2015-02-20

How To Stoke The Flames

Two op-eds popped up on my Facebook feed this morning. Both could widely be viewed as "good articles," and yet underneath the sheen, both are utter garbage. By "garbage," I mean to say that both articles use weak rhetoric to evoke passion in those readers who already agree with the author. It's a form of "preaching to the choir," but it's a particularly smug one because it includes a thin veneer of intellectual credibility, which beguiles its more worthless true nature.

Am I being unfair? Maybe. You can find these articles here and here. Read them for yourself, then come back to this blog post, read below, and tell me whether or not you agree that these pieces fit the general form I am about to describe.

Okay, friends, here's how you write an effective op-ed piece!

  1. Step One: Identify a serious issue that cannot easily be solved.
  2. Step Two: Identify a trivial issue with high signalling value; the more it appeals to readers' vanity, the better.
  3. Step Three: Draw a parallel between the two issues.
  4. Step Four: Use the simple, ego-padding solution to the trivial problem as a means to imply that the serious, difficult problem could just as easily be solved, if people were simply more like the right-thinking readers of the op-ed (and its author, of course).
  5. Step Five: Op-ed goes viral.
In the first article I linked to, the rather serious and difficult problem of Bangladeshi corruption is compared to the dog-whistle issue of Charlie Hebdo. Oh, of course! All we need is more respect and decency, then we can overcome deeply entrenched government corruption! It's so obvious!

In the second article, libertarianism's troubling history of bigotry is compared to... wait for it... GamerGate! See how easy it is to "fix" libertarianism? All we have to do is expunge the nerds! Once again, nerds provide an easy and effective whipping-boy (oops - microaggression! I mean "whipping-person") for the "right-thinkers."

The sad thing here is that I actually agree with both articles. But because the rhetoric in each is so cheap, I'm left wondering if I agree because the points made are good ones, or merely because it's difficult even for critical-thinkers to rise above the tide of mood affiliation.

2015-02-18

Blog Ist Tot

I've been using the Blogger platform for I don't know how many years now. Years, anyway. I cannot tell you the last time I noticed a genuinely positive change to the platform. In fact, I don't even think I could tell you about any negative changes to the platform, either. Blogger has remained virtually unchanged for at least two years.

Compare that to Facebook application updates, which are fairly regular. It might not be a fair comparison, but the fact of the matter is that Blogger is a "social medium," and so there is at least some comparability to Facebook.

Anyway, the point is that Blogger as a Google application is either suffering from severe neglect, or blogging itself is slowly dwindling into nothingness. It its heyday, bloggers would cross-reference each other, quote each other, respond in comments sections, and argue, argue, argue! It was great fun. I even dabbled in that, myself, as I'm sure you've noticed (if you're even still following my blog).

But these days, all of that is long gone. My favorite blogs have all more or less become stale. It's not that there isn't anything to talk about, it's that no one is interested in talking about it on blogs. Or, more to the point, no one is interested in reading about it on blogs. Maybe they're watching it on TV, or on YouTube channels (although I doubt that, too). Maybe they're "tweeting." Maybe they're discussing it on Quora, or some other social medium that provides more real-time interaction among holders of opinion.

In any even, blogging has gone the way of the Podcast: Once mighty, it has fallen into the darker corners of the internet. The few who continue to indulge in blogging are facing dwindling audiences and low inspiration.

To summarize: blogging is dying, and the fact that Google is neglecting its primary blogging platform is evidence of this fact. I don't think this is contestable, so I guess the only thing left to do is to ask why.

One reason might be that people are facing "opinion fatigue." If you pull up Facebook, there is everyone's opinion, right there on your phablet screen. If you pull up Google+, there it is again. Quora? There it is in questions and answers. TV? Yep, every news program gives you 30 seconds of facts and twenty-one-and-a-half minutes of opinion. You open a magazine, and there it is again. You want to kill some time by reading Slate or something, and there it is all over: opinion. Opinion gives way to dispute and dispute becomes argument, and all you wanted to do was say some passing comment like, "Wow, Kanye West is a real dick," and suddenly you got sucked into a debate about the extent to which your comment is a form of microaggression.

God, exhausting, right? Might as well catch up on some old episodes of Weeds, or whatever it is on Netflix that has nudity and enough of a story line to convince everyone that it's okay to watch it without having to say that you're only watching it for the nudity.

I mean, it's not a sure thing. There may be other reasons why people aren't interested in blogging. Maybe it's just that this younger generation, whoever they are, are we up to Generation Z now, or do we have to go back to W? just isn't interested in long-form commentary. Three pages!? YUCK! But they still have to do homework, right? Which means they can read...

Besides, it's not just opinion blogs that people are running away from. Nobody reads fishing blogs, either. Or travel blogs. Or anything like that. Basically, they just skip the part where you write about your feelings, and they follow you directly on Instagram, where you're posting the pictures, which is why they decided to read your travel blog in the first place.

This seems to imply that reading someone else's inner thoughts and opinions is just about as interesting as hearing someone tell you about the recurring dream they have, where they're waiting at a bus stop and an old guy comes up to them and says something innocuous like Hi, Sally, I like your umbrella today, but for some reason you get totally freaked out and the next thing you know you're eating salad at a cheap restaurant and Randy is there, but he can't see you for some reason so you decide to go to a baseball game...

Et cetera.

We've navel-gazed ourselves into a corner. There's nothing left to opine about, because everyone's already more-or-less heard all the angles by now. Unless you're a truly original thinker, it's unlikely you have that much more to say about Federal Reserve policy that hasn't already been said by your Econ 101 professor by now. And by "you" I mean "me" and by "me" I mean "nobody is actually reading this, so who cares if I ascribe to the reader thoughts that have only occurred to myself?"

Speaking of which, I am utterly certain that hackers in Russia - and possibly a number of shady pornography companies - have been using my domain or blog somehow to do something nefarious. I know this because every day I get hundreds if not thousands of blog hits from shady pornographic websites and IP-routing services, even though nobody - and I mean nobody - is reading my blog anymore.

So there's that.

Also: Some of you may recognize shades of dadaism in this blog post. This is unintentional.

Those last two sentences, if you didn't catch it, are a kind of intellectual joke. The whole point of dadaism was to use nonsense to convey artistic expression. It was kind of ironic. But it can't be ironic if it's delivered unintentionally. In other words, there is a big difference between Banksy and some schizophrenic guy who makes a stencil of J. Edgar Hoover's shoe print and spray-paints it on every random public space he comes across. You expert practitioners of dadaism are already correcting me in your heads: No, actually, Ryan, that's outsider art! GET IT RIGHT! But screw those guys. It's my joke and I'll tell it how I like it, and here's how I like it: I'm not Banksy, I'm the dude with the stencil, and I'm running out of space.

And so are you. And so are we all. That's why blogging is dead.

2015-01-29

Google Fit + Strava Update

Contrary to what I reported the other day, the coordination between Stava and Google Fit does not quite work the way I expected. The way it actually works is that if you use Strava to log your runs then the Strava app will pass that data into Google Fit. If you don't use the Strava app while running, then the push to Google Fit never occurs.

I use a Garmin Forerunner to map my runs. This data gets pushed from Garmin Connect to Strava, but Strava does not push this received data into Google Fit.

So using Strava as a middle man confers no special benefit in terms of coordinating with Google Fit. Strava does seem like a great app otherwise, but unfortunately for them, my needs in that regard are already being met by the Garmin watch and app.

I've removed the Strava widget from my blog, the Strava app from my phone, and will be shutting down my Strava account. Please don't consider this a mark against Strava; I think it's the best free run-tracker app I've come across yet. It just wasn't right for me, personally.

2015-01-28

Stay On The Right Side Of The Law

A few days ago, Michael Esch published an excellent article at Liberty.me. The article was ostensibly about teaching his son chess, but more importantly, the article was about better alternatives to modern educational  methods.

In particular, he writes (emphasis in the original):
Educators can nurture these desires, but they cannot make learning happen. We cannot force a person to live a certain way. Many parents and teachers believe that they should force a child to do certain things. If the child does not want to participate, then he is punished. This type of conditioning will only insure that the child becomes blindly obedient to future authority figures. We should teach our children to do what is right, not what is commanded.
One problem with modern education is the fact that it has become a sort of de facto day care for busy modern parents, who can't seem to be bothered to do like Mr. Esch, and help guide their own children toward greater knowledge.

I certainly don't claim that doing so is easy - quite the contrary! Still, the dangers of a 20-year-old government day care program make themselves felt when I come across stories like the one I read at WFAA this afternoon:

GUSTINE, Texas — Here in Gustine, population 457, what happens at the schoolhouse affects nearly everyone. And something happened Monday that is causing a big controversy in this small town. 
"I felt uncomfortable, and I didn't want to do it," said 11-year-old Eliza Medina. "I felt like they violated my privacy." 
She was one of about two dozen elementary students who were rounded up in the small town 90 miles southwest of Fort Worth. 
Eliza's mother, Maria Medina, said boys were taken to one room, girls to another, and they were ordered "To pull down their pants to check them to see if they could find anything."
Every day our society faces a choice between making our children blindly obedient to civil servants who inevitably treat our children as though they are in fact the state's children, not ours, or reducing the size and scope of our public services.

Maybe you believe that all education might be public, and I don't want to pick that fight today. But if education is to be public, shouldn't we at least minimize our children's exposure to it in the same way that we minimize our own exposure to the TSA at the airport, or the DMV?

When we see educators practically forced to abuse their power because we have asked them to step in as surrogate parents, haven't we taken the idea of "public eduation" a little too far?

2015-01-25

Garmin Connect and Google Fit

Ooo, look, it's a new blog feature! Notice: at the right-hand side of my blog there now exists a Strava widget! This new widget reports some generic running data accumulated from my recent training. Now you can keep me honest.

If you're like me, you've been searching for a way to get Garmin Connect - Garmin's personal health data interface - with Google Fit, which is Google's entry into the same world. Also, if you're like the me of yesterday, you haven't yet found a way to do that. But, lucky you, the me of today has got some great news: I figured out a way to get all these applications to communicate with each other, at least until they formally amalgamate in Google's or Apple's or Facebook's quest to own all personal data from all human beings.

Why Would You Want To Do This?

Well, you might not want to, especially if you are especially concerned about data privacy. To be honest, though, the potential benefits to people like myself, who are both data-geeks and health geeks, are enormous. Diabetes is, after all, largely a data management game. If you can manage your calories, and your macronutrient balance, and your fitness activity, and your sleeping patterns, and your stress levels, etc., etc., etc., then you can manage your blood sugar effectively. It's all a data game: adjust your bio-markers and profit.

Personally, I've found this useful in the non-health sphere as well. My Nexus phone, for example, has the ability to detect traffic jams long before I ever hit them - and automatically re-route me on the way to work, home, or wherever else I happen to be. It sends me bill reminders, weather notifications for where I'll be, and so on.

Simply put, it does a lot of menial thinking for me, that I don't necessarily need to do myself. This, in turn, frees my mind up for more complicated thoughts, such as how I might want to invest, or whatever music I happen to be writing. Or whatever.

More practically, it is exhausting to try to log every piece of health data on a hundred different health apps. Wouldn't it be great to log something once, in one place, and have that data filter through to every other application that requires it?

Problem: Garmin and Google Aren't On Speaking Terms - Yet.

I use MyFitnessPal for calorie tracking, and Garmin Connect for everything else. When I noticed the Google Fit app on my Nexus, I thought it might be a good central location for all this data activity. I cannot confirm that it is, because I haven't had a chance to really use it yet. Why not? Because, although MyFitnessPal and Garmin Connect talk to each other easily, neither one can sync with Google Fit.

So one solution would be to just grin and bear it, hoping that some day, all these apps decide to talk to each other.

Another solution is to find a work-around. I'm a business analyst by trade (well... along with a bunch of other stuff...), so finding work-arounds comes natural to me.

Solution: Another 3rd-Party App!

Okay, I didn't say it was a particularly elegant solution, did I?

The way I've managed to accomplish a "full sync" of data is by adding a new app to my arsenal: Strava. Strava works more or less the same way as RunKeeper, or MapMyRun, or indeed even Garmin Connect. It tracks your running and cycling activity (using your phone's GPS info, for example) and reports it in a handy graphical interface, along with some meaningless bells and whistles such as "award" and "achievements" and so on.

Strava's primary advantage is that it has the power to communicate with Garmin Connect, MyFitnessPal, and Google Fit. That makes it something of a "Rosetta stone" for all my fitness data. Hooray for me.

So, the steps for achieving this are as follows:
  1. Add the Garmin Connect, MyFitnessPal, and Strava apps to your Android phone.
  2. In the "Settings" of your Strava app, connect it to both MyFitnessPal and Google Fit (they will show up automatically in your settings menu).
  3. Using a web browser, log-in to your Strava account and click on the plus sign at the top-right, on the option that says "Upload Activity."
  4. On that page, you should see a link to Garmin with a box that says "Get Started." Click "Get Started" and follow the instructions. You will be taken to a Garmin pop-up that will authorize the sync to and from Strava.
  5. That's it, you're done!

Conclusion

Time will see how this pans out for me. I might not like Google Fit. I might not like Strava. I might not like having all my data synced up. This is just an experiment. Ryan self-experiments so that his readers don't have to, that sort of thing. I'll keep you all (all two of you?) updated on how this goes. So far, so good...

2015-01-23

On "Blowback"

David Henderson has an interesting blog post at EconLog, in which he responds to another EconLog post, by Bryan Caplan. Henderson ties Caplan's point to a few other recent articles. Those articles, along with both EconLog posts, all grapple with the search for meaning in the Charlie Hebdo murders.

Henderson's post concludes as follows (emphasis added for clarity to distinguish embedded quotation):
Do I know that the Paris attacks were blowback? I do not. Nor do Ron Paul or Justin Raimondo. Does Shihka Dalmia know that they were not blowback? She does not. We simply don't have enough evidence. 
Bryan writes:
But the overwhelming majority of recent events are sound and fury, signifying nothing. Serious thinkers don't base their worldview on what happened yesterday, or last week, or last year. Instead, they endlessly ponder the totality of human history, a body of evidence that makes all recent events combined look small and hollow.
Each of those statements is correct. But that doesn't mean that we shouldn't also ponder recent events and try to extract the information from them that we can.
I first encountered Caplan's point about "recent events" in the book Fooled by Randomness, by Nassim Nicholas Taleb. I would not be surprised if that were a major influence on Caplan's point, as they are made in such similar ways.

I think one way to view "recent events" is to wait long enough to know whether the particular "recent event" in question will meaningfully shape history. Many years later, we now know that the 9/11 attacks were not merely "recent events," but cataclysmic ones. We do not yet know whether the Charlie Hebdo murders will have any impact on history. I already strongly doubt the Boston Marathon bombing will be remembered by those who were not there in a few years. Already the "shoe bomber" is less than a footnote in history, and I suspect in five years or less most people will not remember why we take our shoes off at airports.

Now, in hindsight, it is easy to make the point that 9/11 was an example of "blowback" from US foreign policy. However, it is virtually impossible to make a convincing case that the shoe bomber, specifically, is an example of blow-back. Only time can tell whether we can say the same about the Charlie Hebdo murders, but given the public's general amnesia about these things, I doubt it.

None of this means that "blowback" doesn't occur, of course.

2015-01-16

Album Review: Richie Kotzen - Cannibals


Given the surprising and outstanding success of The Winery Dogs, it may be somewhat surprising that Richie Kotzen would release a solo album almost immediately after returning from a worldwide tour. But the more familiar one gets with his work, the more one realizes that Kotzen has seemingly endless energy with with to pour himself into being one of music's most prolific independent artists.

To wit, sometimes I get the feeling that there is really nothing that Richie Kotzen can't do. He is an undeniable guitar god, an alumnus of the legendary Shrapnel Records label, releasing albums early in his career (meaning as a teenager) that quickly established him as one of the most gifted electric guitarists in the hard rock world. But it wasn't until "shredding" fell out of favor with music consumers that the world got to treat itself to what Kotzen can really do. His gritty, soulful vocals proudly display his R&B roots; and yet as a rock vocalist he is frequently compared to Chris Cornell, thanks in large part to his impressive vocal range and his ability to channel the vocal grit of 70s legends like Bob Seger, Michael McDonald, Daryl Hall, or Robert Palmer.

For any other artist, being at the forefront of the rock world as both a guitar shredder and a vocalist would be more than enough. Kotzen, however, has managed to develop impressive chops as a bassist, drummer, pianist, and most recently a theramin player. His deft use of social media includes one of the best YouTube channels out there, a fact that inspired this Music As Art post I wrote two years ago.

Consider his long list of accomplishments, it would be fair to ask what a veteran artist has to offer the music world in releasing his twentieth solo album since the late-80s, today, in the year 2015. Surely a prolific artist such as he must be running out of ideas by now, right?

Wrong.

On a pure technical level, Cannibals might be Kotzen's best-produced album to date. While his earlier albums sound great, the production value on this album seems to have upped the ante quite a bit. The tones are crisp and clear, yet still display the warmth we can fairly demand from a great R&B record. The drum tones are warm and clean - no excessive reverb, putting them in the forefront of the track without being too over-bearing. The bass tones are as groovy and warm as we might want them to be, albeit definitely with more of a P-bass twist. The guitars, of course, showcase Kotzen's unique ability to create a sonic heaviness while using minimal distortion - something many other artists attempt and fail.

The songs themselves are a wonderful reprieve from the aggression and noisiness of The Winery Dogs. In the context of Kotzen's full body of work, this is an interesting and important development. 2009's Peace Sign and 2011's 24 Hours saw Kotzen exploring the harder-rocking, more aggressive  side of his artistry, which fairly definitely culminated in a rather heavy collaboration with The Winery Dogs. Kotzen seems to have recognized that the time was right for him to lean further toward his R&B side. And while he doesn't go as far in this direction as, say, 1999's Break It All DownCannibals is nonetheless deeply immersed in rhythm and blues.

This is no more obvious than on "In An Instant," which sounds as though it could have been pulled from an early Hall & Oates album, and on "I'm All In," which is a duet with the legendary Doug Pinnick of King's X. Even the album's harder-rocking songs are drenched in a thick coating of electric piano or Hammond organ tones. For fans that may have come to Kotzen from The Winery Dogs, it may be a bit of a surprise, but as I mentioned above, this transition feels like a necessary one to me. As good as The Winery Dogs is, I, for one, had started to miss the smoother, groovier stuff.

One last thing I should mention about Cannibals from the standpoint of Kotzen's artistic development. A few years ago, Kotzen decided to transition to playing without a pick, a bold and adventurous move that few veteran guitar gods would have made. While this has slowly provoked an evolution of his guitar playing, on Cannibals I finally feel that he has come into his own as pick-less guitarist. From the country-inflected explosion in the album's title track to the warmth of the big, open chords throughout the album, Kotzen's new finger-style approach feels fresh and natural. Anyone who might be less of a guitar-geek than I would never guess that they were listening to one of rock music's most impressive sweep-pickers. It would have been easy for Kotzen to stop playing fast licks when he ditched the pick, but he didn't. He developed a new arsenal of sounds to accompany his new technique. Despite all that, he anchored that new arsenal in the artistic continuity of his music. The result is a new level of artistic maturity from an already well-established musical artist.

The bottom line should be obvious by now: I could not be happier with Cannibals. It is a another invigorated effort by one of my very favorite musical artists, and I strong encourage you to buy this album and use it to decorate the air around you for a while.

2015-01-15

Because I Didn't Blog It When It Happened

I never really blogged about what it was like receiving a diagnosis of "type 1 diabetes" after being a health nut for years. Because the question came up elsewhere, I went back into my email archives to see what I had written about it before. What follows are re-worked excerpts of those emails.

What It's Like "Coming Down" With Diabetes

On the list of weirdest things that happen to people, getting Type 1 diabetes at age 30 has to be right at the top. Results from my... blood test at the Ottawa Hospital reveal that my blood sugar [had] been in the 20s for months. To put that in perspective, the normal blood sugar range for non-diabetic people is 4-6. Diabetics usually target 4-7. My blood sugar test on [that] Tuesday morning was 37, which was essentially an emergency situation.

I was rushed into an appointment at the endocrine clinic. There I was interviewed by the medical staff, and all at once was surrounded by doctors. They filled my head full of so many prognoses, instructions, and bits of information that my head was reeling. One of the bits of information was, "This is going to sound like we're rushing into things, but we're going to start your insulin regimen tonight." My wha...? What about...? Um...?

It was quite a shock.

I was then introduced to a number of people in the endocrine clinic, one of whom will be my nurse for the foreseeable future. She taught me how to operate a Lantus SoloStar long-acting insulin auto-injector. I injected my first dose of insulin myself - the staff acted like this was a big achievement. I will admit that I was really upset when I did it, but I've got to get used to it sooner or later. Then it was down to the lab for more blood tests and I went home. [My wife, then girlfriend] did a good job of consoling me, as did [my parents] when they called [on the phone later].

At about 3am I woke up drenched in sweat and obviously in pretty severe shock. At the advice of a dial-a-nurse hotline, I drank a cup of milk and ate a slice of bread. That took me out of shock, and then I went to the emergency room. There they tested my blood sugar at 14.5. The good news is my pulse had actually returned to normal, thanks to the Lantus insulin, so I'm back in the 55bpm range!

[I] went back to the endocrine clinic at 8am this morning, and the doctors advised me that I probably went into shock not because my blood sugar was low, but because it was much lower than it had been for months. Next the nurse gave me thorough instructions on injecting myself with Lantus and Humalog, testing and monitoring my blood glucose levels, etc. After that, I went to the dietitian, and she helped me figure out how to count carbohydrates and dose my Humalog accordingly. She [was] also a marathon runner, and we talked at length about how to train safely and run with diabetes. [As it turned] out, it is totally do-able, so that made me happy. I asked her a lot of tough questions, and she was able to answer me.

Then we went home for my first lunch as a diabetic. [My girlfriend] was a saint. She took all my papers and injectors and devices and stuff, and organized them all in a file for me, with tabs and labels and stuff. Then she made me some tea and some lunch. She helped me figure out how much insulin to take and when to take it, and helped me make sure I did it right.

[At that point, I felt that things were going so] far, so good. I [felt] a lot better having taken some insulin. My mouth [was] no longer dry, and my body [felt] a bit more energetic. I [had] a headache, but [it went] away soon...

Last thing is: Why did this happen? Well, as it turns out as [much] as 5% of the population has what's called Latent Autoimmune Diabetes in Adults (LADA). This is also known as "Diabetes Type 1.5" or "late-onset Type 1 diabetes." Basically your body develops an allergy to the beta cells in your pancreas and systematically annihilates them. It has nothing to do with genetics, diet, lifestyle, etc. It is just dumb luck. It's not genetic, so I don't have to worry about passing this on to my children. That much is pretty good. I guess I will have to get serious about maintaining an amazingly healthy lifestyle to avoid complications later in life.

2015-01-06

What's Wrong With Local Music

I came across a couple of articles on Facebook that seem to encapsulate everything I hate about being a musician. I'd like to discuss this in some level of detail, but before I do, let me quickly describe the three archetypical "what's wrong with music these days" articles/blog posts.

You'll notice that a running theme in my own music posts is that musicians in general are lazy and don't have an original bone in their bodies. (Okay, bad metaphor, since no human being should ideally have an "original" skeletal structure, but you get the point.) Naturally, we would expect that the articles written by musicians would also be lazy and unoriginal. That's where there are really only three kinds of articles, and here they are:

  1. Articles about how bad the record companies are. We can safely dismiss most of these articles because the number of musicians who have any real experience with record companies is much, much smaller than the number of people who write about how bad record companies are. 
  2. Articles, written by band members, admonishing music fans for not coming out to "support" the local music scene. 
  3. Articles, written by club owners, admonishing bands for not drawing a crowd.
Today's blog post is about these latter two kinds of articles. I've brought a couple of examples with me for illustrative purposes, but the reader is strongly encouraged to locate his or her own examples.

Get Out There And Support Live Music, Maaaaan!

I really hate these articles. Today's example comes from a blog called No One Likes Your Band (.com), and whining gets started in paragraph two:
One of the main things we need in order to get a better music scene is for people to get off their asses, stop complaining, and go to a show. That's it, it really is that simple. “Oh, but I don't know any of the bands playing.” Shut up, and go discover something new! What are you waiting for, the radio to tell you it's good? “But it's like five dollars to get in the door.” There's four bands playing, and you spent ten dollars for coffee this morning; stop with your lame excuses, and get your whiny ass to a show! You want live music? It's out there, go find it, and for the love of all that is holy, unholy, and chaotic neutral: stop thinking that the damn radio or television is gonna help you find anything.
I've always been nonplussed by the type of person who reasons this way. "Nobody came out to see my band play," therefore "People are lazy idiots who don't know what good music is!"

Notice the question that is never asked: Would people show up to my concerts if my musicianship and songs were better?

Our friends at No One Likes Your Band (.com), however, do come closer to this than the more typical examples of this kind of article. How does the author of the article address the criticism that local bands suck and aren't worth seeing live? Thusly:
If you think everything going on here musically is crap, then I can assure you that the only thing that's “crap” is your attitude. Take it from someone who actively searches for new, underground, unsigned music; we're sitting on a goldmine here. 
If you don't like what you hear, you have a bad attitude. His local music scene is a goldmine! I wonder...

True, he does levy a little bit of criticism at the musicians themselves:
A lot of you musicians need to step up your game as well, no one is innocent in this, especially not I. Sure, you should hone your craft, and work towards making the greatest music you can, but you should also step up your overall professionalism.
In hindsight, I'm impressed that his complaints are all consistent: Music fans have a bad attitude because they don't want to see these lousy bands perform (oops, there goes my "crap attitude"), while musicians themselves also have an attitude problem. He's right about musicians being unprofessional, of course, but notice how he takes it on assumption that they have "honed their craft" and worked "towards making the greatest music" they can.

I can count on one hand the number of local musicians I know who have a basic understanding of elementary harmonic theory, I mean the absolute basics of putting chords and melodies together. I know dozens of people who don't even know what key they write their own songs in. And I'm supposed to believe that these "musicians" have "honed their craft?" Please.

Well, that's the "He Said." What about the "She Said?"

Local Bands Are Soooooo Annoying!

Somebody at a website called Metal Sucks (gee, I can already tell they have a great attitude over there!) has a special bullet point on a 39-point list of complaints for the No One Likes Your Band (dot com) guy:
31. Bands that give big lectures on stage about how important it is to support “the scene” but at the end of their set want to get paid ASAP and don’t want to wait until the other bands get done.
The guy at Metal Sucks (dot com) is right about point #31, but for the wrong reasons. Remember, he's a club owner. He wants a packed house. He's not upset that the band isn't sticking around for the scene, he's upset that the band isn't sticking around to buy more alcohol.

That's right, club owners, I'm onto you. I've seen how you run your business. It started out that clubs would organize a quality show for their existing patrons. Then one day they realized that if people can't hear, then they can't talk to each other; and if they can't talk to each other, then they drink more. So the PAs got bigger and louder and everything seemed to work great until... people stopped showing up because they couldn't hear anything. Do you realize how bad any music sounds when a 50-inch speaker cone is distorting?

So what did they do next?  They started compensating for the dwindling crowds by booking more bands. The bands have to stick around, at least until they finish playing, and that means that clubs get to sell lots of alcohol to the bands themselves. Suddenly, twelve bands are playing 10-minute sets. Welcome to your local music scene. The performers are the customers. But if you don't stick around for everyone's 10-minute set and hang out until 2 AM on a Thursday night (are you joking, sir? You expect me to sit in your crappy wooden chairs and broken bar stools until 2 AM on a weeknight?) then Metal Sucks (dot com) has a bullet point #31 for you!

Seven of the thirty-nine bullet points on this list, by the way, are variants of "we don't like bands who don't bring crowds." I would be sympathetic to this argument, were it not for the combination of factors I just mentioned: PAs that are cranked far too loud for a crowd to actually enjoy the show, and shows that are booked late on weekday nights.

Listen, speaking as someone who has on occasion drawn hundreds of people to little bars to see my performances, I can tell you that it is virtually impossible to bring a good crowd with me if I'm booked to play after 7 PM on a weeknight. You're simply delirious if you think it's going to happen on a regular basis. It takes an exorbitant amount of effort to draw a crowd like that on a weeknight. I can pull that off once or twice per year in my local market, but that's it. And some bands are too young or inexperienced to ever do it. So club owners should moderate their expectations accordingly.

Also, keep in mind the arrangement: Clubs pay musicians to perform, not to advertise for your club. Take some responsibility for your own booking responsibilities!

Aha, Now I Get It

And there it is, the secret motive revealed. Clubs want to blame bands for not drawing a crowd. Bands want to blame fans for not being drawn. Everyone is shirking their responsibilities.

Imagine if these writers were correct about what they're saying. Imagine that clubs are so damn attractive that crowds are just lining up to get in late on a Thursday night - but unfortunately those crowds don't show up because the club booked the wrong dozen bands to play 10-minute sets. Imagine if the bands are so damn amazing that the pool of talent is a goldmine waiting to generate revenue for everyone - but fans are just so lazy that they can't be coaxed or whined out of their homes to see twelve bands play for 10 minutes each. (Don't forget about the thirty minutes of set-up time between each band!)

No, really. Imagine that. Imagine that what the music scene is writing about itself is true. What would that mean?

It would mean that it's your damn fault that bars and bands can't make any money.

Can you imagine the CEO of Ford Motors writing an article in Newsweek about how, "Sure, we had a rough year, but it's only because automobile customers are too lazy to get out there and buy our cars. They say our cars are crap, but the only thing that's 'crap' is our customers' attitudes! Lazy bastards!"

Wouldn't that be the stupidest thing you ever read? Wouldn't that be the lamest excuse for poor company performance you had ever encountered? Wouldn't you think that the guy was basically a delusional, entitled, self-absorbed idiot who had nothing to offer to the world other than blaming the universe that the many millions he deserved didn't just automatically gush into his bank account solely because he wanted them to?

If so, then you know exactly how I feel about musicians and club owners in this day and age.

Epilogue

I may not be right about this, but here's why I think I'm right: Every time I walk downtown and I see a talented busker - some guy playing classical guitar on a bridge, or someone playing unaccompanied jazz on a saxophone in a tunnel, or a couple of guys running a drum-line out of overturned buckets and milk jugs - I watch as the crowds gather, stay for a couple of songs, and then disperse with smiles on their faces.

People love music. People want to hear live music. They stop every time they hear it. They pay tips. They take videos. They post the videos on YouTube. They love it

But the difference between your local band and that guy playing classical on the bridge is that he's honed his craft for decades, he plays his music with simple joy, and he offers it into the world as music for its own sake. He doesn't dream of fame or fortune, he is simply an artist who chooses to beautify the air around himself. And the crowds flock.

Local bands, on the other hand, spend a few weeks wrangling 3-chords together in 10 different ways and expect to get hundreds of dollars a night from club owners who don't know how to fill their own establishments. And the crowds stay far, far away, because who wants to sit in a broken wooden chair at midnight on a weeknight drinking over-priced alcohol and listening to crap bands they can hardly hear, without even being able to discuss their experience with their date because the PA is cranked too loud?

I mean, seriously, does that sound like fun to you?

2014-12-11

The Meaninglessness (???) Of Existence

Although I cannot say how large it is, a substantial portion of the population subscribes to the belief that life is essentially meaningless. Before I proceed, let me substantiate that statement by pointing to the following:

The list goes on and on.

The "Singularity" Crowd

I believe part of this phenomenon relates to the fact that the development of artificial intelligence has become such a hotbed of technological research and development. If, after all, we can create a life out of spare parts and circuitry, how much meaning could we possibly derive from being a pile of warm and moist, electrified flesh?

The way we conceive of AI has completely infected our view of what consciousness actually is. Consider, for example, this other question on Quora: Can problem-solving abilities exist without consciousness? A great many of the answers to this question involve the existence and use of advanced computation. It doesn't seem to occur to many of the respondents that computers are only capable of solving problems after human beings have clearly expressed to the computer what the problem is, exactly, and how the computer shall reach its solution. In other words, human beings solve these problems, but to save themselves a lot of time and effort, we leverage computers' comparative advantage in calculation and discrete mathematics to arrive at these solutions in a more timely manner.

A simpler example: I can ask my computer to make a useful prediction about the state of my finances six months from now, but until I specify the model by which my computer will answer that question, I might as well be asking it out on a date.

The meaning behind the answers generated by my computer - and yours, and everyone's - originates with me.

Thus, the philosophers and techno-geeks ask the big question: Will we one day invent a computer capable of originating its own problem, designing the methodology for its own solution, answering its own question, and then generating a new array of life-choices based on this newly acquired knowledge?

But the answer is, "No, not really." The reason the answer is no is that human beings would first have to specify the means by which the computer will originate problems, the means by which the computer can design a methodology, the means of implementing that methodology, the means of interpreting the results, the means of storing the newly acquired knowledge, and the means of specifying new choices and problems.

We're no longer in an efficient scenario. I can specify new problems faster than I can develop a robot to specify new problems for me. And of what benefit would such a robot be?

The Nihilist Crowd

Some people want to draw the wrong conclusion from this. Rather than acknowledging that all meaning originates from the human brain, they remark that the human brain possesses no more meaning than what could (theoretically) be programmed into a computer. Their conclusion: meaning, and indeed consciousness itself, is nothing more than a neurological illusion that has evolved because it is ultimately better for species survival. Our brains trick us into believing that life has meaning and that we are interacting with that life, simply because this produces the evolutionarily positive outcome of childbirth and child-rearing.

To spot the error here, we unfortunately have to get a little pedantic about "meaning." 

Suppose I found that "the meaning of life" was to love and be loved by others. Suppose I was able to prove this somehow, and that all philosophers, logicians, and scientists we able to validate this with a priori logical proofs and physical scientific evidence. Suppose no reasonable person could dispute this. Let's call this Scenario A.

Now, suppose an alternate universe in which I found that "the meaning of life" was nothing more than my neurons cooking up a totally phony, but highly realistic, illusion that merely lead me to believe that the "the meaning of life" was to love and be loved by others. Suppose in this world it were somehow proven conclusively and indisputably that there was no real "meaning of life," but that our brains evolved such that we thought that such meaning existed. Let's call this Scenario B.

Okay, back to the real world, now, where we suspect that either Scenario A is true (or something quite like it), or Scenario B is true. Living as we do in this third world, the question I would like to pose to you today is this: In terms of your life and the practical issues you face on an ongoin basis, what is the difference between Scenario A and Scenario B? 

It's an epistemological question. Assuming one of the two scenarios is true, how will you be able to determine which one is the case?

The simple answer is, you cannot. There simply is no quantitative or qualitative difference between a world in which love is the meaning of life, and a world in which there is no meaning, but your brain is programmed to believe otherwise. At the end of the day, it's a non-issue. Either I love my wife, or I only think I love my wife, but in either scenario, my thoughts, beliefs, actions, and life outcomes are exactly the same. 

Thus, Occam's Razor would suggest that Scenario A is the more reasonable explanation. Nihilism - along with every other claim that life or its fundamental attributes are nothing more than an imperceptible illusion - is a violation of basic human rationality.

Conclusion

I could be wrong about all this, of course, but here's the interesting thing about that: It doesn't matter whether I am wrong, because no one will ever be able to perceive a different set of conditions or experience a different set of outcomes based on the "knowledge" that I am wrong.

In other words, you can live a life in which everything is real, or you can live a life in which you merely think that everything is real, but no matter which way you go, your life unfolds in exactly the same way

Life, therefore, has de facto meaning. 

2014-11-23

This Is How I Know Whether You Are A Good Person


Ethics is a fundamentally human question. At some point in the evolution of our species, it became important to us to temper our behavior with principles. It was an existential question: we could indeed survive on our own, but we're better satisfied by the kind of survival that includes treating our fellows decently. A mere chemical impulse? An innate instinct to adhere to a social order, as all social animals do? Perhaps. But only humankind thought settle these questions with theories and ideas, paradigms by which to maximize the well-being of everyone "like us." Some of us even dare to extend these paradigms to other species. And to our knowledge, we're the only ones who do this. To behave ethically is, quite simply, to be human.

Once we acknowledge that fact, many of the interesting questions involve where people draw the boundaries of their own ethics. Why white lies rather than no lies at all? Why alcohol, but not marijuana? Why heterosexual marriage, but not gay marriage? Why abortion, but not euthanasia? Why nationalism and not internationalism? Why is drawing a fence around a patch of land theft if you don't get a stamp from a notary public, but not if you do? Why do we think poorly of prostitutes? Why do we think poorly of foreigners? Why is getting tattoos a violation of religions that originated in areas that were unaware of the practice? Why do mormons consume ginseng, but not caffeine? Why is taxation a moral issue? 

If your response to any of these questions involves frustration about the fact that the questions were asked in the first place, then I don't actually believe that you have a code of ethics. Otherwise, I think you do. And this is the point: You're an ethical person if you don't mind attempting to answer these questions

If you can tirelessly discuss and respond to these ethical questions without growing exasperated, throwing up your hands, and declaring that there is no point to asking why, then I think you're an ethical person.

If you can hear someone else's response to the same questions, understand that the person disagrees with your ethical position, and discuss the matter in as much detail as possible, without growing angry or indignant, then I think you're an ethical person.

If you can accept that some ethical questions simply don't have answers, but that they are still worth asking, then I think you're an ethical person.

If you can come to understand - especially if told by someone else - that you yourself have violated a valid moral code, and ultimately realize that the ethical violation pains you more than the fact that someone called you unethical, then I think you are an ethical person. That is, if the possibility of being morally wrong matters more to you than the possibility of being thought of as being morally wrong, then yes, you're an ethical person.

If you can hear someone articulate a moral opinion without feeling that he or she is criticizing you as a person - if you can separate who you are from a discussion of ethics - then I think you are an ethical person.

If you can recognize that ethical problems are human problems, that learning to be a good person is hard work that we must spend a part of every single day tackling, then I think you are an ethical person.

Being an ethical person is being human; being an ethical person is being a good person. The good is the human, and the human is ethical. That is simply the nature of ethics. If you don't care, don't want to think about it, find it offensive or unpleasant that someone would want to talk to you about it, or feel that it's more important to smooth things over than to be morally inquisitive, then I know you are the other kind of person.

2014-11-17

Good Personal Conduct Is Utility-Maximizing

I.

How many times has this happened to you?

You're driving down a busy highway, when suddenly another motorist does something frustrating. Maybe he cuts in front of you too closely. Perhaps he's driving too slowly in front of you and holding up traffic, or perhaps he unintentionally-but-obliviously boxes you in, preventing you from changing lanes when you need to. It could be that you tried to merge, and he prevented you, or it could be that he held you up in order to let in a long line of other vehicles from another lane.

You lose your temper. You honk at the offending motorist, and/or you flash your high beams at him, and/or you yell out the window, and/or you give him an obscene gesture, and/or you drive in such a way that you are able to somehow exact your "revenge."

Once it's all out of your system, you continue your drive, only to discover that the offending motorist is driving to the same destination. Either you're driving home, and you discover that you've been yelling profanities at your neighbor, or you're driving to work and you realize you've been honking at your coworker, or you arrive at your destination to find that you're parking near the other motorist and must awkwardly make eye contact in the parking lot.

At that moment, you feel like an idiot.

II.

I once overheard a colleague discussing an interpersonal conflict with her manager. She relayed the story of an email incident with another employee. It seemed that a particular email exchange had gone sour and the two of them had exchanged terse words (via email). As the story progressed, the employee's emotions ran higher and higher, until the "climax" of the story, in which her interlocutor had written something particularly unreasonable in one of the most recent emails.

When she was finished recounting the incident, her manager replied: "Okay, so what's the issue?"

The employee launched into a passionate description of how unreasonable the other employee had been. She started to describe how she felt the other employee should have responded, but her manager interrupted her.

"I mean, what do you want me to do about it?" The employee stammered a bit. She was caught off-guard and couldn't really form a sentence. So the manager continued. "I'm trying to run a department here. If there's an issue that you need me to address, then I'll talk to [the other employee] about it, but I can't really get involved in all of this when I have work to do."

The manager ended the conversation by telling the employee to let him know if the offenses continue, and then gave her a few ideas for how she could respond the next time something similar happened. It was evident that the employee felt that he wasn't doing enough, but she was forced to accept his decision and move on. 

Even if her interlocutor had been guilty of all charges, my colleague hadn't done herself any favors by taking a personal conflict to her manager. The truth is, they both ended up looking bad to the manager, because neither one of them could find a way to get over their minor differences and have a productive working relationship with each other. 

The employee felt that by tattling, she would be able to come out on top; instead, she made herself look like an ass.

III.

It's easy for one to get so caught-up in a situation that your short-run objectives that one loses sight of one's own long-run interests. Automobile traffic can be frustrating, but one shouldn't get so emotionally invested in it that one's conduct puts one's own best interests at risk. Similarly, letting one's passions get the best of one at work will only make one look bad when things go awry.

It's easy to be susceptible to this problem because, in the heat of the moment, our short-run interests are in the forefront of our minds. If something bad happens to us, well, that's bad. Our minds and our passions will insistently remind us of the fact that something bad is happening. When we're upset about it, it can be difficult to convince ourselves to just chill out, take things slowly, don't act rashly, and above all take the moral high ground.

True, I spend a lot of time on Stationary Waves arguing for ethics for their own sake. But being an ethical person has a huge upshot from the perspective of pure, hedonistic self-interest. That upshot is: if you always conduct yourself ethically, then you never have to worry about making yourself look like an ass.

I'm not really trying to be funny here. It's tempting to cut corners, tell half-truths, sneak around behind people's backs, In some rare cases, it might even pay off. But if you're interested in maximizing long-run utility, then you shouldn't act on your emotions under the assumption that it might pay off. Insteady, you should act on logic subject to the most likely scenario.

So break it down: 
  • In rare cases, you can lie without getting caught, throw colleagues under the bus, honk like a madman at any passing car, etc., without ever having to worry about repercussions. This costs you very little, but only comes with a very unlikely payoff. The expected value is low.
  • On the other hand, you could always choose to take the moral high ground. You'll definitely never get the unlikely payoff of lying, cheating, stealing, and being mean. But you'll also definitely never look like an ass. In fact, you'll always come out with a good reputation whether your win or lose.

IV.

Being a good person is the right thing to do, but good personal conduct is also in every person's best interests in the long-run. To see this, you have to be willing to look at more than just the facts that are staring you in the face. You have to form predictions based on the most likely outcome and run a quick cost-benefit analysis on it.

I realize that when you want to complain about someone or yell at traffic, you don't really want to do the cost-benefit analysis. But that's okay - that's why I wrote this blog post, so that you can see that if you had done it, you'd have come to the conclusion that good behavior pays the highest rewards in the long-run.

If, after all these years, I've yet to convince you to be ethical for its own sake, try being ethical for reasons of pure hedonism.


2014-10-30

Privacy, Or Something Like It

In For the New Intellectual, Ayn Rand wrote:
Civilization is the progress toward a society of privacy. The savage’s whole existence is public, ruled by the laws of his tribe. Civilization is the process of setting man free from men.
Say what you will about Rand, she had a point. Early society - and modern "traditional" societies - are defined by the extent to which the community is involved in every person's life. We could speculate that this sort of involvement was an early precursor to modern law and order, but that doesn't really matter. What matters is that, until recently, the social order of the western world had reached a point where we could go home and essentially not be bothered or "judged" by others. At home, we were mostly free to do as we pleased, without having to involve "the community."

Two things seem to have reversed our course.

One of them is the extent to which large databases facilitate the collection and analysis of data that was previously considered to be innocuous. Modern data analysis, however, has proven remarkably successful at making accurate inferences about very private matters using data that we did not previously associate with privacy. Knowledge, once acquired, is bound to be used, and this knowledge has mostly been used to advertise to us. While many people bristle at the idea that their most personal information is being collected so that products can be sold to them, I rather consider it to be a very good thing. Markets are getting progressively better at serving the consumer, and for the most part data is either fully anonymized, or so vast that no real-world individual could hone in on a particular person and invade their privacy. Exceptions will exist, of course, and they will be rare.

But there is another, more problematic, factor undermining our privacy: social media. These are media through which we voluntarily make our private lives public on an international scale. The more paranoid streak of social media skepticism will suggest that, having volunteered our private lives, governments can now use that information to monitor and/or oppress us. Consider what rock musician Stuart Hamm recently posted on his Facebook wall: "So...I don't post photos or info of my family here. We are PAYING to have big brother watch us now. Suckers" Of course, as a libertarian, I sympathize with that fear. However, I don't consider it the primary danger of social media.

This morning The Atlantic published an article by Robinson Meyer, the closing paragraphs of which read as follows:
Is living such a public life worth the trouble? Is such a life worth being constantly exposed to vitriol and rage and threats from strangers—especially when the patterns of that abuse seem so random? Is the kind of work that would be required to sustain a “good” public, online social network possible? Is asking people to perform that moderating work something we even want to do? 
We often celebrate the social change and faster communication that public, networked life has brought about. But that kind of life—a new one that we’re all still trying out—requires remarkable sacrifice. We would do well to account for that sacrifice, and, at the very least, thank those who have made it.
So the real cost to living so prominently in the social media is not, in my view, corporate intrusions, nor is it government oppression. Instead, social media threatens to invade our personal psychological space. Every status update we post is an opportunity to be judged, or misunderstood, or threatened, or lashed-out at. Now that cameras are all digital and fully integrated with social media, every picture we take seemingly exposes us to other people's opinions about what we're doing.

Here's a picture of my baby - am I a good parent, or bad one? Here's a picture of my dinner - are you jealous, or is your dinner better, or do you think I'm making myself fat? Here's a picture of my band - is that cool, or am I trying too hard? Here's a picture of me wearing workout clothes - am I sexy enough? Here's a picture of my new girlfriend - how do you rate her?

It's interesting that we take to social media for good times, to gain the approval of the people we care about, maybe even to gain the approval of people we don't care about. Meanwhile, we must also accept the downside of this - maybe the people we do and/or don't care about disapprove of our conduct.

This is just the nature of living life as part of any society. The difference, though, is that in the good old days, we could actually escape society for a little while - go home, decompress, get out of the public eye for a bit. That's still possible in theory, of course. You can turn off all your devices and get away from it all, but today the cost of doing so is higher, because so much more of our lives has gone digital. I, for one, email friends and family many times throughout the day; I "speak" to them on Facebook; I share family snapshots with them; yet I live far away from them, thus social media affords us a level of intimacy that we wouldn't be able to experience without it. When I "unplug," I sacrifice all of that. I miss out on things I really do care about.

Sure, find the right balance for yourself. Find a level of connectivity that gives you the most of what you want the least of what you don't. Go ahead, make the trade-off.

But there's a trade-off to walking down the street, too, and walking down the street is not nearly as invasive to our psychological sense of privacy than the kind of information most of us share on social media. So calling for a "balance" or "moderation" is just another easy non-solution articulated to make us feel better. The simple fact is, we've lost a level of privacy that was previously hard-won. To be sure, we've gained something for it, but figuring out how to be authentic without being an attention whore, figuring out how to maintain a sense of privacy without becoming aloof, is not going to be an easy task for any of us any longer.

How will we regain our old-fashioned sense of privacy? Will we ever?

2014-10-16

A Sub-Two-Hour Marathon In 2038?

Everyone's talking about this Runner's World article about the prospects of a sub-two-hour marathon. I first saw the article on Facebook, via my Open Borders compatriot, John Lee. A few days later, Alex Tabarrok at Marginal Revolution reposted it with some mostly uninteresting discussion unfolding in the comments section.

I checked the comments section again this morning, and discovered a link to a rather fascinating (and short) blog post predicting that the sub-two-hour marathon will happen some time around the year 2038.
Inspired by Patrick Makau Musyoki's new marathon record in Berlin yesterday, I looked for trends in the marathon world records for each decade going back a century. I only included the fastest time in each decade. I expected a plateau like this, but I didn't expect it to be so neatly logarithmic....
Followed by:
A whole crop of articles commented over the last year onstatistically improbable sprinter Usain Bolt, who is ahead-of-trend by thirty years. In the same vein, looking at the marathon plot, we shouldn't expect a male human to break two hours in the marathon until 2038. And it's reasonably assumed that the incremental improvements we see in these times is a result of (decreasing marginal) improvements in training, nutrition, and running equipment.