I love Hank and John Green from the vlogbrothers YouTube channel. I don’t know how they manage to crank out so many thoughtful videos, but each time I check-in, I’m treated to another video where they somehow connect a thoughtful musing into a reflection of substance.
Feel free to check out the full video of one of Hank’s recent entries “Wrong on the Internet,” but below I have captured some of the interesting points that connected with thoughts I’ve had and resonated with me.
Layperson epistemology – it’s difficult for the average layperson to make sense of conflicting/contrary pieces of information when the business of the internet is motivated towards churning out content that screams for your attention.
Similar to the incompleteness theorem, solutions we create for problems will be temporary until we innovate new solutions based on updated information and advances in technology. This can bring about cynicism related to Kuhnian-style revolutions of our worldviews, that problems never seem to go away.
The internet business is not an information game, it’s a rhetoric game. Rhetoric is the prime mover of information, especially when hard data is absent. You can whinge about how “the other side” is devoid of logic and refuses to see the truth before their eyes, or you can accept this as a fact and play the game to win the rhetoric game.
Memes (of the information variety, not the funny pictures kind) that make you feel good smug are super dangerous for distracting the issues. Corporations might be the biggest cause of our climate or capitalist problems, but we can’t just immediately remove them and expect all our woes to be solved. The services they provide are still required for society to function.
Shifting blame breeds complacency. Instead, personal accountability and action at the individual level are still important.
A problem well-formed is half solved, but the internet business is not about forming good problems. In our smugness, we play games to win or gain prestige, and so reactions move far quicker and are easier than responses. In order to create well-formed problems, we need to place greater value on responding to solutions, articulating our values, and using tools like science, politics, and economics to optimize according to our values. (h/t to Seth Godin’s thinking that influenced me here)
On the topic of responding to emergencies (starting at 2:40 of the video), it’s important to remember in our smugness that we are not, in fact, rational creatures.
The insidious effect of the internet business: “If the tweet makes us feel good, we don’t tend to spend a lot of time doing a bunch of research to tell us whether or not it actually is good.”
On a recent episode of the podcast Owls at Dawn, one of the cohosts shared the tragic news of a loss in the family due to suicide. He discusses some of his family history and his relationship with faith as he takes time to publicly process some of his grief. It’s a haunting and sad episode. I appreciate that he shared his grief and I hope he and his family can recover from the loss.
One section of his thoughts veered into an idea that I wanted to capture here. He discusses the feeling one has coming out of a crisis of faith (in the context of the episode, it was largely about religion, but this could equally apply to a crisis of identity as well). When one feels themselves breaking away from faith, it sounds as if it creates a vacuum of epistemic knowledge about how one engages with or defines oneself against the world. Austin, the host, notes that if you lack a kind of vocabulary to apply meaning and labels to your worldview, it can create a kind of despair because of the anxiety that comes with not knowing how to relate to ones feelings.
This reminds me of those lists you see floating around the internet of words to describe feelings in other languages that don’t have analogues in the English language. I always enjoy reading these lists and seeing if I can recall a time I’ve felt the emotion being described. I feel a sense of excitement when I discover a label to apply to how I feel, but more importantly than that, it gives me an epistemic awareness of the feeling so I can identify and name it in the future if it happens again.
What happened to Austin’s family member was tragic, and I don’t know if having a vocabulary to describe the emotions he was feeling would have helped bring him comfort. I think there is a lesson to be learned here about the importance of increasing one’s own vocabulary of the lived-experiences of others so that you can either a.) have a greater sense of empathy to the inner lives of people different from yourself, or b.) be more sensitive to your own emotional states to help you make sense of the world.
By naming the feeling, you can come to understand it. And by understanding it, you can work towards addressing, integrating it, or enriching your identity and sense of self.
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.
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.
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.
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 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?
I think this video does a good job to interrogate my love of certain kinds of comedic news. I was a late-convert to Jon Stewart, and felt crushed when he announced his (much deserved) retirement. While I’ll admit I haven’t given Trevor Noah a fair shake, I pretty much stopped watching the Daily Show after the change-over. Similarly, I’ve watched other shows that riff on the format, whether on cable (such as Samantha Bee), subscription services (like Hasan Minhaj), or online content (I get John Oliver through YouTube). It’s not lost on me that all of the names listed above are Daily Show alumni. My consumption also includes shows that are inspired by the presentation format, like Some More News on YouTube. Still, it’s rare that I consistently follow any one show because I tend to find the material or subjects to be somewhat hollow. The only exceptions to this, as noted by Wisecrack, are Oliver’s and Minhaj’s shows, which I feel to be both smart and wise in the material they present. Rather than trying to punch for the sake of cracking jokes, their shows punch at topics that are meant to help people that aren’t in on the joke. That is, their shows aren’t just speaking to the in-crowd as a private way of mocking the out-group. This was a great video essay that made me think.
I purchased Hannah Ardent’s The Origins of Totalitarianism as a birthday present for myself a few years ago (I know, I’m weird). I still haven’t cracked into it as of writing, but last week I received an email update from my alma mater, and in it they discussed how one of the faculty members had recently returned from time spent doing research at the Hannah Ardent Centre for Politics and Humanities at Bard College. The email also described the regular reading group that occurs, and how it recently moved online to promote physical distancing. I checked out their YouTube page and found this series that I hope to carve out some time to follow along with. Origins is a pretty hefty book, and Ardent is a pretty powerful thinker, so I’m glad to have a resource to help me understand the nuances of her work better.