2019-01-17

A Writer


I've maintained a blog for nearly nine years. I've contributed posts to other people's blogs many times throughout that timespan. I've written some more formal articles for online publication. Professionally, I've written a number of formal pieces, published within industry. I've contributed to academic articles. I've written lyrics and rhymes my whole life. And, occasionally, I write short stories. Considering all that, I suppose I can fairly make the claim that I am a writer.

I don't claim that everything I write is good, nor do I claim that I am a professional. Given the sheer volume of words I have committed to some form of publication, however, there is simply no getting around it. I am a writer.

Larissa MacFarquhar is also a writer. I recently read the transcript of a conversation she had with Tyler Cowen, and it got me thinking. Throughout the interview, she interjects small details of her own beliefs about what constitutes great writing. It's clear that she loves the small nuances contained in the way individuals choose to phrase things. It's clear she's drawn to prose, but not from the standpoint of seeking the ideal way of expressing a thing. Rather, MacFarquhar seems attracted to a person's communicative individuality. That's a strong asset for a person who profiles other people for a living, as she does. It's clear, or at least plausible, that she has risen to her level of career success in part from having an asset like that.

A fixation on the way written prose is constructed, an attention to detail with respect to the poetry of the act of writing, is something I have noticed that many writers have. Being wordsmiths themselves, they seem to delight in the act of wordsmithing, almost as a spectator sport. They can find the uniqueness of the way that somebody did it, and analyze it carefully until it is much more than less attentive people would ever have known. This strikes me as being very natural and normal. Of course it would be so.

Yet, this is an attribute I have never shared with other writers. Don't get me wrong, I appreciate the linguistic acrobatics of James Joyce and the sublime perfection of Herman Melville's prose. Anyone could love that. I, however, don't tend to notice lesser prose. If you gave me five generic magazine writers and asked me to rank-order the quality of their prose, I'd be able to do it, but I'd be splitting hairs. Unless I see a Shakespeare or a Melville, I don't tend to notice the distinctness of a writer's prose.

Nor do I have any such obsession about my own writing. Over the past year, I have been slightly more diligent about the way my sentences are constructed. I second-guess my use of passive voice more often now than before, although I give myself greater license to use it. I make a point of avoiding repetitious vocabulary. I'll rearrange my adjectives and adverbs until they bounce a little more lightly on the tongue. This is all in service of trying to avoid sounding like a technical manual when I write. I want my written sentences to approximate the lightness of the thoughts than inspired them; even if I never reach it, I think it's important to try. I may not really have any readers other than ye Russian bots, but if someone accidentally happens upon one of my blog posts, I'd prefer they enjoyed their accident.

But, I repeat, this does not come from a place of prose-obsession. I am not hunting for the world's greatest metaphor or patting myself on the back for writing seven consecutive sentences in which all the adjectives trace their etymological roots to Sanskrit. Conceptually, that would be kind of cool, but it's just not my bag.

So, I lack an obsession I've noticed that many successful writers have. I am not particularly interested in an aspect of writing that appears highly correlated to commercial success as a writer. Were I to form a Bayesian prior about that fact, it would be that this makes me unlikely to ever be a successful writer. On the other hand, it's not clear to me at all that successful writers are those who possess this obsession. What about Dan Brown, for example? His prose isn't particularly swell -- in fact, I don't happen to like it at all -- and yet he is one of the most successful writers of my lifetime. And no one read Fifty Shades of Grey for its deft use of iambic pentameter. Those writers who are capable of tapping into the fiction market zeitgeist may not need to be great writers from a mere technical standpoint. Maybe they just need to have a good story to tell.

It's hard to definitely say what makes a writer good. Given that writing is an art, perhaps "good writing" just means there is something in it that speaks to the reader on a personal level. Good writing may in fact be the opposite of blog writing; blog writing happens when a writer writes about something the speakers to the writer on a personal level, and hopes that the reader finds a sentence or two to quote and hyperlink-to.

I don't know if I'm a good writer or a bad one, and it might not be for me to say. But I do know that I'm a writer, I've been writing, and I'm trying to polish that ability a little bit in hopes of having something to say in the future. We shall see.

2019-01-16

Free Advertising


A little while back, some academics published a paper on moral grandstanding, which they defined as being any attempt to turn public discourse into a vanity project. That's a nice definition of what moral grandstanding is, because it sets out that there is valid public discourse, and then there is discourse that reaches a point at which all a person is doing is proclaiming their own moral superiority, and that latter thing  is blameworthy.

There's a similar concept I apply to my own life all the time. If I'm trying to solve a problem, or convey my feelings to someone, or argue for my way of things, that's a good -- or at least neutral -- thing. But, if what I'm doing ventures into resentment, then I've crossed the line. So, arguing with my wife about how we should invest our money is probably a worthwhile argument to have, unless I'm just using that argument as an excuse to lord something over her or needle her about something. Lecturing my daughter, or giving her a "time-in" or something when she does something wrong is normal and good parenting; but punishing her for the sake of punishing her, or rehashing old acts of misbehavior over and over, is resentful and should be avoided. Or, comparing my way of doing things with the way my neighbors do things is probably fine; but smugly declaring the superiority of my way is resentful and should be avoided.

You get the picture.

In both of the above examples, we have a situation in which we choose to differentiate between making a point because something can be learned, and making a point for the sake of some underlying negative emotion we're feeling. It's not always easy to know when you're doing which thing. It takes a good deal of practice and a large dose of self-awareness to identify when you're doing something for the wrong reasons, especially when what you're doing is perfectly fine when you're doing it for the right reasons. It's hard; it's complex; it's nuanced.

The reason I bring all this up is because this week the internet is talking about a company that decided to weigh in on a hot-button political issue in one of its advertisements. It is perfectly fine for a company to participate in public discourse, as far as I'm concerned. That company can do so at its own risk, knowing that not all of its customers will agree with the company's chosen message. But there is nothing to say that a company should not participate in public discourse.

That being said, it makes quite a bit of difference why a company chooses to do so. To argue for human dignity is a praiseworthy thing, if one is doing it from a place of conviction. If one is doing it merely to sell products, then it becomes disingenuous and also crass.

Disingenuousness is bad, because it erodes the customer's faith in the company's own words. That is, if the company doesn't voice its own core beliefs honestly, and instead voices whatever widely held belief will sell the most products, then the customer can credibly wonder what else the company is willing to lie about. Maybe everything.

Crassness is bad because it makes light of people's deeply held beliefs. Whatever we happen to believe about the issue the company is advertising about, we take it for granted that some things are important enough to avoid being used. It's good to be a shoulder to cry on, for example, unless your ultimate goal is to secure a date with the person you're comforting. Your ulterior motives make your consolation morally blameworthy, and so it goes for the company who voices a political opinion with the goal of selling products.

So, I'm not going to voice an opinion on the issue of masculinity today, because it hardly matters. What matters is that companies don't manipulate the public dialogue in order to SELL SELL SELL. It's gross.

2019-01-15

Pace Progress


I inevitably measure my fitness against the peaks and valleys of my past experiences. How fit am I now, compared to the fittest I've ever been? How poorly am I performing now compared to the worst I've ever felt? If I'm injured, how does this injury compare to noteworthy injuries of the past? Those kinds of comparisons bubble up any time I am focused on my health and fitness.

For running, the best period of comparison for me was the year immediately following my "retirement." Sick of competing for other people, I stopped timing my runs and just started doing stuff that seemed fun to me. I'd try to get lost in the suburbs. I'd run deep into the mountains until the trails stopped. I'd go thirty miles at a time, in -10 degree temperatures or worse, wearing shorts, to see if I could make it the whole way without freezing my tail off. The joy of experimentation and freedom, combined with my tendency to run harder than I needed to, helped me reach a level of fitness I've remembered ever since.

I remember one day during that time period, when I went home to visit my parents, and my father asked me to go running with him. Or, perhaps I asked if I could come along with him. Whichever the case, we headed out. For his age and his commitment to running, my father was a good runner at the time. He regularly placed in his age division at road races, and ran strongly and consistently almost every day. Still, he was of course no match for me, so when we went out running together, it wasn't a race. I spent most of my time concentrating on holding way back, so that I could match his pace rather than induce him to run faster than he otherwise would have. It was tough going that day because my natural pace was so much faster than his. By the end of the run, he had commented many times that we were going much faster than he usually ran, and meanwhile I felt almost as though I could walk as fast as we were running. When we finally finished, my father checked his watch and reported that we had run at about seven minutes per mile pace.

This is a mental benchmark for me, because it signifies a period in my life when running as slowly as I possibly could resulted in 7:00/mile.

A couple of weeks back, I started committing to running a little faster during my daily runs. There was really no reason not to. I didn't understand why I was suddenly running my daily runs as slow as 7:30/mile pace. I wanted to reclaim some of my old speed. So, I started running much faster. What I discovered, as previously reported, was that it wasn't all that more difficult to run fast as opposed to running slowly. So why not run fast?

Well, I'm pleased to report that I took an easy run yesterday -- I was tired, and didn't feel much like running at all, but I convinced myself that I could go for at least a three-mile easy run -- and that easy run clocked in at 6:45/mile pace. I'm pleased with my progress. If my easy runs are coming in at 6:45, then it means my average pace really is getting faster, and that's progress.

It just goes to show you that sometimes, if you give yourself a little push, you can do much better than you think you can.

2019-01-14

On Politics' Not Being About Policy


The refrain "politics isn't about policy," which I believe was coined by Robin Hanson, packs a lot of information into a small amount of space. It has taken me a long time to appreciate the dense wisdom contained in that seemingly straightforward aphorism, but I think I've finally managed to absorb it all.

Take, for example, the notion that the rich should pay more in taxes. The question isn't really a matter of policy. Why not? Because no one who thinks taxes should be raised on the rich has any specific notion of what that tax rate actually ought to be. Scott Sumner recently posted on this, and it's clear from his post that some of the people who want the rich to pay more prefer a maximum tax rate that is actually lower than the one that presently exists! In other words, "the rich should pay more in taxes" is the whole of most people's beliefs about taxes. They do not have any specific policy in mind. Whatever you tell them about how much the rich already pay, they will always be in favor of "more." It's not a matter of policy, it's a matter of sentiment. It's a description of how people feel toward the rich, not a description of what they think the IRS should do.

Immigration is another example. A lot of people favor putting up a border wall. This perspective is a little silly because people aren't immigrating -- legally or illegally -- for lack of physical barriers. If the border wall is completed, then would-be immigrants will simply find a way around the wall, or over it, or under it. The wall itself is meaningless. It's not really about the wall, it's about describing a person's sentiment. That sentiment is that they don't want Spanish-speaking immigrants, Arab-speaking immigrants, or African immigrants coming into the United States.

There are many reasons why people don't want this, and all of them are bad reasons. Why do I say they're bad reasons? Because they are non-specific. When people lament that immigrants take welfare money, they're not suggesting that the US adopt new policies on welfare. When people lament that immigrants cause crime, they're not suggesting that the US adopt new policies on crime. When people lament that immigrants steal jobs, they're not suggesting that the US implement new economic policies. The immigration debate is not about any policy at all. It's merely a description of a sentiment.

Granted, people like myself, who believe that the rich should be taxed less, and that the US not build a crazy, anti-people wall are arguing similarly. I have no idea what the right tax rate "should" be. I have no opinion on how many people "should" be allowed into the United States. It's exactly the same for me, I'm not arguing for a specific policy, I'm just arguing for "lower taxes," no matter how low they are, and "more immigrants," no matter how many we already have. It’s not about policy for me, either.

The closest I can get to formulating an opinion about policy is this: I think taxes are too high in general, and ought to be slowly lowered, percentage point by percentage point, until we maximize the utility gains from doing so. Similarly with immigration: I think we ought to reduce barriers to immigration point by point until we maximize all utility gains from immigration.

But it's still not a policy debate, it's just a worldview debate. Funnily enough, it's harder to convince people to change their world view than it is to convince them to favor a particular policy. So perhaps political debates would end better if we discussed policy rather than politics.

2019-01-13

Understanding And Using Strava's Relative Effort Score


Strava's "Relative Effort" score, which is available to those of us dorky enough to subscribe to their premium membership, is an interesting piece of data to think about.

While the exact formula for calculating Relative Effort is one of Strava's proprietary secrets, they readily acknowledge that it is based on the athlete's heart rate during exercise. When you click on your Relative Effort score for a particular activity (from the browser-based user portal), you are taken to an analysis of heart rate. Specifically, you're given a bar graph, by Heart Rate Zone, of percentage of time spent in each Zone. You're given extra points for time spent "in the red," which any time you spend in Heart Rate Zones 4 or 5. (This is all based on a 5-zone approach.)

Those of you familiar with the fitness industry will recognize this principle immediately. It's the "theory" behind Orange Theory Fitness, ie., you'll get a more worthwhile workout if you spend time in the "orange" zone, which is usually designated Heart Rate Zone 4. (Zone 5 is usually shown in "red," and constitutes the athlete's maximum effort.)

Needless to say (I hope), neither Strava nor Orange Theory Fitness innovated this approach to working out. Targeting Heart Rate Zone 4 a few times per week has been a regular part of heart rate zone training for as long as people have been grouping their heart rates into "zones."

A year ago, as I built up my aerobic capacity, I noticed that over time workouts that covered the same distance and speed were getting "easier" from the standpoint that my average heart rate was getting lower. I might have run 5 miles at 6:45/mile pace every day for a month, but at the beginning of the month I'd spend 10 minutes, say, in Zone 4, whereas at the end of the month I might have only spent 1 or 2 minutes in that zone. This signifies an increase in my aerobic fitness level, but not the fitness of my legs. More on that in a bit.

In order to get at that information last year, I had to watch my Heart Rate Zone diagrams on my Garmin Connect app. Every day, I'd check the bar graph and visually confirm where my average heart rate was going. It was imprecise, but close enough for rock and roll. To improve on that, I may have graphed maximum heart rate during exercise over time, grouping by similar distances, and checked for a downward-sloping trend line. That's not impossible, of course, but it is a little convoluted.

Strava's Relative Effort score works much better. Charting that one number over time gives you insight into how your training is progressing. Indeed, this is the graph that Strava calls your "Fitness" graph. Remember, Relative Effort involves the total amount of time you spend in each Heart Rate Zone, so even if you only spend all your time in Zone 1, 10 minutes is worth more than 5 minutes. So it combines both aerobic effort and total time spent training, which also functions as a proxy for weekly mileage.

Thus, if your aerobic fitness improves, but you do not increase your weekly mileage, then you could plausibly see your Fitness level drop, since you'll either spend less time in higher Heart Rate Zones, or less total time exercising (since you'd be running the same number of miles faster). The only way to increase your Fitness level (that's capital-F Fitness, ie. Strava's "Fitness" number) is to run more miles or run the same number of miles in higher Heart Rate Zones (or both).

Strava's website isn't good at explaining this at all! They give you general information about Relative Effort, heart rate zones, and "Power" (for cyclists), but they don't have any explanation that brings it all together so that you can use your personal Fitness chart. If I hadn't have figured it out, I likely would have cancelled my premium Strava subscription, since without a good explanation, the data is essentially useless. Chalk another one up to the uselessness of the way our data is served back to us by the tech industry.

No, that's not quite fair. Relative Effort is a really good number -- for once, we've been given something that is actually highly useful. Unfortunately, it's just not presented in a way that is readily usable to anyone except people like myself, data geeks who are already quite accustomed to probing the data deeply.

Hopefully the above explanation helps you more than Strava's online materials.

2019-01-12

Topsy Turvy


In the wake of the 9/11 attacks, airports became completely different places. Young people have no idea what an airport used to be like. They'll never know what it's like to travel without having to first submit to a humiliating security check. They'll never know what it was like to say goodbye to your friends and family at the gate, rather than at the front doors of the airport, or to greet them at the gate when they arrived.

I'm disappointed with myself that I don't even remember what some of it was like. I know we had to submit our bags for a security check, but I don't remember what that check consisted of, nor do I recall how onerous it was. I'm on the edge of my generation; I didn't do much air travel until I was in college, and 9/11 happened halfway through my college career. So, I'm struggling to remember exactly what it was like. People younger than I am -- younger than 39 years of age -- will remember even less. It is a dying memory that will disappear much sooner than I ever expected.

What makes me sad about this is that it is a tangible loss of freedom -- an enormous growth in the size and scope of government -- that occurred in my lifetime, and when we no longer remember what our freedom was like prior to that loss of freedom, we will no longer hunger for it. We will, collectively, assume that "it's always been that way," and so we will likely never make strides to regain the freedom we've lost.

It was a truly terrible loss, too. For those of us who even vaguely remember pre-9/11 airplane travel, the TSA security checks feel like humiliating assaults. Groping. Unexplained detentions. The power of TSA employees to cause us to miss our flights, often at great cost to us, and the power of TSA employees to initiate a nearly intractable legal process against us, even if we are not guilty of anything. They simply decide we are suspicious, treat us accordingly, and our rights are gone. Poof.

This morning, news reaches me of protests by TSA employees. They're protesting the government shutdown. The article presents the case that the TSA employees are victims in this case. They deserve their money. They deserve their jobs. Mean, bad Mr. Trump is making it hard for them to earn a living.

To earn a living groping us, taking body scanner photos of us that can see through our clothes, patting-down our wives and children. The government shutdown is making it hard for the TSA to earn a living detaining us.

They're the victims.

2019-01-11

Book Review: Robert Jordan - "The Fires Of Heaven"

Image courtesy Wikipedia.org
The fifth book in Robert Jordan's "Wheel of Time" series is the slowest-paced book of any in the series thus far. There is a lot to enjoy about the book, of course, but there is an unfortunately large amount not to enjoy, as well.

For starters, at least 200 of the nearly 1,000 pages in the book are dedicated to recapping elements from previous installments. It must be a catch-22 for any writer of successful book series, deciding how much backstory from previous books is enough to remind readers of the present book what has happened before. Still, it is excessive in "The Fires of Heaven," and very costly to the flow of the novel. No one who picks up book #5 in a 14-book series requires all that background information; we already have it.

A second weakness is that the book's primary plotlines follow the series' worst character, Nynaeve, a cantankerous, mean, arrogant, and all-around unpleasant woman. I respect that Jordan was capable of making such a detestable character, but given that she is supposed to be protagonist, it is frankly unpleasant to have to wade so deeply into her part of the story. Much better to have relegated her to more of a supporting role...

Which brings me to another strong weakness in the book: Some of the most appealing characters in the story were misused here. Namely, Thom Merrilan, whose place in the series is intriguing and interesting. He is a man that killed a Myrdraal with a dagger in one of the earlier books, all by himself, an extremely intelligent and capable man who plays a key part in several other characters' lives. And yet, in "The Fires of Heaven," his character is mostly played for comic relief. It's so disappointing to watch a very likeable and respectable character play the patsy in a 1,000-page novel, especially when he's playing the patsy to the detestable Nynaeve.

Finally, the book is far more slow-paced than previous novels in the series. At times, Jordan spent ten to twenty pages describing minor events that were not relevant to the plot. It makes no sense to spill ink over ten pages to, for example, describe that two characters are having difficulty finding an opportunity to have a conversation with each other.

One wonders, too, what the title of the book means. There is no reference to "heaven" or "the sky" anywhere in the novel, although there is plenty of fire throughout. But "The Fires of Heaven" does not refer to anything in particular about the novel.

As usual, Jordan packs a lot of action into the last 100-200 pages of the book, proving that he can keep the reader on the edge of his seat, but also leaving me to wonder why the rest of the novel was so slow. He also packs many quotable quotes into the story; two characters, in fact, seem to exist merely to cast such pearls to the other characters, and that's a lot of fun. His descriptions are as strong as ever, so even while the novel is paced slowly, it's well-written, to be sure. There is no escaping, however, that the novel could have been 300-400 pages shorter than it was without costing the story anything.

Five books into the series, Robert Jordan's philosophical messages are finally starting to play out in the series. What "saidar" and "saidin" actually represent -- including the "taint on saidin" -- is becoming more obvious, and it nice to explore what Jordan has to say about the relationship between men and women. Even so, his depiction of female characters has always been a little flat, and in "The Fires of Heaven," they occasionally border on the downright silly. Nearly every female character is psychologically manipulative, catty, passive-aggressive, secretive, conniving, and has a crush on some other male character. If one wanted to make a case for women's empowerment, as Jordan appears to want to do throughout the Wheel of Time series, one certainly can't do that while painting all women with more or less the same brush.

So, while there is plenty of action -- especially that action that separately follows Rand, Mat, and Morgase -- the slow pace of the novel and its cartoonish treatment of its female characters are major detractors to what should actually be a really good book.

What's good about the novel is in fact great, so I can't rate it lower than three stars. I just hope subsequent books in the series prove to be a little better.

2019-01-10

The Horrible, Horrible World Of Data


There's an old blog post out there in cyberspace, somewhere, written by "The Last Psychiatrist," but before he had his own website. In it, he makes the rather interesting point that Sigmund Freud's psychological language reflected the language of his time. One example was the use of words like "pressure" and "stress" to describe psychological states, words that seemingly spring from a world in the midst of an industrial revolution preoccupied with literal pressure and stress in the world of machines. He compared that to the psychological language of the Internet Age, which used terms like "connected" or "disconnected." Interesting, like I said. Google it, if you can; it's worth reading.

It certainly made an impact on me. Over time, I've really come to absorb that concept and adopt it into my interpretation of our present reality. We're no longer living in a world of industrial revolution, and it's clear to me, at least, that we have gone past the Internet Age, too. The internet is still here, of course, but our age is no longer about "the Net." If I you asked me, I'd say it's now the Data Age.

*        *        *

Data age distinguishes itself from "Information age," which was the Nineties. The information age was all about transmitting information from one place to another, communicating faster, communicating instantly, passing along information.

No, in a data age, we're not so concerned with information. What we want is data, ie. stuff that can be harvested, ETL-ed, relationally databased, processed in a statistical model, and then summarized. And hopefully monetized, ugh.

But in any case, data is the order of the day. We already take it for granted that every system with which we interact when we access computers or phones will harvest data related to that interaction, and then process it somehow. It will end up on somebody's report, and drive someone's decision to do something; most often a commercial decision of some kind.

We take that part of it for granted, but we seldom consider how this has begun to shape our own individual behavior. One example is fitness tracking. Twenty years ago, almost no one cared how many steps they take in a day; nowadays, we dutifully track it. We track our meals and our hours of sleep -- light sleep and deep sleep, and the amount of each is tracked and understood to matter. We track fitness-related things that we never thought to track before, such as the cadence of our running stride (which is useless), and the vertical oscillation.

I've already written about how all this information isn't worth anything unless we can somehow develop computer programs that solve necessary problems. It's junk, basically. It doesn't do you any good to know that 17% of your monthly grocery budget is spent on beef. What would be useful if someone developed an algorithm that was able to identify all the meat and meat-substitutes present on your monthly grocery bill and developed an app that told you, "If you replaced half your monthly beef with chicken, you'd spend $20 less; if you replaced it with squid, you'd spend $30 less; if you replaced it with lentils, you'd spend $50 less." Or whatever the case might be.

The key point here is that having a collection of data is as pointless as having a collection of bottle caps. Unless you plan on doing something with your data, it is senseless to collect it. That's an easy point to make about businesses who store terabytes upon terabytes of data in huge data centers. But it's an even more important point to make for people who dedicate a part of their day to recording their meals, their weight, their time spent reading, and so on.

To be sure, I record every data point that relates to my health and fitness regimen that I possibly can, but I have a reason for doing this. In my case, I'm trying to keep my blood sugar readings as low as possible. Normal people have absolutely no reason to care what percentage of their last workout was in Heart Rate Zone 3. Really, it doesn't matter.

Naturally, this point connects to yesterday's point about paperwork. Paperwork is, at its core, data collection, and we have begun to believe and to act as if action is impossible without some parallel instance of data. We've gone from "I think, therefore I am" to "Without data, there is no record that I thought anything in the first place, therefore everything is data." Granted, that doesn't quite roll off the tongue like cogito ergo sum.

*        *        *

I started writing this blog post because I was thinking to myself, if today is the Data Age, then what will the next Age be? But in writing down my thoughts, I've shifted my perspective slightly.

Everyone's always talking about "monetizing" what they're doing, as though having ten thousand people view the acoustic cover of "Careless Whisper" you put up on YouTube isn't reward enough, as though those ten thousand people are irrelevant to you unless they become PledgeMusic donors. I think this attitude is crass and self-limiting. I love making money, but it's not everything I do in life. There are some things worth doing merely because they are inherently meaningful: climbing a mountain, making love, teaching your child how to read, listening to the birds in the trees and feeling the sunshine on your face as you drink coffee on your patio on a warm Sunday morning. Some things ought not be monetized. Maybe not even art.

But maybe this modern age of data, of data collection, could turn out to be something that we can make use of. The Beatles are considered the greatest rock band of all time, mostly because there is a historical record that says so; ie., they are thought to be the best because that's what the data says. The data tells a story about the Beatles. Now there can never be "another Beatles," not because four young guys can't make music that good, but because four young guys can't generate 50 years of data that tells the story of their greatness.

…or maybe they can.

One of the big differences between musical artists nowadays and musical artists when I was growing up is their lack of a story. In most cases, this is because there is no story to tell. Pop vixens basically spend their wonder years in voice lessons, then if they're sexy enough they get pitched to a record company that chooses to develop them or not. That's not a story, it's just a sausage-maker.

When I was in high school, I could tell you exactly how the members of my favorite bands met each other, how they developed their musical style, how they went from nothing to something, the story behind the recording of their breakthrough album, and so on.

There's even a bit of showmanship involved in having a story. What's better, "Raj the Magnificent," or "Raj the Magnificent, who tamed three bears with a song when he was just 13, who drank from the waters of Shangri-Upor and kissed the Queen of Daan, and who, after a decade of study under the harpmasters of the Lower Peaks of Cheryn brings his heart-felt lyrical poetry to your home town, for your listening pleasure?"

Not that one should fabricate a story a la Jared Threatin, but why not get your story out there, whatever it is? We're a culture that depends on the existence of data; we trade in memes, because memes are data points; the more memes, the more data; present your ideas as a well-established meme, and perhaps you're one step ahead of the game.

Meme yourself to success!

Ugh, god. I hate the Data Age.

2019-01-09

Without Paperwork, Nothing Can Happen


I used to pay a monthly subscription fee to "Hand & Stone," a massage spa. That monthly fee covered one massage per month, and possibly other discounts that I never took advantage of.

Some months ago, I cancelled my subscription since daily foam rolling eliminated my need for a monthly massage. I had a lengthy conversation about this cancellation over the telephone. This is to be expected, since the whole grift with subscription services is that they want to keep you holding on to your subscription, no matter what. After having settled the matter, though, we hung up the phone. As far as subscription cancellations go, it was a pleasant conversation, and I thought I'd heard the last of it.

The other day, however, some three or four months later, I received a message asking me to "update the credit card on my account."

I called them back, and the manager answered the phone. When I explained that I had already cancelled my account, and that there would be no need to update my credit card or charge me again, she told me that she had no record of my cancellation. Fine, I thought. That's just a misunderstanding. So I explained again that I had cancelled my subscription, and she explained again that she didn't have record of it.

Then she told me that if I didn't update my credit card, I would be sent to collections.

Upon hearing this last part, I had to interrupt her to verify what she had told me. I asked her to confirm my understanding of the situation: That "Hand & Stone" would continue to charge my credit card even though I had cancelled my account, and that if I didn't pay them I would be sent to a collections agency. She confirmed that this was correct.

At that point, I told her, "Since you don't have a valid credit card on file, and I believe I cancelled my account, why don't you just not charge me?"

She told me the reason was that she didn't have a record of it.

It is truly a bewildering thing to behold a world in which you can verbally state to people that you no longer wish to do business with a person -- a world in which a person is incapable of doing business with you, because they do not have a reliable way to charge you any money -- a world in which no actual services are being rendered because you have not entered the business establishment to collect those services -- and yet that person will nonetheless claim that they are incapable of not charging you money, incapable of not sending you to collections, because they didn't update their records.

When did this happen to human beings? When did we become so tied to paperwork that all action is impossible without it?

2019-01-08

Picking Up The Pace


Lately, I've increased my average running pace from a little under seven minutes per mile to somewhere around 6:25 per mile. That's a significantly faster pace, fast enough to warrant some 'splainin'.

The first question is why I would increase my average running pace, and the most basic answer is, why not? It sounds stupid, but so long as you're running every day -- or almost every day -- why not run faster rather than slower? Provided there is no significant cost to doing so, running faster is more fun than running slower, and as I've mentioned many times in the past, it's also safer. Ceteris paribus, fast is better than slow.

Of course, longtime readers will note that my running seven minutes per mile is already quite a bit slower than I used to run. So, the real question is, why did I ever slow down in the first place? The answer, if I'm being totally honest, is probably laziness. One day, a person feels a little more tired than usual, so he runs a little more slowly. Those tired days start to happen a little more frequently, and before he knows it, the fast days are the rarities. It takes a bit of work to shake all that off and get back to running fast again. It takes some deliberate effort. That's what I'm doing now.

There is also the matter of Texas weather. The summers here being what they are, it is almost impossible to run as far and as fast as I'm used to running when the weather starts climbing up above 80 degrees. The heat here is not the same as the desert heat in which I grew up. The air is much more humid and makes it more difficult to avoid over-heating. It's hard to run under 6:30/mile pace for six or more miles in heat like that. I haven't yet learned the secret, although perhaps I will, eventually.

There were a few other contributing factors, too. In late 2014, I started experimenting with heart rate zone training. It was an interesting process. Initially, training in HRZ 2 involved slowing way, way down. Over time, my pace came up while my heart rate did not increase by much. So in some ways, HR zone training was effective. But I don't think my pace ever really came back up to where it should have. A guy needs to push a bit to have that happen, and without the desire to push, it didn't happen. I also suffered a few injuries over the years that discouraged me from pushing overmuch. My back injury from 2017 was certainly a setback, but the fact that it happened just as I started to get more serious about running made it psychologically more impactful (negatively) than it probably otherwise would have been. Thus, there has been this fear in the back of my mind that, should I ever decide to try to run a little harder, a little faster, be a little better, I'd only injure myself.

I realize now, however, that these injuries were age-related. I've learned a lot from Tony Horton's Beachbody workout programs, and one of the most important things I've learned is that maintaining good flexibility and balance is more and more important as we age. In our twenties, we can run hard and heal quickly. Nothing ever seems to get in our way. As time wears on, all the times we skipped over the stretching routines and the foam rolling start to catch up with us. Getting an occasional massage can lull us into a false sense of security: why bother with daily muscle care when you can loosen everything up once a month on the massage table? But, no. We need to care for ourselves as we age, otherwise we're just priming ourselves for injury.

So: taking better care of myself and returning to my older style of training have inspired me to push a little harder during my daily run, and what I've discovered from all of that is, so far, it's no more difficult to run fast every day than it was to run slow. I'm a little more tired at night, and I sleep a little more soundly, but nothing else is really the same. I'm glad I made a choice to try to run faster. We'll see if it pays off.

2019-01-07

Drifting Apart


I don't know a lot about Dungeons & Dragons, having only "played" (is that the right word?) once or twice in my life. I never really took to it, as I never understood whether what I was doing was supposed to be pretending I was a knight and running around with a toy sword, or sitting down with a pen and paper, rolling dice and keeping score. I suppose that's the allure of D&D for those who like to play: It's a bit of a combination of both things.

But old-school RPGs like Dungeons & Dragons did manage to bring one clever innovation to the world of gaming, and that is the following: In most RPGs, there are various types or classes of characters from which to choose. Players could choose to be a thief-type character, for example, and being a thief meant you scored high on some traits (sneakiness? agility?) and lower on others (strength? honesty?). Wizard-type characters had a different set of strengths. Knight-type characters had others still.

What's attractive about this kind of game feature is that the whole game plays differently, depending on one's strengths and weaknesses. Suppose the player has to open a locked door. A thief might have to pick the lock, a giant might have to break the door down, a wizard might have to cast a spell… In order to build up enough points to manage opening the door, the thief character might have to spend some time acquiring thief-related points, obtaining lock picks, and so on. A wizard, on the other hand, might have to spend time on completely different activities, such as studying spells or acquiring potions or magic wands, or whatever the case might be. The point is that gameplay requires only that the door be opened; how a player managed to do that depended on his or her choice of character. Not only do different players get to have different kinds of experiences, the same game can be played hundreds of different ways, based on one's choice of character and list of strengths and weaknesses.

This gameplay innovation, given to us by the old RPGs of the 70s and 80s, bled over into computer-based RPGs like "Final Fantasy" and "Quest for Glory." This, in turn, inspired fighting games like Street Fighter II, with characters whose controls were radically different from each other; and racing games, in which different cars had different strengths and could approach terrain and speed differently.

Forty years later, it's not much of an innovation at all. Players expect to choose among classes of characters, or to experience gameplay in which one develops some set of abilities rather than others, and the events in the game vary accordingly.

Another benefit to this kind of game feature is the fact that it feels more true-to-life. Rather than everyone's having to pretend to be the same kind of character, we get to choose that character that most appeals to us. Some of us think of ourselves more like wizards than paladins. That's normal and expected. Far better to play the character that seems more like you than to play the only character available. Or, perhaps you'd prefer playing a character that is nothing like the real you. That can be a wonderful form of escapism, too. You might never be a swaggering pirate in real life, but in an RPG, you can play at being one, just for a chance to step out of your own skin for a while.

What makes this all work is the fact that the players know they are playing a game. We can choose which role we want to play, from a relatively small set of options, knowing full well that we can always start the game over again and play as a different kind of character. Today, I can choose to be a great wizard; tomorrow, I can be a swordsman who knows nothing about magic at all. It would be incredibly odd if your ability to play a particular game were defined entirely by the choice you made the first time around. It wouldn't be very appealing to play a game in which you could choose from twelve different characters, but if you chose to be the Elf the first time around, that impacted how you played the game the second time, the third time, and every time thereafter. That wouldn't be a very fun RPG; we might enjoy playing the first time, but subsequent rounds of the game would be frustrating, as a player tried to convert his homunculus character into an evil succubus or something.

In life, we don't get to start the game over and choose again. If we choose one path the first time around, we can always sort of pull back, change our minds, and follow a different life path later on, but that new path will be greatly impacted by the choices we made initially. Life is more like the less-fun version of the RPG.

Even as little as fifty years ago, a person could change course in their careers, go back to school, and have a quite illustrious "round two." Factory workers could become policemen. Teachers could become doctors. Ex-convicts could become lawyers. Author Edgar Rice Burroughs, of Tarzan fame, worked as a salesman, a rancher, a miner, a military man, a journalist… and a famous author. My own grandfather was a farmer, a mechanic, and a consultant for the state Timber and Coal department.

Today, though, this seems almost incomprehensible. The only valid "second rounds" in a person's professional life involve either transitioning from ground-level work to sales or management, or going from a low-skill job to a skilled profession. No one goes from ranching to mining, as Burroughs did, unless that means being a Manager of Data Science for a ranching concern to being a Manager of Data Science for a mining concern, and that's not really the same thing, is it?

The more exposure you get to any given world, the more you realize how small that world is, especially as you climb your way toward the top. There are only a handful of noteworthy university professors, for example. If you're one of them, chances are you know or have heard of most of the others. The same is true for any industry, be it cars or oil or pharmaceuticals or chemicals or software. There are millions of people at the ground-level, but once you've worked your way to one of the higher echelons, the world gets really very small. Before you know it, you couldn't possibly imagine playing as a new character and starting over again.

I don't know whether this is good or bad. I don't know whether this is "just life" or whether there was a benefit to living in a bygone era, in which one could try one's hand at all manner of work and live a contented life throughout. Or was it simply not very contented at all? Was it considered a personal failure if a person sold their farm and went to work in an automobile factory?

In any case, these days I have the feeling that the Elves don't hang out much with the Knights. The Knights don't have a lot to say to the Thieves. The Thieves and the Sorceresses don't intermingle. Once someone gets swept up by a life in politics, say, that becomes their world. They don't spend much time hanging out with auto mechanics; not because they don't like mechanics, but simply because there's no common experience uniting those people to each other.

It's possible for specialization of task -- and industry -- to drive people too far apart. When I think back to the school kids sitting in a circle, playing RPGs, I think of their diverse backgrounds, but that they were basically united by the fact that they went to the same schools, lived in the same communities, and shared at least an interest in RPGs. They grew up, their life choices caused their paths to diverge, and now they don't even have those things in common anymore. One is a doctor, one is an office worker, one started her own business, one barely scrapes by…

Without any kind of social glue keeping us together, we drift apart.

2019-01-04

The Two Prides


Pride is an unhelpful word because it is basically one name for two distinct concepts.

One concept is unabashedly positive; it's the pleasure a person feels when they experience a sense of self-satisfaction. Suppose you learn how to play a particularly challenging piece of music, or you run faster than you expected during a race. You'd feel pride. I don't know anyone who would argue that this kind of pride is a negative thing. This kind of pride is so positive that you can even feel it when thinking about other people. You can feel proud of your child or your spouse. You can feel proud of your friends or your countrymen. A simple pleasure, a simple self-satisfaction, felt for being connected to someone who accomplished something. Pride!

The other concept called "pride" is negative. That's what you feel when you're so afraid of losing face that you refuse to acknowledge your own shortcomings. Suppose you're having an argument with your spouse, and it turns out that you're wrong. Some people won't apologize. Some people won't admit to any wrongdoing. Instead, they'll huff and puff and harrumph and pretend as though, even if they were wrong, it was someone else's fault somehow. It's a deflection of negative feelings, and a protection against narcissistic injury. This negative version of pride is also a sense of being so self-satisfied that one can't see one's own weaknesses, as when a sports team with a winning streak starts to feel so confident that they underestimate the ability of the underdog team who goes on to beat them in the end.

As far as I can tell, the only thing these two concepts have in common is that they involve positive self-appraisal. Other than that minute point, they are completely different feelings, totally different emotions, and should have entirely different names.

I first became aware of the distinction when I was a teenager in religiously conservative Utah. There, the mormon church teaches emphatically that all forms of pride are negative. I think the basic idea is that the more highly you think of yourself, the less time you spend thinking about how sinful you are, and how inferior to god.

But what clued me in to the distinction between negative and positive pride was the fact that so many religious people I knew used the word "prideful" to describe people who were proud. That is, these folks didn't use the word proud at all. It was always "prideful."

When I look these two words up in the dictionary, the word "proud" gives me both a negative and a positive definition, reflecting the distinct concepts described above; the word "prideful," meanwhile, only gives me a description of the negative version.

Perhaps, in some years, "prideful" and "proud" will be the two names for the distinct concepts I've just described. At least they will be distinguished in adjectives. I guess that would result in a world in which "pride" is the positive name and "pridefulness" is the negative name, although that distinction doesn't presently exist today.

2019-01-03

Know What Garmin, Strava, Google, Etc. Are Selling You


When you use a smart watch or fitness tracker, what generally happens is that the watch/tracker's operating system generates fitness-tracking data using its hardware.

So, for example, if you go for a run, your fitness tracker's operating system pings a GPS satellite to confirm geographic location. Then, the watch OS starts its chronograph to keep track of time. As you move, the system keeps pinging the GPS satellite to gather location data; different trackers do this at a different rate, but it's generally every X number of seconds. The difference in time divided by the difference in GPS location is a simple arithmetic calculation that establishes your running pace. Meanwhile, the OS pings its heart rate sensor at a different rate to establish your heart rate while you're running. If your tracker is equipped with additional sensors, they are also triggered at various rates to calculate altitude, change in altitude, running cadence, number of steps, and so on. All of this data is gathered into a single file, usually a .GPX file, and transferred to a permanent location: your phone, table, home computer, or "the cloud."

GPX files are as complete as your fitness tracker is capable of making them. Whatever data your tracker collects will end up in the GPX file. It's a standard file, containing more or less standard fields, and to my knowledge every company's fitness tracking platform processes it in a near-identical way[1].

If you, the consumer, were as agnostic as your fitness tracker's operating system, all you'd really care about in a fitness tracker is the hardware. Which sensors does this watch have, how frequently do they collect data during exercise, how robust are the readings, and how long with the hardware last until product failure?

The smart watch industry offers roughly the same things. Pedometers only track steps, low-level "bands" add basic watch and Bluetooth functionality to this, then you get into trackers that have built-in GPS sensors, heart rate sensors, and so on. The more sensors, the pricier the watch.

The first "trick" you have to look for is the watch screen. Bright AMOLED touch-screens are visually impressive, but they eat a lot of battery power. If you charge your watch once every 1-2 days, then this is no issue, but if you insist on not charging your watch except every 3-4 days, then you'll want to skip the fancy screen. The problem here is that some companies don't offer a watch with an LCD screen, and all the sensors you want. So by bundling certain sensors with an AMOLED screen, they induce you to spend more money. Some of us would skip the screen to get the sensors; others would skip the sensors to get the screen. Instead, we all pay the same high price and get someone we don't want along with something we are willing to pay for.

The second "trick" is the more frustrating, at least to me. The fitness tracker collects all the data it can and dumps it into a GPX file. Every other graph, metric, calculation, and table is provided via software. It's not the watch that does that, it's the app. Some of what you are paying for is software. Companies will only give you access to the output of the software with the purchase of certain watches.

For example, in order to gain access to a VO2-max estimation in Garmin's smart watch platform, you have to spend extra money on one of their Forerunner or Fenix model watches. These flagship watches will set you back $500 or more. That's a lot of coin. But you can estimate your own VO2-max using a simple arithmetic calculation based on data that can be extracted from any fitness tracker with a heart rate monitor. This means that Garmin could actually estimate the VO2-max of any of their customers, but they refuse to do so for any except Fenix and Forerunner owners.

Strava, meanwhile, has a new series of fitness metrics that are very much like VO2-max estimations -- they're based on heart rate, age, weight, and running pace data found either in the GPX file or in your user settings -- but they only make them available if you pay an annual fee for their premium product. It is naturally in their best interest to keep this proprietary arithmetic a closely guarded secret. If you knew what the formula was, you could just do it at home on a 99-cent calculator or a spreadsheet.

So companies extract a premium from their customers by ensuring that the customer knows as little as possible about the contents of a GPX file, and the formulas used to calculate things like VO2-max and estimated recovery time.

But this is the internet age. Just search for it on Google. Plug it into a calculator. Save yourself the money.

Google, Apple, and Samsung all offer free spreadsheet software that is every bit as powerful as Microsoft Excel. If you know how to install a Linux instance on your home computer, you can also access the Linux version of Excel for free. Or run it on a $35 Raspberry Pi box. Whatever.

None of this requires anything more than a basic knowledge of how to download files, upload files, fill out a spreadsheet, use a calculator, and perform arithmetic. This is not secret "tech knowledge" that only hackers understand. This is like knowing how to put gasoline in your car.

This is a bit of a passion project for me. I would love to be able to proof-out a platform-agnostic smart watch that can simultaneously run on iOS, Android, Linux, and Windows, and feed GPX files to Strava, Garmin Connect, Runtastic, Smashrun, Apple Health, Samsung Health, and so on. I can "see," in my mind's eye, exactly how to do it. The barriers appear to be time and money. But if I ever do it, I think I'll give the software away for free. The hardware is the only thing that's really worth selling.

____________________________

[1] There are some time codes at the beginning and end of GPX files that are processed slightly differently. When you see that Strava, for example, has given you a slightly different mileage reading than Microsoft, this is because the two APIs are pointing to different time codes. It's unclear to me which one is the "real" code to use. However, it looks like Samsung and Microsoft use one time code, while Garmin and Strava use another one. I don't know which one is used by Apple, Polar, Runtastic, etc.

2019-01-02

Book Review: Robert Jordan - "The Shadow Rising"

Image courtesy Wikipedia.org

Book four in Robert Jordan's Wheel of Time series, The Shadow Rising is perhaps the best of the series up to that point. There are a few reasons I say so.

First, in contrast to the conflicts in the earlier novels are "man versus self" conflicts, in which the young novice characters are wracked by self-doubt and self-denial, the conflicts in The Shadow Rising are pure action. Finally, most of the main characters have grown self-assured enough to act as heroes, even if they don't consider themselves heroes. This is a much more entertaining kind of plot, in my opinion, because there's only so much brooding and bumbling a reader can handle before going crazy. Would you rather read about a guy who's too scared to do the right thing, or a guy who does the right thing despite his fears? The latter, right? And so it is for The Shadow Rising.

Second, I am a sucker for a great love story, and The Shadow Rising has it in spades, although perhaps not where the reader most expects it. The love story between Perrin and Faile teeters on the edge of young-adult-literature type schmaltz at times, but by the end of the book, their story has it on all the important parts of a great love story without really over-doing anything. Furthermore, the characters are likable enough that we're cheering for them rather than against them, which is quite different from some of the other romantic arcs in the series.

Third, and further to the above point, the book spends a lot of time on my favorite character, Perrin, whose quiet, humble, deliberate, and definitively ethical behavior is a bright spot among a long line of characters whose vices advance the plot as much as or more than their virtues. Perrin is an easy character to cheer for, a thrilling character to watch when he's at his best. While many other characters in the series have changed for the worse over time, Perrin's core character hardly has, and where it has, only for the better. He's become more self-confident, more capable within what powers and abilities he has, and still as honest and kind as ever. Who wouldn't want to read more about a character like that?

And even beyond those strengths, the other storylines are told beautifully as well. Rand's adventures with the Aiel are fascinating, owing largely to Jordan's remarkable ability to have invented an entire human culture -- the Aiel -- for the reader to explore. It's a culture with a rich history, mythology, set of cultural norms, music, fashion, sense of humor… If a writer were to have written so completely about an existing, real-world culture, it would be truly impressive. But when you stop to think that Jordan thought this whole stuff up out of thin air, the genius of it really takes hold.

It's not a perfect book, though. I've actually grown to despise Nynaeve, one of the series' main characters. It's simply not fun to read those parts of the book because she is such a detestable character. There are also elements to the plot that seem to be less cohesive with the overall Wheel of Time universe, namely a few of the "Forsaken" characters, about whom we know nothing until they suddenly appear to do battle with the main characters from time to time. Their presence in the book feels a little disjointed, considering how cohesive the rest of the "universe" is, almost leaning toward deus ex machina levels of plot interaction.

All in all, though, it's a great book, and highly recommended.