I’ve recently been turned onto Van Neistat’s YouTube channel. Van, the older brother of Casey Neistat, is a true pleasure to watch – he’s the DIYer’s DIYer and his style is untainted by modern social media. He’s the best of the Gen X cohort without the pretension or cynicism.
In his video meditating on the nature of burnout, he described slow burnout in terms of a motor with the cylinders breaking down one at a time. I’ve never thought about burnout in this way, but the image struck me hard. I find it to be a very apt description, where a motor can lose a cylinder and still operate, but there will be consequences to continuing to run, such as damage to the motor, inefficiencies of fuel consumption, increased wear on other components in the chain, and vibration in the ride. From a mechanical perspective, if you choose not to fix the issue, so long as you reduce the load on the engine and cut the fuel going to the cylinder, you can get away with running down a cylinder. For a time.
Of course, this probably will be harder and costlier to fix later.
It’s better to fix the issue up front, but that usually is expensive as well – the time, cost to diagnose, and cost to repair.
Work and life burnout seems to function the same way – if you choose to ignore the problem, you can still operate, but you have to accept the knock-on consequences of operating out of balance. At some point, the engine will stop running. Or, you can pause and try to identify the problem up front and fix it then, which can be expensive and uncomfortable.
With the passing of Prince Philip last week, I reflected on his impact on my life. Normally, the goings-on of the Royal family impacts me little directly, albeit I am a commonwealth subject as a Canadian. However, Prince Philip was also the creator of the Duke of Edinburgh Award Program, which I participated in as a youth. I was fortunate to be introduced to the program during my Army Cadet days, and I progressed through each of the three levels before I aged out of the program, completing my Gold Level in late 2011.
I recently participated in a survey of Gold Level holders asking about the program’s impact on my life. At the time, I answered that the program had little lasting impact on me. I said this in relation to each of the four core areas of the program – physical fitness, skill development, community service, and the adventure component. For each of these areas, I felt like little had directly carried over all these years later. I’m not a particularly fit person, I don’t remember any of the skills I had developed, and I haven’t gone camping in about a decade. The only domain that I am still highly active in concerns volunteering.
So, on the surface, I feel somewhat disconnected from my achievements in the DofE program. Yet, as I reflected over the weekend, I was struck by a realization: had it not been for my gold level trip to Kenya (I joined a group who travelled to Kenya in 2007 to perform a service project and climb Mt. Kenya), I would not be where I am today.
My trip overseas came at the midpoint of my undergraduate experience. As I returned home and went back to school in September 2007 for my third year, I had a profound change in outlook. Prior to my trip, I was a residence-body. I rarely ventured out beyond the dorms and was too shy to join on-campus clubs and groups. But after returning from the trip, when I was faced with an opportunity that I was nervous to attempt, I would remind myself that I had just climbed a mountain, and now anything seemed possible. It gave me the confidence to step outside of my shyness and embrace new challenges.
I joined the campus first aid team and the departmental undergraduate society. In time, I took over both groups and lead my peers through successful tenures as Operations Coordinator and Society President respectively. I committed more fully to my studies, and continued my education into graduate school. The friends I made on the first aid team lead me to a job in the gambling lab as a field researcher. It also lead me through the same connections to volunteering for a local non-profit board and working with the local Community Foundation. Those experiences then helped me get my first full time job at Conestoga College, where I currently am employed.
I’m not saying that I wouldn’t be where I am had I not been in the DofE program. However, I can draw a strong link through each of these personal developments that traces back to a decision I made one day to join in when a friend told me about this fun opportunity to travel abroad. And while I don’t often remind myself anymore that I climbed a mountain when I’m trying to convince myself to be brave, I feel a deep sense of gratitude for being a part of something that pushed me to grow beyond what I thought I was capable.
Kurt Hahn was a mentor of Prince Philip who provide inspiration for what would become the DofE program. He is known for saying that “there is more in us than we know if we could be made to see it; perhaps, for the rest of our lives we will be unwilling to settle for less.” Without realizing it, these words infused themselves into who I am as a person, and I didn’t understand what it meant or its impact until the passing of Prince Philip.
Rest in Peace, His Royal Highness, The Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh.
Here’s a reminder to myself: learning is always uncomfortable.
As I was reading through Seth Godin’s latest book, The Practice, I came across this gem of insight.
It is often the discomfort and tension that causes me to avoid learning new things and settling into my work. When I feel the anxiety rise, I’ll switch gears to something more comfortable or distracting. Instead, I need to embrace the suck.
Learning is voluntary – I must want to engage with it.
Learning creates tension – personal discovery in unfamiliar territory creates questions of tension, and each answer I find resolves the tension. Tension and release.
Learning is uncomfortable – it’s hard to willingly feel incompetent when our careers are geared towards increasing competence and confidence.
I need to learn that when I feel uncomfortable in the learning process, this means I’m on the right track and should embrace the feeling.
According to Seth Godin, there is no such thing as writer’s block. He’s been on my mind recently, not just because I listen to his regular podcast, but also because he’s doing the book marketing circuit on the podcast shows I typically listen to. As of writing (November 3rd), his latest book was just delivered to my door.
From what I understand, Seth’s belief is that writer’s block is a function of our desire to not ship bad work. Instead, we hold out until a good idea arrives and we work on it. His advice to overcome “writer’s block” is to constantly write regardless of how bad you think it is. It’s a bit of a spaghetti approach – you throw as much at the wall and see what sticks. He maintains that buried under all the bad writing, there is bound to be some good stuff. The job of writing bad stuff is to eventually unearth the good stuff for you to work on and polish to completion.
Seth is known for having posted on his blog every day for over a decade, tallying over 7000 posts. He says that for every post we read, there are up to 8 that didn’t get published.
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.
As with many other people right now, I have chosen to go back and re-watch favourite television shows. I decided that with Star Trek: Picard’s recent release, it would be a great time to go back to the beginning (of the modern era, anyway) and revisit Star Trek: The Next Generation. I had probably watched every episode in my teen years, but I had always watched it in syndication, so this is my first time going through the show in order.
Approaching the series in my 30’s has been a real treat. I have more life and cultural experience to draw upon as I watch these incredibly written episodes play out. I knew the show was amazing, but I never appreciated how well it engages with moral issues.
I want to highlight one excellent episode from the third season – episode 7, “The Enemy.” The characters provide us with a moral issue about autonomy, and a good lesson in leadership.
The story centres on the conflict that arises when the protagonists rescue an enemy officer from an out of bounds planet. The officer, from a race of people called Romulans, is gravely wounded and requires a blood transfusion. There is only one member of the crew whose blood could be usable, but that crew member, Worf, has a history with the enemy’s peoples – Worf’s parents had been killed during a Romulan attack when he was a child. Worf, still carrying his anger for their death all these years, refuses to give his blood.
Meanwhile, a Romulan ship is en route to recover the officer. There is a tenuous peace treaty that prevents an all out war, but the Romulans have a history of subterfuge and deceit. It is believed they will cross the border and assume an antagonistic stance to provoke a war. Worf’s Captain, Jean Luc Picard, is seeking any means that would avoid an armed encounter, and decides to plead with Worf to reconsider his decision.
In this moment, it would be expedient to Picard and his crew to order Worf to donate his blood. He is about to contend with an adversary whom has no issue with breaking a peace treaty by provoking an attack (whether or not his side is initially in the wrong). Picard is seeking to recover a still-stranded crew member on the planet below, keep his ship safe, maintain the territorial sovereignty of the Federation, and maintain tenuous diplomatic relations with a rival group. This is all threatened because the one solution to his problem, keeping the enemy officer alive, is being blocked by a crew member whose personal history and honour motivate him to not help the enemy.
There is a beautiful scene where Picard appeals to Worf for him to reconsider:
Picard: So, there is no question that the Romulan officer is more valuable to us alive than dead. Worf: I understand. Picard: Lieutenant, sometimes the moral obligations of command are less than clear. I have to weigh the good of the many against the needs of the individual and try to balance them as realistically as possible. God knows, I don’t always succeed. Worf: I have not had cause to complain, Captain. Picard: Oh, Lieutenant, you wouldn’t complain even if you had cause. Worf: If you order me to agree to the transfusion, I will obey of course. Picard: I don’t want to order you. But I ask you, I beg you, to volunteer. Worf: I cannot.
In silence, Picard slowly walks back around his desk and sits in his chair.
Picard: Lieutenant. Worf: Sir? Picard: That will be all.
We then learn from the ship’s Chief Medical Officer that the Romulan has died. Picard has lost the only bargaining chip he had to keep things peaceful with the approaching enemy ship.
Picard could have chosen to order Worf to allow the blood transfusion. Instead, he chooses to respect his crew member’s personal wish, and as a leader deal with the hand he’s given. He also knows that making an order against the personal rights of a crew member under his command sets a dangerous precedence – that anyone is disposable if the captain judges it. Instead, he accepts that this closes off options. He knows that this places him not just on the back-foot, but also with his arms tied behind his back as he prepares for the possibility that his ship will be destroyed. However, the burden of command requires him to take these realities as they come and make the best decisions that he can. Events are being shaped around him that are beyond his control, but he strives to make the best decision that he can. He’s not perfect, but he becomes a role model in striving to do the right thing.
Even if the right thing might mean the death of he and his crew.
It’s a wonder piece of science fiction that I’m glad to be discovering anew.
I apologize for the late post this week. I had a few ideas kicking around in my head, but given the updates, I felt this ramble-post was a better attempt to capture some of the zeitgeist, rather than my usual attempt to feign some sort of authority on whatever it is I’m trying to accomplish on this site. Maybe I’ll rant another time about the scummy people who are profiteering through the COVID-19 scare.
Most of the information circulating concerns how an individual can help protect themselves from contracting the virus. Obviously this information is spread around not to protect any one individual, but because it’s the government’s attempt to flatten the curve and ease the economic and public health downsides to the current behaviours of people, from clogging up emergency rooms with sniffles to wholesale runs on items in the grocery store.
I’m not entirely sure what I should write about this week. It’s pretty hard to form a coherent thought when the majority of my bandwidth is occupied with keeping up with the shifting narrative around what’s going on. Thanks to technology, information (or misinformation) spreads quickly, and we are seeing multiple updates per day as a result. At my place of employment, they took the unprecedented step of shutting down face-to-face curriculum delivery. Unlike the faculty strike from Fall 2017, the College is working to keep the educational process running. While it may be that in the School of Engineering it can be impossible to replicate lab or shop time, the majority of faculty are working hard to translate their delivery to an online format.
So far, our employer has done a good job, in my opinion, with taking prudent steps to a.) keep people meaningfully occupied in their work so that no one has to lose their salary, and b.) do its part to stop the spread of the virus. I’m not saying that things couldn’t be better, but given the circumstances they’ve done a good job.
I’ve been thinking about the purpose of social isolation as a pandemic response. As I said above, the point is less about protecting oneself and is instead about protecting hospitals from being overwhelmed. If we’ve learned anything from countries around the world that are going through the worst right now, it’s that it becomes impossible to protect our vulnerable when there is a shortage of hospital beds. Hospitals are having to triage patients to focus on saving those who can be saved, who have the highest chances of recovering.
It is because of this that I’ve been thinking about the concept of a “brother’s keeper.” It’s not necessarily enough that governments or citizens remain mindful about the well-being of our vulnerable populations. Oftentimes while we are focusing on immediate dangers before us, we tend to not anticipate higher-order consequences of our policies or decisions.
Closing schools is great in theory – children are rabid spreaders of contagions, whether they are actually symptomatic or not, which means they infect their parents (some of whom are front line medical workers). But when we close schools, you have second order consequences that parents struggle with childcare, or children living in poverty lose access to food that is supplied at school.
When you close borders, you stop carriers of the virus from entry. But it also means that our international students (who are in some cases being vacated from post-secondary residences as school’s work to limit social contact among students) have no where to go. Airports are limiting international travel and the cost of purchasing tickets are skyrocketing. By them being in a foreign country, these students are vulnerable and caught in difficult positions on how to keep themselves safe.
By shutting down public spaces, you are helping to keep people from accidentally infecting each other. But when you close down businesses such as restaurants, you cut off people from the economic means they need to support themselves. Sure, the government is offering assistance to persons and businesses alike, but that will provide little comfort to people who can neither travel for groceries, nor pay for the supplies they need.
And let’s not forget what panic purchasing is doing to our supply chain – leaving store shelves cleared out of supplies, which means folks like the elderly are left without.
The hardest part I’m finding in all of this is the feeling of being powerless. You can’t control other people, and so you are forced to anticipate their moves to ensure you won’t be left without. But it’s this kind of thinking that leads to more drastic measures being taken. The virus also makes you feel powerless because you feel like an invisible stalker is coming for you – you don’t know who will be the final vector that leads to you. And you aren’t totally sure if our ritualistic hand-washing and hand-sanitizing is actually keeping us safe, or merely providing comfort. You can’t predict the future, and you can’t be sure you’re doing everything you can; you always feel like there is more you could be doing.
This reminds me of the story of the tinfoil house and pink dragons. A person covers their house in tinfoil, and when asked about it they say it keeps the pink dragons away. When asked if it works, the person shrugs and says “I don’t know, but I haven’t been attacked yet.” Of course, asking “if it works” is the wrong question here because there are no pink dragons. But as Taleb tells us in his book about Black Swans, there are always those highly unprobable events with massive downsides that we don’t see coming. Public policy and budgets are created to deal with clear and present dangers, and those policies and budgets are eroded when it’s felt that the money is not being allocated optimally. Therefore, you run into problems where you are never sure if the resources you spend to prevent something actually works – it’s really hard to prove causality in something that never happens.
Instead, we often are left to scramble to try and get ahead of trouble when we are already flat-footed, which means that our vision narrows as we focus on the fires in front of us that needs to be put out. Fighting fires is great (even heroic at times), but often the measures we take to deal with crisis have unanticipated second-order consequences that become difficult to deal with.
I’m not sure how to deal with this, but it makes me wonder about being my brother’s keeper, and what I can do to protect them.
From time to time, I catch myself thinking some pretty stupid stuff for entirely dumb reasons. A piece of information finds a way to bypass any critical thinking faculties I proudly think I possess and worms its way into my belief web. Almost like a virus, which is a great segue.
A perfect example of this happened last week in relation to the COVID-19 news, and I thought it important to share here, both as an exercise in humility to remind myself that I should not think myself above falling for false information, and as my contribution to correcting misinformation floating around the web.
Through a friend’s Stories on Instagram, I saw the following screencap from Twitter:
My immediate thought was to nod my head in approval and take some smug satisfaction that of course I’m smart enough to already know this is true.
Thankfully, some small part at the back of my brain immediately raised a red flag and called for a timeout to review the facts. I’m so glad that unconscious part was there.
It said to me “Hang on… is hand-sanitizer ‘anti-bacterial’?”
I mean, yes, technically it is. But is it “anti-bacterial” in the same way that it is getting implied in this tweet? The way the information is framed, it treats the hand-sanitizer’s anti-bacterial properties as being exclusively what it was designed for, like antibiotics. For example, you can’t take antibiotics for the cold or flu, because those are not bacterial infections but viral infections.
According to the author on the topic of alcohol-based hand sanitizers (ABHS),
There are some special cases where ABHS are not effective against some kinds of non-enveloped viruses (e.g. norovirus), but for the purposes of what is happening around the world, ABHS are effective. It is also the case that the main precaution to protect yourself is to thoroughly wash your hands with soap and water, and follow other safety precautions as prescribed.
The tweet, while right about the need for us to wash our hands and not overly rely on hand-sanitizers, is factually wrong generally. Thanks to a mix of accurate information (bacteria =/= virus) and inaccurate information(“hand sanitizer is not anti-bacterial”), and a packaging that appeals to my “I’m smarter than you” personality, I nearly fell for its memetic misinformation.
There are a number of lessons I’ve taken from this experience:
My network is not immune to false beliefs, so I must still guard against accepting information based on in-group status.
Misinformation that closely resembles true facts will tap into my confirmation bias.
I’m more likely to agree with statements that are coded with smarmy or condescending tonality because it carries greater transmission weight in online discourse.
Appeals to authority (science) resonate with me – because this was coming from a scientist who is tired of misinformation (I, too, am tired of misinformation), I’m more likely to agree with something that sounds like something I believe.
Just because someone says they are a scientist, doesn’t make the status true, nor does it mean what they are saying is automatically right.
Even if the person is factually a scientist, if they are speaking outside of their primary domain, being a scientist does not confer special epistemological status.
In the aftermath, the tweet was pulled and the person tried to correct the misinformation, but the incident highlights that the norms of Twitter (and social media more broadly) are entirely antithetical to nuance and contextual understanding.
It’s interesting how much information spread (memetics) resembles pathogen spreading. If the harmful thing attacking us is sufficiently designed to sidestep our defenses, whether that’s our body’s immune system or our critical thinking faculties, the invading thing can easily integrate within, establish itself within our web, and prepare to spread.
The one thing that really bums me out about this event is the inadvertent harm that comes to scientific authority. We as a society are caught in a period of intense distrust of the establishment that is coinciding with the largest explosion of information our species has ever seen. The result of this is not that good information is scarce, but rather the signal-to-noise ratio is so imbalanced that good information is getting swept away in the tide. If people grow distrustful of the sources of information that will help protect us, then forget worrying about gatekeepers that keep knowledge hidden; there will be no one left to listen.
During a throwaway thought experiment in his 1641 treatise, Meditations on First Philosophy in which the existence of God and the immortality of the soul are demonstrated, René Descartes posited the idea of an evil genius or demon that systematically deceives us to distort our understanding of the world. Contrary to first year philosophy students everywhere (a younger version of myself included), Descartes did not actually believe in the existence of an evil manipulator that was holding us back from understanding the nature of the real world. Instead, he was using it as part of a larger project to radically re-conceive epistemology in an era of rapid advancements in science that was threatening to overturn centuries of our understanding of the world. He felt that knowledge was built upon shaky ground thanks to an over-adherence on the received authorities from Greek antiquity and the Church’s use of Aristotelian scholasticism. Similar to Francis Bacon twenty years earlier, Descartes set out to focus on knowledge that stood independent of received authority.
Through Meditations one and two of his book, Descartes considers the sources of our beliefs and considers how we come to know what we think we know. He wants to find an unshakable truth to build all knowledge from, and through an exercise of radical doubt he calls into question many of the core facts we hold – first that knowledge gained from the senses are often in error, that we often can’t distinguish the real from fantasy, and through the use of the evil genius, that perhaps even our abstract knowledge like mathematics could be an illusion.
When I teach this to first year students, they either don’t take his concerns seriously because of the force of the impressions the real world gives us in providing sense data for knowledge (a stubbed toe in the dark seems to forcefully prove to us that the external world to our senses is very real), or they take Descartes too seriously and think Descartes really thought that a demon was actively deceiving him. Regardless of which side the student falls on, they will then conclude that Descartes’ concerns are not worth worrying about; that this mode of thinking is the product of an earlier, less sophisticated age.
Unless you are a scholar delving into Descartes’ work, the real purpose of teaching the Meditations is to provide students with a framework to understand how one can go about thinking through complex philosophical problems. Descartes starts from a position of epistemic doubt, and decided to run with it in a thought experiment to see where it took him. The thought experiment is a useful exercise to run your students through to get them to think through their received opinions and held-dogmas.
However, in light of my rant a few weeks back about informed consent and vaccines, I’ve discovered a new contemporary use for thinking about Descartes’ evil genius. In some sense, the evil genius is *real* and takes the form of fear that shortcuts our abilities to learn about the world and revise our held beliefs. Descartes posited that the evil demon was able to put ideas into our heads that made us believe things that were completely against logic. The demon was able to strip away the world beyond the senses and even cast doubt on abstract concepts like mathematics.
Much in the same way Descartes’ demon was able to “deceive” him into believing things that were contrary to the nature of reality, our fear of the unknown and of future harm can cause us to hold beliefs that do not map onto facts about the world. Worse yet, the story we tell about those facts can get warped, and new explanations can be given to account for what we are seeing. This becomes the breeding ground for conspiracy thinking, the backfire effect, and entrenched adherence to one’s beliefs. We hate to be wrong, and so we bend over backwards to contort our understanding of the facts to hold-fast to our worldview.
In truth, we are all susceptible to Descartes’ demon, especially those whom believe themselves to be above these kinds of faults of logic. In psychology, it’s called the Dunning-Kruger effect, of which there are all sorts of reasons given why people overestimate their competence. But in the context of an entrenched worldview that is susceptible to fear of the unknown lurks Descartes’ Demon, ready to pounce upon us with false beliefs about the world. Its call is strong, its grip is tight, and the demon is there to lull us into tribalism. We fight against those we see as merchants of un-truth and in a twisted sense of irony, the weapons of truth we yield only affect those already on our side, while those we seek to attack are left unaffected. It becomes a dog-whistle that calls on those who already think and believe as we do.
If we hope to combat this modern Cartesian demon, we’ll need to find a new way of reaching those we see on the other side.