2016-08-30

Theory And Practice, Episode Two

Originally published at SweetTalkConversation.com.

“No Epistemic Value”

The social value of philosophy was hiding in its role of a subject that used to attract – and, to a lesser extent, still attracts – high-IQ people and makes them think about important questions. Historically, philosophy was therefore the ultimate “protoscience” and became the seed of science as we know it today, too. And that was good for the mankind. 
However, its modus operandi is a flawed approach to learning the truth. The old philosophy was studied before the scientific method was understood; and the modern philosophers – by the very definition of philosophers – are still failing to use the scientific method. They don’t understand that Nature is smarter than us which is why they still hope to “guess the important truths” without any accurate empirical input; and, more importantly, they fail to formulate their musings sharply enough and eliminate the falsified ones. 
Therefore, we may say that philosophy as a human enterprise has a “social value” but philosophy as a body of knowledge, methods, and results has no “epistemic value”.
That is from a 2013 blog post written by a physicist named Lubos Motl. Even now, years later, this post continues to leave a lasting impact on me. Always outspoken, Motl doesn’t mince words in this post, either:
In general, there aren’t any big questions posed by philosophers that were solved within science simply because philosophy’smodus operandi is not only a flawed method to find the right answer; it is a flawed method to choose the right questions, too. For this reason, virtually all important enough questions first posed by philosophers were scientifically shown to be meaningless or building on invalid assumptions (and all “specific enough” theories invented by philosophers – whether they have called them “questions” or, which was more typical, “teaching” – were shown scientifically false). The philosophy’s unscientific method not only fails to eliminate the blunders and misconceptions from the answers; it fails to eliminate them from the questions, too.
It’s tempting to summarily dismiss anyone who themselves writes so dismissively about important ideas, but I ask the reader to resist that temptation. Motl doesn’t hate philosophy, he just doesn’t see the point of investing time and intellect into poorly specified questions. (He even wrote a separate post about stupid questions.)

No, his real point isn’t that philosophy is useless, but rather that it has failed to get results:
The main problem with the philosophical method is not that it produces no results for other fields; the main problem is that it doesn’t produce the true answers in its own field.
Ask yourself what philosophy has done for you, personally. What are its benefits? And by “benefits” I mean “positive impacts on your life over and above the mere ability to use philosophy’s internal jargon to describe things that can just as easily and accurately be described without that jargon?”

I won’t say that philosophy can’t produce those benefits. What I will say is that one’s lack of clear benefits indicates that one has the wrong philosophy. If you don’t have them or can’t list them out- or, even worse, if your life is observably worse as a result of philosophy – then you need to change course. And this is true according to your standards, not just mine.

Spinning Wheels

It’s a bad idea to promote the ideas of Ayn Rand, Eliezer Yudkowsky, and Dr. Phil on this blog… much less in the same blog post… much less in the same sentence… but consider this the exception that proves the rule. The one idea they all seem to have in common is that they all seem to be dedicated to the notion that philosophy, done right, ought to be of practical use to ordinary people. Yudkowsky calls it “making beliefs pay rent,” but I prefer Dr. Phil’s folksy way of saying it: “How’s that workin’ for ya?

Philosophy is only as good as its ability to make us happy and help us solve problems. At its worst, philosophy is infuriating nonsense that misses the point, causing endless debates about whether an X is a “true” X. Fun though it may be in the moment, it’s practically useless. We don’t need a correct definition of “happiness” in order to be happy – we already know what happiness feels like, because we’ve all felt it. The rest is navel-gazing. I like to brood with a snifter of cognac as much as the next guy (okay, more than the next guy), but on my best days I remember that cognac is nice to drink even when I’m not brooding. That’s when the real fun begins. Or should I say the true fun?

I’m arming myself with a bandwagon of sundry other thinkers out there to lend a little extra credence to my claim that moral foundations ought to be psychological, i.e. not philosophical. As I put it in a separate conversation recently, “What good is a philosophy that puts you in therapy?” We debate the philosophy or the moral framework, but nobody debates the results; we all want to be sane, happy, healthy people. Touting this as the central goal of any moral or philosophical system puts the focus where it belongs: the proof of the pudding.

This is why, when we raise philosophical objections to someone’s stated belief, we don’t very often convince them to change her mind. What difference does it make if “capitalism, carried to its natural conclusion” produces anarchy? No debate about economic systems should rest on taking the real, physical world in which we live, and moving it to a hypothetical “natural [philosophical] conclusion.” I’m for economic growth and widespread prosperity. You too? Okay, what policy can be shown to produce those results? If my idea makes us all rich but philosophically inconsistent, I promise to buy you a hamburger. (NB: a hamburger is more satiating than philosophical consistency.)

The problem, as I see it, is that the deeper one gets into philosophy, the further one gets from the solution to one’s problem. I firmly believe that Plato’s Republic could be convincingly re-translated as comedy. One simple question about the definition of the word justice produces an entire treatise on government. You couldn’t make up better satire if you tried. If someone who knew nothing about philosophy (…or a thousand monkeys sitting at a thousand typewriters…) were asked to write a pilot for a sit-com the express purpose of which was to make fun of philosophers, it would look a lot like the Republic.

Suppose that in real life you actually had to solve a trolley problem, and that you could choose to either go with your gut instinct or pause time long enough to perform an exhaustive philosophical analysis of the problem. My thesis, restated: (1) If your analysis produced exactly the same conclusion as your gut instinct, then it was a wasted effort; (2) If your analysis made you less certain of what to do, it made your life worse and it was a wasted effort; (3) If your analysis produced a perverse conclusion, it made your life worse; (4) But, if your analysis produced a better outcome than your gut instinct would have, it was worthwhile.

Getting Results

I suppose at this point I should establish that I’m not straw-manning anything. Does philosophy actually produce bad outcomes for people? Yes. Here are two examples.

The first one is the curious case of Mitchell Heisman, who no one remembers anymore. By most accounts, Heisman was a highly intelligent and motivated man who showed no warning signs, and who ultimately harmed no one but himself. Despite his admirable intellect, he shot himself on a Harvard University landmark… as an act of philosophy. He left a “suicide note” in the form of a 1,900 page treatise on nihilism posted to a now-defunct website. The few who profess to have read it said it was “creepy,” but no one says that its claims are untrue. (Not to damn with faint praise, but Lubos Motl read it and enjoyed it.) Heisman was an intelligent man whose core philosophical beliefs were nihilistic. Unlike most nihilists, Heisman actually put his beliefs into practice: if there is no point, then why live? It’s important to note that Heisman didn’t misunderstand nihilism or get it wrong. He understood it perfectly, and ended his life accordingly.

In learning about Heisman, we all sense that something is wrong, but academic philosophy is powerless to tell us what. At best we can disagree with his conclusions, but when it comes to getting results, i.e. suicide prevention, what good is that? We know that suicide is a tragedy; we don’t need to prove it. The suggestion is almost silly. But philosophy can’t do the work needed to save Heisman’s life or anyone else’s. Instead, it can spur a debate about whether Heisman’s suicide is “truly” a tragedy or whether he is “truly” worse-off now compared to when he was alive.

The result of philosophy for Mitchell Heisman, then, is death. That’s a bad outcome.

The second example is that of Katherine Ripley, a young journalist who found herself traumatically victimized, left in a sad situation in which the academic philosophies she had learned in school gave her exactly the wrong advice. What those philosophies did give her, on the other hand, was a powerful set of rationalizations for self-destructive behavior that she only learned to overcome after what she describes as “intensive therapy sessions.”

Ms. Ripley isn’t a crazy person or an idiot. In fact, her career would suggest very much the opposite. She is an intelligent and articulate defender of her ideas. The philosophies that did her wrong for her own life (the real world, live and in the flesh) are defended on the highest terms and in the halls of the most prestigious philosophy departments in the country. The question isn’t “who could believe such a thing?” because the answer to that is “pretty much anyone smart enough to follow a valid chain of logic.” No, the question is what results did she get out of those ideas? The proof of the pudding.

I have no good arguments against either nihilism or feminism. They are both valid, consistent moral belief systems. They’re both well-reasoned and provide cogent explanations for a person’s actions. But how’s that workin’ for ya?

There is a fair criticism to be made at this point: Some great argument, Ryan. You take two tragedies that happen to have a connection to a couple of mainstream philosophies, and from that you indict the philosophies themselves, rather than the people. What about all the millions of other practitioners of these philosophies who don’t suffer an ill fate?

My response: Those philosophies appear to be working for all the happy people, don’t they? See? Multiple coherent, consistent, valid philosophies are available to us and anyone else. You might choose one and I might choose another. It doesn’t really matter. What matters is how the pudding tastes.

Practice, Not Theory

There’s more than one way to skin a cat, and more than one reason to give an old man some spare change. Ceteris paribus, the philosophy that consistently results in a skinned cat (uh, assuming you’re into that…) or a donation to the needy is a good philosophy. It shouldn’t matter if that philosophy happens to be nihilism or feminism or utilitarianism or the Word of God. (Ceteris paribus.)

By contrast, the philosophy that only seems to work in special cases is not a good philosophy. Nor the philosophy that works 95% of the time, and 5% of the time you blow your brains out in front of the library; nor the philosophy that makes millions of women feel empowered at the expense of thousands of women who end up really hurting on the inside; nor the philosophy that teaches peace and harmony on Sundays and insular biases and discrimination the rest of the week; nor the philosophy that justifies a particular economic policy at the expense of all human altruism. And so on, and so forth.

The results matter. The theories are only as valuable as their ability to deliver those results. Did you like your pudding? Good, then you got the recipe right. Or not? Then change your recipe. It’s just words on paper. You can’t eat words on paper unless you’re desperate, and even then you’re getting mostly fiber. In one end and out the other.

And just in case I haven’t fully tapped-out the recipe analogy, here are some old-timey instructions for ammonia cookies, which are exactly what they sound like.



Why would someone want to put ammonia in their cookies? Because it tastes like mint. No, really, I’ve eaten them before. They are delicious. You can scratch your head about putting ammonia in food, but the fact is, it’s been done – successfully. That philosophy has been tested to tasty effect, so at this point there is no use questioning the thinking behind eating ammonia. It got results. (It’s not as if the drinking of cow milk is any more rational – or, for you vegans out there, the consumption of the barely-edible plant stalks attached to fatally poisonous leaves.) It doesn’t have to make sense if the cookies are both tasty and edible, and they are.

The underlying philosophy – the why – doesn’t matter anymore.
But you want “why”, you’re drawn to “why” like you’re drawn to a pretty girl in the rain. Let me guess: she has black hair, big eyes, and is dressed like an ingenue. “Why?” is the most seductive of questions because it is innocent, childlike, infinite in possibilities, and utterly devoted to you. 
“Why am I this way? Why do I do what I do?” But what will you do with that information? What good is it? If you were an android, would it change you to know why you were programmed the way you were? “Why” is masturbation, “why” is the enemy, the only question that matters is, now what?
And anyway, the answer to “why” isn’t very interesting. (Spoiler alert: “It is inevitable.”)

We don’t really want a perfect philosophical theory, anyway. That’s just an intermediary step to more interesting goals, like “happiness” and “sanity,” just like you don’t write C# code in order for it to be syntactically correct, but rather as a step toward a more interesting goal, like buying food at the grocery store and subsequently eating it. A job that pays well and keeps you dipping your ammonia cookies in milk instead of anti-freeze is a good job; a philosophy that keeps you happy, well-adjusted, and sane is a good philosophy.

It’s the proof of the pudding, see, that’s what we want. Results.

2016-08-29

Theory And Practice, Episode One

Originally published at SweetTalkConversation.com

I need to make a point about something, but as it turns out, it’s impossible to make this point in a single blog post. So I’ll have to do this on an installment plan.

Adventures In Comparative Legal Systems

When I lived in Canada, I used to hang out with a lot of law students. During that time, the conversation would inevitably turn to Canadian law. By this, I mean that they were often doing their homework right in front of me, and I was helping them with it. So it was a bit more than just casual conversation.

And in case you’re wondering, the answer is: Yes, my experience tells me that most law school homework is done in a pub over multiple pitchers of beer.

Anyway, one of the things that struck me about the Canadian legal system is the way human rights are organized, legally speaking. Canada has what’s called the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, which is analogous to the American Bill of Rights. It spells out what rights are guaranteed to the people by the government. The Canadian government, according to Canadian law, is permitted to violate the Charter in certain cases, as long as the details of those cases conform to certain legal guidelines, which are spelled out in writing and in jurisprudence.

As a fiery young, philosophical man, this used to incense me. After all, the Bill of Rights is a document that outlines things that the U.S. federal government is not permitted to do. In other words, the presumption here in the United States is that human beings hold certain inalienable rights that supersede any additional legal power. In Canada, subject to legal conventions, it is the government that grants all rights to the people, so government powers supersede the rights of the people.

I say it used to make me incensed. It doesn’t anymore. Why not? Because while studying the law alongside my friends, I eventually learned that in practice the Canadian legal system reaches the same important conclusions regarding human rights as the American legal system.

The only material difference in these matters is the language used to justify the conclusion. In America, our courts tend to use language that refers to what the government cannot do, and what the intended meaning of legislation is. In Canada, their courts tend to use language that refers to what the government is permitted to do and whether the intended meaning of the legislation provides sufficient justification for doing it.

But, as I said, when it comes to everything that matters on human rights issues, the two countries’ legal systems tend to reach the same conclusions, even though their justifications are phrased differently.

What’s the Point, Ryan?

I bring this up because one of the least attractive things about philosophy is that it tends to raise objections that need not be raised.

We see a homeless man shivering outside a coffee shop with an outstretched arm holding a cup. Most people I know who have spare change will drop a few coins in the man’s cup. Of those who do, some of them do so for reasons of faith, some of them do so for reasons of utility maximization, some of them do it for reasons of virtue. And, yes, some of them do it for reasons of guilt, shame, embarrassment, or to help clear their conscience.

I know a few people who would choose not to help the man. They all refuse to do it for various reasons, but no matter what their moral philosophy happens to be, they all justify their decision on moral terms. Maybe they want to give the man incentive to get a job. Maybe they think someone else is more deserving. Maybe they think the man will spend the money contrary to his own best interests, i.e. on drugs or alcohol.

Philosophy tends to raise objections that need not be raised. If you and I both give the man our spare change, there is no point arguing over which one of us had the better moral reasoning: the outcome was the same, ergo our reasoning was equal. You can say this however you like: what matter are results; actions speak louder than words; practice is more relevant than theory.

What matters outside of that coffee shop is not the spotless philosophical reasoning used to justify a particular course of action, but rather what we choose to do. If I give the old man my spare change for totally incomprehensible and inconsistent reasons “which, if taken to their natural conclusion…” would destroy the world I don’t care. Neither does the old man. Because the outcome of my moral reasoning was the same as if I had used a superior moral framework (or aneven more inferior one): the man got his money and the world is still intact.

Now, if a particular philosophy fails to produce the right results, or fails to produce them consistently, then we have a good reason to evaluate the coherence of that philosophy and address its shortcomings. (More on that in a forthcoming post.) But if I’m giving my change to deserving old men, my friends and family are happy with me, and I am generally impacting the world in a positive way, whatever crazy and internally inconsistent moral framework I’m working with is working for me/paying rent.

If we raise objections to “wrong” thinking that consistently yields “right” results, then maybe it’s time we checked our premises.

2016-08-24

Philosophical Prose

While reading through a book by Martha Nussbaum, recommended to me by a friend, I thought of something. Sometimes it feels to me as though philosophy comes in two basic forms.

One form is what I’ll call Philosophical Exposition. This, I believe, is what most people have in mind when they think of philosophy. In this form, philosophical arguments come in the form of a strong argument for something. The writer makes a claim, lays out an argument, supports the argument with some combination of reasoning and evidence, and underscores a particular conclusion. Obviously, this form of exposition isn’t particularly unique to philosophy; most formal writing looks like this, and even a great deal of conversation unfolds in this way.

The other form of philosophy is what I’ll call Philosophical Prose, and from what I can tell, it is largely unique to philosophy. In Philosophical Prose, the writer decides that, rather than outline a full argument for something, he or she would rather sketch out a rough idea that merely sounds good, without having to go through the rigor of formally arguing for it. The goal of this kind of philosophy is not to set out a forthright conclusion, but rather to provide a nice-sounding piece of writing that draws the reader in. Repeated exposure to philosophy of this kind, when the ideas all point in the same direction, will have the effect of slowly wearing down a critic’s resistance to an idea, until there is such a large body of text promoting a given philosophical idea that no real argument for it seems necessary anymore.

Providing examples of Philosophical Exposition seems like a superfluous exercise. We all know what formal exposition looks like, and we can all cite examples. Anyway, by now it should be rather obvious that the point of the current post is to examine and criticize Philosophical Prose. So, let’s take a look at some examples of that.

The ugliest example I can think of is any statement that comes in the form “Any X properly Y ought to be Z.” One might argue, for instance, that “any theory of equality properly defined ought to include a concept of social justice.” When writers make statements like these, they are simply being lazy, skipping the hard work of, in this case, defining a theory of equality that actually does what the writer wants it to do. Instead of doing that work, the writer simply makes a normative declaration, viz. that equality “ought to” include social justice, and leaves the actual argumentation to others. This is a tempting approach to philosophy since the power of such a statement is that it simply refusing to acknowledge any dissent, whether it exists or not. If we were to take such statements seriously – and we ought not – we’d realize that they are really just No True Scotsman fallacies in so many words.

Another one of Philosophical Prose’s dirty tricks involves skipping the hard work entirely. The writer might say, “Making a thorough justification for neoliberalism is a necessary task, but it is beyond the scope of the present work. For now, I will simply argue that neoliberalism, once accepted, should be applied universally across all political systems.” In other words, the writer wants to go to the fun part of having a good theory, which is telling everyone that they ought to agree with how wonderful that theory is, but the writer doesn’t want to have to be bothered to undertake the actual task of effectively arguing for that theory.

As is implied by the first sentence of this blog post, my impression of Marth Nussbaum’s work thus far – not having read very much of it, but having gotten a decent taste of it – is that it is more Philosophical Prose than Philosophical Exposition. This fact certainly weakens the persuasiveness of her arguments, at least among those readers who are looking for reasons to believe a particular thing.

But, on the other hand, I don’t believe Nussbaum’s target audience consists of people like that. Instead, I think Nussbaum writes for people who already agree with her, and who want to experience a sense of rapture from reading emotional, normative statements like “Any X properly Y ought to be Z,” followed by many paragraphs of the normative value of Z among a particularly needy group of would-be beneficiaries. Such Philosophical Prose is sure to strengthen conviction among the already-converted, and so in that sense it serves a worthy purpose.


However, we must keep in mind that the worthy purpose served by Philosophical Prose is something other than arguing for truth; it’s something more like preaching a religion.

2016-08-22

In Which I Declare Non-Wimphood

Everyone likes to go fast, and no one likes to be a wimp. It is the primary conflict of the distance runner. Putting in solid mileage involves extremes of weather, distance, effort, zen, and perseverance; there’s nothing wimpy about that. If a runner doesn’t set aside time to pump some iron, though, he soon finds himself withering away at the upper body and shriveling to skin-and-bones. You don’t want that.

Neither do I. Thus, now having spent the better part of a year running diligently, to the exclusion of a daily strength training regimen, I find myself in what can only be called a pickle. I’ve done a lot of butch running this year; I’m all man, baby. But my muscles are fading fast. I’m told it’s not their size that counts, but how I use them – but how can I be sure?

It’s safe to say this turn of events stems from my growing obsession with GPS fitness trackers, which enable me to track my runs and almost immediately review the data interpretations of my running. It’s not that I’m obsessed with data; I’m not that much of a wimp! it’s just that when I happen to see the little “running guy” icon hovering over six of the past ten days, it makes me wonder if I can get him to hover over a seventh day. Having done that, I wonder about an eighth day. Now I’m up to nine, and ten seems like it’s right around the corner for me. See? Manly! Not wimpy.

Look, if you award me a score related to something I happen to be doing a lot anyway, I will attempt to improve that score.  Because I’m no wuss. And besides, I’m doing whatever it is anyway. Granted that there are people in the world who take this to dangerously obsessive levels, relentlessly flogging themselves for failing to improve their largely meaningless points tally. Me, I’ve been running and working out for so long that it hardly matters anymore. I am either already obsessed or I have demonstrated over the years that obsession is not a risk for me here. The reader is invited to draw her own conclusions about that, but the bottom line is that, for me, fitness trackers are more boon than bane. Bring on the arbitrary milestones!

While I’m coming clean about all this, I may as well get another one off my chest: I’ve been syncing my data with a fabulous browser-based application called Smashrun (find it at Smashrun.com), and this has taken my running to even greater manly heights. Smashrun provides all the same statistics that my nascent running apps provide (Microsoft Health, Garmin Connect, Strava, etc.), and then adds to that large dollops of additional information to binge on. Smashrun will tell you how long ago it was that you ran a similar distance, how your last run compares to other, similar runs, how it compares to similar runs ran by similar runners, what healthy or unhealthy food your calorie burn corresponds to, how many days in a row you’ve been running, and more. Then, to sweeten the pot even further, Smashrun gives you arbitrary badges and points as you log your miles, as if to say, “Hey, you’re just three days away from another bauble; why not go for it?” Dutifully, I do. Wimp? Not me!

And yet, the tone has changed. Earlier in the year, I was using my Microsoft Band 2 to guide me through interval training a few times per week. But since that data isn’t classified as “running data” in Microsoft Health (instead, they call it a “guided workout”), it doesn’t sync with Smashrun as a run per se. In other words, I might do five miles of interval training but never get credit for it on Smashrun. This is not a weakness with Smashrun, it’s just a data artifact. It is what it is. But since I don’t get Man Points – er, I mean arbitrary Smashrun points – for these workouts, I’ve taken to just going for a run instead! That way I get the mileage and the points and the badges and, ultimately, the cool satisfaction of knowing that I’m not a wimp.

Overall, I’d say this has worked out quite nicely for me. I’m running more often, putting in more miles, running them at a faster pace, improving my blood glucose control, and having fun while doing it. There’s just one little problem: my upper body muscle mass is disappearing. I’ve turned myself into a weakling, a wimp, a wuss, a Nancy-boy, a stick figure. You get the picture. (No, I won’t post one.)

There is one, final confounding factor here: the rotation of the Earth is too wussy for my manly ambitions. That is, there aren’t always enough hours in the day for me to succeed in strength training, and running, and then participating in all the aspects of life (such as they are) that are not directly tied to those two things. I’ve tried berating the Earth, but it doesn’t seem to be listening to me right now, so I have to cook up new ways of achieving my goal of Ultimate Tough Fitness Guy, meaning that I want to do all that running I’m doing and not lose muscle mass while I do it.

This can most often be achieved with the world-famous two-a-day workout strategy. Now, I’m not saying I’m a wimp – definitely not saying that – but lately I haven’t had enough time in the morning to get myself to the gym and back and still manage to, you know, maintain a steady stream of employment income. IF only there were some way to get a good muscle-building workout in the morning without having to give up my job. Now that would be manly!

Then I stumbled upon a solution, in the form of a website called Darebee.com. Darebee offers free exercise plans, motivation, tools, and most notably the “workout of the day.” These workouts can all be done at home and are brief enough from a time perspective that I can actually get a second workout in without getting fired. I’d call this “manly,” but I should mention that Darebee was started by a pretty cool woman named Neila Rey, so the word doesn’t quite fit. Instead, I’ll just call it awesome. And while it may strike a blow to my male ego to convert my pursuit of “ultimate manliness” into a pursuit of just being as awesome as a person like Neila Rey, the reader shall kindly forgive me. (Especially since, as faithful readers know, I never write like this, so you can probably assume all this “manly” stuff is tongue-in-cheek.)

And so goes my next undertaking: Maintaining a consistent, progressive running regimen while completing the Darebee workouts of the day, simultaneously.


I can do it. I’m no wimp!

2016-08-19

How To Fix A Cracked Microsoft Band 2 Bracelet

I’ve been monitoring the bracelet on my Microsoft Band 2 very closely due to the many reports (here, for example) out there of bracelet failure. My first Microsoft Band 2 broke at the clasp, and I had to fight to get it replaced under warranty. After only about two months of using this new, replacement Band 2, I noticed the bracelet start to crack in a way that was consistent with the experience of other Band 2 users. The prevailing thinking among those users is, for the most part, that once the band cracks, the watch is done for. This is because the Band 2 has a UV sensor and charger connection at the clasp on one side, and a vibrator for pulse alerts on the other side. In other words, the Band 2’s rubber bracelet surrounds important wires which, once exposed or broken, render the Band 2 useless.

Long story short, a cracked Band 2 bracelet is a pretty big deal. My warranty is up, so it’s doubtful that I can get the band replaced a second time. Furthermore, it took so much effort to convince Microsoft to replace my Band 2 the first time, that at this point the effort doesn’t seem worth it to me anymore. This is especially true if my third Band 2 also fails at the bracelet within two months of use. I mean, how fragile are these dumb things, anyway?

Let me take a brief tangent here. One of the reasons this is such a frustrating thing for me, one of the reasons why I have spent so much time talking about my Band 2 and fitness trackers in general, is that the functionality of the Band 2 is so great. I blogged about this before. This is the device that finally “got it all right” for me, and that would still be true today, were it not for the fragility of the bracelet. So there is a little bit of heartbreak happening for me here. It’s not just that my watch broke, it’s that I really loved this fitness watch, and it’s frustrating that it would fail on me in such a way. It really is inexcusable for Microsoft to have succeeded so brilliantly on the core functionality of the watch, but to have failed so totally on basic durability. Even my Nike+ GPS watch from way back in 2012 lasted eighteen months. The Band 2 didn’t even last two months!

Having said all that, let’s get down to business. If you’re like me, then you have a Microsoft Band 2 on your hands that has a cracked bracelet. If you’re lucky, the crack has happened relatively recently and hasn’t opened up the whole bracelet. In other words, hopefully your bracelet is only cracked on the outside, and not all the way across the width of the bracelet. If this describes your problem, then I think I just might have a solution for you that doesn’t involve giving up and throwing your Band 2 in the wastebasket.

I cooked this up as a long-shot way to recoup a few more weeks or months of life out of my Band 2. It’s only been a few days, but all signs seem to indicate that it is working for me. I can’t speak to the longevity of this solution, but I will try to post updates on the blog In the hope that it can help other people.

The Band 2’s bracelet is made out of some kind of rubber polymer, so I started thinking: What is a reliable, DIY way to repair something made of rubber? What can I do cheaply at home that will at least buy me enough time to shop around for a new fitness tracker, and maybe, if I’m lucky, extend the life of my Band 2 for the foreseeable future?

Then it hit me: Why not use a bicycle patch? The benefits seem obvious: inner tube patches are inexpensive, made of rubber, colored black and thus wouldn’t stand out too much visually, easy to affix, can be cut with scissors for precision repairs, and at least on bicycle inner tubes they result in a permanent fix. This doesn’t seem like a crazy solution at all; in fact, it seems like a great solution.

It took all of 2 minutes to rub the patch’s adhesive over the afflicted part of my Band 2’s bracelet and wait for it to dry. Then I peeled off a patch and stuck it onto the bracelet.

As I said: so far so good. I can’t speak to the longevity of this solution, but by all appearances it seems to have worked. It is at least a good enough solution to warrant that users like me give it a try before giving up on their Microsoft Band 2’s completely.


I’ll keep you posted.

2016-08-17

Some Thoughts On Fitness Trackers

In general, there are two kinds of people who are attracted to fitness trackers: technology enthusiasts and fitness enthusiasts. While there is plenty of overlap between the two groups, each group’s needs are relatively independent of the other’s.

To wit, technology enthusiasts are primarily attracted to fitness trackers because many of them are smart watches. These people will generally overrate things like messaging, calling, calendars, apps, etc. while simultaneously underrating core fitness features like GPS tracking, heart rate monitoring, sleep monitoring, etc. Tech enthusiasts will also interpret connected apps differently than fitness enthusiasts. The techies want slick apps with quick Bluetooth connectivity and excellent social media functions. Fitness enthusiasts care less about these things than they do their ability to extract meaningful fitness statistics for their training. They may be able to live without some of the standard smart watch features because that isn’t their primary motivation in getting a fitness tracker. They want a workout aid and a health aid, not a personal assistant.

For fitness enthusiasts, matters get even more complicated. Avid runners and hikers absolutely require GPS connectivity to make the most out of their fitness bands, while gym rats and the like need not care so much about that. And while virtually every modern fitness tracker now has GPS functionality, not all of it is created equally; nor, for that matter, is heart rate monitoring created equally. The fitness watch offerings thus range from casual toys with passable directional monitoring, such as Jawbone Up3 trackers, to serious training aids, such as Garmin’s top of the line Fenix 3 and Forerunner 735XT watches.

Aside from the lower end trackers, they now virtually all come with limited texting and phone connectivity features. As aforementioned, this is not really a primary motivator among fitness enthusiasts, anyway. If all one needs is heart rate monitoring, some basic GPS functionality, and a good set of smart watch features, then one ought to consider buying a smart watch outright and forgetting about fitness-oriented products. Meanwhile, for fitness-oriented products, a consumer ought to be willing to relax some of the smart watch constraints, or else pay for a $500+ top-of-the-line product.

Once we’ve accepted the smart-watch-oriented limitations of fitness watches, however, we are now capable of assessing which fitness features are worth considering in earnest.

GPS accuracy is certainly an issue. On that front, the Samsung Gear Fit 2 reportedly has issues, although it’s not clear whether the issues pertain to user expectations or a truly limited functionality. Garmin, of course, is the industry leader in GPS technology, and their products reflect that fact.

Accuracy of the heart rate monitor is also an issue. This, too, is heavily influenced by user error. The same product may perform well or poorly, depending on how the user chooses to wear the product. That said, there are proprietary differences in each fitness band’s heart rate monitoring, and some do appear to be more accurate than others. Consumers generally laud FitBit’s HR monitoring technology while being more critical of Samsung’s. Many bands get varying reviews because the activities people engage in vary greatly. 30 minutes of Zumba will probably read much differently than 30 minutes of weight training. But despite all that, one has to wonder to what extent accuracy is crucial here. These are not medical grade devices, and the most accurate way to measure heart rate at home and while exercising is via a chest strap, not an optical sensor.

Speaking of which, chest straps still feature prominently in sports-oriented fitness tracking. All of Garmin’s flagship products, for example, require a chest strap to make use of deeper analytical features such as cadence, ground contact time, and vertical oscillation. Even those Garmin products that include a built-in optical sensor have the capability to connect to a chest strap to access those deeper features, and probably also to gain better HR accuracy during workouts. It’s worth considering, then, that any band that does not make use of a chest strap probably isn’t intended for much more beyond casual use. Athletes and people who wish to train like them are probably better served by something like a Garmin.

That said, these deeper analytical features are probably useless for everyone else. I can’t think of a single person (other than myself) who has ever seriously analyzed the vertical oscillation in their running stride in an effort to become a more competitive athlete. For that matter, serious athletes have been running sub-13-minute 5Ks since before the advent of the fitness tracker, so there is a serious question as to how effective any of this data is for becoming a better athlete. In the end, these data and features are mostly valuable as sources of entertainment as opposed to serious training aids. Consumers ought to keep that in mind as they choose between a $500 Forerunner 735XT and a $250 Vivoactive HR, for example.

Thus, the real question seems to be: What data are you willing to pay for in a fitness tracker? VO2 max is a great data point to have – but is it worth upgrading from a Gear Fit 2 to a Microsoft Band 2? Ground contact time is a really interesting thing to look at, but is it worth wearing a chest strap for? If you can meet most of your heart rate, sleep tracking, and step counting needs with a $65 Jawbone tracker, is it worth it to pay twice as much for incremental levels of accuracy?

At the end of the day, each fitness watch product is missing something important. Some are too expensive relative to the value of their offering; others are inaccurate; others aren’t durable; others don’t integrate well with other apps and technologies. Which product is the right one to buy? That can’t be answered by anyone but the buying, however, my advice is to keep in mind that the principle selling point of fitness trackers is not in their accuracy or their ability to improve your training, but in the fact that they are entertaining. My advice is to buy the most entertaining and durable product in your price range.

2016-08-09

The Impact Of Running On Heart Rate: A First Read

Now that I have a few months' worth of daily heart rate and running data available on Microsoft Health, I thought I would take a shallow dive into my numbers, purely for fun. The question I wanted to investigate is what impact running has on my heart health, as measured by my heart rate. So, I exported my data into an Excel spreadsheet and got to looking.



The blue series is Average HR, the green series is Max HR, and the red series is Min HR. I displayed the equation for the red series so that you could see that the slope of the line is negative, i.e. that minimum heart rate falls as miles-per-day increases, unlike the other two series.

A few cautionary notes here:

First of all, simply correlating daily average heart rate to total miles run is somewhat misleading since, although we'd expect my heart rate to get lower the more I run, my heart rate obviously increases dramatically when I'm actually in the process of running. So, noting that average heart rate increases with miles run does not tell us very much.

Second of all, some caveats apply to the miles/day numbers. Some months have more days than others, some months are only partially complete (since August is far from over, and since I did not start using my Band 2 until partway through February, etc.). So it's not a totally fair comparison, but it's close enough for casual purposes here.

Third, the miles/day number is not an expression of how many miles I tend to run in one go, but rather the total number of miles logged in a month divided by the total number of days for which I have HR data for that month. So when I take a rest day, that brings down the average. On average, my runs tend to be between 3 and 6 miles, but I don't run every day, hence the numbers looking like they do.

Note that if you do this at home, you'll want to use the harmonic mean to find your average heart rate per month, not the arithmetic mean. There are technical reasons for this, but if you're not a math geek, you can just remember the simple rule of thumb that we use the harmonic mean for rates, just because.

So it's not Earth-shattering stuff, and there is obviously a lot more than just running that would affect heart rate, but in general my personal data can confirm the broad knowledge out there:

  1. Running appears to decrease resting HR.
  2. Running appears to increase max-HR in more than just a trivial way. That is, it really looks like running increases the heart's limits, not merely that running itself increases the heart rate.
It should be interesting to watch this over time, as I experience months of more varied activity. 

Loyalty

Rodin's "Cathedral"
Image courtesy Wikipedia.org

Years ago, I had a couple of friends, let's call them Ken and Kyle*.

Of the two, I was much closer to Ken. I knew him for longer, had more in common with him, shared a lot of fun times with him, even shared a living space with him for a brief time. We met Kyle through a mutual interest of ours, and the three of us hit it off. We spent many long afternoons pursuing our mutual interest, and also talking about life, as friends often do.

Early on, though, Kyle and I clashed on our taste in music. Kyle liked X, while I preferred Y. For a long time, I thought this was actually a good thing, since it allowed us to swap CDs, show each other new music, explore our differences, have spirited debate. It was fun for me, because I like talking about music, and by all appearances, so did Kyle. We didn't have to agree, as far as I was concerned, because the conversation itself was fun.

What I failed to notice was that Kyle only enjoyed talking about music when we agreed with each other. If the topic were King's X, for example, we could go for days! We loved those guys. Change the topic to Primus and it was a whole other ballgame. Because I thought we were enjoying ourselves, I'd keep the conversations going. It turned out that all I was doing was bothering Kyle.

As time went on, Ken grew closer to Kyle than I did. Still, I considered them both to be good friends.

Then one day Kyle invited Ken and I, along with another mutual friend of ours, Tim*, over to his house to hang out. There, he sat us all down in a circle and proceeded to air all of his grievances with me. He didn't like the way I looked, he didn't like my attitude, he was upset by a few of things I had done, and a couple of things I hadn't but should have. Tim echoed Kyle's grievances. Ken said nothing at all. This went on for a long time.

Most of Kyle's complaints were unreasonable, and the few that were reasonable were misunderstandings. I tried to defend myself, but the process itself was designed to be an onslaught, I was intended to be out-numbered, and this was clearly a severance, not an intervention. This was good-bye, and good riddance, to Ryan.

After some time, Ken finally chimed in. He vouched for my personality by recounting the story of a time when I had offered Ken some friendly emotional support when he needed it, when no one else was around to give it to him. Kyle and Tim didn't respond to that much, they simply doubled-down on Kyle's list of grievances. Ken fell silent again.

That was the last time I ever laid eyes on Kyle, although Tim, to his credit, apologized to me years later - an apology I gladly accepted, and today I count him among my friends. For a long time, however Ken remained close friends with Kyle and Tim, and continued to hang out with them - without me - for years after this occurred.

In my vanity, I expected that my old friend would stand by me, would walk out of Kyle's house by my side, loyal to the friendship that we had had for years prior to meeting Kyle or Tim. But that just didn't happen. Some time later, I asked Ken who he thought was in the right. He said he thought they had done me wrong, but that he just wished we could all be friends. Of course, he was spending a lot more time with the other two at this point, several nights a week, while I hardly saw him at all anymore and had to move on to a different friends group, forging some new strong relationships entirely.

In essence, I'd lost my good friend Ken to a couple of guys who had treated me unfairly. Ken knew I'd been done wrong but it wasn't enough to convince him that I was a better friend than they were. He preferred them.

That stung, and my relationship to Ken never recovered.

Since then, I've been particularly sensitive to loyalty in friendship. "People-pleasers" often try to patch things over with everyone involved - and for the record, Ken is no people-pleaser - but what they lack is a sense of justice, a clear set of beliefs about what kind of people they are willing to keep as friends. Impressionable people will go along with whatever the majority decides, and if they lose a friend or two along the way, they make it up in numbers. Ken wasn't an impressionable person like that, either, though.

Ken's problem, I now believe, is that he could only recognize loyalty as a good thing when it went his way. When it cost him something, it was too much. So my early showing of loyalty to him - being there for him when no one else would - carried emotional significance for him, but not enough for him to reciprocate. When he actually observed people abandoning me unfairly, and insulting me as they did it, it wasn't enough to trigger his sense of loyalty.

Over the years, I have been through several other instances of seeing some of my friends stand idly by while lesser, peripheral friends and acquaintances  insulted me. When I notice that one of my chosen friends has no loyalty to express toward me, that friendship withers instantly on my end. I'll likely continue to be friendly with the person, but I will never again consider them close, nor will I put forth effort to bring them closer.

The importance of loyalty isn't abstract. In life, we often face harsh treatment from people. We require loyalty in our close relationships because we must trust our friends to support and protect us when we need it. Otherwise, what is friendship beyond being in the same place at the same time, and having occasional conversations? Loyalty reflects a shared sense of ethics and a mutual esteem. Like anything else, it can be taken too far, but without it the mutual respect between friends disappears. There's only so much a shared interest in cars, for example, can get you with another person. It has to be a shared interest in cars, plus the belief that the other person is someone worth vouching for.

So, it hurts when you're not vouched for when you need to be. If you don't have any friends around, then you can always find solace in your support group when you're near them again. But if you're already near your support group and it doesn't offer you support, then it's double the damage; first, you've been wronged, and second you've been denied the support to which you feel entitled. It's worse than never having that support in the first place.

Disloyal people, however, soon reap what they sow. Loyalty can only ever be reciprocal. A relationship in which A is loyal to B, but B is disloyal to A will collapse under the imbalance. Part of being deserving of loyalty is demonstrating loyalty oneself. So those who fail to show loyalty will, over time, loose access to the friendship of all those for whom loyalty is genuinely important - i.e. the very people from whom they most likely would have received loyalty.

_______________
*Obviously I've changed their names - I have never been friends with anyone named Ken or Kyle.

2016-08-03

Seven Days In A Row

Today, after a four-mile run at a pretty easy 7:11 per mile pace, I successfully logged my seventh consecutive day of running. After carefully reviewing every GPS-logged run I've been on since the year 2012, I realize that running for seven days in a row is something I haven't done in more than four years.

So this post is a little victory lap for me. It's not too difficult to run for seven consecutive days, but it's also not something that tends to happen all the time. In fact, the typical training regimen includes six days of running and a day of rest. I haven't even done that for many years. This is starting to look like a bigger accomplishment than I originally thought.

The tool I'm using to aggregate all this running data across the various GPS platforms I've used over the years - Nike+, Garmin, Samsung S Health and Microsoft Health - is a fabulous free website product called Smashrun. (Find it at the aptly named Smashrun.com.) The idea is simple: you give Smashrun your login information for any GPS running app you happen to use, then Smashrun logs in on your behalf, downloads the GPS file, uploads it into its own system, and then spits out a variety of statistics and gamification.

Smashrun isn't just cool (it's really cool), it also seems to reflect a big slice of the Stationary Waves all-encompassing philosophy. No, really. I mean it. Check out this excerpt from the "About" section of Smashrun's website:
The idea, at its conception was a simple one — that motivation and context are intrinsically linked. When you understand not just how an action fits into your goals, but how it fits into your history, then you understand purpose. And doing anything with purpose is a heck of a lot easier than doing it without purpose. So, if that's true, then the key to motivation might just be a matter of framing.
I mean, uh... I had nothing to do with the creation of Smashrun, but by golly, that sounds like something I might have written myself. It goes on:
Often it's not about the game, so much as it's about the sense of accomplishment. The cynical (or perhaps just honest) way to look at a lot of games is as virtual skinner boxes. By rewarding a repeated behavior, you condition pleasure response to that behavior, and in doing so, develop a drive. 
Now, what if instead of rewarding behavior, which has absolutely no real world benefit whatsoever, you set up the game to reward truly beneficial behavior. Let's say, for example something which might help, you to live longer, feel better, look better, even have a better sex life, not to mention improve your facility to get away from any real world zombies should they ever materialize?
If these guys (and gals) aren't Ryan, they sure are doing their best Ryan-impersonation!

Therefore, it should surprise no one that I have found Smashrun addictive as an online activity/tool, and also highly motivational. Strange as it might be to admit it, the whole reason I've run seven consecutive days is because I desperately want to earn Smashrun's "10 for 10" badge, which I can earn if I run for ten days in a row. I might not get it, but who cares? I haven't done this much running in literal years.

And that makes me feel great - not just for the sense of accomplishment, but also just physically great. My blood sugar has been low or normal, my body feels like it's ready for action constantly, my hormones are adapting. I phyiscally feel like a runner again. It's been a long time.

2016-08-02

Potato Dieting

The world-famous potato
Image courtesy Wikipedia

I like Penn Jillette, and I'm not one to criticize anyone's accomplishments. Recently, he has been discussing his weight loss in the press, I think for the purposes of promoting his book. My understanding is that his book is about a lot of things, not specifically weight loss, and that his weight loss is only one part of many things contained in the book. But this is not a book review.

One thing I read (on Twitter somewhere, I think) was that Jillette lost 105 pounds eating nothing but potatoes. A careful reading of all the press out there reveals that this is probably not true and that Jillette probably never made such a claim. Still, I grew up in the days of the infamous "cabbage soup diet," so I wanted to look into any alleged "potato diet" to see if it had anything in common with the things we've all seen many times before.

For those of you who don't remember, or are too young to have encountered it, the "cabbage soup diet" is not so much a diet as it is a process of slow starvation. Cabbage soup is tasty and contains a lot of delicious micronutrients. In fact, I love cabbage soup and I think it ought to be something everyone eats on occasion. But it is not nutrient-dense enough to provide meaningful sustenance no matter how much of it a person eats. That's the "trick" of the diet - you can stuff your stomach full of cabbage soup on a virtually minute-by-minute basis and never consume enough calories to live. Thus, the cabbage soup diet forces a person into severe calorie deprivation until the person loses weight, while making them the hollow offer of "being able to eat as much cabbage soup as you want."

One of the links I discovered while doing some light googling was this one, at a website called CalorieLab.com. This particular article appears to be about a year old, so - once again - much of the information about Penn Jillette specifically is speculative and probably resolved by a read-through of Jillette's book. I'm not here to question Jillette, I take him at his word.

However, the article has an interesting analysis of calories and rates of weight loss using some offhand Jillette quotes as fodder for the discussion. That, indeed, is valuable.

So, first of all, to rule out the cabbage soup theory, the link says this:
Jillette is being a little coy about the details of his weight-loss-phase diet (yes, there is a book in the works), other than that it’s vegetarian and the first two weeks was potatoes only...
It is not, in fact, a potato diet, but rather some sort of vegetarian diet that kicks itself off with a lot of potatoes.

Second, CalorieLab provides us with a discussion about the credulity of Jillette's weight loss, given his stated mealtime regimen. I think they're taking Jillette far too literally, in other words, there is no use trying to debunk someone who is making casual and general claims about the kind of thing they did to lose weight. However, people have a real interest in weight loss, and so cranking through the numbers is actually a useful exercise for people who are curious about losing weight. Check it out:
How plausible is it that Jillette lost about a pound a day over three months? The first consideration is that, as he lost weight, the rate of his weight loss would have decreased because his daily calorie needs would decrease with his body weight, assuming his daily food intake during his diet remained constant, at about 1,000 calories per day. Making some ballpark assumptions, let’s say Jillette, as a not-very-active male with painful knees, needs about 15 calories per pound to maintain his weight. So at 330 pounds he needed to eat 5,000 calories per day to remain 330. At 225 he needs to eat about 3,350 calories per day. Since 1 pound of body fat equals about 3,500 calories, daily weight loss at the beginning of the diet (with a 4,000-calorie deficit) would have been 1.1 or 1.2 pounds, dropping to about 0.4 pounds per day at the end (with a 1,350-calorie deficit). So with these assumptions the numbers don’t work out to an average one pound per day. Other factors, such as loss of excess liquid from edema, more activity than we’re assuming here, or an overestimation of daily calories eaten, may account for the difference.
CalorieLab says that "the numbers don't quite work out," but even at their slowest estimate - 0.4 pounds of weight loss per day - this is a marvelous accomplishment for anyone. Two months of such weight loss would translate to nearly 25 pounds!

The diet analyzed in the course of the article consists of enormous quantities of fruit, vegetables, beans, and rice, but still only about 1,000 calories per day. I'm not an expert in this area, so I can't really say how healthy this is - my suspicion is that it's a lot healthier than being morbidly obese, but not nearly as healthy as a well-balanced 1,800 calorie/day diet coupled with a reasonable fitness regimen.

When it comes to weight loss, my theory is whatever actually succeeds in making you want to make the sacrifices required to lose weight is the right solution for you. For some people, that's going to be a radical vegetarian diet, and for other people it's going to be something like a "paleo diet," and for other people it will be some weird nuts-and-seeds diet, and so on. It's nice to get thin and healthy and active, so I try not to judge too much, but still, certain diets are just plain dangerous, such as drug-aided diets and cabbage soup.

The benefit of doing the kind of analysis found at the CalorieLab link is that it expresses prospective weight loss in terms people can grapple with. It's not just eating cabbage soup forever until you look like a model, it's an actual expression of what your life will be like as you diet. 1,000 daily calories of vegetable stew and berries isn't a lot of food, and some people won't succeed on a diet like that. But 1,500 calories of vegetables and healthy vegetable fats and proteins is probably easy to manage over the course of a month or two. And so on.

The last thing I want to say here is this: Jack Lalanne used to say, "Give me just three days without sweets and it will change your life." His point - and mine here - is that the body will adapt to the kind of diet you feed it. If you eat a lot of sugar, your body learns to like sugar. If you stop eating so much sugar, your body finds pleasure in things like broccoli and cheese. If you eat too much vegetable oil, then toning it down dramatically will result in taste buds that do not require large amounts of added fats to sense pleasure. Ancient Greeks and Romans used to eat curdled animal blood. It was a delicacy. The reason modern people don't eat such things is because we don't have to, but given the right conditions, we would enjoy such things every bit as much as our ancestors did.

We can use this fact to our advantage. Following any diet persistently enough will cause your body to start to enjoy, and possibly even prefer, such a diet. When my mother-in-law is in town, our family eats a lot more salt than we otherwise would. Our taste buds adapt, and then when she returns home, we reduce our sodium intake again, and we hardly notice after a while. There's no reason a person can't commit to a short period of very healthy eating and keep it long enough for their body to adapt to it. A few years back, I did this with a pescatarian diet, and now I would rather eat fish than pretty much any other source of protein. It can happen if you try.

2016-08-01

Vanity, My Favorite Sin


Way back in ancient times, August 2015, Scott Adams of Dilbert fame blogged something interesting about Donald Trump's presidential candidacy. That post argued, in essence, that the reason Donald Trump keeps succeeding despite what other people see as blunders is because he's using a series of sales tricks that convince people to associate his name with good things.

Adams gives some examples. One is that when people dispute Trump's actual net worth, the average American subconsciously associates "fabulous wealth" with Donald Trump, even if it turns out that Trump lied about or overstated his real net worth. Another example was Trump's feud with Rosie O'Donnell - when Trump was called out for being sexist, he "set the anchor" at Rosie O'Donnell, who almost nobody likes, and then casually admitted that he may have said bad things about other people. This might cause people to think, "Trump says bad things about bad people" (which is not bad), rather than "Trump says bad things about innocent women" (which is terrible).

It was a compelling analysis of Trump's candidacy, and it probably went viral or something. I first saw it linked-to on Robert Murphy's blog.

Reasonable people have plenty of room to disagree on the veracity of Adams' analysis, but if I operate under the assumption that it is true, it occurs to me that Donald Trump's egotism presents a real risk that his candidacy may implode for similar reasons.

A perfect example of this would be Trump's ongoing spat with the Khans: ordinary, humble Pakistani parents who have allowed themselves to become tools of the Democratic Party. Whatever the merits of their son's sacrifice might be, and however nice the Khans themselves are, the simple fact of the matter is that by continuing to engage with them, Trump is setting the anchor way too low. What could the Trump Campaign possibly seek to gain from winning a PR war against a couple of old Pakistani immigrants?

Similarly, when Trump won the Republican nomination, he gave a weird speech in which he antagonized Ted Cruz. I'm no Ted Cruz fan, but what does Trump have to gain from using his victory speech to smear a campaign loser?

These are strategic missteps even according to Scott Adams' unconventional analysis of Trumpism, because they attach the Trump brand to losers, not to winners. Perhaps Trump's egotism is so strong that he has to make a point to verbally berate anyone who does him wrong. Okay, but that won't help him get any votes. While he continues to engage in this kind of banter, he damages the public perception of him as a candidate. People like tough guys and winners; they don't like thugs who always punch down.

2016-07-29

Social Media: You're Doing It Wrong

There is plenty of information out there for how to use social media to... profit, become popular, make gain, whatever. Most of it smacks of guru-ism, but if you're into that sort of thing, it's out there.

Far less digital space has been dedicated to strategies for optimizing our consumption of social media. Once you get out of the realm of protecting your privacy and stuff, no one's really talking about it. How should one navigate social media such that it actually enhances your life?

What inspired me to start thinking about this is the fact that I have an Instagram account and a Twitter account, and although most of the people I am interested in following are active on both, I made different decisions about who to follow on each medium. Consequently, I have very different experiences while using each medium.

On Twitter, I started out mostly following a few friends, and then a bunch of economists. Serious people. On Instagram, I decided to follow a bunch of Hollywood and Bollywood celebrities. (My reasoning at the time was that Twitter would be a vehicle for the advertisement of my blog, while Instagram would be a vehicle for the advertisement of my music.)

When I started following people on Twitter, I was very picky. I didn't want to be advertised to, I didn't want a bunch of music and entertainment, I wanted to follow people for whom I had genuine respect and admiration. By contrast, when I started following people on Instagram, I had almost no standards whatsoever. As long as the person looked like some sort of celebrity, then it was clicky-clicky. Most of the people I follow on Instagram are people I have never heard of or seen before, except in the context of Instagram. When people ask me who they are, I answer honestly: I have no idea, just some person on Instagram.

Over time, I've discovered that logging into Twitter fills me with a sense of dread, whereas logging onto Instagram almost always makes me happier than I was before I logged on. But how can this be? How could it be that the social medium on which I follow only people I respect could end up making me sad or angry, while the medium on which I follow people for whom I have hardly any respect at all can make me so happy?

The answer is: Content.

My Twitter feed is full of intelligent people analyzing current events, typically from the standpoint that the world is sub-optimal, and they have some ideas for how to make it more optimal. In other words, people on my Twitter feed are angry and complain a lot. When they do make jokes, they make them at other Twitter users' expense. It sucks.

By contrast, my Instagram feed is full of beautiful people taking pictures of themselves doing fun things. They're young, they're fit, they're frequently in exotic locations, they're engaged in sports, or cooking, or wearing nice clothes. They smile, they kiss, they travel, they play.

In hindsight, it should have been obvious all along that Instagram would make me happier than Twitter. It's counter-intuitive to think that meticulously curating a Twitter feed full of good, respectable people would produce an inferior outcome compared to indiscriminately following any celebrity I could find.

But that's how it is.

2016-07-28

Dialogue, Not Monologue

As I see it, one major problem with the media through which people communicate their ideas is that they are insufficiently participatory.

For example:

  • I might commit my ideas to a blog. I might even solicit and receive comments from the public. But if I don't read the comments, and think about the comments, and reply to the comments (either directly, or via a follow-up post), then I'm not really collecting the feedback my ideas need in order to grow. I might receive a  lot of bad comments, but if this happens consistently, then I ought to consider how I'm delivering my message, and ask myself why I get bad comments instead of good ones. The other possibility, of course, is that the "bad" comments I might receive aren't really bad at all; it's my attitude that's bad.
  • I might describe my ideas in a scholarly journal. I'll be peer-reviewed, edited, challenged, and so on. Setting aside the potential corruption in the academic journal system, the main drawback here is that both my articles and the peer reviews are themselves lengthy monologues, some of which might be true, some of which might be untrue. Making heads or tails of it all - especially within the context of the full issue - requires a level of dedication and intimacy with the subject matter that few will possess. Even among those who try to possess it, many (most?) will fail. Some crucial piece of information will always elude us. It's one thing to be wrong about a few points, but it's quite another to never have sufficient context surrounding an issue to really offer a workable idea.
  • I might present my ideas in the political space, and subject them to the contorting influence of ideologically motivated reasoning. This is unsatisfactory for all sorts of reasons: first, because it's unpleasant; second, because it's factually inaccurate; and third, for every other reason.
  • I might seek the counsel of a trusted friend or confidant. But if I'm not receptive to the reply - even if it's not the kind of reply we expect. What if my confidant tells me that I'm wrong and that I need to change? What if my confidant says something I never expected and didn't want to hear?
If conversation is to be productive at all, we have to be receptive to the feedback we actually receive. We can't just furrow our brow and say, "No, no, you simply don't understand what I'm saying. Here, let me say it again..."

The world doesn't exist as a platform for you to voice your opinion, give your take, offer your perspective, and then disappear into the night. Once you send your own thoughts into the world, they join the collective dialogue. The desire to control the kind of feedback we receive is for one thing childish; yes, it's childish to wish to control the thoughts of others.

But more importantly, it's disingenuous. It suggests that you were never really interested in the truth or accuracy or value of your statements to begin with. You wanted to say something, and you wanted to be right. You did not want to have to consider the alternative.

Join the dialogue.

2016-07-25

Movie Review: Sultan

Sultan, starring Anushka Sharma and Salman Khan
Image courtesy Wikipedia

Sultan is possibly one of the more inexplicable Hindi movies I've ever seen.

Ostensibly, the movie tells the story of an Indian mixed martial arts league that is failing to sell tickets; so, its founder, Aakash Oberoi sets out to recruit a retired Indian Olympic wrestler to compete in the league, in an attempt to spark more interest from Indians. It's essentially a play toward nationalism, an attempt to give Indian spectators a home-grown "local boy" to cheer for in the league.

What Oberoi discovers when he meets the retired wrestler, Sultan Ali Khan, is that Khan has refused to ever enter the ring again, and upon probing Khan's childhood friend Govind, Oberoi learns the story of why Khan will never wrestle again.

This story makes up the first half of the movie, and it is build from the typical Bollywood playbook. If you've seen a few Bollywood films, you probably already know how it goes: a young man who has extended his youth too far into adulthood (to the dismay of his parents) meets a beautiful and talented young woman who inspires him to make something of himself. In winning her hand, he also makes his family and his country proud, follows his dreams, achieves fame and fortune, but still has not yet managed to learn humility. In an act of arrogance, he loses the girl, falls from national grace, and pursues self-exile so that he may engage in self-flagellation.

And, true to the Bollywood playbook, Sultan tells the rest of the cliched story in the second half of the movie, offering the hero a chance to win back his self-respect, and all the romance and familial respect and fame and fortune that goes along with it.

Fine.

The problem with Sultan, though, is that it is the heroine, Aarfa Hussein (played brilliantly by the ever-talented Anushka Sharma), who has the dream to become the world's greatest Olympic wrestler. She dedicates her life to this dream and, as we learn in an early monologue, dedicates herself to the pursuit of female equality in India. That is, she has a reason to become the greatest wrestler in the world. Khan merely becomes a wrestler because he wants to impress her. In just three months' time, Khan manages to make wrestling history, and only because he wants to date a girl. Movies often demand the suspension of disbelief, but this is ridiculous - no one could become a national wrestling champion at age 30 in a sport they only first encountered a few months ago!

Once Khan gets going, Aarfa becomes pregnant and subjugates her dream to his - which is exactly what she vowed never to do, and all in the name of female equality. Yet Sultan's script writers never really pursue this. *Shrug*, oh well, Sultan Ali Khan is the greatest of all time!

If all this weren't bad enough, eventually the time comes for a retired Sultan to make a comeback and learn mixed martial arts, and - gee, whiz - he has to train to become the greatest MMA fighter in India... in just three months!

This is a bridge too far. Even if the audience could believe that he could win ever relevant international wrestling competition, including the Olympics, in his first year with the sport, to then repeat it all over again eight years later in a totally new sport is preposterous. And it's frustrating because there was no good reason for the writers to write the movie that way. A training montage could have spanned 3 months or 3 years, the audience shouldn't have to care about that. Making such a simple part of the plot just a little credible would have cost the producers nothing. So all this really is is bad writing.

Despite the bad writing, the movie has two major selling points. First, Anushka Sharma's performance is everything we've come to expect from her. Her facial expressions, mannerisms, and acting perfectly encapsulate a real wold-class female athlete. Those of us who have had some proximity to elite sports have some insight into this, and what I can tell you is that I was really impressed by how well she nailed her character. Brilliant.

Second, the soundtrack is pretty good. While not every song will be a hit, at least two of the songs are really quite good, especially compared to the quality of Hindi songs these days. For moviegoers who are mainly interested in the song-and-dance aspect of Bollywood films, this one will not disappoint. However, don't expect much in the way of great dance sequences.

All in all, I think this movie was pretty bad. It's not horrible - for example, I'd much rather watch Sultan than, say, House Full. But "not the worst Hindi movie I've ever seen" is not exactly great praise. Ultimately, I'd recommend skipping this one.