Over the weekend, I attended a virtual board meeting for engineering education. One of the reports pertained to a working-group’s findings and recommended actions to support the aims the 30 by 30 Campaign to address low representation of women in the engineering profession. This is a great initiative and I’m looking at ways we can improve our own processes to support women in STEM in our programs at the college. There was a comment that made me think, and it’s worth considering.
One of the board members expressed support for the report, but also commented that she had provided input as early as the 1990’s on this very initiative. Her comment was not meant to cast doubt over the process, but instead highlighted two important things – that this is not a new issue, and that many people have tried to make sweeping changes for the profession, which clearly hasn’t been entirely successful. Her advice was to be cautious about taking on too much scope with the recommendations, and instead to support a “divide and conquer” strategy for making targeted, meaningful actions to promote change.
I don’t hold any illusions that we will solve systemic issues overnight. If I’ve learned anything this past year, it’s that my hopes for reform are likely to fail and that instead of refinement, we should be aiming at transformative changes.
There is also another tension – on some level, this line of thinking suggests a teleological progression of progress for society and culture. I want to think that our culture is aiming at progress (“the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice” is a powerful vision to work towards), but a skeptical voice reminds me that, like our misunderstanding of Darwinian evolution, there is nothing inherent in the progress of change that aims towards a higher, final form. A kind of defeatism can creep in when one thinks that meaningful actions do not contribute towards progress, but instead are just the spinning of our collective wheels.
I reject this defeatist view and want to aim towards a higher vision. I grant that the universe is largely amoral and unconcerned with our progress. So, instead, we must clearly define our values and principles, and take actions towards achieving these ends. The actions are neither good nor bad in an absolute sense. Rather, we mark progress with how close we come to realizing the values we want to see manifested in our lives. Meaningful actions are measured not against morality, but instead on efficacy for the outcomes. There are trade-offs and consequences along the way, and so we must be prudent. Both history and mythology have given us plenty of examples of why hubris should be avoided.
I don’t have a good answer on what meaningful actions we ought to settle on as part of our agenda. As noted, this issue has been discussed far longer than my tenure in the employment game. I’ll defer to folks much smarter than I, and try to learn from their efforts to do my part.
I’ve longed for the day when I would be in a position in my life to gift people books. I don’t mean gifting people books for Christmas or their birthday, or even as a congratulatory token for their accomplishments. Instead, I mean an unprompted, unsolicited book to people I think would value the read. Where I can give a book because of how much I enjoyed the experience, and by giving it to others I hope to share that feeling.
I’ve finally found such a book. Last week, I finished Waubgeshig Rice’s novel, Moon of the Crusted Snow, a dystopian novel about an Indigenous community in Northern Ontario that gets cut-off from the rest of the Province. It’s dark, but also life-affirming; it felt like the perfect pandemic read, even though it was published two years ago.
Despite its themes and content, it was a wonderful book to read. As I noted in my Instagram post, the characters feel real and the narrative helped me feel as though I was walking among the community while the story unfolds. A commenter on the book noted that the story is very accessible for folks who are unfamiliar with reservation life of Indigenous peoples in Canada. Yet, the book doesn’t talk down to the reader – it’s infused with cultural references, history, and language that makes you work to understand it in places.
I have already gifted this book in audiobook format to one friend, and I have ordered two more copies for other friends. I am also excited to give this book as gifts because I feel it’s important to support Indigenous and other minority voices, and help amplify them so that we can enjoy more great art from these creators.
Here we are at the dawning of a new year, which for me means it’s time to post an update on my reading over the last year. For my previous lists, you can see them here: 2019, 2018, 2017, and 2016. It’s hard to believe this is my fifth reading list!
The Age of Surveillance Capitalism
The Bookshop on the Corner
Call Sign Chaos
The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy
Guns, Germs, and Steel
Anything You Want
Jocko Willink & Leif Babin
The Code. The Evaluation. The Protocols
How Will You Measure Your Life
Clayton M. Christensen
The Last Wish
The Expectant Father
Armin A. Brott & Jennifer Ash
The Coaching Habit
Michael Bungay Stanier
The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks
Robert A. Caro
Crime and Punishment
Every Tool’s A Hammer
Dr. Sue Johnson
The Kite Runner
My Own Words
Ruth Bader Ginsburg
Stillness is the Key
The Oxford Inklings
The Infinite Game
The Ride of a Lifetime
As a Man Thinketh & From Poverty to Power
A Christmas Carol
The Little Book of Hygge
Overall, I’m happy with how the year went for reading. In reviewing the list, a few things stood out to me. First is that I surpassed my total books read for the year over 2019 by 13 entries. While we can certainly have a discussion about the merits issues of using the number of books read as an accurate key performance indicator of comprehension or progress, it was nice to see that I stepped things up a bit. I was fairly consistent in making my way through the books, with only a dip in April (likely because of the life-adjustment that came from working from home) and the silence seen from mid-July to the start of September thanks to the birth of our son in early-August.
I’m also happy to see that I read fewer self-help and business books last year and instead dove into more fiction, memoirs, and books about history. In my previous roundup, I had commented about wanting to be more intentional with my reading after feeling burnt out on certain genres of books.
One significant change in my reading habits this past year was that I joined a reading group/book club. A friend organized it just as things went into lockdown in March. We meet online every few weeks to discuss books selected in a rotation by the group. I commented earlier that I read 13 more books this year than last, and I’d attribute the book club to being the single biggest reason for the boost in completions (we cleared 12 by year’s end). Here are the books that we read:
Call Sign Chaos by Jim Mattis
Symposium by Plato
Gulliver’s Travels by Jonathan Swift
How Will You Measure Your Life by Clayton M. Christensen
The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot
Crime and Punishment by Fyodor Dostoyevsky
The Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseini
Kitchen Confidential by Anthony Bourdain
The Oxford Inklings by Colin Duriez
As a Man Thinketh & From Poverty to Power by James Allen
A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens
Nicomachean Ethics by Aristotle (finished in the final days, though we haven’t met to discuss it yet.
I’d normally create a separate post about my top reads for the year, but I’ll include it here for simplicity. In chronological order of when I finished, my top 5 reads of the year are:
Alexander Hamilton by Ron Chernow (among my top reads ever; I was fortunate to see the stage play before the shutdown in March)
Call Sign Chaos by Jim Mattis (the first book I chose for the book club; I was struck by how Mattis talks about self-education and reflection)
The Expectant Father by Armin A. Brott & Jennifer Ash (since we were expecting this year, this book was a nice roadmap to know what to expect, and it provided some comfort along the way)
The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot (I recommend everyone read this book; it reminds me of the important work we do on the research ethics boards I sit on, and why we must be critical of research)
My Own Words by Ruth Bader Ginsberg (I started this collection of writings and speeches before RBG died, and was sadly reminded after finishing of what we lost in her death).
This was a pretty good year for reading. It felt good to get lost in more fiction, and I’ll have things to say in the future about the value I’m finding in reading as part of a group. In the meantime, Happy New Year, and it’s time to keep tackling my reading backlog.
I took a new step today in the evolution of my personal giving. For Giving Tuesday 2020, I finally set up my first set of recurring monthly donations. Now, every month the The Food Bank of Waterloo Region and the Brantford Food Bank will each receive a deposit of $10 from me. It’s a small, almost embarrassing amount to type (when I think of charitable giving, I’m thinking of impressive amounts with more than two zero’s to the left of the decimal point), but the important thing to keep in mind is a.) it’s my initial amount that I expect to grow over time as my circumstances allow, and b.) the total for the year will actually be higher than what I would normally have given.
I’ve been growing more intentional over time with my charitable giving. Many moons ago, I was involved with a program created by the Kitchener Waterloo Community Foundation called Engage. The program has since ended, but the experiences have stuck with me. If I want to live in a vibrant and thriving community, it’s important that I take the benefits and privileges I’ve accumulated to help others in different living circumstances than my own.
In philosophy, there is a thought experiment called the veil of ignorance, where if I were to be placed randomly in a society, I would obviously want to choose a position that afforded me a degree of wealth, freedom, security, and privilege. To me, this translates into a moral imperative that we should actively work to raise the living situations for all persons in our community to promote flourishing and happiness. I don’t want to live in a world where people have to rely on charity, but it’s an inescapable reality and therefore it must be confronted.
If we are being technical, charitable giving breaks down into three kinds of support, known as the three “t’s” – time, talent, and treasure. Time and talent were my first introduction to giving back to my community. It started in my various youth groups, where I would exchange my time to support a cause: raising money for Beavers/Cubs/Scouts/Army Cadets/swim club, marching in Remembrance Day parades, highway cleanups, and building a library abroad. Later, when I was but a poor student, I volunteered my talents to support causes for school and to help fundraising efforts for the HopeSpring Cancer Support Centre (and eventually I became the minute-taker for their Board of Directors). I also supported my friends with their charitable causes, such as helping with my buddy’s Headshots from the Heart videogame marathon event. As I started to transition out of my student phase of life, I began exploring the third “t” – treasure.
My history of charitable monetary giving started in my mid-20’s. I created an elaborate birthday ritual for myself in an attempt to imbue the day with significance (after 21, there weren’t any milestones I cared to look forward to). One ritual I set for myself was to make a donation to a cause I was interested in. When I was a student of the Engage program, I reflected that I wanted my charitable giving to go to “feeding bellies and minds,” and so I would make a yearly donation to the local food bank. Despite having never used it myself, I recognize the value they bring.
My first donations were in physical goods. I would save up rewards points from the grocery store, then buy as much food as I could for a few hundred dollars, and bring all the canned goods in for donation. Then I found out that their purchasing power was much higher than mine, so I switched to monetary donations once a year on my birthday.
The next evolution in my charitable giving happened a few years back when I wanted to help support the preservation of our environment. The Bruce Trail is a massive network of linked trails that allows one to hike 900km from Niagara to Tobermory in Ontario. Despite having never hiked on the trail myself (though I have ambitions to take up the activity), this seemed like a good cause to support, so I started purchasing yearly memberships. This year, I switched from a buying a membership each year to an automatic renewal system.
Switching back to the Food Bank, my next evolution in giving started in January of this year. I emailed to follow up on the Christmas drive and to ask what kind of shortfall the KW Food Bank saw. They kindly shared their yearly report, but what stuck out was a throwaway comment that they were successful with the campaign, but that the regular commitments were more important to ensure meals throughout the year. So, I decided I would eventually switch to small monthly donations that would increase over time as my circumstances allowed.
It was accelerated this summer with the BLM protests. I wanted to do more than empty social media posts, so I started to think about how I could contribute financially to important causes. A close friend of mine has created a line in his budget for philanthropy, which I took some inspiration from.
But in the Canadian context, I thought I should find a way to support Indigenous causes. Truthfully, I haven’t yet made that commitment – I’m still on the lookout for an ongoing support cause that resonates with me. I value the input of my peers, so if you have any suggestions, I’d love to hear your input.
That brings us to today. I decided to finally set up my regular payments to support these organizations that do so much good in our community. While I don’t live in KW anymore, I still feel called to help them in their mission. And since I support KW, I thought it appropriate to also give money to support the same cause but for my neighbors. The $10 per month I’ve committed is indeed small, but over the year will amount to a higher giving than my one-off donations. Also, it’s important to note that these campaigns help to raise awareness (and it feels good to help feed people at Christmas), but the need is felt year-round. The reality is that these campaigns serve as a funnel to bring donors into the organization.
This isn’t to say that I will stop giving one-off donations. A lesson I took from Engage is that it’s ok to say no to charitable asks that come your way. You do it each time you decline to contribute a few dollars at the cash register when you check-out at the store. Rather than having to give to every cause, it’s important to determine how much you feel you can give, then to be selective with where you allocate your funds. During Charitable Tuesday today, I also made one off contributions to my alma mater’s Arts student fund because I value the time and experiences I collected when I was a student. I also made an additional donation to the Bruce Trail’s latest campaign to purchase and preserve additional land in the Niagara region for the trail. I doubt I’ll ever get out to see that portion of the trail, but it’s important to enable the organization to leverage its resources to improve access for everyone (include some of my friends who I saw posting to social media from the trail this summer!).
My birthday is coming up, and I plan to give another one-off donation to the Food Bank to keep with tradition. And in time, I’ll find new ways to offer support. There is no one right way to give, but regardless of the type and degree of your impact, there will always be needs that go unmet in our communities. In addition to my monetary donations, I still volunteer where time allows, such as on the two ethics boards I serve.
Both Stats Can and Imagine Canada are seeing that while average donation amounts are trending upwards, the average donation rate is holding-to-declining over time. I hope to do my part in reversing this trend.
Thank-you for reading my story, and perhaps it might inspire you to reflect on your giving history.
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.
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 am guilty of buying into the world of self-help. The vast majority of my reading over the last five years has been variations on the self-help genre (to the point that I’ve coined the term animated bibliography to describe its form). I know that the returns on investing in self-help diminishes quickly, and I am aware of how dubious the promise that self-help sells is, but I constantly find myself getting sucked into it. This video doesn’t necessarily say anything new that I haven’t realized myself, but it pulls it together nicely with many examples of how dark this world can be for the copycat authorities that use the same tactics in different domains. This video is a good summary and reminder to myself the next time I’m sold the promise of a better life through tactics and strategies for sale.
I covered a different interview with Jon Stewart in my last published Friday roundup, but I wanted to link these two different podcast episodes along a similar theme, despite the shows being wildly different. I noticed that both Dan Carlin and Jon Stewart remarked on the difficulty that comes with being a voice that people turn to when making sense of the world. Stewart noted that towards the end of his time on the Daily Show, he sometimes struggled to be the person to go on television and say something smart or comforting after a tragedy struck (it might have been part of the reason why he burned-out and needed to retire). Similarly, Dan Carlin has not put out an episode of his podcast Common Sense in a few years, but he released this episode earlier this year. In it, he notes that he’s tried recording an episode multiple times but felt he was adding nothing of substance to the conversation. He struggled to, like Stewart, be a voice for people (like me) who turn to him to help understand the world we find ourselves in. I listened to both of these episodes in the same week, and gained a new appreciation for those like Carlin and Stewart who make livings giving me monologues to pre-digest current events. It must be tough to strike a balance by being both insightful and non-inflammatory, where you avoid stoking the audience against “the other side” (whatever side that happens to be at the time). A YouTuber I follow recently commented on folks like Tim Poole whose sole purpose is to inflame the left/right hostility, rather than adding anything of substance to the discourse. It’s causing me to slowly evaluate what voices I allow in and whether they’ve earned their place in my attention.
I have some deeper reflections that this article prompted, but I wanted to capture this here first. Varol has been a law professor for 10 years now, and with the success of his recent book, he’s decided to move on from his teaching duties to pursue other endeavors. This reminds me of Nassim Taleb’s idea of via negativa. Varol specifically invokes this idea (though not by name) by reflecting that decisions he’s made in his life that had the greatest positive impact were often decisions that “subtracted” from his life. It’s a reflection I applied to my own circumstances and still need a bit more time to process.
Watch: Every Race in Middle-Earth Explained | WIRED (YouTube)
Because we all need to have some fun once in a while, here is an informative half-hour from a Tolkein scholar who covers the history of Middle-Earth through its inhabitants.
I spent a large chunk of my weekend grading essays from my students. Their task was to watch the movie The Road, adapted from the novel by Cormac McCarthy and write a paper based on themes and ideas presented in the course. Based on the course content presented so far, I encourage students to examine the story’s protagonist and argue whether he is a good candidate to be considered a tragic hero as defined by Aristotle.
While grading papers, I mused about Aristotle’s strict criteria for what makes for a tragic hero. The tragic hero must be noble and good (though not a paragon of virtue), but possesses a minor flaw of character or error in judgment (hamartia), which when applied to circumstances brings about some sort of downfall or negative consequence (an inevitable reversal of circumstances, or peripeteia). It’s not that the character is vicious, but merely that their minor flaw is the cause of the negative outcome. However, the negative outcome must be caused by the character (and not, for instance, by the gods), and the consequences of outcome must be in excess of the original cause. The character must also see that they are the reason for their suffering (anagnorisis – the move from ignorance to knowledge). In the context of a narrative or telling of the story, this would elicit pity and fear, a purification of emotions (catharsis) for the audience.
On the one hand, Aristotle is spelling this all out as a way of formalizing and categorizing types of art (Aristotle was a philosopher and biologist by vocation). He might have even considered writing this down as a way of formalizing a set of guidelines to critique plays, finding a way to point out what makes some plays good and others not.
But I had another thought. Aristotle’s teacher, Plato, took a dim view of the arts. In his Republic, Plato was comfortable with banishing the poets from his ideal city, and only allow art that held up the moral authority. I’m wondering if Aristotle had something like this in mind – that art could be used as a moral education tool.
Maybe, the best examples of art are ones that teach the audience lessons, albeit in a less direct route (than, say, fables). If this were true, then we could interpret Aristotle’s criteria the following way. A piece of art is valuable as a moral training tool when the audience can build an emotional connection with the suffering of others. Rather than it being a spectacle for them to lose themselves in, the art gives the audience a moral framework to judge themselves against. The tragic figure is like them: not a god or immortal, but an example of a good person trying to do good things. The tragic figure might even be a little aspirational, something the audience can work towards. They aren’t depraved in the soul, but they are responsible for their actions, even if those actions have negative consequences.
Instead of blaming their suffering on an external cause, the tragic figure realizes that they are the cause of their own suffering. The audience sees this, sees that they could be this person, and through their emotional connection, learns to empathize with the tragic figure. In a sense, they could be the same person, were the circumstances be different. The audience feels the pain, takes pity upon the otherwise good person, and maybe even fears this happening to them.
Given that Aristotle’s ethics was predicated on relative moral excellence, it’s possible that he intended art to be educative, though I don’t have the scholarship background to confirm whether this is true (or plausible). To be clear, I don’t think art must function in this capacity. I think it’s perfectly reasonable to have art for its own sake, or for the creative expression of what’s inside the artist.
Still, the thought of morally educative art is interesting. I’ve often thought of what kinds of art I’d want to expose my own children to in the development of their moral character. What kinds of lesson would I want them to absorb and learn from as they develop an internal sense of ethics and morality?