What You Control And What You Do Not

I was discussing an issue over social media the other day. Someone had provided a quotation arguing for X. I said that I disagreed with X, and gave my reasons. My interlocutor accused me of arguing for Y. I stated that I was not arguing for Y, but he insisted that I was. It was at that point that my expectations for the conversation started to diverge with reality.

What I expect when I tell someone that they have misunderstood or misinterpreted my statements is that the person will ask new questions to find out what I really meant instead. In practice, I am starting to notice that people rarely do this. More often than not, they ask me to defend myself against their charge (“Show me how you’re not arguing Y!”) rather than seek clarification around my true, intended meaning.

I have the power to clarify my own position. I have the power to rephrase and revise my statements until we all feel confident that my intended meaning is the one that others have understood. I do not, however, have the power to convince someone to interpret my statements charitably. That is, if someone is just committed to believing that I’m arguing for Y, no matter how many times I expressly state otherwise, I have no real power to change that person’s mind about my intended meaning.

Recently I read a blog post by Abigail Brenner, who said something nice: “Never waste time explaining yourself to someone committed to misunderstanding you.” In Brenner’s context, this was intended to be advice against manipulative people. But it’s good advice outside of that context, too. It’s easy to believe that, if we were just better communicators, another person would always see our point of view and consider it seriously. Unfortunately, the way people respond to what we say is not within our control. We can try to improve outcomes by meticulously implementing good communication techniques, but that’s as far as we can take it. The rest depends on the disposition and willingness of the other person to give you a fair hearing. If they won’t, there’s nothing else you can do about it.

So, I choose to let it go. If I have something worthwhile to say, it is the other person’s loss if they aren’t willing to hear me out, and if I don’t have anything worthwhile to say then no one is harmed by disregarding me in the first place.


Avoid Straw-Manning Your Opponents With This One Weird Trick

Short post today. 

There has been an increasing number (or my perception of an increasing number) of blog posts, Facebook comments, and articles in which the author puts forth an imaginary position that “some” believe, and then argues against those hypothetical people. A recent example of this was found at the NIskanen Center. I don’t link to that organization, but you can peruse its website at your own peril. The intimation is always that “some” think a terrible thing, and they should think a good thing instead. This serves to rally the troops around the good thing they should be thinking, when in reality nobody really believes the bad thing. At best, they are merely accused of believing it. This makes the entire line of reasoning disingenuous.

Perhaps it’s accidental. Perhaps these authors don’t really mean to build straw men out of their political opponents. If so, I have a fool-proof way of constructing expository statements in such a way as to virtually eliminate the risk of building straw men. It goes like this:

I disagree with [PERSON] when he/she says [ACTUAL QUOTE, WITH CITATION] because [REASONING].

Phrase your rebuttals this way, and you will nearly always succeed.


The Importance Of Staying Fit To Stay Pain Free

I have never been one to suggest that a person can be both overweight and healthy at the same time. While I don’t think obesity is necessarily and automatic death sentence, it’s a big, and usually unnecessary, strain on the body that ought to be corrected if you know what’s good for you.

Having said all that, there’s another problem that I see all the time that seldom gets as much airtime: Skinny doesn’t mean healthy, either. I see people all the time who aren’t overweight, but whose muscles can barely support their frames. Some of these people, because they are skinny, enjoy lots of positive attention for being physically attractive. But an eye accustomed to seeing physical fitness can spot things that the average person either overlooks or mistakes for something good.

For example, I often see young women who dress and act as though they have an attractive backside, but upon closer examination, what we’re really seeing is bad posture associated with atrophy of the abdominal muscles combined with shortening of the piriformis muscle. This combination of problems has a tendency to tilt the pelvis muscle down and back while pushing the spine forward. The “pushed back” backside isn’t the feature of a genetic gift, it’s a potentially debilitating posture abnormality that probably causes these young ladies serious pain along the sciatic nerve.

Here's what it looks like:

I’m not trying to single people out. I work out almost every day of the week, sometimes twice a day, and even I am not doing everything I need to do to keep myself healthy and pain-free. This year, I’ve been suffering from some pain and injury related to my known weaknesses. But I’ve been working on these weaknesses diligently, and slowly but surely, my pain is dissipating and I’m working my way back to normal again. It’s a new normal, though. It’s a normal that includes more specific exercises designed to keep myself healthy and happy. 

And what’s good for the gander (me) is good for the goose (you). I’m here to help. If your posture looks anything like the “Incorrect” side of the picture up above, you desperately need to start performing some very specific exercises. Let’s take a look at what those exercises might be.

The first thing you need to do is increase flexibility in your legs and core. Specifically, you must increase flexibility in your piriformis and gluteus muscles, your hip flexors, and your quadriceps. Everyone knows how to do a quad stretch: Stand on one leg, grab your other leg’s ankle, press your foot against your glute and pull. Piriformis and gluteus muscles can be stretched by lying on your back crossing your leg so that your ankle is resting on the other leg’s knee, and pulling the not-crossed knee toward your chest:

Image courtesy Natasha.com
Stretching like this daily, even twice a day, will help maintain adequate flexibility in the offending areas. But that’s not good enough to ward off pain, stiffness, and sciatica. To do that, you need to exercise. If you’re not currently doing any strength training – and if your posture looks like that picture, you can assume that you have not been doing any strength training – then you need to start with some very simple abdominal exercises. Start with planks, three sets of however long you can hold a plank without letting your back dip. In a week or two, your muscles will be ready for some bigger and more important challenges, like leg raises. Finally, you must counter-balance this abdominal development with the development of your gluteus and piriformis muscles. You can achieve this by doing rear leg extensions, quadruped hip extensions, and unweighted squats.

Remember, if you’re in pain or your back isn’t capable of diving into a comprehensive strength training workout, you need to start small and slowly build up to something more ambitious. There’s no harm in starting small and building. It’s much safer and will ensure that you don’t accidentally make your condition worse.


Thick Versus Thin Libertarianism: Which One Should You Choose?

The other day I wrote about what libertarianism is: Thick versus thin. Today, I’d like to continue the discussion with a consideration of what libertarianism ought to be.

The nature of a discussion like this is fraught with sidebar considerations about what one hopes to get out of which part of their moral code. I’d like to start with that, so let me explain what I mean.

I think it’s safe and uncontroversial to say that most of us don’t have an all-encompassing and airtight moral philosophy underpinning every thought that they have. Even those who think they do have a hard time living up to the one that they have, and of those few who attempt to do so to the greatest extent possible, only a small fraction relate absolutely every thought that occurs to them back to their moral philosophy. This is probably a good thing. Someone so obsessed with moral philosophy that they cannot have a normal thought without related it to their moral code would be mentally unhealthy. We also encounter a wide array of morally neutral situations all the time, like choosing which socks to wear and decided whether to step with your right or your left leg first when walking up a flight of stairs.

In other words, at the extreme end of the spectrum, you have obsessive people who cannot encounter any stimulus without moralizing it. I take on assumption that this is bad behavior. On the other extreme, you have people who refuse to relate anything to any sort of moral code anywhere. These are uninteresting (and possibly non-existent) cases. In the middle, there is a whole spectrum of real people who apply one moral code to most of their decisions, no moral code to some of their decisions, a different moral code to some other decisions, and in special cases, apply multiple moral codes to a few of their decisions.

That’s life. That’s what it’s like. While we all strive to be perfectly philosophically consistent and well-behaved, the truth of the matter is that no one yet has invented a philosophy so complete and so perfect that every situation is addressed by it. We humans, being the resourceful creatures that we are, like to supplement an inevitably incomplete moral philosophy with something else sometimes, be it a lesson from some other philosophy, or a good rule of thumb, or a gut instinct, or whatever else it might be.

I hope you can see where I’m going with this. “Thin” libertarianism, being the contextually limited set of ideas that it is, works well as a partial philosophy, a set of recommendations for a limited set of philosophical questions. If we venture beyond that limited set of questions, we exhaust the capabilities of “thin” libertarianism, and when we encounter a problem it can’t address, we must rely on some other philosophy or set of ideas. By contrast, “thick” libertarianism aims to be a complete set of philosophical ideas, or at least a more complete set, capable of answering a wider set of questions.

So, one answer to the question of what libertarianism should be is, It depends on how much ethical work you want your libertarianism to accomplish. For some, libertarianism defines a relationship to government, and they have other ideas that govern non-governmental spheres of life. For others, libertarianism is how they approach everything, and thus they need their libertarianism to cover the ground that might be covered by, say, a thin libertarian’s religious system.

All that reading for kind of a dumb answer, right? “You get to choose which kind of libertarianism applies to you!” Of course you do. That’s not the interesting part. The interesting part is when a thin libertarian and a thick libertarian reach different conclusions on a given issue, and we then have to choose which solution is “more libertarian.” That’s what I’ll be discussing next time.


Thick Versus Thin Libertarianism: A Brief Primer

For quite some time now, there has been a mild debate about “thick” versus “thin” libertarianism. “Thin” libertarianism is the belief that libertarianism at its essence only defines humankind’s relationship to the state, nothing more. “Thick” libertarianism is a belief system that aims to extend libertarian thought to non-state situations. I’d like to explore these concepts a little bit, but before I do, let’s make sure we understand the difference between thick and thin.

Consider the issue of feminism, since it highlights the difference quite nicely. A thin libertarian believes that the state ought to treat people of all genders equally under the law. And that’s it. A thick libertarian, by contrast, believes that equal treatment under the law is only part of the story. Meanwhile, women may face coercive non-state pressure from the “Patriarchy” more broadly, and that libertarianism ought to respond to this pressure in some way. For example, a young woman might experience unwanted pressure from family members or religious community members to marry and have children. While a thin libertarian has no specific comment on this, since the coercive pressure isn’t coming from the government, a thick libertarian wants to be this young woman’s ally. A thick libertarian wants to articulate philosophical reasons why this woman shouldn’t be coerced into a lifestyle she might not choose. A thick libertarian believes that such coercive social pressure limits a woman’s freedom even though there is no state involvement; and thus, if we’re “truly” concerned about liberty, we ought to advocate against this sort of coercive social pressure in addition to coercive pressure against the state.

A thin libertarian might agree with the thick libertarian in theory. That is, the thin libertarian might agree that such social pressure is bad. But the thin libertarian draws a line between political and non-political life. A thin libertarian might say something like this: “As a libertarian, I have no comment on such social pressure, but as a feminist it offends me and I believe it is wrong.”

On the other hand, a thin libertarian also has the flexibility to say something like this, “Young women ought to get married and have children, but as long as the state does not coerce her, it is not a libertarian issue.”

From this, we ought to be able to understand a major source of libertarian infighting. Thin libertarianism allows libertarians to engage in private coercive behavior that would be abhorrent (to libertarians) if/when conducted by the state. Thick libertarianism is opposed to that same behavior, no matter who is doing it. This has given rise to situations in which people with bigoted or possibly-bigoted views gravitate toward thin libertarianism because it enables them to maintain their bigotry, so long as it is confined to private matters, while thick libertarians accuse thin libertarians of “harboring” or “enabling” that same bigotry.

If you’re with me so far, then you now understand much of what the libertarian community has been arguing about for the past year or so, especially in light of the recent protests in Charleston and elsewhere.

Now that we know what libertarianism is, we’ll next consider what libertarianism ought to be.


A Driving Paradigm Shift

I know none of you ever feel frustrated on the road, but sometimes when I'm driving, believe it or not, my patience wears a little thin. But my commute is pretty long, and so I've had a lot of time to think about driving calmly, quickly, and efficiently - what works, and what doesn't.

Well, I've discovered two things and between the two of them they have completely revolutionized the way I think about driving. So I'm passing along the info in case you find it useful.

First: "Queue versus Flow"

I think most people view traffic as a queue. In fact, in the UK, they use the word "queue" in place of the phrase "traffic jam." The problem with conceiving of traffic as a queue, though, is that it biases you into believing (erroneously) that every car in front of you is delaying your arrival at your destination. 

Of course, that's silly. If you're traveling 45 mph down the road, you will travel 45 miles over the span of an hour whether there are 3 cars ahead of you or 300. 

Knowing this, I starting conceiving of traffic as a flow. What matters in a flow is not how many particles there are, but how fast they're all going, on average. Most traffic events that we all experience only set us back a total of, say, 2 or 3 minutes. It's tempting to lose your patience if someone cuts in front of you and slows you down, but this doesn't really impact your average speed in most cases. You might arrive a few seconds later, but if traffic is a flow and not a queue, then who cares? 

Second, my Eco Display

My car has a really cool feature called "Eco Display," which tracks how much energy you save based on the way you drive. It has three separate meters: One tracks energy savings captured by making light use of the accelerator; One tracks energy savings captured by how much you coast, rather than using the brake; And the third tracks energy savings captured by maintaining a relatively constant speed, rather than speeding up and slowing down repeatedly. 

It looks like this:
Image result for Mercedes Eco Display

In light of the fact that I see traffic as a "flow" now, I make really good use of the Eco Display. I accelerate slowly and leave lots of space between myself and the next car, so that I can minimize use of the brake pedal and maintain as close to a constant average speed as possible, given traffic conditions. 

It's amazing to see how many cars will angrily pass me as I accelerate, only to slam on their brakes a few seconds later as they catch up to the next car, and then within seconds I've caught up to them. And since I have more space in front of me to see traffic, I can usually anticipate slow-downs, change lanes, keep my constant average speed, and pass the people who thought they were passing me.

It's like a whole new paradigm. It's totally changed the way I drive. I love it.


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.


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.


When I Go


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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. 


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.


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.


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.


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.


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. 


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.


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.