Friday Diversions: End of August by Sameer Vasta

Today, I am a little short on sleep. Some of this sleep deprivation comes from the kitten, who continues to bite my toes and dance on my belly while I rest, and some of it can be attributed to a small cold I am fighting right now, but much of it, I admit, is directly due to my poor sleeping habits.

I don't "prepare" for sleep, like so many experts recommend, but instead crawl into bed at a certain time—whether I am tired or not—and stare at my phone until I doze off. This, I know, is not healthy. I am slowly working on making my pre-bedtime routine more conscious, more conducive to rest, but this, as all habits do, will take time.

Perhaps we all need to learn to fall in love with sleep, again. Sure, we relish slumber after a long day, but our culture is fascinated with being awake:

Great philosophers have taught that most of us mistake the limits of our own perception for the limits of the universe. Nowhere is this conundrum more relevant than in our contemporary take on sleep. We are mired in a pre-Copernican-like, wake-centric era regarding consciousness. We presume waking to be the centre of the universe of consciousness, and we relegate sleeping and dreaming to secondary, subservient positions.
Looking at sleep solely through waking-world eyes is like looking at a glorious night sky through dark sunglasses. We are caught in wakism, a subtle but pernicious addiction to ordinary waking consciousness that limits our understanding and experience of sleep.

Falling in love with sleep again. Sounds good to me.

Random, unrelated miscellany, gathered in short list form:

"A good chunk of science is being at the right place at the right time to see something briefly."

The creator of the Super Soaker water gun was a Black engineer who worked for NASA and was constantly discounted because of the color of his skin. Gives a whole new perspective to all those years I spent at picnics chasing after friends with my triple-barreled Super Soaker, and getting soaked myself.

I have no clue how to describe this essay on drinking alcohol and on being a woman, but I can say that you definitely should read it.

Not something I've thought of before, but now I can't stop thinking about it as I stare up at the night sky: the constellations are sexist.

"This is the problem with public proposals. They are, at heart, an act of intense coercion and humiliation, made by men apparently too insecure to ask their loved one to spend the rest of their life with them without a baying mob complicit in the weird slushy sting operation."

America (and many parts of Canada, too) is enveloped in a culture of fear around Islam, leading to patients declining treatment from Muslim doctors. It's heartbreaking to be a Muslim anywhere in the world these days.

Snails.

Carly Rae Jepsen's E•MO•TION was one of my favorite albums of 2015, much to the ridicule of many. This reflection, one year since the album release, is an excellent articulation of what makes the album so great.

The Tragically Hip weren't in my consciousness growing up, and I didn't know any of their music. Still, last weekend, I watched their last concert, and tears streamed down my face. These articles by Stephen Marché and Eric Koreen do a good job of encapsulating why this band means so much to Canadians. Conversely, this discussion on not being a fan of The Tragically Hip while still being unabashedly Canadian is also quite poignant.

We all depend on Wikipedia for quickly looking up facts, but the underbelly of the online encyclopedia is marked with mental illness and suicide that the community is working hard to manage

More and more people are using online communities and tools to find solace when our current mental health system fails them. How can the system use these online communities more effectively?

"Nearly every city has tried to build its way out of traffic congestion, but the approach hasn’t yet worked." Building more roads to deal with traffic congestion doesn't work. We need to think of other ways to move people around our cities.

I had a delicious lobster roll for dinner on Monday night, so it's only fitting that I thoroughly enjoyed this oral history of the lobster roll and its origins in Maine.

Important reading for our current political climate: how technology disrupted the truth.

In the project Ornitographies, photographer Xavi Bou captures the motion and stillness of flying birds, all at once:

Ornitographies, by Xavi Bou

Ornitographies, by Xavi Bou

Ornitographies, by Xavi Bou

Ornitographies, by Xavi Bou

Ornitographies, by Xavi Bou

Ornitographies, by Xavi Bou

Ornitographies, by Xavi Bou

Ornitographies, by Xavi Bou

Algorithms To Live By by Sameer Vasta

If there's one thing I learned from reading Brian Christian and Tom Griffiths' Algorithms To Live By, it's that my mind does not operate like a computer, at all.

This, of course, is not necessarily a bad thing. While computers are excellent at finding the best possible answers for our most complex problems, they are (at least, not yet) able to imbue those solutions with context, empathy, and an understanding of the human emotional condition.

That said, using computer science to guide decisions in our lives can be useful, and Mr. Christian and Mr. Griffiths' book is illuminating in that respect. What Algorithms To Live By offers, more than simply advice on how to live like a computer, is a deeper understanding of computer science as a practice, and why it is so important to the way we live today.

Despite working in the digital realm, my knowledge of how computers work is limited to very basic programming skills and a superficial understanding of hardware architecture. What I didn't realize until reading this book is that computer science isn't simply a way to find a correct answer, but a constantly-evolving process of finding the best answers to questions that have no perfect solution. Like humans, computers must make quick decisions; unlike humans, their capacity to process incredible amounts of information to drive those decisions is formidable.

My habits of sorting and filing, of making pro-and-con lists—these are all contrary to the way computer science would suggest I live my life. I am re-evaluating these habits after reading Algorithms To Live By, but more than simply taking the advice at face value, I am constantly asking myself, now: what would an algorithm do? I may not know the answer, or even like it, but this book has at least opened my eyes to a new way of thinking, and given me a new tool in my problem-solving kit.

Friday Diversions: Mid-August by Sameer Vasta

I'm back in the big city, at the downtown Toronto office, today. So far, I have spent more days in August in Toronto than I have in our small hometown—for work and weddings and more—and I've begun to wonder why I have been so easy to embrace our move to a smaller town when I am so enthralled by the magic of big urban centers.

The answer is easy: I love the place where we live because I live here with those I love. I miss the buzz of the city, and my many friends there, but I am comforted by the quiet of our new hometown, and by the fact that I come home every day to my wife and my cat. Life is good; this life, wherever it is, feels like home.

Random, unrelated miscellany, gathered in short list form:

"Practicing waiting is a lifelong practice since, as it turns out, impatience has a particular gravitational pull. But after all that waiting, finding or opening or having that once-future thing feels very much present. And that is worth waiting for."

BoJack Horseman is one of my favorite television shows in recent years. The way it deals with depression, anxiety, sense of loss, sense of purpose, and aging is impressive—especially considering it is an animated show starring an anthropomorphic horse. This NYTimes profile on its creation and creators is a great read once you've finished the third season.

If you think anthropomorphic animals are adorable, you'll be interested in this look at what makes things "cute", and the pervasiveness of "cuteness" in Japan. Apparently, a whole new academic field of cute studies has begun.

How to get rid of books"You’ll always have more books than space for them. You’ll never achieve bookshelf equilibrium."

Why has Korean food become so popular recently, like Peruvian food just before it, and so many other international food trends over the years? Turns out gastronomic diplomacy is quite an extensive industry, and shapes what we eat every day.

Internationally-renown chef David Chang has a unified theory of deliciousness, which came from years of studying and examining what works and what doesn't in his kitchen and others.

The best kind of writing on the internet is happening in places we often ignore: "These little platform-incongruent Easter eggs give us blips of pleasure; they are like the marginalia of the internet, except they’re more than just notes — they’re little standalone works of art." I love the idea of the "marginalia of the internet."

My out-of-office reply always gets nice comments, and occasionally responses, because I always make each one conversational, personal, and fun. What happens when your out-of-office reply becomes news?

My Uber, My Friend: "Ride-sharing drivers have become the unofficial new bartenders, or arm-chair therapists."

Do you know much about Will Smith's early music? Turns out his lyrics weren't as sweet and uncontroversial as we may think: Will Smith started as a gangsta rapper.

A defense of something I've believed for a very long time: Janet Jackson made better music than her brother Michael. (Now, time to go listen to Rhythm Nation 1814.)

"Everyone wants to believe that they are a good person. Americans want to believe it more, perhaps, than the rest of us, because their nation has done and continues to do some very bad things both in the world and to its own people in the name of a dream that is still a nightmare for millions."

There's no shortage of good election writing these days. Here are a few pieces that stood out over the past couple of weeks:

Did you know that the World Bank has a bookstore in DC? And that it is an absolutely wonderful space? I wrote a little bit about my experiences with the InfoShop earlier this week, and why I'm sad that it might be closing.

Almost every Friday diversion post over the past few months has linked to a blog post by James Shelley; this one is no different. His most recent musings on careerism and being micro-ambitious in the present are poignant and resonant: "Is the whole point of running this race simply so that one day I will not need to race anymore? Do I work solely for the cause of not working in the future? How does this make sense? Never mind. Around I must go again."

Photographer Oliver Curtis visits famous landmarks and takes photos faced the wrong direction, capturing essentially what these landmarks see all day:

Oliver Curtis, Volte-Face: Taj Mahal

Oliver Curtis, Volte-Face: Taj Mahal

Oliver Curtis, Volte-Face: Parthenon

Oliver Curtis, Volte-Face: Parthenon

Oliver Curtis, Volte-Face: Christ the Redeemer

Oliver Curtis, Volte-Face: Christ the Redeemer

Years. by Sameer Vasta

I lived for almost eighteen years, more than half my current life, before the advent of the new millennium. It's sobering to think that I didn't grow up in a world where the internet was pervasive, where we lived our lives online. I'm not necessarily nostalgic for that life, but when the recent Mixtape Concern assignment was "years," I thought it would be a good opportunity to explore those years before 2000, when I was young and full of energy.

1982: S.O.S. Band, "High Hopes"

I was born in February 1982. My parents, I am sure, had very high hopes for who I was to become. Whether I have met those hopes is still yet to be decided.

1983: Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five, "New York New York"

I was just over a year old when we moved to New York City, a place that has defined who I am much more than one would expect, considering our short (only a few years) stay there.

1984: DeBarge, "Time Will Reveal"

When you're two years old, you're starting to become a real person: you're talking, walking, interacting with the people and the world around you. What did two-year-old me say about who I was to become? Only time would reveal.

1985: Eddie Murphy, "Party All The Time"

What do you do when you're three years old, you're a few months away from going to pre-school, and don't have any responsibilities? You party all the time, of course. You spend the time exploring the world and learning about the people around you.

1986: RUN-DMC, "Walk This Way"

My love of strolling, of flânerie, comes from an early childhood of necessity. When you don't have a car in the big city, you walk — everywhere. Now, I love getting places by foot, but when I was a kid, the message was clear: if you needed to get anywhere, you walked that way.

1987: Eric B. & Rakim, "I Ain't No Joke"

First day of school in a new school, new city, new country. I walked up to my teacher and introduced myself, in perfect French, and then smiled at the class. Sure, I was joining them all in the middle of the year, but I was going to make my presence felt: I wasn't no joke.

1988: Pebbles, "Girlfriend"

The first woman I fell in love with, I met in my kindergarten class. Her dad drove my school bus, and she was in my class at school for six straight years. The word "girlfriend" means something very different when you are five and six years old, but that's what I called her, and all the adults laughed.

1989: De La Soul, "Me Myself and I"

For the longest time, my family was my grandparents, my parents, and then me. I was the only child in the family. In October 1989, my brother—still my best friend—was born, and everything was no longer focused on me, myself, and I. And that was okay.

1990: Deee-Lite, "Groove Is In The Heart"

There are many years in my life that are a blur, but the one thing I remember from most of those years, like this one, is that I was always dancing. Even now, the groove runs through my heart — I dance every chance I get.

1991: PM Dawn, "Set Adrift On Memory Bliss"

I remember bits and pieces of my childhood, many moments and experiences and feelings, but 1991 is the first time when I can accurately look back at the year and remember it clearly. For some reason, fifth grade is stuck in my memory, and when I am set adrift looking back at blissful memories, that is as far back as I usually go.

1992: Shai, "If I Ever Fall in Love"

I've been singing as long as I can remember, but my first real public performance came in sixth grade, performing in a community production of West Side Story. I sang three pieces at my audition, but the pièce de resistance was my rendition of Shai's 1992 classic.

1993: Janet Jackson, "If"

Middle school is a time for crushes and dances and flirtation and all sorts of hormones and emotions and awkwardness and faux pas and that feeling of if only I had said something or done something or just smiled. All the fleeting "ifs" that make up our pre-teen years.

1994: Zhane, "Groove Thang"

Heading into my teenage years, heading into high school, I was sure I had life all figured out. I had good friends, a good sense of style, and a whole lot of (undeserved?) swagger. Nothing could stop me, stop that groove thang; there was a bounce in my every step.

1995: Montell Jordan, "This Is How We Do It"

My teenage years were good to me. I worked hard, but played hard too. I explored, experimented, and thoroughly enjoyed myself. Most of the time, I was a model of good behavior, but sometimes, I got myself in trouble. This is how we did it, back then, after all.

1996: General Degree, "When I Hold You Tonight"

I loved high school dances, but I was really in my element at the various house parties that started popping up in the neighborhood in the mid-to-late 90s. There, we would listen to good music, move our hips to the beat, and find someone, even a stranger to hold for the night, just as we danced, before heading home in the twilight.

1997: Scarface feat. Tupac, "Smile"

If there's one recurring refrain that people keep telling me, when I was younger and even now, it's that they rarely see me upset or sad. I learned early in life, even in my brooding teenage years, that everything felt better when you just smile.

1998: Tamia, "Imagination"

I'm not sure how exactly the idea of going somewhere new jumped into my head, but at the age of sixteen, I decided that I didn't want to be cooped up at home anymore, that I didn't want to follow a typical path towards adulthood. So I applied for a boarding school on the other side of the country, and waited, hoping that the opportunity to live the life of my imagination would come my way.

1999: Sleater Kinney, "Get Up"

I was seventeen years old when I moved out of the house and started to create a life of my own. The new millennium came with new adventures, new perspectives, and a new understanding of who I was. And so I end this mixtape with a song from an album that was released on my seventeenth birthday, reminding me that then, and now, "my soul was climbing tree trunks and swinging from every branch."


(This post was created as my submission for the September 2016 edition of The Mixtape ConcernDownload this mixtape on Dropbox.)

InfoShop. by Sameer Vasta

Occasionally, when the workload was light and I needed to escape the office, I would leave my desk at the main World Bank building and head across the street.

It didn't take me long after moving to DC to discover the World Bank InfoShop, a small but charming bookstore at the corner of 18th and Pennsylvania, just steps away from the White House and directly across the street from the building where my office would be. I spent many hours in the InfoShop when I lived in the city, using it not only as a place to clear my head and browse the rows of trinkets and souvenirs whenever I needed to quickly escape, but also as a refuge from the busy-ness of the city, where I could hide between shelves and quietly read a book, unnoticed by anyone but the staff who smiled and nodded every time I walked in.

The InfoShop wasn't a big bookstore, but it was perfectly-sized for the many book launches and social events it hosted and I attended while I lived in the city. Outside of these events, it was relatively quiet, mostly acting as a stop for tourists looking to pick up some flags, pins, notepads, or pens—in all my time there, I only ever saw someone purchase a book once—as they toured through the World Bank and the other major institutions nearby. Because of this relative quietness, it was an ideal place for reflection, for contemplation, and for working. On many occasions, I brought work documents with me to the store, said hello to the staff working there that day, and spent the day perched on the window ledge reading, editing, and writing.

The Washington Post is reporting that the World Bank is considering closing down the InfoShop, and while I understand the reasons and the reality behind that decision, I can't help but be sad. The InfoShop is more than just a repository of books and knowledge, and even more than just a place to buy some souvenirs on your travels. It is a space to think, to read, to learn, but most importantly, to remember that there is a lot of work left to do to make the world a better place, and that we are all responsible to do that work, together.