Every Food Is A Dead End

Most of us, when we imagine a very unhealthy person's diet, imagine that it consists of fast food, empty calories, excessive alcohol, excessive fat, chips, candy, and so on.

At the other end of the spectrum is the model of a healthy eater, but this is much more difficult to imagine. One reason is because there are competing theories as to what constitutes a healthy diet. Another, perhaps more important, reason is being "healthy" is a continuum, not a binary condition. Two men who eat lots of broccoli might be healthy, but the one who washes his broccoli three times is healthier than the one who washes hers only twice. The one who runs 5 miles a day before eating broccoli is healthier than the one who runs only 4.7 miles. One who neither runs nor eats broccoli would simply call them both healthy.

Recent reports indicate that drinking diet soda increases all sorts of health risks. While no one thinks diet soda is a health food, and while there have been previous warning about the impact of artificial sweeteners on health, I don't think anyone expected that drinking a can of Diet Coke for lunch every day could actually triple your chance of having a stroke. The punchline of the study seems to be, not to eliminate diet soda from your diet, but to simply consume less of it. But again, he who cuts down from 5 to 3 cans per week is less healthy than he who cuts down from 3 to 1.

Seafood, of course, is loaded with lean protein and healthy fats, but also brain-killing mercury and cholesterol. We're urged by our doctors to eat seafood over hamburger, but eating a tuna fish sandwich every day may actually harm you worse than eating ground beef for lunch every day. If so, what sense are we to make of healthy recommendations? Tuna is healthier than hamburger the first two times you eat it in a week, but after that, you're better off with hamburger.

Even if you're a vegetarian - indeed, even if you're a vegan - you're not out of the woods. Eating a green pepper is healthy, except for all the pesticides it carries. Eating an organic green pepper won't save you, either, since the pesticides are in the water supply and floating through the air.

And if you ever drink water, well, you're unfortunately consuming all the impurities in our water supplies, including pharmaceuticals and hormones ingested by people who have legitimate reasons to ingest them, but whose medicines may cause unpredictable negative consequences to you.

In a world like this, it's easy to grow cynical and to say, moments before biting deep into your bacon-topped pizza slice, "Well, everything is going to kill me, so I might as well eat whatever I want to!" But this, too, is the wrong conclusion, since eating without a care in the world will surely kill you more swiftly than meticulously managing your diet.

But seriously: How are we supposed to manage our diets? The question is especially tough for us diabetics: Too much meat will kill me with cancer, but too many carbs will kill me with organ failure. Do I have a preference? Should I have a preference? While the whole world treats themselves to an evening snack, the only thing I can reach for is a low-carb drink: spirits or light beer. This is a healthier option, really? It won't raise my blood sugar, but it will slowly chip away at my liver, or maybe just give me stomach cancer.

"Just eat the snack, but cover it with more insulin," says the diabetic who takes one trip per year to the emergency room for an insulin overdose.

What's a guy to do? I'm not sure it's possible to live on water, 30g of carbs per meal, and organic chicken breast. But I'm all out of ideas.


What You Control And What You Do Not

I was discussing an issue over social media the other day. Someone had provided a quotation arguing for X. I said that I disagreed with X, and gave my reasons. My interlocutor accused me of arguing for Y. I stated that I was not arguing for Y, but he insisted that I was. It was at that point that my expectations for the conversation started to diverge with reality.

What I expect when I tell someone that they have misunderstood or misinterpreted my statements is that the person will ask new questions to find out what I really meant instead. In practice, I am starting to notice that people rarely do this. More often than not, they ask me to defend myself against their charge (“Show me how you’re not arguing Y!”) rather than seek clarification around my true, intended meaning.

I have the power to clarify my own position. I have the power to rephrase and revise my statements until we all feel confident that my intended meaning is the one that others have understood. I do not, however, have the power to convince someone to interpret my statements charitably. That is, if someone is just committed to believing that I’m arguing for Y, no matter how many times I expressly state otherwise, I have no real power to change that person’s mind about my intended meaning.

Recently I read a blog post by Abigail Brenner, who said something nice: “Never waste time explaining yourself to someone committed to misunderstanding you.” In Brenner’s context, this was intended to be advice against manipulative people. But it’s good advice outside of that context, too. It’s easy to believe that, if we were just better communicators, another person would always see our point of view and consider it seriously. Unfortunately, the way people respond to what we say is not within our control. We can try to improve outcomes by meticulously implementing good communication techniques, but that’s as far as we can take it. The rest depends on the disposition and willingness of the other person to give you a fair hearing. If they won’t, there’s nothing else you can do about it.

So, I choose to let it go. If I have something worthwhile to say, it is the other person’s loss if they aren’t willing to hear me out, and if I don’t have anything worthwhile to say then no one is harmed by disregarding me in the first place.


Avoid Straw-Manning Your Opponents With This One Weird Trick

Short post today. 

There has been an increasing number (or my perception of an increasing number) of blog posts, Facebook comments, and articles in which the author puts forth an imaginary position that “some” believe, and then argues against those hypothetical people. A recent example of this was found at the NIskanen Center. I don’t link to that organization, but you can peruse its website at your own peril. The intimation is always that “some” think a terrible thing, and they should think a good thing instead. This serves to rally the troops around the good thing they should be thinking, when in reality nobody really believes the bad thing. At best, they are merely accused of believing it. This makes the entire line of reasoning disingenuous.

Perhaps it’s accidental. Perhaps these authors don’t really mean to build straw men out of their political opponents. If so, I have a fool-proof way of constructing expository statements in such a way as to virtually eliminate the risk of building straw men. It goes like this:

I disagree with [PERSON] when he/she says [ACTUAL QUOTE, WITH CITATION] because [REASONING].

Phrase your rebuttals this way, and you will nearly always succeed.


The Importance Of Staying Fit To Stay Pain Free

I have never been one to suggest that a person can be both overweight and healthy at the same time. While I don’t think obesity is necessarily and automatic death sentence, it’s a big, and usually unnecessary, strain on the body that ought to be corrected if you know what’s good for you.

Having said all that, there’s another problem that I see all the time that seldom gets as much airtime: Skinny doesn’t mean healthy, either. I see people all the time who aren’t overweight, but whose muscles can barely support their frames. Some of these people, because they are skinny, enjoy lots of positive attention for being physically attractive. But an eye accustomed to seeing physical fitness can spot things that the average person either overlooks or mistakes for something good.

For example, I often see young women who dress and act as though they have an attractive backside, but upon closer examination, what we’re really seeing is bad posture associated with atrophy of the abdominal muscles combined with shortening of the piriformis muscle. This combination of problems has a tendency to tilt the pelvis muscle down and back while pushing the spine forward. The “pushed back” backside isn’t the feature of a genetic gift, it’s a potentially debilitating posture abnormality that probably causes these young ladies serious pain along the sciatic nerve.

Here's what it looks like:

I’m not trying to single people out. I work out almost every day of the week, sometimes twice a day, and even I am not doing everything I need to do to keep myself healthy and pain-free. This year, I’ve been suffering from some pain and injury related to my known weaknesses. But I’ve been working on these weaknesses diligently, and slowly but surely, my pain is dissipating and I’m working my way back to normal again. It’s a new normal, though. It’s a normal that includes more specific exercises designed to keep myself healthy and happy. 

And what’s good for the gander (me) is good for the goose (you). I’m here to help. If your posture looks anything like the “Incorrect” side of the picture up above, you desperately need to start performing some very specific exercises. Let’s take a look at what those exercises might be.

The first thing you need to do is increase flexibility in your legs and core. Specifically, you must increase flexibility in your piriformis and gluteus muscles, your hip flexors, and your quadriceps. Everyone knows how to do a quad stretch: Stand on one leg, grab your other leg’s ankle, press your foot against your glute and pull. Piriformis and gluteus muscles can be stretched by lying on your back crossing your leg so that your ankle is resting on the other leg’s knee, and pulling the not-crossed knee toward your chest:

Image courtesy Natasha.com
Stretching like this daily, even twice a day, will help maintain adequate flexibility in the offending areas. But that’s not good enough to ward off pain, stiffness, and sciatica. To do that, you need to exercise. If you’re not currently doing any strength training – and if your posture looks like that picture, you can assume that you have not been doing any strength training – then you need to start with some very simple abdominal exercises. Start with planks, three sets of however long you can hold a plank without letting your back dip. In a week or two, your muscles will be ready for some bigger and more important challenges, like leg raises. Finally, you must counter-balance this abdominal development with the development of your gluteus and piriformis muscles. You can achieve this by doing rear leg extensions, quadruped hip extensions, and unweighted squats.

Remember, if you’re in pain or your back isn’t capable of diving into a comprehensive strength training workout, you need to start small and slowly build up to something more ambitious. There’s no harm in starting small and building. It’s much safer and will ensure that you don’t accidentally make your condition worse.


Thick Versus Thin Libertarianism: Which One Should You Choose?

The other day I wrote about what libertarianism is: Thick versus thin. Today, I’d like to continue the discussion with a consideration of what libertarianism ought to be.

The nature of a discussion like this is fraught with sidebar considerations about what one hopes to get out of which part of their moral code. I’d like to start with that, so let me explain what I mean.

I think it’s safe and uncontroversial to say that most of us don’t have an all-encompassing and airtight moral philosophy underpinning every thought that they have. Even those who think they do have a hard time living up to the one that they have, and of those few who attempt to do so to the greatest extent possible, only a small fraction relate absolutely every thought that occurs to them back to their moral philosophy. This is probably a good thing. Someone so obsessed with moral philosophy that they cannot have a normal thought without related it to their moral code would be mentally unhealthy. We also encounter a wide array of morally neutral situations all the time, like choosing which socks to wear and decided whether to step with your right or your left leg first when walking up a flight of stairs.

In other words, at the extreme end of the spectrum, you have obsessive people who cannot encounter any stimulus without moralizing it. I take on assumption that this is bad behavior. On the other extreme, you have people who refuse to relate anything to any sort of moral code anywhere. These are uninteresting (and possibly non-existent) cases. In the middle, there is a whole spectrum of real people who apply one moral code to most of their decisions, no moral code to some of their decisions, a different moral code to some other decisions, and in special cases, apply multiple moral codes to a few of their decisions.

That’s life. That’s what it’s like. While we all strive to be perfectly philosophically consistent and well-behaved, the truth of the matter is that no one yet has invented a philosophy so complete and so perfect that every situation is addressed by it. We humans, being the resourceful creatures that we are, like to supplement an inevitably incomplete moral philosophy with something else sometimes, be it a lesson from some other philosophy, or a good rule of thumb, or a gut instinct, or whatever else it might be.

I hope you can see where I’m going with this. “Thin” libertarianism, being the contextually limited set of ideas that it is, works well as a partial philosophy, a set of recommendations for a limited set of philosophical questions. If we venture beyond that limited set of questions, we exhaust the capabilities of “thin” libertarianism, and when we encounter a problem it can’t address, we must rely on some other philosophy or set of ideas. By contrast, “thick” libertarianism aims to be a complete set of philosophical ideas, or at least a more complete set, capable of answering a wider set of questions.

So, one answer to the question of what libertarianism should be is, It depends on how much ethical work you want your libertarianism to accomplish. For some, libertarianism defines a relationship to government, and they have other ideas that govern non-governmental spheres of life. For others, libertarianism is how they approach everything, and thus they need their libertarianism to cover the ground that might be covered by, say, a thin libertarian’s religious system.

All that reading for kind of a dumb answer, right? “You get to choose which kind of libertarianism applies to you!” Of course you do. That’s not the interesting part. The interesting part is when a thin libertarian and a thick libertarian reach different conclusions on a given issue, and we then have to choose which solution is “more libertarian.” That’s what I’ll be discussing next time.


Thick Versus Thin Libertarianism: A Brief Primer

For quite some time now, there has been a mild debate about “thick” versus “thin” libertarianism. “Thin” libertarianism is the belief that libertarianism at its essence only defines humankind’s relationship to the state, nothing more. “Thick” libertarianism is a belief system that aims to extend libertarian thought to non-state situations. I’d like to explore these concepts a little bit, but before I do, let’s make sure we understand the difference between thick and thin.

Consider the issue of feminism, since it highlights the difference quite nicely. A thin libertarian believes that the state ought to treat people of all genders equally under the law. And that’s it. A thick libertarian, by contrast, believes that equal treatment under the law is only part of the story. Meanwhile, women may face coercive non-state pressure from the “Patriarchy” more broadly, and that libertarianism ought to respond to this pressure in some way. For example, a young woman might experience unwanted pressure from family members or religious community members to marry and have children. While a thin libertarian has no specific comment on this, since the coercive pressure isn’t coming from the government, a thick libertarian wants to be this young woman’s ally. A thick libertarian wants to articulate philosophical reasons why this woman shouldn’t be coerced into a lifestyle she might not choose. A thick libertarian believes that such coercive social pressure limits a woman’s freedom even though there is no state involvement; and thus, if we’re “truly” concerned about liberty, we ought to advocate against this sort of coercive social pressure in addition to coercive pressure against the state.

A thin libertarian might agree with the thick libertarian in theory. That is, the thin libertarian might agree that such social pressure is bad. But the thin libertarian draws a line between political and non-political life. A thin libertarian might say something like this: “As a libertarian, I have no comment on such social pressure, but as a feminist it offends me and I believe it is wrong.”

On the other hand, a thin libertarian also has the flexibility to say something like this, “Young women ought to get married and have children, but as long as the state does not coerce her, it is not a libertarian issue.”

From this, we ought to be able to understand a major source of libertarian infighting. Thin libertarianism allows libertarians to engage in private coercive behavior that would be abhorrent (to libertarians) if/when conducted by the state. Thick libertarianism is opposed to that same behavior, no matter who is doing it. This has given rise to situations in which people with bigoted or possibly-bigoted views gravitate toward thin libertarianism because it enables them to maintain their bigotry, so long as it is confined to private matters, while thick libertarians accuse thin libertarians of “harboring” or “enabling” that same bigotry.

If you’re with me so far, then you now understand much of what the libertarian community has been arguing about for the past year or so, especially in light of the recent protests in Charleston and elsewhere.

Now that we know what libertarianism is, we’ll next consider what libertarianism ought to be.


A Driving Paradigm Shift

I know none of you ever feel frustrated on the road, but sometimes when I'm driving, believe it or not, my patience wears a little thin. But my commute is pretty long, and so I've had a lot of time to think about driving calmly, quickly, and efficiently - what works, and what doesn't.

Well, I've discovered two things and between the two of them they have completely revolutionized the way I think about driving. So I'm passing along the info in case you find it useful.

First: "Queue versus Flow"

I think most people view traffic as a queue. In fact, in the UK, they use the word "queue" in place of the phrase "traffic jam." The problem with conceiving of traffic as a queue, though, is that it biases you into believing (erroneously) that every car in front of you is delaying your arrival at your destination. 

Of course, that's silly. If you're traveling 45 mph down the road, you will travel 45 miles over the span of an hour whether there are 3 cars ahead of you or 300. 

Knowing this, I starting conceiving of traffic as a flow. What matters in a flow is not how many particles there are, but how fast they're all going, on average. Most traffic events that we all experience only set us back a total of, say, 2 or 3 minutes. It's tempting to lose your patience if someone cuts in front of you and slows you down, but this doesn't really impact your average speed in most cases. You might arrive a few seconds later, but if traffic is a flow and not a queue, then who cares? 

Second, my Eco Display

My car has a really cool feature called "Eco Display," which tracks how much energy you save based on the way you drive. It has three separate meters: One tracks energy savings captured by making light use of the accelerator; One tracks energy savings captured by how much you coast, rather than using the brake; And the third tracks energy savings captured by maintaining a relatively constant speed, rather than speeding up and slowing down repeatedly. 

It looks like this:
Image result for Mercedes Eco Display

In light of the fact that I see traffic as a "flow" now, I make really good use of the Eco Display. I accelerate slowly and leave lots of space between myself and the next car, so that I can minimize use of the brake pedal and maintain as close to a constant average speed as possible, given traffic conditions. 

It's amazing to see how many cars will angrily pass me as I accelerate, only to slam on their brakes a few seconds later as they catch up to the next car, and then within seconds I've caught up to them. And since I have more space in front of me to see traffic, I can usually anticipate slow-downs, change lanes, keep my constant average speed, and pass the people who thought they were passing me.

It's like a whole new paradigm. It's totally changed the way I drive. I love it.


The Steve Vai Trick

Here's a quick guitar lesson I recorded over the weekend. Nothing fancy, just an explication of one of Steve Vai's signature licks. I hope you enjoy it.


Movie Review - Don't Rush To Judge "Jab Harry Met Sejal." It's Phenomenal.

Jab Harry Met Sejal might be the most misunderstood Bollywood film of all time. Critics have called it an “epic failure,” and have panned it for being too derivative, for being too light on plot, for being all flash and no substance.

The critics could not be more wrong.

Ostensibly, Jab Harry Met Sejal tells the story of a young woman, Sejal (Anushka Sharma), who loses her engagement ring during a month-long holiday in Europe, and so enlists the help of her tour guide, Harry (Shah Rukh Khan), to retrace her steps and relocate the ring. Hijinks ensure, romance blossoms, and Bollywood takes its usual course.

I say “ostensibly,” because if this is all one manages to extract from the film – and I suspect most of the critics and a good proportion of the film’s audience thus far have extracted only that much from the movie – then one has understood almost nothing about the film. (More on that a little later.)

Here’s how I’d synopsize the plot instead:

Jab Harry Met Sejal tells the story of a man who believes he is unworthy of love, and so rejects it whenever it presents itself, and a woman whose only dream in life is to be desired with raw, real, immutable passion, but who has never met anyone who felt that way about her. They meet, and instantly fall in love at first sight – and this is an important element of the plot that none of the film critics have managed to spot, because there is no slow-motion, spell-it-out-for-you, melodramatic falling-in-love scene. It happens in the film’s first major scene of dialogue, and if you’re expecting the typical send of Bollywood sugar, you’ll miss it. But there it is.

Having instantly fallen in love with each other, Harry and Sejal proceed to engage in their own respective forms of denial. In Harry’s case, this means convincing himself that Sejal is only making his life difficult, ordering him around like a rich, spoiled tourist, foisting her agenda upon him merely because that’s the kind of person he is: unworthy of better treatment. (N.B: This is how Harry sees himself.) In Sejal’s case, she convinces herself that Harry only sees her as a “nice, sweet, sister-type,” someone he would never desire, much less love. (N.B.: This is how Sejal sees herself.)

From there, scene by scene, Harry and Sejal dare each other to think otherwise of each other. This plays itself out in subtle ways. When Harry explains to Sejal that he has a reputation for being a playboy and so she should hire someone else to take her around Europe, Sejal deliberately draws the opposite conclusion, and asks Harry if he means that he wants to fool around with her. A superficial audience will interpret this as the same kind of aggressive banter that most Bollywood films begin with, but really it’s a dare. She’s daring him to think of her as sexy.

She does it again and again throughout the film, dressing sexy and following Harry into seedy night clubs in an effort to ignite his passions. Instead, Harry reacts in a confusing way. Although his character as a cad is well-established in the film, Harry sees Sejal’s behavior and reacts protectively, insisting that she keep herself out of trouble and urging her to stay out of harm’s way. He steps in to save her whenever she needs saving, he’s always there for her.

And so the film proceeds along these lines. The events in the story keep upping the ante for the characters. Sejal becomes ever-bolder with Harry, declaring that he can call her his girlfriend, falling asleep in his arms, nursing his wounds, following him everywhere. Harry becomes ever sweeter and more protective of Sejal.

At the apex of every moment, the characters pause to reflect, revealing the great source of tension and conflict within the film. In the very moments where other Bollywood movies would have the characters acknowledge reality and consummate it with a passionate kiss, Harry and Sejal instead dare each other to say what neither of them is prepared to say. Harry won’t admit that he’s worthy of Sejal’s love; Sejal won’t admit that she’s ready to leave her fiancée for Harry. They’ll act on it, they’ll behave accordingly, but neither one of them will say it, and both of them are waiting to hear it.

Behind each character’s refusal to acknowledge the reality of the situation is an important backstory. Harry has a specific reason why he not only believes he is unworthy of love, but also seemingly unworthy of putting down roots and building a home. Sejal’s backstory is made less obvious, but there are hints of it everywhere, especially in light of the fact that her fiancée called off their wedding after learning that Sejal had lost her ring. This is no throwaway point to buy the characters some time. Even in Sejal’s “real world,” those who profess to love her are moved to passion over lost trinkets and heirlooms, not over Sejal herself. Thus, when NDTV’s Saibal Chatterjee asks, “The screenplay would have us believe that she is a confident, no-nonsense girl who knows exactly where to draw the line. Why, then, is she in constant need of endorsement, of being told that she is worth lusting for?” he’s simply overlooked the information contained in the movie’s dialogue.

The film is masterfully written and executed, and every moment within the film’s two and a half hours is dedicated to exploring the theme of Harry, who believes himself unlovable, and Sejal, who believes herself unable to inspire passion. Later in the film, we meet Gas, a purveyor of fake rings, and Natassja, a purveyor of fake lust, whose relationship reflects Harry and Sejal in reverse-image. One reviewer asks why these characters were included. Indeed, why?

To be sure, filmgoers who expect a lot of action, slow motion camera work, and plots that unfold through action sequences rather than dialogue, are sure to be disappointed by Jab Harry Met Sejal. This is a deeply introspective movie about thoughts and feelings. One has to pay attention to the dialogue. Among a filmgoing audience that so often prefers the likes of Chennai Express, Sultan, and Ek Tha Tiger, it is no surprise that a soft-hearted and introverted film like Jab Harry Met Sejal would win few converts on opening weekend.

Perhaps this is why Shah Rukh Khan was quoted as saying, “It’s a new trick. Maybe just the newness of it is going to take some time for people to understand the magic of the film.”

The new trick is depth. For the first time in a long time I’ve found a movie that is capable of expressing a pure artistic idea, minute by minute, across an entire film. Imtiaz Ali has compromised nothing in his vision with this film. Not a moment is wasted, not a line of dialogue is extraneous, every facial expression and gesture from the actors serves the underlying story of a man who finds his home again and a woman who finds her passion.

No, this is not a story about a lost ring and a trip through Europe. This is a story of two wounded people finding their soul mates in spite of themselves. I loved it. I loved every second of it.


When I Go


At one point, a few years back, I was following dozens of blogs. Each morning, over a hundred new posts would be flagged in my Google Reader, and I would diligently make my way down through them. When the spirit moved me, I would click from Reader into the blog’s actual website and post a comment. Many people did the same. It was a rich environment that provided instant feedback to bloggers and a stimulating environment for the commentariat. It was hard to keep up the pace after Google Reader was discontinued. Eventually I stopped following all but my favorite blogs. Stationary Waves, along with all the other blogs I read, has suffered from lack of good content ever since.

Through that process, though, I was able to discover a few important bloggers who have made an extremely positive impression on me. These people exemplify what I believe to be an ideal mix of sharp thinking, humble inquisitiveness, commitment to discursive ethics (or, as I loke to call it, good-faith discussion), and human decency. If, by the time I die, my own personal character is even a pale reflection of theirs, I will consider myself a successful human being.

I’m speaking of Robert Murphy, David R. Henderson, and Jason Kuznicki. All three offer slightly different “flavors” of economics-informed libertarianism, but more important than that, all three exemplify the traits described above and seem like really, really decent human beings. I admire them for that. They’ve all earned a lifelong fan in me.


I didn’t know Nobel Laureate James Buchanan, nor do I know anyone who did. I have never heard any account, secondhand or otherwise, of what kind of a person he might have been. In absence of any reason to conclude that he was a nefarious villain, I assume he was a good person.

The scandal surrounding Nancy MacLean’s book, which alleges that Buchanan’s ideas were part of a right-wing – and perhaps even a white supremacist – conspiracy against people of color and democracy itself, has had an interesting effect on me.

I say “effect on me” not because I think I’m relevant to the discussion of MacLean’s and Buchanan’s ideas, but because any time deeply held beliefs are hotly contested, I turn inward and examine my own feelings in light of what I’ve heard or read. You, the reader, need not care what effect the scandal has on me, but I’m bringing it up under the beliefs that (a) I still have readers (ha, ha), and (b) we can all learn something here. Similarly, you might not necessarily care how a professional athlete’s good sportsmanship affects your neighbor, but if your neighbor learns an important life lesson while watching an NBA game, you might benefit from hearing what he learned.

First, I’ll tell you what I haven’t learned from this row. I haven’t learned anything new about Public Choice economics. I haven’t learned anything new about the Koch brothers. I haven’t learned anything new about politics or about academia. I certainly haven’t learned anything new about democracy. If MacLean’s intention was to teach people like me – informed laypeople with a prior interest in the subject matter and a genuine desire to learn – something new about any of these things, she did not achieve her goal. The comments sections from the few blogs I still read also attest to this.

I hasten to add that Buchanan’s defenders have also not taught me anything new about ibid. In fact, the whole episode has done more harm than good to all involved, at least in my opinion. Rather than debating the merits of public choice theory and its alternatives, which I presume MacLean would rather I learn about, we’ve all been debating the merits of accusing a dead economist and political theorist of racism.

In hindsight, we all should have known that only harm could ever come of such a process.


This brings me to what I have learned instead.

Imagine that James Buchanan was a good man. Whatever else you might think of his ideas or his principles, imagine that he was essentially a good man. How sad for a good man who was a professional academic to have his whole intellectual legacy besmirched by a person whose primary motivation was to disagree with his politics.

I’m sensitive to the rebuttal there: It seems tone-deaf to pity a dead rich white guy who got called bad names when the victims of institutionalized racism in America have had to deal with much worse. I agree: it is far worse to contest with the cultural obstacles associated with being black in America than than it is to be a successful academic whose legacy was questioned by another successful, white academic. I don’t want to minimize this point, either. In the grand scheme of things, racism is a much bigger problem than the integrity of a couple of academics or the fact that they might be falsely accused of being bad people.

I’m not saying that it’s a shame that James Buchanan stands falsely accused of racism. I’m saying that it’s a shame that any good person would have to be raked over the coals, their words used against them, and possibly even twisted to mean the exact opposite of what that person stood for.

Robert Murphy, by virtue of his association with the Ludwig von Mises institute, has recently been accused of racism for his defense of a recent Jeff Deist speech. I think this is unfair for reasons of good sense, but that’s not really what bothers me about his having been called a racist. What really bothers me is that any stranger who makes a point to acquaint himself with the works and personal character of Robert Murphy can see that he is a genuinely good man. And, in his case, I am privy to people who know him, and they all attest to the goodness of this character. There is, in short, no available evidence suggesting that Murphy is a bad person, much less a racist. And furthermore, if there were such evidence, Murphy would be the first person to own up to it. That’s how good a person he seems to be.


So, all this stuff got me thinking.

We never know what we’ll be accused of at some future date. We’ll never know how our words and actions will be judged by people in the future. I’ve made a living working for insurance companies, and pharmaceutical companies, and marketing organizations, and big data. A plausible argument could be made that I have helped contribute to much of the world’s evil. I don’t see it that way, but the argument could be made, and defended.

One day, someone might choose to see me that way, as a perpetrator of evil rather than a regular guy who made his living in data analysis. If I’m being honest, that future person might very well be my own child, in her teenage or early adult years, learning to assert her own values and question my worth as a man and a father. It’s certainly happened to many parents before me. It’s a real risk.

In fact, there may be even more reasons to vilify me. Am I polite enough? Am I an open enough communicator? Do I condescend too much? Am I rude? Obnoxious? Foul? Am I self-absorbed? Do I fail to contribute enough to charity, or to society? Am I too apt to allow my insecurities to discolor my view of other people? Do I drink too much, swear too much, scowl too much? Am I a wastrel? Am I a miser? Is my need for privacy too costly for others? Do I expect too much from other people? Am I too emotional? Not emotional enough?

There are, indeed, many ways I have failed, and one day they might all catch up to me. I may die and no one will feel any pain or sorrow at my loss. They may only show up to my funeral out of an awkward sense of obligation – if they show up at all!

Or I may simply prove inconsequential, never inspiring much of any thought to anyone.

All of this may happen. All I can do is endeavor to be the kind of good people I see in Murphy, and Henderson, and Kuznicki. All I can do is try to learn from their example – and examples set by many other people, of course – apply those lessons to my life, and hope that some day I will have done enough that my child will think, “My father was a good man.”

Then my tired bones can rest in peace.


I Like Marmite

I've been eating a peanut butter sandwich for lunch literally every day for the past year, maybe longer. Before that, I was having a peanut butter sandwich for lunch almost every day. 

As you might well imagine, I've started to crave some variety in my lunch routine, but it's been hard to find viable alternatives. For one thing, I don't like lunch meat, and it's pretty expensive, anyway. Second, I tend to leave the leftovers for other family members to eat. Third, I don't like to eat meat three times a day because that much meat in a person's diet is correlated with an increased risk of cancer. Finally, I need something that conforms to the very-low carbohydrate diet that works for diabetics.

Enter: Marmite. 

Image courtesy Wikipedia.org

Marmite is essentially a reduction of brewer's yeast. What you do is you add salt to brewer's yeast, heat it up, boil it down, remove the husks, and you're left with a sticky, chocolate-brown paste. That's marmite. It's 100% vegetarian, has virtually no carbohydrates, and it's loaded with B-vitamins. So much so, in fact, that during WWI they gave marmite to soldiers to prevent them from getting beri-beri. 

So, at least on paper, marmite checks all the boxes: it's healthy, it's vegetarian, it's diabetic-friendly, it's cheap. Seemingly, it's the perfect peanut butter substitute. So, I ordered some from Amazon.com. (It's not commonly sold in American grocery stores.)

In case you're wondering, marmite is more or less the same stuff as the infamous Australian vegemite. The recipes and tastes are slightly different. I opted for marmite instead of vegemite because all the information I read stated that fans of marmite usually like both marmite and vegemite, but fans of vegemite usually only like vegemite.

I had my first marmite sandwich on Saturday. I put butter on one slice of bread, and then marmite on top of the butter. Then I put muenster cheese on top of the marmite, followed by another slice of bread. Basically a cheese sandwich with marmite on it. 

The taste was much different than I expected. All the reviews said it tastes like a combination of soy sauce and beer, which I guess is a fair approximation. However, it's extremely bitter. It tastes more like the bitterness you find in Swiss cheese. It was an odd flavor, but mostly because it was so unexpected. It was not repulsive. I finished the sandwich and was satisfied.

Today, I ate my second marmite sandwich. This time, I knew what to expect, so it didn't catch me off-guard. In fact, it was actually pretty tasty! It's a good flavor to pair with cheese. I can understand why it's often put on toast for breakfast, because it would taste nice with a cup of coffee, or really any breakfast food that isn't overly sweet.

If you like to try new things, I recommend that you give marmite a try. In the worst-case scenario, you might just decide you hate it. But in the better case, it's just one more healthy food option to add to your pantry, cheap and tasty-if-you-like-bitter-stuff.


Do More Good

An old college roommate of mine had a funny bit. When we’d ask him, “What are you eating for lunch?” he’d respond with a deadpan, one-word answer: “Food.” Okay, it might not seem particularly funny to you. Maybe you’d have to hear him say it, see his facial expression as he did it, and know his overall personality. Maybe then you’d have found it as funny as I did when I lived with him.

Of course, the crux of the gag is that my roommate’s answer was both completely true and totally unhelpful.

Recently, I asked my wife some question about something, and she gave me an answer that was on par with my old roommate’s gag, only she didn’t seem to be joking. So I asked some follow-up questions, and continued to get nowhere until I ultimately gave up and moved on with my day. I spent a few minutes feeling irritated by this. “She gave me an answer; why couldn’t she give me a useful answer?!” For a brief moment, I even considered the idea of saying this to her.

Then, suddenly, my sense of self-reflection kicked in and I recalled several of the countless times I’d done the same to her. Instantly, I knew it wouldn’t be fair to criticize her for something I regularly do myself. When was the last time you gave an answer that wasn’t particularly useful? I’d guess it was within the last week.

I took a moment to close the loop on these thoughts by committing to myself that I would always strive to provide not just any answer to questions that I choose to answer, but a useful answer. Otherwise, why bother?

I thought about this today after reading a nice little article in Psychology Today. In it, Gina Barreca offers a long list of phrases we should say more often, and a shorter list of phrases we should say less. The article is short and well-worth reading, but it’s not rocket science. Still, it’s a useful exercise to consider not just what bad we should avoid, but which good we should do more of. So I’ll finish today’s post by offering my own list of phrases I should use more often.
  • Could you use some help?
  • Is there anything I can pick up for you while I'm out?
  • Can you help me better understand your thinking?
  • Tell me about the best thing that ever happened to you.
  • How did you get interested in that? 

I’d love to read some of yours, too. Please leave some ideas in the comments.


The Best Advice I Never Followed

I was eighteen years old and planning my college career when I had a very interesting conversation with an old mentor of mine.

This man, let's call him G, was about six years my senior and had been a star distance runner in high school and had gone on to have decent college running career afterward. I had met him when he was still in high school, but at the time of this particular conversation, he was donating some of his free time to being an assistant coach to my own high school cross-country team.

Because my school had never had a particularly great running program, it did not tend to garner a lot of attention from college athletics recruiters. As a result, I had to spend some of my time as a high school senior writing letters to college athletics programs in which I was interested, making them aware of both my interest in their program and my athletic career thus far. I certainly had the race times and competitive results to qualify for an athletic scholarship. What I didn't have was the attention of any of the recruiters.

So, as I went through this letter-writing and phone-call-making process of attempting to get an athletic scholarship, G presented me with a rather novel idea. At the time, my focus had been on local schools, where I wouldn't have to pay out-of-state tuition fees and would be close to home. G questioned my approach.

"I went to an out-of-state junior college for my first two years," he told me. "You save a ton of money on tuition, because you're at a junior college. If you get good grades for those two years, you can get an academic scholarship to a major university, no problem."

It got better. "Everyone [that was, all of the best high school distance runners - ed.] goes to a four-year university straight out of high school. You'll be a big fish in a small pond, one of the best runners at the junior college level, and then you'll be able to get a great scholarship to a four-year college once your two years are over."

His argument swayed me immediately. Part of it was the fact that it was a good argument that made a lot of sense, but I have to admit that the main selling point to me - which he never mentioned - was that I'd be able to escape the rather oppressively conservative Utah culture and hopefully find a place I'd fit in better.

After my conversation with G, I excitedly presented the argument to my parents. To my great disappointment, they poured water all over the idea. That alone was frustrating, but what really broke my heart was that they presented no argument for their case. They simply became angry and shut the conversation down. For reasons still unclear to me, they did not want me to leave the state. I guess they wanted me to stay nearby. I invested a couple of frustrating hours just trying to get them to admit to the bare minimum: that even if I didn't take G's advice, it was still good advice for somebody. My parents stubbornly dug in their heels and refused to admit even that much.

I stopped pursuing the idea and eventually found my way to a local university. I spent one year on an athletic scholarship, running for the team, but the environment was a bad match for me. Surrounded by the same "Happy Valley" culture from which I was desperate to escape, I eventually slipped into depression, quit the team, and found my destiny elsewhere.

In hindsight, though, I now wonder why I didn't completely disregard my parents' irrational insistence. Why didn't I just take up G's advice and go out of state? I was the one reaching out to all the college-level coaches, so I could have easily written a few letters to some out-of-state colleges. Had I been offered a scholarship from one such college, I would not have been reliant on my parents' money for my education. I could have found my own way there. In short, I can think of no reason why I didn't just do it anyway.

In fact, later in my university career I would spend summers taking "general education" courses from junior colleges, anyway, because the tuition was much less than what it would cost to take the same courses at my university. I'd take my diploma-track coursework during the Fall and Spring semesters at my university, and the gen-ed courses at a junior college during the summer while I was working. This, of course, highlights the fact that junior colleges are in many ways a much better deal than four-year universities. This was the late-nineties, and we were just discovering this; by now, it's common knowledge. G was ahead of his time.

College is a time for young people to find themselves and start out "on their own." Perhaps I just wasn't ready to cut the cord during my senior year of high school. Still, if I had done so, I would have avoided years of depression, saved a ton of money, and probably would have spent more years running in college. I'd likely be a more independent person than I am today.

G's advice might have been the best advice I ever received. I'll never know.


Antisocial Media

Yesterday, I happened across an article about how Ed Sheeran "quit Twitter" because he thought it was nothing more than a place to be mean.

By coincidence (or perhaps Big Data knew this about me, and fed me the Ed Sheeran article in response), I happened to have recently uninstalled Twitter. I don't miss it. Like Ed, I noticed that nothing good gets said on Twitter. People mostly just exchange escalating levels of 140-character snark.

Some people are "good" at the skill of delivering extremely insulting one-liners. In the old days, these folks would have become comedians. Today, they just disappear into the endless pool of ill will that Twitter has become. Comedians have the social benefit of providing entertainment to an engaged public. People on Twitter confer absolutely no social benefit whatsoever. It's not clear that they want to entertain anyone. More often than not, they're serious in what they say, ie. they're not doing it for cheap laughs but rather to have the last laugh. We've all seen humorous tweets before, but they usually come at the expense of someone's art, someone's thoughts, someone's opinions. Whole lives have been destroyed on Twitter, from the women who get "doxxed" to the guy who suffered a seizure from a tormentor's animated gif, to the employees who got fired for bad tweets, to the CEOs who had to step down. And so on, and so forth. It's a race to the bottom on Twitter.

Whether Twitter is mean because people or mean, or people are mean because Twitter makes them mean, is a question for open debate. What matters here is the simple reality that the more time a person spends actively engaging on Twitter, the more that person acquires a Twitter-based psychological rewards system.

It is generally a bad idea to craft every thought in such a way that it garners the widest possible audience and the largest number of favorable opinions. At best, you'll communicate nothing other than vapid pleasantries ("Have a great day, everybody!") and at worst you'll ignore unpleasant truths in favor of narcissistic supply. Actually, at worst, you'll become an insufferable monster, eager to shout down anyone if you stand to gain a few likes from a broad audience. But either way, you get my point.

All this suggests that, for the sake of your own happiness and common decency, you should probably avoid hanging out in situations that bring out the worst in you, starting with Twitter. In time, you will develop a rewards system based on the other ways you choose to spend your time. If you're like most people, that will likely involve time spent with family and friends, who generally reward you for behavior becoming of yourself. That's a Pareto-improving move.

I'm not sure other social media are any better. Facebook -- once a good place to post pictures of last weekend's shenanigans, then later a great place to share family photos with loved ones around the world -- has become more of a long-form Twitter. Instagram appears to be a marketing vehicle more than anything else. Snapchat seems to be nothing more than an Instagram that destroys the evidence a short while later.

Across all of these media, one thing stands out to me: Despite the name, these media are not particularly social. In the olden days, "being social" meant going out to where other people were and interacting with them in a way that made them think more highly of you. You might have gone to the store and run into your neighbors; you might have gone to church and shared a prayer; you might have gone to a club or a public meeting of some kind. You'd go out into the world and say something to others, and then they'd make eye contact with you and say something back. If you didn't say it correctly, you'd insult each other and make sometimes lifelong enemies, and this was considered bad. The community would try to bring you together, or else laugh at you behind your backs, but in no case would you actually come out ahead by making enemies of people in the public square.

We live in an anthropologically interesting age. Never before have human beings interacted with each other so much, and yet never before have our interactions been so simultaneously vapid and infuriating. Still, this is one social change that will not come from within "the system." If you want to become a happier, nicer person who is better able to communicate with others, at a certain point you will have to stop using all these social media in lieu of real, face-to-face interaction. The person who masters the ability to make eye contact and deliver kind, confident statements is the person who will rule the world of tomorrow.