Authenticity Versus The Package-Deal

For this post, I am indebted to my sister for helping me clarify my thoughts.

One of the reasons I’ve kept up my blog over the years is because it enables me to build upon thoughts that have occurred to me before. It’s difficult to keep track of all the things you may have thought in the past, and work toward some kind of philosophical end product. Some people try, and it leads them only into endless philosophical explorations of the inherent contradictory nature of things. This isn’t an intellectual failure, it’s a byproduct of the way we choose to think of things. Look at things differently, and you can potentially solve your problem. (Assuming that that’s what you’re really interested in.)

To wit, an important piece advice for those who keep repeating the same mistake over and over again is to “write your story toward an ending.” An analogous recommendation for people and thinkers who keep getting hung up on the twists and turns of logic, and nuance, and language, and context is to start writing toward a specific theory of something. Your theory will certainly be imperfect, but you will succeed in actually improving the quality of your thoughts, and that’s worth something – if not to the world, at least to yourself. You can (and hopefully will) always make incremental improvements as you go.

Or, by analogy: You’ll never finish a drive from St. Louis to Nashville if you spend all your time muddling through the irreconcilability of the quantum and Newtonian physics required to get there. Get a car and a map and plan your journey; you might not find a unified field theory, but you’ll certainly get to Nashville.

What you are about to read builds on much of what I’ve written before. I’ve mentioned that the way a question is asked can influence a person’s reaction to that question. I’ve also written the following:

In today's world, we are inundated with gurus, marketing campaigns, media lies, and government propaganda. We regurgitate the spin we hear in our private conversations. We buy into the quick-fixes and the grading-on-a-curve and the false demonization of innocent scapegoats. All the while, we leave ourselves hungry for authenticity.

To understand what I will say below, one has to keep these things in mind: First, that framing can influence our thinking, positively or negatively, but always negatively to the extent that framing takes us further away from objective reality; Second, the ubiquitous marketing, political messaging, branding, and packaging we encounter everywhere we go has a tendency to wrap our lives in this kind of framing unless we actively resolve to ignore those messages.

Are you with me so far? Then, let’s begin.

The Urge To Compartmentalize

One of the reasons I ran afoul of the Sweet Talkers is that their rather extensive knowledge of academic philosophical theory – and my lack thereof – often made it impossible for me to present an idea to them without their having to re-frame that idea in the context of existing academic philosophy. It’s a reasonable inclination, and in fact invaluable when placing my ideas in that context improves the accuracy of my intended meaning. Sometimes, though, they just got it wrong. I’d try to say something, they’d compare it to a rather different idea, then start arguing against that different idea. When I’d object that this was not the idea I was actually talking about, they would throw up their hands in exasperation, saying, “Then I have no idea what you’re talking about.”

They were right, they didn’t know what I was talking about. It would have helped if I could have re-framed my idea in the context of academic philosophical theory, but I simply don’t have that knowledge. I’d like to have it, and so I keep reading and learning new stuff, but that doesn’t mean I should just stop trying to express my own ideas in the meantime, nor should it mean that I shouldn’t try to talk to anyone else about those ideas. Thus, another way around our impasse could have come from them: Rather than actively working to re-frame my ideas and get them wrong, they could have just listened, asked questions, and come to an understanding of those ideas outside the context of academic philosophy. I’m not clever enough to come up with totally new ideas, but if it’s going to take years of work to find out who else might have expressed the same idea, it may be quicker and easier for everyone to just pretend that it’s a new idea, and try to think through it that way, instead.

This is contrary to human nature. It’s only natural to compare new things to things we’ve seen before and draw comparisons and assumptions based on their similarity. That makes thinking more effective in a lot of cases, but it involves shutting out a lot of the data and honing in on only that which has proven to matter in the past. As Kevin Ashton writes:
Like quarterbacks, radiologists are experts in seeing things quickly. What is invisible to us is obvious to them. They can diagnose a disease after looking at a chest X-ray for a fifth of a second, the time it takes to make a single voluntary eye movement. As they become more trained, they move their eyes less until all they have to do is glance at a few locations for a few moments to find the information they need.
 This is called “selective attention.” It is a hallmark of expertise.
The bottom line is that expert-level human thinking is hard-wired to shut out certain data on grounds that this data has proven to be extraneous in the past. We bald apes have evolved to do this, it’s simply innate. Not only that, it works really well for us. The only problem is that whenever the stuff we’re ignoring turns out to be legitimately relevant, we make mistakes.

You might be a Sweet Talker, an expert in philosophical thought who has experienced good results from re-framing arguments in terms of what has been written previously. But the day you meet a Ryan who doesn’t tend to express thoughts that map well to existing patterns, you’ll misinterpret what’s being said.

This is an example, but it’s not the whole story. The point here is that humans like to detect patterns in the data we survey; we’re not usually very good at looking at a blob of data and quickly identifying relevant missing factors.

Framing: The Magic Of Marketing

Considering the fact that people detect seen patterns and ignore any data that is either missing or historically uninteresting, it comes as no surprise that the marketeers have learned to exploit this for their own gain.

A good example of this is the classic Miller Lite ad campaign that revolved around the phrase “Tastes great! Less Filling!” At a certain point in the nearly 20-year-long campaign, the television commercials ended up being a “debate” of sorts, with one set of characters arguing that Miller Lite was the best beer because it “tastes great,” and a second set of characters arguing that, on the contrary, Miller Lite was the best beer because it was “less filling.” The viewer is in on the gag: this is heads-I-win, tails-you-lose. No matter which side we take, we reach the same conclusion that Miller Lite is the best beer.

There’s nothing subtle about this, and that was by design. But marketing departments have done this sort of thing countless times. Batman vs. Superman is a debate that centers around the two most popular DC Comics characters; no matter which one you prefer, DC Comics sells more units. The cynic would even argue that modern political commentary revolves around a debate against Democrats and Republicans, whose actually implemented policies are more or less the same; i.e. the system doesn’t want to give you a real choice, they want to make sure that you think your choice is  meaningful.

This is what The Last Psychiatrist means when he says that the media doesn’t teach you what to think, it teaches you how to think. Teaching you what to think would involve an old-fashioned ad campaign like the one for Miller Lite, where the message is clear: We want you to buy Miller Lite. Teaching you how to think involves creating an arousal within you that can logically only be filled by implied product. TLP’s go-to example was the Dove beauty sketch ad campaign, but once you have a handle on the basic concept, you see it everywhere. They don’t sell you a product anymore, they sell you a lifestyle. The product just happens to be prominently displayed in the same frame as the people living the lifestyle, so the viewer concludes that the one goes with the other.

That’s why the frame is so important. If the product isn’t in the frame, then we don’t associate it to the lifestyle.

But make no mistake, this is a grift, and not always an obvious one. A far more subtle example of how marketeers use framing to manipulate you is the “compare models” link on a car manufacturer’s website. The appeal to you of such a thing is that you get to see all the specifications of a few products lined up side-by-side so that you can make a comparison across products. The con involved here is that it is the manufacturer that determines which specifications you get to compare. So you start with something like, say, engine horsepower. More power is better, right? Car A has more horsepower than Car B, so Car A must be better than Car B. Notice that this determination is made in your mind automatically, absent any context of how you will use horsepower in your day-to-day driving. The grift is complete when, while comparing two cars, you notice that they are roughly the same, but Car B gives you twice the horsepower for only $5000 more in additional cost. That’s a tiny incremental increase in your monthly car payment, and yet it’s holy crap – twice the horsepower!

So you spend an extra $5000 and double your horsepower without any real understanding of how much horsepower you actually need. Even though this feels like “making decisions on the margin,” this is actually the opposite of what classically trained economists do. What you ought to be doing is minimizing cost subject to a list of constraints. The best car for you is the one that costs the least amount of money, but still meets all your own personal requirements. You don’t really have a requirement for “double the horsepower.” You have a requirement for only a certain amount of engine power. Buying more power than you want is a waste of your money.

That thought never occurred to you when you started comparing car specifications, which is exactly the point of giving you the comparison in the first place.

The Frames Are Everywhere

Whether it’s beer, philosophy, or high-horsepower engines (sounds like a pretty great Friday night, actually…), our perspectives are constantly being shaped and altered by framing. To a great extent, this is unavoidable, but the reason I’m writing about it today is because, absent any strong effort our part, true authenticity is undermined by the framing through which we live our lives.

Think, for example, about your personal sense of clothing style. You might gravitate toward a particular “look” that you feel is “you,” but go anywhere in public and you will soon see that there are far fewer fashion “styles” than there are individuals. How individual is your sense of style, really? More to the point, how authentic is it? If all your fashion sense says about you is that you are one of a large mass of people your age and in your same geographic reason who gravitate to similar kinds of shirts, then we’re not really talking about an authentic expression of your personal style. It’s not authentic self-expression, it’s branding.

Broadly speaking, the food you tend to eat is probably similar, which explains why restaurants are categorized by “type of food.” You always know roughly what you’re going to get. Not all hamburgers are created equal, but if you go to a hamburger joint, it’s safe to say you’ll encounter few surprises on the menu. Some restaurants specialize in offering a few surprises, but even those restaurants adhere to some kind of predictable format. Only rarely do we discover a restaurant that offers an authentically unique menu.

There’s nothing wrong, of course, with wanting to follow a particular fashion trend, and always looking for authenticity in food would be totally exhausting. Not every action we ever take in life is a call to authenticity.  I list these examples only to highlight how ubiquitous the frames are. If you’re not aware of them, then you might spend a lot of time trying every Mexican restaurant you can find, looking for one that offers something unique. You might find one, eventually, but it’s much more efficient to simply ask yourself whether you just want a burrito tonight, or whether what would really make you happy this evening is to find something new in the burrito game.

That’s what we’re after when we pursue authenticity. We’re not looking to avoid all branding, we’re simply pausing to be mindful of our desires. The first step is to just identify what makes you happy. If you’re a Hamburger Guy, then going to a Michelin-rated hotspot won’t satisfy your needs.

But the second step is where things get really interesting. That’s when you stop seeing yourself as a Hamburger Guy, or as someone who follows Michelin ratings, and you just close your eyes in a quiet room and think about what you feel like eating. Forget about the advertisements, forget about food “styles,” forget about the imagery, and just follow your taste buds. What are they telling you?

It’s Not Easy, But It’s Worth It

This level of mindfulness – pausing to shut out prior narratives and make a deeper inquisition about your needs – is actually very easy. It’s something we all do when we research things we know very little about.

If you’ve never been interested in gardening before, and you decide to look into what it takes to make a nice garden in your back yard, you’ll likely be less swayed by branded gardening products and formal schools of thought than you will be twenty years later, when you’ve become fully invested in gardening as a hobby. Initially, you’ll be searching for information on the stuff you need for gardening. You guess you might need a shovel, and some seeds, and some fertilizer, and some water… the guy at the hardware store might successfully talk you into a particular shovel, but your mind won’t automatically go there. You’ll probably ask the guy, “Okay, but what makes this shovel better than that cheaper one over there?” Maybe the galvanized metal on the more expensive shovel is important to you in your gardening hobby. Or maybe the cheaper shovel is all you need. When you first start out, you’re not interested in the aspiratioinal shovel, you’re only interested in the one that will do what you need done. That’s authenticity.

But we’re not beginners forever (or at least, hopefully not). Over time, we gain expertise, and that means we start to engage in precisely the kind of “selective attention” Kevin Ashton was telling us about. Supposing we actually do end up liking the galvanized metal shovel better, then the next time we see shovels for sale, we might think, “P’shah, who’d buy that one? It’s not even galvanized…” You might even get caught up in replacing all your garden implements with properly galvanized ones. To be sure, your gardening accessories will all have a consistent look and feel, but will this actually make your garden grow better? What end are you serving when you buy this stuff? If the end is to have the best gardening products, then have at it, but if your end is to have the tastiest tomatoes you’ve ever eaten or to enjoy the satisfaction of working the soil of your own land then my advice is to focus on that and forget about the shovel per se.

As it is with gardening, so it is with life. Being properly mindful of our activities helps us come to an understanding of what really makes us happy. Serving our own personal happiness the best we can is the real goal here. The things we buy, the things we wear, the books we read, are only in the service of that happiness.

I think Sweet Talkers would have been happier interacting with me if they had put their purpose in philosophical inquiry in mind when they talked things out with me, rather than just fitting the discussion to a particular form and pulling the trigger. The conversation certainly would have been more authentic.

I think you will be happier in your own life if you make your own personal desires and objectives the focal point of your actions. If you’re not getting the results you want, that might mean that you need to change your actions, not just the stuff you take action against. Change your verbs, not your direct objects. If you want to drive a screw, you have to stop hammering and start screwing.

That, to me, is what authenticity is all about.

Theory And Practice, Episode Three

Originally published on SweetTalkConversation.com.

Maybe it was a bad idea to cite an acerbic guy like Lubos Motl. When a guy says that a lot of questions are just stupid, that’s not exactly “sweet talk.” Motl has an important point, but I won’t defend his tone.

He did take the time to outline exactly what he means when he says “stupid questions,” and not only does that definition not apply to Adam, it is also fully consistent with the Gadamer quote Adam gave us. In fact, I am as surprised that Adam would quote an argument in favor of authentic dialogue as a response to a criticism of inauthentic questions as I was when Samuel quoted a Situationist to critique my endorsement of Situationism.

Clearly there is a gap between what I think I’m saying and the message I actually manage to convey. And clearly this gap is caused by me because it keeps happening, and I am the common denominator. Motl might be wrong for his aggressive tone, but at least he gets his point across. No such luck for me. Even when my fellow Sweet Talkers agree with me, they think they disagree.

Still, it was a little disheartening to see Adam call-out Motl on free will. Adam notes that Motl does not appear to have bothered to consult the SEP‘s entry on free will. But I did – and guess what I noticed: the entry does not include any discussion of the Free Will Theorem discussed by Motl in his post, despite the fact that the Theorem is directly relevant to the philosophy of free will. This oversight is a major validation of Motl’s point. Did Adam read about the Theorem before he wrote his last post?

I also find it to be somewhat of a weak argument against my claims to stick me with an -ism or two and then argue against those -isms rather than any of my claims.

Maybe we can all improve the authenticity of our dialogue.

Well, I’ll answer Adam’s questions as clearly and authentically as I can, and I hope I won’t disappoint the reader too much by not giving you this:

The Rapid-Fire Questions

Is mine a philosophy of “scientism?” No. I never meant to suggest that science is the only valid form of inquiry. I feel bad about having given that impression. However, I don’t think Adam is taking Motl’s criticism seriously enough. Some “problems” are only problems because the language by which they have been formulated is ambiguous. I have mentioned this before. The Free Will Theorem I cited above, along with its philosophical implications, is a good example of what I believe to be a better way forward. Does Adam disagree?

Is “scientism” the reason I think morality ought to be grounded in psychology? No. The reason I think so is because I think morality and philosophy ought to make human beings measurably happier and more mentally healthy than they otherwise would be. Those things just so happen to fall under the umbrella of psychology.

Is mine a philosophy of pragmatism? No, at least not in the formal sense. As I mentioned in my comment to Adam (and in Episode One), all I’m really saying is that she who gives a beggar a dollar for utilitarian reasons is no less moral than she who does so for eudaimonic reasons. If Adam feels otherwise, I would love to know his reasons.

What do I suppose I’m doing?, What do I believe the scientific method is?, Has anyone ever done this other kind of inquiry? I hope my answers to the previous questions clear these questions up, too. I will only point out that these are not authentic questions in the sense that Gadamer would mean.

The Real Meat

Adam’s final three questions should have been his first three, because they are the most important questions he asks. I’d like to spend a little more time on these.

Question #3:

I’ll start with this third question, but I am going to rephrase it in light of my answers above. Adam writes, “What is the difference between the reasoning done to arrive at the scientism-pragmatism position, and the reasoning that is being rejected as unscientific?” My rephrasing is as follows: What is the difference between the reasoning done to arrive at my position and the reasoning done to arrive at, e.g. Adam’s position?

My answer: Nothing. In my framework, the reasoning is irrelevant, only the outcome matters. You are what you do, that is all you can ever be.

I’m trying to decide how best to describe this. Let me try it this way: If I am a knave, I hope that Adam will not give me a free pass just for having well-thought-out philosophical justifications for my behavior. In the end, knaves are knaves.

That much is intuitive enough, but there’s a flip-side: If Adam is a moral person (and he is), he doesn’t get “extra credit” for having an airtight intellectual moral framework. To the people in his life, it matters only that he is a good person. His family won’t disown him if they find out that he is a good-but-philosophically-inconsistent person. I can’t speak for them, but I can tell you that my family has a good laugh at all the time I invest in philosophy. In the end, it doesn’t really matter to them how I think, it only matters what I think. Even then, what I think isn’t nearly as important as what I do. This was one of the points made in that other post I linked to, from The Last Psychiatrist, who also happens to write in many of his posts that “you are what you do.”

(The other important point made there is relevant to something Samuel pointed out in his post. A lot of our thoughts are really just defense mechanisms against mental change. When that’s true, it’s often better to just bypass the thoughts entirely and focus on the actions, the results. Sound familiar?)

So, in a funny way, if Adam finds my ideas totally unpersuasive and unappealing, and goes about living his life as a great eudaimonist, and this makes him happy and sane and prosperous and healthy, not only can he claim a victory, but so can I

Question #1

Adam’s first good question was “How do we determine what counts as ‘getting results’?” I like the way I addressed this in my comment: When doctors want to treat pain, they show their patients a picture and ask them to point:

A similar approach can be used for moral and psychological well-being: the closer you are to “0,” the more we can say you’re getting good results; the closer you are to “10,” the worse your philosophy is. And because moral behavior affects other people, we consider their moral and psychological well-being, too. So, really, the closer you and everyone you affect is to 0, the better your philosophy; the closer you all are to 10, the worse your philosophy.

Any more specific determination of “getting results” would do a worse job of getting those results. I reiterate: the rationale does not matter, only the actions, only the results. So it doesn’t matter that we don’t define it any more specifically. The way you feel about things, actions, deeds, etc. might be subjective, but the fact that you feel that way is not. While this seems like a radically subjective point of view, it’s actually as close as we can get to an objective standard of morality. I don’t need to know the ins-and-outs of your preferences in order to know what kind of moral behavior will help you achieve them. We can measure your success by the extent to which you do achieve them and the extent to which doing so moves you closer to 0 than 10.

Question #2

Now we get to Adam’s second question, which to me is the last question. “What is it about psychology that makes its conclusions more trustworthy than moral philosophy?”

Adam is used to thinking philosophically, and moral philosophy is prescriptive in nature – especially Adam’s eudaimonism. Eudaimonism prescribes virtues by which to live, rules which produce virtue, i.e. moral behavior, if followed correctly, and immorality if followed incorrectly or ignored. Because of this, I can understand why he would be suspicious of a system that uses psychological findings to prescribe actions to us which must be followed. What puts a psychologist in a better position than a philosopher to call behavior moral or immoral?

If I’m correct about Adam’s thinking, then his suspicion is a little off-base. Psychology doesn’t provide us with a prescriptive list of acceptable vs. unacceptable behaviors, so we need not worry that its prescriptions aren’t valid. Psychology only provides descriptions of human behaviors and establishes cause-and-effect relationships between those behaviors and our feelings. (Psychology also provides insight into physical abnormalities of the brain and therapeutic options available to those experiencing them, but that is of course less useful for informing our moral conduct.)

Nor am I suggesting that we match up all our behaviors with “happiness research.” To be sure, if research finds certain things produce happiness reliably, we ought to pay attention, but it would be an odd way to approach happiness to go searching for it in the clinical literature!

To wit, psychology can’t tell you that heading straight for your bottle of Glenlivet every day after work is an immoral thing to do, but it can tell you that doing so is associated with disruptions in family life. It can’t tell you that having a drink now is a sin, but it can tell you that if you happen to notice that your drinking is bothering the other people around you, you might consider a cup of coffee instead. All I’m saying is, look at the chart, point out how your behavior is making you and other people feel, and then decide whether it’s scotch or iced tea tonight.

Take note of how this differs from moral philosophy. There is no discussion of the virtue of whiskey, or the concept of moderation, or the value of principles in theory. There are no principles to abide by. There are merely choices and outcomes. What outcome do you want? Okay, then make the choice that corresponds to that outcome. Maybe having a drink is exactly what you want to do right now, and maybe it has no adverse impact on your mental health or anyone else’s. Then have that drink. But maybe while you’re having that drink your wife is in the other room reading Fifty Shades of Grey and wondering when was the last time you two slept on satin sheets. If so, then you have to choose not to have that drink if you want to experience the outcome associated with that choice.

This sounds like common sense becuase it is common sense. You could reach the same conclusion by maxing your U subject to vector C, but why do all that when you can just point to the right smiley face and act accordingly?

In theory, complex moral philosophy unlocks a higher truth; in practice, Occam’s Razor trims the fat. And here’s the crux of it: So long as I’m getting the same results you are, who’s to say I’m wrong? If you find this approach more problematic than eudaimonism, for example, then there must be some reasoning that establishes why. I’d love to hear it.

The goal in a morality governed by psychology is not to balance a list of virtues or adhere to a deontology or to maximize global utility. Instead, the goal is to make personal choices that reward you with more happiness. (That’s long-term happiness, champ. You don’t get to spend all your time on hookers and blow “because it makes you happy.” Twenty years from now, your arteries are going to shatter, and that’s also part of the calculus here.) More zeroes and fewer tens, more smileys and fewer frownies.

Does this make me an adherent of “pragmatism,” or “scientism,” or does it mean I am condemning all philosophy as worthless? These suggestions are strange and surprising to me. I’m suggesting that we arrive at moral conclusions based on what actually works and makes us happy – anyone who offers an approach based on any other criteria is, in my view, missing the point of moral philosophy. We’re not here to develop clever reasoning, we’re here to be happy.


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.


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.


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.


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!


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.


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.


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. 


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.


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.


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.