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

The Arts of Learning & Teaching

I’ve been in the apprenticeship phase of teaching for the last year, so I’ve largely been gaining experience in how information is conveyed and how to give feedback to students.  While I have given some consideration to course design and what kinds of courses I’d be interested in teaching, my primary focus has been on ensuring the students receive good content and (more importantly) good feedback on performance. Good performance management involves timely and specific feedback to either reinforce good behavioural outcomes, or quickly identifying and redirecting bad performance outcomes. It’s a challenge to ensure that feedback is both timely and useful, but it’s an important step of the process. 

I’m currently working my way through the Art of Learning by Josh Waitzkin, and I’ve started thinking about the process of learning.  While learning and teaching are separate domains, they are interconnected since they share similar goals.  However, being able to translate learning (whether being taught by a teacher or through self-teaching) into teaching to others is something that I have a lot of gaps in my knowledge about.

The first time I taught in-class in the college setting, I quickly became aware that my experiences with formal education (the university style lecture) was not a good mode of delivery to copy. While I am comfortable in the lecture setting, I saw that my students did not excel in that environment. I wish I could say that I had fixed my delivery before the end of the semester, but the reality is that I didn’t fully appreciate the situation until after the course was over and I reflected on the term. An environment where I stood at the front and spoke at length for two-hours was not one which the students could effectively absorb the material.

The problem I found is that how I think and absorb content is different from my students. Rather than teaching them to my style, I need to be more mindful of their talents and experiences. Waitzkin discusses this in his book, where he contrasts two kinds of teachers he’s had. One is the kind that teaches his own strengths and relies on rote memorization of strategies and techniques. In chess, this teacher has you studying opening moves to take early advantage of the board.  The other kind of teacher allows the student to play to their inner style, and teaches by building up concepts atomistically. In chess, this kind of teacher strip the board of all the pieces and focuses on the relationships between pieces at the end of the game. By showing how individual pieces play off each other, the student becomes comfortable across the game and learns not only how pieces fit together, but how to set yourself up for control at the end of the game.

I think my teaching style should embrace this second kind of teacher. Instead of dictating knowledge, I should focus on breaking the knowledge down and building up understanding in ways that make sense to the student. I can’t assume my students will have the prerequisite knowledge to compile the facts together on their own. It’s also the case that if I can’t break ideas down simply, the students might not get it, nor may I truly know what I’m talking about.  Afterall, Einstein and Feynman believed that if you couldn’t explain something simply, you probably don’t understand it very well yourself.

Stay awesome, 

Ryan

The Motivation of Failure

Last week, I was passed over on a job opportunity for a more qualified candidate.  Such is life, and I don’t bear any ill-thoughts for the results of the job search.  I’m disappointed, but not soured by the experience.  It’s an opportunity to learn and grow, and I find that more important to focus on than to give in to a fixed mindset of self-pity.

After the feelings of sadness ebbed, I found myself experiencing a different feeling – motivation.  This has happened a few times in my life, and it was strange to be reaquainted with it.  There have been a few critical moments in my life where I failed at something important, and that failure created a fire within that motivated me.

It happened when I climbed Mount Kenya in 2007 after I failed my summit in the summer of 2003 of a mountain in Alberta whose name I’ve forgotten.

It happened when I joined the Campus Response Team and became a Coordinator after I failed twice to be a residence don.

And it happened again last week when I wasn’t selected for the job.  The self-critical sadness was overtaken by a motivation to go to the gym.

As I’ve written previously, It’s been a while since I’ve visited the gym.  According to my fitness journal, the last time I was in the gym was around Hallowe’en.  I’ve been rowing this last month a few times a week in the mornings, but I haven’t lifted iron in around five months.

Initially, I stopped going to the gym after my routine was disrupted by travelling to Scotland.  Then I didn’t go out of laziness, and then I didn’t go because I didn’t feel like I could justify going to the gym when I was supposed to be marking assignments and prepping my lectures.  By the time December rolled around I had regained my weight, but I also proposed to my fiancee, and started the planning process for moving out of my apartment.  Along the way, I was tired from a lack of sleep and dissatisfied with what I saw in the mirror.  Yet, it was never enough to overcome my inertia.

Failing to get the job was the final push I needed to hit the gym.  Maybe I needed a physical outlet to vent some frustration.  Maybe it was a form of punishment.  I’d like to think it was something more constructive – I accepted that I failed but I also saw that I could do better next time.  It is within my power to learn from the experience and grow.  The failures seemed to stack until it hit a critical mass; a line was crossed that set off the warning bells that I was heading in a direction I didn’t want to go.

It was time to make the first step and correct my course.

 

I vlog occasionally for my buddy’s YouTube channel, Artpress, and posted this immediately after I got out of the gym.

So, I hit the gym and pumped some iron.  I was nervous to go back as a beginner again, and overcoming inertia was incredibly uncomfortable, but I did it.

Now the trick is to keep it up.  That’s, perhaps, the greater challenge I face.

 

Stay Awesome,

Ryan

Keep Your (First Aid) Skills Sharp

I wrote my masters thesis in 2012 on the relationship of knowledge, first aid, and the moral requirements of rescue.  The thesis argued that 1.) if you have special knowledge or training (first aid), you are morally required to render aid, even if there is no pre-existing legal requirement; and 2.) everyone should be trained in first aid.  While it is the case that I have to keep my first aid certificates current in order to work at the bar, I believe that it’s important to keep these skills fresh and sharp regardless of your occupation.

You never know when you’ll need to draw upon the skills, so frequent practice is important if you want to be effective.

There have been two instances while working at the bar where a pedestrian was struck by an automobile while I was working.  The first was New Years Eve a few years back, and the second was this past St. Paddy’s Day.  Thankfully, in both instances the person did not seem to be critically harmed in the incident, and both were conscious when they were loaded into the ambulance to be taken to the hospital for further attention.  I suspect that while both had some degree of recovery ahead of them, they thankfully won’t likely experience prolonged physical suffering.

In both instances, I was working on the door, so I was the first responder on scene to start treatment.  In the case of a traffic collision, the most important steps are to protect yourself, and start control of the scene.  I can confidently say that I’m terrible at the first thing, and half-decent on the second.  This is why consistent practice is important.

Protect yourself

I fail on this in two regards.  I have a tendency to run out into the street to reach the pedestrian quickly, meaning that I put myself at risk of getting hit by a car while on scene.  The other thing I’m bad at is getting to the pedestrian and starting treatment before I finish the scene survey (which includes putting on medical gloves to protect myself).  These are big no-no’s.  I expose myself to unnecessary risk while trying to be first to the injured, when realistically I should take an additional 15-30 seconds to stop, take in the scene, and put on my gloves.

Control the Scene

I am adequate at this because I tend to default to immobilizing C-Spine and trying to talk to the pedestrian if they are conscious.  I could do this better in a number of way, such as having a fellow staff member control the spine while I assess for additional injuries and control the scene (directing people around me, updating EMS, taking notes, etc.).  In regards to the staff at the bar, I am probably the most experienced first aider, so removing myself from the decision-making portion of the response has benefits and drawbacks.  I am the best person to perform first aid until advanced medical care arrives, but I also have enough experience to understand the dynamics of the scene.  At this point, it’s best that I trust my fellow staff to respond appropriately.

Responding to a traffic incident is chaotic, noisy and confusing.  On top of this, adrenaline courses through your body, making your hands shake and your limbs jittery.  Your brain feels like mush because your thoughts are lightning quick.  Time seems to slow down, and that ambulance that is 5-8 minutes away always takes an eternity.  You are hyper-focused on your patient, but aware that there is a light din of noise at your periphery.  It’s like a bubble is around you, and you are hoping like hell that you don’t mess anything up under the spotlight of the gawking mass of people encircling the scene.

This is all normal.  It (sadly) gets easier the more you do it.  You become calmer each time you respond; it’s happening to me already.

The lesson to take from this is to always keep your certs current, and find time to meaningfully practice your skills.  Someones life may depend on it.

Stay Awesome,

Ryan

 

 

 

 

 

Morning Productivity

I had an interesting morning last Tuesday.  As I’ve mentioned recently, I’ve been getting up early with my fiancee.  She typically leaves for work around 7am, and I don’t need to leave for work until around 9am, which leaves me with almost 2-hours to fill with how I wish.

I could go back to sleep and work on hitting my 7-hours of sleep per day goal (as of writing, I’m still failing on this goal, but only narrowly).

Or, I could try to use this quiet time to do some things distraction-free.

*If my fiancee is reading this, I mean distraction from technology and daily pressures.  Love you!*

I’ve been steadily adopting the latter option, and last Tuesday I had an amazingly productive morning.

First, I read for around 30 minutes.  I’ve been working my way through Tim Ferriss’s new book “Tools of Titans” which is hefty 700 pages.

Then, I opened up the Coursera app on my phone and did a few lecture videos on an introductory calculus course I’m working on, including practice problems on functions.  That was around 15-20 minutes.

Then I went upstairs to row for 10 minutes.  I started rowing two weeks ago in the mornings and I’ve already noticed an improvement – I’m less winded after the workout and my hips are not nearly so tight afterwards.  I’ll probably write a post about rowing soon, but for now it’s a small habit I’m trying to instill during the work week.

After rowing, I recorded two vlogs.  I recorded a short vlog for Art Press, my podcasting partner’s side-channel that features vlogs from artists who also exercise.  Then, I recorded my daily vlog that I upload privately to my channel as my version of a diary.  The two vlogs took me 5-7 minutes to record.

Then, I finally showered and got ready for work.

Reflection

I know that starting your day on the right foot is a key to success.  It sets you up with a positive mindset that you are accomplishing your goals and using you time well.  I certainly don’t want to do things for the sake of being busy.

I suppose I’m being a little arrogant by sharing this information within my social media feeds – I’ve been tweeting my progress on rowing, and sharing my small productivity wins as they happen.  Am I just looking for approval from others?  Does sharing this really keep me motivated and accountable?  Would I enjoy the process less if I didn’t share (boast) about it?  Am I looking to inspire others?  Lead by example?  Make them jealous?  I don’t have good answers for this.

I also don’t know whether I can keep this up regularly.  This system (I’m calling it a system for the sake of the argument) is fragilely held afloat because of my fiancee’s schedule.  If that were to change, I’m fairly confident I wouldn’t be able to wake up at 6am on my own – I have about of decade of anecdotal evidence to support this.  Also, will I be able to keep this pace?  Exercise, reading, studies, and vlogging takes up a lot of time; will I be able to guarantee that I’ll have enough time and mental focus everyday to continue this process.  Again, I don’t have an answer to this.

Time will tell.  After all, as of writing, I only have one data point to draw an inference from.  It’s important to not get too far ahead of myself and focus on hitting my targets tomorrow.

 

Stay Awesome,

Ryan

I Really Need to Sleep More

As the title says, I need more sleep.  It should surprise no one that sleep is good for you and you generally feel better getting more of it.

And yet, I’m terrible at it.  I’ve known for a while I’m terrible at managing sleep, but wearing a Fitbit over the last year really helped quantify how terrible I am.

screenshot_20170201-131358

Here is a typical week for me back in mid-October, 2016.  As you can see, I was averaging less than 6-hours a week, and I would occasionally punctuate my sleepiness with a crash that would waste half a day by recuperating.  By the end of the academic term, I was turning into a zombie.  Things were starting to slide, I felt irritable, my weight had gone up; basically everything bad about not getting sleep was happening.  The only thing that thankfully did not happen was falling asleep behind the wheel.

A small part of me wore my fatigue like a badge of honour.  It was the natural consequence of hustling and being busy.  The problem with this is it was impressing no one, it was wearing me out, and it was pissing people off who I was failing to deliver to on my promises.

Something needed to change.

… And the Clock Strikes Twelve – New Year, New Rules

While I’m not a big new year’s resolutions guy, I saw the start of January as a good time to try and reclaim my sleeping habits.  I had wound down a bunch of my obligations, finished teaching, and was going to spend less time commuting for a long-distance relationship (the fiancee was moving back to my city), so January made sense to focus on cultivating a better sleeping habit.

Step one in any major change is to identify and isolate the variables you want to modify, and track the delta from your baseline.  After all, you can’t change what you don’t measure.

I set 7-hours as a good goal to strive towards as it was more sleep than I was used to but not an unreasonable jump that would set me up for failure.  I decided to track each day’s worth of sleep as a binary yes-no check in my notebook.  The Fitbit would auto-track my sleep, and I would manually log my sleep to ensure I was consciously paying attention to sleep.  I modified the Bullet Journal method and tracked the days I got less than 7-hours of sleep (alongside the days I read, and the days I exercised).

After one month, I look back at my progress.

img_20170201_131622
For privacy reasons, I’ve blocked out my calendar notes.

Yikes.

Needless to say, if January is my baseline, then at least I have nowhere to go but up.  I hit my target four times all month.  My reading habit was fairly strong, and my exercise is still abysmal.

Light on the Horizon

There is one thing that has changed in February so far that has given me hope: my fiancee has started a new job.

As of writing, she’s in her first week at her new job, and I have only now given notice to my apartment managers that I will be moving in with her, so I’m spending a few nights a week at her place to help support her as she starts the job.  This includes groceries, errands, and taking care of our dog.

Her new job is a few cities over, so she needs to commute about an hour each way, meaning she needs to get up before me and hit the road before I normal would wake up.  As a consequence, she needs to follow a fairly strict bed time while she adjusts to the new schedule.

At one point, I would have let her go to bed, then I would have gone to bed whenever I felt like it, and set my own alarm.  But, in the spirit of supporting her (and wanting to spend quality time with her), I’ve been going to bed at the same time as her, and getting up with her to tend to the dog’s morning needs.

The days where I’ve gotten 7+ hours of sleep have been the greatest I’ve felt in a long time.

screenshot_20170201-131230
Wednesday would have been 7-hours if I hadn’t had restless sleep.  The Fitbit subtracts your restless period from the total duration of sleep.

Obviously, it’s too early to suggest that I’ve got my habit down, but subjectively I can report feeling better overall.  I have wanted to wake up early for some time now, and getting up with my partner has felt great.  I have time to enjoy my morning coffee while I read or listen to the news, and not feeling rushed out the door has lifted my spirits.  Ideally, I want to keep this going, so it’ll be interesting to see how the system adapts to other obligations in my life (working at the bar being the harshest pressure on my sleep schedule).

I know that rationally, sleeping is good.  It’s good for mental clarity, it’s good for decision-making, it’s good for general health as well as weightloss.  But knowing the facts has so far proven to be a challenge for me.  Perhaps focusing on my relationship and supporting my partner’s success is just the motivation I’ve needed to force me to take better care of myself.

We shall see where things go from here.

Stay Awesome,

Ryan

Checking Intuitions – Is Facebook As Bad As We Think?

Last week, I published a long, rambley set of thoughts about my relationship to Facebook.  The following night, I sat down with a group of friends to discuss a taped forum discussion published by the CBC.  If you have never looked into CBC’s programming, particularly their show Ideas, and their daily program The Current, I highly recommend them.

http://www.cbc.ca/radio/ideas/screened-off-the-dangers-of-an-insular-web-1.3937638

It’s always good to check your intuitions and opinions against what others think, because sometimes its possible that your biases blind you to alternative considerations.

Now, what I’m about to write about is entirely unverified and does not serve as an argument on any side of this debate.  This post is not meant to deliver any definitive answers on the topic of whether Facebook (or the modern internet) is less democratized, more problematic, or having a polarizing effect on how people think.  What I wish to capture is how my mind expanded a bit when I listened to how others viewed the podcast topic and their reactions to it.

Going into the meeting, I felt that I aligned with the views discussed in the program.  I feel that people are polarizing in the online echo-chamber communities and that the internet, or specifically products created for the web, are designed to be attractive and modify behaviour to increase engagement.  Shallow content and emotional shortcuts are easily bypassing critical thought and our ability to maintain our attention is being eroded.

There were two counter thoughts brought up at the meeting that significantly shook my opinion.  Again, I pose these as items to consider, not definitive rebuttals to the original claims.

Rose-Coloured Nostalgia

The first assumption challenge by one friend was that the understanding and explanation of how the internet is currently, and how the internet “used to be,” do not adequately reflect reality.  In the first instance, the speakers on the program are only speaking to a mainstream understanding of social media.  They use Facebook as the default conversation piece because it is the highest trafficked site, however their descriptions do not account for all uses of the net, nor all demographic engagements.  In fact, Facebook-use is in decline among younger internet uses (“old people got on Facebook and ruined it”).

But in the second instance, my friend (whom is a few years older than I am) disagrees with the assumption that the internet in the late-90’s and early 2000’s was more democratized.  On a purely surface level, sure, it was more democratized because there were less corporate products.  But at the same time, the internet was more closed off to the mass market because no one knew how to use the internet.  Without the advent of streamlined user-interfaces, most people lacked the technical skills to adequately use the internet beyond services provided by internet providers (the Yahoo’s, the AOL’s, etc.).

I realized that my understanding and buy-in for the arguments is predicated on an understanding of the internet that I have no direct experience of.  I only started using the web in 1998, compliments of AOL and the many coasters they sent to our house.  Other than chat rooms and Slingo, my recollection of the net pre-2000 is pretty spotty.  I have nothing that informs my opinion on the matter, and it’s entirely possible that I’m agreeing with a characterization of the web that is out of line with reality.

Deep Data

Another excellent criticism that another friend raised is that Facebook isn’t necessarily forcing people into echo-chambers, nor are people necessarily becoming more radical in their views.  In fact, we don’t really know what’s happening relative to the pre-2000’s.  For the first time in history, we are able to collect massive amounts of data on the reading habits of people online.  Until recently, understanding where people seek out content, how they share, what they share, what they click through, etc, was not possible to the degree we are seeing now.  It’s bad for us to see the limited data and fit a worldview to it.  Quite simply, we don’t know if Facebook is changing anything, or if we are just able to glimpse into the minds of others for the first time.

But, you may say, “I’ve been on Facebook since the mid-2000’s and I’ve noticed a shift in my news feed.”  Yes, that’s true.  It’s also true that algorithms are more sophisticated now to curate your news feed.  The only thing missing from that consideration is that the sample size for you has changed.  If Facebook’s size had remained constant, we could potentially make an inference to how Facebook has impacted people.  Instead, Facebook has gone from being the domain of college students (a typically liberal-leaning demographic) to high school students (remember when we thought that was a mistake, and these kids shouldn’t be on the network) to when our parents joined Facebook (ugh! They ruined Facebook!).  Consider an alternative perspective – our experience of other people on Facebook was initially biased, and then regressed back to the mean once the user pool expanded to include non-university users (which is a fairly homogeneous class of people, all things considered).

Closing Thoughts

Truthfully, I’m not entirely sure what’s right, but I suppose that’s a good thing.  Recognizing that my own views and opinions should be treated as suspect is a valuable insight to have.  It requires a level of self-awareness that usually doesn’t get a lot of discussion in today’s media.  Instead, everyone seems to speak from a position of authority that I feel as though I lack in my internal monologue.  Maybe my friends are correct, and that the think-pieces about the dangers of walled-gardens and the role that social media has on our ability to think critically is all smoke and little fire.  To be fair, where there is smoke, there is usually fire, so there is *something* there that needs to be discussed.

I appreciate the insight my friends brought to the table.  It shouldn’t be surprising that the answers they gave above are wholly connected to their fields of expertise.  The first friend has a PhD in criminology and has studied deviance online.  The second friend works in marketing for a major Canadian food company.  Their experiences are helpful to provide alternative viewpoints to my own, and if it is true that you are the average of the 5 people you most commonly associate with, it’s a pretty powerful example to me of the value in a diversity (plurality) of thought.

Stay Awesome,

Ryan