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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Here is my round-up list for the week ending on July 24th:
💭Reflection – Books as Monuments – Ryan Holiday (Instagram)
Last week Ryan shared the following post:
I have a vague recollection of when Madison Holleran died by suicide in 2014, though less about her as a person and more because of the conversation it sparked around mental health and how social media can portray a perfect life despite the hidden struggles of the person. I’ve yet to read this book, however as I was reflecting on this post I realized that this isn’t a book about a famous person, but it still stands as a monument to a life. That felt like a weird mental juxtaposition against the conversation going on about monuments in general and what we choose to remember. During a recent conversation with my grandmother, she was showing me photos of friends from her past that have since passed away. For nearly every person on the planet, your legacy extends only as far as your genes and the living memories of those who knew you. And yet, sometimes we pulp trees into paper and create a monument that will be read in the future. Monuments are not accidental – it’s a reflection of what we choose to remember. Madison’s life was tragically cut short, but at least she remains more than a fragile memory.
There is a lot of misinformation around the effects of wearing a mask. Here is a good quick summary. tldr: it prevents the wearer from spreading germs and it does not prevent one from breathing adequately. I’ve demonstrated this for myself by donning a non-surgical mask for the last two weeks of running on the elliptical. To date, in the 30 masked-miles I’ve run (roughly 3.5-hours of exertion), I have yet to have any symptoms related to hypoxia.
Two paragraphs stood out in this post that resonated with me:
By all accounts, COVID-19 is a ridiculously bad time to graduate. It isn’t just a bizarre year from the perspective of the job market. Graduates who have a job will face an unusual first year as part of the workforce. With organizations and the people generally unprepared and dealing with multiple stressors, they’re unlikely to get the training that they need on the job.
These are moments when you realize how big a role dumb luck plays in any professional success we enjoy. It is so easy to attribute things that are going well to our smarts and hard work. But, there’s so much more to any success than that.
Reading this made me reflect on my own career to this point. I finished my undergrad in 2009, the year after the 2008 economic downturn. I was fortunate to be accepted into grad school, where I stretched a 1-year program into a 3-year experience by the time I finished writing my thesis. That put me into the formal job market at the tail end of 2012, four full years after the markets took a dive. I was lucky to enter the working world while the economy was rebounding, and I didn’t have to face the same setbacks and struggles that many of my cohort felt (that is, had I not did my 5th year “victory lap” in high school, I would have finished undergrad a year earlier with my secondary school classmates). In this, I was very fortunate that my choices became opportunities of timing, and something worth keeping in mind as context.
When it comes to political engagement, our attention is typically drawn to issues at the federal and provincial levels. That is where the majority of our conversations centre – big events, big policy, and big money. But when it comes to politics that affects us directly as citizens, we shouldn’t forget the third level: local municipal politics. Municipal politics works quietly in the background, appearing in local papers and managing the invisible supports that allows a community to flourish. As I gain experience in life, I’ve slowly narrowed my focus from the federal to the municipal, realizing how important this layer of governance is.
Last week, our county’s council voted on whether to implement a mandatory face covering bylaw for indoor spaces. While the province has been responsible for most of the implementation of emergency and health measures, some decisions have been left up to the municipalities to determine how best to move forward. Cities and counties around where I live have begun voting in favour of enacting face-covering bylaws, often with majority or unanimous support.
Which is why I was very disappointment by last week’s council meeting. They thankfully passed the bylaw into effect, though it came at a slim margin of 6-5. Some of the dissenting votes were the result of residents contacting their Ward’s representative to express a desire to vote down the measure. Other felt it was too paternalistic for a county council to make these decisions. Some mentioned that this shouldn’t be the responsibility of the municipality, while others wanted to trust that citizens are smart enough to decide what’s best for themselves. A few also took issue with the specificity (or lack thereof) of the language of the bylaw, though when the bylaw wording was amended they still voted against.
I was happy to see my Ward’s Councillor both speak in favour of masks and vote to support the measure. In an effort to be more engaged, I wrote an email to my Councillor to commend him on his performance at Council, and to show my support for a continuation of support for the bylaw, since the bylaw was only passed with a proviso that the bylaw will expire before each council meeting unless it is re-affirmed at each regular meeting moving forward. I sent him the letter below, and I wanted to share that here as an example of how one can engage with their local politics. My Councillor responded almost immediately to thank me for my show of support and to assure me that he’s working on plans should the bylaw not receive ongoing support at future meetings.
Subject: Regarding Mandatory Mask Bylaw
I am writing to show my support and gratitude for your leadership during the council meeting this week. I thought your comments were thoughtful, forward-looking, balanced, and compassionate, and you demonstrated good leadership for the Ward.
I’m not sure what your personal emotions were during the meeting, but I doubt I would have held the same composure that you showed. In reading the emails sent to the council, I’m saddened by some of the beliefs held by my fellow citizens, especially those who purport to have medical knowledge but claim that masks are harmful.
I hope, given the narrow margin that the vote passed, that the bylaw isn’t defeated in the next few meetings due to the grumblings of people who don’t care enough about all of us to be a little uncomfortable when out and about. Please continue with your support of the Medical Officer’s direction to help keep us safe.
I hope you and your family are keeping well!
Provincial and Federal politics might be more glamorous, but remember that municipal politics affects us in many important ways.
This is a short and sweet observation that hit me just at the right time. I’ve been feeling low recently and lamenting some of the stuff I have on my plate that’s causing me minor stress. Were it not for the pandemic, I mused, I wouldn’t be having problems coping – if only things were easier. Then a line popped from this podcast to give me perspective: “What did you think that living through history was going to be like?” I can pine for the fabled good ol’ days, but we should be honest that between the periods of calm, there will be periods punctuated with strife. And as observed in the podcast, only time will turn the turmoil of the present into a passage in a history book.
Hugh Jackman has a bit of a reputation for being a good guy, and this podcast did not disappoint. He’s sweet, thoughtful, humble, and genuinely a person you’d want to aspire towards. He’s an example worth following.
I’m a bit of a casual listener to the JRE podcast. I’ll usually check things out depending on who the guest is. In this case, Rogan sent out an image on Instagram with the author, Alan Levinovitz, holding up his book. The caption referenced how quick and enjoyable the 3.5hr show zipped by. Then I caught the book’s subtitle: How faith in nature’s goodness leads to harmful fads, unjust laws, and flawed science. Colour me interested, but I’m a sucker for discussions about the appeal to nature fallacy, so I check it out.
To be honest, I couldn’t tell you what the book’s about after listening to the episode. I have a vague sense that Levinovitz is looking to push back against those who believe things that are natural are automatically good/valuable as well as its opposite that things that are artificial or manipulated are automatically bad. I’m not saying that the episode was bad. Just the opposite – the episode was so good. I’m glad that Rogen doesn’t bring on guests to discuss well-rehearsed talking points to promote the book. Instead, they have a free-wheeling conversation that follows their curiosities. And based on some of the ideas that Levinovitz has, and how he calls for a kinder form of discourse, I was made an instant fan and grabbed the audiobook.
I received some sad news today. Two people whom I interacted with at work have recently passed on. It would seem that both illnesses were rather sudden, though thankfully don’t seem to be related to the pandemic.
One was a faculty member that I’ve worked with off-and-on for five years. Though a short, quiet man, he had a gravitas about him. He was thoughtful, patient, and methodical in his work, and incredibly devoted to his student’s success. At all times, he seemed to be pondering ways to improve the program, never resting on his laurels.
The other was an advisor for some of our programs. When I was first hired around six years ago, his committee was the first I worked for, and he would have been one of the first people I met. He always made a point to stop in and chat before meetings, asking me for life updates. He never missed a meeting and came out to every student project judging event, despite the fact that he had retired from the industry a number of years ago.
I remember the last times at work I spoke to both people, but as with these things it’s sad to think those were my last times I’d get to chat. Had it not been for the pandemic forcing the school to go remote, I would have had many more interactions with the faculty member and at least one more run-in with the advisor.
My heart goes out to their families, and I will miss my conversations with them. However, the programs will miss them more. I’m thankful for having crossed paths with them.