2021-01-11

Quick! Do Something! Anything!

It's often been said that "haste makes waste." I happen to agree. Unfortunately, most people do not.

In a stunning admission over the weekend, one of my far-left friends said that free speech absolutism was a conservative position. I call this "stunning," of course, because free speech absolutism has been, for the majority of my lifetime and that of my parents and grandparents, the liberal position. If anything, it has been a left wing position, held only by the most ardent of leftists. 

While I'm pleased that the right has discovered a newfound appreciation for freedom of speech, I'm disturbed by how quickly the left has shrugged it off completely. They now accept without question that there should always be some restrictions on the freedom of speech.

Before I continue, let's get the obvious out of the way: In this blog post, I'll be focusing mainly on the ethical principle of free speech and open dialog, the belief that society is freer and better off when all viewpoints are expressed than it would be if certain kinds of ideas were banished from conversation, even informally. I will not be referring to the merely legal concept of a constitutionally protected freedom from a government's legally denying people speech rights. The reason I'm making this differentiation is because it's possible to shut down a conversation without violating any law or civil right. 

The impulse is understandable on some level. When one encounters very abhorrent views, it's natural to want to get the hell away from them. In our personal lives, we can manage to do so very easily, by walking away. If someone decides to follow us around with a megaphone and scream abhorrent views at us no matter where we go, we have a tort to deal with that kind of harassment, and there is really no issue of free and open dialog at play.

But when a cadre of very powerful media moguls decide to collude against a particular strain of free expression, severely limiting society's access to that strain of thought, even if they're within their rights to do it, free and open dialog has been abridged. Not legally abridged, mind you, but abridged.

This, in turn narrows the available array of ideas. In the moment, that might achieve a given end. You might temporarily stamp-out a particular strain of thought, at least until the people who believe that strain of thought figure out a more reliable way to broadcast their beliefs. (I understand that Ham radio is still an option...)

The next time society encounters a strain of thought that it thinks is abhorrent, they will have that much easier a time squashing it out. The problem arises when the thought they're squashing out isn't truly abhorrent with respect to the arc of history. For example, interracial marriage used to be considered abhorrent, and those advocating it used to be reviled. In the long run, though, interracial marriage is good for humanity, and most of us now fully recognize that it's not an abhorrent thing at all.

How did society go from reviling interracial marriage to tolerating it, and then to appreciating it? I think society accomplished this through free and open dialog about interracial marriage. We started by talking about it and making people mad; then we talked about it and made people bored; now we talk about it and make people happy. That's evolution, for you.

Notice that the people who reviled interracial marriage did not know at the time that they were reviling something that was actually not a problem at all. Instead, they thought they were standing up for what was right! Sticking to you own!, they thought. That's how it's supposed to be!

They were wrong, and needed convincing. That's what free speech does for us.

Free speech does something else for us: It lays bare the arguments for bad ideas, and enables smart people to defeat those arguments. Imagine a bad idea that everyone knows about, but that no one is allowed to discuss. Take teenage sexual intercourse, for example. Many teens are unable to discuss sex with their parents, because their parents forbid such discussions from being had. So those teens often grow up either sexually repressed or they get themselves into a kind of trouble that they could have avoided if they had had better information from a trusted source. Talking about teenage sexual activity doesn't lead to teenage sexual activity. The data on that are all pretty clear, and they state that teens who are able to have supportive and informative conversations about sex with their parents grow up to be better adjusted and to avoid more of the pitfalls of sex, such as unwanted pregnancy and sexually transmitted infections. That's because having conversations out in the open about bad ideas enables us to respond to all bad arguments with good counterarguments.

The critic may here respond, "But some of these people don't care about or won't listen to counterarguments!" No, they won't. You can't control how other people respond to your arguments, however. Preventing them from being able to speak at all -  on whatever platform we happen to be talking about - is the authoritarian impulse. It won't work. 

The left used to understand this quite well. I am sad that they no longer do.

2021-01-08

The Left Can Meme - At Last

For years, the trope on social media has been "the left can't meme." The right, especially the alt-right and the 4-chan right, have been a relentless band of merry pranksters on the internet for ten years or more, mercilessly lampooning every aspect of the left. Meanwhile, the left, for its part, has been unable to counter the attacks because the left's memes are lame

The typical right-leaning meme shows some sort of pop culture artifact which, when combined with a real and actual position held by left-leaning people, combines to make a funny joke that is universally understood. The typical left-leaning meme, by contrast, usually shows a picture of someone who is angry, accompanied by some words about how dumb or infuriating the right is. It's not clear that the latter example really is a joke. It's just a photo attached to a short rant. It's lame. That's why the left can't meme.

Or, at least, that's why I thought the left couldn't meme. I thought the people creating these memes basically had such bad senses of humor that they couldn't make an effective joke at the right's expense. And perhaps that is still true of many left-leaning memers. 

In the last 48 hours, however, the left's ability to meme has blossomed in the wake of the weird thing that happened at the Capitol building. For the first time in my life, I'm seeing some genuinely funny left-leaning memes lampooning the right quite effectively. 

What changed? Here's a theory:

For decades, the left have been staging protests and attendant photo ops, and these events have been full of, well, clowns. Leftist protests for many, many years have been filled with fringe characters sporting weird clothes, dreadlocks, piercings, and costumes. The events have been attended by people doing drugs and playing with juggling sticks. It's been close to a literal circus every time the left has shown up to protest something. Any photo from such an event is a meme in the making. It's impossible to take such people seriously because it is almost as if they don't take themselves seriously. 

Right-leaning protests, by contrast, have been full of people wearing either leather or blue jeans and sporting American flags, but beyond that, they look pretty much like the people you see at the local gas station. We might criticize their ideas, their grammar, or etc., but a photograph of these people hasn't in the past been an easy laugh

So, there has always been that difference between the left and the right. 

But not anymore. 

When Trump's clown circus stormed the capitol building, they looked every bit as ridiculous as the left has looked whenever they showed up to protest. Wearing face paint and buffalo skins, grinning like fools, and prancing around like circus performers, these rightist protestors made absolute idiots of themselves, and everybody knows it. 

That fact is now well-established in leftist memes. The left can finally use actual photos of actual rightist idiots to refer to commonly understood cultural events, and the left can give it to the right good and hard. Best of all, the right brought all this upon themselves, and they deserve it.

Truthfully, I don't know what the future holds for conservatism or Republicanism in America. I honestly don't see how the Republicans can recover from such a total self-destruction. What serious person is going to continue to stand behind such a clown show? 

2021-01-07

Is There Racial Disparity In Coup Attempts?

There are a lot of Twitter screenshots floating around out there about how 52 people got arrested for yesterday's crazy quasi-coup attempt at the Capitol building, versus 14,000 arrests during the George Floyd protests. This disparity, according to those who point it out, proves "white privilege" and "structural racism."

Has the world gone mad? The US government was possibly attempted to have been taken over by a furry yesterday, and people want to argue about how bad it would have been if the furry had been black. 

For perspective, imagine that you're walking through Times Square, when suddenly a flying saucer descends from the skies, lands right in the middle, the door pops open, and out walk three greys and Jesus Christ, all wearing polka-dot space suits, and when the crowd falls silent, they all yell in unison, "Whassup, my n-words!!!" Then, the next day, everyone on Twitter starts arguing about whether it was racist for them to have used the n-word. Not a peep about proof of extraterrestrial life or the second coming of the Messiah, no, it's all about racism.

I am sensitive to the plight of the marginalized, but our present predicament desperately needs to remain fully contextualized. The outgoing president of the United States of America may or may not have committed incitement or treason or sedition or whatever, using a deranged army of furries. Maybe now is not the time to remark that black lives matter.

They do matter. But what the flying fish just happened yesterday???

2020-12-29

Imagining Mars

I had a dream last night about something that I quite often dream about: the colonization of Mars. I love dreams like this because they always enable me to imagine things that I never would have imagined otherwise.

In this particular dream, Mars had been colonized and built upon to the following extent: There were good roads leading to a wide variety of businesses that existed in support of the primary economy of Mars, which I imagine to be extraction. In other words, it's most likely to me that life on Mars would revolve around mining, and to a lesser extent construction, and that all other businesses would serve to support those industries. There were shops and convenience stores, but they were sparsely stocked. There were bars and restaurants, mostly serving unappealing food like sandwiches, and also serving plenty of alcohol with which the Martian workers could "while away their time."

Interestingly, albeit unrealistically, buildings and cars on my Dream Mars were mostly open-air. Everyone had their doors open and their windows rolled down. Business establishments would generate their own oxygen, somehow, for patrons to breathe. People had grown accustomed to the difficulty of breathing the CO2 atmosphere of Mars as they made their way from Point A to Point B. My "host," the person in my dream who was showing me around the place, could generate oxygen in his car, too, but simply preferred the feel of the open air, just as all the other residents of Mars did. So, a good portion of my visit to Dream Mars was spent kind of suffocating as we traveled from place to place. It was frustrating for me, but my host assured me that I'd get used to it eventually. 

Obviously, such a thing would be impossible on real Mars. You'd only be able to last about as long as you could hold your breath. You'd need to find an enclosed building with breathable air as soon as possible, or else port your air with you in a space suit. But my dream wasn't a dream about what would happen if we plopped a bunch of present-day humans on present-day Mars using present-day technology. Instead, it was about the future.

*        *        *

A while back, I also thought of a similar sort of story. In it, human beings colonize Mars and exist there for hundreds of years before two major factions have an irreconcilable conflict, and the losing faction is banished from the colony. Ill equipped to survive the Martian landscape with whatever technology they could carry with them, and regularly exposed to the high solar radiation of the surface of Mars, this losing faction eventually, over time, evolves the ability to withstand high levels of radiation without suffering biological damage, and also the ability to breathe Martian air - or at least whatever middle-step the atmosphere of a partially colonized Mars might be like. 

The rest of this story revolved around the discovery of this very profound human evolution and its implications for the two Martian "factions." Would they separate permanently? Would they intermarry and cooperate? What would happen?

I'll have to actually write the book some day to find out.

*        *        *

The key feature of all of these dreams and ideas I have about Mars is that building up and maintaining a "bubble world" on the surface of the planet, where humans must always be encased in glass with a steady supply of oxygen pumped around, has always struck me as a terrible way of life, one that is only feasible in the very short run. In my mind, Mars is only inhabitable if it can be terraformed. A generations-long project would have to ensue, during which humans would have to discover a way for Mars to maintain a thicker atmosphere, and for that atmosphere to be made of nitrogen, oxygen, argon, and carbon dioxide, just as Earth's atmosphere is. In order to achieve that, humans would have to discover a way to convert the existing Martian atmosphere to something that it currently isn't. Humans would have to figure out a way to protect that atmosphere from the kind of solar radiation that would destroy it - and that means either manufacturing an electromagnetic field around the planet (since Mars isn't capable of generating its own), or somehow constructing a thick ozone layer, under which an even thicker breathable atmosphere would reside.

All of this, and we haven't even tackled the question of potable water yet. Bear in mind that these materials cannot simply be piped-in from Earth or elsewhere in sufficient quantities to maintain and grow a permanent human population. Conflicts of water rights are the kind of thing that we Earth-dwellers have started wars over. Can you imagine how much conflict there would be between the inhabitants of an environmentally fragile Earth and inhabitants of a terraformed Mars whose existence depends entirely on Earth's willingness to ship its limited water and air resources across the expanse of outer space? 

There are plot holes that a clever science-fiction writer can resolve, at least long enough to tell an exciting science-fiction story. However, to the best of human knowledge, there is no way to actually do this on Mars. If Mars will one day be habitable, we don't currently have the technology to do it; perhaps we don't even have the scientific knowledge to do it.

*        *        *

The primary reason we know we can't colonize Mars at any point in the foreseeable future is because there are vast, dead regions of Earth that human beings have killed and can't bring back to life. A couple of examples include the desertification of the Middle East and large patches of the ocean floor. If we can't build a farm on a plot of land that was farmed as recently as a couple of generations ago - if we can't keep part of a coral reef alive even though it isn't even dead yet - why in the world would we suppose that we can travel to Mars and render its barren soil fertile? (Keep in mind that the primary difference between barren and fertile soil is the presence of existing biological matter. Martian soil doesn't have any biological matter in it. How's it going to get there? Here's one way, but it requires clay from Earth.)

For the entirety of human existence, life has involved extracting resources from out environment and using them. Full stop. Every animal does this, but only human beings make the kind of technology that changes the environment in potentially catastrophic ways. We're the only animal that produces our own fire, for example, and fire can burn a forest down. We're the only animal that has ever managed to scrape the bottom of the ocean floor clean of all life. These are catastrophic changes. 

Don't get me wrong, I'm not a luddite. Humankind's ability to produce technology has created a world that our primitive ancestors would certainly have considered to be the work of sorcery. We have become gods in all but one respect: we've figured out how to produce civilization when given wilderness; we have yet to figure out how to produce wilderness when given civilization. It's a tough problem to solve.

If we don't solve it, though, we can kiss our dreams of inhabiting Mars goodbye. Even supposing that Mars proves to be uninhabitable and we go searching for other worlds to colonize, we'll never even reach those worlds until we've figured out how to produce enough nature aboard a spaceship to provide ourselves with food, medicine, water, and technology along the way. 

Nor is "environmentalism" the solution to the problem. Covering the surface of the earth with solar panels and windmills is no better for the land upon which they reside than is clear-cutting an acreage of forest. There is no way to reuse or recycle medical waste, and if we intend to heal the sick with medical technology, then we intend to perpetuate medical waste, too. There is only so much leeway we can get from "vertical hydroponic gardens" and other such green fantasies. 

No, the problem here is that we human beings simply don't know how to terraform. We don't know anything about it. We know a bit about gardening, and a bit about landfills, and a bit about leaving virgin landscapes untouched. But we know nothing about creating and maintaining a viable ecosystem capable of supporting human life forever. 

How truly odd that a species of ape that specializes in manipulating the environment around it in order to survive knows so little about manipulating the environment in order to survive.


2020-12-18

Say The Magic Words

It seems as though people have been lamenting the decline of civil discourse for fifteen years or more. It's been easy to recognize as it has happened. Still, occasionally we encounter situations that remind us just how far out of whack things have gone. 

A couple of different conversations did this for me recently. I won't bother with the particulars of these conversations here; doing so would risk relitigating the whole discussion, and I don't want to do that. Instead, I'd like to focus on the overall discursive climate in today's world.

When controversy arises, there is often One Right And Important Viewpoint You Are Supposed To Declare In Full-Throated Support Of A Slighted Person. If someone says something sexist, you're supposed to loudly decry sexism. If someone says something racist, you're supposed to loudly decry racism. And so on. Still, in many controversies there may be other matters worth discussing.

To name a few easily-recognized examples:

  • Donald Trump may be a big jerk, but it might be worth noting that his Administration marks the first time in decades that the US government has not entered a new armed conflict abroad.
  • Same-sex marriage might be a significant step toward equality under the law, but it could be worth discussing whether the government should play any role at all in marriage licensing.
  • Although there have been many high-profile examples of racist police violence in America, a significant contributor to police violence is police militarization, not merely police racism.
More examples could be provided, but I list these only for illustrative purposes, so I'll keep it short. 

Suppose one wants to talk, not about bigotry, but about one of these other important issues that are not identity issues per se, such as international peace, restrictions on government licensing, or decreasing the level of police militarization. In that case, one need not first recite a set of magic words about opposing bigotry. Especially where space and time are at a premium, it's best to get right to it. 

I've noticed, though, that if one leaves off the magic words about opposing bigotry, the main pushback one receives is that one hasn't said the magic words! If I leave off the magic words, someone invariably chimes in to scold me and argue with me, to attempt to shame me, to call me names, to call me a horrible person, all because I haven't said the magic words, and even though the magic words have nothing to do with my point.

I am accustomed to this sort of behavior from internet keyboard warriors who might cross my path on Twitter, or in a blog's comments section, or the like. What surprises me is that recently, people who have known me for years on wonderful terms - good friends and family members, people who certainly know my true character - will pursue this line of argumentation with me. Not only will they pursue it, but they'll take it all the way to the brink, ready to end a good relationship over my failure to have recited the magic words. 

It is as though the magic words take precedence over years of friendship. Perhaps for some, they do. But not for me. I'm not prepared to end good friendships over a hysterical need to recite magic words of anti-bigotry. If I know someone isn't really a bigot, I won't tap my foot, waiting for them to loudly proclaim their non-bigotry, and potentially end my friendship with them if they don't.

But some of my friends and family members are so inclined. They will (and have) called me racist, sexist, and so on despite decades of personal experience to the contrary. 

How will I respond to their readiness to cut ties? 

The truth is, I see a lot of this magic words stuff as a temporary mass delusion. This will pass, eventually, although I don't know how long it will take before it does. I see people growing increasingly neurotic as they take shelter from the pandemic in their homes, exposed only to a steady diet of internet, social media, Netflix, and high-calorie/low-nutrient delivery food. In short, I think people are going a little crazy. 

I'm willing to forgive some temporary craziness under the present circumstances. If people want to hang their age-old friendships on a few magic words, I think that's a serious mistake, but it's one their entitled to make. However, I'm not going to make that mistake. If any of these people would like to patch things up once times get a little less crazy, I'm going to be there for them. 

I'm willing to forgive them their craziness, in the hope that, one day, they'll forget what was so important about the magic words.

2020-11-20

No Garbage Miles: A Case Study

My last blog post was about running high-quality miles whenever you run. It was verbose and rambling, and probably not very useful to the average user. (Where, "average user," in my case, means "Russian bot." But anyway.) Today, I'd like to provide a case study on "garbage miles," miles that you put in for no good reason, that don't do you very much good. And when I say "you," I mean "me."

Earlier, I ran a workout for which I had great expectations. On paper, it was supposed to be a really good workout. In practice? Garbage miles. Let's take a look.

My goal with this run was to complete increasingly faster-paced laps of a one-mile loop around my neighborhood. Here's a graph of my per-mile pace (grey) compared to my heart rate (red):

You can see that, at least nominally, I achieved my goal. My pace increased steadily throughout the run, and indeed every mile lap was faster than the one before it. This was an eight-mile workout, eight laps, each one faster than the previous. Looks like a good workout. My Strava "relative effort score" was nice and high for this workout, too. All the "data" says it should have been a great workout.

The problem here is that I ran eight miles and only hit my lactate threshold at about mile number six. In effect, I ran two good-quality miles, preceded by six miles of complete garbage. That's about forty-five minutes of running that wasn't really doing me much good at all, followed by about thirteen minutes of tempo-paced running. It's better than nothing, but if I were going to push myself today, why on Earth did I put in 45 minutes of garbage and 13 minutes of decent stuff?

By the time I got home, I knew I had blown it. 

A better way to have run this workout would have been to speed up sooner. Maybe the first mile or two could have been slow, and I could have considered them "warmup miles," but after that, I should have gotten right down to business. My third mile certainly should have been well under 7:00/mile pace and dipping into my lactate threshold, and I should have worked my way to sub-6:00 miles.

Indeed, I started my workout hoping for at least one sub-6:00 mile. The reason I wasn't able to achieve that is because I spent the majority of my running time on slow garbage miles. 

It was an interesting mental exercise to run the workout I ran today, and perhaps it could have been a good workout if I had put in two or three more miles. But I didn't. I quit to early, or I didn't start out fast enough, and ultimately I sacrificed what could have been a great workout. 

The lesson here is that good runners push themselves harder than just what looks good on paper. Good runners push into their lactate thresholds and keep the heat on themselves for longer than they can really stand it. If I want to become a better runner, that's what I have to do, too.

2020-11-13

Running Fast Versus Logging Miles

In the old days - say, the 1960s and 1970s - one of the prevailing training techniques involved logging a ton of miles, where "ton" means one hundred miles per week, or more. Anyone who was serious about running was putting in that kind of mileage, including and especially the top running talent in the world.

Over time, a new philosophy began to take root, which held that quality miles were more important than the sheer quantity of those miles. Many runners, especially recreational runners, began to find success in focusing on a couple of speed workouts per week and a long run - so, three major workouts per week, combined with either very slow and light running on the other days, or even cross-training. Here it is important to note that "success" means something on the order of being able to run a marathon at a 7:00 per mile average pace (for men). 

While I've been out of the competitive running game for quite some time now, my impression (based on how I've seen elite runners train, as recorded on their websites and memoirs) is that the current vogue way to train is a sort of combination of the two approaches. In this combined approach, the runner gives 100% to his three weekly hard workouts. That's 100% to the weekly long run (comprised of 75% slow, easy running and the last 25% at a threshold pace), 100% to the weekly threshold runs, 100% to the weekly speed workout; and then lots of long, slow miles the remaining days. Under this approach, a competitive runner might be running speed and threshold runs in the 5:30-6:00 per mile range, while doing all other running at 7:30 pace, 8:00 pace, sometimes even slower than that. 

Sometime over the past couple of years, I adopted this new approach. In part, I did so because I was experimenting with heart rate zone training, and that's what ends up naturally happening when you run in Zone 2 for extended periods of time, you run at 8:00 pace. It's bonkers. But I was also inspired by what I was reading from elite athletes, and they, too, seemed to be taking it quite easy on their off days. Well, if they can do it, why shouldn't I do it?

*        *        *

Unfortunately, and probably predictably, the result of all of this slower running has been... slower running. When I first moved to Texas, I felt silly if I ran a mile over about 6:50. In general, I tried to stay at or under 6:45 pace. For the past couple of years, I've been running 7:40s and thinking to myself, "Oh, well. It's not a fast day, so it's not a big deal."

While I absolutely believe there is some truth to this, I think what has happened here is that some relatively important concepts have become flattened out and converted into bad advice. 

This is common in the fitness world. When "HIIT" cardio training came into vogue, it was just a fancy term for what endurance athletes had been doing for years: dedicating 1-2 days per week to interval training at high speeds. Eventually, the recommendation for HIIT morphed into an argument "against" low-intensity, steady-state (LISS) cardio, which is what endurance athletes do on non-HIIT days. But that's nonsense. The correct way to train is to do HIIT on some days and LISS on others. Fitness trainers, unfortunately, did not get that memo, and started recommending that their clients do HIIT (good) at the expense of LISS (bad). 

And so we have a similar issue in running today. Mindlessly logging 100+ mile weeks is probably a bad thing if you're not thinking about the overall quality of your workouts. Focusing all of your energy on three workouts per week and then completely forgetting weekly mileage is also probably bad. Giving full effort to your most challenging workouts is an absolutely wonderful idea, as is taking things easy on your recovery days. But shuffling along at 7:40 pace for mile after mile, just because you're not doing a speed workout, is completely and utter nonsense, and I feel a little stupid for drinking that particular cup of Kool-Aid.

*        *        *

In the old days, before we had things like Strava "Fitness & Freshness" graphs, my general approach to getting into great running shape was like this:

  1. Spend about two weeks doing calisthenics, with emphasis on push-ups, sit-ups, pull-ups, wall presses, calf raises and toe taps.
  2. Run 3 miles per day, at about 6:45 per mile pace.
  3. Once that feels comfortable, increase to 4 miles per day at the same pace.
  4. Once that feels comfortable, increase to 5 miles per day.
  5. ...and so on, until...
  6. At 50-60 miles per week (or more, depending on training goals), start to incorporate speed workouts and dedicated long runs.
  7. Then, taper for your race.
This training approach is inherently sound. At every stage, the runner is preparing to take on progressively greater loads, but waiting to ensure that he never pushes beyond his current fitness level. And, importantly, no day is wasted on mindless running. The increase from daily miles of 3 to 4 to 5 and beyond serves a specific purpose, building the endurance base from nothing to something. Once the base is achieved, then additional, harder workouts become the focal point. At that point, the runner is so conditioned to running at 6:45 pace or so that he can easily do so even on easy days. No big deal. And it shouldn't be a big deal, especially for a fast runner.

*        *        *

Years ago, I remember meeting fellow runners who were much slower than me. I'd speak to them and learn that they were putting in so many more miles than I was, and yet running so very much more slowly. Why? I remember hearing my wife talk about a friend who was running X many miles, and yet still didn't look as fit as I did. And I remember saying, "Yeah, but he doesn't run like I run."

That statement reflects the notion of quality over quantity. Don't just mindlessly run miles, run them with heart. Run hard and fast. Push your body. A daily run - even an "easy run" - is not supposed to be easy. The goal is not merely to "log some miles." "Logging some miles" won't help you run better or faster. The real question is, what kind of miles are you running, and for what purpose? 

Thus, in the end, I've come full-circle in realizing that logging 50 miles a week at a slow pace makes about as much sense as logging 50 miles a week at race pace. Your daily run is supposed to make you healthier. If you're finding it easy then you're probably not making your body any healthier. Oh, sure, you're getting some fresh air, and that's better than nothing. But do you want to run faster? If so, then do it.

One problem here, though, is that Strava and Garmin algorithms don't currently seem to be able to measure this. On these platforms, you set up your heart rate zones and/or your pace zones, and then your runs and perpetually measured against those zones. The idea that your zones don't change from October to November is... bizarre. You're either running at your physical peak (which is not true of hardly any of us), or you're progressing or regressing in some way. If instead you find yourself stagnant, then there is something seriously wrong with your training regimen. And if your times are flat, but your "Strava Fitness Curve" is higher, what does that really even mean? Nothing.

*        *        *

Anyway, there is a lot of information going on in this blog post, and I realize I've rambled quite a bit. I wanted to get this information down in writing so that I could think about it a bit more clearly. In the future, I will need to organize these thoughts a little better. 

For now, the key messages are:

  • Ensure that every mile you run is of a high quality and dedicated to a specific purpose.
  • Ensure that your training is moving in a direction, not just stagnating.
  • Focus on your running paces more than you focus on your running data. Run to run faster, don't run to score more internet points.
  • If you're not running fast enough, it might be time to back up and start over, three miles a day at a good, solid pace, until that's easy and it's time to add more miles.

2020-10-27

Achievement And The Cognitive Time-Horizon

 At EconLog, Bryan Caplan has a great post on "unschooling," and specifically the fact that he thinks "unschooled" children ought to be required by the parent/instructor to do one or two hours of math a day, even though such a requirement violates the principle of "unschooling."

He thinks so because, in his experience, unschooled children are seldom strong in math. Here he is elaborating on the problem:

Won’t kids who would greatly benefit from math choose to learn math given the freedom to do so?  The answer, I fear, is: Rarely.  For two reasons:

First, math is extremely unfun for almost everyone.  Only a handful of nerds sincerely finds the subject engaging.  I’m a big nerd, and I’ve done piles of math, yet I’ve never really liked it.

Second, math is highly cumulative.  Each major stage of math builds on the foundation of the previous stages.  If you reach adulthood and then decide to learn math to pursue a newly-discovered ambition, I wish you good luck, because you’ll need it.

I think I'm less experienced than Caplan is, but for whatever it's worth, my experience has been this: The main difference between kids who become successful later in life and kids who don't is that the successful ones learn how to engage in "pain today" for "gain tomorrow." It's the ability to relate a current very unpleasant task to a handsome reward in a far-distant future. 

The kids I know and knew learned this skill from practicing either sports or music. Once they learned it, though, they were able to apply that skill to things like math, computer languages, foreign languages, and anything else that ended up giving them an advantage later in life. 

So, I like Caplan's keyhole solution here a lot; but I also wonder what the best way to teach this kind of perseverance is. As I said, the only way I really know how to teach this skill to somebody is by introducing them to a sport or musical instrument and helping him or her excel. The process of tirelessly practicing a thankless task like free-throws or etudes, followed by eventual success, imparts upon the child an indelible sense that hard practice over the course of weeks and months produces excellence. Once you've learned that, nothing in life can stop you.

But, what's your opinion? How do you think we can best teach this skill to children?

2020-10-26

Virtue Signals

Here's another post I've been trying to write for a long time. This one's about letting other people know that you're a good person.

Ordinarily, we might call this kind of behavior "virtue signaling," but that, of course, is a loaded term these days. Nonetheless, there are ways that all of us try to demonstrate to other people that we are not fiendish knaves. 

After having spent decades of my life living among religious conservatives of different stripes, I've come to realize that, for many if not most religious adherents, the religion itself is less an expression of a person's metaphysical beliefs as it is an expression of the fact that a person wants to let other people know that he or she is good.

This is why "the one, true faith" is always the one you were born into. It's never the case that the great cosmic truth is the one that was taught to people on a different continent somewhere, it's always the one right there within your own community. There are plenty of people who study religion and come across one that profoundly speaks to them for various reasons, but for the average adherent, it's much more common that people follow the predominant faith because "that's what good people do." They want to be good people, so that's what they do: they go to church, they present themselves as god-fearing people, they wear the right clothes, say the right prayers, and use the right terminology. All of this is to let the people around them know that they are committed to being ethical by the standards of the surrounding community.

It is much more difficult to convince people that you are a good, ethical human being if you belong to a minority faith, or to no faith at all. Believe me, I've tried to explain to people the basis of my ethics and the fact that I live by good morals every day of my life. It's a tough sell to them, because what they know of good people is that good people are "good Christians," or "good Muslims," or whatever the case might be. To them, I have some explaining to do. It might not be fair, but it is what it is; whereas a person wearing a crucifix or a hijab has much less explaining to do within their own communities. Everyone can see that they are people of faith. Additional conclusions about their moral character naturally follow. 

And so it is that religion, especially nowadays, functions as a sort of social shorthand for "I'm a good person." 

I started thinking about this today because I discovered a newer kind of social signal that serves the same function. To a large extent, leftist politics are not so much a set of policy views as they are a signal to like-minded people that "I am a good person." Someone recently told me about his new favorite guitar player, and he was extremely excited to point out that she was also a woman, and a woman of color at that. We all listen to music with our ears, not with our implicit biases, so her gender and race identities were completely beside the point. Why even bring them up? Well, it's simple: he wanted to tell me that not only is this a great guitar player, but rest assured, he himself is also a trusted "ally" in the leftist cause. He didn't know that I didn't care about that, either. (Really, just tell me about the music, please.) But that's how it works.

Similarly, some people are very keen to tell me, when they learn that I used to live in Canada, that they themselves often dream of moving to Canada. I think the assumption there is that we are supposed to bond over the fact that Canada is more appropriately leftist than the savage United States. The information is presented as a signal to me, and I am suppose to use it to note that the person with whom I am speaking is a good person.

They are, in fact, just as much a good person as the other person I spoke to earlier, who might have said goodbye to me by saying, "Have a blessed day." 

It's easy for me, an atheist and a libertarian, to allow these kinds of comments to get on my nerves. Indeed, when I was very young and stuck in an incredibly closed religious conservative community, I considered it to be a kind of bullying. Over the years, however, I've grown to realize that the true purpose is simply to signal conformity to the idea of The Good. For the religious, it is the trappings of religion; for the left, it is the trappings of leftism. The point is not to spread or even to highlight either thing. The point is merely to present oneself as good.

Ever since I realized this, I've been interpreting these signals that way. It reduces a lot of conflict and confusion.

2020-10-20

Dating Advice

I wanted to write this post years ago, but at the time I originally conceived it, I was in a relatively new relationship with my now-wife, and I had been having a lot of dating conversations with friends about their own situations. I worried that writing this post then would make people think that I was writing specifically about them, or specifically about me. In a way, I suppose I would have been, but that doesn't mean my advice would have been wrong.

In the ensuing years, my relationship blossomed into a successful marriage, while the situations of those friends of mine didn't ultimately pan out. Forgiving me the small sample size, it appears that my approach is the better one. I think it's finally time I wrote my post on how to search for and choose a life partner. In other words, this is my post on dating advice.

Somehow

The approach most people take toward dating is that they meet someone "somehow." "Somehow" might be in school, or at work, or in a social club, or through a mutual friend, or at a party. The initial sparks fly, the connection is there, and so they agree to go on a date. From there, the two of them adopt "dating mentality," and it all goes downhill.

For people who have seemingly exhausted their potential for casual introductions, or for people who refuse to engage in them at all, there are options to skip the step where initial sparks fly and go straight to "dating mentality:" Tinder, Match.com, and so on. I don't have a problem with these platforms, since their main purpose is to introduce people who wouldn't otherwise have had the opportunity to meet. In my book, that's a good thing. But it's worth noting that it's not the only or best way to be introduced to a potential partner.

Dating Mentality

So, what is "dating mentality?" I compare this to the way some people choose to run when they want to get in shape. Caught up in images of things they have seen before, they hunch up their shoulders and scuffle down the sidewalk in bizarre display of "jogging." No one would ever run like that if they were being chased by a man-eating tiger. When you really need to run, you get the hell out of there. The human body knows how to run. So, why do people do that weird jogging motion? Because they think "that's how you jog."

"Dating mentality" is like that, only instead of running, it's dating. People engage in a bizarre set of behaviors that would come across as insane or rude in any other context. More to the point, no one would ever act like they date in a healthy marriage. So, why do people engage in "dating mentality?" Because they think "that's how you date."

What are some examples of "dating mentality?" Here are some, off the top of my head:

  • Endlessly shit-testing your date to find out if they can take the "real you," instead of presenting your true self as an open book and letting your date decide if that's what they want.
  • Concocting a complex set of rules about when you will and will not shake hands, hug, kiss, or have sex, rather than letting the relationship proceed organically and according to the desires of both participants.
  • Constructing a list of ideal character traits in a mate, and then pumping your date for information to determine whether they possess those traits. Another way of describing this is: Seeking out reasons to end the date and the relationship as early as possible, based on a pre-formed mental model.
  • Hastening the date and the relationship toward sex without letting the relationship proceed organically and according to the desires of both participants. This usually happens under the argument that "I'm just dating and having fun," or sometimes, "Hey, I have needs, and I'm looking for someone who can meet them."
Without a doubt, these are the kinds of behaviors that are sure to keep you single for a long time. If you want to stay single, by all means, do any and all things on this list. 
 
I can assure you that, so long as you continue to engage in "dating mentality," you will remain single until such time as you become exhausted by it. In fact, I suspect that a non-trivial number of marriages occur when two people who have been engaging in "dating mentality" become exhausted by it at the same time. There was nothing special about that particular relationship, they just both finally happened to reach a point where they couldn't take it anymore; and they happened to be dating each other at the time, so marriage was the next logical step. I do not think such marriages often end up happy.

Now that we know what not to do, let's think about what better thing to do instead.

Knowing What You Want Is The First Step Toward Actually Getting It

The first thing we should all do before we begin dating is develop a picture of what we want our lives to look like, say, twenty years into the future. Twenty years is long enough to overcome all the silly indecisive things like, "I'm not ready for kids," or "I want to be in a good place before I _______." Twenty years is the point after which you've figured all that stuff out, and you've proceeded to a life that reflects your true values. 

To wit, in twenty years, you'll either already have kids, because you want kids, or you definitely won't have kids, because you don't want them. In twenty years, you'll be living in your permanent dwelling, in your permanent location, be it the big city or the suburbs or the country. In twenty years, your career will be stable enough that you'll be able to make plans about the future. You'll likely have obtained the important things you need, such as a car or a house, or you will have paid off all or most of your student debt. None of those things will be top-of-mind in twenty years, and so what will remain is the kind of life you want to lead, according to your values.

This is important because it cuts straight to what you actually do value. We have a tendency to get caught up in things like, "I want my partner to be funny" or "I want my partner and I to be sexually compatible." That's all fine, as far as it goes, but what you really need to do is exclude all potential mates who aren't on the same life-path that you are. You're never going to be happy if you want to settle into a nice home, while your spouse wants to join the foreign service. You're never going to be happy if your spouse wants children, but you don't. You're never going to be happy if the two of you can't get the basic, fundamental vision of life more or less correct.

Don't Care About Anything That Doesn't Matter

The second step toward getting what you want is to stop caring about anything that doesn't speak directly to your vision of the future. In other words, if you've been carrying around the idea that your ideal mate comes from the same culture or religion as you, or that you'd never date an artist, or that you dislike people with long hair... just forget about all that

The right person for you is the one who can keep you satisfied in the long run. Superficial things like hair and hobbies won't matter to you in twenty years. Even supposedly significant things like culture are largely irrelevant. Honestly, in twenty years' time, it's going to matter a lot more that your spouse wants children than it will that she wants to raise them in the Jewish faith. And while you might object to Judaism (or Hinduism, or whatever it might be), none of those objections occupy your mind during the better part of any day. If you object so much to a person's cultural traditions that you can't let them do their thing for 20 minutes in the morning, or for two hours every Sunday, and that you're willing to give up something like children or sexual compatibility just so that you don't have to bear witness to an off-putting cultural quirk... I've got news for you: You're probably not going to make anyone happy and you should forget about the prospect of finding a life partner.

The lion's share of what you think you care about, in fact, doesn't matter. It won't matter in twenty years that your spouse is short, or bald, or black, or a "jock," or anything else. What matters is whether you've managed to build a life that looks like something you want to live in, a life you actually want to experience day in, day out. 

If your objection to a potential mate doesn't speak to that, then it simply isn't a credible objection.

Now That You Know What You Want, Be The Person Who Deserves It

The final bit of advice is the most important piece of the whole shebang. It's great that you want to date the hottest woman in your community; but if you don't take care of your looks, and you don't make much money, and you don't have a lot of talent... then it doesn't really matter. It's great that you have your heart set on a nice man who treats you gently, but firmly and who provides for you willingly and unconditionally; but if you spend most of your time eating snacks and binge-watching Netflix... then it doesn't really matter.

The point here is that the most attractive people to you are people that you are going to need to be attractive for. You can't just sit back and wait for the ideal person to discover you and decide of their own volition that, without having to make yourself into anything better than what you are, you're the best thing that ever happened to them. Get real. You're probably not even the best thing that happened to yourself.

All isn't lost, though. Like every other human being out there, you can be better than you are. If you're not fit, consider hitting the gym; it couldn't hurt. If you're not very good at making conversation with strangers, consider joining the Toastmasters or something; a first date is a series of conversations you have to make with a stranger. If you're not a very talented person, consider getting a new hobby and developing a knack for it; better to be dedicated to something interesting and attractive than to have to look your dreamgirl-or-guy straight in the eye and say, "Oh, you know, I just like hanging out."

If you want someone to love you, then be someone worth loving. Everyone has weaknesses and shortcomings to chip away at. You'll never be a different person, but it's painfully easy to make progress on your major shortcomings with minimal effort. Think of it this way, if you could guarantee yourself perpetual marital bliss for the rest of your life in exchange for $10,000, wouldn't you do it? It's a small price to pay for permanent bliss. If you could guarantee yourself a really good marriage by reading a few books, taking a coding bootcamp, or shedding 20 pounds permanently, wouldn't you do it?

In the grand scheme of things, making yourself into a much better person in order to win the heart of a worthy spouse is a very, very small price to pay for having a worthy spouse! Have you seen those couples who are the envy of everyone who sees them? Do you think they got there through dumb luck? Of course not. They worked hard to become the people they are today, and when they finally met each other, they were ready for the beautiful relationship they now get to have.

And it can happen to you. But you have to be ready for it. So, become the person your future spouse wants to date.

2020-10-17

Edward Van Halen, Rest In Peace

In light of the untimely death of Edward Van Halen, I felt inspired to listen to all of the band's studio work in chronological order. It was such a wonderful experience! It really was the best way to come to terms with his passing, and to enjoy what he gave to the world, to honor his memory. 

I thought I would share some of my thoughts after having listened to the full catalog in this way. These are just the thoughts I have after having dived deeply into the wonderful music of Van Halen.

1 - I honestly don't think there's a weak album in the whole catalog. We can say a lot about personal preferences, and there's no accounting for taste, but in terms of the quality of the music, every album is, in my opinion, excellent.

2 - When you listen to the albums back-to-back in chronological order, you get a much better feel for the underlying cohesiveness of the whole catalog. It's tempting to say there was a change in musical direction when Hagar joined the band, but if you listen to the compositions, it's really hard to make that case. 5150 and OU812 are natural, logical progressions from 1984.

3 - In general, all of the Van Hagar albums are extremely underrated. They are consistently musically interesting throughout, and Sammy Hagar was truly an incredible singer.

4 - Anyone who listens to "A Different Kind of Truth" with their ears on can tell that Wolfgang Van Halen is an incredible musician. It's just obvious. I don't understand how anyone could say or think otherwise. He's the bee's knees.

5 - About the only real gripe I have across all their albums is the fact that they did something really strange to Gary Cherone's voice on VHIII. I think if they had produced the vocals better on that album, it would have been better-received. That said, it is a pretty "out there" album for Van Halen, in terms of compositions and the semi-acoustic, softer tones employed, so I'm not surprised that most VH fans dislike it.

6 - For me, the most pleasant surprise was "Balance." I really love the eastern influences and the mystical lyrics. I think it's not Sammy's best vocal album, but the music is really, really good.

7 - Edward Van Halen created a really unique sonic niche with his compositions. There are elements of contemporary jazz seamlessly blended with hard rock and pop rock, and that is such a quirky blend. I think the contemporary jazz elements are what really define the VH sound - sue me! You can hear it! I can even hear the Allan Holdsworth influence. EVH has that same "chord sclaes" approach to his riffs, and yes also to his solos. It's absolutely lovely.

Anyway, if you have the chance to go through all their albums like I did, I encourage you to do so. It's a great experience.

2020-10-13

Texas: The Ups And The Downs

Over at Econlog, Bryan Caplan has written a post about his impressions of Texas, based on his recent trip/speaking tour of the state. He correctly identifies many of the multiplicitous positive aspects of Texas and life here. 

 Texas has a lot going for it, but there are a few downsides. The main downsides are:

(1) Sprawl: I'm all for new development, but a sea of identical-looking houses interspersed by the occasional fast food chicken restaurant does not make for very pleasant living.

(2) Antipathy for plants? The older areas of the Dallas/Fort Worth metroplex are very nice indeed, with enormous oak trees and beautiful parks. In the newer, sprawling areas, all trees are instantly mowed-down and replaced with lawn and concrete. This makes the landscape uglier, hotter, and more prone to flooding.

(3) Government corruption: Many of Texas' infrastructure projects are simply boondoggles, transfers of wealth from the taxpayers to the construction-company friends of politicians. Road construction is the classic example, in which miles of highway are torn up, and then rebuilt exactly as it was before. Rather than improving or widening the roads, they simply tear them up and rebuild them again, over and over, in an endless transfer of taxpayer money to construction companies.

There are a few other things I could point to that I dislike, but the simple fact of the matter is that no location is perfect-perfect. But, for a happy mix of good weather, fine people, excellent economic opportunities, and low cost of living, Texas circa-2020 is about as good a place as you're likely to find out there in the world. 

I think most of the people who dislike it here have what I would call niche criteria when it comes to choosing a place to live. You won't find purple mountain majesties or a large Lebanese diaspora here, for example. Most of what Texas is lacking consists of these sorts of niches. If someone were to say, "I'll never live in a place where I can't have a weasel as a pet!" or "I insist on paying a state-level income tax!" then, okay, Texas might not be for you.

Still, for the average Joe, Texas is a great place to be. No wonder people keep moving here.

2020-09-14

Lemonade Stand

(Or, How to Turn $37 Into Lemonade, And Then Into $50.)

Suppose you wanted to open a lemonade stand. Some internet searching reveals that the lemons, sugar, and water required to make lemonade add up to an overhead cost of about 37 cents per serving, in today's September 2020 dollars and price level. (Let's assume for simplicity's sake that you borrowed the table, the pitcher, the cups, etc.)

So, the cost to you is $0.37 per serving. You decide to sell your lemonade at a profit, so you choose a somewhat arbitrary price of $0.50, which earns you $0.13 per serving sold. 

Let us finally, and optimistically assume that you sell all the lemonade you make, and that you can make as much lemonade as you need to meet demand. You're clever enough to choose a good, legal location on a hot, sunny day, and so sell 100 servings per day whenever you decide to sell lemonade. You make a consistent profit of $13 per day. Not bad scratch for a little tike such as yourself.

Let's recap: Each day, you spend $37 at the grocery store for lemonade supplies, and you gain $50 from your customers. The difference between your cost and your revenue is $13, i.e. your profit.

Question: Where did this profit come from?

Yesterday, your customers were walking down the street with $50 in their collective pockets, and today, they are walking down the street with lemonade. You turned their $50 into lemonade; they turned your lemonade into $50.

Isn't it odd that you turned $37 into lemonade, but your customers turned $50 into lemonade? What happened? Did they over-pay?

No. While it's true that your customers could very well have gone to the grocery store and bought their own lemons and sugar, there are a few problems with doing so. First of all, it's inconvenient for them if they want lemonade now, relative to just buying a glass from you. Second, they'll likely end up with a surplus of lemons, sugar, lemonade, or all three; that is, they probably only want a glass of lemonade, not an entire lemonade stand. Third, when you went to the grocery store, you weren't thirsty; they were.

The revenue you make at your lemonade stand represents not only the cost of lemonade inputs, but also your customers' underlying sense of value, which is determined by convenience and thirst. 

When you turned $37 into lemonade, you weren't thirsty and you weren't inconvenienced. You ended up with a surplus of lemonade on purpose, so you could sell it. You also invested your surplus convenience and your surplus satiety into your lemonade stand.

At the end of the day, you turned $37 into lemonade, but then you turned convenience and thirst into $13 cash.

This process of turning other people's thirst into money is about as close to magic as the world gets, and it's one reason I've always been fascinated by economics.

2020-09-02

An Idea For Improving Politics

Almost everyone agrees that the political situation in America today is dire. Very dire. Political polarization is at an all-time high, and neither of the major political parties seems equipped to reduce that polarization. The Republican Party has more or less traded in its old platform ideas for the sake of advancing a cult of personality, and not even a particularly attractive personality. (Seriously, have you ever heard anyone since before 2015 say that they want to be like Donald Trump or that they emulate him as a person?) Meanwhile, the Democratic Party is being held captive by an increasingly shrill and literally destructive mob of critical race theorists whose ultimate objective is to destroy, not racism, but capitalism. Both sides are becoming increasingly violent, where here "violent" means, "literally engaged in causing physical harm to members of the opposing political team."

It's scary out there, and there is very little hope for improvement. Granted, a vote for Joe Biden at least appears to be a vote for establishing the old status quo - not that that was a particularly attractive thing, but merely that it seems better than four years of a worsening political environment under Trump. That, of course, assumes that four years of the Biden-flavored status quo would improve the political environment at all. I'm hopeful that it will, but there's no guarantee, and a wide array of hypothetical scenarios in which things could get worse. 

If only someone had a good idea for improving America's political environment. Lucky you, faithful readers! I have given this issue a few moments of idle thought, and have unsurprisingly solved the whole puzzle over the course of a can of La Croix.

It came to me as I was reading a friend's Facebook status. He remarked that the federal US legislature had passed a particularly low number of bills this year: 158, compared to the usual 500 or so. His point was that the obstructionists in the legislature were preventing all the other well-intentioned legislators from doing their job, which is of course to create new laws and pass them.

The astute, libertarian reader will immediately note that my friend's assumption is that many of the problems we currently face as a country stem from there being too few laws. If the legislature could only pass more of them, more of our country's problems would be solved!

Not to give away the ending of this post too quickly here, but the astute, libertarian reader will have already guessed how this thing ends, anyway.

I thought to myself, ("Self," I thought), What if one of the underlying problems here is that we see the government's job as being "to create new laws and regulations, and to enforce those that already exist?" In such an environment, a "successful" politician will be the one that passes more new laws, and/or enforces the existing ones more stringently. Assuming all politicians have only the best of intentions (ha, ha), the most successful politician in a world like that will be the one that succeeds at creating and enforcing laws; over time, politicians will become more successful at doing so; ever-more laws will have to be created, and ever-more-stringent enforcement mechanisms will have to be devised to ensure the "success" of the political system, subject to its assumed purpose.

What if we instead defined the government's job to be something like, "to serve as the final arbiter of conflict?" In such an environment, a "successful" politician would be the one that most effectively arbitrates conflict. The goal of legislating would not be to simply create and enforce new laws, but to create laws that reduce conflict and eliminate conflicting laws. The goal of the executive would not be to merely enforce the law, but to reduce conflict with the law. The goal of the judiciary would be to literally arbitrate between two conflicted parties. The more conflict is reduced in such a system, the more "successful" politicians are deemed. 

That all sounds a bit idealistic, but I'm not really articulating a view about the mechanics of government. Rather, I'm articulating a view about how ordinary people can think about government, such that our political environment improves. 

Change the way we think about government, in other words, and we might just change our political system.

There is no room for cynics in this idea, though. Cynicism is a cancer that destroys everything it touches, and it's probably responsible for most of the terrible things you see out there, at least as far as politics goes. 

So, if you want to be hopeful, maybe it's time to try my idea on for size. How might your attitudes and opinions change if you thought of government as a conflict-resolution mechanism, rather than a law-enforcement mechanism?