Why Is Reading So Hard Right Now?

Photo by João Silas on Unsplash

Right as the pandemic was shutting down work for us, some friends and I decided to start a book club. Last week, we met for our second session to discuss Gulliver’s Travels. I had chosen the book, largely because I was intending to read the book for myself and it seemed like a convenient way to pull double duty.

The book club’s initial pitch was largely for us to use audiobooks to read through non-fiction books since it was mostly what the three of us were doing in our personal lives. Yet I chose a fictional story because, as I mentioned in my overview of what I read in 2019, I feel largely burnt out of self-help, productivity, and business books and I want to broaden my reading a bit.

Not only did I choose a work of fiction, but I decided that since I owned a copy of the book I would try and read my physical copy. It seemed relatively straightforward, and I thought I would make my way through the book at a decent pace.

However, when we met last week to discuss the book, I had to admit in shame that I hadn’t finished the book. I barely made it out of the first of the four voyages Gulliver undertakes.

Truthfully, I’m finding reading (in all forms) difficult at the moment. I found it challenging to read the book since it was sometimes inconvenient to try and read it at night in bed, so I borrowed an ebook copy from the library to read on my phone or tablet. I didn’t elect to purchase an audio copy (but if my own audiobooks are any indication, I wouldn’t be making much progress there either).

So, why is it so hard to read right now? Three reasons have occured to me.

First, unlike when I used to travel to work, I don’t have 40-60 minutes each day where I’m stuck in my car. The lack of captive audiences is considered the biggest reason why podcast authors are noting a dip in listening time since the middle of March. Unlike a few months ago, it’s difficult to plow through a book when I’ve got nothing else going on during a commute.

Second, you’d think being at home all day means I would have plenty of opportunities to listen to podcasts and audiobook guilt-free. Turns out, this isn’t true for me. I feel guilty listening to books or podcasts during “working hours.” And aside from time when I’m running on the elliptical or out doing yard work, I feel guilty listening to my stuff when in shared spaces with others in the house.

But in this case, I had elected not to listen to the story but to read it. That posed a challenge because unlike time when I’m exercising, doing chores, or driving, you can’t multitask while reading. Instead, I have to carve out dedicated time away from my family, when there are no pressing chores, and when I’m not supposed to be working. I’m finding it challenging to eke out those quiet moments that I can set aside just for reading.

Finally, unlike when I was working from the college, my time is much more fluid now. Without context or code switching, the lack of liminality means I don’t mentally put myself in a head-space to read like I did a few months ago. But further than that, I find that I don’t hold fast to “normal working hours,” and instead I’ve noticed myself shifting later into the evening with my work. As work creeps later in the evening, I lose the demarcation of time, especially discretionary time for reading.

I don’t think this is a lost cause. I may be finding it challenging to read while working from home, but it’s merely something to be mindful of, and I have to be more intentional with my time if I want to give myself opportunities to read. The pandemic has forced us all to change how we live our lives, and it stands to reason that the habits I used before to find reading time during the day are not appropriate to expect to carry forward. Instead, if I want to succeed, I have to find a way to create new habits from our new circumstances.

Stay Awesome,

Ryan

Second Order Brother’s Keeper

person behind mesh fence
Photo by Mitch Lensink on Unsplash

I apologize for the late post this week. I had a few ideas kicking around in my head, but given the updates, I felt this ramble-post was a better attempt to capture some of the zeitgeist, rather than my usual attempt to feign some sort of authority on whatever it is I’m trying to accomplish on this site. Maybe I’ll rant another time about the scummy people who are profiteering through the COVID-19 scare.

Most of the information circulating concerns how an individual can help protect themselves from contracting the virus. Obviously this information is spread around not to protect any one individual, but because it’s the government’s attempt to flatten the curve and ease the economic and public health downsides to the current behaviours of people, from clogging up emergency rooms with sniffles to wholesale runs on items in the grocery store.

I’m heartened by some of the genuinely positive messages being shared around, from people finding clever ways to spend time with loved ones in lockdown, to our Canadian Prime Minister ending his recent public address with a message of watching out for each other, to care for each other, and reinforce this as a Canadian value.

I’m not entirely sure what I should write about this week. It’s pretty hard to form a coherent thought when the majority of my bandwidth is occupied with keeping up with the shifting narrative around what’s going on. Thanks to technology, information (or misinformation) spreads quickly, and we are seeing multiple updates per day as a result. At my place of employment, they took the unprecedented step of shutting down face-to-face curriculum delivery. Unlike the faculty strike from Fall 2017, the College is working to keep the educational process running. While it may be that in the School of Engineering it can be impossible to replicate lab or shop time, the majority of faculty are working hard to translate their delivery to an online format.

So far, our employer has done a good job, in my opinion, with taking prudent steps to a.) keep people meaningfully occupied in their work so that no one has to lose their salary, and b.) do its part to stop the spread of the virus. I’m not saying that things couldn’t be better, but given the circumstances they’ve done a good job.

I’ve been thinking about the purpose of social isolation as a pandemic response. As I said above, the point is less about protecting oneself and is instead about protecting hospitals from being overwhelmed. If we’ve learned anything from countries around the world that are going through the worst right now, it’s that it becomes impossible to protect our vulnerable when there is a shortage of hospital beds. Hospitals are having to triage patients to focus on saving those who can be saved, who have the highest chances of recovering.

It is because of this that I’ve been thinking about the concept of a “brother’s keeper.” It’s not necessarily enough that governments or citizens remain mindful about the well-being of our vulnerable populations. Oftentimes while we are focusing on immediate dangers before us, we tend to not anticipate higher-order consequences of our policies or decisions.

Closing schools is great in theory – children are rabid spreaders of contagions, whether they are actually symptomatic or not, which means they infect their parents (some of whom are front line medical workers). But when we close schools, you have second order consequences that parents struggle with childcare, or children living in poverty lose access to food that is supplied at school.

When you close borders, you stop carriers of the virus from entry. But it also means that our international students (who are in some cases being vacated from post-secondary residences as school’s work to limit social contact among students) have no where to go. Airports are limiting international travel and the cost of purchasing tickets are skyrocketing. By them being in a foreign country, these students are vulnerable and caught in difficult positions on how to keep themselves safe.

By shutting down public spaces, you are helping to keep people from accidentally infecting each other. But when you close down businesses such as restaurants, you cut off people from the economic means they need to support themselves. Sure, the government is offering assistance to persons and businesses alike, but that will provide little comfort to people who can neither travel for groceries, nor pay for the supplies they need.

And let’s not forget what panic purchasing is doing to our supply chain – leaving store shelves cleared out of supplies, which means folks like the elderly are left without.

The hardest part I’m finding in all of this is the feeling of being powerless. You can’t control other people, and so you are forced to anticipate their moves to ensure you won’t be left without. But it’s this kind of thinking that leads to more drastic measures being taken. The virus also makes you feel powerless because you feel like an invisible stalker is coming for you – you don’t know who will be the final vector that leads to you. And you aren’t totally sure if our ritualistic hand-washing and hand-sanitizing is actually keeping us safe, or merely providing comfort. You can’t predict the future, and you can’t be sure you’re doing everything you can; you always feel like there is more you could be doing.

This reminds me of the story of the tinfoil house and pink dragons. A person covers their house in tinfoil, and when asked about it they say it keeps the pink dragons away. When asked if it works, the person shrugs and says “I don’t know, but I haven’t been attacked yet.” Of course, asking “if it works” is the wrong question here because there are no pink dragons. But as Taleb tells us in his book about Black Swans, there are always those highly unprobable events with massive downsides that we don’t see coming. Public policy and budgets are created to deal with clear and present dangers, and those policies and budgets are eroded when it’s felt that the money is not being allocated optimally. Therefore, you run into problems where you are never sure if the resources you spend to prevent something actually works – it’s really hard to prove causality in something that never happens.

Instead, we often are left to scramble to try and get ahead of trouble when we are already flat-footed, which means that our vision narrows as we focus on the fires in front of us that needs to be put out. Fighting fires is great (even heroic at times), but often the measures we take to deal with crisis have unanticipated second-order consequences that become difficult to deal with.

I’m not sure how to deal with this, but it makes me wonder about being my brother’s keeper, and what I can do to protect them.

Stay Awesome,

Ryan

Appealing to my Smarmy Brain

selective focus photography of spiderweb
Photo by Nicolas Picard on Unsplash

From time to time, I catch myself thinking some pretty stupid stuff for entirely dumb reasons. A piece of information finds a way to bypass any critical thinking faculties I proudly think I possess and worms its way into my belief web. Almost like a virus, which is a great segue.

A perfect example of this happened last week in relation to the COVID-19 news, and I thought it important to share here, both as an exercise in humility to remind myself that I should not think myself above falling for false information, and as my contribution to correcting misinformation floating around the web.

Through a friend’s Stories on Instagram, I saw the following screencap from Twitter:

My immediate thought was to nod my head in approval and take some smug satisfaction that of course I’m smart enough to already know this is true.

Thankfully, some small part at the back of my brain immediately raised a red flag and called for a timeout to review the facts. I’m so glad that unconscious part was there.

It said to me “Hang on… is hand-sanitizer ‘anti-bacterial’?

I mean, yes, technically it is. But is it “anti-bacterial” in the same way that it is getting implied in this tweet? The way the information is framed, it treats the hand-sanitizer’s anti-bacterial properties as being exclusively what it was designed for, like antibiotics. For example, you can’t take antibiotics for the cold or flu, because those are not bacterial infections but viral infections.

Rather than leaving this belief untested, I jumped on ye ol’ Googles to find out more. I found a write-up in the National Center for Biotechnology Information discussing alcohol sanitizers.

According to the author on the topic of alcohol-based hand sanitizers (ABHS),

A study published in 2017 in the Journal of Infectious Diseases evaluated the virucidal activity of ABHS against re-emerging viral pathogens, such as Ebola virus, Zika virus (ZIKV), severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus (SARS-CoV), and Middle East respiratory syndrome coronavirus (MERS-CoV) and determined that they and other enveloped viruses could be efficiently inactivated by both WHO formulations I and II (ethanol-based and isopropanol-based respectively). This further supports the use of ABHS in healthcare systems and viral outbreak situations.

There are some special cases where ABHS are not effective against some kinds of non-enveloped viruses (e.g. norovirus), but for the purposes of what is happening around the world, ABHS are effective. It is also the case that the main precaution to protect yourself is to thoroughly wash your hands with soap and water, and follow other safety precautions as prescribed.

The tweet, while right about the need for us to wash our hands and not overly rely on hand-sanitizers, is factually wrong generally. Thanks to a mix of accurate information (bacteria =/= virus) and inaccurate information(“hand sanitizer is not anti-bacterial”), and a packaging that appeals to my “I’m smarter than you” personality, I nearly fell for its memetic misinformation.

There are a number of lessons I’ve taken from this experience:

  1. My network is not immune to false beliefs, so I must still guard against accepting information based on in-group status.
  2. Misinformation that closely resembles true facts will tap into my confirmation bias.
  3. I’m more likely to agree with statements that are coded with smarmy or condescending tonality because it carries greater transmission weight in online discourse.
  4. Appeals to authority (science) resonate with me – because this was coming from a scientist who is tired of misinformation (I, too, am tired of misinformation), I’m more likely to agree with something that sounds like something I believe.
  5. Just because someone says they are a scientist, doesn’t make the status true, nor does it mean what they are saying is automatically right.
  6. Even if the person is factually a scientist, if they are speaking outside of their primary domain, being a scientist does not confer special epistemological status.
  7. In the aftermath, the tweet was pulled and the person tried to correct the misinformation, but the incident highlights that the norms of Twitter (and social media more broadly) are entirely antithetical to nuance and contextual understanding.

It’s interesting how much information spread (memetics) resembles pathogen spreading. If the harmful thing attacking us is sufficiently designed to sidestep our defenses, whether that’s our body’s immune system or our critical thinking faculties, the invading thing can easily integrate within, establish itself within our web, and prepare to spread.

The one thing that really bums me out about this event is the inadvertent harm that comes to scientific authority. We as a society are caught in a period of intense distrust of the establishment that is coinciding with the largest explosion of information our species has ever seen. The result of this is not that good information is scarce, but rather the signal-to-noise ratio is so imbalanced that good information is getting swept away in the tide. If people grow distrustful of the sources of information that will help protect us, then forget worrying about gatekeepers that keep knowledge hidden; there will be no one left to listen.

Stay Awesome,

Ryan

My Fab Fit Friends

person wearing orange and gray Nike shoes walking on gray concrete stairs
Photo by Bruno Nascimento on Unsplash

This week, I want to pause to celebrate some of my friends who I find really inspiring. I don’t get a chance to see these folks much in person anymore as we’ve all moved on with our lives. They came into my life through various avenues – a childhood friend (C), high school (Sh), community work (K), and two I met through working at the bar (Sa and Y) – and yet thanks to technology and one of the few positive benefits of social media, I get to be a passive viewer as they live out their lives.

The concept of fitness is fraught with some terrible associations about what it means to be or look healthy. I don’t look to these friends because they embody some ideal of fitness, but for a more important reason. I admire them because they are consistent and dedicated, which is something I struggle with from time to time. Every day that I scroll through my feed, one or more of my friends are sharing the fitness part of their lives by showing up and putting in their time towards their goals.

“C”, for instance, is killer with her cardio and puts my runs to shame. “Sh” is in the gym almost every morning before I am conscious enough to roll out of bed. “K” has logged so many days of running on the trail, riding on her bike, and hours on the mat that she could stop all activity and I doubt I’d still catch up in my lifetime. “Y” is an absolute beast of a man and can deadlift two of me, but is one of the nicest guys I’ve had the privilege of working with. And “Sa,” who I’ve been fortunate to train with, is there, everyday, training his students in athletics and the martial arts.

These aren’t perfect people. Each of them has had their ups and downs, and has struggled in battle with their own personal demons. It’s not the “fitness” that makes me proud of their work, it’s because they inspire me to show up and not get discouraged.

To my friends – I see you. I see all of your hard work. I appreciate how honest you are. And I applaud that you all seem to do what you do for good, noble reasons. You aren’t vain and aren’t doing it for the attention. You are doing it for you, to live your best lives. To challenge yourself and to focus your energies.

Thank-you.

Stay(ing as) Awesome (as they are),

Ryan

Relationship Management in “The Death of Stalin”

Screenshot from “The Death of Stalin” (2017)
Steve Buscemi as Nikita Khrushchev (left) and Sylvestra Le Touzel as Nina Khrushchev (right)

I was watching the dark comedy “The Death of Stalin” the other day and noticed an interesting scene that imparted some wisdom about relationship management. Early in the movie, Nikita Khrushchev, played by Steve Buscemi, has returned home at the end of a long day with Joseph Stalin and other politicians. As he undresses for the evening, he is listing off a series of topics to his wife, who is in bed and taking notes in a book. As he lists off the topics, he comments on which topics landed well with Stalin, and which he should avoid in the future.

Setting aside the bleakness of needing to make notes on things that will keep you alive around a dictator, it was an unexpected example of good relationship management in action.

I’ve done stuff similar to this. At first, I thought it was a sleazy practice, but after overcoming those initial thoughts, I realized it’s an entirely effective way of keeping track of important details either early in a relationship (here, I mean relationship in an extended sense, not in a romantic sense), or for relationships with infrequent contact points.

If it’s worth maintaining a good relationship, then it’s beneficial to reflect on your interactions and take notes on things worth remembering. Whether you use a book as in the film, or making notes in your phone’s contact cards, it can be helpful for refreshing yourself when you interact with a person again. I’ve made notes on business hours, names of employees at a shop, the names of a person’s significant others, and even early in my relationship with my wife I would note ideas for the future.

Far from sleazy, it’s a useful way of paying attention and making others feel special because you’ve taken the time to learn and remember details about them. And, instead of relying on your memory, you can have the confidence that you’ll get the particulars right and avoid looking like a fool.

Stay Awesome,

Ryan

Openness to Learn

mirror photography of trees on hill
Photo by Steve Halama on Unsplash

Unrelated to the post below, but this is my 200th blog post! I hit post number 100 in March of 2018, which feels like forever at this point. Here’s to another 200 more!

***

On a long(ish) car ride with my mother-in-law over the holidays, we got chatting on the subject of learning from experience. She reminded me of something I’ve known for some time, yet keep forgetting: if you keep an open mind, you can learn something from everyone.

I don’t think this is a trite piece of advice, though often it comes from an experience we would otherwise hope to forget. In my case, I tend to forget this bit of wisdom as I have developed a bad habit of being somewhat dismissive or condescending. There really is no excuse for it – nothing in my experience explains why I’ve adopted this mindset. I just developed the attitude gradually over time.

But it’s good to be reminded that with the right mindset, every encounter you have with others can be an opportunity to learn something, whether that is a piece of knowledge that is exchanged, or if through your interaction with them you learn something about yourself. Rather than seeing things through the lens of whether the person adding or subtracting value (e.g. “this was a waste of my time”) we should look at it from a growth perspective – “what did I learn or discover about myself that I can carry forward and do things better in the future?” This also dovetails nicely with a vlog post I put up recently about finding your tools along the way.

By reframing things this way, you open yourself to serendipitous opportunities to grow and develop. Or, at the very least, you take yourself (and your time) a little less seriously.

Stay Awesome,

Ryan

The Value of Coziness

Our dog, Gus, sleeping in front of the (artificial) fire.

I learned a valuable lesson this Christmas about being intentional with how one goes about building their space. With all the decorations up – the tree, the lights, and arranging the room to nurture a sense of closeness and conversation – my wife and I were creating a feeling of a cozy home. As we packed up the decorations this past weekend to reflect the end of the holiday season, I felt a twinge of sadness. I will both miss the excitement that comes with the holiday break (yay time off work!), but also the feeling of coziness that comes from Christmas decorations. The green from the tree, the red from the decorations, and the warm yellow hue of the lights. More than time off, I am going to miss relaxing in the living room with the main lights off, basking in the glow of the tree and candles we had burning.

Surprising, candles played an important role of this. I first noticed it back in October during our honeymoon. We had a short stop in Germany to visit family, and it was customary for us to enjoy dinner together by candle light. It gave things an intimate, personal feeling, where time stood still as we enjoyed each other’s company.

I learned that there is a word to describe this feeling. I was listening to the Art of Manliness podcast where they discussed the Danish concept of hygge, which can be translated to represent something like the art of getting cozy. It encompasses a number of sensory feelings you get, such as when you come in after being out in the snow, and you warm up in fresh clothes and a hot beverage. Light, smells, decorations, comfort, and warmth all help one feel cozy, which is attributed in part to explain how the Danes endure long, harsh winters.

This is something I want to carry forward throughout the year. Until now, I’ve largely viewed where I live from a utilitarian perspective – it’s a place to store my stuff. However, now that my basic needs are met, I feel a call to build my space into something that brings me happiness for itself and what it represents, instead of for what it can give or do for me. I want to pay closer attention to all the flourishes that make a house into a home, such as decorations and having things in their place. It’s not just orderliness or tidiness, but instead giving us a place that makes us happy regardless of the harshness beyond our door.

Stay Awesome,

Ryan