Sunday, May 12, 2019

A Review of 'Deep Work' by Cal Newport

Deep Work by Cal Newport gives an overview of 'Deep Work', why he considers it so important in the modern world, and a few ideas for getting more of it into your life. In this post I'll be going over the book's content with a short review at the end.

To the author the most important, challenging, and meaningful work we can do in our lives is done via long periods of uninterrupted focus. And so he considers it a central task of the modern worker to organize their life in a way so they can get more important things done via that focus.

What's interesting to me here is that to most this is obvious, but the idea is now relevant again with the rise of a barrage of apps sapping our time and attention. Because we live in such a distracted world there's now room for a title like Deep Work to remind us how to get things done.

A Summary

The title is broken out into two sections -  the first outlines what deep work is and why the author believes it's so important, and the second outlines rules for getting more of it into your day-to-day life.

Section One: The Idea

Newport goes into quite a bit of depth in this section, and I would definitely recommend reading the book, but the central idea of the title can be be tied up fairly tidily.

He argues that in the modern workplace (and sometimes at home, too) people find themselves in a constant state of distraction. Instant messaging, e-mail, and social media keep us focused on what he calls shallow work: stuff that keeps us busy but that isn't very important.

This distraction causes a drag on our time and attention, making it harder to do anything that's challenging and takes focus - deep work. And in such a distracting world this creates an opportunity for people who are able to manage their attention to get things done.

Section Two: The Rules

In this section the author lays out four chapters, each offering rules and ideas to put deep work into practice. The chapters all have a guiding theme, but moreover serve as collections of ideas and anecdotes.

Work Deeply

The brunt of this chapter covers philosophies for working deeply. For example, the 'Monastic' where a person becomes a recluse and focuses on deep work exclusively. Or the 'Bimodal' where a person focuses half of their time in distraction, and the other half focusing.

The idea was that if a person wants more focus throughout their day they should lay out a plan for how they're going to manage their attention.

Embrace Boredom

In this chapter the author describes boredom as a muscle that needs to be flexed. He explains that people default to social media and search for the next adrenaline rush at every opportunity. Five minutes of downtime? Check your phone. Have nothing going on? Turn on your laptop.

The problem is that we end up spending our lives always checking social media and searching for the next distraction, without ever breaking free and latching onto those things that take effort and provide value and meaning. And by embracing bored moments we become more able to flex this muscle and focus when we need to.

The author goes on to recommend splitting up the time you spend on distracting things, from the time you spend doing important work. Set a policy and stick to it, which he argues will help build your willpower. 

Quit Social Media

In this section Newport recommends quitting social media for 30 days. He reasons that this will give a sense of which accounts you need, and which don't really do much for you.

He explains that people view sites like Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter as default parts of their lives, but when you look at them through a different lens they're just forms of entertainment, and if you don't visit or post most people won't notice.

So a break helps you understand which of these sites are just a drain on your time. And if they do serve no purpose Newport recommends quitting them completely.

Drain the Shallows

In this chapter the author explains the difference between demanding and non-demanding work, and strategies for limiting the non-demanding (or shallow) work from your schedule.

There wasn't really a central focus here, just a set of ideas like becoming harder to reach by email, strategies on how to respond to email, how to schedule your work day, and setting a shallow work budget. 

A Review

I'm not a big reader of books like this, but after reading an article on this title I thought I'd give it a try.

I often find that the popular non-fiction I read doesn't have much depth, is filled with noise, and the ideas in them can be a bit vague. But in this title I found a fair amount of substance.

While it could be repetitive at times all of the chapters had something substantial to offer, and the layout and writing was well executed. It was also a quick and enjoyable read. And while I've laid out the brunt of it in this post, there's plenty more in the book.

Overall, if you're interested in doing more with your time I'd definitely recommend checking it out.

Sunday, April 14, 2019

How western cultural values set us up for failure

A few months ago the hair salon I'd been visiting for a few years closed. I'd gotten to know a few hairdressers at that location, but when I switched to a local First Choice I was at the behest of a new group of people (ok, mostly women).

I've only visited the First Choice a handful of times so far, but let me tell you, there are some interesting women working at the location on Oxford and Gammage. Not one, but two of them have escaped their country of birth to come to Canada. The first came from Poland when it was under Soviet control, and the second came from a war torn Kosovo.

I won't spend too much time on emigration, but what amazed me about these women was that they had come to Canada and started a family from practically nothing. They were hard-working, likely didn't have much money, but were making a life anyway.

After meeting them I couldn't help but take a look at myself.

Truth be told, I've had a fear of failure since finishing up at school. No matter what I do or how well things are going there's a persistent voice in my head that tells me not to screw up. I've had the notion that anything but financial success was something I couldn't accept.

Then I got my haircut, and found out my hairdresser and her husband who drives for Uber are raising three kids.

And that's when it dawned on me - it's not the worry of money problems that really bothers me, it's the crushing expectations that come from growing up in the middle class, being of Western European descent, and a natural Canadian citizen.

Growing up my parents weren't wealthy, but made good salaries and retired with cozy pensions. I made it through post-secondary without much debt, and have had a number of once-in-a-lifetime experiences. All things considered I've lived a charmed life. 

People like me grew up in a culture where wealth was the primary indicator of someone's worth - where social status, trips, cars, homes are what signal your success to others. A culture that fetishized the rich, obsessed over productivity, and tirelessly thought about how to make more money. All at the expense of things that really matter - family, relationships, character, ethics.

But then, there's my hairdresser who came from a country torn apart by war and raised three children. Who may not have a glamorous retirement filled with travel, but she has a family. She may have problems, but she survives.

Thinking about the life my hairdresser leads I can't help but think that the real source of our misery isn't the usual ebb and flow of our lives, but instead the crushing expectations that come from the Western notion of success.

Saturday, March 23, 2019

Going Where People Don't Go: On Studying Central Asia

[This post was originally published Aug. 3rd, 2018]

One of the driving forces of my interest in history comes from wanting to learn about the things that most people don't care about. Like a guy who leaves a party a few hours early, walks to a café, and pulls out an obscure book.

I'm not completely sure what led to my interest in Central Asia, it might have been a few minutes on Google Earth. But at some point in the past few years I was thinking about the countries just south of Russia, their odd names, and realized that I knew nothing about them, their history, or the people who lived there. I'm sure that at the time I had never uttered any of their names before.

And with alumni access to the libraries at the University of Western Ontario there were a huge number of books on the region right at my fingertips. So over a few month span I started checking out titles. The brunt of what I read about at the time were happenings in the region during the Soviet era, but to this day I'm still reading bits and pieces of it's long history.

And even despite my interest there isn't a ton to say to wow my friends, family, or online connections. For the most part the region is poor, close to agrarian (withholding Kazakhstan), with governments that are a hold over from the authoritarian Soviet days. For most of it's history Central Asia has existed as a kind of conduit between Europe and East Asia, landlocked from sea routes, and in the modern era it's held minimal global importance.

Yet to me there is something assuredly worthwhile about studying the region. That thing isn't as much any utility. It's the satisfaction that comes from looking in a place that no one else ever looks, taking a few extra steps around the corner and going somewhere that people don't go. 

Saturday, February 2, 2019

Reflections After Studying the Indigenous

A few years ago a bit of curiosity came over me about the indigenous of North America. Usually when people think about natives they think of the post-colonial era, and the political battles they've had with Europeans, but that's not what interested me. What interested me was what had happened during the thousands of years before Europeans arrived.

I wondered:
  •  How they survived
  •  What their cultural customs were
  •  About their religious beliefs

When I started out down this path it was difficult to find books on the topic, as a lot of what I came across focused on the colonial era. But with enough persistence I eventually stumbled on some decent books that had both compiled missionary accounts and given a good overview of how natives actually lived.

And after going through the books it seems like many Canadians have had their views of the indigenous shaded by the caricatures we see of them in popular media. Many of us look at Native culture as flat, two-dimensional, and, even if sub-consciously, inferior to the European brand, while in reality their lives were much more interesting than given credit for.

And while it may be true that the hunter-gatherer lifestyle was a simpler mode of life, it was really just that - a lifestyle granted to communities who were in a different stage of technical progress, and who were based in a different environment.

But I digress.

The Indigenous in Contrast

What fascinated me the most about the Native way of life was the essentialism of their lifestyle. Because the majority of tribes in North America hadn't developed robust agriculture, their technologies were still fairly unspecialized. This meant that their way of life was 'close to the land' as they say, in sharp contrast to the Agrarian societies of the world.

The things they did to survive were closely tied to seasonal cycles, and subject to famine and the elements. They were close to nature.

This created a situation where the lives of different tribes were tightly tied to the environment they lived in. If they lived in the Arctic they could only hunt for animal life that lived there, and they could only build housing from the materials they had available to them. If they lived in Mexico they could only produce alcohol from the plant-life indigenous to that region, the Agave. 

But at the same time, and this is the kicker, when you pared back the complexity that was present in fuller, Agrarian societies of the world the basic elements of life were still there. Natives were not much different than those living in Europe:

  • their lives centered around finding food
  • they developed communities with a hierarchical structure
  • the family unit existed
  • they developed and discovered drugs and alcohol
  • conflict was a problem
  • tribal groups had religions and creation stories
The Agave

Indigenous Religion

One of the big reasons I set out to study natives at all was to learn about their religious customs. I've been studying religion for a few years, and the beliefs of hunter-gatherers was something that I'd not come across yet. 

One major thing I ended up noting here was that the religions of the indigenous were similar to that of Europeans in that they all contained a creation story. Before the invent of science the people of most communities around the world had a need to explain their existence, and so wherever you went in the Americas you'd find natives with beliefs about the world's creation and the Gods who controlled things.

The other major aspects of their customs were animism and educational myths.

On the first part, they believed that the animals they hunted had spirits, and that if they respected these animals it would lead to more successful hunts.

On the second part, in the majority of native tribes there came to be myths that were instructive for their youth. Children were taught that survival in the wilderness was serious, and that they had to adhere to strict rules and customs if they wanted to survive.

Flipping Over to Africa 

After studying the natives of North America I also spent some time with African culture. And in a lot of ways their lives were analogous with their North American counterparts. If someone wanted to study modes of living as a whole they wouldn't want to contrast different groups of hunter-gatherers, but rather hunter-gather communities with agrarian and modern ones.

On the whole I found it surprising how closely the lives of the African indigenous paralleled those in North America. Similar religions, similar hunting methods, similar tribal structures and habitation. In some sense their lives came about because that's what the environment dictated.

Wrapping Up

I know that blog posts and articles often have a teachable, lesson, or insight, but this one doesn't. Instead, this is just a topic that I've been interested in reading and writing about, and this site gives me a vehicle to do that writing. 

With subjects like this I'm also getting into territory where few people would have any interest, but that's not a concern. A while back I was writing on Medium and over time you could see the things people writing about becoming a bit clickbaity, and based on topics that would gather wide audiences, and inevitably profit. I'm not writing for profit, or for any other reason beside it being an enjoyable way to spend my time, and share with friends, family, and acquaintances.

And in that way writing about stuff like this is serving an even greater purpose than making money: doing something in my life that isn't about making money.

Saturday, November 24, 2018

'The Printing Press as an Agent of Change', History, and the Internet

After writing a few posts about history over the past several months I've decided to switch this topic up a bit. Where my last few entries on history were a bit dry and academic, I wonder how I'd go about writing history for a lay-audience? I know I don't have many readers interested in this subject, so how would you present a study of print culture to those very people with no interest?

The Printing Press as an Agent of Change is an academic book, written for historians and other academics. The interest of most casual readers in something like this wouldn't go very far. They'd make note that the printing press was an important precursor to the modern world, and leave it at that. So how to write about this book in a way that this type of person would appreciate and enjoy?

Many historians share this concern: about how to get people interested in history. But in my view those historians are coming at the problem from the wrong angle. It's not that people aren't interested in history, it's that, for the most part, history has no relevance to them. When a single mother of three needs to find a way to feed her kids, she's not pulling out a military history of the American Revolution to find ideas. History as a field is usually far from her (and most of our) day to day concerns.

So the argument there is that you can't write about history, or really anything, in a way that will appeal to a lay-reader unless that writing has some kind of relevance to that person. Reading takes effort, and people usually only make an effort if it has some kind of pay-back. And so unless someone is explicitly interested in history, or that writing about history offers real, useful perspective, a post like this would be quickly passed over.

So how to write about the printing press in a way that describes it's relevance?

I might start by mentioning that in 15th century Italy book production went up by a factor of 1000 percent, and that you could make an analogy between the press and the invent of the internet today. Both of these inventions conferred major progress in our ability to exchange information, and the former had a massive impact on the world, while the impact of the internet is still unfolding.

So what can Elizabeth Eisenstein's book tell us about the type of change that we're in the throes of right now?

The Printing Press as an Agent of Change

In The Printing Press as an Agent of Change Eisenstein studied the transition from manuscript to print culture in the fifteenth century, and it's later impact on Europe. She explains that there had been scholarly agreement that the printing press was important, but that no one in the proceeding centuries gave it any serious attention. Because of this Eisenstein considered the press worth some historical study.

She then goes on to explain some of the difficulties in undertaking this study, because before the printing press was invented we had few records of how our world worked. It's hard to compare the world after the press to the one before it because we just don't know enough about that world.

And yet she tries to complete the book anyway, often raising more questions than she answers.

Some Features of Print Culture

In this section of the book Eisenstein describes some key features of the shift from script to print. It gave a sense of how books changed once the press was invented, in a way that was quantifiable and scientific. In this section she makes clear that after the press was invented books became more standardized, repeatable, and the information contained within them could be compared and contrasted among a wide variety of scholars. It became easier for people to read the same book and come to shared understandings, which was difficult before the press came along.

Classical and Christian Traditions Reoriented

In this section Eisenstein discusses problems with defining the Renaissance Period in Europe, and how to place the press within that context of rapid social change, transitioning between the medieval and modern eras. She explains that this isn't as easy as it seems.

The overall gist of the section explains that medieval man, due to the press, was finally able to understand his/her place in history. For once the Ancient period up to the present was made intelligible, and scholars could finally understand, in some respects, how things actually worked. This brought about the beginnings of curiosity, inquiry, and natural philosophy, eventually becoming the scientific revolution.

The Rest

This was about where even my own interest petered off. The book was text heavy, and it was right around here that the noise to signal ratio became very high. But overall the gist was that more information was available to the European and that it was being put to increasingly productive uses.

Relevance to the lay reader?

So if the press represented a major cultural shift in our world due to a faster exchange of information, what kind of change will the internet lead to?

The printing press doesn't make a perfect analogy with the internet, but what's clear is that they both allow people to learn more quickly. And usually that information is used toward productive ends. People will use it to become more efficient, more healthy. Businesses will use it by hiring a greater number of skilled people, and making their processes more efficient.

Overall: the world will become smarter, and with that information being moved within the bounds of internet networks, it can move further, faster, easier, and more rapidly than ever before.

When the printing press was invented we saw a shift between a world that was hugely superstitious to one that, at least does it's best to, follow reason when making decisions. A shift to what historians now call 'modernity'. So now that we're right in the middle of the next major leap, the question is: where will the internet lead us?

Sunday, October 7, 2018

Our Trip to Italy and Greece

Over the past few weeks (from September 22nd to October 6th, 2018) Els and I travelled to Europe for our honeymoon. Our first stop was Rome for four nights, after which we got on the Jewel of the Seas with Royal Caribbean for nine days to travel to Sicily, the Greek Isles, and finally Naples. And now that the trip is through I want to put a few thoughts and photos out there on our experience.


When we flew into Rome we had taken a red eye flight that departed from Toronto at 9 pm, and landed in Italy in the late morning. When I booked the flight I thought we'd be able to sleep through the night, but we were so crammed into the plane that this wasn't the case. Because of this both Els and I missed nearly an entire nights worth of sleep, which really threw us off for the first day in the city.

Needless to say we were there for four nights where we did most of the typical stuff. We spent a day seeing all of the major historical sites, spent a day at the Vatican, visited the Borghese gallery, and had a few nice nights out for dinner.

All in all Rome was a good time but as we were responsible for feeding ourselves there, navigating the city, and recovering from our flight we were a bit worn down during this leg of the trip.

It was a beautiful city but I also didn't expect the scope of how many tourists would be there. And this became a trend - the sheer number of tourists in every city we visited, taking pictures, snapping selfies, and spending money. Throughout all of it you couldn't help but think about the rampant consumerism of the tourist industry, and how nice it would be to go somewhere away from the hustle and bustle of major tourist centres.

A little shopping after the Colosseum

Being silly at the Trevi fountain

The Pantheon

Touring galleries in the Vatican

View from Castel Sant'Angelo

Out for an authentic Roman meal

Galleria Borghese

Messina and Taormina (Sicily)

After four days in Rome we made our way out to the nearby port in Civitavecchia to board the ship. Our first stop was in Sicily, which I had heard was the least interesting port of our cruise, but I enjoyed it.

Prior to the trip I was told that Taormina was the place to go, but when we got there via bus it was once again completely crowded with tourists, and overrun with tourist shops and eateries. This wasn't what I was looking to get out of the trip, but at that point it seemed like it was going to be the dominant experience of our two weeks away.

My main interest while away was less about tourist attractions and more about the real culture and people living in the places we were visiting. I wanted to see how the Italians and Greeks really lived. And to that end I did enjoy the bus ride we took between Messina and Taormina which allowed Els and I to see the Sicilian countryside, coastline, and some of the housing developments between the port town and tourist area.

Mt. Etna

Swordfish pasta - a specialty in Sicily

The Jewel of the Seas

During the cruise we had two days at sea surrounding the sailing into and out of Greece. I had been looking forward to these days quite a bit as they'd give me a chance to really kick back, pull out a book, and enjoy some quiet time.

I won't go into too much detail about the ship, but as a quick summary I liked it and would definitely go with Royal Caribbean again. Many people on the boat were telling us that they preferred Royal Caribbean over others, and that if you didn't want a party culture (we didn't) it was the line for you.

I found the amenities and entertainment well done, and also found that there was plenty of space on the ship to hang out and have a coffee or drink. But despite the stuff to do, when we were on the boat we were usually worn out from the ports and not wanting to do much more than rest or eat. So all we needed most of the time was a lounge chair.


The night before we arrived in Athens I got a case of food poisoning and ended up touring the city on little sleep while recovering from a stomach bug. That made things interesting, but I loved this port.

Before arriving I didn't know what to expect, and I had heard soundbytes that Greece was struggling economically, but once we got into Athens you could definitely see and viscerally feel the struggle that Greeks were going through. It gave every appearance of a country that was slowly failing, and where the educated were fleeing from.

When we got off the boat we had cab drivers pressuring us into expensive tours. When we finally found a driver to take us to the Acropolis he tried to act as a stand in tour guide, and when we neared the city centre he again started pressuring us to join a tour. Finally we fought him off but you could see he was desperate and you had to feel for him.

We started out at the Acropolis and were there early enough that it wasn't overrun by people yet which was nice. It was also a bit rainy that day. I enjoyed the Acropolis but didn't want to linger on Ancient Greece too much when we were there, afterward choosing to avoid the popular museums and instead take in the atmosphere and culture of the city. One of the main things we wanted to do that day was visit the Central Market, but we were in port on a Sunday and it was closed.

After leaving the Acropolis we were initially struck with the amount of graffiti everywhere, which we snapped some pictures of. We then went to a nice shopping district called Plaka, and eventually ventured out a bit further into more of a classical Athenian area to check out a bookshop.

Unfortunately, because of the stomach bug I wasn't feeling great that day and didn't get as many pictures as I would have liked, but we still got some nice shots. And while the parthenon was a striking feature of the city, what really grabbed my attention was the view of the city from the acropolis. I had some moments standing up there where I was awestruck with both the view and the fact that, yep, we were in Athens.

A view of Athens from the Acropolis

My lovely wife


The next day we were in Mykonos which was one of the ports I was especially looking forward to. While we were there I was still experiencing the last remnants of my illness, but it really wasn't too bad at that point.

The reason I was looking forward to Mykonos so much was that it was one of the simplest ports that we'd visit. We had no tours planned, nothing complicated to figure out, all we had to do was get off the boat, check out the island, and then get back on the boat, easy peasy.

I had fun there but did find it a bit underwhelming. It wasn't that there was anything wrong with the island, but it didn't have many elements that I was genuinely interested in. Another touristy culture, negligible history, not really much there to hold my attention besides coffee and food. So on this day I mostly followed Els in and out of shops while I relaxed and tried to rest off my stomach bug.

We did have some great views and meals while we were there, however.


Rhodes was another port that I had been looking forward to for the same reason I was Mykonos. Nothing complicated about the day, just get off the boat and enjoy. It also had the added benefit that it was a world heritage site.

When we got to this port I was fully recovered from my illness and ready to enjoy the day. We got off the ship early when the old town was still waking up, and bought tickets for the Archaeological Museum as well as a Palace.

The Archaeological Museum was cool, with tons of ancient pottery and statues, including some pieces that dated back nearly 3500 years (definitely spent some time checking these out). The Palace was also fun, although we went through it pretty quickly. Afterward we quickly wandered through a museum of modern Greek art.

Despite the history of Rhodes the old town was yet another touristy area, but by this point of the trip I had just accepted that this was the Greek economy.

After the brief history tour we left the old town near the port and did a bit of shopping along the perimeter. Finally we walked along the shoreline, grabbed a quick bite to eat, and headed back to the ship a bit early so we could spend some time relaxing on the boat.

The Old Town

Inside the Archaeological Museum

She got snapped at shortly after this

Palace of the Grand Master


Santorini was the crown jewel of the trip. We didn't do a whole lot while we were there other than drink coffee and have lunch, but it was far and away one of the most beautiful places I've ever seen.

The day started with a transfer by boat from the port at Fera to a town nearby called Oia. For about twenty minutes we watched the sun rise and bounce off of the island, water and ship as we sailed away from Fera. We did this to get out of the touristy area a bit; Oia was still touristy but not nearly as much so as Fera. Once again we got to the island while the town was still waking up.

We walked up about 250 steps to get to Oia, then found an empty patio with a view to have some coffee and a bite to eat. There was no one around at this point and some relaxing music playing, and for the next hour this was about as relaxed and aesthetically pleased as I've ever been.

Finally we got up and walked around a bit, bought a few trinkets, and then at 11 am sat down for lunch with another fantastic view.

After lunch we had to catch a bus back to Fera where we spent a bit of time before getting back on the boat. It was busy in Fera, and we had to take a cable car down (with a long lineup beforehand) so we didn't have much more time on the island.

Once back on the boat we decided to skip dinner to watch the sunset, and we were glad we did as it was a nice ending to the day.

A few espressos to start the day

Lunch with a view

The Amalfi Coast

After Santorini we had a day at sea followed by a stop in Naples. At this point it felt strange that we still had two days left on the cruise as Santorini felt like the climax, and we easily could have gone home at that point.

But on the day at sea we spent some time relaxing, and then luckily had a paid tour of the Amalfi Coast during our stop in Naples. So not much to do or think about in this port either, just get in a van and be carted around by our driver, along with two other couples that we joined the tour with.

While the areas we visited were undoubtedly beautiful they were also pretty empty of the culture that I had been craving throughout the trip. For the most part the day was filled with views, with a small amount of time in both Sorrento and Positano. We were also both pretty worn down by this point of the trip, so I had a hard time enjoying it as much as I likely would have if it had been earlier on in the cruise.

It was a neat time, but if I could do it over again I likely would have stayed in Naples, or maybe gone to Pompeii.

After Naples and the Amalfi Coast it was time to go home. Nothing too interesting happened after that point. I spent the night packing and getting ready for our trip home, while Els checked out the final show of the cruise.

The next day we arrived back in Civitavecchia, took a shuttle to Fiumicino Airport, flew home, and are now back in London enjoying the rest of the weekend.

Photo Albums

Amalfi Coast




Jewel of the Seas






The Amalfi Coast