Needlework [2]

Let me tell you a little story first. Are you familiar with the Thousand-Character Classic? That is what this story is going to be about.

The Thousand-Character Classic is a Chinese poem that was written circa the 6th century and has been used for teaching children essential Chinese characters since. It consists of exactly one thousand characters, each used only once, and those thousand characters form 250 lines of four characters. Each line makes sense on its own while the 250 together create a coherent work. Apparently they rhyme too. Nothing short of a work of genius.

There are several versions of its origin story. One I was told when I was small goes like this:

An extraordinary scholar has been sentenced to death (for some reason I can’t remember) and the execution is tomorrow. His talent is so exceptional that the emperor wants to find a way to spare his life. So he tells the scholar that he would be pardoned if before dawn he created a poem with pre-selected one thousand characters. The scholar manages to produce one such poem – as described earlier – but by the time dawn breaks his entire hair has turned complete white.

Why am I telling you all this? Because I am relating to the man so much at the moment. I am not likening myself to some legendary scholar, of course not, but it’s just that a 10K-word manuscript that I sent over for printing last night had felt like an impossible jigsaw puzzle at times.

Research writing is what I do, so I know some writing tasks come easy and some don’t. This was certainly one of the most difficult ones of which I’d had to untangle my way out. I kept thinking how Cayley (2018) was spot-on when she said: if you are struggling with your writing, you are in fact struggling with your thinking.

Anyway, in the end I have managed to pull together Cambridge Analytica, algorithms, alternative facts, hipster fascists, manosphere, the Chinese grass-mud horse, outsourced content moderators in South Asia, and the fundamental right to be let alone, together with a hundred other ‘buzzwords’ in the news, and weaved all of them into one single piece of tapestry. Tired but happy. Now I even feel a little as if I understand what’s going on in the world surrounding me a little better. … And I am convinced I have lost much hair in the process.

(Not quite related, but speaking of weaving, here is something I found fascinating
at the National Museum of Anthropology in Manila a few weeks ago
– stylised crocodile motifs from an olden time)


An old and a new world, searching for a way to live together

Just came back from a family trip in India. My first visit to the subcontinent. Granted, I am not that well-travelled, but it was nothing like any place I’d ever been to. The heat, the rain, the traffic, the constant honks, the bold colours and patterns of fabrics and jewels, the fruits and spices that I had never known existed, fresh flowers on head on no special occasion, … sensory overload, I would summarise.

I managed to stay away from work email during those three weeks. This must be my record. You might think I was carrying on the new tradition that I created last year in Busan, but in fact, this time it wasn’t a result of conscious efforts. It just so happened that I was on a tourist visa, I didn’t have a local SIM, and it was unbelievably hot and humid that I couldn’t afford to be my usual self. My itinerary was also too packed anyway with meeting many relatives and neighbours, every one of whom wanted to feed and clothe me, by the way. 🙂

One thing I couldn’t turn off though was my curiosity about how in different societies digital media gels with whatever is already there locally. I don’t mean so-called “glocalisation”; I am talking more about the organic processes of mutual shaping, which is my all-time and ultimate fascination. And I always prefer to use the verb ‘gel’ for that, instead of more conventional ‘intersect’ or ‘meet’, simply because I tend to visualise internet technology in my head as some kind of Play-Doh. I felt almost vindicated when I came across Manuel Castells’s “The internet is a particularly malleable technology” (2001: 50), and Steve Jones’s “[doing internet research is] a lot like getting a grip on Jell-O” (1999: 12).

 (Speaking of localisation…)

Here are a few illustrative snapshots from the trip.

(A book I stumbled upon at home; (c) 1985)

(“Computers must be told what to do. They cannot think independently of their programming.”)

(“App-based taxi pick-up” at an airport)

(“Uber Zone” at an airport)

I was surprised to see how integral Uber and the likes were to everyday life. There were even apps for auto-rickshaws! No more hailing and no more negotiating. As a friend half-jokingly said, technology did what the government couldn’t. In the meantime, some auto drivers have allegedly found a way to beat the algorithm; in order to exploit surge pricing, they agree to go off the grid simultaneously and come back online one by one, taking turn. My experience of app-based taxi rides in India was overall positive, so it hit me extra hard when Jamie Bartlett’s documentary last Sunday showed the dark side of all this.

Museums were amazingly old-school. Perhaps I am just too used to shiny ones that are optimised for flocks of international tourists. There no AC, no English blurbs, no frills.

(“Complaint book is available with the duty clerk in the museum office”)

(“Camera Pass”, at 200 rupees, to be allowed to take pictures with smartphones inside the museum)

(P, our official guide, explaining the relationships between Hindu deities, using the analogy of instances of a class in Java)

(“World’s 1st 3D printed Durga idol”)

Navigating life through screens

Little Sister One came to see me last month, and as she instructed, we did some serious touristy stuff.

Seeing the change of the Royal Guards at the Buckingham Palace turned out to be a particular challenge for us as we were not tall enough to stay afloat in the crowd. A group of middle-aged French women were also struggling like us, but then one shouted with joy to the others (if I may roughly translate): “Oh, I can – I can see them through the screen of that young man!”

I found that moment amusing and also encapsulating. That is, it aptly encapsulated how everyday life is now experienced through multiple screens, regardless of whether one’s own or someone else’s, or whether switching between or using many simultaneously.

Speaking of screens, next month I will participate in the event Research Methods for Digital Work: Innovative Methods for Studying Distributed and Multimodal Working Practices at the University of Surrey. The work I will be presenting is titled The penumbra of academic work: A case study of #AcWriMo and scholarly writing as a second-screen experience. This is what I actually meant to share today, but I somehow side-tracked myself (again).

A provisional programme is telling me that I will be in great company. If anyone is interested, the registration page is here.

“Tweets in the limelight”

Routledge’s Asian Perspectives on Digital Culture, to which I have contributed a chapter, will be released next week. I noticed a few tweets yesterday welcoming the book, so I thought I’d chime in shyly. This post is not necessarily intended to be a self-promotional plug; I just love remembering how each of my projects first came into being. A little bit of marginalia, if you like. And yes, I can pinpoint the exact moments.

In this case, the whole thing was sparked by the tweet below by Simon Pegg in August 2010.


This was not the first time when I saw an individual tweet picked up by the news media. However, what followed the media reporting at that time, including the reaction of the author of the tweet himself, was quite different from what I observed previously in the Korean cultural context.

So, I started to wonder what kinds of tweets were selected by the Korean media as newsworthy and how those tweets were represented and discussed in the news. I shared preliminary findings at the MiT8 conference in Boston in 2013. The project has been further developed since, and this book chapter is the final product of it.

Titled ‘Tweets in the limelight’, it opens like this:

It is not uncommon around the world nowadays for individual tweets (messages of 140 characters or less posted on the social networking site Twitter) to become news items. In 2009, for example, the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) wrote an article about a “row” English actor and presenter Stephen Fry had on Twitter with a fellow user (BBC, 2009). In the Entertainment section of the online news outlet Huffington Post in 2012, there was an article attempting to interpret American pop singer Katy Perry’s every activity on Twitter a month after her then husband, comedian Russell Brand, had filed for divorce (Huffington Post, 2012). The British Prime Minister David Cameron’s tweet “I understand and support Barack Obama’s position on Syria” was read by many journalists as an important move in international relations surrounding military intervention in Syria in 2013 (e.g., McGregor, Blitz, & Aglionby, 2013).

I think this paragraph inadvertently but unmistakably shows how much time I spend on the Internet – all in the name of research, of course.

Trust me, I’m a doctor.

Last Friday I was asked to give a short presentation at the induction event for the new intake of research students. As usual, I started with a self-deprecating joke about a PhD. That’s when it struck me that I do have quite a collection of such jokes.


  • “I would like to thank my family and friends outside academia for continually resisting the urge to tell me to “get a proper job”.” (Andrew Chadwick, Internet Politics, 2006: xiii, Acknowledgements)
  • A professorial room (photographed in 2007)


  • “Not the kind with access to drugs” (The Big Bang Theory S04E19)


  • RT @aimsinpeng At a tech startup talk. This is what they say about working w academics […] (25 March 2015)


  • RT @ianvisits The British Library, full of wise clever people who read a lot — but need to be warned about steps. A lot. (21 February 2014)


  • “The only people who will ever read your thesis (besides you) will be your supervisor, the examiners and your mum. And she will just say she read it.” (Australian Open Access Support Group, 10 April 2013) * Compiler’s note: The version that we shared had a one additional detail – that the examiners will read it on the train to Egham!
  • “It’s amazing how many super villains have advanced degrees.” (The Big Bang Theory S02E02)
  • “Dr. Acula” (Scrubs S05E06)


  • RT @Lollardfish Me: Mom, are you proud of me?
    Her: Your sister is dating a doctor.
    Me: I’m a doctor.
    Her: You have a PhD in history. Don’t brag, David. (7 October 2017)

Fit to work

20150927_fit_to_work(Click through the image to go to the original post @ 101words.)

I couldn’t believe my eyes when I first saw their advert. Free organ transplants during a mortgage with us. I know it’s relatively easy to secure a synthetic organ compared to, say, 2015, but still not everybody can afford one. “Too good to be true, isn’t it?” I murmured audibly.

I was due for retirement 40 years ago, but instead I’m due for my third liver replacement in two weeks’ time. Fit to work, the doctor will once again declare. Until I am done with the repayment, they will make sure I am fit to work. They won’t let me die.

The interplay between mortgage and death is one of our staple jokes, and the microfiction above is yet another variation from it. Thanks also go to the DWP for part of the inspiration.

My wishlist of research methods curriculum?

A few weeks ago I was asked to contribute to a discussion on starting to teach social research methods as an important part of A-level content. While reflecting on the request, I made a list (listicle?) of what I would personally focus on if I spoke to 16- to 18-year-old students about research methods.

  • Understanding of how to formulate a research question that is ‘specific’, ‘answerable’ and ‘relevant’.
  • Familiarity with a range of common methods to collect social data such as interviews, surveys, observations, and document reviews, but understanding at the same time that there can be many other approaches as long as those approaches are systematic and reasoned.
  • Ability to assess the strengths and weaknesses of two or more possible methods and determine which is the most suitable course of action for their research questions and aims.
  • Understanding the importance of ethical considerations in social research.
  • Understanding that the researcher needs to make a series of choices throughout the research in the face of theoretical and practical constraints, and ability to explain their choices to the audience.
  • Understanding the importance of ‘knowing the audience’ in communicating research processes and outcomes.
  • Information search and evaluation skills, especially with regard to digital sources.

Nope, nothing beats the joy of list-making.

Things we like

A small pocket of positivity I have recently discovered through a tweet. Very addictive too – so much so that unlike my usual self I have gone ahead and sent in a list myself. 🙂

  1. A pile of ironed hankies
  2. Collecting loyalty points/stamps
  3. Sipping chai latte when under the weather and making old-person noises
  4. Kind strangers in online user forums
  5. Listening to researchers passionately explain their obscurely specific topics
  6. Brownies that serve purposes (e.g. post-class brownie, mid-week brownie)
  7. My seven-year-old niece’s digital proficiency
  8. Making up a word in the middle of a conversation and the fact that S always gets it
  9. Claiming (unfoundedly) a connection to Bruce Lee when I have to spell my name
  10. Finishing a tube of moisturiser so clean that I have no doubt about throwing the container away

Archive fever

Can’t believe I haven’t got to boast here about our MOOC having been shortlisted for the Guardian University Awards 2015. The award ceremony (How Oscars!) was last Wednesday, and Manchester won our category. After we were informed of the nomination last month, I did joke to colleagues about practising a ‘gracious loser face‘, but at the event, I felt that no such practice would have been necessary. I really enjoyed the celebratory ambience – so much so that at one point, a gentleman sitting across the table told me that I must be the most generous applauder in the room. 😀

And here is our little ‘proof shot (인증샷)’ of that evening.


+ Oh, look! Now even in the form of video!

* Random addendum

I have long been pondering about the ontological meaning of proof shots, particularly selfies and pre-meal pictures. These days we rather regularly see instances of misjudged selfie moments in the news (e.g. here, here, and here + also here and here). I may be as appalled as the next person when reading about them, but my intellectual belief is that the desire to record (selected) pieces of our existence – our ‘archive fever’, if you like, to borrow Derrida’s words (1995) – predates mobile phones and social media. It has just always been in us.