2018-11-13

Stan Lee And The Set Of All Possible Comic Books


Like so many people, I too am saddened to hear that Stan Lee has passed away. While the Marvel Comics characters and artwork have long captivated my imagination, I was never as big a fan of comic books as others. Since I’m not really a part of that world, I’ll leave the more important eulogizing to those from whom it would be more genuine.

There is one aspect of Stan Lee’s professional work, however, that resonates with me more than all the others, and it’s something that I haven’t seen others really discuss in depth; at least not from a conceptual standpoint. I’m talking about Lee’s greatest innovation, the concept of a “Marvel Universe,” in which all characters existed and played roughly by the same set of rules. This development enabled characters to interact with each other as the storylines demanded, without the writers’ having to create elaborate sub-plots to introduce, say, Spiderman into the Swamp Thing storyboard. This created “one big Marvel Comics story,” and any particular comic book you may have read was a part of that over-arching story. It’s something that has been copied throughout the sci-fi and fantasy genres. Both Star Wars and Star Trek have pulled off something similar, enabling them to merchandise books, video games, and other off-shoot media that contain wholly original stories that nonetheless hold equal appeal to the fanbase as “canonical” stories. From a business standpoint, it’s a shrewd move that means selling more stuff to more hungry fans. From an artistic standpoint, though, it’s nothing short of incredible.

Why? Because writing one great story is an amazing thing that most of us never accomplish; but creating a world in which every imaginable story can exist simultaneously is a stroke of genius. That’s what Stan Lee accomplished.

Lee wasn’t of course, the first one to do this. I first became aware of this notion years ago, while reading the Wikipedia page for Conan the Barbarian. It’s a fascinating entry in its own right, if you’re into that sort of thing. But this in particular struck a chord with me:
In February 1932, Howard vacationed at a border town on the lower Rio Grande. During this trip, he further conceived the character of Conan and also wrote the poem "Cimmeria", much of which echoes specific passages in Plutarch's Lives.[3][4] According to some scholars, Howard's conception of Conan and the Hyborian Age may have originated in Thomas Bulfinch's The Outline of Mythology (1913) which inspired Howard to "coalesce into a coherent whole his literary aspirations and the strong physical, autobiographical elements underlying the creation of Conan".
And later:
"The Phoenix on the Sword" appeared in Weird Tales cover-dated December 1932. Editor Farnsworth Wright subsequently prompted Howard to write an 8,000-word essay for personal use detailing "the Hyborian Age", the fictional setting for Conan. Using this essay as his guideline, Howard began plotting "The Tower of the Elephant", a new Conan story that was the first to truly integrate his new conception of the Hyborian world.
Conan the Barbarian has endured across generations for going on 100 years, from the pulp fiction age, to the comic book age, to the movie age, and beyond. To some, he seems a silly character, but the reason a character like that would prove so enduring is thanks to the comprehensive conceptual effort that was put into creating him. Robert E. Howard didn’t just write some good stories, he “coalesced into a coherent whole his literary aspirations,” and established a fictional setting that would form the basis for all Conan stories ever written and published. Howard invented a history, a geography, a religious mythology, and so on, all in service of his Conan character.

To be as clear about this as possible: First, Howard conceived of a world, then he wrote just one story inhabiting that world, then he established an entire universe for his future work, then he created a body of literary world that has endured for generations. It’s not just that Howard wrote some good stories or created a good character, it’s that he put in the effort in advance to create a literary universe that formed the conceptual basis of all his stories, and stories that additional authors would write in the future, as well. That’s the innovation.

Nor was Howard the first to ever do such a thing. One of his contemporaries, a favorite of mine named Edgar Rice Burroughs, did something similar many times over with his Mars series, his Venus series, his Pellucidar series, and his Tarzan series. J.R.R. Tolkien did it. C.S. Lewis did it. And so on.

I think one of the reasons the death of Stan Lee is going to hit our culture so hard is because there are so few artists today who are interested in creating a conceptual world for their work to inhabit. Lee was ninety-five years old. He was one of the last artists of our time to have built such a world. The only modern author I can think of who has even come close to this is J.K. Rowling, who is also not coincidentally lauded for her complex storytelling. There are few others.

Certainly, this sort of thing has long since fallen out of vogue in the music world. A great pop artist, it is said, will evolve with the times. The notion that a composer of music gets to invent his or her own rules, and compose a musical universe according to those rules, went out of fashion with the modern composers of the mid-Twentieth Century. Many painters have a style in which they work, but how many of them have a consistent set of conceptual rules that unifies their entire body of work? Not since, again, the mid-Twentieth Century have we seen anything like that.

Conceptually complex art is a thing of the past, and Stan Lee was a part of that tradition. There was once a time when creative artists would aspire to that complexity, would infuse future works with elements from their past works in the name of conceptual continuity. These efforts elevated the artist’s work from being a one-off pretty picture or nice story to serving an over-arching universe that the consumer could enter and exit as they saw fit. Maybe you only really liked Frank Zappa’s Hot Rats, and not his London Symphony Orchestra. But those with a greater hunger for what Zappa did can explore both albums and more. That’s why they call it “Zappa’s Universe.”

So the death of Stan Lee takes us one step further away from a world in which artists create the set of all possible things, rather than just one single thing. Our artistic consumption will flatten out a little bit. The range of our artistic consumption will get a little shallower. We’ll miss him, but we won’t realize it until a few more Marvel movies come out without his input and introduce things to the Marvel Universe that don’t seem quite right. We’ll wonder why they don’t fit. We’ll grow bored and move on.

2018-11-12

Silicon Valley Is Weird, A Continuing Series



The other day, I clicked through to the profile of a friend-of-a-friend on Facebook. This individual is a Silicon Valley dweller, and arguably a stereotypical one. At least, that’s how it appeared to me.


This individual had cast an early ballot in the mid-term election, and had posted a status update that revealed and invited discussion about everything he had voted on. Every senator, ballot initiative, judge, etc. This behavior – revealing in a public forum exactly how he voted and attempting to discuss it publicly with all comers – struck me as being incredibly odd. For one thing, I’m a big fan of the anonymous ballot. It’s a privilege that protects us from suffering any number of negative consequences for voting our beliefs. (Clearly, this guy wasn’t worried about the negative consequences.)


But the other thing about it is that it’s a socially awkward way to have a discussion about politics. If you get to know me (or read my blog), you’ll soon discover what my politics are. That’s mostly a function of the fact that I talk about the things I believe, I try to learn more about the issues, I try to share what I’ve learned, and I hope to learn from others. Announcing where I stand on every ballot issue on a particular election doesn’t provide a format for conversation. It’s a declaration: Look at me, look how I vote. I’m not typically very warm to the “signaling” theory of human behavior, but what else could such a thing be? Especially since, I should note, this person voted precisely along party lines.


Well, it looked like really weird behavior to me, but I just set it aside in my mind under the belief that this just happened to be a weird guy.


But then this morning I happened to be reading through the first few posts of Slate Star Codex and noticed that “Scott Alexander” had done precisely the same thing. Okay, Alexander’s blog post was a little better, since he actually provided reasoning for each one of his votes, and critical discussion in the comments section of his blog is a well-established norm. That makes this behavior much more conversant, but it doesn’t make it any less weird. I’ll happily discuss the issues with anyone; but I don’t want to go point-by-point through your ballot. WTF. It’s self-absorbed.


There are, of course, many weird things about Slate Star Codex. The most recent post is about ketamine, why the literature thinks it works to treat depression, and reasons we once thought it worked but now know to be wrong. The post itself is actually fine and even a little interesting, if you have a pharmaceutical or medical background. The comments section, though, turned into a shit-show of self-reporting on how people felt when they recreationally tried ketamine, heroin, etc., themselves.


That’s Silicon Valley culture for you, though. They do a lot of drugs and they post their election ballots on social media. If it were just some odd sub-culture, we could scratch our chin anthropologically for a moment and then go back to our lives. But this is a sub-culture with deep pockets, who have the collective ear of politicians, and who have a stated objective of nudging society toward their beliefs. We all have our own view of what we want society to be like; I don’t happen to think that making society more like an odd collection of drug-abusing swingers is a step in the right direction.


I have a lot more to say about Silicon Valley culture, but I’ll save it for future posts, as I continue to report on the trend.

2018-11-11

Unmet Needs

A lot of the questions I encounter on Quora involve relationship advice, often from married couples or people who have been in a relationship for a number of years.

It seems to me that one of the primary sources of relationship discord is a mismatch between what a person receives from their partner, and what they think they ought to receive instead. This sentiment expresses itself variously. Sometimes the issue is sex, sometimes it’s housework, sometimes it feeling special or feeling loved. “He never _________.” “She never _________.”

It’s a surreal mental exercise to compare such complaints to any couple’s wedding photos. Pay close attention to the way the couple looks at each other in their wedding photos (especially the candid shots). You’ll be amazed by how much tenderness there is between them, how much mutual concern, how much love. If you have children or have spent much time around those who do, the facial expressions will seem very familiar to you, because they’re nearly identical to the way people look at their children. Seldom will you see such pure love expressed between two people as you will in their wedding photos.

This got me thinking: What happens in a relationship that two people so utterly dedicated to caring for each other (in both senses of the term) would end up feeling as though their partners no longer care enough to _________ [whatever]?

Surely, in some cases, children play a major role here. It’s a lot of work to look after somebody’s needs. When children arrive, their needs become the first priority within the family. It’s natural that some of our own needs fall by the wayside as we prioritize the needs of our children. It’s also natural to be caught off-guard by which of our own needs our partner has decided to de-prioritize. Our partners were so good at looking after that need, whatever it was, that we accustomed ourselves to the notion that it was a need that wouldn’t ever be taken for granted again. One day, a baby arrived, and it was. Or so it feels to us, anyway.

Even if you don’t have children, though, life events progress such that the meeting of some of our partner’s needs takes a back seat to the meeting of some other pressing concern: our career, our housework, our outside obligations, and so on.

When we’re in the earlier phases of a relationship, one of the great strengths of our situation is our willingness to meet the other person’s needs to the greatest extent possible. When things in a relationship start to get frustrating, it seems a lot of us are missing an unmet need that was previously met. It seems relatively straightforward to suggest that the path forward here is to double-down on meeting your partner’s needs. Remember how much fun it was to care for them like that, to live as though your partner was the most important thing in the world?

Maybe he or she still is.

2018-11-10

Against Running Clowns

A recent video published by Runner’s World magazine shows ordinary people attempting to keep Eliud Kipchoge’s world-record marathon pace for just two hundred meters. When you click through to watch the video, you will see people stumbling and falling, collapsing beside the treadmill, flailing their arms in a futile attempt to keep the pace. You’ll see people lumbering and bounding with all of their might. Only a couple of people show even a hint of the grace and style that Kipchoge himself exhibits while running.


While most people interviewed in the video talk about the fact that the world-record pace is amazing because it is impossible, a high-school 800m runner near the end of the video has quite a different perspective. He says he thinks anyone can run that fast, if they put their mind to it. He says he can run that pace for eight-hundred meters, although he couldn’t run that pace for a full mile.


The difference between these two perspectives – wow, it’s impossible on the one hand, and anyone can do this if they try on the other hand – couldn’t be more stark, and it exemplifies the two different kinds of runners there are in the world. (More broadly, it highlights the two different kinds of people there are in the world, but I guess that’s another story.) Some people run like clowns, with goofy smiles on their faces because, hey, running is craaaazy! Look at me, folks, I’m crazy! I’m a runner! WOO!!! The other kind of person sees running as a challenge, a vehicle through which we can test and overcome our limits. It can be a little masochistic at times, but it’s nothing to clown around about. It’s just like any other individual sport.


As I’ve surely written before, the clown-runners have slowly overtaken the other runners in number and in influence in the sport of long-distance running. Who wins a race, and how fast they ran in order to win it, is information fit for an appendix or an epilogue. The real story, nowadays, is that we’re all trying our best! WOO!!!


You can easily see the corrosive influence of this attitude on the sport. It’s instructive to see the difference between the people in the photos of this retrospective of Atlanta’s Peachtree Road Race and these goofballs:




Is it any wonder that people today flail and stumble futilely while trying to run a 35-second 200? Maybe, just maybe, running is about more than participation. Maybe running is also about learning how to move your body quickly and safely.


When I see people struggling so hard to run a 200 meter dash, I’m not filled with awe over Kipchoge’s world record. (That fills me with awe all on its own.) Instead, I’m overcome with pity and with bewilderment that so many people who call themselves runners can’t sprint for 200 meters without flailing wildly. None of these people will ever set a world-record, of course, but after a couple of years of running, they should at least mastered the basics of a respectable runner’s gait. Flailing is what toddlers do when they try to run. Adults should have enough agility to be able to sprint without flailing. Whatever a person’s top speed is, and however slow it might be, it should be attained without the risk of falling flat on the ground and bouncing.


To some extent, this ties into the obesity epidemic. Most people are so overweight these days that it has become difficult to perceive healthy-weighted people as anything other than “too skinny.” Fat has become the norm. That’s a burgeoning health crisis that needs to be addressed, and so far, the best the running community has come up with has been to gently pad newcomers’ egos with proclamations about how the one and only thing that matters about running is participation. Never mind the fact that the average runner risks an injury or a fall simply by attempting a two-hundred meter sprint!


Imagine if other sports worked the same way. Imagine that your tennis coach told you not to worry so much about getting the ball inside the lines, that as long as you got out there and swung your racquet, you’re a winner. Imagine if a rock-climbing instructor downplayed the impact of unsafe climbing habits since, after all, the number one thing is to just get “out there.” Imagine if a football coach didn’t instruct his offensive line on how to take a hit safely, because those kids aren’t necessarily trying to make it to the Super Bowl, anyway. If any such people were your coaches, or coaches to your children, you’d understandably try to get them fired, either for being lousy coaches or for failing to teach their players about the basics of sports safety!


And so it is with running. The running community – coaches, friends, group run leaders, and so on – owe newcomers to the sport more than these people are getting. We owe our fellow runners a serious discussion about safe and efficient running form. We owe our fellows an introduction to sprint intervals, how to do it safely, how to do it effectively, how to ensure that your sprint looks different than your long-distance form, and in which ways they should be similar. We owe other runners our attention when they step to the awards podium, and we owe them applause when they win – not just when or because they cross the finish line, but when they win. We owe it to ourselves to recognize that fast running is praiseworthy, and that it is possible, if you set your mind to it. We owe it to future generations of runners that when they look at old photos of our road races, they see normal-looking people running as fast as they could, rather than clowns in silly costumes whooping and cheering for being craaaazy. WOO!!!


We owe it to our sport to keep it a sport. I hope you will join me.

2018-11-09

The Labyrinthine World Of "Fairness"


I was reading David Henderson's recent blog post about the extent to which a tax cut is "regressive." I was also reading a rather thoughtful comment left beneath that post by one "Vivian Darkbloom," which reads in part:
[T]he problem with these sorts of analyses of the progressivity of tax *cuts* is they fail to account for the status quo baseline which was (and is) very highly progressive. It is difficult to make a “tax cut” progressive in the above-referenced sense when a very large percentage of lower quintile groups pay zero tax. On average, the reduction of zero from zero is zero. One would need to introduce (more) refundable tax credits to achieve [sic] a different result. […] By their very nature, given the existing system, tax *cuts* (taken logically as a reduction of tax otherwise paid under existing law) will almost always to some extent be “regressive”[.]
Let's think about fairness. One view of fairness is that those who earn lower incomes ought to pay a smaller share of taxes, and this is called "progressive taxation," because as a person makes more money, they pay progressively more in taxes. Another view of fairness is that existing taxes are too burdensome on everyone, rich and poor alike, and that those taxes ought to be reduced. A third view of fairness is that if taxes are to be reduced, lower-income people ought to enjoy an equal share of that tax reduction as higher-income people, ie., we should reduce taxes for everyone, not just the wealthy. A final (for now) view of fairness, as "Vivian Darkbloom" points out, is that in an already-progressive taxation regime, it is not possible to offer the same rate of tax reduction to people of all income levels, since those at the lower end of the spectrum are already paying little to no taxes.


Tax policy is a complicated world. Suppose we wanted to target $1 million as the value of our total tax reductions. One way we could do that would be to simply reduce the highest income tax rate by an amount that corresponds to a $1 million reduction in tax revenue. Another, more complicated, way to accomplish this would be to reduce the rates on all tax brackets by some amount, such that the total reduction in tax revenue is $1 million. In that case, we'd have to reduce each bracket's tax rate by a slightly different amount, in order to end up at $1 million. The reason we have to do that is because, under a progressive tax regime, all brackets pay different rates. It's like trying to figure out how to make $7.39 using only coins: you can't just draw an equal number each of pennies, nickels, dimes, quarters, and dollars. You need an unequal amount of each kind of coin to get to $7.39, and so it is with tax rates.


But then again, we encounter the problem of fairness. If we do what we have to do to the tax rates in order to arrive at $1 million, one bracket's rate might be reduced more than another bracket's rate, and this leaves us open to the criticism that our tax cut wasn't "fair."


One could avoid this criticism if one simply decided to reduce all tax rates by the same amount - say, one percent - without any regard to the resulting bottom line reduction in tax revenue. This might help address concerns about the fairness of the tax cut, but it creates a new problem. Typically, a government decides how much of a tax cut it can afford, based on its budget, and then cuts taxes accordingly. Putting the tax cut first forces us to review the budget second, eg., "Here's how much of a tax cut I want to give people, what impact will that have on the budget?" Giving a one-percent tax cut to all brackets equally may not be affordable; then the government may decide to give no one a tax cut, since it can't afford to give everyone a tax cut. Is that "fair?"


We complicate things even further when we consider marginal tax rates. In general, we tend to think of low marginal tax rates as being more fair than high marginal tax rates. We don't want to punish people for earning an extra dollar, we just want them to pay a particular tax rate based on their income level. If a person is lower-income, we might even prefer that they have lower marginal tax rates than a person who has a higher income, since we definitely do not want to punish the poor for improving their lot.


In that situation, if we want to give everyone an "equal" or "fair" tax cut, not only do we have to cut the individual bracket rates equally, we also have to ensure that the marginal tax rates either remain the same as they were before, or are reduced equally across all tax brackets. Mathematically, though, there are only two situations in which we can make a tax cut equal across total rates and marginal rates for all tax brackets: (1) a flat tax, in which everyone pays the same rate, and (2) a linearly progressive tax, where bracket 1 pays 1%, bracket 2 pays 2%, bracket 3 pays 3%, and so on.


Flat taxes are often seen as unfair to the poor. Because they're not explicitly progressive, they are often seen as regressive "as a percentage of disposable income." As for linear tax rates, I don't know that they've ever been tried, and at any rate, we certainly don't live in a linear tax rate regime today, so it's really only a hypothetical consideration at this point.


How are you doing? Are you lost yet?


When we set out to discuss tax rate changes and "fairness," starting with the tax regime and reasoning through what might be the "fairest," we quickly get bogged down by purely mathematical considerations. No one's even interested in having that kind of a conversation, not really. No one wants to optimize the tax regime, they just want to either raise more money for government spending, or reduce taxes on ordinary people. How they ultimately get there is less a function of their mathematical treatment of the various tax rate possibilities, and more a function of their preexisting sense of "fairness."


Now, at last, I've gotten to the point. When we talk of fairness or justice, we usually have our preferred outcome in mind, and we engage in reasoning in order to justify the outcome we've already settled on. We know we don't want to raise taxes on just the poor, that wouldn't be fair, so we figure out how to raise taxes in a way that doesn't disproportionately hurt the poor. We know we want to give everyone a tax break, so we figure out how to do that, or at least to appear to do that. In any event, our preexisting sense of fairness is driving our thinking. We don't start by asking "What is fair?" as Plato did. Instead, we start out knowing what fairness is and engage in a series of arguments for why what we want to do is the best example of "fair."


It's like a child who doesn't want to clean up her toys. First, she says she can't because she's busy with something else. Then she says she can't pick up those toys because she wants to play with them. Then she says she can't pick them up because she's tired. Then, hungry. Then, she has to go to the bathroom. Anything is a valid reason, because she's not really considering whether it's right to pick the toys up. She knows only that she doesn't want to pick them up, and constructs reasoning that is consistent with that preexisting goal.


The psychologists call this "motivated cognition." One person describes it as "the act of deciding what you want to believe and using your reasoning power, with all its might, to get you there." He said so in an article arguing against motivated cognition and in favor of… a tax! Now there is some irony for you.


Well, anyway, where does this leave us all? In the end, it's helpful to remember your tendency toward motivated cognition when you're thinking about fairness, not because it might be leading you astray, but because you'll find it more helpful to know what your prior beliefs are before you undertake to solve a problem. If your priors tell you that rich people are greedy opportunists who use their undue influence to skew government in their favor, then your discussions of tax policy will reflect those priors. Far better to simply start by announcing your prior in the beginning, and hammering out the details. Otherwise, we risk having some meta-argument about tax policy, which is really an argument about how we view rich and poor. Or whatever.


Way back, two thousand years or more ago, when Plato wrote The Republic, he concluded that justice (or fairness) was doing good to your friends and doing bad to your enemies. This seemingly brutal description of fairness actually makes more sense, the more you think about it. When we aim at fairness, we start with some sense of who we favor and who we disfavor, and then we engage in motivated reasoning to dole out unequal shares of reward and punishment accordingly. Wouldn't it be nice if we all kept this in mind in advance, before we started talking about what's "fair?"

2018-11-08

The Pink Premium

A well-worn social media trope is the concept of the “pink tax,” which is purported to be the higher price women pay for products geared toward women, relative to the male equivalents of the same products.


One classic example of the pink tax is the disposable razor. I checked a well-known online retailer for prices just now and confirmed that a 12-pack of “lady shavers” currently costs $17.16, while a 12-pack of ostensibly gender-neutral but probably male-oriented razors is $8.92. That amounts to a quite significant difference of over eight dollars.


An obvious question to ask at this point, though, is why would any woman pay almost twice as much to use a pink razor, especially considering that the alternative razor is a gender-neutral yellow color? To the extent that women choose to use the higher-priced pink razors, we’d be forced to conclude that the color of the razor really is valuable to them on some level. I’m not here to question women’s collective color preferences. If this is so, then this hardly amounts to being a “pink tax.” Instead, this is an example of how the market economy is capable of discovering preferences that are more valuable to consumers than even the consumers themselves realize.


However, my suspicion is that the majority of women do not prefer the pink razors to the yellow ones. I’d guess a sizable segment of the female, razor-buying population – perhaps even a comfortable majority of that population – just buys the yellow razors at the lower cost and rolls their eyes at the pink ones. (Still, someone must be buying the pink razors, since they’re still being sold.) If my intuition is correct here, then straightforward economic theory can account for the price difference without having to rely on the concept of a pink tax.


One need only reason that there is a lower supply of the pink razors than of the yellow ones. Assuming homogeneous demand for all razors (ie., that the pink and yellow razors really are interchangeable substitutes), then the razors with the lesser supply will intersect the demand curve at a point corresponding to a lesser quantity sold and at a higher price, which is exactly what we observe on the razor market.


This implies that if manufacturers decided to produce more pink razors than yellow razors, the reverse would be true: yellow razors would be more expensive than pink razors. But since pink razors only appeal to a subset of the female, razor-buying population, and since yellow razors appeal to the remainder of the female population, plus the entire male population, yellow razors enjoy greater supply than pink razors, and thus also have a lower price.


In short, the “pink tax” is nothing more than an artifact of the fact that not all women prefer pink, and that those who do prefer pink so much that they are willing to pay for it.

2018-11-07

Buy-In

On some level, most people understand how hollow the principle of “buy-in” is in a corporate environment. Leaders don’t want “buy-in.” What they want is to avoid uncomfortable conversations with people who disagree with a change to corporate policy. So, to avoid these uncomfortable conversations, corporate managers and their ilk have developed techniques “to solicit buy-in,” or in other words to preempt uncomfortable conversations with people who disagree and replace them with a controlled narrative.


One common example of this occurs during the annual employee review process. The most efficient way to go through this process would be to simply give the employee a pat on the back if he or she has delivered on his or her responsibilities that year; and if not, to have a frank conversation about how that employee might improve. But few companies actually opt for this simple and efficient employee review format. Instead, this conversation is preemptively managed through a complicated process by which an employee sets his or her own goals, the manager signs off on them, and then the employee is subsequently assessed to his or her own goals once a year. This is, of course, utter nonsense. The only goal any employee really sets for himself or herself is “Do what my manager says and get all my work done.”


Naturally, the employer has every incentive to set the bar ever-higher year after year. “You made 17 widgets last year; I’d like to see you try for 20 this year! I think you can do it!” It sounds like a pep talk. It sounds like something that will get you promoted. But it is a ruse. The manager’s manager is asking for increased productivity “to show value-added.” So this becomes a pass-through goal that has nothing to do with the employee’s own goals and desires. The difference of 3 widgets does not often impact the employee’s life much; for that matter, it doesn’t impact the manager’s life much. It certainly doesn’t impact the company much. But it is a S.M.A.R.T. goal, and represents a percentage increase over previous goals, and so down the rabbit hole we go. Before you know it, you’re on the hook for more widgets than you produced last year, and your manager tells you with a smile that it was all your idea. And if you only manage to make 17 widgets this year – same as last year – you’ll be treated as a failure for not reaching your annual career objectives, rather than an employee with consistent and reliable productivity.


Most insidious of all, you cannot blame your manager or even the annual assessment process for creating a situation in which steady output is considered failure. After all, you set those goals.


I realized recently that the electoral process serves much the same purpose as corporate buy-in solicitation. This is political buy-in.


The government’s goals and objectives have nothing whatsoever to do with you and your life. All you want is to put food on the table, keep a roof over your family’s heads, and maybe have a little fun over the course of a life that ends far too quickly. Most of us want nothing whatsoever to do with a newly proposed light rail system or a minor change to the zoning of a neighborhood across town. Even many of us who claim to be affected by such things are mostly only psychically affected. The few major policies that do make tangible impacts on our lives – changes to tax structures, trade policies, and reductions in government spending on unnecessary things – are not generally policies that drive elections, due to a combination of voter ignorance on the economics of such issues and the fact that politicians do not really want to comply with their constituents wishes on such things, anyway. (So they make us argue about abortion instead.)


So, the politicians set their own agenda, which is most commonly self-interested, and use the democratic process to solicit “buy-in” from the rest of us. Think about it, though. What are the odds that out of everything that could ever happen by anyone’s wildest imagination, the only feasible policies boil down to two: one from the Democrats, and one from the Republicans? What are the odds that the only viable path for any government at any level is one of just two options? The notion itself is absurd. But we are handed two options and asked to choose between them. If you favor neither option, your position is not made available on the ballot and your interests will not be represented by anyone’s democracy. Just as you were forced to complete the annual review process at work, so you must vote to declare which lackluster policy you abhor least.


And if you do not vote, you become a pariah. You have no right to complain. You have no respect for our fallen soldiers. You are part of the problem! If something bad happens due to some horrible politician, it’s all your fault, because you didn’t declare your buy-in for the politician who wasn’t elected to do some equally horrible, albeit different, thing.


I don’t oppose voting, and I think people ought to do it if the choices on the ballot are genuinely meaningful to them. Similarly, sometimes the annual review process at work can be very constructive and leave everyone feeling a little better than before it started. But I think it’s important to recognize that both situations alienate a lot of us by boxing us into commitments we’d rather not make. One need not break one’s back to produce and ever-increasing number of widgets just because an annual review process requires some principle of “buy-in.” One need not spend time at the polling station declaring buy-in for some politician’s agenda. Sometimes “No thanks, I’ll just stay home and play with my daughter tonight” is a legitimate way to cast one’s ballot. Sometimes we don’t give our buy-in.

2018-11-06

The Dream Machine



As a young boy, I used to daydream about the future. Often, I daydreamed about my own future, but equally as often, I daydreamed about the world’s future. I’ll give you an example of what I mean. This daydream was vivid for me, I remember it clearly, and it stuck with me all these years, perhaps thirty whole years. The daydream was rather simple.


It occurred to me that automobiles had undergone an incredible evolution since their inception, especially with respect to mechanical efficiency. My father’s 1969 Chevrolet Camaro – truly a classic car if ever there was one – had only four gears, plus reverse. My car today has seven gears, plus reverse. This year’s Rolls-Royce Phantom has, if I remember correctly, twelve gears. These gears make the driving experience smoother and less noisy. They create mechanical efficiency such that the car is able to go faster and smoother with less effort.


With that in mind, my boyhood imagination thought, it stands to reason that bicycles can be made far more efficient than they currently are. Why not increase a bicycle’s mechanical efficiency such that it is capable of driving speeds, with very little effort on the rider’s part? This was an exciting prospect to me. I imagined a network of bicycle highways, full of bicycle riders who could traverse the full length of their morning commutes without breaking a sweat. The highways would be virtually noiseless. Accidents might still occur, but they would tend to be less frequently fatal or maiming; after all, a bike-on-bike accident is far less destructive than bike-on-car accident. Parking would be much improved, too. Not only do bicycles take up less space, but they can generally be parked in more convenient places. Even when they can’t, it’s not completely unreasonable to simply carry them into your destination with you. We’d all save money, since we wouldn’t have to spend so much on gas. The environment would be cleaner, as air pollution and greenhouse gases would be reduced, and oil spills would become very infrequent. Even communing with nature on a daily commute might inspire people to take better care of the environment. There would be virtually no need for speeding tickets, and most stoplights could be replaced with simple roundabouts. Perhaps obesity rates would decline.


My young imagination ran wild with thoughts like these. I’d dream about this alternate universe at night. I imagined riding my bicycle far, far away on clean, empty, silent roads. Not being mechanically inclined, however, I relegated this idea to the world of my imagination. It was something to dream about, but it was not a world I could help create. I had no talent or interest in mechanical engineering or bicycle building.


Today, however, my thoughts turned back to this old dream of mine. Why? Because I discovered the e-bike, ie., the electric bicycle. Electric bicycles are not a new technology, but they are a technology that has advanced quite a bit recently. Battery technologies have improved greatly over my lifetime. Chinese engineering, combined with Chinese demand for low-cost transportation and a local enthusiasm for bicycles, has produced a new line of electric motors that stretch into 1000-watt territory, and beyond. Hydraulic brakes have become commonplace in the biking world. And new materials have enabled manufacturers to explore lightweight bicycle components whose strength is on par with all the traditional bike materials. And, miracle of miracles, free trade has spread far and wide, enabling the efficient and ingenious technological solutions of a Chinese bicycling community to touch the lives of the modern American every-man (to say the least).


These e-bikes are capable of driving at modest automobile speeds without much rider effort, just as it was in my dreams. Most major cities have bike path and bike lane networks, which serve a similar purpose to the bicycle highways of my boyhood dreams. They consume a miniscule amount of electricity and emit no greenhouse gases or air pollution directly.


Well, you get the picture. The pie-in-the-sky wonder-world of my boyhood dreams is practically here. Technology has enabled society to achieve something that was literally only a dream of mine a few decades ago. It’s nothing short of a miracle, the miracle of human ingenuity and economic freedom.


Human progress is a Dream Machine.

2018-11-05

Simplify Your Problems


I was discussing cravings with my wife earlier today. Like many people, she sometimes can’t resist the treats that they have around the office at her workplace. All that extra snacking can translate into bad feelings about her having eaten a lot of junk food.


I am sure this rings a bell for many people. It certainly rings a bell for me. I sometimes find it difficult to stop eating chips and salsa at a Mexican restaurant. Before I know it, I’ve over-shot my insulin coverage and I’m headed for a high blood sugar. This also goes well beyond food. Sometimes I feel too lazy to get up and exercise. Sometimes I feel bad about having spent too much money while shopping, or not spending enough time doing chores at home. Lots of things in life are susceptible to feelings like this.


What I’ve noticed about the situations in which we find ourselves feeling bad about things we did but wished we didn’t, or things we didn’t do but wished we did, is that the human mind is creative enough to invent a very complex world in which our troubles are insurmountable. Take my chips and salsa for example. I grew up in an area with a large Mexican immigrant population and a wide array of very delicious Mexican restaurants. I could easily claim that binging on Mexican food is “just part of my culture,” part of the way I grew up, and inextricable part of my very nature, without which I am less me than I otherwise would be.


But this is nonsense. If I told myself that, I’d be making a mountain out of a molehill. The real problem is simpler than that: I’m eating too many chips and too much salsa. The solution to this very simple problem isn’t to change my inner nature, it’s to, ahem, eat less chips and salsa.


Notice what happens when I conceive of the problem in its simplest form: It gets really easy to solve.


Changing your very inner nature, every fiber of your being, is incredibly difficult. Nobody can do that. But just pushing the bowl of chips out of your reach is not just easy, but trivially so.
It’s far easier to solve trivial problems than to undergo a catharsis, so the next time you have a problem you need to solve, make sure your solve the simplest version of your problem. The more complex version of the problem is probably intractable anyway.


Let’s say, for example, you’re looking to save some money. You could, on the one hand, go through your list of expenditures and lament that cutting each one is a major sacrifice in what you perceive to be your lifestyle. On the other hand, you could just put $1500 in your savings account as soon as you get paid on Friday and figure the rest of it out as you go. You could painfully debate which of your possessions you’re going to sell and which of your hobbies you’re going to give up in order to meet your savings goals. Or, you could just make a deal with yourself not to buy anything new unless it’s on clearance and let your hobbies take their leave by attrition.


Here’s one from my daughter’s experience: She’s a pre-schooler, so it’s virtually impossible to convince her to spend the first three hours of every Saturday cleaning the house. But it’s easy to tell her to clean up five toys before she plays with a sixth, and over time, that translates into a completely clean room.


As for your romantic relationship, does your partner truly care little about you, or are you merely avoiding asking for the attention you want? Asking for attention is a much simpler problem to solve than changing the extent to which your partner “cares.”


Get the picture? Simplify your problems, and they all become much easier to solve.

2018-11-03

Supplement Update


Four months back, I posted about the array of dietary supplements I’ve been taking. Because I belief some self-reported information could be of value to people interested in supplements, I’d like to provide an update on how that’s been going.

I’ll start with Niagen. One thing that very immediately started to happen when I initiated Niagen supplementation is that my sleep quality improved dramatically. Using my smart watch, I was able to monitor sleep quality, both in terms of total hours slept and hours in deep versus light sleep. While my total hours slept didn’t change, the amount of time I spent in deep sleep almost immediately increased by an hour per night. That’s the good news. The bad news is that this effect appears to have been temporary. After about three months of Niagen supplementation, my average nightly deep sleep returned to about where it was before I started taking Niagen.

It’s worth mentioning that, in the meantime, my exercise patterns have also changed. I’ve been doing more running and walking, and less strength training and P90X. So this may have changed my sleep patterns. Perhaps the lower level of exercise – or, in particular, the less-frequent strength training – has been responsible for the decrease in sleep efficiency. I can’t tell for sure. One way to get some good sense of this would be to cease Niagen supplementation for a time, then start it up again later, and observe changes to sleep quality. Another way to rule-out exercise as a culprit is to go back to doing more strength training. Well, Tony Horton is about to provide his Facebook fitness group with a new 60-day workout calendar, beginning November 5th, so I may get involved with that. Then I may have another update to provide.

Regarding Niagen’s other claims – improved mental clarity, anti-aging, etc. – I haven’t noticed anything. That’s not to say there has been no effect, just not a noticeable one, for me, personally. Keep in mind that Niagen is $40 per bottle, which constitutes a thirty-day supply. It is one of the more expensive dietary supplements out there. So I would advise that, if you’re looking at Niagen to give you some kind of mental or physical boost, my experience is that it has not given me such a boost and that $40 is a lot to spend on a placebo effect. However, as I previously reported, I’m in this for the anti-aging, which should only become apparent after years. Even then, I am realistic about this; the anti-aging effects might never show up at all, and all that money would have been for naught. (Naught, that is, except for the entertainment value of the experiment, which is currently high enough to keep my cabinet stocked with Niagen.)

As for creatine, I must say that I have become a believer. After starting on creatine supplementation, my body weight increased by about five pounds – a virtually unheard of increase for me. I have since become a little less diligent about taking my creatine, and the weight hasn’t gone away. This is consistent with the general claims about creatine: First, you gain a little water weight, then you gain some muscle mass as your strength training becomes more efficient, then you stop taking creatine and you lose the water weight but not the muscle weight. So far, that mirrors my experience exactly.

I feel mostly positive about this development, of course, but there is one down-side. At 160 pounds, I’m now about ten pounds heavier than I tend to be when I’m at my fastest for distance-running. I can still run fast, and indeed, since the weather has cooled-down, I’ve brought my average per-mile pace back down into the 6:40s, where it belongs. But ten pounds of additional weight is ten pounds of additional weight, and it’s likely that I’d be running even faster if I didn’t have as much muscle mass as I do today.

That’s one reason I haven’t been quite so excited to do strength training these days. I like looking shredded and fit, but I’m not so sure having a lot of muscle mass is “for me.” Still, it’s only five pounds, and I’m not actually running any races these days, so what’s the harm in the long run?

2018-11-02

Keep Track Of When You Win


Inspired by many intelligent role models of mine who also happen to have extremely good characters, I have been approaching my political discussions quite differently lately.



First, I don't give opinions on things that require too much speculation. In practical terms, I don't want to waste time debating uncertain things that may or may not happen, or that may or may not be true. Let's focus instead on things that we know to be true or happening. This approach also prevents me from forming an erroneous opinion too early. I can assess the current situation, form an opinion, pause, wait for something new to happen, and then form an opinion about the new thing when it actually does happen. It's good to have some sense of where you might stand if something new were to happen, but my philosophical system is already well-developed-enough that I already have a good guiding light. No need to search for wild hypotheticals and debate imaginary outcomes long before they happen. Instead, I can stick to principles, and debate those.



Second, I lay out my thinking more explicitly. If it took me seven steps of logical reasoning to reach my opinion, I present all seven steps. That way, when someone disagrees with me, I can focus on the specific step or steps with which they disagree. The advantage here is that, when my reasoning is not made explicit, it's easier for my interlocutor and I to talk past each other; whereas, when my reasoning is made specific, we can learn more about the differences in our thinking, rather than the differences in our positions (which is probably already well-understood before we even begin our discussion).



Third, I make a point to keep discussing my explicit reasoning and its possible errors even when my interlocutor attempts to steer the conversation elsewhere. Here, "elsewhere" includes personal insults and the like. It's easy to get drawn into an emotional tangent, but people tend to discuss things more calmly and happily when they don't. Quite often, I find that I am more capable of keeping my temper and being patient with the other person than vice-versa, which puts me in the position of sometimes determining whether the conversation actually turns sour. If someone insults me and I insult them back, the conversation is effectively ruined. If, by contrast, someone insults me and I stay on topic, there is a chance that the person will get back on topic and not insult me again. I'll have saved the conversation, at minimum, and maybe even changed the way they see me for the better.



So, the above constitutes what I've been doing lately. There's one more thing I intend to do, which is contained in the title of this blog post: Keep track of when I win.



It's rare in casual debate for one side to graciously stop arguing, admit they were wrong, and congratulate you for having a superior argument. Instead, what tends to happen is that your interlocutor simply runs out of things to say. You make your point, she responds, you rebut, she responds again, you rebut, and finally she doesn't bring any new information to the table. Perhaps she starts repeating herself. Perhaps she says that she wants to agree to disagree. But in any case, she signals that she has nothing more to say, and you yourself feel confident that you have addressed each one of her prior concerns. That's what "winning a debate" really looks like.

So, the trick is becoming aware of the precise moment at which this happens. At that point, I'll want to acknowledge my win to myself: "Okay, I've rebutted all previous points and my challenger has nothing new to present." Then, I'll want to stop addressing the arguments that have already been made. No sense proving my point seven times over when my partner is already finished. Finally, I'll want to attempt to close things off on good terms. There's no harm in being kind, or acknowledging my interlocutor's best points at this stage since, after all, I've already won the debate. And I certainly ought not engage in insults or bad blood at this stage, since that would just mean being a poor winner!

 In conclusion, I'd like to reiterate that this "keeping track of when I win" is something I am working on, not something that I am already successful at. This is a note to myself: Please keep track of when you win. I have a lot of work to do on this. Writing this blog post was really only the first step. 

2018-11-01

It Must Be That Harvard Education

Here's a comment I left at Marginal Revolution:
When I was in college, some friends of mine enlisted my help in driving a wealthy Asian foreign student around town so that he could buy furniture and appliances for his dormitory. I tried to help him choose the products with the best value-for-money, but he wasn't interested. He was under the impression that whatever was priced the highest was of the highest quality; so, that's what he bought.

I don't think all Asians are like my old friend here, but I do think that his attitude reflects one widely held about universities. There will always be wealthy and/or high-performing students who go to Harvard simply because it's expensive and hard to get into. And because so many wealthy and/or high-performing students feel this way, it makes Harvard a place filled with wealthy and/or high-performing students.

So Harvard is the best because everyone thinks Harvard is the best. You can get a better and less discriminatory education elsewhere. But what you can't get is a Harvard education.

Apropos of nothing, he's a social experiment you can do at home: Buy two identical necklaces for your wife, and then place one in a Tiffany's box...
 

2018-09-24

The Hardest Step In Exercise

A lot of fitness industry information out there, crafted as it is for the consumption of beginners, claims that the hardest part is just getting started. However difficult it might be to develop healthy physical fitness practices, though, transitioning from a daily maintenance routine to a routine geared toward improvement and optimization is far more difficult than just getting started.

I don't say this to minimize the effort required to get started. I believe it definitely is difficult to get started. It is precisely with this level of difficulty in mind that I make the claim that the next step is even harder.

Many people spend years just getting to the point where their daily exercise routines are something to look forward to. Even once that routine has been established, the body plateaus and people find themselves in a situation where just maintaining their current level of fitness is progressively more difficult. At this point, many will choose new forms of exercise, be it a new workout plan, or a new sport, or something else. Switching to something new, though, is much easier than the alternative.

The alternative is focusing in on what you've managed to accomplish thus far, and designing a new plan to get even better at all of the same stuff. Honing one's craft, if you will.

I'll use running as an example. Going from "couch-to-5K" is difficult enough that people have formed whole support groups to emotionally buttress that transition. It's a major undertaking to teach oneself to run 3.1 miles without stopping, and without feeling miserable. Once accomplished, it is a major success. And yet, at that point, a runner's only ability is to run for about 3.1 miles per day, and finish without stopping.

In order to run faster, that person must identify problems with his/her running form -- and that requires analysis. That person must identify or approximate his/her VO2-max and heart rate zones -- and that requires some testing and analysis. That person must then use this information to develop a feasible training plan aimed at addressing his/her weaknesses: interval training for speed, threshold training for VO2-max improvement, long runs and two-a-days for muscular endurance, form exercises for better running economy, and so on.

Needless to say, all of this requires a time commitment, an expense of mental energy, possible consultation with experts, and then -- yes, only then -- the physically difficult and often painful process of training hard.

This is such a difficult process that many people don't even attempt it. They don't "want" to be that serious about what they're doing. They'd rather just go for a daily run (or engage in some simple daily maintenance activity).

And the fact that so few people do it goes to show just how difficult it is.

2018-07-10

Supplementing My Life Away


For a while now, I’ve been adding supplements to my diet, and I’d like to dedicate some space here to the supplements I’m taking and why.

I started taking a multivitamin some years ago. While I recognize that there is little evidence that these vitamins are actually absorbed, they don’t cost very much money, and I am a diabetic. Diabetic people don’t absorb vitamins very well. There are two ways to think about this: The first is that we diabetics have even less of a reason to take a multivitamin; after all, if “normal people” can’t absorb the vitamins in a vitamin pill, diabetics are even less likely to be able to do so. The other way to think about it is that, since I’m getting fewer vitamins from my food than “normal people do,” I should throw more vitamins at the problem in hopes that it does some kind of something for me. I chose the latter way of thinking about it, although I concede that the former is probably more logical.

For a long time, that daily multivitamin was all the supplement I took. Then, one day, a colleague of mine at work mentioned that he was taking milk thistle. He didn’t strike me as being the voodoo-hippie-supplement type, so I asked him about it. He said that milk thistle was good for your liver, and from this I gathered that my colleague started taking milk thistle as an insurance policy against his appetite for weekend partying. No judgement here, he was a virile twenty-something guy doing what virile twenty-something guys do. But it was enough to cause me to do some research on milk thistle. As it turns out, milk thistle is genuinely excellent for the liver. The data is pretty clear on that, it successfully lowers the primary marker for liver disease. I’m not a hard-partying twenty-something, but we diabetics, in addition to poor vitamin absorption, often suffer from liver failure. So, I started taking a half-dose of milk thistle daily as a preventative measure.

That brought me up to two daily supplements, but after a short while, that wasn’t enough for me. I started to wonder, if there are legitimate supplements out there, like milk thistle, what else might I be missing? I started to do some more research, ruling out all the useless supplements and getting curious about the ones that had data to back them up.

One supplement I discovered was called “phosphatidyl serine.” According to some research, there is some weak but not terrible evidence that phosphatidyl serine reduces the cortisol response in the body after exercise. If true, this would prevent my blood sugar from spiking after a hard workout. I bought a bottle and started taking it daily, but eventually looked at the ingredients list. There was only one ingredient: soy lecithin. After some additional research, I realized that the reduction in post-exercise cortisol was something that could be achieved by eating some protein; so the main benefit of phosphatidyl serine is that it’s a miniscule amount of protein.

So, I struck out there. But no big deal. It was a harmless health experiment.

Next on my list was glucosamine. Glucosamine is often prescribed to arthritic dogs, and since it’s over-the-counter, arthritic humans also sometimes take it. It’s not a cure for arthritis, not by a long shot, but it has strong evidence in its favor. That is, the evidence suggests that it very definitely does some good, but only a little bit of good. It’s also cheap and has no side-effects, so I bought a bottle and started taking one daily. This time, the experiment worked like a charm: I have literally not had tendinitis since I started taking glucosamine, despite increasing my exercise frequency and running perhaps more than I have in the previous ten years. To be fair, I don’t know for sure that glucosamine is what made the difference here. Maybe I somehow managed to improve my running form after 30 years of great form. Maybe. But my family is prone to arthritis, and my anecdotal experience suggests that the glucosamine is doing some good. So I’ll keep taking it.

The next one I thought I’d try was coenzyme Q10. Coenzyme Q10 is a coenzyme that the body naturally produces and that helps the heart do what the heart does. Some people have a medical issue wherein their bodies are deficient in coenzyme Q10, and for those people the CoQ10 supplement is actually a total solution. The supplement restores their CoQ10 levels and they return to living normal lives. For most other people, there is no harm in CoQ10 supplementation, but it’s not clear that anyone really benefits from it. I did some research and discovered that, at least epidemiologically, diabetics tend to have lower than average CoQ10 levels. So, when it went on sale at Costco, I bought some. I figured, there are no side-effects, the price is right, and it might do me some good. I’ve never had my CoQ10 levels checked, but I am diabetic, so why not.

Here's where things get interesting. After several weeks of daily CoQ10 supplementation, I observed a very small improvement in my blood glucose control. In addition, I simply felt better. Was this a placebo effect? Possibly. But when I go on vacation, I don’t take my CoQ10 supplements with me, and I always feel a little worse. Then I get back home to my supplements, and I start to feel better again. I repeat: this might be a placebo effect. But it’s working for me, so I’ve been keeping up with my CoQ10. It seems to give me a little more energy and… I don’t know… spry-ness, maybe? Virility? (Not like that, perv.)

Two days ago I started taking Niagen. Niagen is nicotinamide riboside, i.e. a form of vitamin B3. The thing about nicotinamide riboside is that, as it gets absorbed in the cell, it “activates” some genes associated with anti-aging. Every form of B3 activates genes in order to absorb the B3, but only nicotinamide riboside activates these specific genes. This much is factual. The speculative theory is that, by activating these genes, nicotinamide riboside actually gets the body to do “anti-aging stuff.” If true, it would prevent some cell aging, notably in the brain, but also in the body, thereby preventing cognitive decline, and also physical decline. People self-report that nicotinamide riboside supplements make them feel younger, look younger, perform at a higher level of athleticism, get better sleep, and many other things. I have no idea whether these claims are true. But I decided to try a bottle and see what happens.

Finally, today, I started adding creatine to my post-run protein shake. The benefits of creatine are thoroughly described elsewhere. The short story is that creatine really does cause muscles to retain more water, and thus improves their ability to absorb nutrients and create ATP during exercise. In the end, this causes people who exercise to get a little bit more out of their training sessions. The reason I had previously avoided creatine was that it was supposedly contraindicated for diabetics. According to more recent research, however, that’s not true.

Another cool thing about creatine is that it is associated with higher levels of insulin-like growth factor, which has anti-aging properties, and which also (as the name suggests) lowers blood sugar levels. So, I’ve been keen to try creatine, and today I finally did.

We’ll see where all this gets me.