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.
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.
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.
Last week, I hit a new milestone in my ongoing fitness journey. Since the start of the year, I’ve been following an exercise regiment that is having me progressively adding distance to weekly targets that I run on our elliptical at home. I plan to post a more in-depth explanation of how and why I set the system up in the future, but the main gist is that for each week of the new year, I add one mile on the distance I have to cover for the week. As of writing, I’m in week 22 of the year, which means I will be running 22 miles this week.
On Friday, I still had just over 10 miles that I needed to cover to hit my target for the week. I had initially planned on running half on Friday and half on Saturday. As I started my run, I felt that I was in a good groove, and decided to run more than half the distance for the session. Five miles turned to six, then seven. Around the eighth mile, I figured I could easily go the full ten to close off the week.
Then I had another thought. When we first purchased the elliptical, I thought it might be a good goal to try and run a half-marathon. The furthest I ran on the machine was 10 miles, so it wouldn’t be much to go the extra three. With me being so close to the target, why not?
The hardest mile was probably going from mile ten to mile eleven. The display on the machine only shows three digits, so 9.99 miles became 10.0, meaning it took longer to see progress getting counted.
A mantra started to form at the top of each mile – “just one more mile; you can do it.” This was something I learned from my army cadet days. During a particularly hard summer, I felt extremely dispirited with having to last six-weeks on a challenging leadership course. I learned to focus less on the whole six-weeks and instead focus on just getting through to the next day. It’s a lesson I’ve carried with me and try to apply anytime I’m faced with a seemingly insurmountable task.
Instead of running 13.1 miles, I focused myself to just completing the next mile. And when I finished that mile, I focused on the next; then the next.
Ten miles gave way to eleven, then twelve, and finally thirteen.
Running a half-marathon on an elliptical isn’t the greatest of achievements. However, it was an excellent application of focus and drive that affirmed to me that a.) I’ve come a long way since January; and b.) progress is made by focusing on the next goal, not the end goal.
Last week, I discussed how important exercise has become in helping to regulate my mood while I stay safe at home. I wanted to share a quick second observation I’ve noticed for exercising. When I first started my challenge for the year, I told myself that I just had to make small commitments to keep the progress going. I started the challenge very light – just 1 mile in the first week. It was easy to manage and commit to. Each week adds a mile, which is a doable amount: 2 miles in week 2, 3 miles in week 3, etc.
I am in week 17 now, and it’s forcing me to run consecutive days. While I’m not running distances that really necessitate me to need recovery days, there are inevitably days where I wake up and my body feels stiff and my joints feel like I’m full of sand. It’s a lot harder to tell myself that if I just commit to one mile, I can easily do the rest. That trick no longer works on me.
But I’ve realized something different that really helps me. I’ve noticed that no matter how I feel physically (assuming I’m not ill), if I can stick it out until the end of the second mile, I know I can do the run. There is something that happens between the first and second mile where the stiffness goes away. It’s likely the official warm-up period, but by mile-two I hit my stride, my breath falls into cadence, and I’m able to easily keep my target pace.
Understanding the magic of the second mile doesn’t make it psychologically easier to get on with the run (my mind still loves to procrastinate when I know I’m about to spend 45-minutes sweating), but it does let me know that physically I’m up to the task. The resolution sets in and I get to work.
Participating in physical distancing has given me some time to reflect. From the relative stillness of being home everyday, I have had a chance to think about my daily experiences without the distractions that comes from what used to be my normal routine. I’d like to share some of these reflections as they clarify in my mind under the banner of Quarentine Reflections.
First, I’ve had a personal realization recently concerning exercise. I have attempted to cultivate the habit of exercising for some time, going back severalyearsonthisblogalone. While I haven’t written about it yet for 2020, I started an exercise routine in January that I can happily report that I’ve maintained til the present. I’ll write about the routine in the future, but for now I’m sticking to the schedule and putting in my time.
Normally when I exercise, it’s something I try to fit into my busy days. Often it takes the form of a run in the morning before work: I try to squeeze in a run on our elliptical at home, then rush to shower and get to work without being too late. While at work, I remain somewhat distracted from paying attention to my body’s cues, so I don’t think too much about how I feel the rest of the day aside from the feeling of accomplishment that comes from knocking off a run early in your day.
But with physical distancing in effect, things are quieter. I am still working, but from at home. There is no context switching that happens in my mind that shifts gears from home to work. There are no coworkers to socialize with when I don’t feel like being productive. The lack of shift in my brain has create a scenario where I am able to sit with my thoughts for longer periods of time.
In these stretches of time, I’ve noticed that regular exercising noticably boosts my mood for the rest of the day. This isn’t a unique experience; it’s often touted as a benefit of exercising (once you get over the newbie hump of bodily pain). But while working in the office, I rarely noticed the affective change that exercise gave me. Usually, it was a cognitive change that came from mentally congratulating myself for exercising (or the social benefits that came from being that guy in the office who tells people that he got in a workout that morning – sadly, I am also that kind of person…).
I didn’t notice this benefit at first. When we first started working from home, I kept up my regular runs during the week as a way of imposing some sort of routine on my now drifting life. But last week I noticed a few days early in the week where I felt really crummy. I have a few forms of reflection that I engage with at the moment – I rate my mood in my notebook out of 10, I vlog a personal diary during the week, and I’ve taken up a form of morning pages to capture my internal monologue. In all three areas, I had noticed that I was feeling down and unmotivated. The day after I first logged the down mood, I exercised, and later that afternoon I did my check-in and noticed that my mood was a lot higher compared to the previous day. Nothing had materially changed about my day – I didn’t sleep more, my diet was consistent, and I hadn’t been any more productive in my tasks at work. The only big change over the previous day is that I had gotten a few miles in on the elliptical.
In looking back over the last month, I think I have spotted a trend. For days where I had the lowest mood, I did not exercise in the morning. On days where I exercised, I had higher mood levels. This isn’t to say that exercise is the only thing that correlates with an increase in my mood – there are plenty of days (e.g. weekends) where I feel fine but don’t exercise. However, it would seem reasonable to assert that there is a close connection with exercising and an overall improvement in my mood.
I plan to continue to follow my exercise routine, and I hope to set aside time in the near future to document it here or in a vlog format. But for now, it appears that I’ve found a more intrinsic reason to continue to exercise beyond vanity. Not only does exercise help me look better, but I feel better when I commit to the schedule.
My wife and I are fortunate to be able to work from home. I started working from home Wednesday of last week, and initially found the transition to be manageable. Thanks to my wife’s discipline, we were keeping our normal sleep schedules, and we are able to maintain our normal working routine from the safety of home.
One thing that really threw me this weekend was when I allowed myself the permission to completely relax my schedule. Because of the pandemic, a lot of my pressing obligations and scheduled social time have been put on hold, meaning I have more free time than is typical. During the work week last week, I kept up with work and tending to things around the house, but by the weekend I decided to jump into playing video games, reading, and podcast listening. I also enjoyed a few beers Friday and Saturday nights while exploring the Borderlands, so going to bed before midnight was quickly forgotten.
This had two interesting consequences. First, by Sunday I physically felt bad. Not sick, but my body felt sluggish, I was tired, I had a headache, and my motivation was sapped. While I didn’t drink to excess, I did wonder aloud to my wife if what I was feeling was a low-grade hangover from my general poor choices over the weekend.
The (amusing) second consequence was that my wife remarked that she now sees why I impose schedules and routines on my daily life. She normally encourages me to relax and play games, but this is the first time in a long time that she has seen me proactively partake in games. It was a little like a crash-and-burn by Sunday night – I don’t do moderation very well and her mock-horror was a good reminder of that.
In reflecting on the last few days of the self-isolation, I have learned that it’s important for me to keep regular routines and impose discipline on my otherwise chaotic whims. I’ve known this about myself for some time, but this weekend helped to reinforce why I prefer keeping routines and habits active. Like a child, I crave structure.
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.