Two Conversations About Diet

I have previously discussed how non-diabetics experience all the same feelings that we diabetics do, only to a lesser degree. That thirst, those headaches, that restlessness, that dizziness... it's all there in a non-diabetic, just as it is in a diabetic.

For this reason, I have concluded that whatever is healthy for a diabetic is also healthy for a non-diabetic. Or, to put it another way, just because you're not a diabetic doesn't mean you shouldn't be eating like one. Non-diabetics, i.e. "normal people," can get away with a lot more than diabetics can, because you normal folks have fully functional endocrine systems. Lucky you. You have the luxury of a wider margin of error.

But the "target" diet, the one that does your body the most good, is the same for you as it is for me. Often, when I say this, people start to get a little uncomfortable. But more and more research is showing that carbohydrates with lower values on the glycemic index, more vegetables, and sane amounts of meats and animal proteins are what makes for the best human diet.

Recently, I had two separate conversations about diet. Although the topic of each conversation was a little different, they both highlighted what I consider to be an extremely silly concept: Food "choices."

I'll explain what I mean, below.

Conversation One: Meat
In a recent conversation I had about recipes, a friend of mine recoiled at the notion of eating lamb. Eating lamb, she maintained, was cruel. In response to this, another friend of mine - a vegetarian - remarked that if eating lamb was cruel, why not other animals, too? In other words, eating any animal is cruel.

My contribution to this (which was really a conversational tangent from the initial discussion about recipes) was that, as a diabetic, I don't spend much time considering the ethics of eating meat. For me, what's important is staying alive. I said, "I'll eat anything that doesn't raise my blood sugar." Meat doesn't raise my blood sugar. Whether that meat is a cute little baby sheep or a big, ugly eel hardly matters to me. Vegetarianism - while technically possible - is wholly unpractical for type 1 diabetics.

The reason for this is simple: Complex carbohydrates and simple sugars both cause blood glucose "spikes" and send me into unhealthy hyperglycemia. The carbohydrates and fats present in meat are comparatively sparse and harder for the body to digest, therefore they have only a very small impact on my blood sugar. All things considered, I cannot possibly eat enough vegetables alone to satisfy my daily caloric requirements. In order to do so, I need to consume meat. Period, end of story.

Now, I can either flog myself every night about the cruelty of my situation and how I must repeatedly murder many cute animals in order not to die, but why? Human beings are omnivores.

Furthermore, the "choice" not to eat meat is a luxury that we diabetics simply do not have. It is a hefty sense of righteousness that drives a person to ethics-vegetarianism. Were I to adopt that kind of righteousness, I would quickly starve to death or die from poorly maintained blood sugar.

So, from the diabetic perspective, such a "food choice" is a laughable luxury to be enjoyed by those who fancy themselves healthy enough to compromise an efficient diet for the sake of beasts. More power to those of you who want to do this, but... It's not really a "choice."

Conversation Two: Sweets, Snack Foods, and Food Piety
On the complete opposite side of the spectrum, I recently had a conversation about a friend-of-a-friend who insists that achieving a person's health-and-wellness goals comes down largely to "making the right choices." On the surface, that is definitely true, however taking this idea to the extreme presents some problems.

Before I start talking about the problems, however, I'd like to return to the idea of "food choices." Such concepts make absolutely no sense for a type 1 diabetic. Diabetics don't have "food choices" in the same sense that others perceive that they do.

What I mean is, every time we eat, we diabetics choose between being sick or not. That is obviously not much of a choice. Where a normal person might choose between whether or not to eat a piece of cake, type 1 diabetics simply choose whether or not we want to be sick. And the answer to that "choice" is no. No, we never want to be sick. We don't eat cake.

But, to reiterate, it is not a choice. We don't really choose to eat the cake or not to eat the cake. We simply know that doing so will hurt. A lot.

Now, consider the conversation I had recently. In this conversation, the friend-of-a-friend had been talking about how a person will never reach their true potential - that state of mental and physical health they "deserve" to achieve - if that person makes bad food "choices." Some examples of a bad food choice might be eating cake or candy, eating a second helping where one would suffice, choosing to take the day off from exercise, and so on.

Now, this person comes down really hard on herself when she "makes a bad choice," and you should be able to easily see why. If food and exercise "choices" are inseparably glued to a person's concept of self worth then any "bad choice" is going to result in self-criticism.

Folks, this way of looking at things is not just wrong, it is deeply wrong. You're not a bad person just because you eat a slice of cake. You're also not a bad person if you eat two slices of cake every day for twenty years. Doing so wouldn't exactly be smart from the standpoint of personal health, but it's no reason to go lambasting yourself for "failing to live up to your true potential."

The notion is patently absurd. Your true potential is whatever you feel like. Only you know what makes you happy. Some people eat too much cake, and suffer the consequences. They're not jerks, monsters, or morons. They're people who eat too much cake. Period.

The "advantage" of having diabetes in this case is that is completely obliterates the concept of "food choices." When you're diabetic, you cannot possibly feel like a sinner for eating cake because you're too busy feeling like you're going to throw up or pass out. Suddenly all that moralizing disappears. You no longer feel like eating cake is wrong because that sensation has been replaced with the sensation that eating cake just hurts.

"Choices," Diabetes, and Healthy Eating
And so it appears that people play a lot of "food choices" games with themselves. Some of us "choose" alternative diets that reaffirm our sense of morality. Others "choose" healthy diets that... reaffirm their sense of morality.

Of course, realistically speaking, there's nothing moral about food. Sometimes a sandwich is just a sandwich. In fact. A sandhich is always just a sandwich. There's nothing more to it than that.

The benefit of having diabetes is that it purges you of these kinds of food-based moral concepts and replaces them all with a single understanding of food: eat what's healthy if you don't want to hurt. There's no room for crazy eating disorder behavior or caring-for-and-nurturing-our-friends-the-beasts when you're diabetic. We diabetics don't have this sort of luxury.

Instead, we diabetics face a situation in which we cannot really deviate much from what makes up a healthy diet. Too many carbs makes us hurt. Too little meat leaves us hungry. We have to shoot for the dietary bull's eye and stick to healthy amounts of all the macronutrients. The only foods we can safely eliminate from our diets are the ones that hurt us, anyway.

Anyone who sticks to eating like a diabetic will find themselves in a healthier situation than they were before. Our diets are tailor-made to optimize health. Any shortcoming will throw our endocrine systems into a state of imbalance.

So the next time you "choose" to eat food, maybe you should think like a diabetic. That is, get this silly concept of "food choices" out of your head and learn to see your diet as an array of things that are either good for you or not. If you eat something bad for you, forget about it. It's not a moral shortcoming, it's just a temporary pain.

Now go forth and eat well.


The Next Big Controversy?

I have been (silently) following this new notion of "Bleeding Heart Libertarianism" for the last little while. As part of the journey, I have had the pleasure of discovering the intellectual thoughts of one Roderick Long (no relation - as far as I know).

First a couple of things by way of background. This idea of crafting a "bleeding heart libertarianism" seems to have originated from a man named Matt Zwolinski. As far as I can tell (I'm still withholding ultimate judgement until I can figure out what these guys actually stand for), BHL is an attempt to fuse a leftist "social conscience" with the political philosophy of traditional free-market libertarianism.

I'm sure we can all agree that, at least prima facie, such an idea is a noble - or at least unproblematic - endeavor. Whether or not they actually succeed in being convincing is another question. My current view is that, aside from Roderick Long, none of them stand for anything other than watering-down the language used by the most polemic libertarian theoriests. Like RL, I'm not so sure this is a useful endeavor.

A man by the name of Todd Seavey, on the other hand, considers BHL to be nothing less than evil. Contra Seavey, Bryan Caplan thinks that the BHLers at least ask good questions, even if they're wrong; and more importantly, they're good for fostering a sense of "friendliness" in the libertarian intellectual community.

I tend to side with Caplan here. To paraphrase a short comment in one of the first chapters of the book A Profile of Mathematical Logic by Howard DeLong (also no relation that I know of), the Ancient Greeks gave society an immeasurably valuable gift when they developed a spirit of friendly, sportsmanlike debate.

It is easy to become indignant and turn every debate into an emotional battle between good and evil. It is easy to draw others to your position by demonizing the other side and claiming your position - and only your position - to be the one, true, defensible gospel. This, however, does nothing to address the points raised by one's debate partners.

How much more satisfying to destroy the arguments of one's opponents, rather than one's opponents themselves! To that end, I recommend that all my readers re-read Plato's The Republic and observe how Thrasymachus is depicted: a sore loser, a bad logician, overly emotional, and insufferably stubborn.

The truth doesn't have any reason to run and hide from its opponents. The truth doesn't have any reason to become indignant and proclaim the evil of its foes. The truth can courageously confront and calmly disarm any opposing view by demonstrating its falsehood.

Finallly, I'd like to point out that some of the most powerful libertarian thinkers of the 20th Century - most notably Ayn Rand and Murray Rothbard - often completely undermined the strength of their best arguments by couching them in the language of extreme polemics. This did libertarianism no favors, in my opinion.


Take This Idea and Steal It

Imagine a website called www.YourThirdParty.com. Think of it being somewhat of a counterpart to www.PoliticalCompass.org in that the core of the website would be a quiz assessing the political affinities of each site visitor.

The twist would be that, rather than aligning each site visitor to a political ideology, YourThirdParty.com would align each visitor to the platforms of national US "third parties." The output would not be coordinates on a plane, but rather an assignment of a third party to each quiz-taker.

Based on each person's quiz responses, the site could make three third party suggestions for that person to say, "In absence of Democrats and Republicans, your views correspond to The _________ Party."

As a final feature, the site would solicit each respondent's ZIP code and assign them to their corresponding congressional districts. At the results page, the person would be told how many other people within their particular congressional district share the same "recommended third party."

My theory here is that if people could see the actual, hard numbers in terms of how people in their district would actually vote if people stopped voting either Democrat or Republican, their voting patterns actually would change.

The benefits of this website would be to encourage voter participation as well as to encourage competition among political parties. As any good Stationary Waves reader knows, competition makes us all better off.

I would happily run such a website as a public service. In fact, some day I might. Until then, please feel free to take my idea and implement it yourself, if you like, even on a for-profit basis.


Federalism: An Unsung Check-and-Balance

Although it may not quite be accurate to refer to federalism as "unsung," in these days of power centralization and a massive, growing central government, the many wonderful benefits of federalism seem to fly under the radar.

Over the weekend, The Wall Street Journal published op-ed coverage of the mass exodus out of the State of California. The article paints an interesting - and, in my opinion, accurate - view of California in general as compared to other states.
A worker in Wichita might not consider those earning $250,000 a year middle class, but "if you're a guy working for a Silicon Valley company and you're married and you're thinking about having your first kid, and your family makes 250-k a year, you can't buy a closet in the Bay Area," Mr. Kotkin says. "But for 250-k a year, you can live pretty damn well in Salt Lake City. And you might be able to send your kids to public schools and own a three-bedroom, four-bath house."
The thrust of the article is essentially this: California's population consists of three classes of people. The largest is the welfare class, followed by public sector employees, and then the ruling class of elites who have inherited wealth. Those elites are politically far to the left, and govern accordingly. The result is a statewide political climate that is good for people who draw welfare, draw a public pension, or are already millionares, but not so good for everyone else. Consequently, everyone else is leaving the state in droves.

The twist is that these California emigrants are fleeing to US states with not just low taxes and low costs of living, but where the ambitious and the studious can actually make something of themselves, raise a family, grab a piece of idyllic American life. The moral of this story is that people in California can have absolutely everything they ever wanted out of life - they just can't have it in California. Instead, they can have it in Utah, Nevada, Texas, and so on.

Which brings me back to federalism. Those of you who insist on viewing all political commentary from the lens of right versus left will have a hard time admitting this, but political regimes matter, and human beings have a tendency to vote with their feet.

In Utah, I knew many people who felt stifled by the state's entrenched theocratic right-wing political regime, so they fled to nearby states that demonstrated more social tolerance. I have also known many a Canadian who migrated out of the prairies and into the left-wing beacons of Vancouver, Montreal, and Toronto for pretty much the same reason. People don't like living under the boot heels of oppressive regimes, even if that "oppression" is decidedly mild.

It stands to reason that California's middle class of political moderates and - dare I say it? - right-leaning citizens will flee an entrenched leftist regime.

To leftists, this is almost utterly incomprehensible. How could anyone but an unenlightened ignoramus want to live somewhere without an ever-growing list of government agencies assigned the task of looking after everyone? Such leftists typically respond rather venomously, as if "they don't want people like that in their socialist utopia, anyway!" The problem with that reasoning is that leftist regimes require everyone's participation. Why else do you suppose the communist bloc outlawed emigration? (Not immigration!)

What fun is it standing there with your leg raised, if your boot heel isn't stomping on somebody's neck?

Enter: federalism. Federalism is the principle that not everyone who lives within a 3,000-mile radius of everyone else should be forced to conform to the same political regime. Some pockets of people may wish to live their lives according to principles A, B, and C. Others may wish to live their lives according to principles X, Y, and Z. There is no reason that both groups of people cannot be part of the same country, should they so desire. All that is required is that both groups of people ascribe to principles D, E, and F.

Beyond that, the people will migrate to the location that feels best to them. I don't need to tell you that places like Texas and New Hampshire feel better to me than places like California and New York. The beauty of federalism is that people will tend to sort this out by simply moving to avoid the regimes they find least tolerable.

The interesting thing about this is that, at the end of a long period of time, it becomes obvious that people would rather relocate to socially moderate, economically free locations rather than to socially moderate, economically restrictive areas.

For all that we hear in the media and the political sphere about how much "people" want regimes to be "fair" (as opposed to free), when you look at how people vote with their feet, the real preferences of human beings become obvious.

But you don't have to take my word for it.


Begging the Question or Brainwashing Yourself

Anyone with even a passing interest in philosophy can be tempted to systematize their thoughts. On the net, this is a good thing. But it nearly goes without saying that not every attempt to create a personal philosophy or thought system results in a correct system. Like anything else subject to human error, the concepts we develop to help us think through our lives can and do yield some wrong conclusions from time to time. We're all human; we make mistakes.

If we retain our objectivity - and most of us do - then when we encounter mistakes, we correct our mistaken conclusions using new information and go on with our lives a little better than we were before. This is why some of my friends and family members often say that mistakes are a good thing. Obviously, no one likes making mistakes, but if we end up better off in the long run, then it's not so bad.

Sometimes, though, people lose their objectivity. When something goes wrong and one is presented with what the rest of us might conclude was a mistake on our part, another person may mistakenly conclude that it was the situation that was wrong, not their underlying conclusion. Life failed to conform to their expectations, therefore a cardinal rule was violated (by some external force). Their system is unshaken; it is the world that was wrong.

This can happen if the person in question is being stubborn. In that sense, it probably happens to all of us now and then. But sometimes it happens in a less-obvious and more-sinister way.

Circular Reasoning Involving Larger Circles
People often employ the kind of circular reasoning that is easy to identify because it has so few links in the chain. As we'll soon see, the more steps in the chain, the more difficult it is to identify the circularity.

Two Steps:
Suppose Beth states, "Public waste disposal is good for society because so many benefit from having their garbage collected." Basically there are two steps: 1) Public waste disposal is good for society and 2) Many people benefit from having their garbage taken out. Each assertion on its own is synonymous with the other. The circularity of the rationale is obvious.

Three Steps:
Suppose Beth were to add a third step:
  1. Society is better off when individuals benefit.
  2. Many individuals benefit from having their garbage collected.
  3. Public waste disposal collects garbage from individuals.
Beth might first claim that "Public waste disposal is good for society." When asked why, she responds that we all benefit from having our garbage collected. That covers concepts 2 and 3. When pressed for a better argument, Beth incredulously asks, "Aren't we all better off when our basic needs are met?" There's concept 1, hidden as a self-evident assumption.

Four Steps:
Let's try this one more time. At four steps, most people having casual conversations will never even notice the circularity of the reasoning.
  1. Good policy is good for society.
  2. Anything that benefits all individuals equally is good policy.
  3. Public waste disposal benefits all individuals equally.
  4. Public waste disposal is good for society.
As we work through this example, pay close attention to Points 1 and 2 above. Please also keep in mind that these arguments are not rock-solid to begin with, so if you think of objections outside of the scenario I'm describing, bear with me.

Beth asserts that public waste disposal is good for society (4); Wanda disagrees. Beth asks Wanda, "Does public waste disposal not benefit all recipients equally?" Wanda concedes that point to Beth, so Beth further asks, "Can't we agree that anything that benefits everyone equally is a good policy?" Wanda shifts in her chair a little and reluctantly agrees that Beth is right. So, Beth further points out, "And aren't good policies good for society?"

Here the loop is closed. Wanda curmudgeonly agrees that good policies are good for society, the two of them finish their coffee and start talking about something more interesting. Neither of them stop to think that the argument Beth has laid out is completely circular.

The problem here is that if Beth can show that something "benefits all individuals equally," then Beth can seemingly win any argument she ever has with Wanda. "Public waste disposal is good for society," subject to the definitions of terms Beth understands, is a redundancy by virtue of the fact that anything "public" applies to all individuals, and anything that applies to all individuals is good for society.

If Wanda were better-versed in fallacies, she could easily explode Beth's fallacious argument. Instead, Wanda will either concede Beth's points or, at best, she might carry the debate off-track by saying something like, "But waste disposal can be supplied by private companies!" 

(Wanda's right about that, but it does nothing to address Beth's point.)

After a Few Years, Beth Brainwashes Herself
If Beth never figures out that her reasoning is circular, and if she is the type of person who likes to apply similar rationale to different situations, and if Beth is the type of person who likes to construct her personal philosophy accordingly, then Beth is in the philosophical "danger zone."

As I mentioned, Beth may figure out that she can win any policy argument with Wanda if she can show that a given policy does or does not benefit all individuals equally. If Beth constructs a personal philosophy around the idea that all actions should benefit all people equally, then no evidence will ever change her mind.

For instance, Wanda may one day point out that driving a public garbage truck out to a very remote place is extremely costly, therefore the benefits to rural residents are greater than the benefits to urban residents, while the costs of removing rural waste are disproportionately great for the urban residents. Beth could object that unless all individuals' trash is collected, they are no longer talking about a "good policy," since, by definition, good policy benefits all individuals equally. (This, by the way, would be a "no true Scotsman" fallacy, but it is based on Beth's underlying circular reasoning.)

But Wait - There's More!
Beth might further conclude that policies which do not benefit all individuals equally - "bad" policies - are therefore the work of "special interests" who want bad policies because they reap a greater benefit than others. In doing so, Beth has now linked two policy arguments - waste collection and the influence of special interests - to the same circular rationale.

This solidifies Beth's mistaken circular reasoning in her mind. She thinks to herself, "But of course! All that needs to be analyzed is whether individuals benefit equally. If not, then special interests are involved!"

Having concluded that, Beth now believes that any time she sees an asymmetrical policy benefit, she has detected the work of whomever she believes "special interests" to be. (Big Pharma? Big Oil? Big Agriculture?)

If Beth based too much of her world view on a single circular argument about waste collection, Beth would not be a very representative example. But I submit that this is at least a credible example, and it only involves a four-step chain of circular reasoning

If there are circular fallacies out there that involve, say twenty or thirty steps, how many of us are even aware of them? It would take an incredibly long and time-consuming analysis to uncover such a fallacy, especially if it is a widely held belief for which there are a great number of supporting arguments. Such circular reasoning could even infect the most academic and scientific discourse on the topic. Exploding such fallacies would be all but impossible, in practical terms.

As a result, I would like to caution all of my readers against circular reasoning. It is often very difficult to detect and even more difficult to let go of (especially if it is something you feel very passionately about).

To help avoid this trap, I recommend the following:

For any issue, right at the outset of your consideration, state the problem clearly and hypothesize what it might look like if you are totally wrong, and what it might look like if you are totally right. Keep both in mind at all times, and collect supporting evidence for both scenarios.

You may not overcome deeply rooted circular reasoning, but it's a good start!


3 Out of 3 Rich Suits Agree: Do What You Love

In a blog post at the Harvard Business Review, three fabulously rich guys argue that if you want to be successful, you should follow your passion.

Really, how could they argue any differently? How receptive would a blog-reading audience be to the message that people should under no circumstances do something they love, but instead focus their time on relentlessly earning as much money as possible? They might as well write a blog post extolling the "virtues" of hating kittens or punching rabbits.

Whenever people fill the air with easy answers, feel-good verbiage, and cheap emotional appeal, there always has to be a twist. The twist on the article over at the HBR is this: After pointing out that it would be incredibly irresponsible to sacrifice your basic needs to follow your passion, the authors hit us with the following ray of hope.

But even this doesn't mean you can't work on your passion a little — even if it's just for 15 minutes a day. 
And you should! 
Research (such as The Power of Small Wins that ran in Harvard Business Review May, 2011) shows that people who make progress every day toward something they care about report being satisfied and fulfilled.
Follow your passion for fifteen minutes a day, even if it doesn't make you any money, because research suggests that people who satisfy and fulfill one of their needs feel satisfied and fulfilled. The authors continue:
You might, indeed, end up making money if you engage in your passion, even though you currently think you won't. Remember, the future is unknown. Who knows what people will buy, or what you might invent after your very next act. At any moment in time, you are only one thought away from an insight — an insight that can change everything.
In other words, "Gee, you never know! The future is unknown! Keep at it, tiger!"

The truth is, any of the following scenarios are possible in life:
  • You will follow your passion, and make a lot of money.
  • You will follow your passion, and just do okay.
  • You will follow your passion until it runs you into the ground, and then you will change careers.
  • You will not follow your passion, and make a lot of money.
  • You will not follow your passion, and just do okay.
  • You will not follow your passion but will be run into the ground and have to change careers, anyway.
Speaking realistically, the choice has always been an imaginary one. There is no real choice between happiness and money. There is no real choice between passion and success. Dichotomies make for good rhetoric and popular blog posts, but life is not actually a series of X vs. Y dichotomies. Life is complex, reality is a healthy mix of good and bad. Sometimes luck is everything, and sometimes skill is everything. And sometimes neither one counts for much and life just plods on without a big climax.

Knowing that, here's how I look at life. 

First, I keep in mind what I actually value: family, ethics, freedom, music, my health, my integrity, and my hopes and dreams.

Second, I prioritize. If I had to choose between my family and my hopes and dreams, realistically, I'd choose my family. If I had to choose between music and my integrity, I'd choose my integrity. In this way, I figure out what I need to focus on most.

Third, I develop plans that allow me to pursue hopes and dreams in a reasonable way, subject to the things I absolutely must accomplish to consider my life worth anything at all. Subject to my commitments to family and integrity and health, how can I do more writing? Subject to those constraints, how can I still make music like I want to? Subject to my exercise regimen, how can I put in enough hours at work to land a promotion? How can I make the kind of money I want to, knowing what my own limitations are?

Fourth, and most importantly, I just do the best that I can.

I am always looking for ways to improve on myself and my life, not because I'm dissatisfied, but because it makes me happy to earn more money, make more music, write more stuff, do something cool at work, and so on. Like any ambitious person, I push myself hard when I can push myself hard. 

I have a goal in mind, an endgame, a lifelong desire. Maybe I'll "get there," or maybe I won't. I suspect what will actually happen is that I will reach an age when I eventually come to terms with the fact that just trying to do these sorts of things at all is what matters. That, and staying true to yourself and your values.

If what I just said makes sense to you, then congratulations: You have a creed.


Stop Beginning

Way back in May of 2011, in Part III of my series on marathon training, I introduced the concept of The Idea of the Perpetual Beginner, and briefly discussed the importance of fostering proper running form. I further discussed running form and suggestions for developing it in a post entitled Form, Form, FormI've mentioned form in passing a few times since.

Get the picture? Good running form is vital to safe, effective, and above all fun running.

We all know people who refuse to run - or at least refuse to do much running - based on the argument that running is painful and unpleasant. Maybe some of you who are reading this right now also feel this way. In your mind, running is legitimately painful. You probably believe that running comes naturally to me and that I cannot possibly understand your own unique aches and pains. For you, it's "different." You're "just not built" for running.

Depending on how convinced you are that this is the case, there may be no good reason to implore you to do any additional running. But if running is something that you're interested in doing, and doing in a way that is easy, painless, and fun, then read on...

Starting Today, You Are No Longer A Beginner
The first step to running painlessly and enjoying every minute of it is to purge the "running industry's" lies from your mind and embrace the fact that if you have been running for a couple of months now at least, then you are no longer a "beginner" or a "novice."

Congratulations! You just graduated from being a "beginner" to being an "experienced runner!" If anyone second-guesses you on this, just tell 'em that Ryan from Stationary Waves certified you as a running veteran, and if that's a problem, they can take it up with me.

In all seriousness, there is a two-tiered issue at play when it comes to The Idea of the Perpetual Beginner.

The first tier is psychological; that is, if you always see yourself as a novice, then you are predetermining the extent of your own abilities. You are needlessly limiting yourself. Give yourself permission to graduate to a new level of experience.

You're not lying about it, either. You learned how to buy shoes, you learned how to stretch, you spent some time grimacing through the first few months of a running career. You've earned your merit badge. Now, look forward to a brighter future, i.e. the rest of your running career!

The second tier pertains to running form. As a beginner, you have unwittingly adopted some bad running habits. It's okay! We all did this when we were beginners.

But now that we're not beginners, we need to think about how to run safely and effectively - and have more fun - for the rest of our running careers. Thinking about form is an important "next step" for you as a runner. When you were a beginner, you had many other things you had to think about. Now that that's over, it's time to put some thought into what your body is doing.

Stop Run/Walking
Run/walking may be a great way to get active, get outside, and get some exercise. For many of you, it might even be fun. If you like it, I encourage you to keep doing it.

But I will say this: Run/Walking is not the same thing as running. They are two completely different types of exercise.

There are a lot of differences between walking and running when it comes to form and technique. Run/walking is more or less and alternating pattern of one and then the other. There are good practices for walking and good practices for running, and they are not always (or ever?) the same.

If you want to run safely, effectively, and enjoy yourself a lot more, then you must become aware of the unique aspects of running, and hone them like any other skill you acquire in life.

The Problem With Run/Walking
So what's the problem with run/walking? I will sum up the main problems, as I see them:

1 - It Fosters A Low Endurance Threshold
Successful running involves being able to endure for a long period of time. There are many ways to travel 5K. For most of us, the most efficient way is to get into a car and drive for 5 kilometers. That will get you there quickly and painlessly. In order to drive five kilometers, you need access to a car, fuel, a driver's license, and a viable road.

If you want to walk five kilometers, you'll need access to shoes, and a little patience. No matter what speed you walk, you'll get there eventually. Almost all of us have the ability to walk five kilometers, should the need or desire arise. The only real preconditions are legs and shoes.

But if your intent is to run a 5K and you do not currently have the athletic ability to run 5K, you will never gain that athletic ability by driving 5K repeatedly, nor will you gain that ability by walking 5K repeatedly. Why not? Because you need a level of endurance that is not offered by driving or walking. To get level of endurance, you have to run.

Furthermore, every human being in the world requires more than 10 minutes to run a 5K. If you want to be able to run a 5K, you will need to be able to last longer than 10 minutes. Run/walking at a 10:1 ratio (or whatever ratio you choose) will definitely hone your ability to run in X-minute increments. Therefore, at the end of your training regimen, you may be good at running X minutes. But X minutes is not 5 kilometers.

In order to run 5K, you need an endurance threshold that exceeds the amount of time required to run 5K. To get it, you'll have to stop run/walking, and start working on extending your endurance threshold. It is the only way.

2 - It Gives You "Permission To Walk"
I'll be the first to admit that running involves a lot of psychology. There is no doubt that, in order to push your body beyond what it wants to do (which is stay on the couch), you have to muster up a little will-power. You have to tell yourself to keep going, even when you want to stop.

If your training philosophy is to stop running and start walking the minute you get tired, then you will never really improve.

Think about this for a minute. When running gets difficult, that is the very moment when you need your will-power the most. That moment is when you decide to keep going, overcome the odds, overcome your fears and doubts, put mind over matter, and improve your ability to keep going.

If your training philosophy is one that allows you to stop every time you have an opportunity to go harder, faster, longer, etc., then your training philosophy is fundamentally flawed.

3 - It Ruins Your Form
Most importantly of all, when you only run in short bursts, then you don't develop a smooth, safe, and efficient running form.

It does not take any development of technique to run 50 yards. Anyone who can move 50 yards can run 50 yards, and it doesn't much matter what they look like, because they will make it at least that far.

But not everyone can run 400 yards. In order to do that, you need to have at least enough running technique to get you that far. It may take every ounce of energy you have, but if you have enough technique to get you that far, you'll make it.

And, of course, if your goal is to run a 5K, you will need even more technique. By the time we get to the distances involved in endurance running, energy requirements are eclipsed by technical requirements. You can't do it on guts and energy alone, you have to develop a running technique that will get you across a five-kilometer span.

When you run/walk, you are confined to whatever distance you can traverse over the running interval. If you're doing the 10:1 thing, then you are confined to, at the very most, about two miles of distance. For most of you, the ten minutes of running is far less than that, perhaps less than one mile.

Well, five kilometers is over three miles. You will never develop an efficient running form if you never require your body to develop one. Remember, it takes a little over 20 minutes of running for most people to trigger aerobic respiration. 10:1 running stops you before you even get started!

How To Stop Beginning
Now that you're no longer a novice, you'll need an alternative approach to running. Luckily for you, it's not as difficult as you might fear.

What I tell less-experienced runners who want to achieve a running goal is to start with something you know you can do, and work up from there, in small increments. Rather than doing some kind of ridiculous 10:1 run/walk regimen, try the following.

Set aside a static amount of time for your daily workout. Let's suppose you want to work out for 30 minutes, but you're not sure you can run 30 minutes in a single stretch. No problem! We'll get you there.

Start with an amount of running that's doable for you. For some people, that might be 5 minutes. For some people, perhaps even less. The important thing is to choose something that you know you can do.

On your first day out there, run for 5 minutes, then stop running altogether and walk for the remaining 25 minutes of your workout.

The following day, run for 6 minutes, stop, and walk the remaining 24.

The following day, run for 7 minutes, stop, and walk the remaining 23.

In less than a month, you'll be running 30 minutes in a stretch, and you'll be surprised how easily you did it. Try it yourself. You'll be surprised how well it works.


In Honor of Boston

As CBS News reports, this year's Boston Marathon was apparently the slowest in decades. The general narrative is that it was a slow marathon this year because temperatures were so hot. Wesley Korir won first prize with a time of 2:12:40. That is nearly ten minutes slower than last year's world-record winning time.

It is easy to get caught up in the finish-time comparisons. Ten minutes slower is ten minutes slower, after all. Perhaps many hopeful would-be winners feel that the weather undermined their ability to run the race of their dreams. For all I know, Mr. Korir himself may also feel that way.

However, it's best not to feel that way. Today, I'd like to discuss this issue a bit.

One great running story that has always stood out for me was told to me by a former champion marathon runner, whose name I will suppress for privacy considerations. This was a man whose career peaked in a sort of golden age of running, back in the late-1970s and early-80s. He won many championship races, international medals, and so forth. He was a great runner. I had the good fortune to know him in my early 20s.

One day a friend of mine asked this great runner what his greatest race was. To my surprise, he gave it a a moment's reflection and then listed a race in which he did not run a personal best marathon time. Instead, he told us the story of a marathon he ran in rain so terrible that there was standing water up to his ankles. Despite the inclement weather, he managed to finish well under 2:20. (Don't quote me on this, but I think it was a time of 2:16.)

A lot of runners - especially young runners - would choose to answer this question by telling the story of the time they ran their fastest time ever. Why, then, did my friend choose a comparatively slower time clocked in a race that was almost rained-out?

Experienced runners seem to have a good, intuitive notion around the fact that a great physical achievement is not necessarily synonymous with the fastest imaginable time. In the case of this friend of mine, he chose this race based on the fact that he managed to run a very good time in the midst of such terrible weather.

In other words, there were significant adverse factors playing against him, which he was able to overcome. The result was a race he could really be proud of. It didn't all come down to time, it came down to time-plus-weather.

The weather is not unique to one athlete or another. While some athletes may excel in hotter or colder races, these are not mere intangible circumstances. At any particular level of athleticism, the winner of a race is the one who copes best with all the myriad factors that influence the race as a whole. Some of us have better finishing sprints than others. Some of us are better prepared to run uphill than others. And so on, and so forth.

If we simply boil this all down to a finish time, we miss the most interesting aspects of the race, namely the real racing interplay among the participants.

Think of it this way: No one would ever judge the quality of a basketball game on the total points scored. True, a basketball game is decided on the points tally, just as a race is decided on the finish times. But an incredibly low-scoring basketball game may still be extremely exciting, memorable, and may involve the best actual game-play. The reason is because there are more factors at work than just successful shots. An impressive dunk is only work two points, but it will always make more of an impact in a basketball game than a simple jump shot.

And so it goes for races. Sometimes slower races involve more pace-based strategizing, but even if they don't, it can be exciting to watch someone like Wesley Korir overcome heat exhaustion and dehydration and finish ahead of athletes who drop off the leader-board one-by-one.

The willpower involved in a high-temperature victory like that is far more impressive than the willpower required to run a winning marathon in "perfect" weather conditions. When there are these kinds of mental and environmental factors at play, running a comparatively slower time does not at all diminish the brilliance of the victory.

Furthermore, this isn't just true of champion marathoners. Sometimes dragging yourself off the couch and into the rain for a simple three-mile easy run is a more impressive accomplishment than clocking a personal best on tempo run day. (Sometimes, not always.)

So the next time you get down on yourself for not running as fast as your personal best, or not running as far as your longest-ever run, try to remember that running is more than statistics. You may actually have beaten your personal best in terms of mental performance.


Happy (Economic) New Year

Today is the beginning of the year 1419 on the Bangali calendar.

The most accepted historical origin for the Bangali calendar traces it back to the Mughal Emperor Akhbar, otherwise known as Akhbar the Great. He may have looked something like this:

Courtesy Wikipedia.org
Some of you may be more familiar with the Bollywoodized likeness of Emperor Akhbar, as played by Hrithik Roshan in the movie Jodhaa Akhbar.

Courtesy media.glamsham.com
Whichever portrait you deem more appropriate for the emperor, he is considered a great ruler, primarily for two reasons. The first reason is that he was one of the first great South Asian emperors to attempt peaceful relations between the Muslims and the Hindus of the region. The second reason is that he was something of a "genius bureaucrat," if such a thing were possible. He seemed to have a knack for coming up with administrative rules that were both popular among the people and financially lucrative for he himself.

One could easily argue that fostering peaceful relationships among the Hindus was one such administrative innovation. At that time, there was no appreciable concept of the prosperity of free trade. Instead, the prevailing idea was that war and conquest is what made an emperor both rich and great. Whether Emperor Akhbar intentionally innovated peace as a strategy of economic prosperity or simply stumbled upon this fact when he married into rulership over a Hindu territory, we will never know.

The fact remains, peace is a necessary condition for prosperity, and therefore Emperor Akhbar's making peace between the Muslims and Hindus under his reign is an important historical datum from the standpoint of economic history.

Another important bureaucratic innovation of Mr. Akhbar's is the apparent advent of the Bangali calendar. In reality, we should credit the development of this calendar to Akhbar's royal astronomer, Amir Fatehullah Shirazi, but no one in their right mind would make a hit blockbuster film out of the life of a royal astronomer, so we are forced to give the credit to the Chief Bureaucrat instead. (Science is a thankless task.)

Now, the facts of this story are almost certainly distorted by centuries of myth and fable, but the generally accepted story is this: 

Being a Mughal, Akbhar was a Muslim. Therefore, like all Muslims of the region, his year followed the Islamic Hijri calendar, which was a lunar calendar. Once every Hijri year, Akhbar would collect taxes from his kingdom, like every bureaucrat feels he must. One major practical concern with this is that the Hijri year was out-of-sync with the regional growing seasons. (Plants tend to grow according to what the sun is doing, apparently, rather than what the moon is doing.) The result of this tax strategy was that taxes became due precisely when the citizens were least-able to pay them.

The real innovation of Emperor Akhbar was that he stumbled upon an important truth that eludes most bureaucrats in general, including the current US Administration: X% of zero is zero for all X. So, because Akhbar wanted to collect more than $0 in total tax revenue, he ordered the development of a Bangali calendar to more closely coincide with the growing season and his needs as a tax collector.

Of course, the people loved this, because they could now avoid starvation or jail time. Akhbar was even kind enough to create a few new holidays for them to go along with their new calendar. This helped popularize the new tax-collection calendar, and cheer people up about their savvy king.

This story means something rather remarkable in terms of the history of world calendars: Whereas most of them are based on some combination of religion and astronomy, the Bangali calendar is based on economics! So, while I share the general public's widespread disdain for taxation, the fact that economic principles can be applied to space and time make this a calendar worth using, in my opinion!

শুভ  নববর্ষ , everyone!



A few years ago, Chris Cornell released a song called "No Such Thing." Lyrically, it is one of the most powerful - and philosophical - songs I have ever heard.

The song describes a narrator who, upon developing a large degree of cynicism about the world, seeks to cope by becoming a nihilist. In doing so, however, the narrator discovers that "there's no such thing as nothing." This is probably best expressed by the couplet "I laughed at love; it was a big mistake / In the absence of, I filled it with hate."

Again and again the narrator's attempts to assume that nothing significant exists are thwarted by the growing sense of hatred and abomination he feels, right up to the point of suicide; suicide being the ultimate act of nihilism, and therefore a deeply symbolic (and hence, meaningful) act.

For the record, I agree with Chris Cornell: Nihilism is impossible.

Why Nihilism Is Impossible
There are a few different stripes of nihilism. Some claim simply that life is bereft of meaning. Others make claims that are more moral or epistemological in nature. Whatever the claims, they are all contradictory. This is perhaps best evidenced by the fact that nihilism itself is a concept.

Consider a box that contains nothing. If we know that there is "nothing in the box," then we are forced to conclude something rather dramatic: that it is an empty box. This is a very meaningful piece of information. It implies that something could be put in the box in the future; it implies that something may have been in the box in the past; it implies that the box either has or had some stated purpose.

More than all of that, knowing that the box contains nothing, our minds cannot help but think of the many things that the box could potentially contain. Observe:
  • The empty box is in the tool shed.
  • The empty box is on the shelf, next to the frozen peas.
  • The empty box is on the kitchen counter.
  • The empty box sits beside the mattress.
In every imaginable instance involving an empty box, there is a clear implication of its potential contents. If we strip the concept down to its most neutral case - "There exists an empty box," - our minds race to complete the story by locating the box and viewing its surroundings, from which we automatically guess at its purpose or potential contents.

If you dislike my box example, then try this: don't think anything at all. How did that work out for you? (Probably about as well as it worked out for the Ghostbusters when they met arch-villain Zuul.)

In the absence of nothing, something fills its place. The human mind simply thinks this way. It is a self-evident fact.

What This Implies About Life
You might not be inclined to believe that the impossibility of nihilism is an important life lesson, but in fact it is.

For example, some people choose to "do nothing" in stressful situations. The results are always bad. In doing nothing, they fail to assume responsibility for what will happen to them in the future. They attempt to ignore the problem, but the problem merely bowls them over in the process. Nothing doesn't work.

Consider economic behavior. If one chooses to "buy nothing," then one is implicitly buying dollars. That person chooses to save; saving is an action, it is a "thing."

Now consider life in the political sphere. Recently, I posed a question in a comment to Scott Sumner on his blog: Is the Federal Reserve capable of a "do-nothing" policy, or is every action or lack thereof some sort of policy? His response was that the only do-nothing policy would be the abolition of the Federal Reserve.

This is incredibly important, because it implies that the mere existence of the Federal Reserve is the existence of policy. Everything the Federal Reserve does must be - by definition - either expansionary or retractionary. The Fed must always be "doing something" to the money supply, not because they want to, but because no matter what they do or don't do, they are engaging in a policy.

Scope Creep
If this is true of one arm of government (for the sake of argument, let us assume that the Federal Reserve is an arm of government, just as every other central bank is), then it must also be true of all others. 

Therefore, if an "Environmental Protection Agency" isn't writing and enforcing regulations to "protect the environment," then they are by definition failing to protect the environment. If the army isn't engaged in warding off a foe of some kind, then the army is leaving us defenseless. If Congress isn't passing laws, then they are failing to rule.

Is it any wonder that governments grow so easily, and never shrink?

The reason I have written this is because I would like to inject a little frame of reference into the dialogue at large. Without knowing what "nothing" is, and what it implies, then we are stuck in a mindless tail-chasing game of "should we do X or should we do Y?" At some point, people need to stop and ask, "What happens if we do neither X nor Y?" The question is important because there isn't any such thing as "nothing." In the absence of a specific course of action, another course of action occurs, whether or not we "do" it ourselves.


Short Term Pain, Long Term Gain

One of the primary functions of my cognitive time-horizon concept is to help me deal with stress.

Think of it this way: Would you drink a glass of sour (but edible) milk for $50,000? I think most of us would. Sour milk is digusting, but $50,000 is really handy. Most of us could really use that kind of money, especially if all we have to do to get it is endure a bad taste in our mouth, and maybe a grumbly stomach for a couple of hours. The short-term pain involved is minimal with respect to the long-term gain.

Going into a situation like that, you'd hardly think about the milk. All you'd be thinking about is what you'll be doing with that $50,000. You'd pick up the glass of sour milk, raise it to your lips, and start drinking.

Once you start swallowing that atrocious stuff, that's when all your regrets and doubts would kick in. Thinking about the long-term gain is great before you start drinking, but it's really half-way through the glass that you need your cognitive time-horizon most. That's when you have to force yourself to keep drinking, to stop thinking about the taste and the smell of it, and the feel of it sliding down your throat, and instead focus on the fact that it is a minimal pain that will be over quickly; and the payoff will be worth it.

I don't expect that this kind of situation will ever happen to any of us in the real world, but I think it's a good example of how keeping a focus on long-range thinking can benefit you, even if you don't really buy into some of the other things I've said about that concept.

Stepping out of the realm of the hypothetical, what kinds of situations might benefit from remembering your cognitive time-horizon?

For many people, things like graduate school, professional certification courses, and second jobs (especially seasonal jobs) all benefit from this line of reasoning. During those late-night moments when we start to question our decision to take on these kinds of responsibilities, we often find ourselves reiterating the wisdom of our past decisions. It takes a little self-coaching to get one through those points in life, but it is a great case of reminding oneself that short term pain is worth it if one wants long-term gain.

How about training for a marathon? How about getting a new puppy, or throwing a big dinner party? We always encounter stressful situations (even mildly stressful) that can make us doubt ourselves. Think "sour milk!"

I spend a lot of time writing about the hypothetical here at Stationary Waves, but the ultimate goal in all of this is to help develop solutions to real-world problems faced by real individuals. Maybe it's trite to think about an imaginary glass of sour milk that will pay off with a fabulous cash prize. But triteness, too, comes in handy in stressful situations when we need to grin and bear it.

Bearing it is what the cognitive time-horizon is all about. Grinning is what the cartoonish hypotheticals are all about.


Opportunism and Revisionist History In Ideas

The Following Is Only An Allegory
Suppose I were to begin an intense marathon training program, coached by legendary distance runner and innovative trainer Lasse Viren.

Suppose again that, while training under Mr. Viren, I never competed formally in a race.

Now suppose further that, years later, while writing a book that summarized Mr. Viren's training methods and philosophy, and garnering some support from Mr. Viren himself on an advanced copy of one or two chapters -and making this support public knowledge, implying a direct endorsement - I suddenly decided to turn my book into a magnum opus of my own, personal training philosophy.

Under such assumptions, we would expect the public to believe that my magnum opus is some sort of endorsed continuation of the Viren training regimen - even though that is absolutely not the case.

Sure, I would have been strongly influenced by the ideas of Lasse Viren, but it would be patently untrue to even so much as imply that my magnum opus, containing my ideas, is the next logical step - the modern update - of Viren's ideas. My ideas would have evolved from the same school of thought, but they would be primarily my ideas. Viren's ideas would rank merely as an influence.

Of course, I would have every incentive to advertise my ideas as the next logical chain in the series that began with Viren's. I would want to win support among Viren's fans. I would want to lay claim to Viren's legacy, fusing them together with my own, for both financial and ideological reasons.

But doing so would be dishonest. Viren's ideas would not be mine, and mine would not be Viren's. We would be two different people, with two different philosophies. I would have learned from Viren, that's all. My contribution to the sphere of training philosophies would not - and should not - have anything to do with Viren.

Besides, Viren's legacy is great enough to stand on its own, and ought not be sullied by hangers-on.

Vanity - Interpreting The Allegory
Before I go any further, I have to make it absolutely clear that I don't know Lasse Viren, in fact I have never met him, and my only knowledge of him comes from second-hand sources, stories, books, articles, and so forth. There is absolutely no connection between he and I, other than my profound respect for him as an athlete.

With that disclaimer out of the way, we can proceed.

It would be the height of conceit to claim that my ideas are the next logical step from those of, say, Aristotle or Euclid. In fact, if I did that, I'd get laughed out of any room in which I attempted to make that claim, and rightly so. What makes the Lasse Viren story different is the fact that Viren, having been active during the 70s and early 80s is a recent celebrity. So recent, that it is entirely plausible that I would have learned a great deal from him. In fact, some people alive and active in the running world today can certainly attest to the fact that they have trained with Mr. Viren.

Because Viren's legendary status is recent, it packs less of a "punch" than the celebrity of someone like Aristotle, whose genius has been noted for thousands of years. Of course, Viren and Aristotle occupy different disciplinary spheres, but what if we were to take two people from the same discipline?

What if we were to think about economists? Is it equally laughable to proclaim my ideas to be "the logical continuation of the work outlined by Adam Smith?" Yes, of course! That level of vanity would be profound indeed!

So, consider a living economist who may have studied under, say, Milton Friedman, also very active in the 1970s, like Lasse Viren. Would it be vain if someone who studied under Friedman at the University of Chicago to claim that his or her ideas are the logical continuation of Friedman's own achievements? Here it gets a little fuzzier, but I'm reasonably confident that virtually all economists would agree that such a claim would be incredibly vain.

Friedman is an economic legend. Scott Sumner often compares his own professional views to Friedman's, but he does so in a "What Would Friedman Do?" sort of way. Sumner is a fabulously successful monetary economist in his own right these days. He never so much as hints that "Sumner and only Sumner knows the truth of Friedman's teachings."

My profuse apologies to Professor Sumner for using him as an analogy! I merely do so in order to point out that most reasonable economists - and even brilliant and successful ones, like Sumner - would never be so vain as to claim that his ideas are the only correct interpretation of Friedman's monetary theories.

Instead, most economists see their ideas as a continuation of a dialogue that involves all previous contributors to that dialogue. They quite appropriately see themselves as "standing on the shoulders of giants," as Isaac Newton once said.

Out Of Allegory, Into Reality
But what if I were to tell you that there was once a great thinker, who served as a brilliant teacher and mentor to other great thinkers, and that one of these students went on to claim - or at least, virtually all fans of that student have claimed and currently claim - that his (the students') theories represent the only correct, logical extension of the teacher's ideas?

If I could point fingers and name names, would we all agree that the student was out of line if he made this claim, and that the student's fans and students are certainly out of line for claiming this with a sort of quasi-religious tone?

And, if we agreed on that, how would we feel about that student if he himself had written extensive criticism against his contemporaries for fostering a "cult-like" following?

I believe that such a thinker did exist. I will abstain from pointing fingers and naming names until I have had more time to research the topic and make my claim more conclusively.


Plus ca Change, Plus C'est la Meme Chose

One of the main problems of modern "democracies" is the fact that somehow social dynasties entrench themselves in the political system and refuse to oust themselves. Some examples:
  • The Castros of Cuba
  • The Trudeaus of Canada
  • The Bushes of the USA
  • The Clintons of the USA
  • The Kennedys of the USA
  • The two competing families in Bangladesh
  • And now, the Mubaraks of Egypt?
I learn from The Associated Press this morning that Mubarak's former Vice President is running in the country's upcoming presidential elections. This particular news story goes on to outline additional information about Suleiman's candidacy. For my purposes, this is unimportant.

What is important is the idea that a president can be driven out of office by the will of the people, and the system's replacement for an ousted leader is the ousted leader's vice president. This is a perfect example of what is wrong with modern democracy.

In the ancient world, dynasties were a natural thing. Families would acquire some wealth and power, and then use it to control their communities. They fancied themselves lords and ladies. They enjoyed living a life of leisure and luxury, making the poor work for them so that they wouldn't have to. When their tax income dried up, they would conscript the people into armed forces and attack a neighboring community. The families that managed to bungle themselves the most military victories came out on top. Thus Western monarchies were born and propagated.

But in our modern world, we have learned to despise such politics. War is despicable, everyone knows that. Hegemony is illegitimate and atrocious. Slavery and serfdom are evil. Mercantilism and socialism are, if not evil, at least wholly ineffective means of achieving their stated objectives. I say these things without feeling the need to "prove" them, because we have learned these facts over thousands of years and, in general, we all agree that they are simple facts. No one "likes" war, violence, imperialism, central tyranny, and dynasty.

And yet, here we are in the second decade of the twenty-first century, and our world is carved into some two hundred countries, in which two or three families run the show in each. 

Do the math; what this implies is that although there are some seven billion human beings on planet Earth, our political systems are all being run by about six hundred families.

Some people suggest that capitalism is to blame for all the terrible violence and imperialism in the world, but this is preposterous. Violence and imperialism has been the norm on Planet Earth for at least the last six thousand years. Capitalism, democracy, and liberalization are comparatively new inventions. 

Democracy and free choice is human society's only vehicle to establish true consent among the governed. But when the institutions of democracy are poisoned and manipulated to keep a handful of old families in power while the rest of us are robbed of our incomes and freedoms, we have to admit that the system is broken.

The people of Egypt will not mend their democracy by installing another member of the ruling class. The people of the United States will not mend their democracy by electing another Bush, Clinton, Kennedy, or whomever.

Democracy is our choice. This is how we choose, this is how we make things count. If we're all so cynical that most of us don't vote and the remaining few only vote "for the lesser of two evils" then the system is so irreparably broken that we might as well hearken in the coming Dark Age.

My suggestion is simple: Stop voting for entrenched families. These people have had a long go at controlling the world, and they have made a proper mess of it. Time for some new blood, some new faces, and a return to the principles of capitalism and liberal democracy. 

We have seen what happens when we keep giving these people our consent. It is time to choose something different altogether.


The Bigger Problem is That It's Delicious

The San Francisco Chronicle reports that "nearly 3 out of 5 California voters" support a soda tax as a means to combat childhood obesity.

I take it as given that any calorie-dense, sugar-rich beverage that children enjoy drinking can reasonably be considered a contributing factor to obesity, so I will not dispute the article's underlying assumption. (I could provide heaps of anecdotal evidence in terms of children who grew up drinking massive amounts of soda pop without ever becoming obese, but we can leave that aside for the sake of argument.)

Given that soda contributes to childhood obesity - and obesity in general - there are two major factors at play here:

First, soda is inexpensive. Indeed, at approximately $3.84 per gallon, soda is one of the least expensive consumer liquids in the country. Obviously, a soda tax aims to tackle this particular factor head-on. The idea here is to increase the price of soda, making it less attractive (or accessible) to children who buy it, or their parents. However, the price of Coca-Cola would have double in order for it to begin to compete with orange juice. That would be quite a hefty tax; so hefty, in fact, that it is probably politically impossible to implement.

This brings us to the second factor, which is probably the more important one. Soda is delicious! Almost everybody loves that stuff. It's bubbly, it's refreshing, it's fun, and it's sweet. It has been a popular soft drink for at least a century.

If California voters really want to tackle the childhood obesity problem, they might be better off trying to make soda less delicious. May I suggest passing a law that mandates the inclusion of at least 8 parts white vinegar to 1 part Coca-Cola syrup? This would quite clearly make soda less preferable at any price. Children would certainly not prefer drinking a vinegar-soda mixture to the next-best alternative beverage. Problem solved.


Channeling My Inner Boudreaux

Here's a comment left over at CBC.ca, regarding their recent report that the Canadian (Conservative) government plans to eliminate a "whopping" 650 jobs at the state-run media outlet... over three years...
Notice that the specific cuts were already planned. A few hundred jobs over three years is nothing. Such "cutbacks" can be met entirely through employee attrition. Am I the only one who sees this as a charade? 
This is a good case in point: The Rightists now get to say that they took steps toward closing the state media apparatus, the Leftists get to call the Rightists bad guys for cutting "essential public services" and we can all participate in the debate, which is mostly a calculated propaganda distraction. 
Certainly a majority of people of people who remember the word "Pravda" understand that state-run media is basically not a good idea. Here we have a great example of a media story presenting a debate talking point for us while the State carries on, business as usual.  
Let's all agree on the facts. The Conservatives are not eliminating the CBC. 650 cuts in 3 years is not even tightening the belt. This is pure spin on the part of "both sides." (They are the same side!)

Interpersonal Communication

Today, I'd like to take a look at interpersonal communication. Namely, I would ask you to think about controversial issues on which you disagree with someone. For the sake of argument, let us suppose that you are actually interested in talking to someone about the issue. And, further for the sake of argument, let us suppose that by "talking" I mean actually carrying on an open, good-faith conversation.

For such a conversation to take place, you and your conversation partner would need to meet a few basic requirements. (1) You would have to speak the same language. (2) You would have to agree on the same basic definitions of words. (Believe it or not, points (1) and (2) are not necessarily always both true.) (3) You would have to have the communicative means to facilitate the discussion; in other words, you would either have to be in the same room, or have access to a phone, email, Skype, whatever.

We can assemble a good, reasonable list of such requirements, but one of them is not immediately obvious. That is, You would both have to be capable of understanding each other. You might be tempted to assume that if two people speak the same language and agree on the same definitions of words, then the two of you must certainly be capable of understanding each other.

Not so, for reasons outlined recently by Lubos Motl. Regarding that recent viral video of a woman who apparently did not understand the concept of miles per hour, Motl writes:
But if someone asks how long does it take to go 80 miles if your speed is 80 miles per hour, you must combine a huge number of words, something like 17 words, and the interrelationships between all of them matter. Since the blonde doesn't have enough memory in her CPU – one needs at least 100 bytes to do so – she just tears the complicated sentence to pieces and starts to instinctively reply to the pieces.
 Motl goes on to express the following wisdom, in his inimitable and politically incorrect way:
Of course, even if the blondes could remember the whole sentence – 17 words or so – they would probably lack the functions in their CPUs that are needed to convert the words into the actual information and reprocess the information so that it is replaced by an equivalent information, and so on. Math is tough and thinking is hard, especially if you need to design and manage your thinking and algorithms yourself. That's why we may see that by their proclamations, these women articulate lots of misinterpretations of the propositions they have heard. For example, if you say that it takes 1 hour to drive 80 miles if you drive 80 miles per hour, some of them believe that you are also automatically saying that your speed is 1 mile per minute regardless of your speed :-), especially because an hour has 80 minutes and a mile is the same thing as a minute, which is exactly what she wanted to disprove. Well, you're not saying anything of the sort but with the limited resolution of the blondes, they may think they are. It's because you are saying that "the problem is easy" and their misinterpretation is the only way how they can imagine that things could be easy; they're actually not able or willing to remember and process the thing that you are actually telling them.
An even more irreverent story I heard came from my mother, who told me one time long ago that some people believe it is impossible for two people to carry on a conversation if there is a 12-point difference in IQ between them. I won't comment on the validity of such a claim, I merely present it as a theory held by some.

Nevertheless, I believe Motl's core analysis is a true one. I think that certain topics are very complicated, and that not all of us are well-enough-equipped with the tools of ratiocination to be able to process all of the various nuances and form them into a single essence.

Now, in some cases the "problem" with your conversation partner is not that the person lacks sufficient computational power. Rather, in many cases, the other person simply refuses to consider all of the factors involved in the conversation.

For example, an advocate of socialized medicine is not prone to considering the economic detriments of tax increases, because such a person has already previously concluded that rich people should be charged more money than they currently are. Therefore, while the economic impacts of tax burdens are objective facts, they are not important facts, according to those people who wish to exclude such things from the conversation.

So there are two factors at play: The inability to compute all of the information involved, and the unwillingness to compute all of the information, even if it can be computed.

These two factors are - in my opinion - the two most important obstacles when it comes to interpersonal communication. Overcoming them requires both patience and good faith. When it comes to controversial topics, both patience and good faith tend to be in very short supply.

And that, friends, is why controversies remain controversies and arguing about controversial things with people who flat-out disagree with you is a futile endeavor.


The Myth of the Socialist Paradise

One of the most persistent myths out there is that various socialist countries are doing things perfectly, that their citizens basic needs are completely provided for by their socialist governments and that they have learned to create socialist perfection within their borders. This is stated to be some kind of governmental ideal.

This is patently untrue. Leftists often tout Scandinavia as being just such a socialist utopia, but as we will see in a moment, this is complete rubbish.

First, take a look at this CBC news story about the United Nations' global happiness ratings. I haven't investigated the quality of the study itself, but similar stories are rather regularly published by the CBC and other news organizations. Here is a taste of their spin on the idea (emphases added):
Canada placed fifth in the first World Happiness Report, an attempt to measure social and economic well-being around the world that was tabled during a special conference at the UN on Monday. And if there was one surprise in the document it might be this: a nation's happiness is not necessarily tied to its economy...
And, later:
"A number of recent studies have shown that, in many developed countries, including Japan, happiness is not proportional to economic wealth," Nakano said. "This finding, often called the 'paradox of happiness,' has given rise to international discussion on how to enhance individual well-being through government policies." 
The report also listed a number of practical suggestions for governments to promote happiness among their citizens, including helping people meet their basic needs, reinforcing social systems, implementing active labour policies, improving mental health services, promoting compassion, altruism and honesty, and helping the public resist hyper-commercialism.
Surprise, surprise: virtually the totality of the socialist agenda is promoted as a "helpful suggestion" to improve the happiness of citizens.

Of course, I have been following this concept for a little while, and noticed this passage immediately:
Bhutan, the tiny Himalayan nation that tops Asia in the report, convened Monday's meeting seeking to develop a new economic model based on principles of happiness and well being. Prime Minister Jigmi Y. Thinley told the conference a new model is vital if mankind is to avoid its current unsustainable and self-destructive course.
This should surprise no one, since Bhutan's King coined the term "Gross Domestic Happiness" in the first place and immediately used it to promote his political legacy as some sort of politically palatable alternative to liberalization. In its weakest form, GDH means "money can't buy you happiness." More often, it's a way to disparage the profit-driven facts of life that exist any time capitalism is allowed to flourish.

But anyway, I was talking about how socialist paradises are a myth. Here's what I mean. The following are the five countries that top the list of the "happiest countries in the world," according to this most recent study. In parentheses beside the name of each country, I have included their rank on the Economic Freedom Index.
  1. Denmark (11)
  2. Norway (40)
  3. Finland (17)
  4. Netherlands (15)
  5. Canada (6)
And, by comparison, the "bottom four" least-happiest countries and their corresponding ranking on the EFI:
  • Togo (155)
  • Benin (118)
  • Central African Republic (145)
  • Sierra Leone (152)
Contorting these results into the bizarre conclusion that wealth and economic freedom has scant impact on the comparative happiness of a country's citizens is a pretty egregious lie.

It is also a patently ridiculous belief. As much as some leftists would love to suggest that socialism is a panacea of communal happiness, the data actually provides strong evidence to the contrary. Like it or not, Scandinavian countries are among the most capitalistic countries in the world.

I'm not content to just leave it at that. Here is a plot of all the countries that appear on both lists. The x-axis is the "happiness" ranking, and the y-axis is the freedom ranking. The trendline was added for the reader's benefit.

Righteous Indignation

Righteous indignation strikes me as being a very powerful force. It seems to possess an almost supernatural ability to change the behavior of susceptible people. And, in fact, most people appear to be susceptible to righteous indignation.

There are probably evolutionary reasons why righteous indignation has developed as a force within the social dynamic.But if you're a faithful Stationary Waves reader, then you already understand that I don't really enjoy looking at human behavior through the lens of evolutionary mechanisms. After all, when one becomes indignant, he is not aiming at any evolutionary purpose; he is not guaranteeing the success of his progeny. He is simply trying to get his way.

In my view, righteous indignation is more like a childhood temper tantrum. When a toddler doesn't get his way, he is quick to proclaim that the situation isn't fair, that people don't love him, that others have previously received the benefits that he himself is asking for now. The more resistance the toddler faces, the more indignant he becomes, right up to the point where he collapses on the ground, screaming and crying, in a last-ditch effort to evoke capitulation in others.

Naturally, temper tantrums only work on very weak parents. Then, why does righteous indignation seem to work on almost anybody?

Tyler Cowen and India
Here's a case in point. Last night, Tyler Cowen posted a movie review of the new movie Mirror, Mirror on his blog, Marginal Revolution. At first, I thought it was just another one of Cowen's movie reviews, but the commenters on the website knew better. First, I noticed this from someone calling himself "TrollsWillTroll":
Tyler gets bullied.
Tyler appeases bully.
Tyler sets precedent.
Curious as to what the context of this comment was, I read through the comments sections of the last few MR posts, and quickly found what I was looking for. On March 31st, Cowen posted one of his multiplicitous "Assorted links" posts, in which he provides bullet-point links with little or no follow-up commentary (the commentary is supposed to be provided by the readers. There, Cowen simply stated: "5. The rising hostility to foreign firms in India, worrying."

Pretty innocuous, and yet a character calling himself "Sandeep" went on a rather astounding flurry of righteous indignation, beginning with this:

#5 was not meant for analysis. TC posts such links only because he wants to trash a country that he believes is populated with subhumans. 
I say this because there has been an unmistakeably consistent pattern that: 1. While most links from TC about other countries contain both good and bad things (in some cases only good), India is the only country about which his writing has been almost exclusively negative (the remaining instances being neutral). 2. Usually defects in societies invites analysis at MR; but in the case of India, TC’s links NEVER goes into historical factors. Those articles only involve elaborate descriptions of how things suck in India. 
In contrast he has written positive things about Pakistan, posted a link claiming there was brain surgery in Turkey 5000 years ago etc.
It's difficult to take this sort of thing seriously, and the majority of MR commenters certainly did not. Cowen, however, did, and posted a comment of his own - albeit not as a "reply" to anyone in particular: "India is one of my very favorite countries and I wish to go back soon for a third visit!"

Combine that "appeasement" with the overly analytical movie review of Mirror, Mirror, and it would appear that "TrollsWillTroll" was exactly right about Cowen, at least in this case.

Ryan at a Panel Discussion
A few years ago, I attended a public panel discussion, the topic of which was a very controversial and highly visible international political issue. (For the sake of my example, the particular topic in question is unimportant.)

During the first half of the discussion, people were civil, mild-mannered, and engaged in good-faith, open, honest dialogue. The panel discussion was achieving its aim.

Then, suddenly, a woman in the audience stood up to "ask a question," and instead... yep, you guessed it. She became indignant, righteously indignant. She took offense to the whole topic as an affront to herself and her culture. She rambled on and on. Then, to my surprise, she continued rambling as she picked up her coat, kept scolding the panel, and continued this way as she walked right out the door.

It would have been hilarious, had it not completely changed the group dynamic. Something about her righteous indignation had sent a social cue throughout the entire audience. Suddenly, all good faith was lost. Suddenly, real open dialogue was impossible. People stopped making points. Instead, they began clinging to the most extreme versions of their points of view.

The discussion evaporated. The panel wrapped up, and we all went home, somewhat dumber than we were when we arrived.

Ryan In School
One of my favorite stories to tell people is the one about the time I was sitting in a high school civics class, discussing the multiple facets of the abortion issue. The first day we tackled the issue in class, nearly everyone there was open-minded and curious about things. When the teacher solicited everyone's opinion, the students gave cautious, balanced statements that conveyed the fact that they were simply unsure about these things. They were high school students. It was a normal reaction.

Yet, when we returned to class the next day, I suddenly discovered that my classmates had magically become polarized on the issue. I presume that they had returned home the previous evening and discussed it with their parents, whose views of abortion were much more solidified than those of their children. And what debate inspires more righteous indignation from people than the debate around abortion?

It is certainly conjecture on my part, but I think it nonetheless a reasonable inference to suggest that these poor, confused teenagers had tried to discuss a complicated issue with their parents that night, only to face their parents' righteous indignation on the issue. The impact of this on the children was to make their views - the children's views - more polarized.

After a single evening, they had completely altered their approach to the issue from being one of cautious open-mindedness to one of complete and polarized closure.

A couple of my regular readers were in that class. I hope they remember it, too. It was a formative couple of days in my life.

The Magic Power of Righteous Indignation
What is it about this force that inspires such complete capitulation in social groups. Why is that one indignant person can change the dynamic of an entire social group from being open-minded to being close-minded?

For those of you familiar with passionate religious groups, I am sure you will agree that they are another classic example. A group of believers can be as moderate as they please, up until the point that one of them starts pointing out all the sin in the room; suddenly, everyone becomes the most pious religious adherent ever seen. (I have witnessed this happening among people of virtually every major religion in the world.)

How many political negotiations have been completely undone by righteous indignation? How many governmental compromises have been negated by one or more sides becoming thoroughly indignant, throwing the political equivalent of a fit, and polarizing their views?

I would never suggest that every compromise is a good one, but certainly good compromises do exist, and many of them have been destroyed by indignant reactionaries. You may fill in the blanks with your specific examples, if you wish.

The fact remains that what would be a temper tantrum in a small child suddenly becomes black magic in the hands of socially connected adult. Admonishing the broader group for their wrong-headedness and unfairness, an indignant person can alter the course of that and all future discussions within the group.

It is like clockwork. Two people can be having a good, positive, and open discussion, but if a third chimes in with indignation, at least one of the first two parties will end up siding with the third. The issue is irrelevant. The only relevant fact is that there exists righteous indignation in the room. Righteous indignation always wins.

So What Do We Do About It?
I am probably not the best person to provide a way forward when it comes to these situations. For one thing, I consider indignation to be some variant of a childish temper tantrum. Put another way, righteous indignation is powerless against me. I don't take it seriously. I consider it a major shortcoming of those who exhibit it.

For another thing, I have never been in a discussion in which righteous indignation was overcome by the group. It has absolutely poisoned each and every discussion it has touched, as far as my own experience is concerned. This is true regardless of whether I have been an active participant in the discussion, or a mere passive observer.

Finally, the vast majority of people appear susceptible to it, as far as I can tell. So if others dislike it, you wouldn't know it from their propensity to console the indignant at every opportunity.

Therefore, as unhelpful as this suggestion may seem, my recommendation is to mostly steer clear of it. It is a good thing to foster positive, open discussions with other people. However, we must learn to accept that as soon as righteous indignation enters the room, all hope is lost. The discussion cannot continue. Our best hope is to wrap things up quickly before they get out of hand, and perhaps attempt another discussion at some later date, and hopefully without the person who became indignant the first time around.

This nasty, poisonous stuff called righteous indignation can only be avoided, because there is no winning when pitted against a person whose sole objective is to inspire others to feel sorry for him or her.

If reason and open-mindedness are the goals, you simply will not find them in the indignant.