2017-08-21

The Steve Vai Trick

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


2017-08-07

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


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

The critics could not be more wrong.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

2017-08-04

When I Go

I.

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

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

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

II.

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

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

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

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

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

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

III.

This brings me to what I have learned instead.

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

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

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

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

IV.

So, all this stuff got me thinking.

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

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

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

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

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

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


Then my tired bones can rest in peace.

2017-07-31

I Like Marmite

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

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

Enter: Marmite. 

Image courtesy Wikipedia.org

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

2017-07-26

Do More Good

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

2017-07-24

The Best Advice I Never Followed

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

2017-07-05

Antisocial Media

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

2017-06-23

What My Body Has Been Saying

Not long ago (whoa, it's been two months already?), I wrote a blog post about listening to my body, figuring out what my fitness weak-links were, and designing a workout regimen to correct them. Designing this workout regimen was a good exercise (pun intended) in thinking critically about my workout philosophy and my real-world results, and attempting to improve, not just from a "how many push-ups can I do" perspective, but also from a "how do I keep my body injury-free" perspective.

That was then, this is now. It's been some time, so I thought I should probably provide an update on how well that's been going.

Let's Review

In brief, I went from a P90X-in-the-mornings-and-running-in-the-afternoons workout regimen to something more specific to me. 

I went from twice-daily workouts to twice-daily-every-other-day-and-once-daily-every-other-day workouts. That is, I run every day, and I also do calisthenics every-other-day. So about half the time I workout twice-daily and the rest of the time I simply go for a daily run. 

It's not that I don't want to workout twice-daily every day, it's just that I can't do calisthenics every day, or else my muscles will tire. P90X gets around this nuance by interspersing plyometics, yoga, and stretch days along with the strength training days. The non-strength days allow the muscles to recover from the strength training days. I've eliminated the plyo and yoga aspects of my training regimen, and so I end up with more recovery days - at least as far as strength training is concerned.

My calisthenics workouts involve push-ups, pull-ups, and abdominal exercises, along with some walking, some arm-circles, and some jumping jacks. As such, they are "full body" workouts, which means I definitely can't do them every single day. 

Yoga is an absolute waste of my time, and I'm glad to be rid of it. 

Plyometric training is something I miss, but I don't believe I can reincorporate it into my regimen until I have adequate abdominal strength.

Stretching, interestingly enough, is something I do more now than ever before. Instead of the once-a-week, hour-long stretch session that I was getting with P90X, I now stretch 2-3 times per day, for about 15 minutes each time.

The Results

Results over the past two months have been mostly positive. 

I suffered a two-week period over which my back pain was the most excruciating it has ever been. I hobbled around and stretched futilely before rediscovering my foam roller. With regular use of the foam roller, my back has returned to 90% of full capacity. Combined with the stretching regimen I've taken on, my muscles now feel looser and more agile than they ever have, at least in my adult years. Good decision. 

I lost some training time to the back injury and fell a little behind on my running, but I've been able to turn that around, too. Now I'm running reasonably quickly and putting in decent miles. I'd like to run more, but we're entering the hottest part of the year in Texas, and that heat can take its toll. In general, once it gets this hot, you have to choose any two of the following: (a) Run fast, (b) Run daily, (c) Run far. I've chosen to run fast and daily. My mileage has declined some.

My strength has increased rather dramatically. Even while doing P90X, I couldn't seem to do more than about 10 pull-ups per set. I've now worked my way into the teens for most styles of pull-ups and can now do more corn cob pull-ups than ever before.


Where Do I Go Next?

Having said all this, I don't feel like a superhero right now. It's not that I feel bad (I don't), it's just that I'm missing that amazing feeling I had when I was running and doing P90X at the same time. I feel fit and healthy. I feel strong and flexible. But I don't have that extra "something." 

Part of the reason might simply be that I'm not doing two workouts every single day. Perhaps one of the reasons I felt so strong in February was the fact that I would jump out of bed at four o'clock in the morning, every morning, and start working out. Even though I wasn't putting in very many running miles, the mere ritual of always knowing that my workout was a few hours away may have conferred a lot of psychic benefits. And surely there were physical benefits as well.

Another reason is the lack of plyometric training. Longtime readers will know that I have been a passionate advocate of plyometric trianing since I read Sean Burch's amazing book, Hyperfitness. I firmly believe that plyometrics is the secret to feeling not just good but amazing. It's that special added ingredient that can take your training to the next level. Still, it's a challenging way to train and it placed a high burden on my back. So I won't get back to it until I feel that my abs are ready for it.

While my posture has improved, I think I have a ways to go. I'm glad that my pull-ups numbers are increasing, but I intend to get the up further still. I think 20-25 pull-ups per set is a reasonable target for a guy like me.

I think adding a morning run on my "off" days is also an important thing to do. First, this is an extra 10-20 miles per week, and that's sure to make me feel good. Second, it will keep my routine up. Third, it will give me an opportunity to run in cooler temperatures. And finally, it will give me some workout flexibility. For example, I might choose to make Fridays a "plyometrics day," as I used to do a couple of years ago. I'd need gym equipment for that, but if I run in the morning, then I'll have the ability to hit the gym during the lunch hour. I'd still be running daily, but I'd also have added plyo. 

All that is to say that my more personalized training approach has paid off for me, but there is still lots of room for improvement, and that's what I'll be doing for the next little while.

2017-06-19

I Have Two Things To Say

The first is, yes, I'm still here.

The second is, check out this awesome comment from a recent EconLog post:
I wish economists/sociologists would stop running a linear regression on ordinal outcome variables. A 0.56 decrease on a 4 point-scale doesn't mean anything because the scale is ordinal and saying such-and-such leads to a 0.56 decrease is treating it as cardinal. The reason why you can't do that is because a trust level of 2 does not reflect twice as much trust as a trust level of 1.
This comment demonstrates advanced understanding of statistics, the kind that wards off mistaken conclusions, the kind that I wish were more common among numerate people. 

2017-05-22

Do You Have The Same Problem I Have?

When I woke up this morning, all my muscles were burning as though I'd just finished a fast run. I got ready for work as usual, but a part of me worried that my blood sugar was just incredibly high. (My muscles often burn if I wake up with high blood sugar.) When I checked it before breakfast, though, it wasn't.

Throughout the morning, my muscles were stiff and sore. I spent a little time stretching them, but the simple fact of the matter is that they just felt tired and sluggish. When I finally set out for my run today - in which I intended to run a moderate seven miles, with a 6:45-per-mile pace target - my muscles felt stiff. Oddly enough, though, I felt like my running cadence was about what it should have been.

Two miles into my run, I checked my watch and noted that my pace was a fair bit slower than my target pace. My legs had loosened-up a little bit, but they were still struggling. By the third mile split, I had to come clean with myself: I was tired.

At this point, I had a choice. Option A was to slow down a bit and use the remainder of my run as a recovery run, to save myself for tomorrow's speed workout. Option B was to somehow power through. I wanted to choose Option B, so I gave myself a little burst of speed to see if I could shock myself into running a little faster. That's when I noticed what the problem was.

I don't know how to put it into words, exactly, but I'll try.

Sometimes, when I am consciously trying to run a little faster, I have a tendency to "bound" a little bit with my stride. I'll take big, long, leaping strides. It certainly is a bit faster, but it comes at a high cost: It's an extremely inefficient running form.

Of course, in the heat of the moment, I don't realize what I'm doing. I think I'm just "striding out" to run a little faster. I don't realize that what I really need, especially when I'm tired, is to shorten my stride and quicken my cadence. I need to make efficiency gains so that I can run a little faster at the same level of energy expenditure. I need to improve my running economy.

Once I noticed my problem, I quickly corrected it and, as you can see from the Strava widget adjacent to this blog post, I came in a few seconds per mile under my target pace. But it took some effort, it required that I correctly diagnose my problem and apply the right fix.

Naturally, the more a runner does this sort of thing, the better he or she gets at running in the future. As I continue to run faster over the ensuing weeks, I'll certainly find myself in many more situations in which my legs feel tired, but mostly because of bad form. In those situations, I'll need to apply a fix like I did today.

Maybe some of this resonates with you, too. So the next time you get out there and your legs are tired, try to find any obvious inefficiencies in your form. It just might save your workout.

2017-05-18

Don't Follow My Way

With all the great musicians we’ve lost over the last couple of years, you may have noticed that I haven’t been among those music bloggers who feel inclined to write eulogies or to mourn the loss of our heroes.

One reason for this is because I don’t feel that I have much to say on that level. I did not know any of these great artists personally, so in many ways I feel that a eulogy coming from me would be inappropriate and disingenuous; selfish, even. Let their loved ones write the moving tributes, and let the rest of us consume those tributes as we consumed the music – as spectators and onlookers and fans, not as participants.

Still, there is another reason I don’t like to write about this stuff.

I am an amateur musician. As such, I have the opportunity to play in music clubs regularly. I see the fans, I see the club owners, the promoters, the producers, the other musicians. I’m in touch with the community of people we call musicians. When one of these tragedies occurs, I can’t help but take a step back and examine the community. Many of these people, despite their enormous talent and big hearts, cannot make lives for themselves outside of music. They can’t hold down a regular job, they get deeply mixed up in drugs, they struggle with mental illnesses. They’re a mess. They often can’t pull it together for themselves. Even when some of them do, they often end up selling all their instruments and swearing off music entirely. There’s something pathological, sick, and obsessive about their relationship to music. I can’t always tell whether it’s music that sucks them into a hole or if they were only ever going to end up in a hole in the first place, and music was just part of the process.

It’s startling to me. For me, music and art are wonderful supplements to life. They enhance our experiences and offer us a kind of experiential motif to try on for a while. In my mind, however, it’s always a temporary thing. There is suspension of disbelief involved.

I can belt out the lyrics to “Black Hole Sun” in my car on the way to work as a sort of musical story about the end of the world, not as a true reflection of my own thoughts. I can tear up to the lyrics of the saddest songs in my music collection because they tell sad tales, not because I identify with those lyrics. Music is my TV, my movies, my books. Music is the place I go to experience life for another angle – but just as long as the song is playing. After that, I go back to my own life, a happy life where things have gone right more often than they’ve gone wrong.

When I write music, it’s about exploring what my mind is capable of. Perhaps one could argue that I’m insufficiently passionate about the music I write. Maybe that’s a problem. Even so, the fun and the beauty of music when I write it is about being able to imagine something that doesn’t yet exist, and then bring it into the world exactly as I want it to be. I like to get lost in that moment, in that ability to craft a sonic landscape that reflects my imagination.

But it doesn’t reflect my pain, my struggles, my misery. I am not on my way down, I am not headed toward the bottom of a hole. In music, I have found a way to stimulate my imagination, and explore a set of wonderful motifs.

As a result, it’s sad for me to think of all that positivity and then compare it to the lives and struggles of people who never tapped into that. Instead, they were too troubled to tap into anything so transient and temporary. They made music that reflected their lives, and even if they achieved great success, their mental world has often been dark and troublesome.


I will miss the joy that these many great people could have brought into my life, had they only lived a little longer, but I will not miss their pain. I hope that in their final moments they were able to find peace.

2017-05-17

Call Out Your Pace

If you follow me on Strava (and why wouldn’t you?), then you may have already noticed that lately I have been including my target pace along with my activity description. For example, today, I ran about seven miles, trying to target a 6:50-per-mile running pace. In actuality, I ran a bit faster than that, averaging 6:41 per mile. This isn’t totally unusual for me, since I tend to look at target paces as being “about that fast, but no slower.”

But never mind that. The question of the day is, Why am I suddenly announcing my target pace? What does that do for me, as a runner? There are a couple of reasons.

First, some of my followers on Strava have asked me questions about how I train. By explicitly announcing what my target pace was for the run, those followers can take a look at my performance, compare it to my intended performance, and gain some insight into how I train. Adding this information should be beneficial to them, or at least I hope it is.

Second, inspired by some of those same Strava followers (check out this guy, a true inspiration), I’ve been making a concerted effort to train more like a runner lately, and less like a schmo who goes running every day. Having recently been running as slow as 7:15 per mile – virtually unheard of in my history as a runner – I’ve reached a point where I’d like to speed my pace up a bit, feel more like a runner, act more like a runner, be faster, be fitter. This means I need to start running more mindfully. If I go into a workout knowing that, although it is merely a recovery run, my target pace is 6:50 per mile, I’m less inclined to slack off. It also enables me to make marginal improvements on my pace. Last week, I targeted a recovery pace of 6:52 per mile; this week, I’m down to 6:50. Over time, I’d like my “on” days to be under 6:00 per mile, and my “off” days to be… well, perhaps in the neighborhood of 6:30. (I hesitate to put hard numbers here because I’m not really sure how fast I can expect to run anymore. It’s been many years since I attempted to be a fast runner.)


Anyway, keep watching my target pace. Hopefully it, and my actual running pace, will start to come down over time. Who knows? I might even start to run fast again.

2017-05-05

I Take The Stairs


When I arrive at work every day, I park on an upper level of the parking garage and I take the stairs down to the door of my office building. I think walk to the stairwell and take the staircase up several stories to my employer’s office and sit at my desk. My employer occupies multiple floors of the same building, and when I need to talk to someone on another floor, I use the stairs to get there. When I’m finished, I walk back to my desk the same way I came. At lunch, I walk down the stairs to the garage entrance, then up the stairs and back to my car, which I drive to the gym. This process repeats itself as I return to work in the afternoon and through to the end of the work day.

I take the stairs. I could use the elevator, but I don’t.

When people see me walking to the stairwell, they ask if I’m going to take the stairs. I smile and say yes. They take the elevator. We part ways and meet up on the other floor. We tend to arrive at about the same time.

People often extend kudos to me for taking the stairs. “Good job, Ryan!” “Do you take the stairs when you get in to work every morning? You do? That’s awesome!” “It’s great that you take the stairs every day, Ryan.”

Sometimes, people even say, “I should take the stairs!” But they seldom do, and when they do, it’s only to join me just that one time. Others don’t make a habit of taking the stairs, even when they seem to express a willingness and desire to do so. As they walk up the stairs, they lean heavily on the hand rail or press down hard on their thighs with each step. After walking up a flight or two of stairs, they pant for air and say, “Woo!” in a tired declaration of their efforts.

I am not a special person for taking the stairs. I hardly think about it anymore. Granted, when I started taking the stairs every day, it was a bit harder than it is now. My leg muscles burned a bit and I, too, would breathe heavily when finished. But that didn’t last long. After a while, it was just a force of habit. Walking up and down several flights of stairs is no more taxing to me than walking anywhere else. It's just a staircase to me. I don’t use the staircase to be special or because it’s a physical challenge or because I am Hercules.

Why did I choose to make taking the stairs a habit? Well, the added daily steps seem to work well for my blood sugar, but that effect has long since passed now that taking the stairs is just a several-times-daily occurrence for me. I’m not a particularly environmentally conscious person, but if using the stairs costs me little time or effort, I don’t necessarily understand why I should use a big energy-consuming machine. And not needing to rely on that machine appeals to my sense of asceticism.

But it’s no big deal, anyway. It’s just the stairs. I don’t understand why more people don’t take the stairs. I don’t understand why more people don’t take a walk. I don’t understand why more people don’t ride their bikes places instead of taking cars.

I take the stairs. You might want to try it, too. But if not, no biggie. It’s just the stairs.

2017-05-03

Editor Wanted

For reasons known only to them, a subset of authors from Sweet Talk Conversation have elected to start a new blog - which almost looks like a publication - called Liberal Currents. Whether it is mere coincidence that the color scheme of that new blog is identical to the color scheme of Canada's NDP or indicative of their new found land... er, policy preferences... I can't really say.

What I can say is that the site desperately needs an editor.

It's not unusual for casual bloggers to make spelling mistakes, to misuse words, to make wild claims unsupported by formal citation or evidentiary reasoning, but many of the people involved in the Liberal Currents project write things for a living, and as I said above, the website looks like it is trying to be some sort of online publication. If they intend for this blog to be worth anything, though, they need an editor, and badly.

In the site's most recent article, Ashish George - whose byline claims that he is a writer, so I can only assume he means a writer by profession or at least a writer who wishes to be taken seriously as a writer - writes a number of startling things that any good editor could have prevented.

Near the beginning of the article, George writes, "But the managerial approach to policy in vogue with the upper echelons of the Democratic Party is ill-suited to thinking in terms of systematic change." How does he know that the "upper echelons of the Democratic Party" favor a "managerial approach to policy?" Who are the people who make up those upper echelons, and what specifically about their views suggests that they favor such an approach? And for what specific reasons are their views "ill-suited to" systematic change or that other approaches are superior? George never says.

Now, to be clear, I'm not claiming that George is making incorrect claims, I'm claiming that we have no way of knowing whether his claims are incorrect because he hasn't bothered to cite reasons for saying what he says. He simply puts it out there.

Similarly, George claims that
[T]he homogeneity of libertarians permits them to take for granted many assumptions about how the world works that emerge out of a lack of testimonial evidence from people of different backgrounds and an overconfidence in the ability of raw intelligence by itself to surmount all challenges.
How does he know - or why should his readers believe - that it is homogeneity specifically (I think he means demographic homogeneity, ie. white and male) that causes libertarians to take their assumptions for granted or to be over-confident in raw intelligence? Again, George never bothers to say.

Moreover, on the topic of basic editing, how does "taking an assumption for granted" differ from "taking something on assumption?" What does it even meant to take an assumption for granted? What else does one do with an assumption?

Later, George claims that "The politically powerful—Bill Clinton, Donald Trump, Betsy DeVos, Tom Price—have advocated or implemented policies without internalizing the experiences of the disabled."How does he know this, or why would he make this claim? What ex ante reason do I have to believe that George knows what Bill Clinton has or has not internalized? What an incredibly odd claim to make about the thoughts of people George does not know personally.

Some of George's other claims are just plain lazy rhetoric. For example, he writes, "In order to fully integrate disabled people into American life, libertarians need to jettison their ideal..." It is not clear - nor anywhere justified in the article - why disabled people's integration into American life is reliant on 11% of the American population "jettisoning" their ideals. It isn't clear to me, nor is it presented in the article, why the 11% of Americans who describe themselves as libertarians are so powerful that their ideals alone are preventing disabled people from fully "integrating" into American life. This claim might be true, for all I know, but from whence does the author make it?

More likely, though, the author just didn't spend adequate time writing that paragraph. What he likely means is that, to whatever extent libertarians uphold an able-bodied, independent person as an ideal, their vision for an American policy landscape is unreflective of the differently abled. As you can see, though, that's a far less spunky statement. It acknowledges that George's perception of what a libertarian idealizes might not be accurate of all libertarians, and it weakens his stance from being that people with disabilities aren't integrated into American life to being merely that they're not involved in an able-bodied person's mere fantasy about that.

And this, of course, strikes at the problem with George's principle complaint, which is not that the disabled are victims of a real, tangible, physical injustice, but merely that they suffer a psychic harm from not being at the top of everyone else's mind. I think we all know what kind of person feels harmed by not being forefront in other people's thoughts, but I won't go there right now.

The reason I won't go there is because it's hard to criticize a person's ideas when they can't even use words correctly. Toward the end of the article, George writes, "Kerala’s communists and Washington’s libertarians won’t agree on much, but they are both complicit in hermeneutical injustice..." He probably doesn't mean that these two groups are complicit. More likely, he means only that both groups have contributed in some way to the supposed "hermeneutical" injustice faced by the disabled population.

Still, if he did mean complicit, then that would require some sort of citation of evidence. In fact, this would be big news!

It is understandable that someone very passionate about an issue close to them would get a bit carried away when writing an article about that issue. The author has clearly invested a lot of time and effort in writing this piece. A more serious round of editing would not only prevent the obvious mistakes from reaching the readers of Liberal Currents, but would also do justice to the author's own work and point of view by taking it more seriously.

Now, look, I know Stationary Waves isn't a bastion of great editing and thorough citations. But on the other hand, I've never promoted myself as a professional writer, a serious thinker, or anyone other than just some guy who started a blog. On the few occasions I have written for formal publications, my writing has been subjected to multiple rounds of thorough editing, and my work was much the better for it. 

2017-04-25

Listening To My Body And Then Some

Lately I’ve been in the mood to design my own workout regimen… again. (You may have noticed that I sometimes do this.)

This time around, the theme is listening to my body. If you’ve been following along with my sporadic 2017 posts, you know that I’ve been running a lot and also doing P90X. However, after pulling a calf muscle and then sidelining myself with a lower-back injury of some kind – all within a two-month time frame – I had to do some soul-searching and admit to myself that the fitness regimen I was working with was inadequate for my needs. It’s true that I felt like a super-hero while I was injury-free, but those injuries couldn’t have just come out of nowhere.

Now, the temptation here is to rush to the knee-jerk conclusions: Ryan took on too much, or P90X is “too difficult.” But those kinds of conclusions aren’t any more helpful than stubbornly insisting that my injuries are random and unrelated to my fitness regimen. If I’m going to be smart about this, I’d better approach things with a level head.

Yesterday, I took the liberty of doing just that, and the results were as follows:


Confronting My Reality

It’s time I finally acknowledged some of the shortcomings of my fitness regimen. After all, it seems like every time I try to get serious about training for a race, I pull a muscle. While I don’t think it’s possible to avoid absolutely every injury or physical setback, if there are enough common threads in the onset of setbacks, it’s time to confront your stubborn illusions, overcome them, and learn from the experience.

To wit, the fact that lower back pain and calf injuries have been such a ubiquitous presence in my training life for so many years suggests the presence of a persistent problem that I am not fully addressing. I intend to address that now, so let’s discuss.

I’ll start with the lower back pain. Lower back pain is somewhat common among runners, especially among runners who seldom lift weights. The typical source of the problem is inadequate abdominal strength. That’s a hard pill to swallow for a guy who’s doing “Ab Ripper X” every-other-day, but it is what it is. While herniated discs can happen somewhat “at random,” recurring back pain that gets worse from exercise is not a random event. An ideal-for-Ryan training regimen will include a lot better care for the abdominal muscles.

One smart thing I did while I was injured was scheduling an appointment with a massage therapist. I’m a chiropractic skeptic, but I am a big fan of massage therapy, especially when the therapist is experienced and knowledgeable. After just one 50-minute session, I felt much, much better. My massage therapist helped me identify some tension in my lower leg that had gone unnoticed; namely, in the dorsiflexion of my feet. As per her explanation, insufficient dorsiflexion puts excess pressure on the calf muscle through the connecting tendon. The resulting tension in the calf muscle can cause undue tension in the hamstring, and that hamstring tension can impact the lower back. (The ankle bone’s connected to the shin bone, the shin bone’s connected to the knee bone…)

I’ll admit that it sounds a little far-fetched to suggest that insufficient flexibility in my ankle caused my back injury, but the truth is that her explanation mirrored my experience to a T. When I broke my running streak, it was because I suddenly felt my lower calf muscle tear. The next day, I realized that it wasn’t just my calf muscle, but also a region near the top of my glute. Within a few weeks, my lower back was giving me trouble. Logically speaking, it all seems quite connected.

This means that I now have two major weaknesses to work on: abdominal muscle strength and flexibility in the leg and foot.

That covers my recent injuries, but I have more than just those two problems. One problem – which seems to be genetic, as it is visibly apparent in my father, and was visibly apparent in my grandfather as well – is that weak back and shoulder muscles cause my posture to fall forward a bit too much. This can sometimes result in neck and shoulder pain, but even when it does, it looks unhealthy. The right way to deal with this is to strengthen my back and shoulder muscles to help offset it.

With that, I have a list of three primary weaknesses I want to offset with my future fitness regimen: Abdominal strength, upper back and shoulder strength, and overall flexibility.

Designing My Solution

Now that I know what I need, it’s time to think about how best to address my needs.

Thinking first about abdominal strength, let’s consider how best to approach this. Because my lower back a weakness of mine, I’m going to have to consciously avoid abdominal exercises that put excessive strain on the spine – at least until I can build up the necessary strength. So, more planks and fewer sit-ups, and if I choose to do leg raises or hip raises, I should do the versions of those exercises that include support of the spine. Leg-based plyometrics are also out of the question, at least for the time being. (And, believe me, this makes me sad. I love my box jumps!)

Upper back and shoulder strength is an easy thing to address. It just means I need to do a lot more push-ups and pull-ups. In particular, I think pike push-ups are going to be extremely important for me because they put a big emphasis on the stabilizing force of the trapezius muscles, in addition to just the deltoids. But I’m going to have to incorporate the full suite of push-ups in order to build adequate shoulder muscle strength, and a big upshot of this is the fact that you can’t do a push-up without also doing a plank: Push-ups are good for abdominal strength, too. It’s like killing two birds with one stone.

That’s just the shoulders, though. I’ll need pull-ups to address the weaknesses in my upper back, and lots of them. I’ve been doing pull-ups for a long time now, but the truth is that, like most people, I always slack off when it comes to pull-ups. I can do three times as many push-ups as I can do pull-ups, and that is just demonstrative of the underlying imbalance that causes my posture issues and neck pain. My goal here is in fact to be able to do as many good-quality pull-ups as I can do push-ups. It’s the only way I’ll ever really fix my problems.

Finally, there’s the matter of flexibility. I stretch a little bit before I go running, and I have been stretching a little bit before each P90X workout recently, but it’s not good enough. I have identified a particular set of leg stretches that tend to make my legs and back feel much better. What I’m going to do from now on is give myself at least 10 or 15 minutes of flexibility training every morning, stretching my tightest, most problematic muscles as far as I possibly can: hamstrings, calves, Achilles tendons, hip flexors, and shoulders. I intend to go through the same stretch routine at night, before bed, and also before I run. That will give me three good stretches per day, and hopefully in time these muscles will start to loosen up.

Conclusion


Now that I know what my weaknesses are, and how I want to address them, it’s time to actually put in the work. In future posts, I’ll be outlining my workouts. I admit that these aren’t always the most thrilling blog posts here at Stationary Waves, but it’s part of what I do here. I’ll try to offset the ensuing boredom with some more interesting blog content, for those who aren’t quite so interested in what workouts I’m doing on a daily basis.

2017-04-21

Album Review: Richie Kotzen - Salting Earth


Richie Kotzen's new album, Salting Earth, opens with the sound of a guitar string being tuned. Or is it the sound of multiple Richies singing drone pitches in an almost Indian mantra sort of way? Or is it the prelude to a crushing hard rock track?

Well, it's all of the above. And from the moment we hear the first tones, we know two things about the new album: We're in for something a little different this time, and it's going to rock pretty damn hard.

If you've been following Kotzen for a while and are familiar with his solo albums, you'll immediately notice that this one has a different overall feel and sound to it. It's still the Richie Kotzen we all know and love, but the album has a sound and spirit all its own.

A lot of that sound has to do with the way the drums and vocals were produced. Compared to other Kotzen records, the drums on this album have a much bigger sound. They're coated with a thick, warm reverb that simply makes them sound huge, and it's a marked departure from the typically quite dry and crisp drum sounds of his earlier records. Could this larger sound be the unwitting influence of having put out two records with the King of Bombast himself, Mike Portnoy, or was it simply a direction Kotzen wanted to take himself for personal reasons?

Then again, with the vocal tracks: that same nice, warm, smooth reverb. But, where it makes the drums sound bigger, the effect on the vocals simply sounds more soulful; maybe more soulful than perhaps he's ever sounded before. In fact, the interplay of the drum sounds and the vocals cast a delicious, old-school warmth across the record. At times it really feels that Salting Earth would have been at home in the late-60s/early-70s golden age of rock and soul. If someone told me that this album had been recorded in Sun Studios, I'd believe them. That's the sound Kotzen was going for here, and that's the sound he achieved. Lordy, it's beautiful.

But there's something else on this album, too, and it's hard to put my finger on. The Richie Kotzen oeuvre is a compelling artistic world that fuses hard rock and vintage R&B, but which often presents stories from the darker side of the human spirit. I don't mean that in a bad way, of course, but the fact is that Kotzen's lyrics have more Robert Johnson in them than, say, Daryl Hall. Kotzen's lyrics are often filled with references to drugs, loss, infidelity, pain, retribution. When Richie Kotzen plays the blues, he plays the blues.

That's just part of the canvas he's painting on. It always comes out in his music, but on Salting Earth, with its heavy-sounding drums, big booming bass notes, growling vocals, and aggressive guitars, and vinyl warmth, he really manages to draw the listener into his world in a way he never has before - at least not in my opinion. Turn the lights off and the volume up, and listen to sounds swirl around you like they do in one of those old, vintage music halls. That's what this album sounds like, and it seems like a poignant example of everything Kotzen does best. Perhaps after the success of working in the more collaborative environment of the Winery Dogs, Kotzen had been thinking about what it is that he does, and who he is as an artist. Or perhaps sometimes the magic just comes together in all the right ways at the right times.

It is both impossible and pointless to choose a "favorite" Richie Kotzen album, but this one has all the best he has to offer, and I wouldn't be surprised if you ask me years from now which is my favorite, and I say Salting Earth.

2017-04-11

Freedom, Responsibility, And Lessons From Technology

The Linux world, as people who have been involved with it for years already know, has some amazing advantages. Older systems run very well. Newer systems run even better. Updates are more frequent. Almost all software is free. The user interface (at least with Ubuntu) is really nice. There is nothing you can't do with Linux than you can do with other operating systems, and there are things you can do with Linux that you cannot do with other operating systems. It's better on virtually every level.

So, why don't more people use Linux?

The main reason is that Linux operating systems, by their DIY and open-source nature, require users to be a little more technical savvy. You have to be able to troubleshoot your own problems. You have to be able to pull open a command line interface and interact directly with the kernel. This is enough to scare most people away.

When my father bought our family's first personal computer, way back in the late 80s or early 90s, graphical interfaces and "shells" were not widely used, at least not in the DOS world. Consequently, my first introduction to computers was not through Windows, but through MS-DOS. I had to learn the basic commands for changing directories, running executable files, copying, deleting, writing simple .bat files, and so on. There was a lot to learn, and I was only a grade-schooler, but it wasn't more than a little kid could keep track of on a cheat sheet. It was harder than it is today, but it wasn't daunting. If I had any questions, there were DOS manuals that could help. Self-education closed the gap.

As the years progressed, Windows also progressed. Eventually, the only interface I ever ended up seeing was Windows 95 and beyond. My modest knowledge of MS-DOS commands faded from memory because, let's face it, I didn't need them anymore. Anything I needed to do on a computer I could do from the much easier and more user-friendly Windows interface. I gained some ease-of-use, some security, but I lost the ability to provide for myself.

Running Ubuntu on my home computer has given me back a lot of the freedom I once had. I no longer have to keep running proprietary software (and background processes) from Windows or HP if I don't use those services. I no longer have to have any software at all that I don't actually want or use. If there's anything that I do want - anything at all - it's really just an apt-get command away from me. If I can find a way to make it work, it will work.

The cost of this freedom is having to take ownership of my computing experience. Some people don't want to do that, and I empathize with them, but at the same time they'd feel a lot more comfortable with their home computers if they didn't shy away from that knowledge.

Analogously, I know people who live in big cities and cannot drive. If they need to get somewhere, they are dependent on other people to take them: friends, family members, taxi drivers, Uber drivers, or public transportation. Thus, they must rely on the availability of the providers of driving services. If they can't make arrangements to get somewhere, then they can't get somewhere.

These folks often tell me that they don't need to drive. But it's not just about what's necessary, it's about the freedom to just pick up and go anywhere you want to, whenever you want to, however you want to do it. They don't always appreciate the freedom they're missing because they're afraid of the responsibility involved.

And another analogy: Many young people are reluctant to move out of their parents' home for similar reasons. Suddenly, they'd be responsible for their own bills, food, self-care, etc. It's a lot of responsibilities to take on when they don't "need to." But if they did it, they'd gain a lot of freedom.

You can just imagine what other aspect of our lives this notion touches. There is always a trade-off between the freedom we want and the responsibility involved in obtaining that freedom. The old trope is that freedom in the political world comes with the responsibility of civic duty, but that's not really accurate. Freedom in the political world comes with the responsibility of having to solve problems (like muh roads) without the apparatus of government. That might take some self-motivation. It might require that you do a little self-directed research and make some phone calls to coordinate with your fellow citizens.

Some people are scared of this kind of responsibility. They're certain it will ruin the world. But, if you want to have the kind of freedom that libertarians crave, that's the kind of responsibility that is required.

2017-04-07

In Which Ubuntu Leaves A Good Impression On Me

I am only tech savvy in that I understand very well how to be a user of technology. As for creating or hacking technology, you can count me among the other Luddites.

So, you can imagine my dismay when I powered-up my laptop last weekend only to discover that it wouldn't fully boot. It would go through all of the normal booting protocol, and then when it reached my home screen, it spun and spun, never fully loading all the various applications and services that constitute a home computing experience.

I had experienced this before, but only once. In that previous time, my system became unusably slow in response to the fact that I had deactivated Norton software. It couldn't have been a coincidence, I thought, so I uninstalled the software entirely, rebooted, and voila! My computer was up-and-running again.

This time, I didn't have any Norton utilities to worry about, but I searched my mind for recent experiences that seemed similar. The thought occurred to me that perhaps this problem was being caused by Windows. I'm not entirely sure what made me think so, it just seemed to... click.

Well, the laptop was useless. I couldn't boot up, I couldn't back-up my files, I couldn't do anything other than use it as a coaster. So, after some internet research, I started wondering what might happen if I were to load Ubuntu Linux onto a USB drive and boot up from there. If it worked, and my computer was fully functional, then I had proof-positive that Windows was the culprit. And maybe then I'd at least be able to back up my files from within Ubuntu before buying a new laptop.

Best case scenario: Ubuntu might prove so effective that I ditch Windows entirely.

Long story short: It worked. Ubuntu loaded up flawlessly and I was soon surfing the web to learn how to use the graphical interface to solve all my problems. I quickly learned that the Ubuntu world looks a little different from what I was used to. In order to gain access to my files, I first must "mount" the corresponding hard drive partition onto the Linux file system.

Well, I haven't done that yet. That's what the weekend's for. But isn't it encouraging to know that I can salvage all my old files simply by loading a new operating system onto a flash drive and poking around a while?

These Ubuntu folks may have made a Linux man out of me.

2017-03-08

"I Don't Run Unless Chased"

When the original P90X videos were filmed, instructor Tony Horton was forty-five years old. In a number of the videos, he mentions this fact in support of his argument that a dedication to healthy living – eating right and exercising regularly – will help combat the ravages of age. Or, to put it in his actual language, “That’s why a 45-year-old guy like me, going on 46, still looks like this.”

It’s easy to dismiss his claims as unempirical. After all, he probably has “good genes.” But exercise is perhaps the single best way to combat aging, extend longevity, and prevent chronic, age-related illness. (If you really need to see a citation for these claims, then, okay. Start here.) The simple fact is that exercise will keep you looking and feeling younger for longer.

When I was young – in my teens and twenties – people I knew used to make all sorts of comments about how running is “crazy.” They didn’t say it with admiration, they said it derisively or defensively. They made “jokes” like saying, “I don’t run unless chased.” Har har har. They exalted in their propensity to eat too much crap, drink too much crap, watch too much TV, and do too much nothing. Even in my thirties, people have made these comments to me. They continue to laugh and joke and be some combination of derisive and defensive about how much I like to work out.

But, as I write this blog post, I am thirty-seven years old: decidedly middle-aged, past my prime, and so on. That means that all the people who ever said these things to me are also middle aged, past their prime. We’re all showing the signs of age. But some of us are aging faster than others. I often get ID’d when purchasing alcohol. In one recent case, a cashier checked my ID, shook her head, and said only, “I wouldn’t have guessed it.” A coworker of mine once had a little freak-out session when she found out that I was married, with children. She demanded to know how old I was, and when I told her, she couldn’t believe it. Overweight and with mostly grey hair, she is only a few years older than I am. As a matter of athletic performance, I can still out-run most twenty-somethings and can probably do more pull-ups, push-ups, and sit-ups than most people.

I don’t mention all this to brag, because it’s not anything to brag about, in my opinion. I worked out hard all my life, and I continue to do so. If you want to know what that feels like – to be able to do certain things physically, and to be able to pass for ten or more years younger than your age, and to maintain high energy levels into middle age, and to not really feel your body slowing down as much as everyone else’s seems to – then you have to work out. It’s not too late for you, either. But work out you must.

All that is to say, I’ve finally reached the age when none of my peers are quite so interested in talking about how “crazy” it is that I run every day (56 consecutive days and counting!) or that I do P90X on top of that in the morning. It doesn’t seem crazy, because now they understand that it isn’t crazy. It’s wise. It makes you better off. And they now wish that they, too, had run when not being chased.

2017-02-20

Update: I Feel Like A Superhero

I think it’s time I provided an update on my exercise situation. As you know, I have undertaken to run one hundred days in a row while simultaneously working my way through the famous P90X home exercise program. I had originally described this as “ambitious,” and perhaps it is, but as the days pass it becomes clear to me that I will actually do this.

That’s assuming I don’t fall victim to some sort of bad luck or act of nature. Let me just pause here to note that the flu is running rampant through my household, but between twin practices of quarantine and running the UV air purifier any- and every-where a flu victim may have been, I’ve managed to avoid catching anything myself. I also have just enough vanity to suppose that perhaps all the exercise I’ve been getting has boosted my immune system enough to ward off a lot of what’s out there. Fingers are crossed, though it’s looking good for me.

So how has it actually been going?

Yesterday I finished my fortieth consecutive run. When I first had the idea of running one hundred days in a row, I actually never dreamed I’d make it this far. To have run forty days in a row already feels like an accomplishment to me. It’s a long time without a true break. Still, I’m trying not to let my guard down here because, when I think about it, I’m still ten days away from the mere half-way point. I feel comfortable running every day now, I never feel like “today is the day I’m not going to make it” (although a day after seriously bruising my foot a couple weeks back, I sure came close). I pack my gym bag every day with confidence, knowing that I’ll be able to get a good run in, no matter how I feel.

That sentiment, I must emphasize, is a big change for me. No matter how much I ran before, I always felt as though I could just take a day off if I wasn’t feeling strong. Now I know that I can keep running even when I don’t feel strong. It’s a big mental shift to go from always having a day off in the back of my head to always completely knowing (in the back of my head), with surety, that I’m capable of running today. It’s as though the motivation to run and the notion of ability are no longer questions. I take it as given that this is possible, and the only matter left to consider is how hard I’ll choose to run. This is beneficial, to say the least.

Last Friday, I completed my thirtieth day of P90X, which marks the end of “Phase 1.” They recommend taking a set of “before” photos, and the a series of progress photos at days 30, 60, and 90, which I faithfully did. To my slight chagrin, my body has experienced almost no visible changes after 30 days. My abdominal muscles are noticeably larger, which is nice, but no one who doesn’t know me well would notice the change. As for my other muscle groups, I don’t think there has been much change to speak of.

At first, I was quite disappointed to see my 30-day photos. I had been working so hard, getting up early in the morning and “bringing it” during the workouts, that I felt like I deserved some gains. When I thought about it, though, I realized that I hadn’t been lifting heavy enough weights to have warranted a major physical change. After all, I am not starting from “zero;” I was already a physically fit person before I started. Many of the big 30-day gains seen in the many P90X before/after shots involve people who are starting from nothing or next to nothing. But even setting that aside, the first phase of the program focuses on bodyweight exercises and calisthenics – great exercise, but not exactly famous for helping a guy get “shredded.” Seen in that light, I realized that it was my expectations, not the program itself, that were out of line.

Still, there have been some major changes going on with my body. First of all, I think I am more flexible now than I have been in years – maybe ever. I can’t stress how important this is. Many of my muscle and joint pains, which were caused by tight muscles, have disappeared. My calf muscles are typically so tight that I cannot even feel when someone squeezes them, no matter how hard they squeeze. Now, they feel loose enough that I can use a foam roller and feel relief. My whole body feels more limber and agile thanks to my newfound flexibility, and it’s been a real positive change. Furthermore, the wrist pain I’ve been enduring for months now, which I attributed to the combination of desk work and holding my daughter in my arms all the time, has dissipated significantly as a direct result of the Stretch X workout video. It’s remarkable.

Another important change, which can be partially attributed to flexibility and partially to new muscle strength, is an improvement in my posture. Whether I’m sitting, standing, or lying down, my limbs and spine align into healthy positions. As someone who has always struggled with bad posture, this has been great. For one thing, a lot of people don’t realize how much better clothing fits when you have good posture; so I look a little better. (Vanity again, but alas, that’s part of working out.) It also makes long drives and long hours of desk work much more tolerable. My core and back muscles stay engaged and insulate my spine from the kinds of stress that’s common of people who spend many hours sitting.

Perhaps my favorite “result” so far has been the increase in my sleep quality. While I’m not getting any more sleep in terms of total hours, I now get as much as two hours more deep sleep per night. My head hits the pillow and I’m gone, asleep until I wake up to my alarm the next morning. As a lifelong light sleeper, I’ve been really pleased by this change.

What happens next? Well, I started Phase 2 of P90X on Saturday. Phase 2 seems to place more emphasis on actual weight training, so if I’m going to see any gains to my physical size, I imagine they will come during Phase 2 for the most part. Over the weekend, I was also able to go for an eight-mile run – my furthest-distance run in at least two years. So I’m ramping up on both sides of my exercise regimen. That’s encouraging. I feel really fit. It’s a nice feeling, especially for someone in his late thirties. This is some of the best shape I’ve ever been in.


Another thing I’d like to try is making some additional improvements to my diet. I don’t have too many bad habits left, but my body is asking me to get rid of the few I do have. When I have so little room for improvement, it’s hard to give up on my one or two remaining “treats.” Still, it’s tough to imagine going on like this for months on end while still putting less-than-perfect fuel in my body. I don’t want to make too big a deal about this, because I know myself and I know I might not be able to do this. But it’s starting to be the last remaining voice in the back of my mind, the one thing keeping me from feeling as close to perfect as I’ve ever felt. I’m curious about that feeling, and I’d like to see what it’s all about. So, here I go…