On The Bus – Hello and Thanks!

It’s been some time since I’ve had to commute on the bus.  As a student, the bus was my main mode of getting around town (and the occasional trip home), but in my post-student days, I’ve been privledged to have a vehicle of my own to commute in.

A few weeks back, I carpooled to Hamilton with my wife so that I could attend an ethics workshop at McMaster University.  After my business was done on campus, I took the bus from campus to her place of work.

I greeted the driver as I embarked the bus, paid my fare, and took a seat.  Instead of getting lost in whatever was on my phone, I took the opportunity to watch the streets as we drove by and listen to the sounds of the bus.

I was startled when I realized that I had forgotten that regular bus-riders always thank the driver when disembarking.    It was something I did back in my student days, and I was glad to see that not much had changed in the 5-7 years since I regularly rode the bus.

Given that I had forgotten this little gesture of appreciation and kindness, I wanted to take a moment in this otherwise dull blog to commit it to memory and share the sentiment.

Stay Awesome,

Ryan

Advertisements

The Value of Probing Assumptions

I was on a consultation call a few weeks ago about an ethics application.  The project was seeking feedback from participants about access to specific mental health information, and in my feedback to their application, I noted that their demographic question concerning the gender of the participant was probably too narrow.  The applicant asked for some advice how to address the comment.

On the one hand, they considered dropping the question as it a.) didn’t obviously connect to their research question, and b.) the literature supporting this branch of mental health was pretty well-studied in terms of incidence rates for the condition along the sex dimension, so they might not learn anything new by asking for the participant’s gender or sex.  On the other hand, if they left it in, they had to contend with whether they should use sex or gender as the focus of the question.  Since the mental health topic they were researching was a medical condition, it seemed like (biological) sex was the more salient feature, whereas my feedback suggested that if they chose gender, they would need to ensure it was inclusive.

While discussing the implications on the phone, I tried to tease out what the purpose of the study was.  Their study was collecting qualitative information about how people access information.  In the context of the demographic information, they weren’t seeking to know how a person’s sex/gender relates to the condition itself.  But, I wonder aloud, it seemed the purpose of the study was to understand how people seek information, which could arguably be influenced by one’s culture, behaviour, socialization, and experience of how the world treats them.  In that way, you would want to focus less on a person’s physiology and instead you might discover interesting differences in how a person seeks information based on their life-experiences.

The applicant noted that they started the phone call intending to drop the question from the survey, and through my line of questions and probes, was convinced to keep the question and modify it to be more inclusive.

I am not telling this story as a normative push on how we should conduct inquiry (though by reading through the lines, you should get a sense of how I feel about the topic).  Instead, I share this story as an example of why posing good questions is important to remove ambiguity and clarify thought.  One of the goals of our ethics board when we review applications is to make implied premises explicit so that we can be sure of what we take as a given when we set out to study a research question.  We often default to accepted practice and proceed with common tools, but sometimes we don’t think carefully through the implications of what using those tools means.  By leveraging my outsider status, I have an opportunity to get the applicants to explain concepts and lines of reason without assuming I share the same understanding of the material that they do.  This helps to spot those areas where the project is weakened by unsupported claims and assumptions.

Stay Awesome,

Ryan

Beware the Salesman

Podcast ads.

Hacks and routines.

Blogs that promote and sponsored content.

Look to the incentives and see if they align with your own.

What’s in their interest might not be in mine.

This might change over time.  Sources that don’t sell might eventually sell.  There is a future where I might try to sell you something or join my mailing list.

Beware the one who sells you solutions for problems they don’t have.

Beware the sponsored content coming from authorities you like.

Beware the salesman who makes universal the particular.  The one who puts everyone into a clearly defined box.  The one who makes money on your problems.  The one who charges to join their community.

I’m not saying these are all inherently bad things; merely that they merit many second thoughts.

Secret shortcuts don’t exist.  If they were valuable, they wouldn’t be secret and they wouldn’t be a shortcut – they would be the norm.

Everyone has to make a living.  Everyone has something to sell.  But not everyone has your best interest in mind.

Caveat emptor.

Stay Awesome,

Ryan

Memorization and my Campus Response Experience

In January of 2008, I was walking through my university campus’s student centre and passed by a table for the UW Campus Response Team, whom were recruiting volunteers for the new semester.  I doubled back, chatted with the team members, and signed-up to participate in their interview process.  I had taken first aid courses periodically during my cub scout and army cadet days, plus I had ran some basic first aid courses while abroad, so it felt like a good fit.

In retrospect, my “experience” was quite paltry, but I had shown the team managers that I had enough of the “right stuff” that they invited me to join the team and participate in the weekend training course they put on for new recruits.  It’s an intense crash course in first aid skills that were well beyond my experiences and the training spanned several hours Friday night and all days Saturday and Sunday, before you perform your final scenario test to qualify as a secondary responder.

The material covered was largely derived from emergency first responder courses, along with some material covered for pre-hospital trauma professions (e.g. fire fighters and paramedics).  The training was designed to create heuristics in the responder’s mind to quickly flow through critical details while gathering as much information as possible and start treatment momentum.  The last thing you want is for a responder to have to intentionally think through what steps they should follow, because it shunts cognitive capacity away from situational awareness and into operational procedures.

In an effort to automate one’s thinking, you end up doing a lot of mock scenarios and skill drills.  As a responder, you end up creating a script in your mind to follow.  The script is based on a common set of things to attend to, which you follow according to handy mnemonics and other memory aids.

Despite the mnemonics functioning to provide mental triggers for actions, you still need to learn the process to go along with the mnemonics, and from the start of training weekend, you only have precious few hours after training concludes for the day to encode the information out of your working memory and into longer term storage.

I needed a way to quickly drill myself and aid in recall.  The system I settled on was to get some window writable markers and write out my mnemonic devices on the bathroom mirror.  Every time I used or walked passed the washroom, I would attempt to fill in as many of the mnemonics as I could remember, and note where I made mistakes.  Through constant repetition, I was able to turn:

E
M
C
A
P
I
E

A
V
P
U

P
E
A
R
L

A
B
C
D

S
A
M
P
L
E

O
P
Q
R
S
T

Into

Environment check
Mechanism of injury?
Count the casualties
Allied agencies?
Personal protection
Introduce yourself
Events leading?

Alert
Verbal
Pain
Unresponsive

Pupils are
Equal
And
Reactive to
Light

Airway
Breathing
Circulation
Deadly bleeds

Signs and Symptoms
Allergies
Medications
Past medical history
Last meal/beverage intake
Events leading

Onset
Provocation
Quality
Radiation
Severity
Time

It was a quick and dirty way to give myself quick feedback on these concepts that I could readily apply to my first aid treatment during training and eventually on shift.  Any time I lost momentum or felt nervous about the judges evaluating me, I would mentally go back to my bathroom mirror and fill in the blanks.  I haven’t been on the first aid team in almost a decade but these concepts easily come back to me, even during my crazy nights at the bar.  It’s a testament to the stickiness of the ideas and the effectiveness of the drills.

Stay Awesome,

Ryan

Knowing When To Quit

A recent article talking about knowing when to quit/retire from teaching had me reflecting on my own experiences with quitting.  Truthfully, I can’t recall many instances where I quit something.  Often, I will drag out experiences long after they have been useful, and instead of quitting as an active decision, I’m more likely to let things fall away through neglect.  Perhaps there isn’t a strong difference between the two since my history is littered with things that I eventually stopped doing.  I suppose in my mind, the difference comes down to whether I made a decision to stop – whether I took ownership over the act.

The strongest instance where I actively made a decision was when I stopped hosting at the local karaoke bar.  I was three or four years into my tenure as a host, and for the most part I enjoyed the experience.  I had a regular crew of friends who would come in and make the night interesting.  However, towards the end, I grew to resent patrons coming in who weren’t my friends.  I worked the slowest night, so if things were quiet, we’d shut down early.  But if patrons filtered in and kept purchasing stuff, we’d stay open.  Catering to the average customer felt like a chore, rather than chumming with friends with our own song preferences and inside jokes.

I started to dislike going into work, and even to this day I don’t sing much like I did while I was a host.  I’ll grab the mic from time to time, but I don’t go out to enjoy karaoke anymore.  I still work security at the bar, but I stopped hosting all together.

I made the decision to stop hosting because a small part of me knew it was time to move on.  I learned what I could from the experience, cherished the memories it gave me, but I recognized that I no longer wanted to spend time doing it.  I think that’s the critical part in the art of quitting.  It’s not about actually quitting or the how.  Instead, it’s about recognizing when the time has come and why.

Sometimes we have to slog it out in things we hate.  We don’t quit those things because we assign value to the activity (or someone else has assigned value and we are dragged along for the ride).  But quitting is more than stopping a thing you don’t like.  It’s about recognizing when the thing is no longer of value to you; that it won’t take you where you need it to go.  It is the recognition that your time is better suited elsewhere.  The art of quitting ultimately comes down to taking an active role in how you choose to spend your time.

Stay Awesome,

Ryan

Lessons from JMS

At writing, I’m about 5-hours away from finishing J. Michael Straczynski’s memoir Becoming Superman: My Journey From Poverty to Hollywood.  His many professional credits include writing episodes for The Real Ghostbusters and He-Man, writing the screenplay for Marvel’s Thor, a hugely successful run in comics, and creating Babylon 5.  It’s an incredible story of crime, poverty, all forms of abuse, as well as triumph and perseverance.  The narrative is gripping and it’s difficult to put down.  I’ve only been listening for a few days now and I’ve ripped through 11-hours.  Even if he did embellish on the details to make his story more sympathetic (which I sincerely doubt he did), it’s a masterclass in storytelling.

I enjoy reading memoirs and biographies because it gives me a chance to glean insights from their stories.  It may be a bit premature to write this since I haven’t finished the book, but there is so much to get from his story that I felt compelled to dash this off.

In no particular order:

On antecedents

JMS came from a broken home, where abuse, neglect, and punishment was the norm.  He recognized early that he had two options – become like his abusers, or break the cycle by becoming the opposite of what his abusers embodied.  In that way, he gravitated towards positive role models both fantastical, like Superman, and real life, like his surrogate father-figure Vincent.  JMS refused to allow his past to dictate his future, and he believed he should own his circumstances, rather than use it as an excuse.

On writing

Once he realized he was meant to be a writer, JMS devoted himself to his craft.  He found every excuse and opportunity to write.  He learned to fill voids at the newspaper, where other journalists let deadlines slip them by.  No area was beneath him to write, and no domain was too foreign for him to jump in and attempt.  He cobbled together an eclectic background that spanned multiple genres and styles, all in an attempt to hone his craft.  The best advice he attributes is when a famous author told him on a cold call to “stop writing shit.  If it wasn’t shit, people would buy it.”  JMS saw writing through college as his way of purging the shit writing from his system so that he could let his stories flow from him, and he wouldn’t let anyone stop him from telling his stories.

On principles

JMS quit a lot of shows based on principles.  When network executives and censors wanted to change the essence of his stories, he walked away.  When friends and mentors, whom took chances on him early in his career, were fired from projects, he quit in solidarity.  When he stumbled into work that he initially dismissed as beneath him, he swallowed his pride and took jobs he knew he could learn from.  He often sacrificed his career and work to stand up for what he believed in, and didn’t complain about the consequences.

On children’s taste

While JMS fought against problematic characterizations on The Real Ghostbusters (he said”motherizing” Janine was regressive and sexist, and making Winston the driver was racist) one interesting insight he provided was how children viewed the show.  A change recommended by consultants and the network was to create a group of junior Ghostbusters for child viewers to identify with.  JMS pushed back, saying that no child wants to be Robin, but instead wanted to grow up to be Batman.  The Ghostbusters provided children with something to aspire towards; a sense of direction.  To see children on the screen acting like Ghostbusters, child viewers wouldn’t identify with them because they represented something they wanted but were not and couldn’t be.  In this, he’s making a connection that representation and aspiration are important to viewers.  He similarly walked away from She-Ra for the network refusing to allow She-Ra to be a warrior.  To him, it was important to give children something they could see themselves becoming one day.

On backdoors

There are many things JMS wrote on that he did that was unethical and illegal.  When he couldn’t afford to buy books as a child, he stole them, carefully read them without damaging the spine, then would sneak the books back to return them.  When he wanted to take classes that weren’t open to him but he desperately wanted to further his abilities as a writer, he broke into the faculty office, stole permission slips and altered the roster to put him into the courses.  When he needed to move on from grad school, he knew another year would sacrifice a lot of ground in his career, but he needed to appease his abusive father, so he broke into the Registrar’s office to make it appear he was graduating.  (As of reading in the book, he has yet to try and leverage the fake degree in his career, but merely needed to exit from the program without provoking his father or endangering his siblings).  Because of his upbringing, he learned how to see opportunities to open doors.  This, combined with his work ethic, means that he worked hard to leverage past experiences to create future value.  While this is hardly good career advice, it’s worth staying mindful of – that not all career advances come by entering through the front door.

Throughout the book, JMS is careful to note that he’s been more lucky than good.  He recognizes that while hard work is vital to his story, there are many times where he was lucky enough to be in the right place at the right time.  His ability to leverage his experience allowed him to go from writing one-act plays, to short stories, to journalism, to television screen-writing, to eventually movies and comics.  He notes many times in his story that he was mere steps away from making bad decisions, or letting his faults get the best of him.  In many precarious places, he could have gone down the wrong path, any he nearly died several times.  Rather than letting luck go to his head, he refused to become complacent and always did the work.  Above all else, his work ethic is probably the most important lesson I drew from his story.

Stay Awesome,

Ryan

Short Term Content Bias

I admit that the kinds of videos I watch on YouTube and the kinds of books I read tend to gravitate towards a certain kind of self-help genre, where some productivity or business person is giving me a set of systems and protocols to follow to help me “hack” my way to a more fulfilling work and life.  These kinds of content are usually well-made but suffer from a shallowness of insight.  It’s not that the authors are deliberately trying to dupe me (at least I hope not!) but the unfortunate reality is that the incentive structures that lead to engagement online and sale of products means that in order to publish, you need to publish fast and loose.

Books that get published are usually a small essay that gets padded out with animated bibliography research or a year-long experiment where the author tests out the ideas in the short-term and reports back on what they experienced and learned about themselves.  There might be small kernels of originality and insight in there, but the rest of the book is a repackaging and restatement of the research and writing of others.  It is without irony that I wager that the same 20% of landmark examples appear at least once in 80% of the books out there.

YouTube videos run into some similar issues.  Often, I find that the videos are short think pieces and experiments that people run as a blog series or retrospective.  The editing is fast and smooth, and the experiments are reported on based on impressions from the first week, month, and sometimes quarter.

In both of these mediums, we see a presentation of the short-term result with little follow-up on the long term impacts.  On small occasions, a writer might follow-up on some of the ideas in a second book that is a direct result of the first, but by and large we don’t have insight into the impact the changes had over the long-term.

This bias towards short term content make sense.  Authors and content developers need to create products quickly in order to ensure a viable revenue stream, and once you write about your niche and experience, life moves too slowly for you to be able to keep up with that pace.  As a result, they would start to publish on things that are more nebulous and propped up by the work of others (hence, animated bibliography).

The best books with the deepest wisdom are often, as Taleb notes, ones that have been around for more than 50 years.  I’d add to that that books published as the culmination of one’s life work also fall into that category.

This is not to say that content coming out of the short-term process is worthless.  In my opinion, my life and satisfaction has improved in quality over the last 3 years of intentionally reading these books.  The problem is that after a while, very little surprises you and you start to see the same examples getting recycled.

Stay Awesome,

Ryan