Tech Shabbat Experiment

Almost a decade ago, I co-started a semi-formal group with some friends. It was intended as a bit of a mutual-beneficial group – we were all just starting out in our careers and felt that getting together monthly to practice public speaking would help us in our jobs. The nature of the group has evolved somewhat now that we are having kids and have grown comfortable in our jobs. Instead, we treat the monthly meetup as both social time and a chance for us to share experiences with each other.

This month, we’ve been challenged to try out the Tech Shabbat as discussed in Tiffany Shlain’s book 24/6: The Power of Unplugging One Day a Week (note: I haven’t read the book). In essence, we pick one day a week to abstain from screens – no smartphones, no computers, no television. It’s not a complete removal from all technology (for instance, I use my smart speaker to stream podcast episodes and listen to live radio), but instead we seek to disconnect from an increasingly interconnected existence.

I have completed three of the Shabbats, with the final one this weekend. Overall, this has been a very positive experience for me. There are some challenges and moments where I have to play fast and loose with the rules (like this weekend when I got lost on a hike…).

It’s also not clear if I should abstain from using our smart speaker at home; I’ve been using it to listen to podcast episodes and radio over the internet. I’ll even admit that there are moments of boredom or tedium where I feel a strong pull to give up the challenge and open a social media app. But despite any of these missteps or moments of weakness, I can say without any qualification that I’ve enjoyed the experience. I may look forward to the close of the 24-hours, but I do so with a sense of mental calm. The break gives me a bit of a reset, a chance to journal and bring order to my life. Instead of mindlessly consuming content, I’ve chosen activities that create memories and allow me to be more present in the now.

I’m not sure if I’ll keep the Tech Shabbat once the group activity is over, but it has given me a lot to reflect on. Cal Newport has discussed taking a more hardline stance on cutting unnecessary tech out of our lives. I’m sympathetic to the idea, though in practice I have to balance my quirky experiments with my wife’s needs, and I doubt she would entertain any drastic measures like what Newport suggests. Regardless, just taking the opportunity to pause and reflect is a worthwhile activity, which the Tech Shabbat has afforded me over the month.

Stay Awesome,

Ryan

Still Adjusting

I had planned intended to write a post over the weekend. No plan survives contact with the enemy, as Helmuth von Moltke quipped, and between the Canadian long weekend and a new baby, my intentions are still not getting turned into plans or actions. It’s all part of the learning process, and I have a ways to go.

As I continue to adjust to my new life, I will have to continue to adapt and learn new ways to get things done.

Stay Awesome,

Ryan

Adam Savage on Giving Praise

I recently finished Adam Savage’s maker’s memoir, Every Tool’s a Hammer. I always enjoyed watching MythBusters back in the day, though I wouldn’t say I was a diehard fan – I caught episodes as they aired, but didn’t follow the show. As an adult, I wish I had followed more closely, because I’m finding that I’m drifting towards the maker ethos, and it would have been good to have been mentored in real-time to the show’s airing. I guess that’s why we have reruns and syndication.

Anyway, the book has many great insights, one of which is concerned with giving praise and making sure the recipient of the praise is acknowledged.

Adam reflects that all of his growth came from feedback from his mentors. In the role of a boss, he questions why would he shy away from feedback if he wasn’t happy with something (e.g. someone’s performance or the product of their build). This moment of empathy is a valuable insight to me, because as a leader I often hedge my feedback, wanting to avoid hurt feelings or awkward interactions. But there is a difference between providing feedback for growth, and being cruel. I’ve had many great bosses that helped me grow through their feedback, even if that feedback made me feel less than great. But their feedback was never cruel or meant to belittle me – it held me accountable and showed me what to do for next time.

He also mentions praise – people want to be acknowledged and recognized by the ones signing the cheque. Even if it sounds corny, he says, it goes a long way towards building up your team both in terms of morale and skills.

Stay Awesome,

Ryan 

Paying to Be Upsold

After a bit of a hiatus, it’s time I dust off my keyboard and get to work.

I attended a digital summit last week organized by a reputable platform. I’m going to deliberately keep this post’s detail vague because I’m not upset by being upsold to the point of it changing my opinion about the platform or the purpose of the summit. On the other hand, it clarified a few things about the nature of online business that I thankfully only paid a few bucks to learn.

The summit was meant to bring together content creators to discuss the business of making money online. I’ve flirted with this idea, and I have some project ideas for online content that I intend to provide for free for the ethics boards I serve, so I thought learning about some of the business and strategic best-practices would help me think through the project steps.

The three-day event brought together a few creators I’m familiar with, and I bought in at the early bird pricing, so I thought even if I attended the equivalent of one-day’s worth of sessions, I wouldn’t feel bad having put down some money for the access.

The first session was about creating an online course using the best practices used on the platform. Since I work in academia, I’m aware of some of the work that goes into creating a course. I would charitably say that I’m not the best fit for the target audience of the course, but I took notes and found some of their insights useful.

But just after halfway through the scheduled event, they switched from presenting about the tools and tactics of content creation to discussing some of the exclusive perks that could be available for a limited time to the summit attendees. As I sat watching, I was amazed that a lot of the various tactics they discussed in the previous 40-minutes were being applied to the session attendees in an effort to upsell a package. For a limited time, if you bought into a $100+ monthly subscription, you’d have access to a half-dozen pre-recorded courses, a half-dozen 2-month trial access to software, a more in-depth set of lessons about all the topics we just learned about, and a few other odds and ends (like unlimited replay of the summit sessions).

I don’t blame the platform for choosing to go this route, but I was shaking my head when I thought that I paid to be given a reduced-value presentation of a larger set of courses, and was being upsold on it. I paid to be sold to. I was even interested in one of the keynote Q&A’s and was disappointed that it was a twenty minute video call. The guest speaker has put out more value for free on his various social media channels than what I received at the summit.

Again, I’m not above this – I think there is some value in what I learned, and I’m not necessarily the target audience, so it’s wrong of me to complain about not liking the content. I just hate that I had to pay a small price to learn this lesson about the nature of online content creation. It’s a series of remixes of content (a cousin of the animated bibliography, it seems), trickled out slowly to optimize the conversion rate of your mailing list.

I understand that in order to make money online, you have to play the game. The problem is I hate that the game is mostly concerned with optimizing for views, rather than genuinely trying to help solve problems. Perhaps it’s a signal that I should heed. If I don’t want to play the game by the rules, I either have to get out of the game, or be so good that I invent a new category. Either way, my main takeaway: creating content online is going to remain a side initiative for me, rather than my main source of income for the foreseeable future.

Stay Awesome,

Ryan

Away From Keyboard

Sorry for the lack of posts this week. We welcomed our first child into the world this week, so I’ve been tending to what matters. I wasn’t ahead in my content funnel, so I didn’t have anything queued up.

I’ll take next week off, too, and be back at the end of the month.

Thanks for understanding.

Stay Awesome,

Ryan

Friday Round-up – August 7, 2020

This was a light week for consuming content that stuck with me, so here is the sole round-up list for the week ending on August 7th:

đź’­Reflection – Citing our sources – How to Think for Yourself | Ozan Varol blog post and Don’t Quote. Make it Yours and Say it Yourself | Derek Sivers blog post

The Varol piece was new, and as I read it, it reminded me of the Sivers piece, so I’m pairing them together. I’m a little conflicted with the message. On the one hand, I agree with both writers about the sentiments they are expressing. In Varol’s case, often citation becomes a short-hand for original thinking. Rather than expression your own unique ideas, you regurgitate what you’ve consumed from others (whether you are citing it or not, as is on display in the Good Will Hunting example). Likewise, Sivers is on to something when he suggests that integrating facts into our mental apparatus should not require us to cite our sources when it’s no longer the appropriate context. It makes sense to cite sources when writing something that will be graded in school, but it is stilted while in informal settings.

Where I feel conflicted is when there is a need to trace ideas back to verify the content. I don’t think it’s a new phenomenon, but it has certainly accelerated in recent years that misinformation is being thrown out into the void at a rapid pace. The internet has optimized itself on three facts of human nature – we like sensation, we like things that are familiar (that accords with what we already believe), and we are less critical of our in-group. Therefore, information bubbles get set up online, which creates a digital environment that’s conducive to rapid spreading of memetic viruses. When you think about it, it’s a marvelous analogy: the online information bubble is a closed environment where people are like-minded, which amounts to a roughly analogical immune system. A memetic virus then latches hold on one person, who spreads it to people in their network. Since the folks in the network share similar belief structures, the homogeneous group quickly spreads the meme throughout the information bubble. The meme is then incorporated into the belief network of the individuals through repetition and confirmation bias exposure. It writes itself into the belief web, in the same way viruses incorporate themselves into DNA.

I’m using the example of a memetic virus, but I think this framework is equally applied to more benign examples. Scientists release findings in the form of pre-peer reviewed news releases, which gets amplified and distorted through the media, which is then amplified and distorted through information bubbles. See here for an example:

At each phase, part of the signal is lost or transformed, like a social media game of telephone. When one person in the chain misunderstands the data, that impacts how the idea gets replicated. Over time, it becomes the digital version of a cancerous mutation of the base information.

This is why it’s important that we take care of how information is communicated, because as soon as you print something like “the majority of people believe x,” or “studies showed a y% decrease in the effect,” without a proper context of what the data is saying (or its limitations), that gets incorporated into people’s webs of belief. If you are a part of the population that believes something and you read that information, it reinforces your prior beliefs and you continue on in replicating the idea.

And so I’m torn. On the one hand, I shouldn’t need to cite my sources when having a casual conversation (a la Sivers), and I shouldn’t be substituting original thoughts with the ideas of others (a la Varol), but at the same time, I want it to be the case that when I encounter something that it should be verifiable and scruitable. I don’t know what the solution to this is, other than to flag it and remind myself to be wary of absolutist language.

Stay Awesome,

Ryan

The Approachable Outdoors

orange outdoor tent
Photo by Jesse Gardner on Unsplash

I had a realization recently: I don’t think I’ve gone camping in the last thirteen years. That might not seem like much, but when I reflect on my childhood, it was full of camping. I was in Beavers, Cubs, Scouts, Army Cadets, and the Duke of Edinburgh program. My mom also used to take my sister and I camping during the summers. If I entered Beavers at 5, and my last outdoor adventure was my trip to Kenya in 2007, then I had an almost uninterrupted period of camping that spanned 16 years. At 33 now, I have only recently crossed the threshold for more years of my life not camping than all the years I spent in youth programs.

Camping was easy when I was in youth programs – so long as you participated, it was almost a default activity. But once I left for post-secondary schooling, it fell by the wayside. Camping didn’t seem very accessible to me – I didn’t have money to spend on equipment or transportation, and I chose to spend my leisure time occupied with other things. Soon, a year became two, then five, and now more than a decade has passed.

It’s not that I haven’t thought about this. A few years back, I decided to become a paying member of the Bruce Trail with the aim to avail myself of the various sections of trail nearby (admittedly, I haven’t done it yet…) My hike along the Path of the Gods route in Italy back in October was my most recent attempt to embrace activity in nature. It was a hard route for me and finishing it left me with an amazing sense of accomplishment.

Since then, I’ve been mulling it over in the back of my mind. The pandemic has both prevented me from attempting camping this year and gave me additional time to think about being more intentional with reconnecting with the outdoors.

One of the problems, I realized, is that my idea of camping is a little skewed. Since camping in my childhood was bound up in intensive adventures, hiking and camping has been intertwined in my mind with multiple days away in the woods – several night-stays while travelling a few dozen kilometres a day, sometimes while hiking in mountainous terrain far from civilization. In this way, camping requires planning, specialized equipment, and lots of experience or paid guides. In other words, camping and hiking requires a lot of time and money.

But recently, I’ve been rethinking of camping in a new light. Thanks to the magic of YouTube’s algorithm, I stumbled across Steve Wallis’s channel through his video Highway Rest Area Stealth Camping. I’ve since gone down a deep rabbit hole of his content. In short, he’s a guy out of Alberta who likes to stealth camp (short term, low impact camping, sometimes in areas where you aren’t allowed to camp). He will go out for a night, set up a hammock somewhere, and vlog the experience. He buys cost-effective gear from Canadian Tire and insists that camping shouldn’t be complicated or about expensive gear. I realized in watching his vlogs that he’s right: camping and hiking isn’t about long, expensive trips, and it doesn’t have to be an onerous undertaking.

I’ve since started looking at what kinds of opportunities I can avail myself nearby. I’ve dug out my old camping gear to see what I’ve got in storage. I ordered an inexpensive hammock online (since I don’t own a tent) and plan to try camping in my backyard for the fun of it. I’ve also started looking at the trails nearby and got out this weekend with the dog. It was a quick jaunt near a river that took an hour and was a short drive from my house. It was a lot of fun, and I felt great afterwards.

All of this has taught me three things: first, if I want to find the time to have adventures, I have to make the time. Second, camping and hiking aren’t the purview of the elite outdoors people, but should be enjoyed by anyone who wants it. Third, I should have the courage to try things out solo. It was easy when I was young and under the guidance of adults. Now that I’m an adult myself, I can’t wait around for someone to take my hand. I have to learn to rely on myself, and trust that I can do it.

Stay Awesome,

Ryan

Post-script – I wanted to title this post The Accessible Outdoors, but I didn’t want to confuse the topic. I’m not talking about accessibility in the sense of barriers to people’s ability to physically enjoy the outdoors. Sadly, as I write this, I remember reading a piece online about efforts of people to make camping and hiking more accessible to persons with disabilities and persons of colour, but I can’t find the article at this time.

Friday Round-up – July 31, 2020

Here is my round-up list for the week ending on July 31st:

đź’­Reflection – Writing Daily, But Posting When Ready | Derek Sivers

I started this blog for two reasons – because I wanted a public way of practicing what I was learning at the time, and to force myself to write consistently. I decided posting once per week was a manageable target, and I’ve been relatively successful for the last few years. Recently, I’ve added the Friday Round-up as a way to force myself to write more and to share interesting content I stumble upon. When I added the Friday posts, I questioned whether it was worth putting in the effort – was I adding value to any part of the process? On some level, I feel it’s worth it, if for nothing else than to force myself to be a bit more reflective on what I consume. However, Derek Sivers’s point about forcing one’s self to post rapidly comes with some trade-offs. I imagine Seth Godin (another prolific blog poster) sometimes feels the same way by posting daily – that most of his posts aren’t what he would consider good. The mentalities are a bit different; Godin posts as part of his process, whereby you have to make a lot of crap to find the good stuff. Sivers would rather keep the crap more private to give him time to polish up the gems. I’m not sure which style is better. Both admit to keeping the daily writing practice, which is probably the more important lesson to draw from their examples, but it’s still worth considering.

*Addendum*

After drafting the above, I kept reading some bookmarked posts from Sivers’s page and found this one written in 2013 after a friend of his died. It’s a heartbreaking reflection on how one spends their time, which included this:

For me, writing is about the most worthy thing I can do with my time. I love how the distributed word is eternal — that every day I get emails from strangers thanking me for things I wrote years ago that helped them today. I love how those things will continue to help people long after I’m gone.

I’m not saying my writing is helping anyone, but the thought that my words will live beyond me touched something within.

đź“˝Video – The Biggest Bluff: Poker as Life | Book Review from ThePoptimist

I’ve known the author of this YouTube channel for a few years, and I follow him on ye ol’ Instagrams (I love his scotch and cigar posts). But I didn’t know until last month that he also reviews books as part of the BookTube community. I wanted to share this link to show him some love, and because it reminds me of one of my roomies in undergrad who introduced me to the world (and language) of poker. While I’m a terrible player, I have fond memories of watching my roomie play online, if for nothing else than the humor of him yelling at the screen.

Oh, and I like Maria Konnikova’s writing, so I think I’ll check out her book. Another good book by a poker player about thinking better – Annie Duke’s Thinking in Bets.

🎧Listen – “Your mask questions answered” | The Dose podcast by CBC

With all the anti-mask beliefs floating around, I wanted to do my part to share good information about the benefits of masks and to help dispel some of the dis/misinformation out there.

Wear your masks and stay awesome,

Ryan

Vigilance and the Price of Progress

I recently joined a book club, and last week we met virtually to discuss The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot.

The book has been circling my periphery for some time, coming up in recommended reads lists for at least a year. When it came time for me to suggest the next read, I chose this book without really knowing much about the subject. I was vaguely aware that Henrietta Lacks’s cells were instrumental to many scientific and medical advances, and I was aware that the obtaining of the cells was likely done unethically, as was the case for many Black Americans who found themselves under medical scrutiny in the middle of the last century. Since I review research ethics applications on two ethics boards I serve on, and because of the ongoing conversation around Black lives, I thought this would be a good book for us to read and learn from.

In short, the book is fantastic as a piece of writing.

But the story of Henrietta Lacks and her family is heartbreaking. The book paints a vivid portrait of who Henrietta was, and gives intimate glimpses into the life of her decedents. It also presents a comprehensive history of both the rise of research ethics since the end of World War Two and of the many advances made by science thanks to Henrietta’s cells. However, those advances were done with cells acquired neither with proper consent nor compensation. For many years after her early death, Henrietta’s name became lost to obscurity outside of her family, but everyone in the cellular biology community knew her cells because of how abundant they were. In a tragic twist, the very medical advances that gave way to better understandings of radiation, viruses, and vaccines, were often not available to the impoverished Lacks family. While the Lacks’s remained stuck in poverty, others profited.

I highly recommend everyone read this book.

As we discussed the book last week, I realized that this was an example of why it’s important to enlarge the domain of one’s ignorance. Learning about history shouldn’t be an exercise in theory; often we forget that history is presented as an abstraction away from the stories of individual people. If we forget about their individual lives, we can sometimes take the wrong lessons from history. As the saying goes, those who don’t learn from history are doomed to repeat it. In this case, we continue to exploit the voiceless, and profit on the backs of the disenfranchised – those who don’t have the power to speak back.

Reading books like this gives me a greater context for history, and it helps me understand the lived-history of people. I review research projects to understand the ethical consequences of our search for knowledge. If I lack a historical context – the history of how research was and is carried out – then I run the risk of perpetuating the same injustices on the people of today that the research is meant to help.

Research is supposed to be dispassionate, but we must understand and situate it within its proper historical context.

In an allusion to Picard, I close with this: constant vigilance is the price we must pay for progress.

Stay Awesome,

Ryan