April 25, 2012

Bib Communication


Long time no post! I return with a vengeance… And a baby.

While the challenges of new motherhood have been more physical than intellectual so far, my mind has been perplexed (and perhaps fixated) by one particular thing: the asinine stuff written on bibs.



Most of what is written on bibs follows the same variation: “I love XYZ”. I’ve seen bibs professing the baby’s love for his or her parents, relatives, places and things. I’m having a very hard time buying any of these because who am I to speak on my baby’s behalf and pretend to know who or what she loves?

Does she love me? Does she love her daddy? Her grandparents, aunts and uncles? Only she knows.

Does she love Paris or New York? How could she? She has never left Austin TX.

Does she love cupcakes? SHE DOESN’T EVEN EAT SOLIDS YET. This “I heart cupcakes” bib came with an adorable newborn pajama set my mom got her. While I very much enjoy looking at her wearing an outfit covered in cupcake print (because she looks as sweet as a cupcake), I have yet to make her wear that silly bib.


The only bibs I’ve been comfortable letting her wear are the ones with no words on them or the ones that say “XYZ loves me” because that’s the truth and these people (me included) are old enough to own up to their feelings.



Am I under thinking this existential issue? Or does this mean it is high time for my maternity leave to end so I can go back to work?

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October 4, 2011

Homo Homini Lupus

Yep. You read that title right. I’m showing off my dead language skills and that’s Latin for “Man is a wolf to Man”. In my specific case, that would be Loulia is a wolf to Loulia but there is no Latin translation for that.

I’ve turned into my own worst enemy in the past few months because of this wonderful thing called Internet and that other wonderful thing called Kindle.

The first one allows you to have a wealth of information at your fingertips, anywhere, at any time. The second allows you to become a book bulimic except that you don’t have to hide to binge because nobody can see the cover of what you’re reading and the amount of it.

Now, throw these two items in a blender, add a copious dose of pregnancy and watch the monster take a life of its own!

If my husband had his way, all pregnancy confirmations would come with an automatic cancellation of one’s internet subscription. It’s already bad enough that, in normal times, we can do enough research to convince ourselves that the small bruise on our arm is the beginning of gangrene and our limb is about to fall off… now imagine googling the same stuff with the word “pregnant” attached to it. There’s enough information out there to convince a rational lady that all her symptoms indicate she’s going to give birth to a pony. I stopped counting the number of false frights I’ve caused myself because of the things I read online. And yet, I cannot be stopped.

The world of ebooks isn’t any gentler. Digital content is extremely easy to accumulate because it doesn’t take up any physical space. As a result, reading 10 books on the same exact topic becomes a reality because there is no visible pile of paper to shame one back to rationality. If unstopped, this will lead to the development of tunnel vision and turn me into a mother who is super knowledgeable about what to expect when she’s expecting and clueless about how to deal with The Expected after he or she is born. Though there is a remote chance my knowledge of sphincter law and nausea triggers may come in handy when handling a baby…

In all seriousness, I think this compulsion to research and read about everything extensively is partly rooted in superstition and fear. There’s so much unknown and uncertainty ahead of me (will this pregnancy go to term? will be the baby be OK? will I be a good mother? will I still have a life?) and the accumulation of information gives me an illusory sense of control. Also, some people stupidly believe that preparing for the worst may prevent it from happening (did I tell you I’m an expert in plane crashes?). I realize that sort of anguish does not do any good or serve any purpose. I bet pregnancies were a lot more laid back in the analog age. Good thing I have an unlimited yoga pass and practice everyday. Sat Nam!

April 11, 2011

Seeking Cat’s Owner Desperately

Fact: If I can’t find something on the Internet, it doesn’t exist.

Evidence: My mad web-searching skills helped reunite a lost cat with her owner.

The adorable kitty in the picture above walked out from underneath my car a couple nights ago and communicated its intent to reside in my house for a little while. I had to go out of town for the weekend so I put her in a bedroom with all the cat necessities and posted messages to our neighborhood listserv before I left. While I was away, my husband put up some posters with Mystery Kitty’s pic on it to let people know we found her. We didn’t receive a single phone call.

When I returned, I took Mystery Kitty straight to the vet to see if she was microchipped. Hallelujah! She was!
Not so fast! said the vet’s assistant. The microchip wasn’t registered to any owner and was put in by the animal shelter a couple years ago.

Off to the shelter we went. I won’t comment on the traumatizing experience of walking into that building and witnessing people abandoning their animals in front of my eyes.
The friendly volunteers who work there looked up the microchip data and found a phone number, which turned out to be disconnected. After I filled out a Request for Information Form (legalese for Cover Your Derriere), they gave me the registered owner’s full name and her last address. An apartment. What are the odds of the person still living there?

I went back to my car with Mystery Kitty and pulled out THE INTERNET.

Googled the owner’s name (along with location data etc). That person is almost invisible on the interwebs… but she left a trail: a 2009 online wedding registry! With a gentleman’s name on it too. Made the wild assumption she took his name. His very common last name. Common last names are the invisibility cloaks of the internet.

I shifted from searching-for-people mode to searching-for-address-mode and made my way to the Travis County Central Appraisal District’s website to search for properties by owner’s name. Entered all sorts of combinations (his last her first, her last her first, his last his first) until I found a home registered to “his first her first his last”. With the help of Google maps, I was there 20 minutes later (quite a ways from where I found the cat). Nobody was home. Left a note on the door with my contact info.

Several hours later, I got a phone call – turns out the registered owner gave away the cat two years ago. She got a hold of the current owner and his roommate came to pick up “Yen” (the cat’s actual name) shortly after.

The End.

Long live the Internet!

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March 31, 2011

Since we last poked

Take that smirk off your face and get your nose out of Urban Dictionary – the subject of this post refers to the innocent act of nudging a person on social networks.

Back in 2007, poking someone on Facebook wasn’t lame and annoying yet; it was a cute way of saying “hey” to one of your friends or of introducing yourself to people you didn’t know (unless you were an 18 year old male, in which case it was never cute). My best friend and I used and abused that functionality quite frequently, and it was my turn to poke back when she passed away several years ago.

Facebook gives users the option to remove items they don’t wish to respond to, like pokes and events. I never returned the poke or removed it simply because I liked having the constant notification and reminder that she poked me on my Facebook page. It made me feel like her digital self was still active.

I accidentally deleted it today while using my phone and I’m devastated. That was the last sign of life I had from her and it’s gone.

Meanwhile, her profile is still up and I can’t decide whether it is a blessing or a curse. On one hand, it is reassuring and comforting to still be able to access the page; but on the other, it almost feels indecent in a staying-way-too-late-at-someone’s-house-after-the-party-is-over kind of way.

I guess that, in a world where everybody is scattered all over the place, Facebook profiles of the deceased can have the same cathartic effect as traditional headstones. People can stop by the page, reflect upon a person’s past by looking at pictures or quotations, or post a message to a wall in the same way one would leave flowers by a grave. Will the dead read the posts or sniff the plants? Probably not. Both gestures nevertheless help anchor in the present the strong feelings of the past.

The number of these inactive profiles will inevitably multiply with time and I wonder when Mark Zuckerberg will introduce a digital cemetery feature to help organize all these defunct yet relevant pages.

February 28, 2011

More about my mediocre oud skills

I’ve already lamented my lack of steady progress at learning how to play the oud so I won’t dwell on that. What I’m sharing today is the aha! moment I had while reading through some blogs this afternoon. Today’s inspiration came from Pete the Planner who was actually quoting someone else:

There is a difference between interest and commitment. When you’re interested in doing something, you do it only when it’s convenient. When you’re committed to something, you accept no excuses, only results. (Ken Blanchard)

It’s no mystery that the reason my oud skills are lagging is because I’m not committed. But here’s the real secret: I didn’t want to learn how to play it because I think the oud is the most beautiful instrument in the world (that spot is taken by the mbira and the kora) but because I want to use it as a means to claim a share of my culture.

I’m of Arabic descent and grew up in Europe without learning how to speak the language. As a result, whenever I travel to Lebanon, I always feel like an outsider and somewhat diminished because I can’t partake in elaborate discourse. My family and friends have to translate a lot of things for me and I find that both frustrating and humiliating. I’ve tried learning Arabic numerous times but do not feel any connection to the language to keep my interest sustained.

Last summer, while I was in the mountains in Ehden, I listened to a man play some beautiful oud and was so moved by it when I realized I could connect to my roots through music. The fact that nobody in my immediate entourage (except an uncle) plays the instrument, or any music for that matter, was an added benefit: with everyone to support me (my parents are my cheerleading squad) and no one to patronize me, I would be free to forge my own path and build my own relationship with my “Arabism”.

The clip above is of a song I’ve been working on since the fall and that I’m still not good at.

Having said all that, I resolve and commit to play at least 30 minutes of oud on a given day before I’ll allow myself to pick up my beloved mbira. That ought to keep me accountable and focused. And, who knows, maybe one day playing the oud will feel like its own reward.

February 27, 2011

Book review: Let’s Take the Long Way Home

Just finished reading “Let’s Take the Long Way Home: A Memoir of Friendship” by Gail Caldwell. It’s the story of her close friendship with Caroline Knapp and of her grief after she lost her to cancer. I started reading it shortly before the third anniversary of my best friend’s passing and finished it last night. Am still not over it. Her relationship was vastly different from mine but the way she wrote about her grief really struck a chord. I’ve never been able to put my feelings into words but recognized them in Caldwell’s writing.

The same shock and feeling of unpreparedness (felt like getting the wind knocked out of me – every single time I thought of what had happened):

The only education in grief that any of us ever gets is a crash course.

The same disbelief:

But no one I had loved—no one I counted among the necessary pillars of life—had died suddenly, too young, full of determination not to go.

The same dreams, reaching out for them in vain, imploring the dead to come back (in one of my dreams, she looked annoyed because I was making her late for her lunch date with God and his girlfriend):

In the dream I knew she was dead, and I reached out for her and said, “But you’re coming back, right?” She smiled but shook her head; her face was a well of sadness.

The same fierce attachment to material things that belonged to them (I have a pair of her shoes that’s half a size too small and a sweater that itches awfully – they’re treasures):

I wanted to claim whatever of her was left. I’d always heard stories about grief-stricken families arguing over ugly lamps or cheap coffeemakers; now I understood. The frantic hunger I felt was not trivial or greedy; it was possessive, in the most primal sense. I still have her gym bag and her rain jacket, and for a while I even tried to wear her winter boots, an entire size too big, which was absurd but comforting. Memento mori: reminders of the dead. I think we must long for these signatures of history (…) because they take up the space left by the departed.

The same perspective and outlook shift:

What if dying weren’t a bad thing? Caroline’s death had left me with a great and terrible gift: how to live in a world where loss, some of it unbearable, is as common as dust or moonlight.

The same inner transformation (The day she passed was like having my drive formatted. For the following months, I was a blank slate with all my limitations temporarily wiped away):

Grief is what tells you who you are alone.

The same hole in the heart:

Caroline’s death was a vacancy in the heart, a place I neither could nor wished to fill. (…) her goneness was a thing unto itself, a memory outlined by crime tape it would be an outrage to remove. Now here was Neruda, entreating mourners to inhabit death as though it were a dwelling: Absence is a house so vast that inside you will pass through its walls and hang pictures on the air.

The same reification of her death, now an integral component of life:

I knew I would never have another friend like Caroline (…). That she was irreplaceable became a bittersweet loyalty: Her death was what I had now instead of her.

I’m quoting the book extensively because I still don’t feel comfortable writing about all this. My life still feels split in two parts: the one before her death and the one after. Processing the fact that she’s gone is a continual work in progress.

I’ve read a whole bunch of books about loss and grieving but none hit the mark like this one. The other books tell you pseudo-scientifically what you’re supposed to feel with the caveat that everyone feels things differently. This book is raw: the author puts all her thoughts and emotions out there and you can’t help but connect and relate. Self-help books make you think grieving is a set of phases you have to go through in order to heal; this author shows you there is no such thing as healing because there is no sickness to heal from. The pain may ease with time but you will continue to grieve because it is now part of your life. And that is okay.

The book will also appeal to dog lovers, recovering alcoholics and people who simply enjoy beautiful writing.

February 17, 2011


By now, you should know I have mixed feelings about anonymity. While beneficial in certain situations (therapy, support groups, etc.), it also creates an environment that encourages people to become their worst passive aggressive selves.

After reading “Deindividuation“, a post on the “You Are Not So Smart” blog, I’m convinced it’s the root of all evil (mild hyperbole). The post contains anecdotes about people who were contemplating suicide (from the top of a building) and who made that fatal jump after being encouraged to do so by a crowd. Very disturbing. Who in their right mind would do something like that? Answer: You and me.

According to the author:

The risk of a spontaneous cheering section goading a person into killing themselves is high when people in a group feel anonymous and are annoyed or angry. It only takes one person to get the crowd going. Those are the three ingredients – anonymity, group size and arousal. If you lose your sense of self, feel the power of a crowd and then get slammed by a powerful cue from the environment – your individuality may evaporate.

This phenomenon isn’t limited to the streets and takes place online as well. You’re probably familiar with the story of the girl who offed herself after being taunted by online bullies.

The more anonymity a user is allowed, the more powerful the effect of being protected by the group. (…) your identity can spring a leak in the presence of others, and the more others there are, the more you dissolve into the collective will of the group. Looting, rioting, lynchings, beating, war, chasing a monster with torches – the switch is always there, and it doesn’t take much to flip it.

Very depressing.

The post does give a small glimmer of hope though: all this energy could potentially be harnessed for the greater good by making people feel “safe from judgment” and by providing “prosocial cues”. I’d really like to know what a prosocial cue looks like to begin with, especially in the online world. According to Wikipedia,

Prosocial behavior is caring about the welfare and rights of others, feeling concern and empathy for them, and acting in ways that benefit others.

That’s all fine and dandy but how does that stand a chance when online society is governed by incredibly strong forces such as Godwin’s Law?

As an online discussion grows longer, the probability of a comparison involving Nazis or Hitler approaches. In other words, Godwin put forth the hyperbolic observation that, given enough time, in any online discussion—regardless of topic or scope— someone inevitably criticizes some point made in the discussion by comparing it to beliefs held by Hitler and the Nazis.

(If you don’t believe this statement, I suggest you go spend some time in the comments section of the Austin American Statesman.)

I really don’t mean to be a cynic. I just think that, unless you live in a country where freedom of speech is repressed (sorry ACLU activists, the United States is NOT China or Syria), you should own up to your thoughts and opinions.

February 7, 2011

Predicting creativity

After discussing nuclear fission and solving the world’s problems, my husband and I started daydreaming about the upcoming release of the new Fleet Foxes album (out on May 3). Will it be better than their first LP? Or at least as good? What will the future bring?

(best song on their last album. I “hearted” 10 out of their 11 songs on my mp3 player.)

John, being a realist, dished out the following piece of advice to help manage our expectations:

Think of the worst song on their last album and imagine a CD comprised entirely of that.

According to him, the worst songs on an album are symptomatic of artists running out of creativity and needing to produce fillers to complete their projects. Many times, artists use up all their creativity in their first albums and fizzle out when they work on the sequel.
We’ve seen this happen to Band of Horses, Midlake, and too many others who we describe as now “hanging out in the Shearwater house.” So this could very well happen to our beloved Foxes (shudder).

(worst song in my humble opinion. The only one that didn’t get a heart.)

I wonder if this theory can be applied to other creative areas in life. I was trying to think of this concept in terms of books and chapters, but, according to John, songs are “self-contained environments” when chapters aren’t (can you tell how philosophical we get about music?).

While I appreciate John’s conservative and rational approach to creativity prediction, I like to hold on to the hope that sparks will fly no matter what. While music can be created scientifically using algorithms, a true piece of art also contains a soul. This soul may waver, explaining some inconsistency in the musician’s output, but it’s still there. It cannot be mathematically replicated or measured. Pressures of the music industry may cause great songs to be born prematurely, with little time to mature, but talent will find its way through the system.
If an artist’s music has punched me in the stomach, leaving me breathless and in an awe, I’ll stick around – weathering the blandness and waiting for the next revelation.

February 4, 2011

Kenneth Cole Tweets

The end of the era I foretold a few posts ago isn’t here yet. And the past day has been a momentous one in Twitter affairs (Noam Chomsky won’t mind me borrowing his sentence).

It all started with the following remark tweeted by Kenneth Cole, the clothing retailer:

Millions are in uproar in #Cairo. Rumor is they heard our new spring collection is now available online at http://bit.ly/KCairo.

There was some uproar indeed but it came from the online community who was outraged by this callous tweet. Kenneth Cole was blamed for making light of a serious situation, exploiting current events and hijacking the #Cairo hash-tag, used to group Egypt-relevant tweets.

Kenneth Cole responded by deleting the tweet (bad move!) and publishing an apology on his Facebook page (smart move). I’m against deleting tweets because by the time one realizes they should be removed, they’ve already been re-tweeted by a bunch of people and, as such, will always remain on record anyway. This makes the deletion of tweets appear like an attempt to conceal things.

Lo and behold, a newcomer enters the Twitter scene less than an hour later. Behold KennethColePR – the impersonation account – and the following zingers:

Parents of Hiroshima — you’ll melt when you see our new kids collection! #KennethColeTweets

People of Australia: Water up to your ankles? We’ve got your Kenneth Cole capris right here! #KennethColeTweets

(there’s more where these came from.)

January 31, 2011

Of mind blowers and mind readers

I know you didn’t ask but I’m going to tell you anyway: I had a fantastic weekend.

Last Friday & Saturday, I participated in the Texas Government 2.0 Camp – also known as Txgov2.0. – and got so much out of the experience. Besides meeting a slew of very interesting people (fellow state employees and others), I was exposed to so many good ideas that my head is still dizzy from all the thinking and my fingers are still tired from all the typing. The event’s primary focus was on open government with an emphasis on data transparency and citizen engagement.

Rather than cramming miles of notes into a single blog post, I’ll just share the highlights.

Best quote:  “Access to data is seldom the problem; locating the needle in the haystack and then understanding what you have found are the real challenges.” A panel of LBJ School students conducted a survey as part of their research on data accessibility and this quote came from one of their respondents. Their presentation pointed out that data scarcity is very often not the problem and that many organizations provide a firehose of data that is so poorly formatted and organized that the information cannot be found or used.

Best observation: The students mentioned above pointed out that there is a disconnect between:

  • the information government thinks is relevant / the information people want, and
  • what people understand / what analysts are producing

Newsflash: government isn’t a mind reader.

Best list: Evan Smith, CEO & editor of the Texas Tribune, stated the 5 principles of open government

  1. Mindset: All the information in the public sphere belongs to citizens who paid for it and are entitled to it.
  2. Make it easy: The data should be easy to find, easy to understand and easy to manipulate. According to him, government agencies are so “dumbshit” about data that they share entire databases in PDF format, rendering the data unusable.
  3. Visualize: A sheet-full of numbers isn’t as compelling as a well-designed graphic or a story that puts the information in context.
  4. Collaborate: Competition is a luxury government cannot afford.
  5. Share: Information shouldn’t sit idly on websites, waiting for people to come to it. It should be pushed and distributed through various means including social media. This data should also be device and format agnostic.

Best encouragement: Dustin Haisler, of Spigit and known for his work for the City of Manor, acknowledged that the road to transparency is long and that the to-do list to get there can be overwhelming. With that in mind, his best way to get started is to “start small” with the most requested information using its existing format.

Best formatting adviceJon Lee, from the Texas Department of Information Resources, warned the audience against stale government reports with rigid structures that bury meaning in a sea of information. He showed us an example of a report he worked on and asked which title sounded more appealing:

  1. 2011 Biennial Performance Report for Information Resources, or
  2. Top 11 IT Strategies Affecting Texas Agencies

Making reports more content-driven and less formal is another way to be open and transparent to the public. There shouldn’t be any barriers to making the most valuable information rise to the top.

Best tone advice: Steven Polunsky, a participant in an “unconference” session on social media, would like government institutions to “Give me information but don’t sound like my mom”. He’s right, there is a fine line between being relevant and annoying.

Best compliment: A participant in an “unconference” session on state data (an employee of the railroad commission I think) was complaining about how too many state agency websites are organized politically with information aligned with their org charts. He then pointed out how the website of the agency I work (and which I helped design) is structured differently by putting the needs of the user first.

Best omission: I can’t remember anyone mentioning the need to write in Plain English instead of jargonese and bureaucratese. Using simple language that a 6th grader can understand is key to ensure the information can be understood by everyone.