2019-07-18

Tiny Steps Forward, Huge Steps Back?

For some people, I think there is value in completely eschewing alcohol. For most people, I think alcohol generally contributes positively to a person's quality of life. Social atmospheres and celebrations that involve alcohol consumption with food tend to bring people closer together, in my experience. It's not merely that alcohol is a "social lubricant." It's a social lubricant that tastes good and can enhance the sensory quality of a meal. Physiologically, alcohol can improve digestion and reduce the risk of certain kinds of cancer when it is consumed with meat, especially red meat. So it's natural that alcohol would enjoy its special place in the human social experience.

In terms of overall human health, however, alcohol does vastly more harm than good. Even as the aforementioned digestive aid, alcohol can be replaced by a vinegar-based marinade, and all of the benefits can be had without alcohol itself. As for resveratrol, the supposed miracle compound in red wine, the best research indicates that it is basically a placebo pill. Meanwhile, alcohol increases the risk of all sorts of cancers, most notably mouth and stomach cancers; it kills brain cells, dehydrates the drinker, promotes obesity, and increases triglycerides in the bloodstream, which then go on to further promote high cholesterol, diabetes, heart disease, metabolic syndrome, and obesity.

In short, alcohol is a slow poison whose only real benefits are social, not physical. And if I really wanted to make the case against alcohol, I'd dedicate this paragraph to discussing all the social detriments caused by alcohol, including death and maiming on the roadways, workplace accidents, rapes, assaults, addictions, domestic abuse, and so on.

The simple fact of the matter is, in light of objective cost-benefit analysis, the case against alcohol consumption is much stronger than the case for alcohol consumption.

Of course, one could easily say the same thing about french fries. Well, aside from the physical impairment alcohol causes, anyway, french fries do just as much physical damage, and their only redeeming qualities involve the decadent pleasure of consuming food that tastes good despite universally understood health detriments.

I bring up french fries here because I don't want the reader to make the mistake of believing that I'm against alcohol consumption. I'm not, nor am I against the consumption of french fries. Hilariously enough, I grew up in conservative Utah, where the consumption of alcohol was considered verboten and sinful, and yet giving oneself organ failure via frosting and bacon was not frowned upon at all. It's very interesting, the social mores that surround what is "acceptable" poison and what is "unacceptable poison."

As for most sane people with a modicum of self-regulation, there is no harm in drinking alcohol or eating french fries occasionally.

Yet, once again, I repeat: whether or not we're religious teetotallers, the case for drinking alcohol is extremely weak, objectively speaking.

So, if you're a person like me, always making micro-adjustments to your personal health regimen, experimenting with supplements and fine-tuning the fitness process in an effort to optimize your physical health to the greatest extent possible, eventually you have to ask yourself a question. If you're willing to spend $40 per month on nicotinamide riboside supplements because they might improve cellular health, if you're willing to subscribe to Strava Summit in order to gain access to deeper analytics on your athletic performance, if you're willing to spend hundreds of dollars on fancy shoes and workout clothes, subscribe to Beachbody On Demand, wake up early to cook a highly nutritious breakfast garnished with seeds and spices curated to optimize dietary health, if you're willing to switch from inexpensive turkey sausage to gourmet smoked salmon for breakfast because it's healthier, if you almost religiously consume fruits and vegetables at every meal, count calories to determine the ideal daily distribution, monitor your blood sugar virtually in real time, take brisk walks on your coffee breaks at work, time your water consumption, and so on, and so forth, et cetera, ad infinitum...

...If you're willing to do all of that, and yet still persist in drinking alcohol regularly, counteracting many of the benefits that drive all of your other health and fitness decisions, then that's a contradiction. It's an untenable contradiction. Alcohol is much more harmful than the marginal benefits of each of the other decisions I make about my own health every minute of every day.

And for that reason, I've reduced my alcohol consumption to a decided minimum. Why would I make a point to live so clean and so healthy, and then reverse all those positive decisions with beer?

For me, it makes little sense. Your life may be a little different, and so you might come to a different conclusion.

2019-07-17

Is Welfare Socialism?

An interesting idea has been allowed to take hold in the libertarian community. The idea is that the word "socialism" should not be used interchangeably with the phrase "social welfare spending." On that narrow and somewhat semantic point, I agree.

However, on the broader point that welfare spending isn't really socialism, I can only ask, "What the hell are you talking about?" Of course social welfare spending is socialism. What else would it be?

Now, don't get me wrong. I do understand the purpose of trying to make the case that social welfare spending isn't socialism. It's sort of a two-pronged attack.

The one prong involves libertarians' collective self-awareness about the fact that no one in the 21st Century appears to be prepared to relinquish the welfare state. It is now too entrenched in modern society to simply swipe it away. Savvy libertarians, then, have moved on to spreading more popular notions of liberty, such as marijuana legalization, criminal justice reform, and small business deregulation. This enables libertarians to present ourselves as being less quixotic than the reputation that precedes us. We can say, "No, no, I'm not coming after your food stamps. I simply want to prevent crony capitalism." That's a much more appealing message than, "Trust us, the poor will be richer if we stop giving them free food stamps and health care. No, I mean it, trust us."

The second prong is a little more elegant and requires a long-run vision, but the idea basically comes down to this: If social welfare spending is inevitable no matter what libertarians say, then we may as well do the least-disruptive form of social welfare spending, i.e. transfer payments. Ergo, various "libertarian cases" for the Universal Basic Income, welfare reform, and so on. First, the proponents say, we implement a negative income tax; then, we gradually phase-out other forms of social welfare spending and rely entirely on the UBI. I question the wisdom of this from both strategic and practical sides, but that's the argument in a nutshell.

Of course, all of this really dodges the question: Is social welfare spending "socialism" or not?

Those who claim that it is not, reason like so: Socialism is defined to be "government ownership of the means of production." Since it is entirely possible for private parties to own "the" means of production, and then just tax their money away and redistribute it, welfare is thus not incompatible with capitalism. And so it can't  be socialism.

I raise two important objections here. The first is, what do we suppose the communists meant when they said, "From each according to his ability, to each according to his need"? Was that the rhetoric of a capitalist who just happened to recognize that social insurance was not necessarily incompatible with free market economics? No, of course not. Wealth redistribution is, was, and always will be the calling card of socialism. Actually, that is why socialism exists. The whole point of socialism is to redistribute wealth from the privileged class to the lower classes. It strikes me as odd to suddenly suggest that wealth redistribution is no longer socialism, provided the means of production in the nation's economy are still owned by the private sector.

But that brings me to my second objection: Who do we suppose owns the means of the social welfare spending production? To whom are our taxes paid, and from whom are these welfare payments doled? Why, the government, of course. Private wealth distribution means the non-government not-for-profit sector, organizations like Catholic Social Services, the Red Cross, and your local soup kitchen or food bank. But these are precisely not what anyone has in mind when they say "social welfare spending."

So, let the argument rest. Because social welfare spending is owned and operated by the government, and because wealth distribution is an explicit objective - if not the primary objective - of socialist economic organization, then therefore social welfare spending is socialism. Period.

Now, this doesn't mean that it's a sin to favor social welfare spending or that libertarians are wrong to focus their energies on more popular policies than depriving the poor of social security checks. Nor does it mean that any nation that has a social welfare system "is a socialist country." Socialism is not a single policy, after all, but rather a consistent pattern of economic organization.

Even so, let's not go coo-coo here. Social welfare spending, regardless of its relative merits, is socialism. It is incorrect to say otherwise.

2019-07-05

See What I Mean?

I unfortunately must follow-up on yesterday's post with some incredibly sad news. Frank Meza appears to have taken his own life yesterday.

These insatiable internet mobs are absolutely poisonous. Just because a person cheats in a game or a road race, that does not make him a despicable person. I reiterate that by all accounts, Frank Meza was a beloved member of his community. There was much more to his 70 years of life than his road racing career as a senior citizen.

The lesson to be learned from this is: Be gentle and merciful when you choose to criticize others. Don't gloat. Don't revel in someone else's disgrace. Don't partake in schadenfreude. Don't participate in a mob.

When you see a crowd turn against someone, exercise extreme caution. The power of mobs, mob mentality, and groupthink is awesome and terrifying. In those situations, go out of your way to look for reasons to doubt the crowd. When there can be no doubt, go out of your way to look for reasons to be kind, forgiving, understanding, and merciful.

Wrongdoing is unavoidable in life. The best thing that can happen to wrongdoers is that they find a way back to ethical behavior with dignity and humility. As onlookers, we owe it to people like Dr. Meza to offer an ideological path back to society's good graces. We ought not seek to condemn, revile, and exile people. We ought to look for ways to bring people together, even people who do the wrong thing at road races.

Because if we don't, then terrible things happen. How many of the gloaters will invest more than 30 seconds of their lives in hindsight, considering what they may have contributed to Dr. Meza's end? Too few. It's sad.

Remember this.

2019-07-03

Frank Meza And Ideal States

In April, I blogged about the website MarathonInvestigation.com.

It seemed so strange to me that ordinary people would cheat in road races, even with nothing on the line. For example, some people cheat just to be able to say they finished a race; they're not good runners, and they're not earning a top place, not even in their age group. Others cheat just so that they can "qualify" for the Boston Marathon, as though running the Boston Marathon itself is the accomplishment, not qualifying for it in the first place. Others cheat for no other reason than to collect their finisher's medal and have their photo taken at the finish line. Such small stakes, and yet people will cheat.

It also seemed strange to me that so many people would become emotionally invested in the fact that other people cheat for meaningless accomplishments. Don't get me wrong, I'm against cheaters, but I cannot fathom the mindset of a person whose hobby it is to pore over GPX files and race photography in search of evidence of cheating. In my spare time, I like to actually run, rather than prove that someone else didn't run. Or, I like to play music, or kiss my wife, or play with my daughter, or go on a bike ride, or do literally anything other than trying to figure out if some Instagram poster actually finished the race she claims to have run.What an odd hobby.

Well, the latest scandal in the world of cheating at road races is the strange case of Dr. Frank Meza, or Mezza, a retired physician and boys track coach, who was recently disqualified from the Los Angeles Marathon. Here's an LA Times article that neatly summarizes things. I won't rehash the whole thing here, but the basic synopsis of it is that Meza has spent the last ten years posting increasingly better marathon times while running one marathon about every three months! That's astounding in its own right, and his most recent time - the time for which he was disqualified - was an age division world record. No 70-year-old had ever run as fast as that before. Of course, the best evidence suggests that Meza cheated, not only in the most recent LA Marathon, but also in many previous marathons over the years.

People will naturally have a wide variety of reactions to this. In my reading of internet comments, I have found the overwhelming majority of people seem to be either outraged that a man would cheat at all - and the more you cheat, the more terrible a person you are - and smug gloating over the fact that Meza was finally caught.

To be perfectly honest, I cannot understand either of these reactions. I think cheating is wrong, and I think low-level cheating of the sort that Frank Meza is alleged to have done is pitiful. To waste anger on such a pitiful thing is, to me, equally pitiful. How pitiful must a person be to squander time and emotional energy on being angry at some loser for cheating his way to the top of 70-year-olds? And to gloat over something so pitiful is... really nasty. It's pathetic to revel in someone else's shame; and the more pitiful that person is, the more we debase ourselves by reveling in their downfall.

Have these people no dignity? It's understandable to want a cheater to be caught and to be passionate about doing the right thing, but when you see someone like Frank Meza - who is by all accounts an upstanding member of his community and a good mentor to young Latino boys - hit rock-bottom in such a pitiful way, the time for gloating is over. In the end, Meza's downfall is sad, not satisfying. What kind of person would be satisfied by that at all?

Although I can't locate the link now, one of the stories I read about Meza included some quotes from the current world marathon record holder for Meza's age group. He said it would be too bad if Meza cheated, because he was looking forward to racing against him. That's a healthy perspective. It's disappointing that Meza cheated, if that's what happened, and it's sad that it all came to this. Sad and disappointing, not outrageous or satisfying.

During times like these, it's elucidating to ask oneself, "What would the ideal resolution of this look like?" Many commentators on the Meza case hope that Meza is banned, panned, reviled, and that he just goes away. But I don't think that's an ideal resolution.

In my ideal world, Frank Meza would train hard and try to post a great marathon time. Maybe he'd come close to the times he's been posting. Maybe not. Maybe he'd find that running a genuine marathon is more satisfying than cheating. In my ideal world, Meza would humbly attempt to regain his dignity, the running community would forgive him, stop gloating, stop making a spectacle of him, and we'd all go on about our lives - happily.

What surprises me about all of this is that for many people, the ideal resolution to a situation like this is one in which a lot of people still feel really badly.

2019-07-02

Meaning-Gaps

Meaning is broadly one of the hardest things to express to other people. I can tell you about how I give my daughter ten cents for every new thing she tries and for every difficult task she attempts. I can tell you about how happy this makes her, and about how she subsequently seeks out opportunities to try new things or difficult things in order to earn her dimes. And, I can tell you about the other day, when my wife decided to try something new for dinner, and in response, my daughter said, "Mom, you can have one of my dimes because you tried something new." You'll kind of get it. But the total meaning of all this will forever escape you. On an intellectual level, you'll understand why I'm so proud of my daughter for internalizing the value of trying new things and reaching out to the rest of us to award us for our own mini-accomplishments. On an emotional level, though, it won't hit you.

I guess you had to be there.

Someone I know was talking to a friend about how accomplished she felt when she finally reached the point in her career when she was earning a six-figure salary. Her friend dismissed the idea, saying essentially that "everybody" earns six figures these days. That plainly isn't true, but even if it were, it represents a failure to understand another person's accomplishments. Or perhaps her friend did understand the accomplishment, but failed to understand the meaning of the accomplishment. She wasn't bragging about her salary, she was expressing gratitude for her good fortune in life. Reaching a six-figure salary, for her, meant achieving a certain station; it's a mark of internal validation, not a mark of external validation. It has little to do with who else has achieved the same thing.

I have most often encountered this disconnect in the reverse. I'll run a road race or something, maybe snag a top age-group finish, and my friends will do their best to congratulate me on an amazing accomplishment. How can I express to them that, when it comes to running, I already achieved much more than that two decades ago and that "second place in my age group at the Podunk Days 5K Fun Run/Walk" is not something I'll remember next week, much less twenty years from now? How do I explain that what would be highly significant if my friends did it is not particularly significant when I do it?

Moreover, how do I explain to people that their making a big deal about what to me is not a significant accomplishment detracts from my real purpose at the fun run? I wasn't there to earn a place or an award, I was there to join the rest of the community in a fun run. I may have been there to see what kind of time I could get at the race, to check my overall level of fitness or the state of my training. The age group awards are for people who care about that sort of thing, and I'd much rather forego an age group medal so that someone who is really trying can get the recognition they deserve. I'm not ungrateful, but I also don't want accolades for something carries no meaning for me.

In the end, it's a meaning-gap. What means a great deal to one person might not mean very much to the next person. It might be a loving exchange between a father and a daughter, a personal accomplishment that you're trying to share with a friend, or an accidental accomplishment you never wanted or sought out. Humans thrive on meaning, we each seek it out in our own way. The act of recognizing someone else's meaning is an act of empathy, a bridge to human emotional connection. Whether we're on the giving end or the receiving end, we long for that meaning to be reflected back at us by the other people with whom we interact. In many ways, meaning is love, and its absence is a type of rejection.

There will often be meaning-gaps between us. This is unavoidable. We can keep our relationships healthy, however, by trying to recognize the meaning that other people see in the world, trying to experience it from their perspectives, and expressing that recognition back to them, to the best of our abilities. 

2019-07-01

Creatine Update

A short while back, I posted briefly on creatine. Just to recap, my thinking was that most of the benefits that can be gained from creatine supplementation can be gained merely by increasing one's water consumption without taking creatine.

I had posted that I intended to stop taking creatine and just drink more water instead. So I did. For the past few weeks, I've been drinking no less than a liter of water between 7:00 AM and 11:00 AM, every day. (That's roughly between the time I arrive at work in the morning until the time I go to lunch.) In addition to that, I drink approximately 16 ounces of water at breakfast, along with another 16 ounces of water + milk in the form of two homemade cafe lattes. At lunch, I drink about 30 more ounces of water (just shy of another liter). I'll drink perhaps 12-24 ounces of water at dinner, and then throughout the evening, I'll have a cup of tea and another glass of water.

As you consider the above, please keep in mind that I live in a very hot and humid climate, and I work out 1-2 times per day. If a sedentary person in a more temperate climate were drinking this much water, I think it would make them sick. But for an active person living in Texas during the summertime, I believe this represents heightened, but reasonable, water intake.

Another thing I should mention is that I have significantly reduced the amount of alcohol I drink. Until recently, I've been having wine with dinner, and beer occasionally. Recently, I've eschewed alcohol unless I'm out socializing with friends. Reducing the amount of alcohol I drink also reduces the dehydrating effects of alcohol, therefore improving my body's overall hydration.

The result of all this additional hydration cannot be measured by "increased muscle mass," as is typically advertised on the label of a bottle of creatine, because I'm not a bodybuilder, and I'm not trying to increase my muscle mass. As a distance runner, however, my experience with creatine was that it helped my muscles feel fresh when it came time to do fast runs and speed workouts. (They felt fresh before any workout, really, but it was most noticeable during the most strenuous workouts.)

With that in mind, I'm pleased to report that my subjective experience with hydration in lieu of creatine supplementation is that, so long as I drink enough water, I can enjoy all the benefits of creatine without the actual creatine.

So, drink up, folks. All that additional water will likely help you feel every bit as good as you feel after a couple of weeks of creatine supplementation.

2019-06-30

The Refusal To Think Conceptually

An effective way to ignore someone else’s wisdom is to refuse to think conceptually. If you can get away with treating someone’s point as an isolated and overly literal statement, then it is more likely to seem weak, shallow, vapid, or ridiculous. Once having managed to dismiss the point as preposterous, one no longer has to worry about its truth value.

I thought about this while reading David Henderson’s latest blog post at EconLog. The post is all about how, if one commits to reducing costs, living frugally on the margins, and making modest but consistent investments, then over the course of a lifetime even people with very humble incomes can save enough to become millionaires. He’s right, and that’s a fact.

But Henderson argues against a man - Tim Herreira of the New York Times - who refuses to think conceptually. Here’s Herreira:
So I feel like we’re in this weird bubble where a lot of personal finance advice is centered around tiny expenses, like coffee, snacks, occasional lunches or other small indulges. I hate it! Those are usually the things that make life worth living!
Henderson quite effectively responds by showing that the daily $4 expense of a Starbucks coffee, if foregone for a year and invested instead, soon yields $25,000. But Herreira’s problem isn’t that he doesn’t understand this. Herreira’s problem is that he thinks this conversation is about coffee.

What I mean is, there are people in Herreira’s position who don’t drink coffee at all. For them, the daily indulgence they make might be something else, like a candy bar, or an expensive shampoo, or a larger-than-necessary car lease. The daily indulgence could be anything, really. It doesn’t have to be coffee. The coffee isn’t the point.

The point is that there is some expense in your life, somewhere, that you won’t miss giving up. Maybe Herreira loves his coffee so much that he’s not willing to invest that money instead. Fine. Chances are pretty good, though, that he’s spending more money than he has to on something. Wherever it is that he’s willing and able to reduce his expenses and invest the difference in his future, that’s what he should be doing. And if he does this on a consistent enough basis, then he, too, can be a millionaire one day. That, not coffee, is the real point.

Part of this, I must admit, is the fault of “financial gurus,” who are largely incapable of describing savings in terms of opportunity costs.

Here’s an example: I drink two fancy lattes absolutely every day. On one level, that’s probably even more indulgent than Tim Herreira’s daily Starbucks habit. The difference with me is that I make my lattes at home, using a $12 range top espresso maker and coffee that I buy in bulk and grind using a small electric grinder. My lattes cost me pennies, not dollars. If Herreira is correct that these small indulgences make life worth living - and when it comes to coffee, I happen to agree - then doesn’t it make sense to economize on your passion? Doesn’t it make sense to figure out how to drink as many fancy lattes as possible at the lowest possible expense? That’s what I do, and it’s really paid off. I save a ton of money while still maintaining a quite decadent daily coffee ritual.

And don’t even get me started on my daily smoked salmon omelet.

The opportunity cost of giving up your daily Starbucks habit doesn’t have to be “drinking no coffee at all.” It might instead be, “making an even better cup of coffee at home and at a fraction of the cost.” Then you can reinvest that difference and save for your future. There are dozens of expenses like this. I stopped buying scrambled eggs at restaurants, for example, because it’s a waste of money compared to making them at home. Tea at a restaurant is as much as $3. For a teabag and a cup of hot water! No thanks, I’ll just go home and have the same cup of tea - same tea bag and everything - for pennies. I’m giving up a little bit of pleasure, the pleasure of drinking a cup of tea in a restaurant. But that amount of pleasure isn’t enough to compensate me for the financial cost of frivolous expenses.

The secret here isn’t giving up things that make your life better. The secret is finding ways to make your life as good as possible without wasting money. Given that you can enjoy a better latte or the same cup of tea at home for literal pennies on the dollar, why waste the money?

2019-06-24

Politics Versus Mario Kart


One of the first theories I ever heard about "why Donald Trump won the election" was that, at the end of the day, Republicans would rather vote Republican, even when their candidate is not particularly Republican on any major issue. Seen from one angle - that the only thing Republicans stand for is being against Democrats - this criticism strikes me as being unfair. Seen from another angle, though - that "he may be a bastard, but he's our bastard" - and it makes a little more sense.

Suppose that you were like me in 2016, and you had no one good to vote for. In a choice between two terrible candidates who will both make your life worse, but each perhaps in their own unique way, the decision criteria shift away from the issues and toward more petty concerns. For example, I know more than a few people who voted for Trump mainly to spite Hillary Clinton and all those who desperately wanted her to win. I don't condone spite, much less using it as a basis for national political decision-making, but that doesn't mean people don't make decisions based on spite. There was an old blog post from The Last Psychiatrist that argued that if schools make grades basically meaningless, then employers will start basing hiring decisions on things like racial prejudice, since they have no useful way of using grades to make a hiring decision. I don't doubt for a second that, absent a solid policy-making argument for Hillary or Donald, many people just chose to vote "against the woman" or "against the pig."

It's sad that national politics has to come down to something like this, but that's the direct consequence of a lobby-corrupted two-party government duopoly whose main purpose is to enrich themselves at the expense of the taxpayer and at the price of pandering to the public employment sector.

It isn't surprising, then, that people would tend to lose interest in national elections and voter turnout could be generally pretty low. I looked into the data and found voter turnout to be roughly flat for the last 100 years, so even despite cataclysms like World War II and the Great Depression, and even the Civil Rights Movement, people have about as little faith in politicians as ever. I think many of us see through the charade. Out of that enlightened population, a few become anarchists, a few more become insufferable cynics, and the vast majority become people who would just rather go home and read a book.

Losing interest and going off to do something more productive is precisely the best response to this kind of futility. If the average person can't move the political needle in any positive direction without doing even worse damage, then clearly the best response is to hold a Mario Kart tournament in your game room with beer and pizza. It may be sub-optimal, but it's Pareto sub-optimal. (That's a joke, folks. I know that I'm describing an optimum. Don't @ me.)

But the hallmark of a great economic mind is that such a mind will think at the margins, no matter how bad the margins get. Just because you're circling the drain doesn't mean you can't circle it a little better; just because the odds of disaster are 98:1 doesn't mean they couldn't be 97:1 with a little creative thinking. We just have to ensure that the cost of going from 98 to 97 isn't higher than the opportunity cost. For most people, the opportunity cost is a foregone Mario Kart tourney, and is thus too steep. For a very few of us, it involves much smaller shifts in perspective.

How do you know which group you're in? Pay attention to the conversations you're having. If your political discussions tend to be highly partisan in nature, and to re-hash a lot of the same points again and again, the odds are pretty good that you should be playing more Mario Kart. If your political discussions tend to be had with very learned people who are experts in their field and who respond to you in long form rather than short form, then you're probably in the latter category of people who can afford to try to push the needle in a positive direction.

Push the needle in a positive direction by arguing at the margins. You'll probably never convince your friend that taxation is a form of theft, but you could probably very easily sway him to reconsider the worthiness of a new tax. You might never convince someone to change from one stance on abortion to another, but put to him a pretty good case for why a new abortion law should be tweaked slightly toward your end of the spectrum.

And if you can't, just stop talking and go play some Mario Kart instead.

2019-06-19

Economics For Your Mental Health?


I don't know why it popped up on my feed this morning, but I saw a link to two-year-old news that Instagram is the social medium that is supposedly "worst for mental health."

Of course, I have written before that I like Instagram much better than other social media, and I have surmised that one of the reasons for this is because I have curated my Instagram feed much differently than my other social media accounts. Rather than following friends and relatives on Instagram, I instead follow famous or interesting people who take photographs of things I want to see: beautiful places, cute animals, great acts of outdoor sporting, appealing fashion, and so on. If it tends to bring me joy when I see it, I'll follow it on Instagram. If it tends to upset or bore me, I won't. I don't spend a lot of time on Instagram, but whenever I use it, it gives me a smile.

The question is, why is my experience so at odds with that of the average person?

Recently, I have seen other reports about how fitness trackers make people miserable and impede their athletic progress. Meanwhile, regular readers will note that my experience with fitness trackers tends to be the exact opposite. I love them. I love Strava. I love seeing all that data, getting the kudos, seeing what kinds of workouts other people are doing, how their races went, and so on. It's wonderful.

In thinking about both of these things, I realized that there are really two different ways of seeing it.

Suppose you log on to Instagram and see a beautiful woman's photos of a beautiful life in a beautiful place, with loving friends and family, and fun happening all the time. One reaction you might have is to be happy for that woman. After all, there is a lot for her to be happy about. You could pay attention to the fun things she does and the nice photos she takes, and you could try to learn lessons to apply to your own life. Do you love all the photos she takes of the beach? Then maybe you should find more time to go to the beach. Do you love all the time she spends with her family? Then maybe you should spend more time with your family. Do you love how glamorous her photos are? Then maybe you and your friends could practice taking glamorous photos of each other. In small ways, you can learn from people who appear to be doing something right, and make your own life better at the margins. It's unlikely that you'll ever live the beautiful life of a social media influencer, but that shouldn't mean that you can't apply a few of their best successes to your own little world.

That's how I feel when I see these Instagram accounts. That's how I feel when I see people post their workouts on Strava. It encourages me, inspires me, and gives me something to learn from.

Other people, though, have another way of seeing it. To them, the fact that they'll never be able to live the glamorous life they see depicted on Instagram is a source of sadness. They want that life, they know they can't have it, and it makes them feel sad. They see someone on Strava logging 80 miles of running per week, and they lament that it can't be them. Or else, they become obsessive about logging an 80-mile week and end up hurting themselves. Anything good that they see on social media becomes a contrast to their own lives. That someone can live a fabulous life implies, in their minds, that their own lives are somehow less-worth-living.

One major difference between these two ways of seeing things is that the first way, my way, involves thinking at the margins: How can I make small changes to what I'm doing so that I can live a little better? The second way involves dichotomous thinking: My life isn't as good as theirs. Dichotomous thinking is pathological to a long list of psychological problems, most obviously depression. The more you see things as all-good or all-bad, the more any small bad thing will bother you, because it implies that everything is bad.

This makes me wonder: Do people who think at the margins - economists, and the like - fare better when it comes to their psychological wellbeing? Could it be that economic training could improve people's perspectives by training them to think less dichotomously?

I think it's worth investigating.

2019-06-18

What Do You Expect?


I love sparkling water, but the first time I tried it, it disgusted me.

I remember it vividly. I was in third grade, and we were learning about caves in science class. We were learning about how dripping mineral water forms stalactites and stalagmites. My teacher, Miss Swenson, brought in sparkling mineral water and poured it in little paper cups for each of the students to drink, so that we could learn what the mineral water in caves tastes like. I can't confirm or deny that the water in caves is anything like sparkling mineral water. This is just what happened in my third-grade class.

There was a small amount of bubbling water in a tiny paper cup sitting on my desk. It looked just like Sprite, something I had tasted many times and loved. When Miss Swenson gave us permission, I lifted the cup to my lips and drank.

Instantly, I recoiled. It tasted nothing like Sprite! It wasn't sweet at all. It was just… just… Well, I didn't like it, and that was that.

Many years later, I had a very different experience with sparkling water. I met a cool guy who owned an Italian café. He was into bikes and coffee and he liked to drink San Pellegrino mineral water. A number of our mutual friends got into drinking San Pellegrino as a sort of status symbol. You know, we don't like regular water, we like San Pellegrino.

Under these new circumstances, I had the opportunity to try sparkling water again, and this time I discovered that I liked it quite a bit. One of the reasons I liked it was that after a long run in the desert, my mouth would be dry and sticky, and I found that sparkling water had a better way of cutting through that stickiness than tap water did. Soon I became a lifelong drinker of sparkling water, although these days I drink the generic brands and save a lot of money!

My purpose in writing this is to highlight how expectations impact the quality of an experience. If your expectation of sparkling water is that it will taste like Sprite, you'll probably hate sparkling water when you taste it. If your expectation is that it's cool and tastes delicious, then you might find you rather enjoy it.

This concept extends well beyond sparkling water. I've noticed, for instance, that when people spend too much time listening to just one kind of music, they quickly lose patience with any music style that diverges from their preferred genre. I've noticed that people who expect other cars in traffic to drive in roughly the same manner they themselves do are often the ones who get most frustrated when they encounter unexpected traffic patterns. I've noticed that people who come to expect a certain kind of cityscape in their neighborhood often get the most flustered when a large community of immigrants moves in.

In some of these instances, there is some taste or difference in perspective involved. In many of them, however, most of the dissatisfaction comes from the fact that expectation and reality diverges. People don't like it when they expect one thing and see another. People instead prefer consistency. When they don't get it, they can get quite angry, and this anger translates itself into things like anger at music genres, road rage, and racism.

I hasten to add that this is not a complete explanation of all human dissatisfaction. But it is an important aspect of human nature, and you may benefit from occasionally analyzing your anger through that lens. Are you frustrated with something that is genuinely dissatisfactory, or are you merely trying to map the present set of circumstances onto an ill-fitting set of expectations?

Indeed, I think a lot of interpersonal disagreement can be attributed to the difference between expectation and reality. Many couples break up under the reasoning that one of them "changed" or that they "grew apart," and both of these descriptions reflect a set of unmet expectations. Many arguments have been had between people who absolutely do not disagree on the issue, but who instead phrase the concepts a little differently: "I vehemently disagree with the way you reached the same conclusion I reached!"

With a little concentration, we can approach every situation and every conversation as though there are no preconceived expectations for other people. You might be black, but black doesn't have to "mean something" or imply anything about our interaction. I can simply listen to what you have to say and respond to it on its merits. You might be a rock-climber, but rock-climber doesn't have to "mean something" or imply anything about our interaction.

More challengingly: You might be saying something that sounds similar to something I heard before, but that doesn't have to mean that you are saying something I have heard before. It's incumbent upon me to pay attention to exactly what you say, how it differs from what I've heard in the past, and to approach it from the context of our current discussion, rather than from the context of an old discussion I had long ago, with someone else.

I don't claim that any of this is easy, by the way.

2019-06-17

Nihilistic Accelerationism


The currently favored meme among "shitposting" alt-righters is "clown world." That sentence is packed with references that will be unknown to many, and obsolete in a year, so let's briefly unpack it.

"Shitposting" refers to the practice of making largely unserious and frequently irreverent social media posts that one wouldn't necessarily want one's family or professional colleagues to see. For example, if I wanted to inundate the world wide web with pictures of the "circle game," my family would quickly grow tired of the gag, and my colleagues would think I was puerile. But, if I create an alternate social media profile, calling myself "RyLo Ken" or something, then I can post as many lame "circle game" pictures as I want to. Voila. Shitposting. Some people post inflammatory political content on their "shitposting account," some post lots of dad jokes, some post other dumb things.

Alt-righters are an ambiguous lot of people. They are predominantly of a conservative or right-wing political bent, but where the traditional right-winger is pretty serious about traditional, conservative morality (e.g. religious-based morality and straight-laced social presentation), alt-righters are essentially reverse-accelerationists. They have come to embrace the worst aspects of fringe left-wing culture in hopes of exaggerating it and hastening its ultimate demise. The classic alt-right example of this is overt racism: alt-righters start by embracing left wing notions of identity politics and intersectionalism, and then apply those theories to white males, resulting in white supremacy. It's not clear to me whether the alt-right's point is to literally embrace white supremacy or to simply use white supremacy as a means of making identity politics so intolerable to the left that identity politics are ultimately defeated. If the alt-right were to openly state that their embrace of identity politics is all an accelerationist ruse, that would render the point moot. So the world must unfortunately wait to see whether the alt-right was ever serious about white supremacy.

This brings us to "clown world," a series of memes in which Pepe the Frog (and anyone else, really) is depicted wearing a red clown nose and a rainbow wig. I think the original clown world pictures were just intended as ambiguous jokes. I went down the rabbit hole on this a bit, and it seems like the original clown world picture was simply posted with an open-ended question, "How does this make you feel?" That makes "clown world" kind of funny. Unfortunately, since the picture involved both Pepe the Frog, which has been used in various racist ways, and rainbow colors, which are emblematic of the LGBTQ pride movement, you can guess where "clown world" eventually went.

All of this represents a sort of mean-spirited cynicism. It's one thing to troll the overly earnest, cause them to clutch a few pearls for some laughs, and then move on with your day. (I don't condone that, either, but it is at least somewhat forgivable in a merry-prankster sort of way.) It's quite another to burn the Overton Window to cinders.

To put it simply, in order to buy into the alt-right's nihilism, one pretty much has to let go of everything: not merely all of your respect for other people, but even the notion that respect for other people itself is a virtue worth pursuing. Why else would you present yourself as maybe-a-nazi? It goes beyond promoting a set of ideas and into the realm of destroying the integrity of the notion of ideas. In other words, the project is not to win arguments and defeat ideas, but to eliminate the need for having an argument at all.

For a long time, I've been wondering why this sort of thing bothers me so much, and I think I finally have the answer. Ideas are, essentially, the conceptual equivalent of civilization.  Ideas are to humanity as personal relationships are to society. They are the foundation of advanced civilization, and if we're ready to give them all up - all of them, not just the bad ones, but all of them - then we are essentially giving up on civilization itself.

And you can easily recognize this in the alt-right. Their preference is for might-makes-right, and "alpha" behavior. They don't make heroes of Einstein or Feynman, they make heroes of Patton and Caesar. Warlords, generals, chieftains… This is the kind of civilization the alt-right is aiming at, and how could it be otherwise? The end of the road to nihilism is death, destruction and abnegation. You can't build a civilization on chiefs and strongmen. No one is strong enough to build a society, in fact. We need ideas for that.

Human society existed for eons as mere tribes of chiefs and strongmen; it wasn't until we started exercising temperance, restraint of force and passion and violence that we were able to climb out of mud hovels long enough to build a thatched roof; and from there, shingles, and sideboards, and so on. The brute could never have conceived of planting seeds and caring for them for months so that the tribe could be fed for a year. The brute couldn't conceive of it because the brute deals in force, not ideas. It required temperance to reach that realization, and temperance itself is an idea. Then, just as Mises describes in his writings on higher-versus-lower-order goods, each new development cleared the path for another, greater development; one technology building on the last and enabling the next. The wheel-and-axle is not just a physical technology, it's a template for how to build a machine. It is an idea.

Ideas are what build societies, and a society without ideas is a failed state. Therefore, nihilism is, in a way, the belief in a failed state. It's the belief that none of the things we believe in long enough to make the world a better place really matters. So nihilism can only ever produce an inferior world, and the longer we cling to it, the worse the world gets, all the way to the nadir.

And, frankly, that's why the alt-right will never win.

2019-06-13

Low Expectations?

Training-wise, today I am invoking Rule #6.1 (or 6a, or however I eventually settle on nomenclating the rules) from my new and forthcoming list of healthy lifestyle rules. This will be a list I'll make available at the top of the blog next to "Find A Workout" that describes my intellectual framework for training and living healthy. The plan is to provide an accompanying blog post for each rule and sub-rule for a fully elaborated and comprehensive record of how I approach health and fitness. All for free, of course, because paying for stuff sucks. So, stay tuned.

In the meantime, I'd like to talk about a recent experience I had, and how it made me notice what has been called by others "the soft bigotry of low expectations."

While running a half marathon last Sunday, I reached a turnaround point and started running back the way I came, as per the race course. This gave slower runners behind me a chance to pass the race leaders and see how things were going.

I was in second place, behind a rather good runner who was far ahead of me. As I passed each small group of slower runners going the other direction, many of them would cheer me on. (I would have cheered them on, too, but I was out of breath and focused on my race.)

Suddenly, I heard a woman call out, "Alright! First female runner! Way to go!" Instantly I understood that the woman had seen my long hair drawn back in a ponytail and had mistaken me for a female. (Meh, what are you going to do? I imagine that nearly every man with long hair has had to deal with that a time or two.)

Now, I was running a decent race for my current level of fitness, but I was far behind the first runner and basically not going what I'd consider "fast," not even by "female standards." So, I thought to myself, why would this woman go out of her way to praise a mediocre performance just because the person happened to be female (or so she thought)?

It's likely that she was just cheering everyone on, so don't fixate too much on this lone example. I spent some time thinking about it, and I realized that society has a tendency to praise female behavior that would otherwise be seen as mediocre or even objectionable if conducted by a male.

The example that really came to mind was Captain Marvel. The truth is, I kind of liked that movie. But even though I liked it, I couldn't help but notice that if she were a male character, the movie would mostly be unremarkable. She was a big hit because she was female, and there have been many such movies in recent years; action movies, in which a strong female protagonist takes names and kicks ass.

Isn't it strange, then, that when male-character-driven action films come out, mostly people just find them silly, juvenile, and boring? Ask your romantic partner out to see the latest shoot-em-up action flick, and she'll likely say, "No thanks, let's watch something else." But if the lead character is female, I'll bet you'll get a different answer.

The problem in this case is that a desire to see strong females depicted in film is clouding our judgement. The mere fact that Rambo is a Rambi (get it?) causes some people to think that a story they would not otherwise appreciate is really something great. But the story is the same either way; the only real difference is the politics. Blech.

Somehow, this sense of politics has managed to keep the WNBA afloat all these years, but I think it's a sentiment whose time is rather limited. The true mark of gender equality will be when people view shoot-em-up films and mediocre athletic performances more or less the same way, regardless of whether the object of analysis is male or female.

Until that time comes, a lot of people will waste a lot of time forcing themselves to enjoy stuff that they don't really enjoy on its own merits.

2019-06-11

The 15:32 Special

Here's a tough workout that's not for the faint-of-heart. I call it "The 15:32 Special." The objective of the workout is to run a cumulative 5K in 15:32, i.e. five-minutes-per-mile pace.

It goes like this:

  • Warmup: 7 minutes at a relaxed pace
  • Three sets of:
    • 4 x 75 seconds at 5 min/mi pace
    • Take 60 seconds to recover between each 75-second repetition
  • Take 3 minutes to recover between each set of 4 reps
  • Cool down by running home/back to your starting point
You can also do this workout at the track; simply run 4 x 400m repeats instead of 4 x 75 seconds. I prefer the 75-second version, however, because then it's an open question as to whether you'll truly run five kilometers in 15:32.

Make sure you write down how you did, or track your performance in a running app, so that you can chart your progress over time and ensure that you're improving.

I did this workout today and found it to be difficult, but extremely rewarding.

_________________________

This workout adheres to the following principles:

  • A1 (fun)
  • A2 (no out-and-backs)
  • C1 (serves a purpose)
  • C2 (based on speed, not heart rate)
  • C3 (improves a known weakness)
  • C4 (wrote it down here and tracked on Strava)
  • C5 (hard days should be hard)
  • D1 (came prepared)
  • D4 (consistent with Precautionary Principle)

2019-06-10

Creatine Versus Mere Hydration


Here's a quick post about creatine.

Last year, after reading about some studies that found creatine consumption to be safe for diabetics, I decided to give it a try. Long story short, I subjectively determined that creatine helped me feel fresher and better-able to do my workouts. So, I stuck with it.

What does creatine do? Well, in so many words, it helps muscles retain water so that they have more ready access to ATP, i.e. energy during exercise. Because these muscles have more energy at-the-ready, every time a person exercises, each round of exercise does more good than it would under a status quo scenario. How much more good? Well, studies tend to show that body-builders who use creatine are able to build about 6% more lean muscle mass than non-users, and that the gains are real. That is, the 6% more mass doesn't go away when you stop using creatine, it appears to be a real gain.

On the label of every package of creatine, you'll see that the directions indicate that anyone taking creatine should drink extra water. That got me thinking, "Drink extra water and take this harmless substance, and you will retain more water" sure sounds a lot like, "Combine this placebo with a diet and exercise regimen to lose weight." In the latter case, the placebo obviously isn't doing the work, it's the diet and exercise that is helping a person lose weight. So, what if the former case is analogous? That is, what if creatine is a harmless placebo that evinces users to drink more water? What if you can obtain the same benefits of creatine merely by drinking more water?

I put the question to my social circle, and no one seems to be aware of any creatine studies that specifically controlled for water consumption. Never mind the fact that such a study would be extremely difficult -- every two human bodies are different and thus have different hydration requirements, so how exactly could water consumption be held constant for the purposes of the study?

If my reasoning is correct, then, at least on a personal level, athletes interested in creatine supplementation should start by increasing their water consumption and testing whether this gives them 6% more gains, plus-or-minus an acceptable error rate. If so, there is no point to taking additional creatine.

Of course, since creatine is cheap and virtually harmless, there will always be a "what if." What if good hydration improves athletic performance by a full 6%... And then creatine supplementation could increase it another 6%? Athletes who are interested in such things will always be keen on experimenting to see whether they can squeeze out a little better performance. And there are almost no downsides to using creatine.

Still, this line of thinking was enough to convince me to stop using it.