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.

2014-10-13

The Heuristic-Heuristic

No Single Standard

This morning, I pulled up the news headlines, and saw the following:

I can see how not having a set of therapeutic guidelines or recommendations based on science and experience would be a serious problem when it comes to controlling outbreaks of potentially fatal illnesses. But, according to the article, an absence of guidelines is not the problem:
Murphy says some of the issues in Texas stem from a "system problem" in the way public health care is managed in the USA. The Centers for Disease Control provides only guidance for infection prevention and management. "What they do in Texas, what they do in Illinois, it's up to the state," he says. 
"The question is, who's in charge?" Murphy says. "The states can follow all the guidelines and take the advice, which they usually do, but they don't have to. It's not a legal requirement. So there really is no one entity that's controlling things."
Do you see the problem now? It's not that medical science is failing us, it's that there is no central authority manipulating things from above.

Homo Heuristicus

Admit it: When you woke up this morning, you weren't particularly worried about whether or not there was one single, standardized way to deal with Ebola. Even if you were worried about Ebola, chances are, you were worried about catching Ebola, not about Ebola governance. Having read this morning's headlines, though, you are far more susceptible to forming an opinion on how "we as a nation" "should" "respond" to "Ebola." Scare quotes intended.

There is probably a propaganda mechanism at work here. Doctors are always angling for new ways to nudge us into complying with therapeutic standards. If they can find a way to force us into a single disaster response pattern, they probably will. That's because clinical and health care data is notoriously subject to variation. The more factors that can be controlled, the closer medical scientists can come to understanding a problem, and then healing it. Society is not a laboratory, however, and it shouldn't be subjected to stringent controls for the benefit of experts.

Well, that's all little more than philosophical bloviating. Human beings are paradigmatic thinkers. We yearn to rid ourselves of life's problems and inherent complexity by applying rules of thumb. To the extent that some problems actually can be solved by applying heuristics, this makes us a powerful tribe of apes indeed. 

But to the extent that standardized rules obliterate our ability to perceive nuance, undermine our dynamism and innovation, and allow for individualized experiences, they are more bane than boon.

The Heuristic-Heuristic

This brings me to the heuristic-heuristic, something that I've begun to perceive as a real threat to anyone who seeks any measure of authenticity whatsoever.

For people actively engaged in solving new problems, heuristics provide an important means by which to find viable solutions. And by "heuristics," I mean mostly the scientific method. Deductive reasoning is a powerful force for good, and we are indebted to those people who solve society's urgent problems.

You and I, on the other hand, do not solve these problems, but rather solve our own individual problems by consuming the products produced by the problem solvers. So, while Jonas Salk invented the polio vaccine, all we do is buy the polio vaccine. While auto makers are actively engaged in producing faster, safer, and more fuel-efficient vehicles, all we do is buy one. 

The point is that, while problem-solvers deploy a heuristic called "the scientific method" to innovate, we deploy a much cruder and far more useless heuristic called "find the product that solves our problem, and buy it." 

In the case of polio vaccines and cars, this heuristic serves us well. But in the case of our daily lives, this is a major source of our existential problems. We complain that the schmoozers get the job promotions, we complain that things just aren't like they were when we were kids, we complain that nobody knows the true meaning of Christmas, we complain that Senior Prom has become too big a deal. We wonder why there isn't a "single standard" Ebola response, but when we get to the hospital, we want doctors to give us personal, individualized attention with good bedside manner. 

The crude heuristic doesn't work for us. We commodify every aspect of our lives and gradually come to wonder why our lives seem to "lack something." 

The Cheaters

Via Facebook, I was pointed to this Slate.com article about why people in happy marriages cheat. Here's an excerpt:
Slate: So what are people looking for?

Perel: What’s changed is, we expect a lot more from our relationships. We expect to be happy. We brought happiness down from the afterlife, first to be an option and then a mandate. So we don’t divorce—or have affairs—because we are unhappy but because we could be happier. And all that is part of the feminist deliberation. I deserve this, I am entitled to this, I can have this! It allows people to finally pursue a desire to feel alive.

Slate: Alive?

Perel: That’s the one word I hear, worldwide—alive! That’s why an affair is such an erotic experience. It’s not about sex, it’s about desire, about attention, about reconnecting with parts of oneself you lost or you never knew existed. It’s about longing and loss. But the American discourse is framed entirely around betrayal and trauma.
Perel makes a lot of points in the interview - some good, some bad. She talks a lot about our expectations of a marriage, and she talks a lot about finding something about ourselves that we've lost. It's not that our partners aren't fulfilling us, it's that we ourselves are lacking what we need to be as happy as we might be.

Perel makes the mistake of suggesting more open marriage arrangements. This is a mistake because it doesn't solve the core, underlying problem. The question goes from "What's wrong with my life and my marriage?" to "What's wrong with my life, my marriage, and my affair?"

The point here is that commodifying marriage has basically ruined it. We expect the cutesy romance, followed by the expensive wedding, followed by childless marital bliss, followed by 2.3 children (it is still 2.3, isn't it?), followed by a commodified set of child-rearing benchmarks (first tooth, first day of school, first etc. etc.). Small wonder this has grown into boredom.

But if it is boredom, then of what benefit is adding one more commodity to the list? {Love, marriage, job, kids, infidelity, death} is not much better than {love, marriage, job, kids, death}. True, there is one more "term" in the "set," but this term would only ever prove valuable if it actually meant something to us. Its value - especially in light of what Perel believes - is not in the fact that it is part of the list of life experiences to "check-off," but rather in the fact that it is not supposed to be there. It is one rare triumph on authenticity in an otherwise commodified set of existence-benchmarks.

Normalizing, i.e. commodifying, the experience of infidelity will surely result in nothing more than rendering the experience itself inauthentic, and therefore no more interesting than anything else on the list. That's the first inevitable conclusion here.

The second one - the more important one, in fact - is that infidelity isn't the important thing; authenticity is. So we'd all be better off if we made our marriages (and our daily lives) more authentic, rather than trying to keep our experiences neatly packaged and then seeking to escape from them by engaging in divergent and self-destructive behavior.

Darn, there's that nuance stuff again!

De-Commodify

It's difficult for everyone, of course. Every moment of your life is a moment in which we experience some kind of pressure to commodify. We don't want our children to merely meet Santa Claus, we want them to meet him at a shopping mall, and have their pictures taken on his lap, and ask him for a particular Christmas present. And he has to be wearing a red suit with white trim and a black belt, and he has to be fat, and he has to say, "Ho ho ho." If it's not that, if it's not all of that, then we say that our children haven't had the "real" experience. 

This itself is preposterous, considering first that Santa Claus isn't real, and second that we can therefore define the experience however we want. It doesn't have to be any particular way! The whole thing is made up! So why not just invent a totally pleasant, authentic experience, and make that your holiday tradition?

This is my whole point.

Rather than seeking out a socially prescribed list of experiences and lifetime milestones, hoping that they will unfold in the way that they have unfolded for countless other people, we should take the time to recognize that whatever list of life experiences we have is ours for the choosing. We can define our lives to be anything we want them to be. Every minute of your life can be authentically yours. It can be as satisfying as you'd like it to be.

To accomplish this, you need to back away from the idea that your experiences should look and behave a certain way. You need to get away from the heuristic-heuristic, the mechanism telling you that X is only accomplished through Y. 

There might not be a product available to satisfy your need. There might not be a standard response to every terrible thing that happens in the world. Creating a new product or a new national standard will not necessarily fix things the way you want them to.

2014-10-09

Dichotomous Thinking

Heel-Strikers Versus Forefoot Runners

This morning I read an article in The Guardian about proper running form. Author Sam Murphy sets the stage:
A few weeks back, this blog ran a feature on running form and how to improve it. It included the oft-repeated advice about avoiding overstriding, which “causes the foot to land too far in front of the knee and encourages heel striking – and increases injury risk”. A reader commented that they’d “like to see a blog on whether heel striking really is a bad thing”, which spurred me to investigate.
Murphy then goes on to discuss the influence of the book Born To Run (I reviewed it on the blog here) and its role in promoting "barefoot running." Much of the remainder of the article discusses the evidence of whether "heel-striking" is bad, compared to "forefoot running."

The problem with such an article is that, aside from a small number of people with very extreme running form, almost no one is a pure "heel-striker" or "forefoot runner." Most of us fall somewhere on a continuum, where we tend more toward one direction than the other. For some, the tendency is quite mild. Still others land exactly in the middle of their foot.

In short, the problem with the article was dichotomous thinking.

"Cognitive Distortion"

Why is this a problem? Summer Beretsky at PsychCentral.com breaks it down for us:
...[U]sing dichotomous language boosts dichotomous thinking, and the latter is a type of cognitive distortion that can negatively influence the way you feel about yourself. If you’re dealing with anxiety, casual usage of extremely polar words can lead you to magnify thoughts and events through a distorted lens that can ultimately make you more anxious.
So the problem is twofold: First, dichotomous thinking is distorted, and therefore less accurate than having a more nuanced perspective. Second, and perhaps more importantly, dichotomous thinking can make you unhappy.

Murphy herself seems partially aware of this, as she writes that she has recently "begun to feel a little like someone who was converted to a religion by zealots." I can understand this, because when I finished reading Born To Run, I also gave barefoot running a try. It was consistently the one question that everyone asked me when they learned I had read or was reading the book.

When one watches racing events, one is typically struck by the same fact that McDougall reports in his book: good runners tend toward a similar running form. This is not altogether surprising since running is a natural human activity and all human bodies are built more or less the same with respect to musculo-skeletal structure.

That so many great runners have similar form is not a cognitive distortion. However, the insistence  that all runners should adopt the same set of practices to run well or run comfortably, is.

Anti-Vaxxers And Climate Deniers

In an article aimed at promoting the scientific validity of childhood vaccinations, Amy Parker succumbs to dichotomous thinking. While she opens her article with carefully worded sentences laying out the perspective of those who oppose childhood vaccinations, by her final paragraph, she is talking about all people as though the belong to one of two camps:
Those of you who have avoided childhood illnesses without vaccines are lucky. You couldn’t do it without us pro-vaxxers. Once the vaccination rates begin dropping, the drop in herd immunity will leave your children unprotected. The more people you convert to your anti-vax stance, the quicker that luck will run out.
Ah, yes. "Anti-vaxxers." Many commentators at Slate.com pointed out that "anti-vaxxers" are quite similar to "climate deniers" because both groups of people are opposed to the latest scientific research on the subject in question. This claim alone is somewhat dubious, since people who oppose vaccination don't typically feel that the science behind vaccines is bunk, but just that the risks outweigh the benefits. I disagree, but it is a value judgment based on information they have deemed important to them. As for "climate deniers," few if any openly disagree with the idea that climate doesn't change - the question is whether one believes specifically in the climate forecast models of those scientists who believe that anthropogenic global warming is a risk to the survival of the human species.

But just look at all those words. Why bother with all that nuance and fairness when we can simply engage in dichotomous thinking, box people into "camps" or "groups" or "sides," and then declare one group wholesale wrong?

Politics

Much has been written and said by many intelligent people about the "state" of political discourse today. We hear a lot about how polarized people have become, and this seems to suggest that dichotomous thinking is a rampant social problem. When was the last time you heard or read a political opinion that you didn't subsequently place into some kind of ideological box? 

In the political sphere, when people try to regain control of all this cognitive distortion, many of them fall into the logical fallacy that "the truth lies somewhere in the middle." The problem with this line of reasoning is that it accepts a dichotomous framing of issues and attempts to reconcile that dichotomy. In reality, dichotomous thinking is dangerous because it doesn't describe reality accurately at all.

For example, most of your day is probably spent indoors, at room temperature, i.e. neither hot nor cold. You wouldn't even think to describe this temperature. Temperature only becomes an issue when you find it either too hot or too cold, and suddenly we are confronted by an extreme from the dichotomy of hot versus cold. Never mind the fact that the vast majority of time spent indoors is spent at a temperature we don't really have linguistic terms to describe. The point being this: our reality is neither hot nor cold, it's room temperature. Framing things in terms of hot and cold doesn't adequately describe the majority of our day!

Meanwhile, at Cato Unbound, Kevin Vallier engages in some tetrachotomous thinking, boxing all possible viewpoints about religion in politics into four boxes. The reader may determine for him-or-herself whether Vallier's point resonates; my only point here is to remark that perhaps there are a few more possible ways to look at it. 

Conclusion

The philosophical concept of "difference" is a powerful one. It is one of the first things we learn as infants, and it forms the basis on which we build the knowledge that guides us for the rest of our lives. To that extent, some elementary form of dichotomous thinking will always be a part of human cognition.

But if we think rationally, then as we apply "difference" to our experiences and observations, we will start to uncover the inadequacy of dichotomy. We start to learn that life consists of more than just conceptual poles. We start to reject dichotomous thinking, and we gain a perspective that is at once more accurate and more curious.

2014-10-06

Workout Of The Day

I was somewhat skeptical of heart rate zone training when I started last week, but to my surprise I finished my workouts feeling a little bit more endorphin-charged than usual. Maybe this was psychological. Either way, I finished the week with a five-mile "long run" consisting of 100% negative splits (I'm not sure I've ever done that during a long run before) and peaking at a robust 6:35-per-mile pace. Best of all, I don't feel any risk of injury or over-use of my muscles, joints, or tendons.

Today, the adventure continues. It's a new week, and I'd like to increase my weekly mileage, so I'm heading out for a four-mile run in HR Zone 2 or 3.