2016-02-09

Album Review: Billy Talent - Billy Talent II

Image courtesy Wikipedia.org

One of the strangest bands I ever got into was a Canadian... er... rock... band called Billy Talent. The band scored a minor hit on their debut album with a song called "Try Honesty." On their second album, they really seemed to come into their own.

Billy Talent's shtick basically consists of rhythmically interesting, harmonically dense rock riffs combined with truly awful, borderline cartoonish vocals. The vocals aren't just bad, they're idiosyncratically bad. That is to say, you're not supposed to believe the vocals are good. Like a punk band, Billy Talent wants their vocals to be seen as, uh... well unorthodox.

Add to that their lead singer's baffling public persona, which can only be described as that of a manic adolescent. He never appears to be serious; or, if he is serious, then he is probably insane or possibly heavily medicated.

If you can get over all this, then what you're left with is a rather interesting band. The guitar riffs, the guitar-bass interaction, the melodies, and the harmonies, are all rather elegantly composed and arranged. Guitarist Ian D'Sa has a knack for finding "wrong" chords that sound right. His tones are rather unique, owing to a set of single coil pickups distorted to the extreme. To their credit, they can pull off all the complex tones and arrangements live. However bizarre the vocals might sound on the recording, they can do it live, too. So they sound exactly the way they want to sound.

On Billy Talent II, the production value of the album is truly stunning. This fact is generally credited to producer Gavin Brown, who has produced some of the biggest Canadian rock records of the last 20 years. The guitar tones are particularly rich, albeit very heavily compressed. The songs are short, and to the point. Lyrically, the subject matter deals with classic leftist hobby horses such as sexual assaults committed by Catholic priests and communism. No, I'm not kidding about the communism. Two songs in particular, "Red Flag" and "Worker Bees," are overt communist anthems.

At this point in the review, I feel like I haven't really done the music justice. The songs are genuinely good, and Billy Talent's sound is truly original - that's what I love about them. But halfway into Billy Talent II, the listener finds himself simply exhausted by it all. The vocals are difficult to enjoy on a musical level. That is, I can see how a teenager circa-2006 could get into it as part of a particular "scene," but now ten years later it sounds like The Muppets - and not in a good way. By contrast, the album's instrumentation is almost gorgeous and anticipates many of the developments that would follow in the more progressive djent metal scene. Billy Talent, though, was more punk rock than metal, so the fact that they were working themselves toward this territory proves that they were visionaries, ahead of their time. If only listeners enjoyed being yelled at for an hour.

Weirdly - and I can't really explain this - Billy Talent II reminds me of Megadeth's Youthanasia album. Maybe it's because both albums feature homogeneous songwriting and over-compressed instruments in a hard rock package. Maybe it's because neither album is as captivating when consumed in toto as any of the individual songs on the album are. Maybe it's just because they both feature songs about molestation. I'm not really sure - but I can tell you that I've always felt this way.

Well, ten years later, Billy Talent II is not an album that sounds very relevant to modern audiences. Listening to it now takes me back in time a bit, but it doesn't make me identify with that period the way listening to an old Soundgarden album takes me back into the grunge season. 2006 was the beginning of the end for the record industry, when all bands were scrambling for top hits, churning out a lot of four-chord hard rock and not a lot of innovation.

This album is bound to be yet another at the bottom of the pile. It's worth noting, though, that at the time it was a pretty fantastic album. 

How Big Data And Wearable Tech Can Improve Your Running

In which I provide a sample of the way I personally use fitness data to improve my running.

Keeping Myself Honest

Boy, have I felt great this week! It's like heading out for a daily five-miler is easy, compared to just two weeks ago.

Hmm, well, maybe it's not just "like" that. Maybe it really is getting easier to run those five miles. How might I determine whether that is true?

One way would be to look at how many calories I've expended. Simply comparing one run to another isn't really fair - a lot of different things can happen to your body from day to day. To gain better insight, I'll have to do some "data tricks."

My eight most recent runs have all been about five miles long. Adding the estimated calories expended for the most recent four (as reported by my Garmin Forerunner or Microsoft Band 2) yields a total of 2,219 calories, or 554.75 calories burned per run, on average. For the four preceding runs, the values are 2,327 and 581.75, respectively. So, things do seem to be getting a little easier for me. If I were training for a race, this would be great news, since it would indicate improving levels of either running economy, cardiovascular efficiency, or both.

However, I'm not training for a race. My perspective needs to shift a little. This week, in order to have a workout equivalent to the workouts I was doing last week, I need to either run further or faster (or both). Of course, my fitness tracker will help me with this, since it tracks both distance and pace while I'm running.

Keeping these factors in mind, I'll be able to add up the calories expended on my next four runs and compare the result to the previous two figures. I'll thus ensure that my subsequent workouts are, on average, at least as tough as last week's, if not a little tougher.

And that, friends, is how you can use data to lend some objectivity to your workout efforts.

Apples To Apples And Mile Splits

The good people at Strava have an interesting feature called "matched runs," which will automatically compare like-workouts if you run on the same course. It even spits out a fancy graph with absolute pace times, a moving average, and local extrema:

Source: Strava

Nifty! Of course, any run mapping interface will give you similar feedback, although some will require that you enter the course name in manually before it can be compared. Strava appears to provide additional insights, such as "pace analysis," for a premium fee. I get it for free via Garmin Connect, or more recently Microsoft Health.

Source: Microsoft Health

From this table, a couple of things pop out right away: (1) My first two mile splits are the slowest, and (2) Thereafter, my average heart rate basically doesn't change.

I might draw all sorts of conclusions from this data, but knowing for myself how the workout actually felt, I conclude that I ought to increase my pace at the outset of the workout. I might use the heart rate monitor as my guide here. It does take about a half a mile to get my heart rate up to "workout levels," but after that I can set a target more in line with my expected heart rate for the rest of the run.

If, during the last half of the run, I experience either a big decline in running pace, or a noticeable increase in heart rate, or both, I'll consider it a failed experiment. My guess, though, is that I can pick up the pace early on with little to no impact on the last half of my run.

Another interesting data point to notice is that the last one-tenth of a mile was run at a much faster pace than the previous mile. This suggests that I may have lost a lot of momentum during the first half of Mile 5. No surprises here - there was a big elevation gain during that mile. But if I want to improve my performance on a run like this, I ought to focus on maintaining a strong pace during the last mile.

An Early Delta

There are a few things available in the Garmin interface that do not appear in the Microsoft Health interface. They are: Ground contact time, vertical oscillation, and running cadence.

Running cadence is a concept I'm skeptical of. As I previously wrote,
Cadence is a concept imported from the cycling world. When cycling, it's important to maintain a steady speed over long periods of time. Cadence in this context makes some sense because gears are variable, so different cadences translate into different speeds, depending on what gear one is using during the ride. This means that, if you want to cover a given distance in a given period of time, you will have to translate that into different cadences, depending on your gear selection. There is a direct relationship between the gear, the cadence, and the speed of travel.
Runners, though, don't have gears. And while stride is variable, it is impossible to know the exact length of one's stride during the run itself. Thus, focusing on cadence provides no information that isn't already provided by pace.
Furthermore, while the writers seem to imply that shorter strides are always better, stride (like forward lean) can be varied throughout a run to achieve different results. A short stride during an uphill climb saves a lot of energy, but a short stride during a downhill charge expends it needlessly. And because stride is variable, cadence must also be; nor should there ever be a dedicated "range" one's cadence should fall into.
I would make a similar criticism of ground contact time. Does it really matter how long your feet stay on the ground on a per-stride basis? Is there any ex ante reason to believe that a longer or shorter value for ground contact time is better or worse for running? No. Instead, ground contact time might be an indicator of some other running issue, but I can't think of a single issue offhand that would be indicated primarily by ground contact time.

So it makes sense to me that Microsoft Health doesn't track this data. It doesn't provide the user with any information worth thinking about. For the most part, it's a false lead.

Vertical oscillation actually is useful to analyze, because the greater the oscillation, the less efficient the runner's form. Making noticeable decreases in your vertical oscillation will almost certainly make you a better runner. This is maybe the only thing I'll "miss" about switching to a Microsoft Band 2.

2016-02-08

Dawn Phenomenon?

In which I speculate based on a single morning's data.

Take a look at my first partial day of continuous heart rate monitoring from my new Microsoft Band 2:


The large heart rate spike is, of course, the run I went on during my lunch break. I started at around 11:45 and finished about forty minutes later. Because I didn't correctly turn on the Band's GPS sensor, it incorrectly logged my five-mile run as a four-mile run and screwed up my pacing. Oh, well. Live and learn. Full run details can be had by viewing the Strava widget on the right hand sidebar of the blog.

But take a look at that spike in my heart rate at about 6:00 AM. My heart rate began rising sometime during the four o'clock hour, peaking durin the six o'clock hour, and then slowly decreasing again. This is precisely what we would expect to see from the Dawn Phenomenon.

If I see this every day, I'm going to have important biometric information about myself. Amazing.

Microsoft Band 2: Some Preliminary Thoughts

In which I provide some general musings to kick off my use of the Microsoft Band 2.

Image courtesy agemobile.com

My loving, sweet valentine gave me a wonderful early Valentine's Day present: The Microsoft Band 2. I charged it last night, and I'm ready to give it a try today. What follows are my preliminary thoughts, prior to any significant use whatsoever.

The Device

While, I have no experience with the original Microsoft Band, the second iteration of this technology immediately appealed to me. 

Longtime readers already know of my affinity for fitness trackers. I started with a Nike+ GPS running watch back in 2012. That actually broke after about eighteen months of use, which made it a terrible value. Next, I tried the Garmin Forerunner 620, which I've been using since I got it back in 2013. I actually love the Forerunner. It accurately maps my runs and, with the help of a chest strap heart rate monitor, provides deep analysis of fitness data such as pace, heart rate, running cadence, elevation, VO2 max, and so on. The thing works perfectly and I've really enjoyed it.

But the Microsoft Band 2 dispenses with the need of a separate heart rate monitor. It has one built right into the strap, just like a FitBit. Unlike a FitBit, however, the Band 2 has a GPS sensor. This means that I get the best of all words: I get all the GPS-based data of a Forerunner, without the need of a separate heart rate monitor, plus all the constant-monitoring data that FitBit-style trackers add. This means the Band 2 monitors my resting heart rate, the restfulness of my sleep, tracks my steps, flights of stairs, etc. The Forerunner didn't do that; it only operated during a workout.

Some might ask, "Why don't you just run with your phone?" There are many reasons why I don't, but probably the most important one is: I run in spandex. There aren't a lot of places to keep my phone while I run. And I run way too intensely to carry my phone around on an arm strap or in my hand. Hence, a wrist-based device is a necessity for me.

So, in short, it's the "best of both worlds" between a fitness tracker and a GPS running watch.

Add to that some simple Bluetooth functionality: access to text messaging and emails, calendar, social media (if I so desire), and so on. It's not a replacement for a smart phone, but it's a handy (heh, get it? hand-y?) option for people who are keen on such things.

But wait, there's more. The Band 2 also has a UV light sensor, which can advise you of your exposure to UV radiation. I'm generally pretty good about knowing when I'm exposed to sunlight, but hey, data is data. I can also connect a Starbucks gift card I have to the Band 2 and, apparently, pay electronically at Starbucks without having to pull out my wallet. I haven't tried this yet, of course, but this seems pretty nifty.

How does it fit? Comfortably. It doesn't quite feel like a watch, it feels more like a bulky bracelet. The documentation recommends that you fasten it snugly to the wrist so that it doesn't move around. It's also recommended, although not necessary, to wear the Band 2 with the screen on the inside of the wrist. Some might find this annoying, but I'm pretty ambivalent here. It seems to work, so I'm okay, but I mention it for those who might expect the Band 2 to be exactly like a watch. It's not.

If you like gadgets, this is a pretty good gadget to get, at least on paper. Cool stuff.

The Apps And Stuff

Microsoft Band 2 connects to your smart phone, and subsequently the cloud, via the Microsoft Health app. The mobile app provides a user interface through which to adjust the settings and preferences on the Band 2. So, for example, if you are interested in running, but not golfing, then you can use the app to activate the running "tile" and deactivate the golf "tile." Here you can also activate the social media tiles, or not, as the case may be, set your height, choose between Celsius and Fahrenheit, and so on.

From there, the app gives you access to some basic statistics: steps, heart rate, sleep information, and activity information (when you actually log a workout). This is pretty standard fare.

The browser-based interface then provides access to even deeper dives of the data. For example, you can see a breakdown of your restful vs. light sleep, and how that compares over time, and how it compares to other people who match your demographic profile. You can see what percentage of calories burned were burned while sleeping, while going about your day, and while working out. And so  on, and so forth. 

Microsoft has then taken the Band 2 into even better territory. First, Band 2 connects to a great many third party apps, such as Strava, MapMyRun, MyFitnessPal, and so on. Recall that level of extended connectivity proved to be a challenge with my Garmin Forerunner. I'm not sure that the Band 2 is on speaking terms with Google Fit, but I'm also utterly certain that it isn't necessary. Microsoft Health ultimately proves to be the central repository of health data, through which most other apps can easily connect. Or is it? More on this below.

The notable exceptions seem to be Google Fit, Garmin Connect, and Samsung S Health. These latter two interfaces are only relevant to people who own Garmin devices (i.e. not necessary if you're using a Band 2) or Samsung smart phones. It's true, I'd appreciate it if the Band 2 could interface with S Health, but it's so easily connected to so many other apps that this is a little too much for me to ask of the Band.

I said before that Microsoft Health seems to function as the central repository of health data. That's not entirely true. Microsoft Health seems to be the central repository of fitness data. This can interface with Microsoft's borader health data app, called HealthVault. It is here that users can connect fitness data with all their other health data, such as blood pressure readings, prescriptions, medical records, family medical history, and - for me, crucially - blood glucose readings.

Many users will understandably feel some reluctance to give the system access to their private medical data. I, by contract, am keep to subject my health data to as many analytical algorithms as possible, in hopes of gaining ever-better control over my blood sugar. I don't mind being a guinea pig here if it means I can lower my HbA1c. 

Final Thoughts

So with this near-total, 360-degree health data interface, fed by the Microsoft Band 2, I'm feeling optimistic about the overall value proposition of the Microsoft Band 2. I seem to have access to every piece of data that's important to me, most of which is tracked and analyzed without my having to think about it, other than simply logging the data. I'm running basically a single device - the Band - and using it for everything. I'm excited to see how this all pans out for me.

I'm just about to head out for my first run with the band. I'll let you know how it goes.

2016-02-05

Album Review: Soundgarden - Badmotorfinger

Image courtesy Wikipedia.org

The single most important thing to say about Soundgarden's 1991 album Badmotorfinger is that its release was the moment Chris Cornell went from being the singer in a hard rock band to being one of the greatest singers in the history of rock and roll.

There are, of course, other important things to note about Badmotorfinger.

New bassist Ben Shepherd not only made his bass-playing debut on this album, but also his songwriting debut. This would be less important if it were any other bassist, but Shepherd is so unique that his fingerprint was immediately audible to the listener. Prior to 1991, for example, Soundgarden never wrote anything even remotely like "Somewhere." But Shepherd penned not only that, but three other iconic songs on the album, and went on to be more or less the songwriting equal of the always-dominant Cornell.

At the time, I recall the music press (especially the guitar magazines) making a big deal about the guitar tones on this album, which were decidedly heavy, and had a big, loud, low-end thump. This was naturally and fairly attributed to Kim Thayil's tweaking his Peavey Rockmaster amps in just such a way, and - allegedly - inventing the "grunge" sound. So Badmotorfinger is important for that reason, too.

It ought to be pointed out, too, that drummer Matt Cameron wrote his most iconic drum beat for this album, too: the busy, driving, complex beat in "Jesus Christ Pose." But it's not just that song. It's safe to say that he really came into his own identity on this album.

So, in a way, Badmotorfinger was a confluence of artistic events. Each member of the band came into their own identity in a way that happened to compliment the whole band and its other players. It's inevitable that this would be the band's true break-out album, and it's no surprise that it has since endured as one of the great albums of hard rock music.

However, as I said, the most important thing to say about this album is that it represents the arrival of Chris Cornell, vocal virtuoso. His voice sounds so different from the band's previous efforts. He successfully pushed himself into vocal territory that few have ever really entered. His performance on "Slaves & Bulldozers" has quite possibly never been equaled. In the wake of this album, he would go on to become one of the most beloved vocalists of my lifetime, if not the most beloved.

And it all starts here, on Badmotorfinger

The Macroeconomics Of Good Thing Vs. Bad Thing

In which I explore the idea that economic analysis sometimes involves non-economic value judgments that color our conclusions.

Consider this a thought experiment. I'm not going to stake my life on the ideas contained in this post. Instead, I'd like to explore these ideas conceptually, and test them for weak points. In this post I'd like to think up instances in which a decrease in GDP might not be a bad thing. Can it ever be the case?

War

Suppose the nation is under attack from a despotic regime. The war is winnable, but not without some level of increased military spending. We need to equip and mobilize the troops, carry out strikes, and win the war.

The populace is ready and willing to help, so when the government announces that it will finance its wartime operations with some combination of war bonds, tax increase, and deficit spending, no one objects. In the classic national income identity of Y = C + I + G + nX, G definitely goes up - way up. Let's assume that consumer spending doesn't increase and that any changes to I are net (i.e. businesses perfectly reallocate their investments from "business as usual" to "we're in a war" purposes). At the expense of some (sustainable) inflation, national income goes up, up, up.

In a short while, and at minimal loss of life, we win the war! The nation briefly celebrates and then gets set to settle back into a new peacetime normal. 

The government has many options here, but what they decide to do is return military spending to pre-war levels and demobilize the wartime aresenal, etc. Ceteris paribus, G decreases, C might temporarily increase in the jubilation of triumph, but in the long run it remains the same, and I is as unchanged coming out of the war as it was going into it. 

GDP decreases. Bad thing?

Peace

Alternatively, consider a situation not unlike what the United States experienced in the wake of the September 11 terrorist event. U.S. consumers are said to have gone on a "spending spree," presumably because the violence of the attacks shocked us into a state of living for today. You never know when something terrible is going to end everything, so let's buy houses and vacations and luxury goods and live like we enjoy it for a while. 

Ultimately, however, the spending spree must come to an end. Either the consumers become so indebted that they are no longer solvent, or they simply deplete their savings and must replenish them. We could call this a "consumer-driven Austrian bubble" scenario, where an unsustainable boom occurs (although not for reasons of government interference). 

In this scenario, the economy is going to slow down, and it's not going to feel good. But the boom we've just experienced wasn't a "new normal," it was a temporary lift. Like a positive shock.

Should this kind of GDP decrease be viewed as "bad?"

Additional Comments

In the traditional view of things, the "war" lift is viewed as being good (in a weird way, even though it was a war), while the "peace" lift is viewed as being not good. 

Part of the reason I think people hold this point of view is that, when we're under attack, we have little choice but to defend ourselves. So wartime spending is seen as something that needs to be done regardless of economic considerations. Since it results in GDP lift, we tend to think of it as being good because "we had to spend the money anyway - at least national income went up."

To be clear, I don't think anyone consciously thinks that, I just think that this might be a subconscious reason why people view wartime spending as economically good.

By contrast, the peacetime spending is always viewed as an unsustainable boom. Long-range forecasts aren't built to assume that this kind of bubble will last forever, analysts know that it will eventually come to an end. It's not a question of "if," but a question of "when." Unlike wartime spending, we can't subconsciously view it as a "sunk cost" or whatever. It's not something we were going to do anyway, it's something we suddenly decided to do for reasons that made sense at the time, but which will not make sense in the future. Or at least, those reasons will be seen as unsustainable. 

In short, the first scenario seems to make the best of a bad situation, while the second scenario seems to make a perfectly fine situation, if not worse, at least confounding of long-term business investments. 

So think about investment for a moment. Suppose astronomers identify an asteroid headed straight for us, but with sufficient lead time that governments and private businesses can invest in research, development, and production capacity for devices designed to save the world. Here again, what we're actually doing is saving the world. The fact that this spells an increase in investment, and therefore national income, is icing on the cake. What we really want is for the world to remain intact and free of astronomical collisions. 

But the investment occurred for unplanned, unsustainable reasons - like, suppose it just became popular for every business to have a small zoo in their offices, for reasons of employee satisfaction - then we'd obviously see this as wasteful and harmful to the economy. 

I guess what I'm saying is that, when it comes to economics, "good" and "bad" often refer not only to the impact of shocks on national income, but also our subjective judgments of the wisdom those shocks for non-economic reasons. There's a value judgment baked into it that doesn't have anything to do with economics.

Democratized Evil

My latest at Sweet Talk Conversation puts the moral responsibility of evil directly where it belongs:
It's easy to believe that these situations are just too complex to easily solve, and that the best we can do is vote for the right people, who will implement the right procedures, which will solve the problem. 
But, no. That's just our delusion talking. That's just the part of our brain that doesn't want to acknowledge that the crime is a direct result of the Situation, and the Situation is a direct result of the System that enables it. To prevent these and other atrocities, we don't need better rules written by better philosopher-kings.

Instead, we need to dispense with the delusion and confront the existential vacuum.
Read the whole thing

2016-02-04

Album Review: Jim Matheos - Away With Words


Image courtesy AllMusic.com

Typically, when a heavy metal band's guitar player releases a solo album, the listener knows what's coming: technical guitar solos, and lots of them. I remember when I discovered Jim Matheos' Away With Words album in my local music store, and that is precisely the impression I had. I was, however, intrigued by the fact that, on the album's reverse cover, there is a note intended for music store inventory managers: "File under new age / fusion."

When I brought the CD home and put it into my stereo, a couple of things happened.

First, I was given a purer look at the compositional vision behind Matheos' full-time band, Fates Warning, for which he serves as the primary composer. As I mentioned in my review of Awaken the Guardian, Fates Warning's music is harmonically and sonically dense, requiring a tremendous attention to very subtle details in order to fully appreciate. The listener has to do a lot of work. 

On Away With Words, however, that density is peeled back considerably. In place of distorted guitars, Matheos plays acoustic instruments exclusively. No distortion, no sonic clutter, just the pure and unadulterated sound of the acoustic guitar. To that, Matheos adds a violin as a lead instrument for most melodies, the stunning bass playing of Michael Manring, and then-Fates-Warning drummer Mark Zonder. Just as musicians in an orchestra tend to create rich, dense harmonic content by playing one note at a time, in unison, so too do the musicians on Away With Words showcase the richness of Matheos' compositions by sticking to single notes and arpeggios. 

So, like I say, it's a purer look at the musical mind of Jim Matheos. Truth be told, I never fully appreciated Fates Warning's music until I got ahold of this album. This was the perspective I needed to have seen, the filter through which to appreciate the much heavier music of Matheos' main band. And this is the perspective I got by buying this album. I'm glad I did.

The second thing that happened when I put the CD on for the first time is that I was introduced to one of my all-time favorite records, a true "desert island" disc that I, personally, couldn't live without. Of all the albums in my collection, none other has held as much universal appeal among everyone I know. This is an album that can be appreciated by my prog and metal fan friends, my daughter, my wife, my parents... literally everyone I know who hears this record enjoys it. 

That's not to say that you should turn it on at parties. The music is soft, dark, and moody. It sounds like a cold Autumn afternoon. It's appropriate for long drives, quiet afternoons, cups of coffee, or romantic evenings. In those circumstances, I've simply never encountered anyone who disliked the album. To be sure, popular sentiment doesn't determine artistic value, but it's worth noting that people tend to love this album.

For my part, it fills a necessary slot in my musical appetite. Sometimes I need to hear something soft, but complex, but with more energy than a string quartet. Sometimes I need to hear progressive music without the glam or the theater. Sometimes I need to hear instrumental music that isn't intended as a technical display. Sometimes I just need to relax. Away With Words satisfies all of these needs in a way that no other album in my collection does.

It's too bad that the only audience who would be inclined to purchase this disc is composed solely of existing Fates Warning fans, because Away With Words offers so much more to so many more people. If you pay no attention to any other album review I write, pay attention to this one. It is a true hidden gem. You won't be sorry.

2016-02-03

Clarity

In which I establish a new blog post guideline for improving expositional clarity.

Recently I read a very good but lengthy article in which the thrust of the argument was made in the last half. That meant that the reader would have to be very interested in the argument's background information in order to justify reading all the way through to the end, where the main point would be found.

Honestly, I browsed the article, missed the point, and then later realized I had to re-read the article more carefully, and in its entirety in order to understand.

This made me wonder how many times I've done something similar in my blog posts. Since I often refer to my own posts later on, I realized that in some cases I might have to read all the way through to determine whether the post contained the information I wanted to convey. That's inefficient.

So as of today, I'm going make an effort to solve that problem. I'll write my blog posts as usual, then add a blurb at the top, in italics, to summarize what the post is about.

2016-02-01

Back On My Hobby Horse

Every couple of months, I have to make everyone angry by writing a blog post about the deleterious effects of recreational drug use.

Many advocates of drug legalization like to use a weird rhetorical tactic in which they compare Illegal Drug X (usually marijuana) to Legal Substance Y (usually alcohol, but sometimes caffeine and sugar). In so far as their point is that Drug X is no more harmful than any other perfectly legal substance, it is a valid point. But occasionally these folks attempt to build a bridge too far, and actually try to make the case that alcohol, or tobacco, or caffeine, or sugar ought to be illegal, and that Drug X ought not be. Not only do I consider this a bad argument, I think it's an illberal one. If Drug X ought to be legalized, so should all the things that are already legal.

Let's move on to the topic of the day.

Several years ago, it was widely reported - and confirmed to the surest extent that any such a thing actually can be definitively proven - that chronic marijuana use causes testicular cancer. Those who would suggest that marijuana is harmless must now admit that there is one serious risk associated with using it.

Today, we now have another good reason to eschew marijuana. A number of media outlets are reporting that long-term marijuana use is deleterious to verbal memory.
Researchers found that as past years of marijuana use increased, verbal memory scores decreased. In practical terms, the results meant that for every additional five years of exposure, 50 percent of marijuana users would remember one less word from a list of 15 tested words.
So, if you consume marijuana consistently for seventy-five years, you can reasonably expect that you will remember zero of the words on a fifteen-word list. Consume marijuana for two decades, and expect to forget one third of the words.

Granted, it might not seem like much, but suppose those words make up a grocery list. That's inconvenient. Suppose the words make up your child's birthday list. That's shameful. Suppose the words make up a list of contra-indicated medicines that you ought not be taking with your current medication. That's potentially fatal.

But that's why I write shit down hehehehehehehehehehe puff puff pass...

This was an epidemiological study of over three thousand patients, so the findings are about as robust as we can reasonably expect from epidemiological studies.

Does this mean I think marijuana should be illegal? No. But don't anyone fool themselves about what this plant does to the human brain.

To Hell With Doubt


Doubt creeps in subtly and unexpectedly.

The first thing it tells you is that you don't have time like you used to. When you were younger, you could afford to dedicate innumerable hours toward an important achievement. But, you're older now. You have other obligations, other responsibilities, other things that require your time and attention. It's easy to believe this, because for most of us it is literally true. To accept it fully, however, is to lock yourself into the belief that you will never have enough time to accomplish something you want to do. Never. Should you believe it?

Next, doubt tells you that you're getting old. This one, simple, plain fact is supposed to account for most of your shortcomings. As an older person, your body is slower to bounce back from physical exertion, and from that we are supposed to understand that your body simply isn't capable of doing certain things. Because you're old, you're presumably less in-tune with popular things, and hence whatever you might want to create in terms of art must only appeal to old fuddy-duddies. You can't do something creative that will hold any kind of real appeal to anyone, says doubt, because you're just getting old. According to doubt, you can't travel like you want to and experience the things out there that you've always wanted to experience, because your position as an older, more mature person apparently precludes such pass-times. Age is the great, cosmic "NO!" in the sky, arguing against absolutely everything you wanted, but failed to achieve before age thirty.

After that, doubt need not really tell you much more. Your mind does the rest of the work. Every day you lose to household chores or familial responsibilities becomes further evidence that you "just don't have time" to do what you want to do. Every ache and every pain is something you hold as a testament to your decrepit and decaying body. Every new hit song you don't immediately love is a reminder that you're out of touch. Every photo album from every young person on a backpacking trip is a declaration of what you yourself will never be able to do. You're done, you're sunk, your life is over. Doubt, doubt, doubt...

Consequently, you double-down. If you can't beat 'em, join 'em. If someone else dares to dream after a certain age, you think she has her head in the clouds. If someone else chooses to invest time in a beloved hobby, rather than in debts and expenses, then you choose to see that person as immature. If someone else goes out and does something, you tell yourself that it's a risk that older, more mature people can't afford to take. At first, it was doubt telling you all these things, but now you've become doubt. In the worst cases, the disease spreads to other people.

With a little effort, you may remember what it was like to go galavanting outside in the snow even though it was cold, like you used to do as a child. You don't have to do childish things, but wouldn't it be nice not to be cooped up in the house all day? Wouldn't it be nice to be at least carefree-enough to make better use of your time?

With a small degree of organization, you might very well be able to figure out how to get the lawn mowed, and get the kids to baseball practice, and read that book you've been meaning to read. You might find that you do indeed have a couple of hours a week to use for that night class you've been interested in, or to just head out to the pub with some friends and relax a little.

With some extra planning, you might figure out that a couple of weeks on a motorcycle in Mexico will not interrupt your long-term savings plan, nor will it comprise a risk to you that you can't undertake.

Throwing caution to the wind a little, you might discover that no one laughs at you when you go bungee jumping, or play in a band, or start designing jewelry in your basement, or whatever it is you like to do.

In fact, you might very well discover that by choosing to live your life according to what seems good and interesting to you, rather than what you doubts prevent you from doing, you'll inspire other people to do the same.

And maybe, just maybe, the world will become a slightly better place.

2016-01-27

Mental Health As A Moral Compass

My latest piece at Sweet Talk Conversation postulates that mental health might be a good way to establish right and wrong:
Is there any better standard upon which to found our systems of ethics, something that performs a little better than the ones I've described thus far? 
I think I might have one: mental health. Actions that serve to augment or support the mental health of moral agents are moral, actions that serve to diminish their mental health are immoral, and actions that have no impact on mental health are morally neutral. Applying this evaluative criterion to moral decision-making seems to yield consistently good results.
Read the whole thing.

Album Review: Joe Satriani - Shockwave Supernova

Image courtesy Wikipedia.org

I remember reading an interview with Joe Satriani in the wake of the release of his newest offering, Shockwave Supernova, in which Satriani said something to the effect of, "I knew Shockwave Supernova had to be my most melodic album yet." At the time, I discounted that statement because, well, Joe Satriani always says something like that about his albums.

The remarkable thing about this album, to me at least, is that for once the statement actually is true. Shockwave Supernova is possibly the most purely melodic work of his entire career.

For reasons that might not be entirely obvious to the casual listener, my mind draws parallels between Shockwave Supernova and his 1995 self-titled full-length LP. To me, the comparison is fitting because I believe both albums were designed to be somewhat "stripped down," by Satriani standards. Both are good albums, but Shockwave Supernova is incredibly good. If I were forced to synopsize this album in a single statement, it would be: On Shockwave Supernova, Joe Satriani finally achieves what he wanted to achieve on '95's Joe Satriani.

Allow me to explain.

For fully a decade, Joe had been releasing albums and writing music that evoked "spacey" imagery. His debut album, for example, was entitled Not of This Earth, and his breakout album was Surfing with the Alien. It's not controversial to suggest that the science fiction imagery and ambiance is important to the Satriani oeuvre. For his purposes, the "spaciness" or "sci-fi imagery" comes down to reverb, echo, and thick, electronic modulation. Whenever musicians lean heavily on this sort of sound, the music becomes a little noisy. Let's face it, in a rock or metal context, this kind of noisiness is exactly what we want to hear.

Then, in 1995, Joe released his self-titled album and took a dramatic departure. That '95 album was decidedly toned-down from his previous work. The leads were restrained and evoked much more blues and jazz. He even hired legendary jazz drummer Manu Katche to pound the skins for him. There wasn't nearly as much echo or reverb. The whole album had a very organic feel to it, as if to say, "I know I'm the space-rock guitarist, but look - I can do a stripped-down record, too."

The result was good, but it wasn't great. I found myself missing out on some of Satriani's weird tendencies. The self-titled album didn't really have any weird time signatures or funny key changes. The scales were all quite straight. It was restrained, but it wasn't as creative, and that lack of creativity ultimately proved to be the album's Achilles Heel. Three years later, he was back to space-rock with 1998's Crystal Planet (reviewed here).

What followed was a lot of experimentation - a techno album, for instance. The 2000s-era Joe Satriani was innovative, and his technique was at the top of its game. He pushed the envelope despite the fact that he is still mostly remembered as a guy who made guitar solo music in the late-80s.

Now, on Shockwave Supernova, we hear an entirely new development. The songs are carefully constructed, restrained, melodic, deliberate... and, yes, stripped-down and organic. In that respect, it is very much an album in the same vein as 1995's Joe Satriani. There are other similarities: for example, he's once again working with jazz session players like Vinnie Colaiuta and Mike Keneally (both of whom appeared on his previous effort, Unstoppable Momentum).

But, where the self-titled album sounded like Satriani's attempt to be a completely different artist, Shockwave Supernova remains true to the signature Satriani sound. This is compelling since, according to interviews, the "story" behind this latest album is that Joe wanted to write an album based on a fictitious alter-ego. It's remarkable: In attempting to write an album as a different person, Joe Satriani has managed to produce what is perhaps his most "Joe-ish" album to date, all in a more stripped-down format.

That stripped-down format allows the songs to breath. For most players, this would mean giving them room to do what they do best. Possibly playing against type, Satriani practices admirable restraint in terms of speed and note choice. In moments where we'd expect him to unleash a flurry of notes, instead he gives us a tasteful melodic phrase, and the result is probably even better than the flurry would have been.

Then there's a song like "Crazy Joe," which works the opposite way. The song opens quietly, simply, and so we expect pure restraint. Then, suddenly, Joe unleashes an alternate-picking flurry! Even so, that "flurry" is carefully constructed and outlines both melody and harmony in a playful way that doesn't sound like "just a lot of fast notes."

I'll say something else, something that might turn a lot of people off: When I first heard this album, I was struck by the fact that any of these tracks (excepting maybe the title track) sound like they could get heavy rotation on C-jazz radio stations. There is a dedication to a cool, collected ambience on all of the tracks - exactly the kind of groovy calm we'd find on smooth jazz radio. Of course, Satch always rocks a little too hard for C-jazz, but close your eyes and turn on "All My Life," and tell me you don't hear what I'm talking about. And I certainly don't mean this as a strike against the album, because I actually like smooth jazz.

All said, this is easily the best Joe Satriani record since Strange Beautiful Music, and quite possibly the best of his career. In that regard, only time will tell, but while that time passes, we have quite a wonderful album on our hands, to keep our ears company.

Coffee: Update

I'm five days into my experiment with avoiding coffee at work under the theory that it contains filler ingredients that raise my blood sugar. So far, the results are pretty encouraging.

With little to no changes in my overall fitness regimen, my blood sugar readings have stabilized considerably. My high readings have been reduced by as much as 30% - not small potatoes. I haven't had a low since last week, but I don't attribute the absence of lows to anything about my coffee-abstinence, so that probably doesn't count.

My replacement beverage - plain black tea, with half a packet of Splenda in it - does not appear to significantly raise my blood sugar, although to be fair I haven't attempted a "no-beverage" option. (All work and no play makes Ryan a dull boy.)

Typically, improvements in my blood sugar due to regimen changes last about two weeks for me, and then they reverse themselves. So I guess I won't be able to really make a judgment call here until February 5th, but so far, so good.