It hit me this week that connection is a powerful lens through which we can view and understand the world. We always want to connect with our surroundings. Researchers search for the connection between a cause and effect when there are far too many variables to see what's really going on. Salespeople use cues and signals from your verbal and body language in order to connect with your money. Drunk bros at a bar want to connect with girls who want to disconnect from them. Board game enthusiasts like to learn new games and search for the connections between certain actions and strategies with a victorious outcome. I have a bunch of interesting analogies because of my job in telecommunications, so I'm going to describe some technical areas to see what kind of lessons we can learn from them in the realm of human connection.

There are different types of communication systems. Since the physical links are difficult and costly to deploy, various techniques are used to extract performance from existing physical links. Some are classified as Full Duplex, where messages can be sent both ways at the same time, eg. phone calls. There's Half Duplex where communication can take place in one direction at a time, eg. walkie talkies. Then there is Simplex where communication only travels in one direction, eg. AM/FM radio. Translating to human connections, I've written at length about trying and failing to have a full duplex channel with my birth parents. In a proper and respectful conversation, communication takes on half-duplex styles: one person talks, the other listens, then they take turns. Celebrities often employ simplex relationships with their fans, communicating in one way with no feedback, though things like Twitter and Instagram are changing that. This blog uses simplex communication because there isn't a comments section where you can reply to my posts except when you see it posted on Facebook.

Another distinction within communication protocols is whether they are reliable or simple. There are trade-offs when using either. Reliable communications send more acknowledgements and require more computation, so they can be slower. They set up dedicated channels, and sometimes they keep messages in a particular order. Missed messages are retransmitted. On the other hand, simple protocols are faster and require less computation. There is no error checking, it's okay if some data is missing, it's okay if messages are out of order. If you're having a conversation in person, a reliable protocol might look like a coffee date. You want to catch up with someone, so you set up a time, you wait for them to acknowledge the location and details are suitable, then you set up your session. When you do chat, you make sure you heard them correctly, they clarify what you meant when you said such and such, you ask to repeat important details. If a shocking story is shared, one might ensure the timeline is correct. On the flip side, a simple communications protocol might look more like going to the bar after work with some buddies. You send the invite out, there's no formal calendar event, whoever can make it comes out. When you're all chatting, people are trying to shout over the noise, so it doesn't really matter if you didn't hear them. It's casual, everyone's just out and about, trying to take the edge off before moving on with their nights. In some cases, you'll go into a more secure mode and talk a bit more privately with someone. You'll remind them "this stays between us, right?" This situation sounds imaginary because Calgary doesn't really have a strong happy hour culture, or maybe people just don't want to hang out with me after work.

There's another topic of Quality of Service, where different classes of traffic are prioritized differently. I haven't learned much about this, but take it such that certain people have priority when they contact us, and other messages are bumped for others. Here we have our different social circles. The closer someone is to us, the higher the priority we place on their messages, no matter what the message actually is.

There's an older routing protocol called Open Shortest Path First (OSPF), and one aspect I want to highlight is how it uses timers to monitor links between routers. One is the hello timer, which lets neighboring routers know they're still alive. Another timer is the dead interval, which is the duration of four hellos. When a router misses four hellos, it passes the dead timer, so the neighboring router shuts down that link. It's not hard to connect this idea with human conversations, mostly because we formed the machines in our own image. We have a limit for how many missed texts are allowed for our recipients based on our different relationships and contexts. I'll text Carrie when she's at work, but if she doesn't respond after a while, I'll just stop talking at her. I'll wait for her to respond, or maybe I'll get the hint that she hates me.

This is a personal blog, so why is connection so illuminating for me right now? Are some of my relationships confusing me? I'm not really sure, so let's venture through this together and see where it leads.

Family of Origin

I dropped the connections six months ago, but the truth is that they've extended long beyond the dead interval. I've shouted "hello, can you hear me?" thousands of times, and I didn't get an acknowledgement back in the correct format. If viewed as a walkie-talkie conversation, they rarely let go of the "Push to Talk" button. At times it felt like listening to a radio station, where conversation flowed one way and there was no way to communicate back. (In fact, simplex and half duplex channels are sometimes defined in the same way.) As a result, I had to set up my own radio tower (this blog) in order to be heard through other listeners.

Family in Law

Full duplex. Link is up, and communication takes place in both directions at the same time. We come over for dinner, catch up on what happened over the week, help with chores or complex problems, eg. fixing the TV or changing car tires. Hellos are received and responded to. Information and value are exchanged equally and freely. Some messages are dropped in transit, but it's okay because they're re-sent and acknowledged. At the same time, we don't really interact much except on Sunday nights, so there's a pretty small buffer of updates to share each week. We only talk for maybe two hours, then we play on the Wii.

Close Friends

Some connections have been upgraded from low to high speed. More information is flowing between me and some of my neighbors because my emotional and mental bandwidth are being recovered from shutting down other links. Less computational overhead is being spent on sending hellos to routers that aren't listening and responding, so it's now being spent on neighbors that are receiving and responding to data. In turn, casual friends or acquaintances are dropped in order to support the greater needs of the few links.


Carrie is busy connecting with theories, classmates, profs. The communications she's receiving are from her online class message board, from her textbooks, and the ones she's sending are in the form of Word documents. In order to keep up with the incoming signals, she has to reserve resources for the incoming signals and ignore others.


The trauma from my childhood sexual abuse left me disconnected from myself. Identity is comprised of one's spirit, emotions, mind, and body. This past year and a half has been a good time for me to connect with myself again. Through school and work, I had pushed aside the parts of my identity that were sending me warnings and alarms. I ignored my emotions just to get work done, I suppressed my body's tiredness in order to stay awake. Over time, I hit a point of ignoring so many messages that my life started to fall apart. I wasn't able to support Carrie adequately. I wasn't able to process my stress and life's surprises. Now, I feel more authentic, more whole, more like myself. My body, mind, heart, and spirit are communicating with me (is there a quintessential element? my soul?), and I'm trying to respond to and act on those messages.

A question I've been asking myself a lot lately is "what is the cost of happiness?" Many envy the extremely rich, but I think it's great when people are content with making a living wage. Others need extreme popularity, but I think it's special when a person is satisfied with having a few close friends. There are people out there who have black holes in their hearts, and they'll never be satisfied with what they have. They have insatiable appetites, and they only want to connect with you in order to suck the life out of you. My dad's black hole was his appetite for seeing me in person. Traveling to Edmonton 12 times in a year wasn't enough for him and it was too much for me, and that led to me shutting down that connection. One of my exaggerated appetites is to have fun, and sometimes I need to check myself before I wreck myself. There is a time and a place to have fun, and not everyone wants to connect all the time. My body can't exactly handle it all the time anyways since I usually dance so hard. I like to talk to strangers (especially when I'm drunk), but there's an appropriate time and a place for those connections too. Not everyone wants to be my friend.

Hi, I'd like to add you to my professional network on LinkedIn

Sometimes to be happy, you just have to decide to be happy. You can't put conditions on it, so be grateful for what you have. It obviously could be a lot better, but what good does it do if you constantly hold your own happiness ransom? It's okay and normal to place conditions on being happy, but sometimes we need to give ourselves sanity checks on those conditions. I'm trying to appreciate what I do have, which is a lot. I have a good job, The Worst Friends, and an amazing wife. Friends and family don't always want the best for you, and sometimes we use each other in order to feel one way or to avoid feeling another way. Lately, I'm protecting myself by killing some connections and redirecting resources to others. I'm quite extraverted and social, so I have a lot of acquaintances that I need to just leave alone in favour of other people that will help me survive each week. Just like how physical links are a scarce and costly asset in telecommunications, I have a limited amount of bandwidth I can push through my existing relationships, so I need to gain the most happiness I can from the connections I already have and to cut out the ones that aren't helping. Most importantly, I'm unplugging from many of my existing channels because I want to spend more time connecting with myself.

Jonathan Phan Lê @jon_le