Month: July 2016

The Richest Mine of Inspiration

The view outside my internship office: Home smoggy home.

The view outside my internship office: Home smoggy home.

It’s old news that inspiration can come from anywhere. J.K. Rowling says the spark for “Harry Potter” came from a dream – boring. Mary Shelley conjured “Frankenstein” from a “ghost story” challenge among friends – less boring. Inspiration can jump from a bizarre news story, a snippet of eavesdropped conversation, or a personal tragedy. But I’ve found the most reliable source of inspiration is just… talking.

Preferably to others, rather than myself (I’m not really going for a “Jekyll and Hyde” thing). And a lot of different others, from backgrounds I’m unlikely to encounter in my workshop classes and with viewpoints outside of my own personalized echo chamber. I’ve been fortunate this summer in my “exposure” to a wide variety of interesting people (plenty of them queer, I’ll admit – after all, I do have to stay on-topic). Part of this I’ve cultivated on purpose. I started volunteering at a radical collectivist bookshop in Bloomfield where I had hours-long discussions with some of the smartest freethinkers I’ve ever met. And last week, I began my internship at a New York non-profit for LGBT rights on a global scale; the dedication and perseverance of my activist colleagues has energized me daily. Other inspiring discussions caught me by surprise (turns out first-date conversation doesn’t have to be confined to “what’s your major” and “so this was fun”.)

Of course listening is a vital part of the kind of talking that inspires me. At work this week, an awesome visiting attorney specializing in LGBT asylum cases — think “if Idina Menzel was a lawyer” — never had to give the “compassion over money” speech for me to believe it. At the bookstore a couple weeks ago, I collaborated on a Tumblr meme with an anarchist trans girl who used to shoplift and is still part of a graffiti gang. Last weekend, I saw “Ghostbusters” with my best friend and had a capital-M Moment with the probable lady-couple next to us about how thousands of little queer girls are going to watch Kate McKinnon kicking butt and think “maybe this is me and maybe that’s okay.”

Everyone has a story to tell, sure, but not everyone has the resources or ability to tell it. I can only hope my project will do justice to a few of these often unheard voices. The funny thing is I was going to work something into this post about how odd it is that the word “inspiration” has such positive connotations even though I have definitely been inspired by things like breakups and mass shootings. But as inclined as I am toward cynicism in real life, I tend to lose track of that in my writing. I write to make a little more sense of the ugliness in the world, and to feel a little better about life. In fiction, at least, I’m good at happy endings.

Learn more about my project.

Why It Matters (#SaveJamesStreet)

It’s always distressing to see the problems addressed in my thesis playing out in real-time within our music community. One incident in particular hit me hard – the shutting down of the James Street Ballroom during the Deutschtown Music Festival on July 9, 2016.

During the weekend of July 8 and 9th, Pittsburgh held its fourth annual Deutschtown Music Festival. For local residents and members of the Pittsburgh music community, this weekend holds a special place in our hearts. For two days, the North Side of Pittsburgh is taken over by incredible local music, showcasing the best talent in the city and our thriving music scene.

However, one situation nearly put a damper on the entire event. On Saturday, the James Street Gastropub and Speakeasy was shut down by the PLCB due to a noise complaint from a nearby resident.

In short, the PLCB threatened to permanently shut down the ballroom, and arrest management at the establishment (for a more thorough analysis of the incident, click here.)

The situation created a huge uproar within the local music scene and brought city-wide attention. Members from all corners of the scene, from musicians to booking agents to production company owners, had harsh words for the action taken by the PLCB.

On my end, this situation highlighted the huge hypocrisy that underlines action taken against music in the city.

Unlike some of the spaces and venues I am studying, the James Street Ballroom is a completely legitimate venue – it has its codes, it has permits and has showcased 300+ person shows with national headliners for years.

Krishna - Why It Matters 2

By citing antiquated laws, a neighbor with a personal vendetta has now almost completely shut down a legendary music venue.

Now, I’m not someone who wants to preference the needs of music venues over other residents of an area. For example, the wrong action to take is to completely ignore the concerns of residents when creating spaces for live music. This can only exacerbate these situations and further create conflicts between members of music communities and larger communities at a whole.

Yet local law enforcement and city authorities must have a way of discerning between legitimate concerns and those that hide behind legal loopholes and rhetoric. In the case of James Street, one specific space was shut down during a neighborhood-wide music festival, with no complaints given against any of the other significantly louder outdoor stages.

But there is a silver lining to this whole debacle. One, it really demonstrates why my thesis matters, especially in a time when the Pittsburgh music scene is growing. By understanding how neighborhood changes are affecting the local music scene, residents and local music venue owners can work together to create a more amicable scene.

Second, and more importantly, the situation highlights just how strong our community is. Hundreds of people have come together to support James Street in their time of need. A recent Indiegogo campaign to help the historic venue hit its goal 22 days before the deadline, with money still being raised. A plethora of fundraising events have been planned in order to help the management pay for the high soundproofing needed to get the ballroom functioning again. Members of the community have united and even created the #SaveJamesStreet hashtag to unify the efforts and create more traction on social media.

The incident at James Street exemplifies how even the most established music venues can be threatened, but also demonstrates just how powerful a helping community in action can be in times of need.


Empowering Through Storytelling

The act of creating and sharing a narrative is a powerful experience. It’s a shared experience between the narrator and their audience. This relationship between the narrator and their audience is an intimate one.

Asking someone to share with me a story is not foreign. I’ve been doing it with one refugee family for years now as an in-home mentor. I no longer consider myself a mentor; I’d say it’s more accurate to call me a family friend. It’s as if we have an unwritten template. Hi, how was your day? What did you this week? Tell me something exciting that happened to you this week. One question never fails to excite the father of the family: How is work?

His eyes light up. He grins, straightens his posture and clears his throat. This is the beginning of his storytelling process. His narrative could start anywhere: How he’s feeling, maybe explaining where those feelings came from. Sometimes, he includes words that I don’t understand, but I prefer to avoid interrupting the flow as long as I understand the general storyline. He works at a drycleaner and they have codes for referencing the many articles of clothing.

He says, “I need 64 white. My co-worker needs 64 white. He gives me 64 white from the clothing rack.” As he talks about his interactions with his co-workers, he mentions “64 white” multiple times. Then, he pauses.

He must’ve noticed my confused expression, because he chuckles and says, “64 white? All clothes are identified by a number and a color.”

I notice his body language. In his story, he talked about the different materials with which he had to work. When describing the thickness of the material, he said “thick,” and held up his hands about six inches apart. Each time he said “thin,” he held up his hands only about an inch apart. Each hand gesture was followed by a smile of confidence and I would nod to show that I understood. My own body language contributed to the process of his storytelling. I nodded at certain times to show that I understood what he had said. When I tilt my head, he immediately stops, backtracks and takes a moment to retell that segment a different way.

I was not his only audience member. His daughter sat beside me and reacted. She asked questions in Nepali and then asked again in English for me. She and I often nodded at the same time. His storytelling served a different purpose for everyone in the room. As I prepare for more interviews for my research, I practice listening and interviewing skills. How can I improve upon my interviewing skills in order to make the interviewees feel comfortable and excited to share with me their experiences? For his daughter, she gets to hear about his experience at work. The father-daughter relationship grows as she learns about a part of his life that she doesn’t get to see. And finally, for him as the storyteller, he is empowered. He is given assurance and confidence to tell us about his life.

I think back to three years ago, when the father of this family didn’t say much and was often shy to repeat vocabulary words. Today, he shares with confidence. Today, he’s more comfortable talking about life and about himself.

When he ended his story, his daughter said, “’My dad uses a lot of actions. I think it shows confidence.” She is referring to his hand gestures he used throughout his story. The two of them laugh and threw their hands up in the air to mimic the way he talked with his hands.




On France

Devine - Paris panorama

Over the past week and a half, thanks to my Dietrich College Honors Fellowship, I was able to travel to France to do hands-on research for my project.

I’m so grateful to have been able to go back to France. Last summer, I left Pittsburgh to spend six weeks in Aix-en-Provence, a small town in the southeastern French Provençal region. I was extremely nervous before leaving, but after coming back six weeks later, I knew that I made the right decision. I had an amazing time in Aix, made wonderful friends and was already ready to go back. I had no idea that I would be able to come back to France just this summer.

To apply the research I’ve been doing for the past few months to the “real world” was exciting and a bit unnerving. For this trip, I analyzed the linguistic landscape of two French cities: Paris and Aix. While doing this research, I took pictures of all kinds of signage (on cafés, in front of stores, at museums, etc.). My particular interest in signage has to do with the work I’m doing about La Loi Toubon, which was passed in 1994 to assure that the French language be used on all public and commercial signs throughout France to prevent the increasing usage of the English language.

Devine - Paris


Before going to Paris, I expected to see a lot of signs in different languages. I was proven right. Everywhere I looked, there was a new opportunity to take a picture. This made sense to me, because Paris is a large tourist attraction, especially during the summer. Not only did I see different languages around me but I also heard so many different languages on the streets – French, English, Spanish, Chinese and probably more. This made me realize how diverse Paris is. I made an effort to go to as many neighborhoods as I could, but I ended up going to the typical tourist spots, all of which had a diverse set of signage.

Devine - Paris signageDevine - Mont St Michel

Mont St. Michel

One day, we took a day trip from Paris to Mont-St-Michel, which for me looks like the French version of Hogwarts. Mont-St-Michel is a small island in the northwestern Normandy region of France, and is also a large tourist attraction. There is a large abbey perched on the top, and leading up to it are different shops, restaurants and cafés. I didn’t expect to see so many different languages on signage in such a small town.

Devine - Mont St Michel signage

Devine - Aix

Going back to Aix was very cathartic. It was strange to be back in a place so familiar at a different time of year without the same people that I spent six weeks with last summer, but was so happy to have the opportunity to go back. I definitely experienced Aix in a different way this time around. I noticed so many more things about Aix that had to do with my research. I didn’t expect to see a lot of signs in English, but found a very interesting collection while spending time in Aix.

Devine - Aix signage

All in all, my trip to France was simultaneously exhilarating and exhausting. I was experiencing France in a whole new way – instead of just being a tourist or a student abroad, I was a researcher. I was conducting my own research and finding new conclusions based on the signage that I was documenting.

On a much more somber note:

I had originally written this post on my flight back from Paris to Pittsburgh on Wednesday, July 13th. I had intentionally chosen to not be in France for Bastille Day, mainly to avoid crowded areas and any potential risks. I was so saddened and horrified to hear about the attack in Nice on Bastille Day. Bastille Day is a French holiday when the nation is supposed to unite and celebrate the foundations of the republic’s democratic ideals. What upset me so much about the attack was that the caution that I took to not be in France for Bastille Day was proven correct – the fact that I even needed to think twice about being in France for this national celebration is really upsetting. I’m thankful that I made it back to Pittsburgh safely, but am so sorry for France.

Sixth Week

Jordan Cox Week 6I went camping recently and I realized that because people don’t bring their technology, camping is a way for people to become closer without interfering barriers. Technology plays a big role in human separation. It allows us to talk to our friends who live on the other side of the world. It also allows us to talk to our friends that live down the street so we don’t have to walk over. Technology has created distance in our society. People say that it’s also made the world a smaller place.

Anyway, I went camping with a couple people I knew well and a couple that I didn’t know well. I felt as if it was a way to see a different side of those people and that there was a distinct lack of separation between us. We removed ourselves from the rest of society and only concentrated on each other.

A Description of the Night

The thin walls shake with the wind
like a wolf is huffing and puffing,
blowing our tent down.

I wake every couple hours
to laughter and the rattle
of aluminum poles.

My mind is as taut as the strings
on her cello. She sleeps
next to me, eyes like box flaps.

My thoughts bash around, stuck
in a loop of dream then the sight
of green and tan overhead.

When my alarm finally blares
at me I see flecks of snow,
but I’m warm with her beside me.

Learn more about my project.



On Plotting

Nguyen - On PlottingI’ve always been more of a planner than a “fly by the seat of my pants” type of writer. But what I’ve been trying to do lately is mix up my writing process a bit. Instead of meticulously plotting out the events of a story, what’s been freeing and productive is just writing without even thinking. However, for someone like me who over-analyzes things, I sometimes get stuck at a blank page without an outline to follow.

My adviser, Jane McCafferty, has been helpful in giving me simple prompts or details to include in my story, possibly sparking a creative idea. This has worked really well. It allows me enough freedom to do what I want while also giving me a place to start. She’ll just give me a simple prompt like “Write me a story where a character takes home an injured animal and the events that ensue.” And then, I’m off on my way.

It’s been a lot of fun getting to actually explore the world and characters that I’ve created without thinking about creating a neat and tidy ending or making a certain “point.” The entire story might be awful in the end, and though it will get heavily edited to the extent that maybe only a few original sentences remain, I think I’ve grown comfortable with the idea that writing is a continuous process. By allowing myself to truly explore during this process, I’ve led myself down certain paths I may have never considered, plot-wise and character-wise. My story may start out following one character when eventually, I find that the plot has led me toward his brother’s story instead. That’s a great and unexpected surprise. Hoping to strike a pot of gold, I’m trying to meander and get distracted by side-stories more often. Of course, I still love outlines and notes for organizing my plot, but sometimes, when outlines get stale and I feel stuck in a story, changing my routine can clear up new roads to take.

Fifth Week

Cox - Fifth Week photo

Models: William Boyajian and Annabelle Lee

This week I thought about a more specific theme: physical manifestations of emotional problems. The idea for this theme started with a dream. In the dream, I was walking in a muddy ravine. Below were white crashing rapids. Leaning against a tree were several paintings that my mother had made. As I walked toward the paintings, they started slipping. I moved toward them faster. In the dream, my mother was dead so I didn’t want to lose these precious remnants of her. I noticed my sisters (don’t have any in real life) on the other side of the bank. They watched as I pushed the paintings up with my hands. My feet slid in the mud. I knew that I was going to fall into the ravine with the paintings while my sisters simply watched.

I decided to adapt this dream into a poem. The ravine acts as a physical manifestation of the emotional distance between the point-of-view character and her sisters. I wanted to go a step further than the separation being displayed through the surroundings. I wanted the difference between the sisters to be shown in how they looked – as in their exteriors revealed the difference between how they act. I chose for the P.O.V. character to look not as human as her sisters. Maybe she is ascending from the human condition. Maybe because the poem is told in her perspective, the accounting of events aren’t as accurate as they might be.

Here is the draft of this poem:

Our Mother Leaves Us

I step, jump from one wooden plank
to the next. On my tongue is the song
my mother hummed when I was a baby.

The bridge sways under my weight.
The rope hops in my hand, chafes skin.
My bare feet are soft on the rough

wooden grooves. On the other side
of the ravine, her paintings lean
against a spruce tree. I step, jump

until I’m there, stroking her blue oil
painted cheeks. Rain drips down
my cheeks like tears. I’m as cold

inside as any glacier. My sisters scream
from the other side of the ravine.
They cross their fingers at me. Demon,

monster, they yell. They’re tyrants.
They should be the ones with antlers
sprouting from the sides of their heads.

But it’s me being cast out before
the streams of blood have dried
around my antlers. One of them pulls

out a knife. She smiles as she cuts
up the bridge. The other sister
is saying, bye bye. Her eyes are averted.

I don’t make a run for the other side
as the twine parts under the knife.
There’s nothing for me over there.

They don’t notice when the mud gives
and the paintings slide down the slope.
I grab at them. My fingers stab through

the canvas of one. The rest keep going
out of my reach, to the river far below.
My sister finishes with the bridge.

It rattles as gravity takes it to this side
of the ravine. The leave without looking
at me. I feel pain in my head as the antlers

grow another inch. I look at my fingers
pushed through the painting. They look
like worms pushing up through the ground
during a storm. I know they’ll drown anyway.

Learn more about my project.

Home for the Holidays

This past holiday weekend I put writing on hold to spend some time with my family back home in New York. We ate our favorite ice cream, popped in and out of art galleries; we stood alongside mourners and reporters outside the funeral of Elie Wiesel – honoring one of the most important voices of our time and one of the last surviving voices of the Holocaust that our generation will get to hear. And, importantly, I was able to spend time with my grandmother.

Sternstein - home for the holidays 2
Like many snowbirds of her kind, my grandma flies south to Florida for the fall and winter. Though we talk weekly on the phone, I don’t get to stop by and spend time with her as much as I did when I lived at home. Growing up listening to and spending time with my grandma has taught me patience, has taught me about the loneliness that comes with a sister moving away to an assisted living in another state, of the joy of helping grandchildren name children of their own. She has taught me the power of my own voice. I have the power to change the way her day opens or closes with a phone call or a text message (yes, my grandma leans on the side of technology!)

Sternstein - home for the holidays 1

Being with my grandma, uncle, sisters and parents this weekend made me think of a recent conversation that I had with Dr. Devine. We spoke about the similarities between engineering and writing, and about being mindful of the skills gained in one that could help the other. I brought up how both engineering and writing require a balance of social work and solitary work. In writing, socializing with and trying to understand people with different experiences and backgrounds can be as important as the time I spend at my desk with an open laptop. While working on engineering projects, we come together as groups to problem solve and jump ideas off of one another before dividing up the work to complete the calculations and research.

So, on that note, thank you to my grandma for the stories of playing bridge with “the girls” in her building, of the memories of the house she prepares to pack up and sell, and for calling me up and asking me to explain over the phone how to log on to her “Bookface” account.

Looking Back, Moving Forward

Looking back over the last six weeks, I’ve gained a whole new perspective on my project and the music industry as a whole. Overall, I could characterize these in the form of three insights. 

Insight #1: “Objects In Mirror Are Closer Than They Appear”. 

Krishna - objects in mirror

This insight applies to both my project and how the music industry itself works.

Relating back to my project, I’ve learned that sources and resources are not as far off as I originally envisioned.

Although Pittsburgh often isn’t highly ranked nationally for its music as much as other cities, like New York or Austin, it still has a plethora of incredible resources for my thesis.

One form of resources is classic “research” data. These include databases, libraries and other typical sources for information. Just being at Carnegie Mellon University, I’ve had access to an immense amount of data that I still have to scour over!

However, the most fruitful resources I’ve stumbled upon are people! So far, people have been the greatest, and the most interesting, source of information from my project. Whether it be one of my advisers suggesting I check out a certain book, meeting a local musician who experiences the music scene I am studying firsthand, or talking to promoters who have seen the cultural changes affect their work, people have dominated my interest and study in the field.

This emphasis on people also connects my insight to my study of the music industry. Although technology changes and economic models shift, people are the constant in the equation. In many ways, the music industry acts as a giant social network. Very rarely are artists “found”- instead, it’s a process of connecting with others, building connections and being in the right place at the right time with the right people. 

Reading through the history, it’s clear that certain individuals (such as Ahmet Ertegun) are the “right people.” In my insight, they are the “objects” that are always closer than they appear and guide the market with a seemingly invisible hand. These individuals are the key figures of the industry, who seem to continuously pop up and guide the trends and changes that ultimately affect those on the bottom (for better or for worse!)

Understanding this power dynamic and identifying these key individuals has the benefit of streamlining my research in the early stages. By learning about the careers and choices of these people, I am able to get a quick overview of how the music industry has changed and then focus in on finding more specific and “lost” voices to fill out the narrative further.

Insight Two: It’s OK To Be Lost 

Krishna - lost

This insight connects to my method of conducting research, and how it’s changed from previous research experience.

The fellowship is the first time where I’ve truly immersed myself in the literature without a preconceived conclusion or answer.

Usually, and I think this is true of most college students, I’ll enter a research endeavor with a conclusion in mind. My research from that point onward becomes less about “learning,” but more about finding evidence to prove my conclusion correct.

As a result of the time allotted for research and the larger scope of the final thesis, the fellowship allows me to engage in research without these preconceived notions. Instead of finding evidence to support my conclusion, I’m more interested in finding how things work, common narrative threads and a deeper understanding of my field.

Many times this kind of research has led me down a whole bunch of rabbit holes, some helpful, some not. However, the idea of being “lost” has definitely lost its negative connotation and has opened a whole new realm of research methodology for me.

Insight Three: If Lost, Writing Is Your Map!

Krishna - map

Although there are benefits to “being lost” in your research, inevitably you’ll have to define your borders and scope. I’ve learned that writing has been the best way to synthesize my ideas.

If “getting lost” is my research methodology and people are my main source of information, writing is the guide that helps me put all the pieces together. By synthesizing my data, I’m able to really see the forest for the trees.

Writing also reveals gaps in my research. For example, even when writing my blog post I’m realizing I have to find my firsthand sources of individuals who are currently involved in the music scene. I also understand that I have to find more hard data for my research.

Moving Forward 

With six weeks of this project under my belt, I’m about halfway done with the fellowship. Here are some of my goals moving forward:

  • Write a blog post weekly (minimum).
  • Write a final list of individuals to interview and complete it.
  • Finish my annotated bibliography.

I look forward to sharing the rest of my findings with all of you!

Part 4: Gotta Keep It Ethical

Now that I have fully recovered from my authenticity debacle from a couple weeks ago, I’m now starting to write up basically the first official paper that will come out of this project: the IRB proposal.

The IRB (Institutional Review Board) is a group of people who look over proposed studies and make sure they are ethical enough for participants to participate in without being psychologically (or physically) harmed. (For a more thorough description, here’s the Wikipedia article on the IRB.)

Writing that your study is safe for participants to take isn’t enough, though. You have to write what your study is about, what implications your study has (so you’re not doing your study for no reason), where your participants come from (so you’re not just picking on a specific group for no reason), who your participants are, what risks and benefits are there for your participants, how you’ll keep your participants’ data confidential and anonymous, etc. It’s a tedious process, but the welfare of the participants is important, so it must be done.

You also have to provide all the materials you’re planning to use in your study. This includes consent forms, debriefing forms, all the questionnaires and your protocol script, which is a script of everything the experimenter(s) will say in the study, so I’m also writing up all of these.

Measures that have been through editing

Measures that have been through editing

The work has been pretty straightforward so far, but just thinking about turning in the IRB proposal makes me both super excited and nervous. I just have to submit it online, so that part is pretty remote and uneventful, but I’m still thinking about the 15 or so people reading my proposal. There’s nothing unethical at all about my study, so it really shouldn’t be that hard to get it approved, but it’s still tense. Maybe it’s because it’ll take them about a month to get back to me. I could do stuff in that time, like work on my thesis paper, but during that time, I’ll be like, “Gee, I hope everything is going okay over in the IRB!” (Whoops – unintentional rhyme.)

But evaluations like the IRB proposals are inevitable, and there’s no use in me freaking out about it. I mean I still will freak out, but I can at least freak out while working at the same time.