Optimizing, Values, and the Right Answer

Engineers love clear problems with delineated right and wrong answers. Data, especially quantified data they think, is objective and clean. Without painting too strong of a stereotype, they don’t like to muck around with soft skills, or social/political factors in problems. They like to keep engineering pure.

The problem with this view is that it’s not correct – it makes an underlying assumption about what makes something a right or wrong answer to a problem. Most problems that engineers deal with when designing a solution are not value neutral. When we think of problems with clear right or wrong answers, we think of problems that are purely mathematical or having discrete binary solutions (e.g. “will the object handle the forces that it will be subjected to under normal conditions?”). The secret is that all problems have “right” and “wrong” solutions based on the underlying values you are trying to optimize for.

An engineering problem that is optimizing for maximizing return on investment might have different solutions than one that optimizes for addressing systemic inequity for particular people. The tradeoffs are not just opportunity costs, but instead are tradeoffs on which values inform the vision of the final outcome of your solution. When you seek to return on investment, to maximize profit, the answers are pretty clear – drive down expenses, raise prices as high as the market will bear, communicate the value proposition to the customer, and produce enough goods at the right rate to meet demand without excess goods sitting idle. When you seek to address systemic inequity, your solutions will have decidedly different considerations – your expenses will go up as you pay fair wages, prices might not maximize your margins, you will be more candid with your customers, and your manufacturing and distribution will be likely slower and more intentional as you make ethical considerations in your processes. You will also consider all sorts of other externalities that pop up as a result of your solutions, boosting the positives while capping the downsides.

This is not to say that all solutions will be equally easy to implement under any one set of values systems that you choose. However, it’s fallacious to believe that the same answer will always be given for “can we build this?” and “should we build this?” if you aren’t also examining the underlying values that you set in your assumptions.

Stay Awesome,

Ryan

Cross-Domain Knowledge

I’m a huge fan of cross-domain knowledge. Coming from an academic background in philosophy, I feel my greatest strategy for creating and building a career is leaning in hard to knowledge and skills that are learned in one domain or context, then applying it to a unique area. You get a large confidence boost when you make connections by spotting patterns and connections that map analogical cases to each other.

The first time I truly appreciated this was in my days working for the university gambling lab. We were collecting data on slot machine players by recruiting participants into our study to measure the effects properties of the machine user-interface had in gambler’s cognitive awareness. In other words, did how the graphics and sounds play on the screen help the gambler understand their relative wins and losses over time. In one study, the simulation we were using for participants to play on during the trial had been modified, but on some of the laptops the wrong version of the software was copied over, and we didn’t realize the mistake until the end of the day. Of the three laptops, two had the right software, and one did not. At the end of each session, we uploaded the user data to a secure repository and deleted the local files, which meant that once we were back in the lab, there was no way of knowing which participant file batch came from the defective software.

We thankfully caught the issue early and limited the damage, but afterwards we had an issue with figuring out which files to exclude from analysis. On the face of it, there was no way of knowing from the participant’s biometric data which simulation they used. So instead we had to dig into the debug files that were spit out by the machine to verify that the simulation ran successfully.

All the files were generated in an XML format, however I had neither experience in basic coding nor reading XML files. I had to figure out a way of showing whether the version of the software was correct. To me, the XML files were largely gibberish.

But, I was able to spot a pattern in the files that reminded me of my formal logic courses from undergrad. While I did poorly in the courses at the time, I did retain some of the strategies taught for understanding the structuring of the syntax of formal logic arguments, specifically how nested arguments worked and how assumptions were communicated. I started to see the same structure in the XML code, how sub- and sub-sub arguments were written to call different files into the program, and where those files were being drawn from.

And there it was. At the bottom of one of the debug files, was a list of the files being called on by the simulation. In the broken simulation, the file path to a certain sound that was meant to be played was empty, meaning that when the simulation was supposed to play and auditory cue, there was no file name to look for, and so the simulation moved on.

I compared this with the files we knew came from the working simulators and saw that this was the main difference, giving us the key for finding the bad data points and justifiably excluding them from the overall data set. By finding this, I saved an entire day’s worth of data files (a cost savings that includes the some-30 participant files, their remuneration, three research assistant wages, per diem costs, travel, and consumable materials on site).

I grant that computer programming is entirely built on the foundations of formal logic and mathematics, so it’s not that I was gaining a unique insight into the problem by bringing knowledge from one separate domain into another. However, this was one of the first times I encountered a problem where I lacked the traditional knowledge and skill to address it, so I came at the problem from another angle. It was a case where I gained confidence in myself to be resourceful and tap into previous learning to address new/novel problems.

As I noted above, being trained in academic philosophy has pushed me in this direction of career development. On a superficial level, relying on cross-domain knowledge is a career survival strategy because philosophy doesn’t always teach you skills that are easily applicable to the working world. I have sadly, never once, had to use my understanding of Plato’s arguments in my workplace. But on a deeper level, I think training in philosophy naturally pushes you into this kind of problem-solving. Most of my experiences in philosophy involves approaching a thought experiment or line of thinking, considering what it’s trying to tell us, then testing those arguments against counter-factuals and alternative arguments or explanations. To do this well, you have to reduce a problem down into its constitutive parts to tease out relevant intuitions, then test them out, often by porting those intuitions from one context into another to see if they still hold as both valid and sound.

It’s not all that dissimilar to the processes used by engineers or designers to gather data and accurately define the problem they are intending to design for. Whereas the engineer will apply the tools they’ve been taught fairly linearly to create a design for the problem, my strategy is to adopt cross-domain knowledge to make connections where they might previously had not been apparent. The results can often be solved quicker or more efficiently if I had the relevant domain knowledge (e.g. an understanding of coding), however when I lack the specific experience to address the problem, as a generalist thinker I have to rely on analogical thinking and a wider exposure to ideas to suss out those connections. What I lack in a direct approach, I make up for in novelty and creative/divergent thinking, which has the benefit of sometimes opening up new opportunities to explore.

Stay Awesome,

Ryan

What I Read in 2021

book lot on table
Photo by Tom Hermans on Unsplash

The calendar has rolled over, meaning it’s time to provide an update on my reading over the last year. For my previous lists, you can see what I read in 2020, 2019, 2018, 2017, and 2016.

TitleAuthorDate CompletedPages
1ClanlandsSam Heughan & Graham McTavish01-Jan352
2Lean OutTara Henley03-Jan336
3Moon of the Crusted SnowWaubgeshig Rice05-Jan224
4SovereigntyRyan Michler12-Jan266
5Eat a Peach: A MemoirDavid Chang14-Jan304
6NeverwhereNeil Gaiman19-Jan480
7The Office: The Untold Story…Andy Greene24-Jan464
8Angels & DemonsDan Brown30-Jan736
9*MeditationsMarcus Aurelius07-Feb256
10The PracticeSeth Godin23-Feb272
11*The Righteous MindJonathan Haidt12-Mar528
12A Clash of KingsGeorge R.R. Martin29-Mar1040
13Hold Me TightDr. Sue Johnson26-Apr320
14*To Pixar and BeyondLawrence Levy26-Apr272
15Cool SexDiana Richardson & Wendy Doeleman30-Apr128
16MindfuckChristopher Wylie10-May288
17*The Massey MurderCharlotte Gray24-May336
18*On ImmunityEula Biss21-Jun224
19At The Existentialist CaféSarah Bakewell30-Jul448
20Learn Like a ProBarbara Oakley & Olav Schewe05-Aug160
21The Great InfluenzaJohn M Barry05-Aug560
22The New FatherArmin A. Brott07-Aug336
23EffortlessGreg McKeown07-Aug272
24Can’t EvenAnne Helen Petersen13-Aug304
25The Happiness HypothesisJonathan Haidt13-Aug320
26SwitchChip Heath and Dan Heath16-Aug320
27The Bully PulpitDoris Kearns Goodwin22-Aug912
28Saving JusticeJames Comey22-Aug240
29An Elegant DefenseMatt Richtel27-Aug448
30Infinitely Full of HopeTom Whyman06-Sep218
31*The Black CountTom Reiss22-Sep432
32Think AgainAdam Grant01-Oct320
33Lives of the StoicsRyan Holiday and Stephen Hanselman03-Oct352
34*A Knock on the DoorTruth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada06-Oct296
35Our Own Worst EnemyTom Nichols07-Oct256
36A Storm of SwordsGeorge R.R. Martin11-Oct1216
37How Ike LedSusan Eisenhower17-Oct400
38Braiding SweetgrassRobin Wall Kimmerer29-Oct408
39*Social EmpathyElizabeth Segal05-Nov256
40NoiseDaniel Kahneman, Olivier Sibony, Cass R. Sunstein09-Nov464
41Finding Your ElementKen Robinson with Lou Aronica12-Nov320
42The StorytellerDave Grohl14-Nov384
43Why We Make Things and Why It MattersPeter Korn16-Nov176
44For Small Creatures Such As WeSasha Sagan18-Nov288
45Courage is CallingRyan Holiday24-Nov304
46*The Seven Principles for Making Marriage WorkJohn M Gottman and Nan Silver06-Dec288
47Mr. Dickens and His CarolSamantha Silva08-Dec288
48The Ghost of Christmas PastRhys Bowen14-Dec272
49Why We SleepMatthew Walker19-Dec368
50In A HolidazeChristina Lauren20-Dec336
51Christmas Every DayBeth Moran24-Dec408
52A Christmas CarolCharles Dickens24-Dec112
Total19308
Entries whose number is asterisked was read for our bookclub.

This year was a huge step up in the number of books I got through. In 2020 I came in at 38 books, whereas I settled into a good groove and managed 52 books for 2021, or a book per week on average. The big months were January (8 books), August (10 books), and October through December (7 books each month). 2020 was a tough year on everyone as we made the pivot to pandemic life; I was also preoccupied with my wife’s pregnancy and later the birth of our son. For 2021, things settled and we found new normals to operate within. I still relied heavily on audiobooks, but I found that where I made the majority of my reading progress during my work commutes in the before-times, I now find time while walking the dog and doing chores around the house to squeeze in a listen.

I’m also happy to see I continued my trend started in 2020 to move away from predominantly reading self-help and business books. While they are still sprinkled throughout, I embraced more fiction, memoirs, books on history, and discussions of complex social issues.

My book club was down slightly over last year, coming in at 9 books for the year. We also celebrated a birth and added a new member which is exciting. In the table above, the asterisked numbers denote book club entries, but I have included them collected below:

  1. Meditations by Marcus Aurelius
  2. The Righteous Mind by Jonathan Haidt
  3. To Pixar and Beyond by Lawrence Levy
  4. The Massey Murder by Charlotte Gray
  5. On Immunity by Eula Biss
  6. The Black Count by Tom Reiss
  7. A Knock on the Door by Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada
  8. Social Empathy by Elizabeth Segal
  9. The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work by John M Gottman and Nan Silver

And to round out the post, here are my top five reads of the year in chronological order:

  1. Moon of the Crusted Snow by Waubgeshig Rice (this book was so good, I bought two copies and mailed them to friends as gifts – one going all the way to Scotland!)
  2. The Great Influenza by John M Barry (if history doesn’t repeat itself, then at the very least it rhymes, and so learning about the Influenza Pandemic of 1918-1919 helps to contextualize our experiences over the last two years)
  3. How Ike Led by Susan Eisenhower (I took so many notes reading this book and will revisit the lessons of Dwight Eisenhower often)
  4. Braiding Sweetgrass by Robin Wall Kimmerer (this was my first proper introduction to Indigenous ways of knowing, and my worldview has been made richer for it)
  5. Why We Make Things and Why It Matters by Peter Korn (a beautiful memoir and reflection on the nature of making, craft, art, and finding your calling within a career)

2021 was a great year of reading for me. Despite feeling adrift in the monotony of the pandemic (or languishing, as Adam Grant claims it), I found exploring both ideas and fictional worlds to be immensely rewarding. My horizons have expanded and I’m looking forward to continuing this exploration into the new year. I’m intending on tackling more biographies, books on history, and works of fiction. I’ve also decided to explore another genre – comic books! With all the great media being adapted from comic books (and now that I have disposable income), I’m intending on diving into some of the celebrated collected volumes that I missed out back in my Wizard reading days.

Happy New Year!

Stay Awesome,

Ryan

Ethical Shopping

While I don’t condone thinking of capitalism, consumerism and consumption as hallmarks of Christmas, it’s something that is nevertheless on my mind. After a record year for some big box (or big warehouse) retailers last year, many folks in the ethical space really hammered home that we must vote with our money wisely and choose more ethical options when it comes to shopping. Supporting local, supporting products or services that aren’t wasteful, supporting employers that pay good wages are all values that hit louder when we felt safer just staying home and shopping from our phones.

This year, I’ve made some attempts at being more mindful of my shopping, though with a toddler at home during a pandemic, my flexibility is a little more constrained than in the past. Recently I came into an ethical shopping scenario that I found difficult to find a perfect solution for, and it involves comic books.

I’ve been a nerd for a long time and loved comic books as a kid. While I didn’t always have the means or funds to regularly purchase comic books, I would try to keep up with stories through alternative sources like the now shuttered Wizard magazine. Now that I’m older, with more disposable income, I’d like to step back into comics and attempt some regular readership.

Off the top, my goal would be to support local and to ensure I’m paying for the art, rather than finding easy, cheap access to the stories. The first constraint is, as of writing, we don’t have a comic book shop here in town. There is a shop that’s closer to me the next town over, however I feel a deeper connection to the comic shops in Kitchener-Waterloo, a town not that far from me, but still a commitment to travel to for things like this.

The second constraint is I’m trying to be mindful of the environment and the fact that I tend to be a packrat, and I’ve accepted that I don’t intend to collect comics, but just want to read the books, so I would be fine with paying for digital versions of the comic books. However, there is no service that I can find that would purchase the rights to read the stories from comic book shops. Instead, the near-universal option would be to pay for digital books from a platform called Comixology, which is unfortunately a subsidiary of Amazon (side bar – many publishers have their own digital archives that you can pay for access to, though Comixology seems to be the only service that allows you to buy current books, whereas publishers seem to have a lag of when the stories appear in their lists). I already have an Audible subscription, and I purchase way too much from Amazon already, so I am hesitant to give more money to the big A.

The way I see it, there is no easy solution for this – I can pay money to a big corporation for the ease of reading at home (and hoping that the money spent through Comixology makes its way back to the creators fairly – which I doubt given the comic book industry, artists and writers are not compensated well) but then I’m not supporting local businesses, or I can make special trips into town to buy from the local shop, which is inconvenient, requires driving, and requires me to purchase physical books.

In the end, I made a trip into town (I had other errands to run, so it was a more efficient trip) and bought recent releases at the shop, AND (in full, shameful disclosure), I bought a collected series on Comixology that wasn’t available in the shop. While this was hardly the most ethical solution in the moment, I still think it was a good exercise in thinking through the options and consequences of my choices.

Not fully related to the comics example, but in parallel to this consideration is voting with your money on art worth making. Chris Stuckmann released a short meditation recently on films and the question of why movies aren’t made like they used to be (in the sense of artistic films that were riskier box office bets, rather than the safe intellectual properties we see coming out all the time). The same conversations are being had in music, where it’s harder for bands to get a foothold in the world of streaming, and the only big acts tend to be bands that were big before streaming.

In his essay, Stuckmann reflects that our choices to see certain kinds of film sends messages to studios and the system of what works are likely to make money, so the incentives are to continue making only those kinds of art. I’ll let his video speak for itself, but it gives me something consider when I’m choosing how to support art and how to consume more ethically (if such thing is really possible under capitalism).

Stay Awesome,

Ryan

A Draft Ontology of Shipwrecks and Identity

In a recent podcast episode I was listening to, the hosts were speaking glibly about progressivism. I won’t name the show because who was saying it is ultimately unimportant. At the crux of their tangential discussion away from Plato’s Greater and Minor Hippias was their dismissal of progressivist attitudes towards the flow of history, that those who come later in history will assert some sort of superiority (technological, moral, intellectual) over less developed, unenlightened peoples of the past. While I think they were onto something in thinking that any sort of change is not prima facie better, I was unconvinced of their move to dismiss it because they didn’t adequately set out a criteria by which to judge advancement. Instead, they proceeded to discuss (within the context of Plato’s dialogue) the relative comparisons of Athenian and Spartan laws. And when they came to a discussion in the text about the relative merits of spoons according to function and form, the one host came dangerously close to undermining his rebuttals of progressivism in my estimation.

But this isn’t a post about their podcast episode – truthfully I haven’t taken the time to go back and listen to their post for the fidelity of the above paragraph because that’s not what I want to write about. It serves as a frame from what it made me think about.

Instead, their conversation reminded me of folks who complain about changes to our understanding of the world, especially as it relates to mental health and/or personal identity concerning gender. There is a resistance to keeping an open mind because it doesn’t harmonize with a worldview they hold that’s often formed and set in ones late teens or early twenties. You see this come out in a number of ways in the way they talk about these issues, but a canonical refrain is “back in my day, they didn’t have x,” whether that is expanded definitions of mental health issues or nonbinary categories of gender. Instead, the proliferation of new words to capture experiences is seen as a self-evident refutation of these developments because they think the relative plurality of new understandings of the world must not be grounded in anything solid or universal. That is to say, if they haven’t experienced it, then it must clearly not be real in an ontological sense.

When I say real in an ontological sense I mean that the phenomenon the word is attached to doesn’t carry existence attached to a concrete thing1. In the podcast, they discussed this in the context of trees and trying to identify tree types. In the Platonic tradition, trees are trees because the thing I’m seeing out my window that grows tall, has a solid brown body covered in a rough exterior that is thicker near the bottom and branches out at the top, terminating in green thin pieces, participates in the Form of tree or tree-ness. The concept of tree is tied to the physical object, but to Plato the Form of tree exists independently of the tree in front of me. In biology, living things are categorized according to common, reliable traits that distinguish different types of organisms from another. A maple tree and a pine tree don’t share many common physical appearance traits, but they share a sufficient number of them that we call them both trees. The concept of tree is an abstraction used to describe something about the physical object. If we are being rigorous, there may be a debate whether the concept of tree as described above (as a Platonic Form) has an ontological existence, but for the purposes of our discussion, tree as a category is real because it is tied to a thing that physically exists out there in the world.

And so to circle back, the anti-progressivist disclaims new labels on people on the thinking that the label/category doesn’t map to something real. There is a reduction problem in their mind – the mental disorder or gender identity (in this sentence, I treat them as two separate concepts that are not intended to be inclusive) are not mapped to anything that can be pointed to. To them, gender identity is reducible only to secondary sexual characteristics (genitals), and mental health is based on stereotype behaviours easily observed (signs) rather than reported (symptoms). In the anti-progressivist mind, creating a new name or category means creating a new phenomenon; a phenomenon that did not exist before.

Here we come to the title of this post’s line of thinking. What the anti-progressivist is confusing is the difference between creating new categories, and giving words to describe something already existing but had yet to become clarified. For this, I invoke the late Paul Virilio and shipwrecks. The anti-progressivist2 treats mental disorder and gender identity as concepts invented wholly new like the concept of a shipwreck. Before the invention of the ship, there was no concept of shipwreck, or train derailment before trains, car crash before automobiles, etc.3 These concept categories did not exist previously, and their existence is contingent on us inventing them (even if by accident). But I think this is the wrong way to capture what is going on when we create a new category of understanding.

It is not the case that more children are coming out as transgender because its faddish, trendy, or a socially acceptable way of acting out against social norms. To the contrary, it’s more likely that more children (or people generally) are publicly identifying as trans (or nonbinary, or homosexual/bisexual/asexual, etc.) because we’ve given them language to make sense of what they are feeling within. I do not have a source to provide, but I read a lament once that because of previously draconian crackdowns on LGBT communities, many people did not live long enough to allow their existences to be counted. The number of people who identify as LGBT is not growing because people are suddenly “becoming queer.” Rather, our language and society is moving towards a place that has space for a plurality of lives.

And I think the same thing is happening as we redefine and clarify mental health issues – these issues are likely not new4, but instead we are better able to understand the internal lives of others because we are listening to what these individuals are saying about their experiences. We aren’t inventing new categories so much as we are finally recognizing things that can now be counted. As the saying goes, what gets measured gets managed. The old terms that were used to medicalize people’s internal lives were insufficient to either understand or treat the person, and so we refine our language to better capture their experiences.

When we reclassify our language, we create nuance. We create a more interesting and vibrant world. This is a good thing – we understand the world in new ways and can appreciate the diversity and complexity that comes from this understanding. I agree that progress for its own sake is not automatically good. Progress must be paired with wisdom and experience if we want to avoid creating harm in the future. But progress should not be halted on the belief that change is flippant, nor should it be dismissed because it introduces complexity to our worldview. The anti-progressivist seems to hold that society is sliding from order to disorder, away from some ideal that we must actively work to return to. To them, anything new is to be distrusted merely because past progress yielded harms. They place more weight on the mis-steps and ignore the improvements to the quality of our lives. This view is just as false as assuming a teleological bent to society evolving – that society is always aiming at getting better.

Society is neither sliding away from perfection nor building towards it. It is moving from simplicity to complexity; from blunt and clumsy to fine and precise.5 As our understanding of the world grows, so too must our language to describe it. With understanding comes language, with language comes empathy, with empathy comes diversity, and from diversity comes strength.6

Stay Awesome,

Ryan

[P.S. – A few days after publishing this, I read a post from Seth Godin on Cyber-realists that says some of what I say above about wisdom tempering progress, but much more succinctly.]

Notes:

1For those who have studied metaphysics and ontology, I apologize if my take comes off as uninformed – I must admit that this is me working through the ideas in my head.

2I’ve typed this word many times in this post without critically thinking whether this is the appropriate term to give to the person/line of thinking to which I’m responding. However, this post is mostly a first-draft attempt at clarifying my thoughts, and so I leave it for now with the understanding that this is all mutable upon further consideration.

3This is perhaps one of the few areas where I’m sympathetic to the anti-progressivist – not all progress is devoid of negatives or downsides. With any effect, there will be unintended or unanticipated side effects and consequences. The technology that helps preserve food and makes it cheaper to produce might also be causing health problems from fast food, for example.

4Here I’m talking about reclassifying old or outdated diagnostic methods, rather than genuinely new classifications that are the result of modern life, though this might be up for debate – is it genuinely new or merely a sub-classification of already existing conditions, such as video game addiction. I’m out of my expertise here, so I can’t say anything with authority on the matter.

5There is a conversation to be had here that brings Kuhn into the party, but this post has groaned on too long. I like Kuhn’s ideas that rather than a steady march of progress, science changes through the adoption of new worldviews, but I think this is less about knowledge and more about the sociology of knowing-peoples. People, ideology, and politics makes science messy.

6Admittedly, this is appears to be a slippery slope that requires a lot more argument to make clear. As with Kuhn, this could be left to a different post, but my main argument is that diversity is good because it hedges against downsides. I think there are limited cases where uniformity and homogeneity are preferable, but those are exceptions that prove the rule.

Beyond the European Default Follow-up (7/4 time)

Last week I shared some thoughts on appreciating musical languages developed beyond the European music theory standard, and how it can be inappropriate to judge musical modalities using the vocabulary and standards of your cultural (musical) heritage. This isn’t to say that viewing art through different lenses can’t bring about interesting discoveries of the artform, but rather using one standard to pass a value-judgement of the merits of an artform can be fraught with problems.

Thanks to YouTube’s algorithm, the recommended videos feed provided some great gems appreciating the original. Through a drum cover, I learned the original was in 7/4 time (whereas I thought it might have been alternating 2/4-2/8 measures; sounds like I missed a 1/8 beat).

And here was another drum cover with some artistic interpretations on the beat.

I was able to learn a bit more about Konnakkol, and how it builds increasing complexity to the music.

And here was a great beatbox cover that got a shoutout from the male performer in the original video, Somashekar Jois.

Finally, I found that Somashekar Jois has a YouTube channel where he teaches lessons in Konnakkol. I was a little nervous about posting this since one of his past videos was an artist’s endorsement for Prime Minister Modi of India, but I still felt it important to provide the link here to learn more about the artform. If possible, I’m trying to focus on the art, rather than the artist (or his whatever his politics happens to be).

Oh, and a recent video from Adam Neely again touched on the problems with passing judgement on musical performance when you don’t critically engage with the sources of your musical taste. At best, you are falsely applying a single standard as a universal judge of taste, and at worst you are using music theory to justify sexist bullying of people just trying to have fun creating.

Stay Awesome,

Ryan

Meaningful Actions

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.

Stay Awesome,

Ryan

Supporting Community

Since the birth of our son, my wife has joined an online mom’s group in our town. Among the various posts asking for advice or to share items for sale, there periodically comes posts from the admin notifying the group of a request for aid. Families who find themselves in a financial pinch can contact the admin to anonymously ask for support.

The other day, my wife saw one of these posts, and in reflecting on how expensive life can be with our newborn, she felt instantly connected with the call for help. The pandemic has been hard on most people, but we feel we’ve been very fortunate to have our jobs reasonably secure this last year. While I have lost two side jobs over the course of the pandemic, my main source of income allows us to be fairly comfortable.

So, without much deliberation, we picked up some gift cards for the grocery store, loaded it with funds to help with groceries for a week, and offered them to the administrator. This is on top of the automatic monthly charitable contributions I started in November.

In the moment, this had me reflecting on what it means to be a part of a community. Setting aside questions about the role of government and the problems caused by exploitative capitalism, there is a strong moral case to be found in looking out for our community neighbours. We want our communities to be vibrant and healthy. Hyper-individualism may maximize utility for you and your family unit, but I think that outlook discounts the intangible benefits we see when we pitch in to help people feel safe, secure, and taken care of. Take your pick of moral argument:

  • Deontological – we have a moral imperative to help those who experience suffering due to a lack of resources.
  • Utilitarian – the morally right thing to do is to use surplus utility to offset the suffering experienced by others.
  • Feminism & Intersectional Ethics – redistributing wealth, even in the short-term, helps to buttress against the effects of systems that oppress people. This also applies to those who by luck or happenstance are experiencing suffering.
  • Rights-based & Social Contract – people have a right to security of person, and while this right is usually handled by the state, the community shares some of this responsibility as part of the social contract; if you want to derive the benefits of living in a community, you ought to be willing to support and contribute.
  • Virtue ethics – charity and magnanimity are virtues of the ethical person; giving neither too little, nor to excess.
  • Theory of Justice – if I were not in a privileged position to feel safe and secure, I would hope that my community could help me. It is better to work to lift all life conditions and raise the floor of suffering.

In truth, I often feel like a terrible neighbour because of my social habits. I feel awkward meeting new people and making small talk, so I’ll wave at neighbours at a distance instead of striking up conversation. Over a year into living in this house and we just learned the last names of one of our neighbours (who have been fantastic the entire time we’ve lived here – dropping off gifts for our son a few times since he’s been born). Where I lack the social grace to learn about the lives of my neighbours in a meaningful way, I hope I can make up a little bit of good will that comes from answering a call from a stranger online.

Stay Awesome,

Ryan

Falling Through My Systems

This late post is a nice springboard into something I’ve been thinking about throughout the pandemic. Pre-pandemic, when I was still commuting to work, I had a fair number of systems to help me get stuff done. My commute to work helped me film daily vlogs, listen to books, and think about big ideas for blog posts and Stay Awesome vlogs. When we started working from home, those outputs began fading. Now, I feel behind on my blog posts, I *maybe* film a personal vlog once every two weeks, and Stay Awesome has been put on an indefinite hiatus until Jim and I get some extra headspace bandwidth to devote attention to it.

I was also known for my notebook. I carried a Field Notes notebook everywhere with me, and was constantly scribbling notes into it. Then, around 4 months into working from home, I found myself abandoning the monthly notebook and appropriating a disused larger notebook to jot down tasks, lists, and random thoughts. The Field Notes book was small, portable, convenient, and had many systems to track things I found important, such as exercise, health, habits, etc. Now, my notebook is largely devoted to task management, because when every day feels the same, you can quickly find yourself several weeks down the line having nothing to show for your time.

In a sense, I’ve fallen through my systems. The various “systems” I implemented succumbed to inertia when I both lost the cues that triggered them and lost the will to keep putting effort in the system to power the flywheel, and friction has ground them to a halt.

James Clear has a pithy phrase, that “you do not rise to the level of your goals. You fall to the level of your systems.” This is a riff on an older Greek observation from Archilochus: “We don’t rise to the level of our expectations, we fall to the level of our training.”

Regardless, the question I have is whether I truly had a system if it was a fair-weather operation that wasn’t robust enough to adapt to these kinds of radical changes. When I lost the external liminal cues that came from commuting to work, or from even leaving the house on a regular basis, the things I called systems disappeared as well. Is it charitable to call these things “systems”? In virtue ethics, you aren’t said to possess a virtue if you only exercise it some of the time – you aren’t considered courageous if you don’t act courageously in a moment that requires it. Does this apply to systems as well?

Part of me says yes, but that’s not very helpful. Perhaps I should reframe my thinking and consider the quality and attributes of the system. Borrowing from Taleb, some systems are fragile, some are robust, and I suppose some are antifragile. I understand antifragile systems in the context of biology (e.g. stressing muscles can allow them to get stronger over time), though as of writing I can’t think of any productivity system that get stronger under pressure.

Regardless, it’s clear that much of my productivity was built upon what can now be labelled as fragile systems. They worked under certain conditions, but outside of that narrower band they are less able to withstand fluctuations or variance. In my reflections over the last few months, I’ve been seeing the value in understanding the causes of system failures so that I can create new processes to help me in work and life. For now, the first step is to acknowledge that I’ve fallen through my systems, and having acknowledged this, I can stop spinning my wheels and start seeking traction.

Stay Awesome,

Ryan