How to Consume Science, #1

Talking about Science makes you seem cool and authoritative in most circles. That’s problematic, because what’s revered is seldom questioned. And what’s seldom questioned doesn’t have to be clearly understood. What’s not understood gradually becomes inaccessible.

Fields and industries that hope to benefit from cross-domain application of scientific ideas/techniques wouldn’t want these concepts to become inaccessible or obscure. One way out of this problem could be to consume science the way any idea should be consumed: with doubt.

But. We don’t usually talk about why facts need to be doubted. Schools and textbooks explain theories, but don’t usually talk about the nature of human knowledge. It’s possible to spend years practicing science, without ever regarding it as just another set of tools that can be used to build a model of reality.

And science is just that: an academic domain with its own limitations and fallibility. Science is made by people. Anything that’s made by humans is a social construct, and will therefore be one of many ways of interpreting what we observe. A very reliable one, sure. But always error-prone and with its own limits.

Now. If it has limits, we should know what they are if we are to use the scientific method to our advantage.

So. Before we try to design scientific business experiments, let’s talk about science: what is it anyway, and what should we remember while consuming it?

I. Science exists in the right now

Scientific truth is subject to change over the course of history. Whatever is scientified “truth” right now isn’t necessarily real, or may not remain “true” for very long.

Debunkings, discoveries, and paradigm shifts have always altered our perception of reality. We believe something to be absolutely true, and then someone goes ahead and proves it wrong. What we know to be true keeps changing with time.

Science is about being as objective as we possibly can in this moment. It’s about finding answers that serve us best in the right now. And then hope that future findings won’t deviate much from these current truths.

II. Science is a social construct

Scientists work with tools that are of human origin:

  1. Words come from human languages, all of which are inherently biased and burdened with history.
  2. Mathematical tools are also made by people, but all of the talk about their being right + rational makes it easy to misread math. We often assume a particular way of regarding a thing as the way of regarding it.
  3. Scientific models are often informed by ideas/schemas of their time. Because when you’re out to describe or explain something, you’ll draw upon the concepts you’re already familiar with.

Science seems to explain an external objective reality, which lies outside the realm of human bias & perception. But because it is made by people, and because people have no access to an objective reality (if such a thing even exists), all that science can really give us is this: a deeply subjective narrative of the universe & everything in it.

How to Read a Book, #1

As with most things in life, it helps to get practicalities out of the way first.


I visited my parents recently, and spent the afternoons browsing my library. While the old books brought great comfort, the reunion left me wondering if I’ve been treating books well at all these past few years.

As a child, I used to keep books in pristine condition, going as far as to wrap the most loved ones in clear plastic. There was never a stray mark or a stain or a dog-ear in sight.

My years of training to be a physicist changed everything. Suddenly, important formulae had to be readily accessible, and the most valuable bits of information had to jump out of a page at first glance. Over the years, I came to highlight, underline, and record marginalia with reckless abandon. And, slowly, books from across genres came to be treated that way.


Onwards to scattered thoughts on the matter of highlighting — or taking notes — while reading, and how that informs the (re)reading experience.

Does it help retain information better? Does it make texts look less beautiful/appealing? Does it pollute the reading experience? Does it introduce an inescapable bias into every subsequent reading?

The advantages seem too significant to be ignored:

  1. Desecration as GPS
    I find that notes and highlighted text help me locate specific sentences in physical books faster and with increased efficiency. When it comes to books that have deeply influenced me, I tend to remember the general position of what I’m looking for — how far into the book it is, and if I should be scanning the left or the right side — but landmarks always make locating things easier. I have no spatial memory of words read on-screen, so this benefit remains confined to the analogue world. (Not that this could beat digital search anyway.) 
  2. Build a Time Machine (Or: Taint Today, Soil Tomorrow)
    Note-taking allows access to historical opinions/selves that I may have forgotten about, and helps me trace my own evolution. Books record the exact context in which thoughts were formed: right alongside the writer’s original words. In doing so, I find that physical books aid superior recall of historical thoughts by maintaining close resemblance to their birth environment. The act of holding an old book again, reading half-remembered print, looking at my own handwriting, and inhaling an aged version of a familiar scent transports me to a historical state of mind like no journal ever could. Context could also be captured in a journal, of course, but not in such great depth, or with such accuracy and precision. It’s difficult to find a satisfactory substitute for the familiar tactile/visual/olfactory stimuli that a physical book offers.

And then there’s the dark side of defiling texts:

  1. Mark = Bias (Or: Memory is fallible, as is note-taking)
    When rereading a book that I remember almost nothing about, foreign marks distract and even take away from the rereading experience. I find that their visual weight guides the eye towards highlighted bits, and negatively impacts the consumption of surrounding information. This makes it very difficult to remain unbiased, even in the absence of any recollection of the material being consumed. Reading sullied text becomes an act of consuming censored broadcast, in that only a few words are let through and the voice of my past self (or another reader) drowns out the writer’s.

Right. More later.




This slideshow requires JavaScript.


On Technology & Human Subjectivity

I have begun to think about technology with due suspicion. Increasingly, technological development seems to do with the idea of producing, altering, or marketing human subjectivity.

Human subjectivity is being outpaced by technological advancement at a steadily increasing pace. Most of us don’t have a healthy relationship with our immediate world. The very goal of my devices seems to be to abstract me from my surroundings.

One seemingly irreversible change that bothers me a lot is the way seeing is giving way to recording. It’s an unfortunate example of the internal being brought to the sphere of the external, and of experience being reduced to its announcement.

The response cannot be Luddite rejection, of course. Not anymore — modern technology is too deeply integrated with our lives. We have to keep up, but we also have to think about technology with due suspicion. This wide-eyed celebration of convenience, efficiency and innovation just won’t do.

Brent Luvaas, Shooting Street Style in Indonesia: A Photo Essay

A review of — and a response to — Brent Luvaas’ Shooting Street Style in Indonesia: A Photo Essay.

Fashion is a means of self-expression, and the internet has helped both societies and individuals communicate/showcase (to entities existing outside of their in-groups) their distinct sartorial artefacts and the set of meanings attached to said artefacts. Street style blogs have emerged as a popular form of documenting commonplace, everyday fashion — strangely enough, though, by photographing people who stand out from the crowd and are then, on the internet, made to represent the popular dressing style of their geographic/cultural community.

Fashion is a form of visual storytelling that contains information about the history of a people. The socio-economic history of a culture is reflected in its popular fashion. To borrow examples from women’s fashion: first-wave feminism gave birth in Europe to androgynous silhouettes and raised hemlines; the Great Depression saw the Americans take a more conservative approach to fashion and opt for cheaper fabrics and simple/unglamorous silhouettes, while the period following it brought with it Dior’s “New Look”: cinched waists and full skirts that rebelled against the erstwhile plain fashion that economic poverty had forced upon the American people. These aesthetics emerged from a specific geographic location but spread throughout the world because the boundaries of cultures are porous and prone to incorporating meanings from outside into their own language. Fashion therefore tells us about how people respond sartorially to the events/ideologies of their times.

Street style blogs are of interest because
a) they document fashion as it exists outside of the hegemony of fashion houses, — and so, for the first time in history, the ordinary individual has been allowed to narrate the story of their times,
b) they are accessible to a wide variety of audience online, and
c) they hand over the power to document history and influence/create culture to anyone who would wish to take it.

Luvaas examines why, despite a deep penetration of the internet and a widespread interest in other kinds of fashion blogs, the street style of Indonesia remains largely undocumented online. He asks if street style is to be confined to the “streets”, and if “coolness” is an attribute that translates well across non-Western languages. His subjects are diverse and their class positions and religious affiliations are apparent from their style. He also talks about how individuals express themselves inside of the constraints imposed on them by citing the example of the hijab and how it has both informed and been informed by other articles of clothing.

Charles Correa, Museums: An Alternate Typology

A review of — and a response to — Charles Correa’s Museums: An Alternate Typology.

Charles Correa writes about the importance of context and the meaning it lends to an artefact. An Egyptian mud pot takes on a different meaning when bathed in halogen light at a museum. Context defines objects.

I will digress here and cite an example from art. In 1917, Marcel Duchamp took a porcelain urinal signed “R. Mutt”, turned it upside down, and called it “Fountain”. The Fountain becomes art by two processes:
a) It is defined by context, and by its modes of production and reception. It is art simply because it has been installed and displayed in an art exhibition and it is art because the audience considers it so. Objects have no intrinsic character of their own.
b) It becomes art by “inversion”, which is an act of defamiliarisation: a method of abstracting an object from its purported function (or to at least signal that abstraction). Inverting a urinal doesn’t fool you into nonrecognition, but confronts you with both its original form and its otherness by strategies of abstraction and distantiation.

The questions Duchamp asked were different from the ones Correa asks and answers, but the process by which an object becomes an historical artefact seems to me to work in much the same way: divorced from its “natural context”, — the original environment for which it was crafted — and placed in a neutral, indifferent, generic space that is designed to house a wide variety of objects, it takes a different meaning than the one originally intended. To perceive it the way it was historically perceived, and to understand its original context, the museum in which it is kept must be faithful to the natural setting of the object and present it to us the way its original environment would have. Correa cites numerous examples of such relationships between the “container” and the “contained”, and says that both the architectural design of the museum and the manner in which objects are arranged within it — whether in chronological order, or grouped together on the basis of geographical location or material/techniques used — affect our perception of them. He talks about how the structure of the museum and its pathways construct a narrative around the displayed artefacts. Courtyards and terraces and open-to-sky spaces and hallways are metaphors for people/places because they evoke certain emotions in us which we then associate with the artefacts on display. And therefore, typology not only classifies objects according to their type/function, but also studies both the characteristics of physical structures and how we interact with said structures.

Buildings have rhythms of their own and “flow” physically much the way music moves through time: the variations in physical structure — lend to it by the techniques using which various parts of the structure are constructed — seem to make it flow organically or appear disjointed or evoke emotions (or even memories of other physical structures found in nature). The spaces and the lighting create a certain atmosphere which, in a well-designed museum, comes very close to the natural context of the object and adds to the experience of the spectator. He uses this argument to point out the need for alternate museum typologies.