2021-04-12

What's Your Agenda?

As time goes on, the better I appreciate the perspective of people like Thomas Sowell, who has mostly stayed out of the libertarian "scene" because he's not a joiner. For understandable reasons, he doesn't want to join a crowd of like-minded people. Instead, he prefers to use his mind to follow the facts and lead him to his own conclusions. 

Of course, everyone says that this is what they do. Everyone says that they just analyze the facts and the data and make up their minds accordingly. The truth is, however, that most people filter their information through ideology. They embrace or privilege any fact that fits their preconceived notions and reject or penalize any fact that stands in opposition to what they want to be true. And, true enough, nobody's perfect.

Still, imperfection is one thing; actively fostering confirmation bias is something else entirely. Anyone who knows what confirmation bias is ought to be actively engaged in avoiding it. Sadly, many people know what it is, and work actively to promote it anyway.

For example: I recently saw a web-comic that claimed that all those who oppose allowing transsexual girls to compete with cisgendered girls in girls' competitive sports are really just bigoted against transsexuals. The exact claim was that you don't have to scratch very far beneath the surface to uncover anti-trans bias. I responded to this web-comic with some biological facts about how testosterone impacts athletic performance, and concluded my comment by saying that I didn't think everyone who is reluctant to allow such competition is automatically biased against transsexuals. The reply? "I never said that they were." No, the person to whom I addressed my comment did not - but the comic that we were all discussing sure did! How did that context get dropped?

Second example: In a discussion about how more people die from suicide by hand guns than are murdered by long guns, a friend of mine quoted someone who was arguing in favor of greater restrictions on hand guns. I emphasized a point in that quote, highlighting the fact that hand guns aren't seen to be as "spooky" as, say, AR-15s, and thus they don't get as much attention in gun control debates. Many people responded, essentially asking me what my point was. But that was my point. All of it. I didn't have a further agenda.

What these two examples highlight is a practice I've taken on recently, which I do increasingly more often. Rather than make a broad and all-encompassing argument in favor of X or Y, I like to find a simple point that every reasonable person can agree with, and highlight it. It has to be a factual point, and it has to be mostly unobjectionable. What I find is that highlighting this point also tends to highlight my interlocutors' own cognitive biases. They think I'm trying to "get them" (actual verbatim quote of one such person, by the way), when they've merely "gotten themselves."

To correct their opinions, they'll either have to come up with different reasoning for the same conclusion, or refine their reasoning to account for an undisputed fact that favors the other side. That's my agenda. Sticking to and emphasizing the bald facts and forcing people to consider them when they articulate their own points. 

Their doing so will make us all better off.

2021-03-26

"Long Covid"

The news of the day is that so-called "long covid," persistent cases of COVID-19 that never seem to go away even after months, is possibly not real. Much of the data documenting "long covid" consists of self-reported survey data collected by an organization lead by "spiritualists," and many of the symptoms associated with it are identical to the scientifically debunked "chronic Lyme disease."

What could be going on here?

When I read about this, I'm struck by my own personal experiences. Diabetics like myself often take a long time to fight even simple things like the flu and the common cold. Such is life with a weakened immune system. A cold that other people get over in two or three days can sometimes persist in my body for two or three weeks. This is a fact: I can't "fake" or imagine three weeks of a runny nose. 

Coughs and chest congestion are somewhat easier to fake and/or imagine. One can truly believe that there's something in one's chest without there actually being something there. Headaches, fevers (especially mild ones), body pains, lethargy, fatigue, and so on, are all symptoms that can be imagined just as well as they can be experienced in reality. Put slightly differently, these symptoms are as real when they are psychosomatic as they are when they are the result of a viral infection.

When I was a young boy, I caught some stomach bug. My family and I were all downstairs watching MacGuyver when a sudden wave of nausea swept over me, and I threw up all over the carpet. I felt physically awful, but I was also mortified by the fact that I had just puked in front of everyone, that I hadn't had enough time to run to the bathroom. I can still see it in my memories as clear as day. Rightly or wrongly, the experience got into my head and stuck with me a long time. I developed a bit of a "complex" over it. For months - years? - I had to sleep on my stomach with a pan beside the bed. Every little twitch and gurgle in my stomach seemed like evidence that I was going to vomit. I'd wake up in the middle of the night with an imaginary stomach ache and sit with my bed pan, trembling, waiting to throw up. I'd run into the bathroom and just wait.

You could say that I was suffering from "long stomach flu." I had a little mental thing that I eventually out-grew. But were my stomach pains and gurgles real? Absolutely. One of the things that cured me was the realization that I could make myself feel nauseous just by thinking about it, and that before I knew it, things were really gurgling in there. 

The root cause of my "long stomach flu" was fear. I had had a real stomach bug which, when combined with a situation that seemed traumatic for a little kid, because a genuine and perhaps justified fear in my mind. Then the fear took over and manifested itself in physical symptoms that lasted a truly long time. To this day, I'm a bit scared to vomit, and I try to avoid it if at all possible - even when it would probably help me feel better. 

But the stomach flu is small potatoes compared to COVID-19. Today, society is confronted with an illness that, when serious, results in hospitalization, intubation, scarring of the lung and heart tissue, terrible fevers, and slow suffocation to death. Even when it's not a serious case, patients are forced to wonder if they will eventually develop deadly symptoms, and the timeframe between minor covid and terminal covid appears to be days. That is genuinely terrifying. As for those of us who have not been infected, COVID-19 has held us captive indoors, forced us to wear masks in public, stolen hugs and handshakes from us, paralyzed our economy, and created a kind of mass hysteria that many believe to be completely justified. 

In short, COVID-19 is terrifying enough to make manifest any number of psychosomatic symptoms, even in people who have never been infected by it. Rather than dismiss their suffering, we should compassionately acknowledge it; but, we should acknowledge it for what it is.

Those patients who must recover from pulmonary and myocardial scarring will probably take a long time to return to noromal. This is to be expected, since wounds take time to heal. During that time, such people will probably feel weak and sometimes lightheaded from lack of oxygen and/or low blood pressure, and/or any other predictable symptoms that come from such a significant cardiovascular ordeal. COVID-19 is certainly not unique in its ability to cause this kind of lengthy recovery. Pneumonia of various causes will produce a similar long recovery in patients who experience severe cases.

As for those patients who have few remaining physical signs of a COVID-19 infection, and still report spooky-but-vague "long covid" symptoms like aches and head "fog" and fatigue, it seems more likely to me that they are struggling with fear and psychosomatic problems. That's okay! We've all been through quite an ordeal with COVID-19, even those who never contracted it. 

We should not, however, sink over a billion dollars of public funds into chasing a phantom. Treat people with compassion and listen to their stories. Hug them and give them emotional support. But encourage them to rise above their fears, or at least to be aware of them. The last thing anyone needs is a false excuse to be coddled.

I'll say one final thing in closing. Early in the pandemic, I noticed that the number of people claiming in casual conversation to be "high risk for covid" seemed to exceed expectations based on disease prevalence. That is, a lot of people seemed to be adopting an "out of my way, I'm high-risk!" attitude. This attitude was not without its rewards. Remember that early in the pandemic, grocery stores had reserved shopping hours for high-risk populations. High-risk people were first to be admitted to the hospital, first to receive medical treatment, first to receive the covid vaccine. They also received extra lenience from their employers, and extra patience from friends and family. There were, and are, many incentives for people to claim high-risk status with respect to COVID-19.

Thus, it is not out of the question that many people who make these claims, and who make claims about "long covid" are, in fact, manifesting some form of Munchausen Syndrome, feigning illness for attention, sympathy, or personal benefit.

2021-03-23

Boys Don't Cry

A friend of mine on social media posted a web comic yesterday about "toxic masculinity." The gist of the web comic was that "toxic masculinity" was essentially the insistence that boys not cry or show any emotion or hint of struggle. When boys encounter pain or difficult, we should be strong, keep a stiff upper lip, hold our emotions in. The argument is that this insistence that men suppress their emotions is the essence of "toxic masculinity."

A few things are worth noting here.

First, I don't think this is quite what women have in mind when they complain about "toxic masculinity." Sure, women would prefer it if men were better communicating about their emotions, but compared to things like rape and rape culture, men's emotional intelligence is really a secondary concern. 

Second, it's true that men and boys are often encouraged to suppress their negative emotions, and it's undeniable that this takes a toll on our mental health.

But most importantly, I'd like to point out that there is an explanation for this that doesn't involve "the patriarchy." We know that among children, girls' emotional regulation is superior to that of boys. We also know that mothers of girls show better emotional regulation than mothers of boys. Taken together, what this implies is that young boys will tend toward more emotional outbreaks than young girls, and that the children's mothers will respond better to the girls than to the boys. "Stop crying!" isn't some nascent, diabolical, patriarchical social conditioning ingrained into us; it might simply be that children with worse emotional regulation are more often told to stop crying.

Once parents have practiced telling their boys to stop crying and suck it up long enough, it turns into a habit. Through that habituation, it becomes a mantra, and boys end up with more emotional repression than women do. 

Granted, some boys probably are told to stop crying for social reasons. In my family, we were all (boys and girls) socialized to be emotionally repressed, and that's caused a lot of problems for us. My point here is not that there is one, single, non-patriarchical cause for all male emotional repression. My point is merely that this phenomenon can happen even when it has nothing to do with the patriarchy

And, in general, we should resist and be skeptical of any intellectual framework that seeks to tie all social problems to a single, underlying cause. 

2021-03-16

Mindset

 After having gone through a year's worth of unexplained symptoms and puzzled doctors, in October of 2009, I finally received a frantic call from my primary care physician, telling me to go to the hospital as soon as I possibly could. I arrived at about two o'clock in the afternoon, and was rushed through a series of interviews I can barely remember now. There seem to have been a couple of triage points, several conversations with a nurse practitioner, a lot of waiting around, and then finally a rather anti-climactic visit from an endocrine specialist.

In her Irish accent, she told me, "I don't quite know how to tell you this, but you're diabetic, and..." She trailed off briefly, probably considering whether there was anything emotionally helpful she could provide for me in that moment. Then, apparently deciding that there wasn't, she continued, "We're going to give you an insulin shot today, and--and you're going to be on insulin for the rest of your life."

"What?!"

"Yeah..." she told me. Then she said something that I don't remember, which somewhat conveyed empathy, but which also conveyed the urgency with which she needed to inject insulin into me.

From there, I was led into another room, where another nurse introduced me to my first insulin pen. I hadn't had time to process what was happening to me. This had all happened within about 30 minutes, and the part where I found out that I was henceforth an insulin-dependent diabetic had only happened a couple of minutes ago. These people wouldn't let me catch my breath. I was being rushed from one end of the ward to the next, from room to room, person to person, each one hurrying through a set of instructions that I don't remember; that I never had any chance of ever remembering in the first place. 

The nurse who showed me the insulin pen quickly went through instructions on how to give myself an injection. The tutorial was over in less than a minute, at which point she sort of gestured toward all the paraphernalia in between us and said, "Do you want me to help you with your first shot?"

That was it.

The confusion in my mind suddenly melted away. Everything sort of melted away, everything except a sense of purpose. I said, "Well, I might as well get used to it now. I'll be doing it for the rest of my life." I took the needle and the insulin pen, pulled off the seal, screwed the needle onto the pen, dialed in my dose, jabbed it into my stomach, and pressed the button.

I've been a diabetic ever since.

*        *        *

While I didn't know everything there was to know about managing my diet as a type 1 diabetic, a similar shift happened to me when I got home that evening. One day, I was eating ice cream cake and jalapeno poppers, the next day I was meticulously counting my carbohydrates and denying myself anything that required an injection. 

I don't know how it works for other people, but that's how it worked for me. There was no use crying about every meal I was going to eat from then on. There was no use complaining about it. There was no use comparing my new diet to the freedom and decadence I had enjoyed as a normal, healthy twenty-something only a few hours before. Once my mind had absorbed the fact that I was a type 1 diabetic, my behavior followed. 

Adjusting to a new chronic condition isn't easy, especially if you really enjoyed the life you had lead up to that point. But my thinking was, what other choice do I have? It wasn't as if I could go back to living in a world in which I wasn't diabetic. The task at that point was to figure out how to thrive under my current set of conditions, not despair over what those conditions were. It did take me a long time to fully emotionally accept my condition, but that was a grieving process, not a struggle against reality.

Grief itself is a natural part of human existence. We all grieve. For most people, grief - however emotionally significant it is - does not put a halt to the other aspects of our lives. Grief makes us sad, and causes us to think carefully about the present state of our lives. It isn't a denial of reality, but rather an acknowledgement of it: the person we loved is now gone, the life we led is now impossible, the precious thing we had is now lost. Whatever the cause, grief is a transition from one set of circumstances to another. If someone fails to make the transition, that failure isn't caused by the grief, but by our own refusal to evolve.

*        *        *

Granted, some transitions are easier than others. When a man becomes a diabetic, he transitions from a general identity, like "I am a man," to a new identity that involves the condition: "I am a diabetic man." Seeking out that new identity and discovering what it means on a personal level is a large part of the journey itself. Strange as it may sound to some, I consider this to be an easier transition than when we lose a loved one. I can become a diabetic man, but a man who loses a father cannot become a man without a father. Once you have a father, you are always a person with a father, even after you lose him. 

So, I do understand that some transitions are harder than others, that some grief is more uniquely difficult to overcome, and that one person's struggles don't always map with parity to another person's struggles.

Even so, grief is a transition. No matter how difficult, and no matter how long it takes to fully process, grief is a doorway into another room, a next chapter of life. (Luckily for us, not every new chapter of life requires that we grieve to make the transition!) What some struggle with is acknowledging that the previous chapter has already ended; that room no longer exists. Either we step through our grief, into the new room, or we try to exist in a nothing-space, an emotional nether-region.

What we can't do is go backwards.

*        *        *

A friend of mine recently committed to making a positive change toward better health and fitness. He made his commitment public in a bid to keep himself accountable. I congratulated him and made myself available to him; after all, I do happen to know a few things about health and fitness. He confessed that he felt a little intimidated by me, and said, "Anyone who has run 30+ miles has a different set of mental skills than me."

This is a good friend, but clearly he doesn't read my blog, ha ha...

I wanted to tell him about the power of mindset. I wanted to tell him about my firm belief, confirmed again and again in a variety of different experiences, that everyone has all the same stuff. After all, we are all human beings. While our genetics all differ slightly, none of us is so different that he has a completely different mental skill set. 

I also wanted to explain to him that this very notion, the idea that something immutable between us has caused me to pursue a lifetime of fitness while causing him to pursue something else entirely, is the belief that limits his progress. The worst thing we can ever tell ourselves as we pursue a goal is that we are fundamentally incapable of being the kind of person who excels at such goals. 

No, the first step toward achieving any goal is acknowledging the reality that such a goal is achievable by people like us. Why pursue something if, by definition, you're not the kind of person who can attain it? Instead, we must reach for our aspirations under the belief that, truly, we can do it. That doesn't mean for certain that we will, but isn't it nice to know that it's possible? Indeed, isn't it necessary to know that it's possible? Has anyone ever achieved the impossible?

I don't recall ever hearing an Olympian explain in an interview, "I knew all along that everyone else was faster than I am and that I didn't have the right stuff to win an Olympic gold medal, but by the end of the race - gee whiz! - I had won!"

*        *        *

Of course, mindset isn't merely about achieving something. The reason that sorting out your mindset has the effect of helping you achieve something is because if we fixate on our limiting beliefs or on transitions we haven't been able to make, then new things we want to do are just off the table. In a way, it's less about having a "positive mindset" than it is about not having a negative one. 

Any pessimist realist will tell you that positive thinking isn't enough to get you where you want to be. You also have to put in all the hard work, and get a few lucky breaks along the way, and eventually serendipity happens. However, negative thinking will definitely screw you over before you even get started. 

And if that's what negative thinking does to your attempts at achieving something, think about what it does for your daily life. We don't always want to get up and get ready for work in the morning, but who do you think is going to have a better day: the man who groans and grumbles and frowns and complains the whole time, or the man who focuses his attention on whatever he has to look forward to that day? 

I can tell you from experience that my days pass a lot more quickly when I get to drive my daughter to her ballet class once a week. Those are simply wonderful days. We hurry to get ready, and then we drive together, just the two of us, to her class; we listen to our favorite music as we drive, or else we have a nice conversation together. Then she goes to class, and I go for a walk around the scenic neighborhoods surrounding her dance studio. When it's over, we drive home, she tells me about her class, and then we get takeout from a favorite restaurant and everybody sits upstairs eating and watching our favorite TV shows. It's become a whole ritual, one that we all look forward to, and one that we all find very satisfying. 

Not every day can be that fun, but simply by virtue of the fact that my Wednesday evenings are so nice, my Wednesday work days pass by quickly and happily. That's a positive mindset for you.

You might have had a "divorced friend," a friend who went through a particularly bad break-up, and it soured his or her perspective on everything. So every time you talk with your friend about your own spouse or partner, your comments are met with derision, or sarcasm, or else steered toward a rant about your friend's ex and how bad they made everything. How much fun is it to spend time with these people? 

A few days ago, I wrote about how, after going through my own break up, I decided to turn myself into the kind of person who my ideal partner would want to date; unlike other people I knew, who allowed their break-ups to make them cynical. I think the results speak for themselves.

*        *        *

All of these things come down to having the right mindset. Whether you're trying to overcome a bad situation, trying to achieve something remarkable, trying to lose weight, trying to find the love of your life, or just trying to make it through Wednesday, having the right mindset is the power that will carry you through.

And if it doesn't? You're still not out anything, because you will have spent most of the day thinking positive things and being happy, rather than thinking negative things and being sad. I'm not a fan of Pascal's Wager, but in this case I think it works. If you maintain a positive mindset, and things don't go your way, then you haven't really lost anything. If you maintain a negative mindset, things still might not go your way, but what you've lost is the happiness you could have felt if you had a better attitude. And in the meantime, that positive thinking really could end up paying off, and then you have both the happiness your attitude brought you, along with whatever victory you were hoping for at the end of the day. 

2021-03-10

Individuality And Getting Rich

I was talking about standards of living with a friend of mine. His position - one that you've probably heard repeated in the media multiple times - is that people are worse off now than they were 20 years ago. I produced data to show otherwise: Disposable income and the wage cost index have both out-paced the consumer price index. I know that's not the whole story, but the point is that the prima facie evidence suggests that people are much better off now than they used to be; moreover, in order to make the opposite case, you have to get into a rather complex analysis of the economic indicators, and with that complexity comes additional nuance and additional debate. All said and done, it's incredibly difficult to argue that people are worse off now than they were 20 years ago. Meanwhile, it's rather easy to argue that we're better off now. So, that's what I believe.

Another friend of ours joined the conversation by asking: If disposable income is so far up, why do Millennials have such high rates of debt and low rates of home ownership? The answer to that question is that Millennials have high rates of student debt; in other words, Millennials prefer taking on debt for their schooling, rather than taking on debt for their housing. Others might disagree with their preferences, but that's beside the point. The prefer what they prefer - that's not a problem with disposable income. (Besides, as anyone with a mortgage or a student loan knows, it's possible to have both debt and disposable income at the same time.)

Well, this conversation got me thinking about wealth, and about the choices I've made in my own life. I'm not wealthy by any stretch of the imagination, but I'm more comfortable than others. What did I do that other people couldn't, wouldn't, or didn't?

I was still maintaining this blog back in 2012, when my wife and I moved from Canada to the United States. We deliberately moved to a place with a low cost of living and low housing prices. On one income and zero credit history, we were able to purchase a duplex within the year at a pretty low price; but keep in mind that we bought less than what we could afford. We lived in one half of the duplex and rented out the other half. We paid the mortgage off early, bought a detached home, and rented out both sides of the duplex. We now had two incomes along with the rental income from the duplex. That's when life started to feel really comfortable for us.

This is not a revolutionary way of living. Thousands if not millions of young couples get started in just the same way. All it requires having little to no debt (so, don't buy anything that requires debt - including an expensive college education) and the willingness to postpone your "forever home" for a little while (live in a cheap duplex instead of your dream home for as long as you can stand it).

Everything that we did 10 years ago was pretty much the opposite of what was popular, normal, and expected at the time. My wife and I had good jobs in Ottawa and were making pretty good money. We were on the verge of sinking $300,000 or more into a home in the Ottawa area, paying 14% sales tax on everything, spending lots of money on winter accessories every year, paying Canadian tax rates, and so on. When people found out we intended to move, they were surprised; but when they found out we wanted to move to Texas, they tried to talk us out of it. They made fun of us for it. We were doing the "wrong" thing.

There were obvious reasons to move to Texas, however. Texas has no state income tax, which saves us a lot of money every year. Even now, home prices and real estate prices are far below the national average, making it a great place to invest in income properties. With year-round warmish weather, I'd be able to run outside all year long, keeping my diabetes in check, and thus saving a lot on future medical expenses. Food is cheap here, too. 

So all of the arguments against moving to Texas involved the fact that Texas isn't particularly cool, while all the arguments in favor of moving to Texas involved minimizing expenses and maximizing potential revenues. Economically, the choice was plain as day. We simply had to sacrifice our X-factor. I think it was a fair trade.

When we became landlords, people made fun of us then, too. They called us "slumlords" and talked about how they'd never want to have to "deal with" tenants. Some people told me that the idea was "lame," which I guess just means that it's an uncool idea. But economically, it enabled us to afford a home, food, clothing, and living expenses on just one person's income, while my wife waited for just the right job opportunity to come along. Eventually it did, and she parlayed that opportunity into quite a great career. For a while, however, she had to be the uncool one being supported by a white man husband while she stayed at home without a job. 

When you get down to brass tacks, the secret of our success, to the extent that we are successful, is that we didn't allow social trends to dictate our behavior. In order to be successful, in order to make a really comfortable living and expand your horizons a bit, you have to be willing to do the uncool thing. You have to do really "lame" things like:
  • Moving to an uncool place
  • Taking an uncool job
  • Taking an uncool risk
  • Starting an uncool business
  • Not listening to all your cool friends
There might still be an opportunity for you, dear reader, to come to Texas, buy cheap land, and do what I did; but every passing year makes it slightly more difficult for you. The next generation of "people like me" will need to look at even more "uncool" places to repeat a similar pattern. You might have to move to Mississippi or Kansas. You might have to live in a small town. You might have to delay going to college until after you've set yourself up with a good income property or two. Heck, you might even have to go to trade school instead.

I mean, who knows? I don't know how to "make it" in the future, I only know how to "make it" in the past, and perhaps the present.

What I do know is that in order to "make it," you're going to have to do things that are different from everyone else, different to the point of being uncool, different to the point where your friends tease you relentlessly and your family thinks you've become a crazy Republican who moved to Texas to fight abortions and socialism. (Yep, that's what my family thinks.)

Getting rich mostly means being able to recognize things that will be cool before they are actually cool. A lot of people will criticize you along the way, but that's how it goes. If doing what everyone else does was the way to get rich then everyone else would be rich. If they're not, then you have good evidence that what they all choose to do is probably not going to make you rich, either. 

So, don't be afraid to be uncool, take a risk, and be different. You might find out that that's what works in the end.

2021-03-03

How To Meet The Love Of Your Life

When I was fresh out of college, I was working at a place where lots of young people my age worked. It was a lot of fun, because we all liked to laugh and hang out together. Every day at work was like spending time with a big group of friends. Those are always the best workplaces, at least when you're young.

One of my fellow coworkers - let's call her S - was something of a workplace stereotype: she was young, very beautiful, had recently been through a breakup, and had thus started to sleep around a lot, and consequently a lot of the young men in the workplace had started to pay a lot of extra attention to her. She enjoyed the attention, and they enjoyed giving it to her, and the rest, as they say, is history. 

At the time, I didn't fully understand this dynamic. It wasn't until a few years later, after I had worked for a few different employers and observed the same phenomenon again and again that I finally wrapped my head around it. I remember working in a big office in Ottawa, and there was one very attractive and newly hired young woman there. Let's call her L. L spent half her time joking innocently with the men in the office and the other half of the time talking about her boyfriend. But she was 22 years old and fresh out of college, and all the creepy old men in the office knew she was going to soon break up with her boyfriend and inevitably start sleeping around. They were hanging on for their chance, when it inevitably happened. And it did. 

I don't fault anyone for "shooting their shot," but it bothered me a lot that many of the guys surrounding L all the time were twenty years older than she was, and married. They were creeps. L couldn't see it, because she was young, naive, and convinced that all these creeps were just fun guys to hang out with at work. It was a path to being used.

That was years after I met S, but S was in a similar situation. S had a lot of other issues going on with her, as well: she had unresolved parental baggage, had experienced a certain amount of abuse, was possibly bisexual in an extremely conservative community, and so on. But she was also a very nice young lady with a terrific sense of humor, and she made great conversation. So she and I became fast friends.

One time, S and I were talking. She mentioned that she gets lonely, and that was one of the reasons she got attached to so many guys. I suggested that she try hanging out with friends instead. I told her that she had lots of friends, and she should spend her time with them if she felt lonely.

When she heard this, she laughed, and said, "And what if I feel like having sex? Should I call up my friend Breanne and say, 'Hey, can you help me out with this?'"

I laughed, too. But I didn't reply.

*        *        *

Although S and I were good friends and very compatible at the time, we never got together. I ended up in a relationship with a very different kind of woman. Let's call that woman M. M was funny, smart, and one of the most terrific friends I ever had.

M was also depressed, a fact I didn't initially notice or understand about her. Being with M gradually slid into a very difficult relationship. Prozac Nation is one of the most accurate portrayals of depression I have ever seen on film; being in a relationship with M often times felt a lot like being a character in Prozac Nation. Perhaps a better man could have persevered in a relationship like that. As for me, I didn't have the right stuff. M and I went our separate ways.

Building a life together with someone involves creating a trajectory for yourself. Your mutual aspirations fuse together into a coherent plan forward, and everything you do becomes a march toward your aspirational goal. Or, one of you is crushingly depressed and neither of you can see beyond the fog descending all around you. A bad relationship - even between good people - will rob you of your sense of self and steal from you any kind of trajectory you once had. You become a very different person than you are used to being, a very different person than the one you always wanted to be. Your life becomes a game of perpetuating the relationship, of always trying to save it from the inevitable.

Truly, you can live your whole life that way. What happened to me, however, was that I made a sort of rational realization one day: If I fight this hard in a relationship this bad, imagine what I might be able to achieve if I fought that hard for a relationship that was even just a little bit better. I knew what kind of effort I was capable of; I had been putting in that effort for years. What if there was someone out there who was capable of putting in even a fraction of that effort... for me?

*        *        *

Like many people who go through break-ups, I had spent months breaking up with M and not even realizing it. I got out of a dead-end public service job and into a really exciting consulting job. I stopped shaving my head. I started training hard as a runner again. I wrote a dozen really good songs. I even changed what soap I was using. It was a metamorphosis I simply didn't recognize until M and I called things off, and I moved out. Moving out even entailed getting a new apartment, and buying a new car. And of course that new job required a new wardrobe. An outside observer might have said that I had become a completely different person, but the truth is that I had become more of myself. 

That in itself is a whole story that needs telling, but what matters here is that I had stripped myself of the pieces of my identity that weren't actually mine to begin with. Those pieces belonged to the relationship I was in, and the identity that went along with it. The new pieces were the ones I put there by choice, deliberately, based on my own beliefs about who I really am.

This was my crossroads. At this point, I could go the way of S or L. I was young, gainfully employed, fit, attractive, and surrounded by beautiful people who also didn't mind being surrounded by me. 

*        *        *

I had already undergone a significant metamorphosis. It occurred to me that I might take it further. What if, instead of just becoming a better person, I decided to shoot for the moon? What if, instead of living a better life, I aimed to live an ideal life? 

I thought about what an ideal life might actually be like. If I could be doing anything with myself, what would that be? What is the kind of thing I've always dreamed of, but which I've never dared to attempt?

Well, people have all kinds of dreams. Some dream of being rich and famous, others dream of being captains of industry or CEOs; some want to become artists and undertake the Bohemian life, others have wanderlust and set out to see the world. Some have simple dreams, like being parents or living in an old farmhouse; others hatch complex schemes of achieving a list of accomplishments at specified points in their lives.

When I thought about the kind of life I dreamed of living, I thought about a peaceful little beach I saw in Central America. I thought about the humble but beautiful coffee estates in the mountains of El Salvador. I imagined a life in which I could live in one of those nice, small little open-air villas, drinking coffee, picking up groceries on a motorcycle, and spending my days strumming my guitar on the beach. It's not for everyone, but it's what I wanted. Maybe, while I was there, I would meet a local woman who wanted to spend her time similarly. 

With this thought in mind, I started taking small steps toward my dream. What would it take to accomplish something like that? I knew I needed a lot more money, and so I started working on my professional development. I started practicing my Spanish daily, and listening to Spanish language music and radio programs. I got rid of my TV and spent that time reading books and bettering myself. 

For a while, that became my life. I worked hard all day, put in overtime, went home and worked out, ate dinner, and then read and studied. In a way, it was lonely, but it was also extremely productive. I felt optimistic for the future, and each small thing I did in a day seemed like a tiny step I was taking in the direction of my dreams.

That was when I discovered the secret.

*        *        *

I had a vision of the future and a small amount of momentum taking me toward it. What I soon discovered is that people gravitate toward these kinds of vectors. In the dating market and the market for friendship, people are attracted to those who know where they're going, even if that destination is different from what they themselves prefer.

You could think of it like this: millions of other 28-year-old men in the world had good jobs and a reasonably sunny disposition; only a few knew what they wanted out of life.

Of course, here I must pause to point out that many 28-year-old men know what they want out of life, and what they want is lots of casual sex and some good times. That's not a vision for a lifetime, that's a vision for next Saturday night. People aren't attracted to a great vision of next Saturday night - at least, not the kind of people you want to spend your life with. People are attracted to a great vision for a lifetime. 

I met many women during this period of my life, and more to the point, many women met me. That is, I suddenly found myself the center of a great deal of positive attention. That was great. Although I met many women, I did not date many women. This is where my path diverged from that of S and L.

I had another friend we'll call A. A lived thousands of miles away, and was in a similar situation as I was. We both had our own chosen visions of the future and wanted to achieve them. We were both interested in finding a person to share it with. But, while I was searching for the kind of woman I definitely knew wouldn't hurt me like M did, A was not being as deliberate in her search.

Then, one day, we were IM-ing about our respective dating lives. While I was working my way closer and closer toward the kind of women I felt really good about dating, A had been on a string of dates and was casually having sex with a number of men, with no serious prospects on the horizon.

I started telling A about my philosophy, about how I had devised a vision of the future that I wanted, and about how the women I wanted to date were all people who respected that vision and wanted to be a part of it, people who could nurture me as a person as I nurtured them, people I could fall in love with. And the more I held that in mind as my ideal, the closer I seemed to get.

Then my friend A said, "I have physical needs, and I need to get those met." She sounded just like S. And just like S, A was taking herself further and further away from positive, nurturing relationships, positioning herself to be used by opportunistic partners who were not interested in her long-term vision.

And the kicker is: A was willing to give it all up to get her physical needs met. I've been horny, too, but Jesus Christ.

*        *        *

Flash forward some thirteen years.

I am married to a wonderful woman I met during that phase of my life. We moved somewhere warm and pleasant, and possibly temporary. We still share that vision of the future that I developed long ago, but we also recognize that if we achieve the same headspace in a different location, that will be okay, too. But we are still taking steps toward it. Meanwhile, we have two beautiful children, a comfortable living situation, all of our basic needs are met, and we have a wonderful, loving relationship.

A is doing okay. She could be doing better. Her ambition is a shadow of what it once was, and she went through a long period of very mentally difficult years.

S is also doing okay, but she never went anywhere in life. She's a single mother. She's still beautiful, but she lives a hard life.

I didn't keep up with L.

I also didn't keep up with M, but by all accounts, she is doing okay, too, and I'm happy about that.

It's easy to compare myself to people who are doing a lot worse than I am, and of course that isn't really the point. At the same time, I also can't deny that my life is going really well, and my choices and philosophies have played a direct role in achieving that result. I'm still on a positive trajectory, and I'm the one who put myself on that trajectory. Life is good for me in large part because I chose a good path.

And I met and married the love of my life. I achieved this by arriving at a vision of what kind of person I wanted to be in an ideal state, and taking consistent steps toward that goal. In doing so, I instantly became a more attractive person to the people around me. People are hungry for positive directions, they want to be a part of a good thing. Even if they don't want to be a part of it, they want to spectate.

So, developing a dream of what kind of good person you want to be, and attempting to become that good person, is how you meet the love of your life.

2021-01-25

Life In A Global Pandemic, Part 12

I received the Moderrna COVID-19 vaccine.

Instead of selling it on the open market, the world's largest capitalist economy has decided to use central planning to distribute the vaccines. I wish I could say I didn't see that coming, but the global response to this virus has been a disaster of central planning from the very beginning. It stands to reason that the "end" (?) of the pandemic should unfold the same way.

Tarrant County provided a website, distributed mainly by word-of-mouth as far as I can tell, through which residents could register to receive the vaccine. It is not first come, first served. Instead, patients were linked to an electronic form, in which we disclosed our age, race, sex, and so on, along with any "preexisting conditions" we might have. This is to ensure that the vaccine goes first to the sick and the weak, rather than to the young, strong, socially active people who are probably responsible for transmitting the virus so widely. That said, I do think the old and the at-risk ought to have first crack at the vaccine.

"Luckily" for me, I acquired type 1 diabetes more than a decade ago. (Tempus fugit!) The county's electronic form doesn't differentiate between type 1 and type 2 diabetes, and of course it is only type 2 diabetes that is listed as the kind of "preexisting condition" that puts one at risk of death from COVID-19. Since I can't go on the open market and buy myself a shot, though, I didn't feel too badly about answering truthfully that I have "diabetes" and letting the health department sort out the details. Within a week, I had my appointment for receiving the vaccine scheduled.

The health department called me three times on Friday. I didn't recognize the number, so I let it go to voicemail. In any case, it was an automated call all three times. They also sent me three identical emails the text of which was verbatim to the phone calls I received. The emails contained a link to confirm my appointment, and so I did. The appointment was scheduled for the following day "between 9 AM and 11 AM."

I showed up at about 8:45 AM, and there was already a long lineup of cars waiting to park. Police split traffic up into four separate queues, which eventually merged back into two separate lines. Once we found a parking space, we lined up again inside the building - two separate lines this time. I waited in line for perhaps 40 minutes, during which time volunteers checked my paperwork no less than five times. Finally, I arrived at a registration table, where my paperwork was checked again, my driver's license and insurance information were taken down, and then I was directed into an all-new queue. This queue happened to split into two lines for about 20 yards, before merging back into one queue again. Central planning is wonderful, isn't it?

At last, I was allowed inside a conference room, where I sat at a table and someone administered the vaccine. I was then directed to a second person who gave me my "vaccine card," along with a memorized set of instructions that I will never be able to remember. The gist of it was that I needed my "vaccine card" to get my second vaccine dose, which I will be able to receive in four weeks' time. She also told me, despite CDC information to the contrary, that I cannot mix vaccines, meaning that since I received the Moderna vaccine, I should only get the Moderna vaccine for my second dose, otherwise it won't work. Finally, she gave me a sticky-note with a time written on it: 10:14 AM, the time when I would be allowed to leave the building. Apparently they make people wait in the conference room for 20 minutes to ensure that nobody has an adverse reaction to the vaccine.

Then I went home.

My sister had received the Moderna vaccine a few weeks before I did. By her account, the vaccine causes muscle cramps, tiredness, feverishness, and so on. I expected to have a similar experience, so I quickly went for a nice, hard run when I got home. I figured that if I was going to be out of commission for a day or two, I should get a good workout in before I started feeling down.

None of those adverse reactions happened for me. The injection site became about as sore as it would be for a tetanus or DTAP vaccine. I did not experience tiredness, pain, fever, or anything else. I feel perfectly fine.

I would recommend the vaccine to others. Hopefully, most everyone will eventually receive an effective vaccine, and the spread of this disease can be minimized as much as possible. I understand that this is one of the first widely used mRNA vaccines ever made. I was curious about it for that reason. This is a new mechanism of action, one that has not previously received widespread federal approval. (According to a handout I received when I was given my vaccine, the Moderna vaccine is "not FDA-approved." They want everyone to know that they are getting an unapproved vaccine, presumably so that no one will ever think to blame the FDA if something goes wrong. Nothing says "accountability" quite like government.) I think now that the concept has essentially been proven, we can expect to see more mRNA vaccines in the future. This could mean a cure for the common cold, to say nothing about all the other, more serious, diseases we might be able to cure with new vaccine technology. 

If there is anything positive about any of this, that's it. It's exciting to be a part of medical history. I'll let you know if I grow a demonic hand or something, but at this point I am expecting it to be smooth-sailing from here.

2021-01-22

3-D Chess And The Federal Minimum Wage

MSN.com reports that President Joe Biden is signing an executive order to set the wage minimum paid to federal employees and contractors at $15 per hour.

Note that this is not actually "an increase in the federal minimum wage." Biden's executive order is about the wage that the federal government pays to its own employees. It is not an executive order about setting a national minimum wage. If I'm not mistaken, the latter requires Congress and could never be achieved by an executive order. 

Biden has always been popular among federal employee unions, school unions, and the like, because he has always been quite favorable to their policy preferences in the past. So it will not be surprising if we hear members of these unions reacting quite happily to Biden's executive order on federal wages. That's a political win for Biden.

Interestingly enough, though, it might also be an example of 3-D chess. Why? Because increases in the minimum wage are well-understood to decrease employment. When you make something more expensive - in this case, labor costs - you get less of that something - in this case, labor. This is one of the most empirically robust findings in economics. It's not even worth debating anymore. Increases in the minimum wage decrease employment. 

Thanks to both the covid-19 pandemic and the various government lockdowns attendant thereto, the economy is in quite a pickle. The federal government is spending money like a drunken sailor, money it doesn't actually have. So the government's debt is increasing, and its budget deficit is increasing, and the US economy is not very healthy. One solution proposed by those who favor "austerity measures" is a reduction in federal spending. 

So the question is, how would a Democrat who wants to make unions happy choose to reduce federal spending while still pleasing his union supporters? One way might be to raise the wage standard such that the federal government hires fewer employees, reducing costs. Of course, this can only happen if the workforce reduction (or its growth rate) is reduced by more than the cost of the wage increase. Well, the federal government is now free to reduce the size of its workforce as much as it wants, since the unions are happy and US citizens in general have received the signal that Biden is "good for labor."

It will be interesting to watch and see what happens to the size of the federal workforce.

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.