2016-04-28

The Artistic Experience

For me, the mark of a truly great artist is the way his or her work seems to outline its own internally consistent world. Frank Zappa called this "Project/Object, and he is the only artist I am aware of who has ever attempted to put a name to this phenomenon.
Project/Object is a term I have used to describe the overall concept of my work in various mediums. Each project (in whatever realm), or interview connected to it, is part of a larger object, for which there is no 'technical name.' 
Think of the connecting material in the Project/Object this way: A novelist invents a character. If the character is a good one, he takes on a life of his own. Why should he get to go to only one party? He could pop up anytime in a future novel. 
Or: Rembrandt got his 'look' by mixing just a little brown into every other color -- he didn't do 'red' unless it had brown in it. The brown itself wasn't especially fascinating, but the result of its obsessive inclusion was that 'look.' 
In the case of the Project/Object, you may find a little poodle over here, a little blow job over there, etc., etc. I am not obsessed by poodles or blow jobs, however; these words (and others of equal insignificance), along with pictorial images and melodic themes, recur throughout the albums, interviews, films, videos (and this book) for no other reason than to unify the 'collection.'
Over the course of his career, Frank Zappa recorded and performed music with a variety of different lead singers and instrument players. Despite that fact, it is relatively easy to recognize a piece of Frank Zappa music within a few seconds of hearing it. His music exists almost as its own distinct universe.

Nor is Frank Zappa the only artist to have ever achieved this. I'm still reeling from the recent passing of another musical and personal hero of mine, Prince. Prince's music also has a distinct signature, and despite the recent appearance of online articles that highlight hit songs we supposedly "didn't know" he wrote, every Prince-penned song has a certain signature. It's a combination of the rhythm and the harmonic structure, and it's always there. His choice of dominant 7th chords to highlight emotional discord, his distinct way of alternating vocal melodies and keyboard melodies, his sparse and rhythmic bass lines, and so on. Every component of a Prince song is a testament to his distinct approach to composition.

Beyond the music, of course, there is the lyrical content and the aesthetic. Prince got a lot of grief over the years for his sexually charged aesthetic, but people far too often miss the other essential, absolutely vital aspects of his lyrics and aesthetic that made all the sex make logical sense: his spirituality, individuality, and monogamy. Prince wasn't just singing about sex, he was singing about achieving a higher plane of existence through the parallel pursuits of religion and authenticity. What so many people missed about all of this - what so many people fail to see about life in general, unfortunately - is that sex is one of the only media that connect spirituality and authenticity.

Another is music, or art more generally.

The idea that a person's art might reflect their creed isn't controversial, it's just that these days that kind of art is so rare and so hard to come by that we squirm a little bit when we see it. Not only that, we tend to deride the artists capable of producing it. Now that he's dead, we all love Prince, but three weeks ago it was only the music nerds who dared to admit that we loved Prince as much as we do. The same is true for Frank Zappa, who was panned and criticized over his whole career. The same is true for Ayn Rand, for Rush, for Dream Theater, for Freddie Mercury, and so on.

Art - great art - tends to make us embarrassed and uncomfortable. By presenting an authentic, artistic ideal, it exposes the shortcomings in our every-day commitments to morality, and love, and sex. We balk or we giggle, but our souls are laid bare by the purity of the art.

And this is true, I hasten to add, even of art that you don't personally care for. I'm not much of a Miles Davis fan, but his art works the same way. I don't like Andy Warhol, but again, when you see his work, you can't deny the presence of his aesthetic, his creed laid out for all to see.

Part of growing up is getting over our embarrassment and learning to appreciate the purity of an artistic aesthetic. Perhaps that's why artists like Prince and Zappa never really achieve the correct level of recognition until they're gone. Only then are their audiences prepared to admit that we recognize a piece of ourselves in their work.

And if you don't see yourself and your own life in this....



...then you haven't really lived at all.

2016-04-25

Space Race

Same time tomorrow?

Could anything be more Stationary Wavesy than an astronaut running a marathon in outer space?
British astronaut Tim Peake became the first man to complete a marathon in space on Sunday, running the classic 26.2 mile distance while strapped to a treadmill aboard the International Space Station. 
As part of the London Marathon, Britain's biggest mass participation race, the 44-year-old spaceman saw London's roads under his feet in real time on an iPad as, 250 miles below him, more than 37,000 runners simultaneously pounded the streets.
While this is undoubtedly a puff-piece, and possibly a PR stunt by either the organizers of the London Marathon, or the UK Space Agency, or both, I think it showcases an important step in the evolution of human society.

After all, Peake didn't just plod along on a treadmill, he viewed the marathon from an iPad. The article doesn't say that he completed the marathon "virtually," but how far away from that are we now? I can imagine little remote-control drones traversing the course in real-time as their treadmill-bound "pilots" control from afar.

No, I don't think this is the future of marathon running. That's not the significant thing here. The significant thing is the way in which our relationship to the world is changing. In essence, Peake completed a marathon via Skype. We're already working remotely and having video conference calls. My daughter spends a little time with her grandparents almost every morning via Skype. Slowly, but definitively, we are changing what it means to be "present."

I don't mean this as any sort of criticism, by the way. There is nothing to criticize. This is simply the direction we're headed. It's an amazing time, and it will be interesting to watch it unfold.

As for myself, I will never feel as good as I do when I'm running alone, in the mountains, with no electronic cameras or devices nearby. (Except perhaps for my fitness tracker.)

2016-04-18

Bad Samaritans

Tyler Cowen links to an article that essentially reduces to the finding that people experiencing medical emergencies cannot count on the kindness of strangers. In that spirit, I'd like to tell you a short story about single-payer health care.

I think people have the general impression that single payer health care is just like other health care, only the government foots the bill. Unfortunately, that's not quite right. Under such regimes, we routinely discover regulatory quirks that impose strict limits on the quantity and quality of care. This is the reality of government medicine. I don't make these stories up - believe me, I very much wish they had never happened to me in the first place. But facts are facts, and this is one such factual story.

Once, when I was attempting to use an insulin pump, I went for a four-mile run. As per the recommendation, I shut the insulin pump down to prevent a hypoglycemic event, but I didn't seem to have timed it correctly because at about the 2-mile mark, I felt myself going low. Unfotunately, I did not have any glucose tablets with me at the time, so I was in a bit of a pickle. No glucose, no phone, no money, and far from home.

Luckily, I was running through the University of Ottawa's campus. I reasoned that there must be a medical clinic nearby. I was right. In a few short minutes, I had managed to find a student medical clinic, and I walked right in.

I told the receptionist what the issue was. I explained that I'm not a student, but I happened to be running and noticed that I went hypoglycemic. I needed some glucose in order to bring my blood sugar back up so that I could walk back to my starting point, where my wife would be waiting to pick me up.

Keep in mind that in Canada, health care is supposedly "universal."

The first thing I was told was that they could not admit me into the clinic because I was not a student of the university. After some hypoglycemia-induced panic, I managed to explain that all I really needed was some sugar. I didn't need treatment, I just needed, you know, some glucose tablets. Four would do.

But the nurses, and later the doctor, explained that in order to give me something for my emergency medical condition, they would first have to admit me to the clinic. And they couldn't do that, because I wasn't a university student.

I don't remember exactly what happened next. Forgive me, I was hypoglycemic. At any rate, eventually one of the nurses or secretaries offered to give me a bottle of orange juice - not as a medical treatment, but just as, you know, a gift between friends. I profusely thanked her and sipped a measured portion of juice to treat my low. The crisis was averted.

Meanwhile, the medical staff looked on, "unable" to help, but unwilling to let me just go. I think someone loaned me their personal cell phone so that I could call my wife to pick me up from the clinic. It took some time, but eventually that's what happened.

2016-04-14

Some Links

For just $500, you can combine fitness tracking technology with a full-body scanner to get even more insight into how your body is changing as you exercise. This is not actually too rich for my blood, but I think I will wait and see whether the technology catches on first.

Science tells us the keys to an effective apology. (H/T Marginal Revolution) Faithful reader PR remarks that this is more reflective of society's current obsession with "science." After all, the findings are basically common sense.

This is probably an old article, but I wanted to gather some ideas for speed workouts I could try over the next few weeks, and its recommendations were really helpful. Note that the distances all work out to be about five kilometers. That's not a coincidence.

The sound you make when you laugh changes, depending on whether you are with friends or strangers.


2016-04-12

Amp Review: Kustom The Defender 5H

I've just uploaded a demonstration of my Kustom The Defender 5H guitar amplifier. In the video below, you can hear what it sounds like:


I'm going to elaborate a bit in the rest of the post, and give you my overall impression of this amplifier.

I purchased this for $99 on Amazon.com. It was a bit of an impulse purchase for me. I already had a nice guitar amplifier - my Egnater Rebel 20, which you've surely heard on many of my YouTube videos, mp3s, etc. It is a nice amplifier, but I got tired of carrying it back-and-forth between my home studio and my rehearsal space. So, I decided I needed a practice amp. I considered all sorts of possible contenders, from large solid state and modeling amplifiers to mini-amps, and so forth.

The reason I decided to get the Defender 5H is because I thought a small-wattage tube amp with a single volume knob would "keep me honest" during my home practice sessions. I thought it would be unforgiving enough to force me to improve my chops. At 5 watts, I figured it was quiet enough for home use.

The amplifier is quite interesting! It stays somewhat clean from about 0 to 1 on the volume scale. By about 3 or so, the amplifier acquires a hefty dose of British tube crunch and a ton of volume - more than enough to keep up with any drummer or band situation. From there, the volume knob really just becomes a gain knob. The volume is already maxed-out by about 3 or 4, and once you get to 6 or 8, you have some really delicious tone. I mean, really delicious tone. This is the best-sounding amplifier I've ever owned.

The beauty of the amp is that it is touch-sensitive. Even at maximum gain/volume, you can achieve perfectly clean tones just by picking softly. It completely cleans up. Of course, incorporating your guitar's volume knob, coil-tapping, and various pedals, I can achieve all the distortion and clean that I get from my Egnater, but it's all in my fingertips.

So last week I brought my Egnater home to use as a practice amp, since its volume can be fully attenuated. After playing the Kustom, the Egnater was actually disappointing. It still sounds as good as ever, but it doesn't respond to my hands like the Kustom does.

I'm blown away. I love this amp.

2016-04-11

Movie Review: Concussion (2013)

Concussion - from banging my head against the wall
Image courtesy Wikipedia.org

Netflix is in a bit of a lull these days. I've watched everything on Netflix that I have any real interest in watching, so now I'm down to the second-stringers, the movies I can convince myself to watch only after a couple of glasses of wine.

Concussion was one such movie. The short plot synopsis was sufficiently vague to convince me that the movie would be interesting. It was something to the effect of, "Housewife becomes a high-class prostitute," but there was some additional wording in there that lead me to believe the movie would feature a lot of intrigue and wouldn't just be another poorly rated, salacious indie film.

I was right on both counts: This was a pretty interesting movie, but not a particularly salacious one. I'm glad I watched it, but I came away horrified. Let me explain.

Concussion tells the story of a lesbian housewife trapped in an unhappy, sexless marriage. I say "lesbian housewife" rather than simply "housewife" not because it's relevant to the plot - as far as I can tell, the lesbianism in the movie is just sort of incidental - but because whoever wrote the script went out of her way to call attention to the fact that main character Abby and her wife are lesbians. It's an odd bit of awkwardness in the movie. I don't really have an issue with the fact that they are a lesbian couple with two children - but this comes up in several scenes as part of the dialogue, even though it doesn't affect the plot whatsoever. So, there ya go: I mentioned it.

Abby, the forty-something lesbian housewife, doesn't work. She spends her days at home, raising the couple's two children, going to spin class, not having sex, and grappling with ennui. After suffering a minor concussion (hence the name of the film, geddit?) when her son hits her in the head with a baseball, Abby decides to go back to work. But going back to work isn't quite enough to cure her ills, so she tries hiring a prostitute. She didn't like it, but when she spills the beans to her business partner - a college aged man connected to a younger, hipper crowd - he sets her up with a higher-class hooker. Abby likes this experience much better, and it's sufficient to convince her to try her hand at high-class, lesbian-only prostitution.

What happens next is all the stuff you might expect from a film like this. After a few awkward beginnings, Abby rediscovers herself in her new role as "Eleanor, the high-class lesbian hooker." She experiences a sexual reawakening, rediscovers her lust for life, meets interesting people, and gradually allows her double-life to bleed over into her real life. Finally, she is forced to confront all the issues that were causing her original ennui in the first place. And they all live dramatically ever after.

There are a few very obvious criticisms to make of this movie. The first is that it is unbelievably white. I don't think there's a single person of color in the movie, aside from one of Abby's Asian clients, who doesn't have a speaking role. But casting an Asian woman as a nameless, writhing body having an orgasm isn't exactly what I'd call diverse casting. To make matters worse, Abby lives an incredibly wonderful life. Her wife is a successful businesswoman who drives a Mercedes. They live in a picturesque colonial New England house in a picturesque New England town. When Abby "goes back to work," we discover that she has one of those jobs that every educated white person imagines to be wonderful: she restores run-down New England homes, decorates them immaculately with only the best and trendiest interior designs, and then sells them at a profit. Their other hobbies include spin classes, yoga, reading feminist literature, and hosting wine and cheese parties. No, I'm not making any of this up. The movie is what happens when SUNY grad students are allowed to wonder aloud where they see themselves at age "42," Abby's self-reported age.

Thus, the movie is pretty heavy on identity advertising. But that's not the most disturbing part for me. No, setting aside the slow pacing and the identity politics, there's something really ugly about the way this story unfolds.

Part of Abby's journey of self-discovery involves becoming a sort of mentor to her clients. She doesn't just have sex with them, she helps them discover themselves in some way. For some, it's learning about their self-worth; for others, it's gaining courage; for others, it's learning about what brought them to a prostitute in the first place. Whatever it is, Abby is there to provide wisdom and sex. In a way, she becomes a sort of mother to each and every one of her clients.

The problem here is that Abby already has children at home who could be receiving that kind of wisdom from their real mother, if she were there. Imparting that wisdom to them is something that would serve as every bit as much of a self-actualizing process for Abby as being a high-class prostitute would be. And if you're sitting there thinking, "Hey, great plot twist!" then I hate to spoil it for you, but the movie doesn't even tackle this dynamic.

Throughout the film, Abby's children at home are given only minor speaking parts. In one scene, they're seen fighting at the store while the camera zooms in on Abby. In another scene, they're asking to be excused from the dinner table so that Abby and her wife can have a serious conversation. In another scene, one of them is performing in a school play while the camera zooms in on Abby's emotionally distant expression.

In other words, the children aren't characters in the movie, they're just part of the backdrop.

But Abby's provision of mentoring services to her clients is not a backdrop, it's part of the plot. It's the means by which she achieves self-actualization. This means that the children in this movie were never really intended to be part of the plot - they're not there to give Abby's life meaning, they're there to symbolize her ennui. They're a source of frustration. The cure to that frustration is to become a mentor to people who badly need mentoring - but not the kids, just some random white-or-occasionally-Asian-orgasm-in-a-sweater.

See, the disturbing part of Concussion is not what it reveals about life or about the characters, but what it reveals about the writers - people who apparently find self-actualization very important, and who see mentoring as a path to obtaining it, but to whom it never even occurs that the rightful and natural recipients of that mentoring are the children who hardly feature in the story at all.

In short, Concussion is a movie about what privileged, educated, white New England women wish they were doing rather than raising families, and that vision largely consists of interior design and a steady stream of sexual partners who pay you to not only have sex with them, but also to sit and listen to you.

Icky.

2016-04-10

Moving To Novolog


Since my insurance company no longer covers Humalog, I'm moving to Novolog. My only prior experience with Novolog was my brief stint with an insulin pump. I don't expect a major difference in my insulin regimen to arise, since the difficulties I had with the insulin pump were unrelated to the kind of insulin I was using.

There are a few differences between Novolog and Humalog. Some of these differences are clinically relevant, and others are known only through the gossip channel of the diabetes community. My inclination is to trust the clinical data and distrust the gossip. However, the gossip does provide a useful indication of "what to watch out for."

So what are the differences?

The first one that I'm looking forward to is the fact that Novolog is less sensitive to temperature than Humalog is. That's important here in the Texas heat. I can't tell you how many times I've fried my Humalog doing something completely harmless, like going for a walk. Yes, I do use a FRIO, and that helps quite a bit, but it isn't a "perfect solution." There isn't a perfect solution, of course, but having an insulin that is less sensitive to temperature will surely help.

The second difference is part-clinical and part-gossip. Humalog is known to be a bit more rapid-acting than Novolog. I seem to recall that in Dr. Bernstein's book, Humalog's time to action was on the order of 5-10 minutes, while all the other rapid-acting analogues are just more like 10 minutes to action. The packaging for all rapid-acting analogues suggests a 15 minute time-to action. 

Semi-related to the time-to-action issue is the notion - and I believe this one is mostly gossip - that Novolog has a "longer tail," meaning that it takes a little longer for Novolog to work its way out of the system. I am not sure how true this is. Even rapid-acting insulin stays in the system for a long time, much longer than the clinical data would indicate, but of course the question isn't whether the insulin is there, but whether it is there in sufficient quantities to impact how we use them. Time will tell for me here, but I'm not too worried since my current routine calls for exercise no sooner than three hours after any meal, and meal times that are spaced at least 4 hours apart, and usually more like 5 or 6 hours apart. 

There is conflicting information about carb ratios. The clinical data - and my previous experience - suggests that there is no difference between Humalog and Novolog in terms of how much a patient needs for the same amount of food. The gossip channel seems to report that one or the other requires more insulin for the same effect. Usually, the suggestion is that one needs more Novolog than Humalog. I suspect, however, that a patient's diet has a big impact on this. The more carbohydrates a person eats, the likely they will need more Novolog than Humalog because Humalog acts sooner and supposedly has a steeper "peak." The less carbs, and more fat, a person eats, the less likely this is to happen, and in fact Novolog might make things better for such people.

As for me, I'll just have to see how it goes. I'll write an update in a few days.

2016-04-05

Some Links

This piece on the Palestine Marathon is fascinating, no matter what your position on the "big issue" happens to be.

I went into this piece on the alt-right skeptical due to its inflammatory headline, but came away largely agreeing with it. The only contentious point is the part about miscegenation, but I have to admit that to the extent that "Roosh" and Chateau Heartiste are affiliated with the alt-right, there is definitely some evidence there. Above all, I was reminded of how much the piece sounded like it was influenced by some of the more obscure writings of Ayn Rand.

Jeffrey Tucker muses about the Libertarian Party debate. He has fair criticisms of all three candidates. I have my favorite, do you have yours?

For once, Matt Zwolinski isn't writing in defense of the welfare state, so this is worth linking to. I did not find him to be as persuasive as David Henderson, however.

This is truly astounding. 12 out of 30 patients on a 600-700 calorie-per-day diet permanently reversed their type 2 diabetes in just 8 weeks. That is, you have a 40% chance of reversing your type 2 diabetes if you can commit to just two months of eating less. Think about that.

2016-04-04

Animation Desk For iPad

I am adding a new label to the blog: Animation. Over the weekend, I happened to pick up an animation app for my iPad, called Animation Desk. I gave it a test spin, using the "crayon" drawing tool and letting "inspiration" strike me as it may. The results are as follows:


I spent a few days trying to research which animation app would be the best one to get. It's just a $4-$5 app, but still, why waste the money? As it turns out, there are only two or three apps worth investigating in the iPad animation space. I chose Animation Desk because it seemed to have the best drawing features. While it may not yield the best immediate results, it seems most appropriate for people interested in improving their animation skills in the long run.

There seem to be two major drawbacks to Animation Desk.

The first is that, if you want to add sound to your animation through the app itself, you're stuck with a 6 frames-per-second rate, which is very slow by animation standards. This is why the animation above looks "choppy." It looks much better at 12fps, but in order to add that useless guitalele soundtrack, I had to accept the 6fps limitation. In the long run, this is not a big deal, since I can use proper sound recording and video productions applications for that purpose, after exporting the animation itself. (Almost like a real, big-budget animation studio, eh?)

The second limitation is that the app does not meet the security standards of YouTube, Facebook, etc., so while it technically has the functionality to be able to upload to those media directly, in practice YouTube will simply interpret the file push as a security threat and disallow it. So you have to go the long way: Save the file, and then upload it via some other application.

At the end of the day, this has already been quite edifying for me. I've gained a lot of respect for professional animators after seeing what they have to go through to animate well. I look forward to future experiments in animation.

2016-03-31

Some Links

Sometime between March 13th and 27th, this post from The Last Psychiatrist appears to have been removed from the web, although the link is still present. The rest of the website appears to be intact. Draw your own conclusions, but this suggests to me that our humble correspondent is still out there.

Everyone is linking to this wonderful post by Martin Gurri on Donald Trump. The link was passed to me many days ago, but like a fool, I ignored it. I should not have, and neither should you.

There has been an unusual recent uptick in homicides in the DFW area.

The ex-wife of a terrorist was not amenable to reconciliation, surprising no one.

The guy who once got in big trouble at Harvard University for making sexist comments now wonders why people aren't equally as concerned about anti-Semitism. It's a fair question, I guess, but pretty rich.

"What the DOJ is really afraid is losing this precedent-setting case in the U.S. Supreme Court."

2016-03-29

A Brief Personal History Of Running Gadgets

Using the Microsoft Band 2 has been a pretty remarkable experience for me. I have been using running gadgets for almost as long as I've been running at all, and they've come a long way. In the Microsoft Band 2, I feel like technology has finally reached the point it needed to be. I can imagine that the technology will continue to improve, but as a consumer, I am not wanting for anything. Finally, I'm "there."

When I first started running, the coolest and most essential piece of running technology was the Timex Ironman Triathlon watch. In those days, it looked like this:

Ironman Triathlon - the ultimate running watch, circa 1990
No lie: I was sooooo jealous when my friend got one of these.

Actually, this one is a more advanced version of the first one I had. The one pictured here possesses what was, at the time, the great quantum leap in watch technology: "Indiglo" technology, which made the watch face easy to see in the dark.

Ironman Triathlon watches were essential because they had full stopwatch functionality - including the critical "lap" function - and could store all 8 laps of your high school 3200m race. With this innovation, you could perform more in-depth race analysis. I remember working with my dad to come up with the right strategy for running a 1600m in 4:25. I had to run my first and last laps in 64 seconds, and I couldn't run any lap slower than 67. It took a few tries, but I nailed it. And I was tracking my lap times carefully at every practice and every race.

Later, Timex introduced an upgraded version of the watch that included a feature I absolutely loved: It was a variable intervalic timer. You could set the timer to count down, say for 2 minutes, and then count down for 4 minutes, and then repeat. In this way, you could use the watch to help guide you through fartlek workouts or other kinds of complex intervals. It was very useful, but its options were limited. You couldn't, for example, program 4 totally different intervals, and then ask the full set of 4 intervals to repeat. I maxed-out its capabilities, but was still left wanting.

Then came the era of the GPS running watch. At first, they felt like belting a deck of cards to your wrist, but it was oh, so worth it! With the ability to track both position and time simultaneously, these new watches could provide you with your current pace, in real time, at any point in the run. All those calculations my father and I did to work out the perfect lap-by-lap 1600m strategy would have been unnecessary if we had had a GPS watch at the time. The watch could have told me, whenever I wanted to know it, whether or not I was on pace.

Nike+ GPS Watch - A Palm Pilot for your wrist!
It's like a Palm Pilot on the back of your hand!

Presumably for this reason - and because there was not enough memory available to provide everything - these watches initially came with one down side: no lap button and no variable intervalic timer. This wasn't too painful, though, because first of all I had already out-grown competitive running by the time they appeared, and second of all, the manufacturers provided a comprehensive social network around their products. You could scan social media maps to find out where people tend to run, and find new courses. You could share your running times and locations with friends. You could run while on vacation and watch the maps commemorate your having run on 2, 3, 4 continents this year...

Nevertheless, it was disappointing having to think your way through a complicated interval workout with only a chronograph. So it wasn't surprising to find that the next-gen models had presented a patchwork solution. You could either download interval workouts from the website, or use the browser interface to create your own, and then upload them to your watch. The problem with option #1 was that this often involved downloading a whole race-specific training program, rather than one simple workout. The problem with option #2 was that the interface was so odd and confusing that I never actually succeeded in uploading one of my workouts to my watch. And I'm tech savvy about these things!

Garmin Forerunner 620 - a real breakthrough
...and that was when running watches got *sexy*

But, the addition of heart rate monitor connectivity was a good one. Suddenly I had the option of training with HR zones. Even more interesting was the fact that I could gain insight into my estimated VO-2 max, a sort of proxy for cardiovascular fitness. Heart rate monitor chest straps aren't very comfortable, and they are extremely dorky-looking, but the data was good and the compromise minimal. I expected at the time that this was the best it was going to get. Anything else, such as full-color screens, would be pure fluff.

When FitBit and similar companies released fitness trackers with built-in heart rate monitors, I was envious. How great would it be to have a running watch with an HR monitor built into the band? But when I saw that Microsoft's Band 2 had the HR monitor and a GPS tracker I was totally sold. This was all the technology I was getting in a running watch, plus all the technology my wife was getting in her fitness tracker, all rolled into one. It could track my sleeping patterns and tell me the weather and all that nifty stuff. And I could use it to pay at Starbucks.

But what really seems to set the Band 2 apart from the competition is the "Guided Workout" functionality. This is the interval solution I've been longing-for across all these years. In theory, this should be dead-simple functionality. We're talking about a customizeable timer combined with constomizeable on-screen text. If something that can measure the amount of ultraviolet radiation coming from the sun can't give you something that a Nokia phone could give you 20 years ago, that would be a problem.

Microsoft didn't just ham-fist a solution together like Garmin did. They made it easy. You just type in your text message, type in the amount of time you want, repeat as desired, and there you go. There's no need to plug your watch into your home computer, there's no uploading, downloading, upload failure, error-please-fill-out-all-required-fields, none of that. Just type and finish typing and you're done. Simple.

Microsoft Band 2 - the arrival of great running technology
Wearable tech for runners - now with cleavage

Finally - finally - I have everything I want. I can track distance, time, and pace in real-time. I can track heart rate in real time, and do it without having to wear a chest strap, and with seemingly no difference in the quality of the reading. I can interact with fellow runners socially. I can do complicated interval workouts. I can program my own.

This watch, this tool, could have made me a better runner if I had had it in my formative years. I envy each and every high schooler learning to race in this day and age. With technology like this, they have data insights that can save them a lot of effort. For the rest of us, these gadgets have gone from being a novelty to being truly useful and fun.

It's been a great journey, and I think we've finally "arrived." New developments are sure to happen in the future, but as I said at the outset, I am no longer missing any piece of the puzzle. The Microsoft Band 2 can do it all, at least for me.

2016-03-28

Jerk Superman

Did I do good, dad?

When I was growing up, the story of Superman's childhood was told in a very specific way. Clark Kent was cast as an outsider, an otherwise typical teenager who discovers a set of innate abilities that make him quite different from his peers. These abilities frighten other people when they encounter him, so Clark hides his powers, hoping to fit in, hoping to belong, but never really feeling as though he's part of the crowd. As he grows up, he eventually discovers his own origins, makes peace with his individuality, and embraces the now-famous line "With great power comes great responsibility." He finds his place among mankind by becoming its protector. He might never truly be "one of us," but by putting himself in service of the human race, he becomes a valued member of our community. 

I'd like to call this version of Superman's story "the classic Superman." It's not a story that is particularly unique to Superman. Many classic comic book heroes share a similar story arc. Wikipedia even notes the similarities between the Superman storyline and that of Edgar Rice Burroughs' classic A Princess of Mars. In all of these stories, a heroic outsider finds a place in society by serving it.

More recently, however, the classic Superman story has evolved into something much worse and, unfortunately, much more pervasive. I call this "Jerk Superman."

Jerk Superman

In the Jerk Superman story, a young rebel from somewhere in the Iowa cornfields lashes out angrily at the society that refuses to give him proper recognition. His super powers are much weaker and easier to ignore than those of the classic Superman - he's a gifted pilot or soemthing. He has a brilliant, sharp mind and an excellent physique, but the former is impeded by a small-town society that doesn't "understand" him, while the latter is occupied by things like barroom brawls and unlawful activity (which serve to reiterate the point that the small-town society has it out for him). Despite society's disapproval of the person he really thinks he is - but never actually proves he is - he is often depicted as a womanizer, an attractive rebel who can have his way with any beautiful young girl in town.

It's usually while being caught in the act of a sexual escapade, or a barroom brawl, or a schoolyard fight, that Jerk Superman is confronted by his flannel-shirt wearing father figure, a wise but simple man who recognizes Jerk Superman's potential to be who he really is, if he would just learn to control his temper. Sometimes this is shown with a dose of, "You, alright!? I learned it by watching you!" This father figure is the only person in the whole Iowa cornfield who recognizes the "superman" attributes of Jerk Superman, where everyone else sees only the jerk. 

Jerk Superman's mother typically dies early; her only role in the story of Jerk Superman is to make him more misunderstood, man.

Jerk Superman's life is next turned upside-down by some sort of cataclysm. Sometimes it's an alien invasion, sometimes it's the literal end of the world, sometimes it's the sudden, unexpected death of the father figure (his flannel shirt left smoldering in the ashes)... And sometimes it's not a terrible act of destruction, but a happy accident, like the discovery of an amazing device, the meeting of a mysterious stranger, or the winning of an important contest.

Whatever the cataclysm, Jerk Superman finds himself suddenly thrust among a secret society of Ubermensch, a rich, ingenious, and powerful group with seemingly infinite resources. Usually, no mere plebe knows they exist, but occasionally they are just ivory-tower military personnel on a faraway space station that never has to sully itself by intermingling with the kind of small-town normals that were too stupid to recognize how great Jerk Superman really is. They're the best of the best, and they've come with an invitation for none other than Jerk Superman.

They recognize Jerk Superman's true greatness for what it is. Not only that, they need him, they need his special powers to save the world, or fight a powerful foe, or et cetera. For centuries, sometimes eons, these Ubermensch have been hard at work on an important project whose final hour of completion has finally arrived. Despite their efforts, however, they are just one brick shy of a load. They need the special, hidden powers of Jerk Superman to finish the job. They've plucked him out of the cornfield especially for this moment.

They are not without their reservations. Like the small-towners, they worry that Jerk Superman's temper is too hot, or that he has not yet learned to harness his powers. They - and especially their sultry young daughter, who can already do everything that Jerk Superman can do, but in form-fitting spandex - disapprove of his womanizing. But an important new father figure among the Ubermensch has personally vouched for Jerk Superman in some way, which is enough for the rest of them to entrust the future of the entire universe to a rookie.

Then comes the rest of the story. Jerk Superman out-wits and infuriates his principle rival among the Ubermensch, which causes the spandex-clad Uberfrau to fall madly in love with him. (Later, he will save the day by somehow letting the rival do some trivial thing, which will win over the rival's lasting friendship.) He pushes everyone to the brink. Despite all logic and reason pointing in a particular direction, Jerk Superman bets the whole farm - and the lives of anyone who happen to be aboard his spaceship or whatever - on a "feeling" he has. He crazily does something seemingly stupid, and right before the whole universe explodes, he threads some sort of needle, and the universe lives happily ever after.

For his efforts, he is finally recognized as the true Jerk Superman his is. He is decorated with special Ubermensch awards, he consummates his relationship with the spandex chick, and - crucially - he returns to his small town, where the ones who refused to recognize his greatness must now grudgingly admit that, god, he's good.

This is a pretty icky fantasy.

Many stories have followed this particular arc. Let me name a few from memory:
  • Interstellar
  • Star Trek (2009)
  • Looper (here, it's more of a minor, parallel storyline)
  • The Fifth Element
  • Total Recall (2012)
There are, of course, many more stories like this. How many can you name?

Some Things You Might Have Missed About Jerk Superman

I've touched on a few important themes in the Jerk Superman story that make it a lot worse than the classic Superman tale. Now I'd like to highlight the differences between the two.

While both stories are about outsiders, the classic Superman wants to belong; Jerk Superman doesn't really care about that, he just wants people to recognize his greatness - whether he's actually demonstrated it or not. 

The classic story follows an outsider as he finds a way to put his own unique talents to the service of humanity; once having done so, society embraces him. Jerk Superman would still be rotting in his small town if he had not been individually selected by the Ubermensch and begged for help.

In the classic story, society struggles on, doing the best they can. Then one day Superman comes along and finds a way to make our lives better. Through this process, classic Superman rises above his modest small-town roots to discover and define a new sense of self. He finds validation in himself by becoming the hero that the world needs. In Jerk Superman's story, society is just doomed, its denizens are stupid, bitter, angry, hopeless. Jerk Superman is more than happy to leave them all behind when he discovers the Ubermensch. The aristocracy provides external validation of his identity by choosing him and placing their faith in him. All Jerk Superman wants from this process is external validation. He wants everyone to recognize the greatness he's always had. "Finally!"

Classic Superman has a one, true love who he must win over. Jerk Superman simply plows through a never-ending series of conquests until he finally womanizes the sexiest young thing the Ubermensch have to offer. Even worse, she hates him. But, god, he's just so good, and besides, she kinda likes a bad boys.

Classic Superman lives by a creed, Jerk Superman breaks all the rules.

In the old story, classic Superman's dead parents nonetheless manage to instill in him a strong moral compass, a set of principles to which Superman dedicates himself for the rest of his life, even if that means sometimes standing athwart of others. He knows, deep-down, that his parents always loved him and he does their memory justice by living by what they taught him. Jerk Superman is a disobedient trouble-maker whose birth parents died before they could validate him, and whose step-parents die before he can demonstrate his true greatness to them. Thus, he must obtain moral validation from his new adopted society by being better than they are, and maybe an old codger at the end of the film buys him a drink and tells him that his father would have been proud. Morally, though, Jerk Superman learns nothing.

Coda

You could argue that Jerk Superman is the better story, because the character is flawed. An imperfect hero, the argument goes, is much more approachable than an ideal type. None of us is perfect, so we can't place ourselves in the shoes of a morally perfect god. We can't relate to classic Superman's super-strength or his heat-ray vision, and we can't relate to what it feels like to always stand for truth, justice, and freedom. But everyone knows what it's like to fall short of moral perfection, so if Jerk Superman can overcome his moral shortcomings, maybe we can overcome our own.

But why has this particular tale of pointless self-aggrandizement become so pervasive in American media? I don't mind that Jerk Superman is a flawed hero, but why does he have to be a narcissist on an endless quest to score the ultimate chick and prove that he did good, dad?

Why is this the kind of hero for whom we have an appetite nowadays? Why is it difficult for people to identify with a superhero with an internal sense of personal identity who is motivated by a strong sense of right and wrong? 

2016-03-24

Some Links


  1. The evolution of Deepika Padukone. Interesting throughout.
  2. My latest at Sweet Talk Conversation, on hermeneutics. Adam Gurri provides additional context.
  3. David Henderson lauds Barack Obama. I would guess that this sort of politicking requires a great deal of experience, which explains why Obama failed to take advantage of similar opportunities in earlier diplomacy with the despots of Africa and Latin America.
  4. Catherine Rampell on the soda tax, or as I have called it, making it illegal to be fat.
  5. They were also discussing the ramifications of fat-versus-skinny on the Jason Ellis Show yesterday. I was going to link to it, but his show archives are only current up to February 6th. Watch that space for the 3/23/2016 show, and you'll be able to see how it dovetails nicely with link #4, above.
  6. I need to write something about this totally awesome article on running form, but I haven't figured out how to say it better than she already said it. Read it now!
Bonus content! Here's some video footage I took of the storm cell that rolled in on me last night, with some commentary. Later on, the weather radar detected circular motion in the clouds and we had to take cover, but luckily it was a small storm that passed by uneventfully.


2016-03-23

In Two Decades We've Lost The Ability To Understand Pop Music


The article making making the rounds this morning was an interview in Vulture with the Hanson brothers, on the twentieth anniversary of their infectious breakout hit, "MMMBop." Hanson was never a truly great band, but I thought they were better than they got credit for being. The interview itself is rather interesting, and provides insight into the fact that Hanson was a band composed of actual songwriters.

But the part of the interview that's causing a stir is this:
Have you heard any good covers of it over the years?
T.H.: I gotta be honest: No. 
I.H.: You know why? People can’t sing the chorus right. Most of the time they syncopate it wrong.

Z.H.: I think “MMMBop” probably needs a really good cover … 
T.H.: Someone needs to either make it totally their own in a genuinely unique way, or it needs to be a band that has a sensibility for old R&B. Fitz and the Tantrums could maybe do it … 
I.H.: If Bruno Mars were interested, he’d probably find a way to kill it.
In the opinion of the Hanson brothers, the problem with all the covers of their most famous song is that people can't play the rhythm correctly. This has incited a lot of media eye-rolling.

Emily J of KISS FM 92.1 writes this:
So, what exactly have we all been messing up since 1996? Syncopation. Yeah, I’m not sure any of us know what that is. Ok, I take that back, any of us who aren’t musicians probably don’t know what that is. But, according to Hanson even musicians are not up to the bands standards. Everyone from One Direction to Phish have covered “MMMBop” and, so far, no band has sang the syncopated chorus correctly.
Hello Giggles comments with dripping sarcasm, "SOOO, apparently, we’re getting the syncopation wrong. The word “MMMBop” must be said *just* so." Uproxx writes with tongue in cheek, "Pay close attention to that syncopation, y’all."

I don't think people understand the severity of the problem. "MMMBop" was 1997's throw-away hit, a song and a band universally derided as being uncool, unmusical, and everything that was wrong with corporate music. In a sense, despite being a hit, it was considered to be the worst of the worst.

And yet, twenty years later, people can't really even seem to get the rhythm of it right.

When people ask me why I blame musicians for the slow death of music, this is the kind of thing that comes to mind.