science, too - but it is my belief that many English language teachers would find this aspect of the book helpful in so many ways.
The book's Foreword is written by Paul Kirschner. He ponders on the fact that despite all the hypes that surround it, ed tech doesn't seem to be successful in revamping education in the same ways that previous revolutions like the printing press and the blackboard (or the chalkboard) did. At least not yet. In Kirschner's words:
In my working life as an educational psychologist and instructional designer (at the time of writing, over 40 years). I've had to suffer the prophecies and predictions of trend watchers, trend matchers, futurologists, corporations, educational gurus, and eduquacks telling me how information and communication technologies were the next revolution in education. Up until now, these technologies have been little more than expansions of the first two real revolutions.
The questions that we need to ask
The introduction chapter opens with a quote by Thomas Edison from 1913 where he predicted that books will be obsolete and that everything will be taught with "motion picture" in ten years. Echoing Kirschner's sentiment in the Foreword, Christodoulou points at how education today has remained almost similar to how it had been in Edison's time. She writes: "Compared to the change and disruption that technology has brought to practically every other part of our society, education is an outlier" (p. 14).
Christodoulou argues that if education does indeed need to change, these are the two fundamental questions that we need to ask: 1) how do humans learn? and 2) what causes learning to happen? The main theme of the book is to find out "the gap between what we know about human cognition, and what often gets recommended in education technology" (p. 22). According to Christodoulou:
If we can reconnect both education and technology with the research underpinning them both, there is enormous promise for a genuinely successful revolution.
On the last day of 2020, my social media feeds were lined from top to bottom with people reflecting on their 2020 highlights and biggest achievements of the year.
A friend urged me to share what I would consider my biggest achievement. She thought it necessary to celebrate every single achievement, no matter how small, to make 2020 (which undoubtedly had been the hardest year for many) worthy of celebration. I racked my brain, but I couldn't find anything worth sharing. I didn't think I had achieved anything - I had been spending too much of my 2020 on finding healing and trying to survive.
But I posted this on Facebook, nevertheless:
I guess my friend wasn't too impressed with that - but I honestly believed that that was my biggest achievement of the year. I had procrastinated doing that for too long, so to be able to enter the new year with an organised closet was a magical feeling.
But skimming through my friends' posts on my feed got me thinking. Is this what a brand new year is supposed to be about? Collecting trophies and achievements? Well, there's nothing wrong with that of course; it's never a bad thing to have goals and ambitions. But what if I don't want to have any achievement to brag about at the end of the year? What does "achievement" really mean?
I asked a dear friend of mine what she thought was her biggest achievement of the year. This was her reply:
"My biggest achievement is remaining a Christian till the end of 2020. And not running away from God when things became hard."
She also wrote:
"This was God's grace in an ultimate sense, but it also felt like a major achievement somehow."
But aren't all achievements God's grace? I don't think I would ever be able to lift my lazy bones to clean that poor closet of mine if it wasn't for God's grace.
I'm just a book
In addition to overwhelming posts about successes and achievements (which I enjoyed reading - they were like refreshing oasis in the midst of what seemed to be a parched year), I was also bombarded with newsletters about books that had impacted the world in 2020. I love books, and I always welcome these newsletters as they give me ideas on what to put in my reading list for the following year. The books that shaped 2020 from Penguin is one of my favourites, as well as the Best Books 2020 from Goodreads and Most Anticipated Books of 2021 from Times.
As I tried to decide which books to include in my list, I did more than just reading the reviews and synopsis. I also tried to learn as much as I could about the authors. The authors, to me, are always as important as (if not more important than) the books.
I pondered upon it this morning, and this thought came to me:
People can't enjoy a book without appreciating the author.
People can't celebrate a person without glorifying the Creator.
I was reminded then that I'm just a book. Without my Author, I'm nothing.
In the Problem of Pain, C.S. Lewis wrote:
"Man is not the centre. God does not exist for the sake of man. Man does not exist for his own sake. "Thou hast created all things, and for thy pleasure they are and were created." We were made not primarily that we may love God (though we were made for that too) but that God may love us, that we may become objects in which the divine love may rest "well pleased." "
When I celebrate my achievements and blessings, I should be giving Him glory. He's the Creator who made this book. He's the Author who writes my story.
Have a blessed 2021.
~ccj, Duvanson, 9.54am
I've never heard of Claude Shannon, till I came across this article about him on Quanta Magazine. Shannon was a genius - a scientist, an electrical engineer, and a mathematician - whose groundbreaking work on communication made possible the Information Age as we know it today.
I know I should read up more about him, about his life, and about his work (and I do intend to, soon) before I should dream about writing a post about him - but I need to make note of how much this article has inspired me. The author David Tse described Shannon as a "lone genius" who "invented the future." I'm not an engineer or a mathematician, and although I'm interested in Information Technology, it's quite unlikely that I would ever have to refer to any of Shannon's writings for my own research in social science (at least for now). But I'm drawn to his approach to the pursuit of knowledge. In this post, I'd like to list down lessons I learned from Shannon's scholarly life as described by Tse in his article. These are lessons that I hope to emulate in my own academic journey, and also in my life in general.
Lesson 1: Aim big
The article revealed how Shannon's work had been impactful since the very beginning. Upon graduating from the University of Michigan with a Bachelor's degree in electrical engineering and mathematics, Shannon wrote a thesis for his Master's at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. The work ended up being transformative - one that "is now considered to have been the starting point of digital circuit design."
Shannon was clearly ahead of his time. But after achieving a success of this magnitude, he didn't stop there. He moved on to a bigger goal, which was to transform the way humans communicate.
Lesson 2: Look for a unifying point (this might take some time, but it's okay)
Before Shannon published his seminal work A Mathematical Theory of Communication in 1948 (which took him a decade to complete), communication systems had always been about "specific sources" and "physical medium."
Shannon was not satisfied with complying with the way things were. He was brave enough to think out of the box, to ask a question that no one in the field seemed to have asked before. He was looking for "a grand unified theory for communication," - and he found it.
I learned that this philosophy is applicable not only in academic, but also in life. I'm stating this because this lesson resonates with me in more ways than one. Recently, I've been reflecting on the value of finding a unifying point that would harmonise the different aspects of my life, as opposed to treating them as disparate entities. Modern advice seems to advocate compartmentalisation, and for a long time, this is an ideal I've been subscribing to. The pandemic, the lockdowns, having to work from home while simultaneously juggling the needs of my family have made compartmentalising very difficult - almost impossible, actually. Have I been doing it wrong all these whiles? Life consists of different aspects - yes. But these different aspects are so overlapping and intricately intertwined; I can't do one without the other. Maybe compartmentalising, drawing boundaries, and separating different aspects of life as if they're totally unconnected aren't the best ways to go. Maybe harmonising everything through one unifying point is something that I should consider doing more seriously from now on.
The unifying point might be different from person to person. I have decided that my unifying point should be my faith. I hope to write more about this in a future post.
Lesson 3: Simplicity is key
Tse wrote, "The heart of his theory is a simple but very general model of communication." Then Tse went on to describe how despite its simplicity, Shannon's theory captures some very key insights which are crucial in addressing the main issues in communication systems.
A work doesn't have to be complicated to be groundbreaking. I often think (and have been advised to think) that in order to make a contribution in my field, I need to come up with something that's not there yet. In other words, I need to create something new. But Shannon showed that sometimes what's needed is simply to point people towards the right direction. In Shannon's case, it isn't about creating something new. It's about highlighting the obvious stuffs that have gone under the radar because people have been focusing on something else that's more aligned to general intuitions of the day.
Tse commented: "Shannon’s general theory of communication is so natural that it’s as if he discovered the universe’s laws of communication, rather than inventing them."
How did Shannon do it? Through investing all his time and energy on things that he believes matter. Tse offers that Shannon had focused "relentlessly on the essential feature of a problem while ignoring all other aspects." I've been allowing too many stuffs to clutter my mind in my quest towards contributing something that I hope would be valuable. It's time to declutter my life and make things more simple so I can focus on what matters.
Lesson 4: Uncertainty is to be embraced
Shannon was the first in his field to observe that "the key to communication is uncertainty." Tse pointed out that this observation "shifted the communication problem from the physical to the abstract." Uncertainty allowed Shannon to use probability to draw up his theory of communication, which is at the same time a theory of how "information is produced and transferred - an information theory." As a result of this theory, Shannon is known as the "father of information theory."
I'm aware that this article refers to "uncertainty" and "probability" as engineering / mathematical terms in relation to communication / information systems. But at philosophical level, this truth still holds. Transferring the lesson to my own personal pursuit of knowledge, I'm reminded of instances where some things tend to be generally perceived as concrete, physical, and tangible. Treating these things as being abstract and uncertain might invite raised eyebrows. Being the amateur that I am, I often retract despite knowing that I might find something useful if I press on. It would be far from groundbreaking or world-changing, but what I would discover might be helpful in my pursuit of understanding. And this, I believe, is the main reason why I embark on this journey.
Lesson 5: Don't be afraid to be different
The article describes how Shannon's theory has led to "counterintuitive" and "unexpected" conclusions. As a result, he was deemed esoteric by fellow engineers of his time. But if it wasn't for his courage to be different, we might not know communication and information systems as we know them today. Tse pointed out that "Shannon's theory has now become the standard framework underlying all modern-day communication systems." Shannon discovered his landmark theory 70 years ago. He passed away in 2001, but his legacy lives on in the technology that surrounds us today and for many more years to come.
Familiarity gives me a safe place, a feeling of security, a sense of belonging. It takes a lot of courage to do something that no one else is doing, to be alone, to be perceived as a weirdo. But as evidenced through Shannon's life (and the lives of many other prominent scholars and inspiring people who have changed the world), taking the road less taken is not only worthwhile; it is necessary sometimes.
Pruning the Tree versus Adding my Twigs
I'll end this post with Tse's concluding paragraphs:
"When I started graduate school, my adviser told me that the best work would prune the tree of knowledge, rather than grow it. I didn’t know what to make of this message then; I always thought my job as a researcher was to add my own twigs. But over my career, as I had the opportunity to apply this philosophy in my own work, I began to understand."
"When Shannon began studying communication, engineers already had a large collection of techniques. It was his unifying work that pruned all these twigs of knowledge into a single coherent and lovely tree — one that’s borne fruit for generations of scientists, mathematicians and engineers."
Pruning the twigs of knowledge into a single coherent and lovely tree. That should be the aim.
~ccj, Duvanson, 10.57pm
Tse, David (December 22, 2020). How Claude Shannon's Information Theory Invented the Future. Quanta Magazine. Link
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