The quantified self makes us more human

I have been thinking a lot about the concept of the quantified self. Since Ash Wednesday 2016, I started a fast that meant that I went pescetarian.  While I thought that I would miss beef, chicken, pork and duck, the reality has been that I do not.  It helps that my favourite foods have always been fish and seafood.

Being a researcher by nature and by profession, I started reading about the benefits of not eating meat and found them to be legion: farming meat animals is a terribly energy-intensive process that generates a lot of waste water and pollution.

This led to a greater reflection on my life and its impact on others and on the environment. I decided to track what I ate to be able to quantify my diminished impact on the environment and so doing realised that I had been over-consuming calories on a regular basis. Logging the food and drink that I consumed made me aware of the reality of what I put into my body. That was illuminating and brought me some peace, strangely.

I started to add fitness to this regimen and tracked its impact on my net calories per day. I enjoyed the feeling of self-knowledge and personal calibration that I could achieve by tweaking what I ate and the calories I burned through different types of exercise. A side benefit was that I started feeling a lot calmer on the days I ran or swam or rowed and more alert and clear on the days I practised intermittent fasting or was under my calorie goal for the day. It was a good feeling.

It was at this point that I realised what I was doing was an exercise in mindfulness. I was finding that the data and quantification – in my case it was a simple excel spreadsheet and myfitnesspal – gave me a feeling of knowing myself  and being present in my life. That was a very good feeling.

I also started to realise that gently introducing and then tracking new habits wasn’t so hard. I realised that it’s mostly a factor of letting a habit that makes me feel better (like exercise) sink in so that it feels natural and I miss it if I haven’t done it that day.

I realised that my main motivation for keeping a good habit was if it made my life easier, happier or better (after the initial period of adjustment, of course). For me, that meant that the habit involved finding peace. Since then I have added other habits that are generally good for the environment and for my personal peace: I stopped swearing, committed to always obeying the speed limit when driving and to very brief daily morning and evening meditation.

I found that after an initial period of frustration, each of these habits brought me greater calm and a greater feeling of being present in my life and in my surroundings.

My greatest surprise on this journey has been that: tracking these habits became an exercise in mindful living instead of a burden.

I will post on this from time to time during the coming year.

It’s been a good journey thus far.


What made Facebook successful?

I remember, in 2006, when I first started to notice Facebook. At that point, it was a basic service, allowing users to connect to one another and share updates and information. It had competitors – myspace and Orkut, amongst many others. Why did Facebook grow to be so dominant?

Facebook’s simple visual identity and early links to the Ivy League gave it an aspirational brand component, which meant that young adults adopted it in droves, which later pulled their parents into the network and then their grandparents.

As well, FB has been quick to adapt to emerging trends in social networking such as the incorporation of hashtags, trending topics and embedded video. As its members’ networks grew, FB’s algorithms that keep you focused on the friends you are most likely to interact with kept users’ feeds relevant.

The perceived rapid responses to demands from users to customize their privacy settings kept the network in its users’ good books. While the actual efficacy of privacy protection is questionable, FB was able to create the perception that it acted quickly.

As well, FB has kept its advertising scheme relevant, with relatively unobtrusive advertising that permitted easy and accurate geotargeting as well as targeting according to SES and other demographic features.

Once FB became a household name and an essential part of many people’s family, personal and work/school lives, it achieved a critical mass which has made it difficult to not be part of for most.

So, a combination of first-to-market, a clean look, prestige associations and quick adaptation has kept FB at the top of the heap.

Any thoughts?

Meditating so that writing becomes fun and not work

Amazingly, I have stuck to two of my New Year’s resolutions: meditating and writing.

Each day, I have been spending two hours (at least) focused exclusively on editing JPC or working on my book project.

I have found that the time I spend writing and editing has become an inspirational and meditative time that I look forward and crave, because instead of stressing about not having written, instead, I think of writing as a relief from the stress of everyday life. This has made all the difference, taking writing from being work and transforming it into something exciting and relaxing to look forward to.

I got here by meditating in the morning, a little at lunch and in the evening. Each time for about 5-10 minutes. During that time, I try my best to calm my mind and then focus my thoughts (or blank them).

This has led to each meditation session being a source of inspiration for my writing or editing.

I will check in again soon with an update if this still continues to work.

On the simple life: find your peaceful thing.

Every new year, I hear many of the people I know express that they want to “return to a simpler life” or eliminate clutter. I often have this noble ambition myself. This year, I asked myself what this really means. I came up with a couple of ideas.

Eliminating clutter doesn’t mean stripping back all things you do. Rather, I think it means looking at why you do the things you do and asking yourself if there is a reason for each. When I went through this exercise, I found that of the things that caused me stress were inherently stressful. No, rather, it was that I simply didn’t really want to do them.

So how do you determine if you really want to do something? It’s a tougher question than it seems. First, you have to ask yourself what it is that organizes your life: is it religion? is your family relationships? is it friendships? is it work? Then, you ask yourself whether that organizing factor brings you peace or whether it sends a jolt of stress or anxiety when you think of it.

If it sends a jolt of stress or anxiety then you have your answer: the thing around which you have organized your life is wrong for you. If it brings you peace, then it is probably that many of the things you do are in sync with the thing that your life is organized around. That means that you are doing things that, in the end, are meaningless to your life.

So, find the thing that your life centers on or is organized by. Ask yourself if it brings you peace. If not, change it. If it brings you peace, then evaluate the other things you fill your life with: do they jive with your organizing center? If not, jettison them.

I am in the process of doing this. It feels good.

New Year’s Resolutions for 2016

As I have discussed on Facebook and this blog, 2014 and 2015 have been difficult years for me. These challenges have forced me to rethink my priorities and set myself on a new path, fuelled by greater focus and enthusiasm.

As I write this post, I sit by a roaring fire and watch the snow float by the window, dusting the spruce and settling in a quiet canopy over the ground at my parents’ home in King City.

I write these five resolutions in a moment of peace.

  1. Focus on writing and editing. I feel that I have a lot to add to various conversations in academic, professional and social circles. I will try to write every day.
  2. Be more social. I have been coming of out the shell I crawled into the last few years, and it feels good. I will strive to be more engaged my relationships with family and friends.
  3. Pray, meditate and contemplate. During the difficult last month, I have turned to meditation and prayer, and it has felt right. I will try to meditate and pray (for at least 5 minutes) three times a day.
  4. Get fit. I was always an athlete and – due to neglect – I have put on an unhealthy amount of weight. I will focus on getting healthy and rebuilding the discipline I once had around nutrition and exercise.
  5. Practice my hobbies. I love playing the piano, swimming, fencing and playing games with friends like chess or snooker. I have put these things aside since 2011. I will endeavour to change that this year.

So there you have it. My plan for 2016.

Losses and grief

This has been a very difficult couple of years for me. The deaths of my sainted Aunt Dawn, Great Aunt Zorka and my beloved grandmother (Baba in Macedonian) have shaken me. I think that it will take me some time to process the loss. These were three women who were independent, strong, successful, kind, disciplined and hard-working. They gave their all to their families, to their professions and their businesses. They leaned in, and organized their lives so that they could be successful and “have it all.” They are an inspiration.

Losing my Aunt Dawn was incredibly hard because she had been a constant presence during my entire life: a source of joy, inspiration and constant moral support for everyone. She was a happy, fashionable and fun person. Always ready to try the latest trend or read about interesting celebrity news, my Aunt Dawn was very current and well-informed. She also volunteered for many organizations, including the Canadian Opera Company and the Liberal Party – always an optimist. She loved reading and watching the news, so she was always informed and had deeply held progressive opinions. She was extremely fit and very careful with her nutrition but died of cancer at 63, after struggling with the disease for a year and a half. She was a devout Christian who believed in love and forgiveness. She thought the best of everyone, bringing her spirit of hope and optimism to everyone around her, most of all the thousands of students whose lives she changed over her long career as an elementary school teacher. Her passing is a tragedy that I still haven’t come to terms with. I still look for her at family parties or expect to hear her laughing and joking as she always did. I take comfort in the many memories I hold of great moments we had while on our big family vacations (with up to 20 people!) and other great moments when her fun-loving side made everyone feel light-hearted and happy.

94x131-2718409Losing my Great Aunt Zorka was difficult because of the complete surprise of what happened. She suffered a massive stroke and passed quickly at age 73. I think the suddenness and her relative youth shocked my cousins (I guess they are my uncles, technically)  with whom I am close. Feeling their grief has been very hard – I empathize with them. She was a quiet, lovely person who encouraged people and lived a life of hard work and service to others. She was a seamstress who worked very hard her whole life, pushing herself to help provide a good life for her family. Her training as meant that she was always wearing the latest and most becoming fashions, that she mostly made herself. Her sense of style was very impressive. Her kindness and generosity were unparalleled, and she was an astonishingly good chef. Parties – especially Slavas – at her house were legendary in our extended family for warm hospitality and mouth-watering Balkan and Mediterranean foods. She loved her two sons dearly and wanted the best for them, bringing them up in a thoughtful, caring Orthodox Christian way. She wanted them to succeed in all things but accepted them for who they were. She was a cultured person, who kept up on the news and politics of the day, always enjoying discussing these things with me and other family members – I was always struck by her generosity of spirit in these conversations. I miss her presence at family parties already. I know that the healing process will be very hard for my cousins and I am here for them.

Losing my grandmother Helen Sulevic – Obituary was the hardest for me, because she had been there every day of my childhood. She was always a pillar for my parents and me. When my brother Marc died tragically in 1981, my grandmother took charge of the household while my parents grieved. She tried to help me make sense of what felt like a senseless tragedy. Through her example, I learned that deep religious faith could be a great comfort during times of personal chaos. She also taught me to respect life and the environment. Her environmentalism ran deep and she was very disciplined in sorting our waste into the different categories of recycling, composting and garbage. She also believed that we should be vegetarians although we never all quite got there. She would go vegan during Orthodox Lent and we would follow her example. I still do. She thought eating animals was morally suspect because of the fact that they are aware and have cognition, so we ate a lot of fish. Speaking of cooking, she was a Cordon Bleu-trained chef and I was fortunate that she imparted some of her learning to me and made me a self-sufficient cook. She never took anything from anyone and gave much to many. She was a devout Christian but judged no one – she was humble and a pragmatist in that way. She thought that judgment was for God, not us. She hated vanity and self-aggrandizement and loathed cliques, believing instead in openness and fairness. My grandmother loved our family vacations and insisted that we go at least once a year to a beach resort or somewhere in Canada. She also loved going on long scenic drives with my father and mother and me. Although she never spoke much, I knew that she enjoyed seeing nature roll by her through the window of the car and she would delight in noticing the many changes brought on with the passing of the seasons to her favourite places along the way. She was a successful businesswoman who started her first business as a seamstress at the age of sixteen and then participated in my grandfather’s business before becoming a manager at Eatons Catalogue and finally deciding to stay home and help my mother raise my brothers and me. She was always a big follower of the fashion industry and made my mother and aunt Dawn the most beautiful bespoke couture outfits. She was very strict with my brother and me about fashion, telling us that a sense of style was important to self-confidence and individuality. I realize now what a blessing and privilege it was to have her in my life a little kid, teenager, and adult – I never thanked her enough for the values of patience, fairness, and discipline that she imparted to me. I love you Baba and I will always keep your spirit in my heart and your voice in my head to guide my thoughts and actions.


Back to blogging, with renewed purpose and enthusiasm

These have been a difficult couple of years, for several reason, the first of which is a sequence of deaths of people very close to me. I have had to think through and rethink many of the ways that I look at life, as well as my priorities. I feel like I have come out of this better and deeper, with a renewed sense of purpose and maybe even mission. I feel energized, at least.

So I have decided to come back to blogging, but in a terser, more impressionistic way. Look for new blog bursts from me, starting with my annual New Year’s Resolutions post on January 1, 2016.

In the meanwhile, Merry Christmas and Season’s Greetings to everyone!