Friday Round-up – May 1, 2020

Note – this is an experimental posting format. I’ve thought about increasing the number of posts I commit to per week, but I don’t want to add unnecessary work if I’m not willing to stick it out. Let’s be honest: sometimes it’s really hard to get a single post out each Monday that I’m satisfied with, so increasing my posting frequency just to for the sake of increasing my output is a terrible idea. I will run a short experiment to see how easy it is for me to get out a Friday Round-up for the next month. If the experiment goes well, I’ll consider making it a part of the regular rotation. You can find the first round-up post here from April 24th.

Have you ever noticed the tendency that when you’re thinking about a topic, you seem to notice it everywhere? I first became aware of its phenomenology back in my university days, where stuff that I was learning in my lectures seemingly popped up randomly in my non-class time. Turns out, there is a word for that feeling – the Baader-Meinhof phenomenon, also known as the frequency bias. It’s why you start to see your car’s model everywhere after buying one. I bring this up because today’s articles are all loosely connected with scientific literacy in the digital age (especially as it relates to COVID). The more I read about thoughts concerning how to understand research about the pandemic, the more content I noticed about the topic of scientific literacy in general. This might be the phenomenon/my bias at play, or maybe the algorithms that govern my feeds are really in tune with my concerns.

Here is my round-up list for the week ending on May 1st:

📖Article – What You Need to Know about Interpreting COVID-19 Research | The Toronto Star

My round-up for the week started with this short article that was open in one of my browser tabs since last week. There is a lot of information floating around in our respective feeds, and most of it can charitably be called inconclusive (and some of it is just bad or false). We’ve suddenly all become “experts” in epidemiology over the last month, and I want to remind myself that just because I think I’m smart, doesn’t mean I have the context or experience to understand what I’m reading. So, this article kicked off some light reflection on scientific and data literacy in our media landscape.

📖Article – Experts Demolish Studies Suggesting COVID-19 is No Worse Than Flu | Ars Technica

This next piece pairs nicely with our first link, and includes reporting and discussion of recent flair ups on Twitter criticizing recent studies. Absent of the pressure being applied by the pandemic, what this article describes is something that normally takes place within academic circles – experts putting out positions that are critiqued by their peers (sometimes respectfully, sometimes rudely). Because of the toll the pandemic is exacting on us, these disagreements are likely more heated as a result, which are taken to be more personally driven. I link this article not to cast doubt over the validity of the scientific and medical communities. Rather, I am linking to this article to highlight that our experts are having difficulty grappling with this issues, so it’s foolish to think us lay-people will fare any better in understanding the situation. Therefore, it’s incumbent on journalists to be extra-vigilant in how they report data, and to question the data they encounter.

📽Video – Claire Wardle: Why Do We Fall for Misinformation | NPR/TED

The Ars Technica piece raises a lot of complex things that we should be mindful of. There are questions such as:

  • Who should we count as authoritative sources of information?
  • How do we determine what an authoritative source of information should be?
  • What role does a platform like Twitter play in disseminating research beyond the scientific community?
  • How much legitimacy should we place on Twitter conversations vs. gated communities and publication arbiters?
  • How do we detangle policy decisions, economics, political motives, and egos?
  • How much editorial enforcement should we expect or demand from our news sources?

There are lots of really smart people who think about these things, and I’m lucky to study at their feet via social media and the internet. But even if we settle on answers to some of the above questions, we also have to engage with a fundamental truth about our human condition – we are really bad at sorting good information from bad when dealing at scale. Thankfully, there are people like Claire Wardle, and her organization FirstDraft that are working on this problem, because if we can’t fix the signal to noise ratio, having smart people fixing important problem won’t amount to much if we either don’t know about it, or can’t action on their findings. I was put onto Claire Wardle’s work through an email newsletter from the Centre for Humane Technology this week, where they highlighted a recent podcast episode with her (I haven’t had time to listen to it as of writing, but I have it queued up: Episode 14: Stranger Than Fiction).

📖 Essay – On Bullshit | Harry Frankfurt

All of this discussion about knowledge and our sources of it brought me back to grad school and a course I took on the philosophy of Harry Frankfurt, specifically his 1986 essay On Bullshit. Frankfurt, seemingly prescient of our times, distinguishes between liars and bullshitters. A liar knows a truth and seeks to hide the truth from the person they are trying to persuade. Bullshit as a speech act, on the other hand, only seeks to persuade, irrespective of truth. If you don’t want to read the essay linked above, here is the Wikipedia page.

I hope you find something of value in this week’s round-up and that you are keeping safe.

Stay Awesome,

Ryan

Quarantine Reflections – The Second Mile

person running on tracking field
Photo by Jakob Owens on Unsplash

Last week, I discussed how important exercise has become in helping to regulate my mood while I stay safe at home. I wanted to share a quick second observation I’ve noticed for exercising. When I first started my challenge for the year, I told myself that I just had to make small commitments to keep the progress going. I started the challenge very light – just 1 mile in the first week. It was easy to manage and commit to. Each week adds a mile, which is a doable amount: 2 miles in week 2, 3 miles in week 3, etc.

I am in week 17 now, and it’s forcing me to run consecutive days. While I’m not running distances that really necessitate me to need recovery days, there are inevitably days where I wake up and my body feels stiff and my joints feel like I’m full of sand. It’s a lot harder to tell myself that if I just commit to one mile, I can easily do the rest. That trick no longer works on me.

But I’ve realized something different that really helps me. I’ve noticed that no matter how I feel physically (assuming I’m not ill), if I can stick it out until the end of the second mile, I know I can do the run. There is something that happens between the first and second mile where the stiffness goes away. It’s likely the official warm-up period, but by mile-two I hit my stride, my breath falls into cadence, and I’m able to easily keep my target pace.

Understanding the magic of the second mile doesn’t make it psychologically easier to get on with the run (my mind still loves to procrastinate when I know I’m about to spend 45-minutes sweating), but it does let me know that physically I’m up to the task. The resolution sets in and I get to work.

Stay Awesome,

Ryan

Friday Round-up – April 24, 2020

Note – this is an experimental posting format. I’ve thought about increasing the number of posts I commit to per week, but I don’t want to add unnecessary work if I’m not willing to stick it out. Let’s be honest: sometimes it’s really hard to get a single post out each Monday that I’m satisfied with, so increasing my posting frequency just to for the sake of increasing my output is a terrible idea. I will run a short experiment to see how easy it is for me to get out a Friday Round-up for the next month. If the experiment goes well, I’ll consider making it a part of the regular rotation.

Many of the bloggers and thinkers I follow have some sort of curated list they share on a regular basis of the best pieces of content they came across in their weekly browsing. During this week, I came across a few thought provoking posts that I felt deserved to be shared.

Here is my round-up list for the week ending on April 24th:

📖 Blog – All models are wrong, some models are useful | Seth’s Blog

We should be reminded that maps are not the terrain, and that models are predictions (read: guesses), not certainty. We rely on models to help us understand the world, but we should remember that they have their limitations.

📖 Blog – COVID-19: What’s wrong with the models? – Peter Attia

Paired nicely with Seth Godin’s post above, Dr. Attia gives a good lay-primer on how a model is created, and what the limitations are when trying to model something like a virus when so little is known about it. The two takeaways I have from this piece are: we should be more willing to accept that good models gives us ranges, not fixed numbers (and we should be more comfortable with the ambiguity); and just because the worst case didn’t arrive, it doesn’t mean that the model was overblown – we need to find out more about why the model was off. It might be that the virus isn’t as dangerous as we initially thought, or it might be that physical distancing greatly impacted the viruses capacity to spread (it’s probably a little of both), but until we know which side maps to reality, we can’t be confident of what we should do next.

📽 Video – BEST Pomodoro Timer on YouTube | Ticking Sounds … – Virtual Crickets

This is actually something I’ve used for some time, but wanted to share. When I’m trying to focus, I have discovered that I can’t listen to music (even of the lo-fi variety) because I find the melodies too distracting. However, I’ve found it helpful for me to listen to regularly repeating noises, such as white noise and ticking metronome sounds. I’ve experimented with a few options, such as a 10-hour “cosmic white noise” video, but while working from home during the pandemic, I’ve settled on this Pomodoro video that I also have paired with a Pomodoro Chrome browser extension that plays white noise (the ticking gives me focus, the white noise blocks out ambient sounds in my room). Forcing myself to focus in 25-minute spurts keeps me on track while I move through my to do list.

Let me know if you find any of these interesting or useful. Also, feel free to share your best round-ups in the comments below.

Stay Awesome,

Ryan

Extra Post – 4 Year Milestone!

I normally post on Monday’s, but today is the 4 year anniversary of my first post on this site (tomorrow if the 4 year anniversary of my substantive first post, but let’s batch them into this post for funsies).

With everything that’s going on, I wanted to pause for a moment to commemorate my “Hello World” moment on this blog. Even though I still don’t have any concrete plans for this site, I’m still going strong by committing myself to consistently putting in the work. If I’ve learned anything in 4 years, it’s less about the business plan and more about putting in the work. In this case, it’s better to focus on quantity, rather than waiting for the quality to start.

Stay Awesome,

Ryan

Quarantine Reflections – Exercise

Photo by Risen Wang on Unsplash

Participating in physical distancing has given me some time to reflect. From the relative stillness of being home everyday, I have had a chance to think about my daily experiences without the distractions that comes from what used to be my normal routine. I’d like to share some of these reflections as they clarify in my mind under the banner of Quarentine Reflections.

First, I’ve had a personal realization recently concerning exercise. I have attempted to cultivate the habit of exercising for some time, going back several years on this blog alone. While I haven’t written about it yet for 2020, I started an exercise routine in January that I can happily report that I’ve maintained til the present. I’ll write about the routine in the future, but for now I’m sticking to the schedule and putting in my time.

Normally when I exercise, it’s something I try to fit into my busy days. Often it takes the form of a run in the morning before work: I try to squeeze in a run on our elliptical at home, then rush to shower and get to work without being too late. While at work, I remain somewhat distracted from paying attention to my body’s cues, so I don’t think too much about how I feel the rest of the day aside from the feeling of accomplishment that comes from knocking off a run early in your day.

But with physical distancing in effect, things are quieter. I am still working, but from at home. There is no context switching that happens in my mind that shifts gears from home to work. There are no coworkers to socialize with when I don’t feel like being productive. The lack of shift in my brain has create a scenario where I am able to sit with my thoughts for longer periods of time.

In these stretches of time, I’ve noticed that regular exercising noticably boosts my mood for the rest of the day. This isn’t a unique experience; it’s often touted as a benefit of exercising (once you get over the newbie hump of bodily pain). But while working in the office, I rarely noticed the affective change that exercise gave me. Usually, it was a cognitive change that came from mentally congratulating myself for exercising (or the social benefits that came from being that guy in the office who tells people that he got in a workout that morning – sadly, I am also that kind of person…).

I didn’t notice this benefit at first. When we first started working from home, I kept up my regular runs during the week as a way of imposing some sort of routine on my now drifting life. But last week I noticed a few days early in the week where I felt really crummy. I have a few forms of reflection that I engage with at the moment – I rate my mood in my notebook out of 10, I vlog a personal diary during the week, and I’ve taken up a form of morning pages to capture my internal monologue. In all three areas, I had noticed that I was feeling down and unmotivated. The day after I first logged the down mood, I exercised, and later that afternoon I did my check-in and noticed that my mood was a lot higher compared to the previous day. Nothing had materially changed about my day – I didn’t sleep more, my diet was consistent, and I hadn’t been any more productive in my tasks at work. The only big change over the previous day is that I had gotten a few miles in on the elliptical.

In looking back over the last month, I think I have spotted a trend. For days where I had the lowest mood, I did not exercise in the morning. On days where I exercised, I had higher mood levels. This isn’t to say that exercise is the only thing that correlates with an increase in my mood – there are plenty of days (e.g. weekends) where I feel fine but don’t exercise. However, it would seem reasonable to assert that there is a close connection with exercising and an overall improvement in my mood.

I plan to continue to follow my exercise routine, and I hope to set aside time in the near future to document it here or in a vlog format. But for now, it appears that I’ve found a more intrinsic reason to continue to exercise beyond vanity. Not only does exercise help me look better, but I feel better when I commit to the schedule.

Stay Awesome,

Ryan

What I’ve Been Reading (As of April 12th, 2020)

person holding opened book
Photo by João Silas on Unsplash

It’s been a while since I’ve written one of these posts (last one was October 2018!). Since many people find themselves with some extra reading time, here is what I’m working through while staying safe at home.

Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat by Samin Nosrat

With some extra time at home and wanting to ensure I’m using my perishable foods wisely to cut down on waste, I decided to finally crack this book that I bought for myself at Christmas. When it originally arrived, I was slightly disappointed to see it was less of a recipe book and more of a primer on cooking (which I stuffily thought I had already a good grasp on). However, I recently checked out Nosrat’s latest podcast miniseries, which endeared me to her instantly (she’s so bubbly and full of passion, it was infectious!). Then I checked out the Netflix series that was created based on this book. Then I set to work cooking a minestrone soup from scratch (taking some cues from Jamie Oliver’s YouTube channel) and channeled Nosrat’s thoughts on what makes food taste good. The soup was a hit here at home, and it’s given me the confidence to keep practicing.

Gulliver’s Travels by Jonathan Swift

Some friends and I started a book club just before the government started shutting things down in the province. Our first book was Jim Mattis’ military memoir, and I chose Gulliver’s Travels as our second read. I had first encountered the story as a child, then again in first year of undergrad when I had to read excerpts for a class. However I don’t think I’ve read the unabridged book in its entirety, so I’m trying to approach this read fresh and wrap it up before we meet later this week.

Gates of Fire by Steven Pressfield

I’ve been experimenting with reading fiction in bed before I go to sleep. I found the practice worked well reading The Alchemist, so I decided to continue the practice by grabbing a copy of Pressfield’s Gates of Fire, a fictional telling of the Battle of Thermopylae. I chose this book because I learned in Mattis’s memoir that it’s one of the books on the US Marine Corps mandatory reading list for all enlisted soldiers, and it sounded interesting.

Every Tool’s a Hammer by Adam Savage

I mentioned while reflecting on my 2019 reading list that I’m gravitating more towards biographies and memoirs as of late, and when I was reminded that Savage released a book recently, I grabbed it on audiobook to listen to. I love Savage’s worldview when it comes to making, and I would jump at an opportunity to spend a day with him. I’ll have to settle for this book instead.

Coders by Clive Thompson

I was flirting with learning coding a little while back (also seems like a good skill to pick up now), so I had ordered this one since it had some good reviews. I didn’t buy it to learn coding itself, but because it was presented as a good primer for learning about the world/community of coding. It provides a quick overview of the history of coding and dives into a bit of the lives and psychology of people who devote themselves to coding. I also was interested by the section at the end where the author reflects on learning to code during the writing of the book. I’m only around 100 pages in, so I still have a bit more to go.

No Harm in Asking

question mark neon signage
Photo by Emily Morter on Unsplash

I’d like to break my streak talking about the pandemic and instead share something that lifted my spirits a bit this weekend.

One of the lessons I try to impart on my students is that there is often no harm in asking or making requests from others. I’d much rather my students take accountability ahead of time to ask for things like extensions, rather than to come to me after the deadline has passed and ask for accommodation. This is not to say I never grant extensions after a deadline because I know that we all can be absent-minded from time to time.

Case in point – this weekend, I allowed a coupon promotion to lapse from Audible. I had received a coupon code from Audible based on some purchases I had made back in February. The deadline to use the coupon was April 4th, and I kept intending to sign-on from my computer to browse options (I find the app’s interface hard for surfing titles). And yet, at around 1am on April 5th, I realized I had missed out.

The coupon’s value was $5-off any regular purchase, so I wouldn’t be out much if the coupon didn’t work. Nevertheless, I took a leaf from my own book and emailed customer service to ask if I could have an extension on the offer. At best, they would abide by their deadline and tell me “no,” which wasn’t a huge loss to me since I had already “lost” the value of the coupon after the deadline. But, there was no downside to asking and it was entirely upside.

Thankfully, customer service extended the deadline on my coupon, no questions asked. I was pleasantly surprised by the outcome and was glad to follow my own advice.

Hope you are keeping safe!

Stay Awesome,

Ryan