On Our Supposed "Digital" World

Since the original proliferation of the internet in the 1990s, we have been inundated by the mantra-bordering-on-maintenance-rehearsal that we live digital lives in a digital world. The internet has purportedly revolutionized our lives in countless ways that the world has supposedly only begun to understand.

I would suggest that the triumph of information technology, however, has been greatly overstated. Here, I make my case.

Electronic and Paper Forms
The urge to convert all information to electronic form is said to be well underway, and for the most part this is true. However, the primary argument for further conversion is - in my opinion - far off base.

Electronic forms are said to eliminate waste and increase efficiency. Were electronic forms to be used exclusively, this would certainly be true. In actuality, though, for nearly every electronic form we encounter in our daily lives, we see a corresponding paper form.

In the case of sales receipts, for example, electronic forms have accomplished nothing with regard to the elimination of paper-based data. Every electronic point-of-sale record produces at least one receipt - and often times produces two or three instances of the same point-of-sale datum, all in addition to the electronic data. Pay with a credit card at your next trip to a restaurant, and you will see exactly what I mean.

More comically, I was recently at a business that adamantly insisted that I enter all of my personal information into their electronic records. After I did this, I had to complete a handwritten paper form indicating that I had completed the electronic form. In this case a paper form was clearly eliminated by an electronic one, and then an entirely new paper form was created for a need that didn't exist prior to the existence of the electronic form.

What, then, has electronic data accomplished in the realm of fillable forms?

Digital Identities
More interesting than data efficiency, though, is the twenty-first century concept of a "digital identity." Rather, this is a series of concepts.

First, "digital identity" refers to an individual's cultivated persona on various social networks such as Facebook, LinkedIn, Google+, Blogger, and so forth. My own personal digital identity (in this usage) is found at the bottom of my blog and on my Google+ profile. My Facebook profile offers additional insight into this "identity." This identity consists of how I think I want to be seen by others who may read what I have to say. It is one part narcissism, one part navel-gazing, and one part personal opinion. People spend a lot of time cultivating this identity of theirs, even in some cases paying others to help them develop it.

Second, "digital identity" refers to the collection of personal data housed in official databases we need in order to function in modern society. This includes such "exciting" information as your legal name, address, phone number(s), social security numbers, tax IDs and other official government and credit agency numbers. On the surface, this stuff is extremely uninteresting.

However, as soon as one crosses an international border, this "digital identity" proves itself to be of paramount importance. Without government numbers, we have no credit history, no legal records of existence, no traceable location. In a legal sense, we nearly cease to exist without them.

Furthermore, this lack of existence generates punishment when ultimately discovered. See what happens when you try to work or acquire a loan without a social security number. You may find employment, even for an extended period of time, and you'll be just fine. As soon as the "problem" is discovered, however, you are threatened with heavy fines and legal actions that frankly cannot be carried out unless the "problem" is corrected.

It is fascinating to note that an absence of this second kind of "digital identity" allows a person more freedom and less punishment than its existence - all the way to the point that all of society's potential punishments require the official sanction of a random string of digits. Still, without these digits, we are denied access to many of the finer things of life: cars, houses, extremely high incomes, investments, and so on.

Organic Code
Perpetuation of information technology perpetuates a new philosophical question: What exactly is life? Centuries ago, it was a straight-forward question. We were born, we worked for food, shelter, family, we grew old, and we lived on in the memories of our loved ones. Today, websites display the total creative output of people long dead, exactly as it was when it was first produced. We no longer live an organic life consisting of our person and our deeds, and the memories of those we touched. Life is more than that.

Today, life is an endless stream of data generated at birth and following us around for the rest of our lives. It records our economic transactions, our school attendance (or lack thereof), our interaction with The State and with the various community groups with which we associate, and our willful choice to generate data of our own (by blogging, for example) and insert it into stream of analyze-able data.

But of course our consciousness is not the data-trail we leave by interacting with the electronic universe. Maybe in some poetic and metaphorical sense of it, we have always left a debris of data in our wake as we interacted with the universe. But the literal truth of the matter is that we still live inside our own physical, organic heads.

My prediction for the future is that, as time goes on, the more successful human beings will be those who best recognize that true existence is organic, not electronic at all. Such people will be best able to navigate or manipulate their data trail in the "digital" world, and who will prove most successful at face-to-face (i.e. human) interaction.

I could be wrong, of course, but that's how I see it today.


Running in the Heat

Not long ago (near the beginning of Winter, to be exact), I provided some suggestions for how to make the most of winter training. I'll briefly recap those suggestions now:
  1. Make the morning workout a habit.
  2. Run anyway.
  3. Leave the record-setting for summer.
  4. Be proud of yourself.
Now, six months later, it's time to think about running in the summer heat.

Summer presents the challenge of staying cool and managing a good workout despite your body's probable over-heating and dehydration. In both of these cases, you will find your muscles feeling sluggish and burning. Depending on exactly when and where you run, the sun's relentlessly beating down on you will alone be a formidable obstacle to getting a decent workout in. In fact, you may actually find that your times start to get slower (even much slower) as you struggle to cope with the heat.

Having recently departed from Ottawa and relocated to the southern USA, I have been experiencing a double-dose of challenge in this area. Not only is it hot because it's summertime, it's hot because it's a far hotter climate. So, as you struggle through the summer heat, take heart that you at least don't have to deal with the kind of change that people like myself do!

Suggestion 1: Hydrate
This is not so much a suggestion as an absolute requirement. I'm not one to hound others about hydration (I leave that to the personal trainers), but without proper hydration you'll be looking at any combination of the following:
  • Constantly sore, burning muscles
  • Overall physical weakness
  • Dizziness
  • Sun sickness
  • Heatstroke
  • Electrolyte imbalance
  • A trip to the emergency room
That last one may sound a little extreme to some, but facts are facts, kids. Once the temperature gets up into the 80s and above, the temperature is high enough to not only ruin your workout, but also your week. Don't take any chances.

My aunt suggests drinking a glass of water every hour on the hour. That certainly works, and is easy to do while you're at work. If you find yourself out-and-about for a few hours, bring along a water bottle. It may seem like a hassle, but if you're wearing a LiveStrong bracelet, people will recognize you as a fitness badass, and it'll all be worth it.

Suggestion 2: Start Small
You may find it a little frustrating to have to decrease your miles now that you're finally getting some good mileage in, but if you find yourself running sluggishly now that it's hot out, backing off can be a good option for you.

I recommend approaching this the same way I always suggest people approach mileage: Start with something you know you can do, and build from there. For example, if you were running 10km every day in the spring, back down to 8km/day for one week, then add another km/day the following week. Within two weeks, you'll be right back where you were, and feeling less sluggish.

The point here is that you need to acclimate to the heat. Back off a little and do something manageable, then work back up. There's no shame in that, particularly if it enables you to keep your pace high and avoid getting discouraged by slow workout paces.

Suggestion 3: Don't Hide from the Heat
Running when it's hot is a skill that - if developed - gives you an edge over your competitors. Not every race features ideal weather conditions. You trained well during the winter and managed to learn how to run in the cold. Now it's time to train through the heat.

If you think that you "just can't do it," consider the fact that every year thousands of runners like you flock to the Sahara Desert to run the Marathon des Sables. They can do it. So can you.

Suggestion 4: Sunglasses
Sunglasses don't just make you look cool. They protect your eyes from the scorching sun, and from flying insects who like to think that those two moist orbs on your face are extremely interesting, and possibly tasty. There also seems to be a psychological benefit to wearing shades in that it feels a less hot when it seems a little darker. (Maybe it's just me?)

Suggestion 5: Get Off the Road and Onto the Trails
Trails are often lined with trees, which offer much-needed shade. They can also be found near water, which cools the air a bit. (Be careful of the increased brightness caused by water - you'll need some good sunscreen!) An added benefit here is that the ground on trails is softer and will therefore be much easier on your muscles and joints than the pavement would be.

Well, those are a few minor suggestions to get you started, anyway. If you have additional tips, feel free to share them in the comments below.


Album Review: Big Wreck's "Albatross"

About two months ago, Canadian hard rock band Big Wreck returned with a new album: Albatross.

Big Wreck's first album appeared way back in 1997 with a debut album called In Loving Memory Of.... That album boasted their only two "radio-recognizable" hits - "The Oaf," and "That Song." For people who were still interested in hard rock during the late 90s, "The Oaf" is a familiar song, although not a mega-hit. "That Song" was, however, their most successful single, particularly in Canada. In Loving Memory Of... went on to double-platinum certification.

Later, Big Wreck released The Pleasure and the Greed, which I thought was an absolutely phenomenal album full of well-written songs, amazing vocal performances, and hard-hitting, hard-rocking songs that contained a maturity and intelligence not found in mainstream music since the 1996 demise of Soundgarden. Somehow, Big Wreck's press story was one of reformed prog-rockers who hung up their chops in the name of great songwriting. The story never quite seemed to fit. The band was obviously a southern-rock-inflected grunge band. Progressive rock had little to do with it.

Like all good things the 90s gave us, Big Wreck eventually faded away into obscurity, while frontman Ian Thornley released a successful-in-Canada solo album entitled Come Again, and a much-less-successful follow up called Tiny Pictures. While both of these albums contained very strong songwriting and respectable vocal performances, they tended to alienate Ian Thornley's core fan base of hard-rock fans because they were softer and more pop-oriented than Big Wreck's two albums had been.

Eventually Ian Thornley reconnected with Big Wreck bandmate Brian Doherty, found a 3rd guitarist and a new rhythm section, and recorded and released Albatross, billing it as Big Wreck's return to form.

Frankly, the album is not exactly a return to form. While elements of southern rock and groove are still present in the new album, Albatross is at long last evidence of Big Wreck's progressive rock roots. For one thing, Ian Thornley actually shreds on the album - something unheard of on his previous releases.

If lengthy, extended guitar solos aren't progressive rock, then what is? Odd time signatures, of course! Although they are hidden behind extremely tight songwriting, Albatross hosts some odd time signatures as well. Not to mention the presence of double-neck guitar parts and dense vocal harmonies. Albatross is undeniably progressive in execution.

Still, Ian Thornley's incredible vocal prowess gives him the ability to "sing the phonebook." That is, Thornley has always been able to make simple, unassuming melodies sound incredible with his strong vocal performances. Albatross is no different. Rather than becoming bogged-down in prog-rock indulgences, the album instead deftly inserts progressive elements into a sonic core of tight, blues-based songwriting.

The overall result is an album that is both dense and accessible. To my ears, it sounds as though Ian Thornley has finally managed to capture his musical essence free of external pressures and simply make music for the sake of making music.

Albatross may not necessarily be Ian Thornley's masterpiece. Perhaps the best is yet to come. But for my money, this latest album is the closest Thornley has come to-date to crafting his magnum opus. I give it full marks.


The Importance of Being An Optimist

Everyone experiences ups and downs in life. It is unavoidable. There has never yet lived a man, woman, or child, who did not experience their own share of fortunes both good and bad. What makes one person an optimist and another person a pessimist? In my experience, the difference is attitude.

"I'm Not a Pessimist, I'm a Realist."
That phrase is the calling card of every pessimist in the world. None of them perceive their negative expectations as being genuinely negative. Instead, they see their perspective as being one of deft anticipation of future risks. Life is to be mitigated against. Things will not be optimal, therefore it is best to reduce expectations to the point that sub-optimality can be accommodated.

Before we probe this further, we should take some time to establish an agreement. We all agree - most of us, anyway - that having a negative attitude is a bad thing. They don't call them "bad attitudes" for nothing. While every pessimist would stop short of describing their own attitudes as bad, even the world's most insufferable pessimist will agree that having a bad attitude is a bad thing.

So when does pessimism cross the line and become a bad attitude? More to the point, is pessimism ever anything other than a bad attitude?

Perhaps "realism" is nothing more than the last bastion of a pessimist. Perhaps pessimism itself is the problem. Not convinced? Let's take a closer look.

Positive Versus Negative Narratives
As an optimist, it is important to me that I craft a positive narrative for every future expectation. Pessimists, on the other hand, are not people who lack hope. Instead, they tend to be people whose default narrative for future events is a negative one.

Consider the following: Let's move to a new country.

This is a "future event" pulled from the pages of my own recent experiences. Moving to a new country is a major life event, involving many different dependent factors that must all be organized and executed to reasonable sufficiency. When embarking on such a series of tasks, a pessimist is not someone who merely throws up his/her hands and proclaims, "What's the point? Everything will fail anyway!"

No, a pessimist rather becomes worried about all the many ways the project can fail. Perhaps the movers will be too expensive, or too ill-equipped to handle the job. Perhaps finding a place to live from across a very long distance is too daunting. Perhaps lack of domestic credit history will undermine all efforts to establish oneself.

An optimist sees all these same problems, but rather than being worried by them, the optimist reasons that such obstacles have been overcome by others in similar situations, and can therefore be overcome by the optimist himself/herself. While a pessimist may wrongly proclaim this to be the optimist's "naivete," what actually makes the key difference here is the presence of worry.

An optimist refuses to worry about bad things that haven't yet occurred; a pessimist refuses to believe that good things happen until they actually do occur.

Because the optimist is more skeptical of negative outcomes than positive ones, the optimist quickly constructs a series of positive narratives surrounding future events. When something goes wrong, the optimist quickly generates a new set of positive narratives based on the new circumstances.

The pessimist does the exact opposite. The pessimist is skeptical of positive outcomes, and so quickly constructs a set of negative narratives. When things go right for the pessimist, he/she readjusts to the new data by crafting more negative narratives expressing the expectation that his/her luck is soon to change.

Both the pessimist and the optimist see the world as it truly is. The pessimist is simply more skeptical of positive outcomes than negative ones, skeptical to the point that all future expectations carry a negative narrative. Is this an obstacle to the pessimist's life?

Well, let me ask you this: How much do you think you'll accomplish in life if you don't think you will accomplish much in life? Pessimism isn't merely a self-fulfilling prophecy. It is a tautology.

I'd call that having a bad attitude.

An optimist, on the other hand, is so skeptical of negative outcomes that he/she takes all bad news as a statistical aberration, one that is unlikely to be repeated. An optimist believes that things will pan out well, and therefore easily sees many different ways to take advantage of the circumstances - even when the circumstances are bleak. Optimists don't merely find the silver lining in the storm clouds, they see every new situation as potentially advantageous.

How much do you think you'll accomplish in life if you cannot help but think of ways to profit from any situation you come across?

It takes a little mental training, but once you get the hang of it, optimism is a guiding light.


Goodbye, Canada

Tomorrow morning I start a long journey to my new home, back in the United States of America.

I suppose the rabid Stationary Waves readers among us will primarily be interested in the fact that this will by necessity involve a small lull in posting. I hope to keep it up, but will at the mercy of the available internet connections I access along the way. I intend to take some pictures of my journey, because I enjoy the slow evolution of visual landscapes that unfold over the course of thousands of miles of driving. Hopefully, I can include some pictorial evidence of this as I drive. No promises, though.

It's Victoria Day today. Let's talk about Canada.

I arrived in Canada in the summer of 2003. I Mother Earth's "Quicksilver Meat Dream" album had just come out, Paul Martin was Prime Minister. I didn't really understand what was going on in Canadian politics. The westward shift of Canadian culture hadn't quite yet begun, but you could see it coming.

I remember driving north to the Canadian border crossing at Coutts, Alberta. Montana is such a sparsely populated corner of the world, that as I reached the border near sundown it really felt as though I was driving off the end of the Earth. But when I crossed into a new country, I found that the universe still existed up here.

But it was definitely a parallel universe. Traffic signals were horizontal rather than vertical. Mexican food mysteriously disappeared. Prices were higher, incomes were lower. The weather was warm, but the sun was strangely dimmer, and the sky a paler shade of blue.

For people outside of North America, it may seem odd that there is a large cultural divide between Canada and the United States. Truthfully speaking, for most Americans it is incomprehensible that Canada has such a unique culture. This is, by the way, the reason Americans spend so much time joking about "the 51st state." They genuinely feel that there is little difference between themselves and their Canadian brothers and sisters. Canadians, however, feel otherwise.

The Canadian perspective on Americans very much reminds me of a middle sibling endlessly living in the shadow of the "mature" oldest child and the "cute" youngest child. It is classic Jan Brady syndrome; with no real identity of her own, she was forever tortured by her role as 2nd fiddle to Marsha.

Canada's day may very well come some day, but their culture is one collective sneer at their cruder and more successful southern neighbors. I say this without judgement, as a statement of fact.

That sneer has been pointed at me nearly every day for the past nine years. For as much as can be said about comparative systems, what I most look forward to about going back to the United States is not having to feel that sneer levied against me every time I step out my own front door.

The United States
Meanwhile, nine years is a long time to be away from home. In these particular past nine years, my country has changed significantly. I don't really know what to expect when I get there.

Well, that's not true. I've been back many times, and every time I go, I feel an undeniable sense of familiarity. It's a place where, at the least, my jokes are better understood. With a decent job and some good hobbies, I have a lot to look forward to. You may have also noticed that real estate prices took a slide recently. I hope to make the most of those comparatively lower prices.

Higher incomes, lower tax rates, lower prices, better opportunities. I have written a lot about the inferiority of the Canadian health care system. My most vehement critics will be happy to know that I don't just blather on endlessly about this stuff; I actually put my money where my mouth is. While I had one or two decent health care practitioners up here, I found the system as whole to be a total failure. For the sake of my own health, I am excited to return to a place where quality health care is offered on the market to a willing buyer.

Furthermore, to my great benefit, I happen to be moving to a place with an incredible music scene. Hopefully I can make the most of that.

Good Bye
I suppose this post was mostly just a bit of navel-gazing. I wanted to write down my thoughts as I thought them, one day before returning home. I can't wait to get back to the USA. I can't wait to get started on the next chapter of my new life.

When I return, I hope to return with some new music, a new site layout/design, and more useful blog posts. In the meantime, hang in there. I'll try to remain relevant in the interim. ;)


Guitar Exercise of the Week

Stationary Waves reader ZK has been asking me to put together my long-ago promised second sweep-picking exercise, and I have finally gotten around to it.

This is a long exercise. Unlike the previous exercises, this one is more of a true etude, designed to be both musical and rigorous. There is no easy way to go about this, and nothing I can tell you to help speed it up. Pay attention to the pickstroke indicators so that you get the sweeps correct.

The denser arpeggios will sound jarring and dissonant when played at slow speeds, which should give you plenty of incentive to get them up to higher speeds more quickly.

As a final note, I had to break the exercise into five separate jpegs. I apologize for that.

Without further ado, here is "Study #1."


Somewhat Disconcerting

Another Stationary Waves Milestone
Happy 30,000 to me
Happy 30,000 to me
I'll do nearly anything
For a nominal feeeee!

And In Other News
I have been getting blog hits from the Google search string "brainwashing yourself for good."

Not exactly the audience I intended to draw, but I'll take it!

What Is The Point?

Bangla Word of the Day:
লাভ: [labh] n. - Point, purpose, etc.

Note that there is no inherent vowel sound after the "bh" consonant at the end of the word. Bangalis will often say "Labh ki?" which means, "What's the point?" It has the same connotation that it  has in English, meaning that it is frequently used as an expression of exasperation or hopelessness. While it's not a particularly optimistic thing to say, it's still a pretty handy phrase. 

No Really, What Is The Point?
Yesterday, I spent some time discussing the virtues of competition and self-improvement. In that post, I wrote:
This isn't because a person is always inadequate and needs to reach a "better place." Fitness gurus, coaches, self-help advisers and others often get this one wrong. It's not because your life sucks that you want your life to be better. If a person tries and tries and never improves, that person isn't a "failure," and I wouldn't automatically assume that such a person is unhappy or dissatisfied.
In hindsight, I realize that I may have glossed over the most important aspect of the matter, for this paragraph as a stand-alone statement is wholly unsatisfying.

So the question is posed: Why should we chase these dreams of self-improvement? Really, why should we undertake all this effort to try to make ourselves better people rather than simply accepting ourselves as we are living our lives accordingly? If you're not going to win a race, what is the point of trying to be competitive? If you're not going to be a rock star, why write songs and arrange for live performances? Why not just be happy with what life has given you and learn to exist as such?

In short, why bother?

It's a challenging question, one that I will attempt to answer here, at least partially.

External Influences On Self-Improvement
We in North American culture tend to focus - negatively - on the negative influences driving us to attempt to "fix ourselves." We have developed all sorts of epithets for these influences: "the rat-race," "our image-obsessed culture," "consumerism," "keeping up with the Joneses," and so on. Our communities both large and small exert an enormous amount of pressure on us to conform and fit in with the prevailing standards of the day.

I think we intuitively and universally know such pressures to be an unequivocal negative. None of us should feel like failures if we don't have a nice car like the family down the street, or as big a house, or as trim a waistline, or as high an income, or as high a standing in the community. People waste whole lifetimes chasing social status and seeking approval from others.

The reason this is a losing game is that no matter how much stuff you acquire, no matter how much status you have among your fellow men, there will always be critics trying to chop you back down to size. Even the epithets I mentioned two paragraphs ago were developed to try to diminish those people who have excelled the most at acquiring possessions, looking beautiful, having neat stuff, and earning lots of money.

If you're trying to please all these people, you just can't win.

But there are other external influences out there, too - positive ones.

Take for example the man driven to earn fabulous riches so that he can guarantee that his children have every convenience throughout their lifetimes. A very productive person in a free society can often earn so much wealth that his/her children and even grandchildren can live comfortably throughout their whole lives. Such an endeavor is a labor of love, and none of us could reasonably call this person's motives into question.

This is especially true since we are all so influenced, even if to a lesser degree. Our desire to leave our children with a better chance than we had is one of the most natural and fundamental of desires. Perhaps it is not even unique to human beings alone.

So this is one external influence on self-improvement. Another example might be an overweight parent or family member who successfully turns his/her health around in order to inspire his/her family not to make the same mistake. YouTube is replete with videos of amazing transformations, often posted by the very family members who were intended to be inspired. 

We've all seen the reality TV shows, showing people who take on unique and difficult challenges so that they can demonstrate to their friends and family that amazing things are possible in life if we set our sights on achieving them. 

Again, such motives are fundamentally external in nature. The driving force is not the person improving and achieving, but an intended spectator. I am not so sure that any of us would suggest this kind of external motivation is negative. But what is the difference between the "negative" and the "positive" external influences?

I would argue that the fundamental difference is specificity

If you spend your time trying to please a nebulous mass of people - a "community" or "people in general," for example - then you cannot hope to succeed, because there is always some fraction of any given population who want to see the exact opposite of what you intend to do. For everyone who will appreciate that you earned a raise, there is someone who will resent you or criticize your "materialistic" goals.

On the other hand, if you identify particular individuals whose approval you would like to win for noble reasons - your children, so that they may live a better life, or recipients of a local charity that matters to you, for example - then suddenly the goal is entirely within your reach.

You can't please everyone, but you can please someone. If that "someone" happens to matter a great deal to you and is worth pleasing, then such an external influence can be a powerful motivational factor that can inspire you to achieving great things.

Internal Influences on Self-Improvement
Of course, you can also waste a lifetime trying to win the approval of a loved one, too. A great many of us still suffer from the demons of our childhood, in which we feel we could never live up to the expectations of a few people we admired, from which we desperately wanted approval. If you realize that you may not ever get that approval - or even if you don't - you'll need more to keep you going in life than the approval of others. 

That is to say, external factors are important, but insufficient. Human satisfaction requires our own internal sense of worth. We need some internal influences to work their magic on us.

Here's where things get dicey. Just as we see that many external influences are highly negative, so our internal motivations can be similarly dangerous. An unattainable desire for beauty can lead a person toward many different kinds of personal deformity (plastic surgery, eating disorders, and the like). An overwhelming appetite for the finer things in life can take us down the slippery slope of intemperate greed. A quest for glory can become an unquenchable thirst for power.

Because we all spend so much time in our heads, it is far too easy to see the problems associated with personal motivations toward greatness. Our moral and ethical systems reinforce the level of importance we attach to these problems, too. Nearly all the world's major religions vehemently condemn "greed" and "vanity," and declare that we should not waste our time on such "worldly" endeavors, but should double up our efforts with respect to the external influences on self-improvement.

But as we saw above, returning to an externally focused sense of motivation is not a panacea. There are problems with relying too much on such things.

The fact of the matter is, you need some positive internal influences to maintain your mental health, and so I repeat: human satisfaction requires our own internal sense of worth.

Identifying Your Values
One of my favorite Ayn Rand quotes is this one: 
Achievement of your happiness is the only moral purpose of your life, and that happiness, not pain or mindless self-indulgence, is the proof of your moral integrity, since it is the proof and the result of your loyalty to the achievement of your values.
I cannot seem to source it. It has been floating around on the internet for a long time, and although I have read similar quotes throughout her work, I've never come across this one in writing. There is a wealth of wisdom in this quote, so I'd like to break it down into its most important concepts.
  1. Humans deserve to be happy. You may not have met anyone who deliberately suffers because that person believes that only suffering is noble, but I have met plenty such people. It is sad, because these people often never come to terms with the fact that happiness is an achievable state of being, and that each one of us deserves it.
  2. "Mindless self-indulgence," is not ethical, and is not the point. Ayn Rand was not a "do what you please" kind of a thinker. As a result, while she never (to my knowledge) wrote explicitly about temperance, there is a hefty implication of temperance throughout her work. Happiness, according to Rand, is not just cheap thrills and quick-fixes. Happiness is a lifelong endeavor to make yourself deeply satisfied in accordance with the things you actually value (in the long run).
  3. Happiness comes from achieving your values. Whatever you truly value, that is what will make you happy. It's different for everyone. But everyone has something (or many things) that they value, and only those through those values will a person become happy.
So with respect to discovering your "internal influences for self-improvement," we are not really talking about latching onto some shallow motivational factor like, "I have to do a good job," or "I want to look good for the party." Instead, we are talking about the fundamentals. The philosophical mumbo-jumbo. Sorry. I know some of you didn't want to read that.

For ethical eudaimonists like myself, "the things we value" are virtues. We identify character traits that serve somewhat like "ideals." We're not perfect, but obviously, the more virtuous we are, the happier we become. Please note, the purpose here is not to be "as close to perfect as possible," but rather to have a concept in mind that describes what would make us happiest in any given situation. Once you get away from the specter of "perfection," it is actually more like guiding principles.

We have seen that the point of all this self-improvement stuff is to align our personal goals with the internal and external motivational factors we encounter every day. We have also seen that both kinds of factors can be either positive and negative, and that it is probably only healthy to focus on the good ones.

Hopefully, we have also managed to identify that the whole point of all of this is achieving a fundamental sense of human happiness. As a result, we have to identify some core values that we hold, so that we can align our endeavors to those values. 

Nonetheless, I have spent a little time discussing motivational factors and self-improvement, and still feel I have covered the topic inadequately. In a future post, I would like to provide some real-world examples of internal and virtue-centric motivation at work.

Stay tuned. I promise not to keep you waiting too long!



If you read my blog, you know that I ran a 10K race over the weekend. I won, but I didn't run very fast. In a more athletic city, I would not have come anywhere near first place. (Indeed, looking at some race results from Dallas, Texas reveals that the frontrunners are winning races with times I haven't run since my university days. So my days of winning races will be over as soon as I move.)

Hilariously, I accidentally ran my first mile split in 4:38. This was much faster than my intended race pace, and each subsequent mile was slower than the one before it. I tired myself out too early. Having said that, it is somewhat encouraging that I can run a mile that fast having only had the opportunity to run about six miles a day for the last few weeks, without any speed work. It certainly speaks of good things to come.

Now I would like to say a few words about the concept of competition.

Good Runner, Bad Runner
As I noted above, were I running in a different city, I would never have run a race like the one held last Saturday. This is not because "I suck, and everyone from Ottawa sucks, and the only good people are in different cities." It is a simple fact. There are faster people elsewhere.

Yet, often when I make note of such things, casual runners are inclined to take offense. "Not everyone runs to win!" they declare. "Winning isn't everything!" "For some people, it's a big enough accomplishment just to get out there and finish the race!"

All of that is true. But those are not the only things true about running. What is also true about running is:
  • Some people run to win,
  • Winning means a lot to people who are capable of winning, and
  • Some people have completed enough races at fast enough times that mere "completion" in and of itself is no longer sufficiently satisfying.
For some - though certainly not for all - slower runners, it is disheartening to dwell too much on the fact that there is a large number of other runners who will run faster and more successfully than the slower runners ever will. But it is nonetheless a fact.

Running fast and winning is admirable, and we shouldn't rob the winner of her victory just because the novice wants to feel admired.

The Beauty of Competition
No matter who you are and what you hope to gain from running, you are engaged in a competition. 

At the level of a novice, you are competing with yourself, your doubts and fears, your will-power, and your physical predispositions. These are no mean adversaries. Winning out over such obstacles is a major accomplishment worthy of praise. But it is only the first step in a life-long relationship with sport.

Having conquered a few demons and completed your first race or training regimen, your mind will then naturally wish to expand. After so many participation ribbons, being handed a new one starts to lose its appeal. You start to notice the familiar faces of people finishing around you. These are your friends and colleagues. These are your fellow members of the running community. This is your competition.

If you make a point to attempt to run faster than the familiar faces around you, you are competing. You are also doing something wonderfully positive. First of all, you are pushing your body to additional limits, and reaping the gains of a higher level of fitness. Second of all, you are learning how to push your body beyond its known physical and psychological limits, just like you used to do when you were a novice; therefore, you are becoming a new kind of novice - a novice of head-to-head competition.

And if running against other people makes you uncomfortable, take heart, because third of all, you are raising the average level of performance, and your fellow runners will start to push themselves a little harder, too. This is good for all of you. By making things a little more competitive, you're physically helping your friends run faster, too. That's a great accomplishment for you all!

As you start running faster and faster, new people enter your community of competitors, and some people drop off the back end. It's nothing personal. You're improving. There are other people to meet and befriend, and compete against. They now have a new friend to help push them along.

This whole dynamic of running and competition is lost on those who proclaim that "it's not about winning." In focusing merely on race completion, they are ignoring the friendly faces of those around them, and they are missing out on an opportunity to expand their abilities - and physically feel better as a result.

So Please Do Compete
The concept of pushing oneself to new and better heights is something I often try to express here on the blog. Improvement is a great thing! 

This isn't because a person is always inadequate and needs to reach a "better place." Fitness gurus, coaches, self-help advisers and others often get this one wrong. It's not because your life sucks that you want your life to be better. If a person tries and tries and never improves, that person isn't a "failure," and I wouldn't automatically assume that such a person is unhappy or dissatisfied.

No, we compete because it is a natural inclination we have. Human beings have found that providing additional incentive when reaching for a goal inspires us to greater heights than we may have otherwise thought possible. This spirit of achievement can be quite playful and, when done with a light heart and a sunny disposition, is a great way to feel proud and happy, even if you don't reach your goal.

Races have winners. It's a fact. Just because someone else wins doesn't mean you're a chump. Just because someone likes to win doesn't mean they're slighting your accomplishments. A healthy spirit of competition is good for everyone. It fosters both achievement and humility. 

So don't run from it. Compete.


Reminder: Upcoming Events

This just a reminder that you'll be able to catch yours truly tonight and tomorrow at the following events:

Machine Messiah at the Daily Grind:
Friday, May 11, 2012

601 Somerset Street
Ottawa, ON K1R 5K1

Things should get started around 8pm. I am anticipating Machine Messiah will hit the stage around 11pm. I'll be playing bass tonight, as opposed to my usual guitar + vocals. The venue is licensed and the show is 19+.

Catch the Facebook page here.

Wylie Ryan Day-Before-Mothers Day Run
Saturday, May 12, 2012

Canada Aviation and Space Museum
11 Aviation Parkway
Ottawa, ON K1K 4Y5

The races get started at 9:50am, but you can still register for the race itself. If you're like me, and plan on registering the morning of the event, you'll want to show up well before 8am to make things easy on yourself.

I have not yet decided whether I'll be running the 5K, the 10K, or the half marathon. My guess is I will likely end up putting myself in the 10K to avoid the pressure associated with a 5K ("Must run fast!!!") or the half marathon ("Must finish strong!!!").

I hope to see you at either event. Feel free to say hello when you get there.


Another Look At Happiness

A couple of days ago, one Leo Babauta posted a few tips on how to be happy.

Farbeit from me to declare what will make other people happy. Leo provides a list of tips that have worked for him - and that's good. Without saying he's wrong, wrong, wrong, I thought I'd simply use his list as a starting point and explore his recommendations a little.

First, some context. Leo's recommendations seem to center around ideas that run contrary to basic facts about human beings, namely that less is more. Part of the reason I think blog entries like that exist is because they are mantras, they are things that people must repeat to themselves over and over in an effort to wish them into truth.

That's not to say that happiness can be found in the rat-race, but just that... Well, David Lee Roth said it best when he said, "Money can't buy you happiness, but what it can get you is a yacht big enough to pull up right alongside it."

Let's take a look at Leo's list:

#1 - "You need very little to be happy."
This is the thing we all desperately want to believe because, frankly, none of us is capable of having all the many things we would like to have. Furthermore, these things that we want genuinely would make us happy. So we are inclined to say they don't matter, to help us feel better about the fact that we may never have them.

Truthfully, the more awesome stuff you have, the more awesome your life will be. The problem is that it's not the stuff, per se, that makes you happy. Really, it's the fact that having stuff means you have access to preventing a little more misery in your life. As Mises might have put it, you've managed to remove a greater number of your daily wants.

So, rather than trying to be satisfied with your meager list of possessions, I suggest we all dedicate our time to obtaining the things that really do make us happy, whether it's a yacht or a wife or a new car or whatever. Just don't waste your time chasing stuff that doesn't make you happy and shoot yourself in the foot. Don't work 6 hours of overtime when you really would rather go home and have a glass of wine. Be aware of what you really want.

#2 - "Want little and you are not poor."
Leo suggests that if you always want more than what you have, you are actually "poor." Technically, of course, this is false. But it is really just poetic rhetoric. What Leo means to say is that having a black hole in your heart that can never be filled up is a bad thing.

And he's right. But again, I'd argue that a person who has such a black hole is simply focusing on the wrong things. Don't host a thousand stressful dinner parties if you'd rather just chill out and read a magazine. Want as much as you feel to want, but make sure you actually do want what you say you want.

#3 - "Focus on the Present"
This is classic Buddhist mumbo-jumbo. Faithful Stationary Waves readers know that in order to foster a good sense of mental health and achieve good things, you need to extend your cognitive time-horizon as far as you possibly can. This isn't about living in the past and the future so much as it is being able to understand how you got where you are and how to get to where you want to be.

Which brings us to...

#4 - "Be happy with what you have and where you are."
Not bad advice at all on its face. Where Leo goes wrong is that he suggests readjusting such that you shouldn't strive for more. But why not? It's fun to do new things!

#5 - "Be grateful for the small pleasures in life."
I say, take pleasure in all things, big or small. Everyone has small pleasures in life - we need not be "grateful" for them. They are "small pleasures" precisely because we all have access to them. It's only the big pleasures we should be grateful for, because those are the ones that are truly rare experiences. Those are the ones that give us stories to tell and memories to cherish.

But that doesn't mean you should disregard the tiny moments of life that make you smile.

#6 - "Be driven by joy and not by fear."
There is a lot more to life than "joy" versus "fear." Such as, to quote Donnie Darko, "the whole spectrum of human emotion."

Don't be driven by fear. Don't be driven by joy. Try this instead: When you're afraid, take solace in courage; when you're sad, take solace in joy; when you're lonely, take solace in love; when you're angry, take solace in grace.

In other words, when you find it hard to be strong, default to your greatest strengths. It might not always work, but it's far better than blindly surrendering to the emotion of the day.

#7 - "Practice compassion."
This one is pretty vague. Leo seems to mean "compassion for yourself," for the most part, which he defines as eating right, accepting yourself, and coming to terms with your past mistakes.

I can go for that, sure, but I'd suggest that if you spend a lot of time accepting yourself and coming to terms with your past mistakes, you're probably not focusing enough on your strengths.

Whenever anyone asks me, "What went wrong?" I tell them that they're asking the wrong question. I don't think people should focus much on figuring out mistakes or problems. I think people should focus on the good things and figure out why they're good. "What went right?" is the better question to ask. You don't really want to figure out and replicate a mistake. But figuring out and replicating an achievement guarantees your ability to do it again in the future. Now we're getting somewhere!

#8 - "Forget about productivity and numbers."
Leo doesn't seem to like numbers and benchmarks much. I agree that Leo should forget about productivity and numbers.

But I know lots of people who love numbers. They're called mathematicians, engineers, scientists, analysts... numerate people in general! If you like numbers, why should you forget about them? If numbers inspire you to move forward, why not make use of that fact?

True, numbers aren't inspiring to everyone, but if you're one of the lucky ones who likes them, go with it! No sense fighting your own happiness.

Well, that about does it for Leo's list. As you can see, the Stationary Waves philosophy diverges quite sharply from anything "zen." Naturally, there is no "one, correct way to live life," so I won't suggest that I am right and Leo is wrong.

What I will suggest is that zen philosophies in general are the majority viewpoint in self-help media out there, and that they simply don't apply to everyone. Some of us like numbers, rationality, long-range focus, and an unyielding focus on the positive aspects of life. If you've tried new age feel-good mumbo jumbo and it hasn't worked out for you, why not give enlightened rationalism a try?

Chimeras: No Two Men Are An Islet

Islet cell transplantation is an experimental treatment for type 1 diabetes. It is not right for everyone.

Some type 1 diabetics are particularly prone to hypoglycemia and have great difficulty gaining any kind of control of their blood sugar. They frequently experience nocturnal hypoglycemia, which is life-threatening because they can enter a coma in their sleep and subsequently die, all without ever knowing anything was ever wrong, because they were asleep.

So, for some diabetics, islet cell transplantation offers a possible alternative to certain death.

However, this alternative as it currently stands is far from a pleasant one. Like all transplant recipients, islet cell recipients can often reject the transplanted cells. Their bodies attack and kill the new cells and the patient once again becomes type 1 diabetic. (From one perspective, they were never cured, because type 1 diabetics are people whose immune system's defaul state is one that attacks islet cells - whether or not they were transplanted. This is precisely what causes them to be diabetic in the first place.)

That fact in and of itself is is not any more unpleasant than simply being type 1 diabetic. The real problem with islet cell transplantation is the fact that recipients are placed on a permanent regimen of immuno-suppressant drugs. These are heavy-duty chemicals designed to keep the human immune system at bay (so that it won't attack the islet cells). They work exactly as advertised, but this means that the patient is also exposed to an enormously increased risk of infection.

So the patient gets a cold, but because their immune systems are being chemically suppressed, they cannot fight the virus effectively. Simple viruses quickly become major health threats. The patient could contract pneumonia, or worse, and that means they have another specter standing over their shoulder. To make matters worse, immuno-suppressants are highly carcinogenic.

For patients who face a real risk of dying from nocturnal hypoglycemia, though, this choice is a no brainer. If you get a cold, you have a fighting chance. If you go hypoglycemic in your sleep and don't know it, you're pretty much screwed.

Since a fighting chance is better than no chance at all, islet cell transplantation presents an attractive health option for some diabetics.

New Developments
A new study suggests a potential method for overcoming the need for hefty, ongoing immuno-suppressant therapy: mixed chimerism.

Here I should probably define what chimerism is. Chimerism is a genetic state in which two separate sets of DNA coexist within the same organism, each retaining its own distinct traits. Typically, the way this happens in nature is that two eggs are fertilized during conception, and they somehow manage to grow into a single organism. It is very rare in nature, but it does happen.

Plants can become chimeras through grafting. Humans can become chimeras through organ transplant.

So, basically what we are talking about is medically inducing chimerism in a transplant recipient so that the immune system stops attacking the alien cells. So far, this has only been done in mice.

I have mixed feelings about islet cell transplants. For one thing, the need for immuno-suppressants makes the clinical viability of the procedure limited to a highly unique population. But for the most part, I feel the procedure does not treat the disease, merely the symptoms. Type 1 diabetics are diabetics because their bodies kill their own beta cells. Implanting new beta cells does not really address the core problem, only a symptom of the problem.

Mixed chimerism offers at least a pathway toward overcoming the real problem. If the system becomes tolerant of the beta cells, diabetes can be reversed. But that's a big if.

Regardless, it is an important piece of diabetes research, and the researchers should be commended for their efforts.


Healthy Metabolic States

Catch my latest contribution to the Ludwig von Mises Institute of Canada's blog, where I offer a dissenting view to Chris Horlacher's recent endorsement of a ketosis diet.

There, I conclude:
It’s important to keep in mind the real goal of diet and exercise: long-term health. “Long-term health” means being fit and free of illness for decades. That means having a healthy and sustainable diet and exercise regimen, one that you enjoy, one that poses few long-term health risks. While no one may ever agree on the “correct” percentage of calories that ought to come from fat, protein, and carbohydrate, it is important to stay aware the serious health risks associated with abnormal metabolic conditions.


Soap and Pressure

Today I tested my blood sugar without washing my hands. The reading seemed highly odd, so I washed my hands and tried again. The second reading was far more realistic. But which one was more correct?

I recall once reading once that between two drops of blood, one should always use the first drop. But I wasn't sure of my memory on this, so I did a little online research and discovered this study investigating blood glucose readings under a variety of scenarios.

While the whole study is well worth reading, I thought I might provide the key details that were useful for me:
RESULTS Not washing hands led to a difference in glucose concentration of ≥10% in the first and in the second drops of blood in 11% and 4% of the participants, respectively. In fruit-exposed fingers, these differences were found in 88% and 11% of the participants, respectively. Different external pressures led to ≥10% differences in glucose concentrations in 5–13% of the participants.
We've all been instructed to wash our hands before taking a reading, but never could I have imagined that the readings would potentially be skewed beyond 10% of the clean-hands reading.

No surprises that fruit-exposed fingers showed an even greater propensity toward skewed readings - I have noticed that phenomenon, myself.

But most curiously, "external pressure" produced unreliable test results. In the study, "external pressure" consisted of wrapping the test subjects' fingers so that they were under increased pressure. So that means, if you've been clenching your fists or something, you'll end up with funny readings. Who would have thought? It makes intuitive sense, of course, but who pays attention to such things before testing their BG? Certainly not I.

The researchers' recommendations were as follows:
CONCLUSIONS We recommend washing the hands with soap and water, drying them, and using the first drop of blood for self-monitoring of blood glucose. If washing hands is not possible, and they are not visibly soiled or exposed to a sugar-containing product, it is acceptable to use the second drop of blood after wiping away the first drop. External pressure may lead to unreliable readings.
 From now on, I'm washing my hands.


Guitar Exercise of the Week

This week, I have two exercises that should help you develop some speed techniques.

Precision Nightmare
The first is a relatively simple exercise in theory, but at high speeds becomes incredibly difficult to play accurately.

The trick with this one is to have some self control. It's easy to cheat on this exercise and allow yourself to go faster and faster before you're truly ready for it. You'll know you're ready to increase speeds when every note is perfect. If you can play every note perfectly except for one, then you're not ready to increase speed yet.

It's vitally important to ensure that each note rings true on this one, otherwise you will simply be practicing a dumb exercise that reinforces bad habits. Do not allow yourself to progress to higher speeds until you have ensured that you are picking absolutely, positively every single note without "flubbing" any. Ensure that each note rings out true, with good tone. Do not practice bad habits.

I call it "Precision Nightmare," and it looks like this:

Dewey Ewey
This next exercise is both a great way to improve your speed and a great way to explore some different left hand fretting patterns. I have written this out in the Phrygian Mode, in the key of B-minor, but as you practice it, feel free to try similar patterns in every position. You will discover some interesting melodic ideas that you may not have considered before.

This is primarily a legato exercise that will help you develop left-hand finger speed. You can never have too much of that. As you practice, try to get a nice percussive sound out of your hammer-ons. You can slightly mute the strings in licks like this to create some interesting textures in the context of guitar solos. You can also apply artificial harmonics to the string with the edge of your palm, creating some Van Halenesque sounds.

These passages sound best as a flurry of notes, but you will have to build your dexterity to get there. Here it is:


A Few Quick Thoughts

Today I'm heading into the studio to record some bass tracks - and potentially some guitar tracks - for an upcoming album. Naturally, I will make the details of how to obtain this album available as soon as I know about them myself. Because we are in the recording phase, the time horizon on this could be fairly long.

I would like to say a big THANK YOU to faithful Stationary Waves reader PR, for loaning out some useful equipment during the recording process. It is an exciting and enlightening process to be in a situation where the band and I have the ability to choose among a wide array of tools in order to produce the best tone.

Upcoming Events
Speaking of the band, if you're in the Ottawa area, I hope you will come out to see me in my capacity as bass player for Machine Messiah. It's all happening at The Daily Grind, beginning at about 8pm. There is talk of my also kicking off the night with a solo-acoustic performance, so be sure to come out early and make a whole evening of it.

Perhaps it's just me, perhaps it's because the university "spring semesters" are coming to a close, or perhaps there is something to it, but it appears that the economics blogosphere is slowing down remarkably the last little while.

From what I can tell, the various viewpoints have become a tad repetitive and it seems like the real dialogue that had been inspired by the recession has evolved into a small number of parallel monologues. You've got your Austrians, your Market Monetarists, your Chicago-ites, your classic Keynesians, and your MMTers. Rather than interacting with each other these days, they are mostly sticking to their own particular talking points and staying out of the head-on theoretical debates now.

Partly, I think this is because theoretical debates are difficult, and most of these economists either don't want to have them or don't have the time to have them. Partly I think it's because academics would rather explore their own small areas of expertise than justify the foundation upon which those expertise rest. Partly I think it's because they don't want to argue.

Nevertheless, when competition is sparse, consumers suffer. I have not been too eager to open up my Google Reader and see what they're all talking about lately. The answer is, they're sticking to their talking points.

The field seems to be gravitating toward its consensus, and that consensus should not really surprise anyone at this point. The consensus is that the Fed can and should engage in more expansionary policy. Austrian-adherents like myself are naturally no fan of this consensus, but we must remember that the vast majority of professional economists have lived their entire lives for the principles of monetary manipulation and credit adjustment. It would be surprising indeed if an entire profession suddenly turned around and marched the other way. For most economists, that would mean denying everything any of them have written up to this point. Even if they should do this, no one should expect it to happen.

To the Austrians, I would make the following recommendation: The "End the Fed" message, although a right one, does not meet the profession where it is. What needs to be presented is an idea that provides the profession with a way to observe the truth of Austrian predictions without throwing everything out.

All things said, this means I will likely try to stick to non-economic content until I come across something genuinely interesting, or worthy of additional commentary. For you, that means more music, running, philosophy, logic, and diabetes.


The Time I Was Charged By A Bull And Almost Died

That's a picture of the place I almost died, twice in one day, during a weekend long run about ten years ago.

My friends and family all know this story very well, but I thought I'd write it out on my blog, for posterity.

My Summers In Moab, Utah
After I graduated high school, my sister made me an offer I couldn't refuse: Stay with her in the picturesque sports haven of Moab, Utah free of charge. The only catch was that there was no catch. Why on Earth would I pass up an opportunity like that?

I didn't. I packed up my essentials and spent two summers in Moab, working a couple of jobs and running, biking, and hiking like mad. It was a fantastic way to spend a brief and formative time of my life.

One of my favorite things to do back then was to study local trail maps for interesting running routes through the wilderness, and then drive out to the trailhead and attempt to run a pre-selected route entirely from memory, without food or water. In other words, I'd try to get lost without any means of survival. The point was to... tempt fate? No, not really. I was confident in my ability to find my way, and there were usually plenty of other people around (usually) in case I got myself into trouble.

I remember once I genuinely did get lost. I planned out a 10-mile route through the La Sal mountains (pictured above), only to discover halfway through my run that the trail had completely grown over and was basically impassable.

It was remarkable. One minute I was running along the well-worn single-track deer path depicted in the topographical map, the next minute I was in tall grass up to my waist with no compass, no food, no water, and no idea how to get back to the truck. I remember standing in the middle of a meadow as the midday sun beat down on me from above, squinting into the distance below, trying to gain some clue as to which direction would take me back to a familiar landscape.

Finally, I essentially flipped a coin. I could go left or right; I chose left. For five miles, I bushwhacked my way through the Rocky Mountain vegetation, descending into a ravine that I assumed would take me "down." "Down" was the relative direction of my truck, the highway, and my ticket back home.

"Down" turned out to be a very good idea. Some time later, I found myself bounding out of the mouth of the ravine onto the empty highway that lead back to my truck. Somehow, I had managed to run exactly parallel to my estimated route.

I was twenty years old, strong, invincible, an expert tracker (I thought)! A god! Without food, water, or compass, I could run to the 12,000-foot-elevation mountain tops where so few had been that the trails had disappeared, and emerge a couple of hours later, no worse for wear. I could do anything.

A Bright Idea
Some weeks afterward, a few friends invited me to join them on a mountain biking excursion. Having already earned a storied notoriety for my ability to humiliate myself on a mountain bike, however, I suggested that instead I would drive up to the trail head with them, run a 16-mile loop in the opposite direction, and meet them back at the truck in time for lunch. After carefully planning our routes on our trusty trail map, packing a lunch, and having a huge Belgian waffle breakfast at the best coffee shop in town, we were off to conquer another weekend war.

The drive was uneventful. We reached my intended "starting point," I hopped out of the truck, and my friends drove away with a laugh, leaving me alone for the next 16 miles. The sky was cloudless, the morning air still cool, and my thoughts good-spirited and serene. It was a great day for a run.

I started out at a relaxed pace, circling around the long highway that runs parallel to the base of the La Sals. To my right, the forest gently rose upward into the sky. To my left sloped the painted basin of Utah's Castle Valley, made familiar to all of humanity by countless Hollywood films and television car commercials. Dividing the two starkly different landscapes was that single, winding highway and my own two feet, in solitude.

The highway circled and gently descended around the edge of the mountain range. Before I reached the nadir, though, I turned off onto a little-known jeep road that simply led upward. Upward, to a fork in the wilderness, where a left-turn would take me back to that same lost path I had discovered weeks earlier, and a right-turn would circle me over to my friends, the truck, my lunch, and many gallons of fresh water.

The jeep road itself is a rather herculean journey, climbing some 4,000 feet of elevation in little more than three miles. It is an excruciatingly punishing climb, by foot or by bike, which few ever consider taking. But it is a beautiful climb, with cool green grass and aspen trees growing along the left-hand upward slope, and a red-soil pasture descending down into a canyon all along the right. There is nowhere to go except up or down the road. The slopes on either side of it are simply too steep, and lead nowhere.

But I had run this jeep road before, and I am unashamed to say it was easier to run it the second time.

My Brief Career As A Rodeo Clown
After an ambitious and punishing climb, I reached the top of the jeep trail, eager to take in the gorgeous scenery at the summit. It is the convergence of three small valleys and three different mountain trails. Running straight ahead would take me to the top of one of the tallest peaks in the La Sal range, and I was already familiar with the fate of those turning left. I was excited to see what lay in store for me to the right. I allowed my imagination to run wild a bit as I rounded the final hump to the top of my climb.

Something was different.

Standing in the center of the jeep road, right at the very summit of the climb, was an enormous, dark, chocolate-brown mass of solid muscle, the single largest bull I have ever seen in my life. It was looking right at me.

Now, I grew up in Utah, where there are many cows. My schoolmates' families raised them for a living. Much of the high mountain wilderness is used for cattle-grazing. That I should encounter cows in the mountains was no surprise of note. 

That I should encounter such a large bull with enormous, obsidian-black, intelligent eyes, blowing steamy puffs of air out of its mouth and nose as I drew near was not so common. Sensing a note of perturbation in the bull's posture, I slowed to a walk and moved far to the side of the road, approaching calmly and gently so as not to bother him. That was when my weekly trail run took turn.

As I moved over to the side of the road, the bull stepped laterally to the same side I was, so that it was still facing me head-on. Only now, there was a bit less distance between us. Almost automatically, I continued my slow, calm walk to the other side of the jeep road, leaving the bull even more room this time.

But the bull again matched me step-for-step, all the way to the other side of the road. My mouth dropped open a little. I had never seen something like this before. I ambled back to the center of the road, and the bull followed me, once again blocking my path. There couldn't have been twenty feet separating us. I stopped walking and, with my eyes on the bull, began mulling my options.

I wasn't scared. It was just a cow. I eat these things. They're stupid animals, not even smart enough to step out of the way of oncoming traffic. They're dirty, disgusting, unintelligent brutes that deserve to be eaten. So I wasn't trying to avoid a confrontation, but merely considering how I would get around an obstacle without making the dumb thing uncomfortable. My mind turned its gears for beat.

As I stared thoughtfully at my bovine obstacle, I noted how different it was from the other cows I'd seen. Its hair was such a rich, deep, dark brown, and so shiny that as it moved under the summer sun its hide looked almost like liquid. Its shoulders were wide and strong, and I could see its huge, tense muscles flexing from what seemed to be the tip of its horns, all the way to the base of its hoofs. Above all, the eyes that stared at me had a lucidity that seemed to communicate not just dumb brute animal emotion, but ideas. Furthermore, as I scanned my obstacle top-to-bottom, I was becoming progressively more uncomfortable with the ideas it was conveying.

The next half-a-second is etched into my memory in the same surreal slow-motion in which it seemed to occur that morning. With a quiet puff of air, the bull's entire body seemed to explode into an oily black mass of powerful muscle. Its front legs and shoulders tensed into a frighteningly beautiful bulge that rocketed toward me like some kind of snarling bovine avalanche of power.

Well, what do you do when you're running through the wilderness and a bull charges you? The answer to that question says a lot about who you are. There is no time for further consideration, no time to think, to seek help, to do anything other than engage in self-preservation. Instincts take over. What I did, I did without thinking. What I did was an automatic response. There was no "reasoning" behind it. I simply acted.

I threw my right arm straight out in front of me, and simply resisted a charging bull with a single word: "No!"

Incomprehensibly, this worked, at least for a moment. The bull had obviously never encountered a skinny, half-naked distance runner hopped up on the adrenaline of a good run. It paused just long enough for me to do something other than bark commands at a beast many times my own size, with sharpened weapons attached to the top of its head.

Quickly, I ran into the aspen forest above me, believing that the thick grass and trees, and the steep slope, would be too impassable for my adversary. I was wrong, the bull followed me in. There was no way I'd be able to run around the bull. The only path available to me was back down the jeep hill, the way I'd come, so down I went, as fast as I could.

But it was as though I had given the bull a clear shot at gouging me into oblivion. Unobstructed by trees, and on clear and sure footing, the bull charged toward me. I pumped my legs as fast as they would move, but it was no use. My number was up. 

There is no majesty in death, no final purpose, no angels' wings. I vaguely recall my last thoughts on Earth being something to the effect of, "Uh-oh, now what?"

That Moment When You Get A Second Chance And Then Ruin It
But the expected impact never came. Suddenly I heard a mooing sound coming from a meadow down below. There were a dozen female cows - the haggard, stupid-looking cows I was more familiar with - calling out to bull charging me. 

When I took note of the fact that there were not two horns stabbing me in the back and I was still running full-force down the road, I hazarded a glance over my shoulder. The bull had slowed to a trot and turned its majestic head to the cheerleading females down below. He mooed back as he ran toward me.

It was the only glance I took. I had tempted fate enough for one day. I dug my toes into the ground and sprinted the full five kilometers back down to the highway. The bull had long since stopped. 

I was alone again in the desert heat, on an empty highway, with very little energy left.

I reasoned that the top of the jeep road was perhaps the approximate mid-point of my journey, and therefore told myself that if I ran back the way I had come, it would make for a 16-mile run as planned. I'd make it back to the truck on time with a great story to tell my friends. I was tired, but happy. I had once again cheated death.

But yet again, something wasn't right. Although I had started early in the morning, with plenty of time to make it 16 miles to a truck, it felt like midday. The sky was still cloudless, but the sun had risen to the center of the vast blue expanse above me. It had also seemingly increased in size by an order of magnitude, and the heat perceptibly warmed the surface of my skin to a steady burn. I licked my lips as the thirst set in.

I had completely miscalculated the length of my running route. By the time I had made it to the top of the jeep road and encountered the bull, I was only a mile or two away from my destination, not "half-way." Rather than taking a very-doable 16 mile run through the cool mountain air, I now found myself in the midst of a thirty-mile run in the middle of the Utah desert during the hottest time of the day, at the hottest time of year

I had heard the stories many times. People died doing things like this. I took some comfort in the fact that I had at least only done something stupid unwillingly. If it weren't for that bull, I'd be fine, right?

Like every drop of moisture in and around my body, those thoughts evaporated into the hellish heat and were replaced by a terrible, persistent, drumming thought: thirst.

We all get thirsty, but few of us have ever felt the thirst of a body that literally might not contain enough H2O to make it the rest of the afternoon. It is a horrible feeling. The mind can think of nothing other than how desperately it needs water. Every muscle burns, every joint aches, over and above the usual pains of a long run. Then, the mouth becomes dry of course, but that dryness in the mouth starts making its way down the throat. It becomes impossible to swallow, because there is no moisture lining the throat. The sides of the esophagus stick together, and one simply chokes. 

A real sense of my own mortality had set in. As the miles and the minutes passed, I became progressively more and more aware of the severity of my situation. I could scarcely believe I had escaped a charging bull, only to fall victim to the elements. Nature is a cruel and ironic master.

I squinted ahead at the mirages hovering above the road in the distance. I had reached a straight patch of highway, alone but for the sun and an occasional buzzing insect. My pace was irregular, my steps erratic and clumsy. At length, I heard the sound of a passing car coming from the distance behind me. A maroon SUV passed me and sped into the distance ahead. I reprimanded myself for not having flagged it down.

But the car stopped, went into reverse, and found myself looking at the driver inside, who had rolled down her window.

With a knowing look, she narrowed her eyes, smiled kindly, and pointed a finger at me. "Do you need water?" she asked. Gratefully, I admitted I did, and to my amazement, she reached into her back seat and produced a one-liter bottle of water, which she handed to me, saying only, "I thought so." Then she drove away.

The truth of the matter is, that woman probably saved my life, and I'll never see her again or know her name. How unbelievable fate can be, lives intersecting at random, only for a moment, a life saved, and then two people who have every reason to share a powerful, lifelong bond once again become strangers, never to cross paths again...

I modestly took a sip of water and looked at the bottle. How odd - I didn't think I had had that much to drink. I allowed myself to take a longer draught. The water was gone. Two short drinks and an entire liter of water had disappeared in seconds.

I think that was the moment I realized that if I didn't get back to the truck soon, I'd be through. But with no other human beings in sight, and nothing other than the sun and my parched throat to occupy my thoughts, the rest of my journey passed by as quickly and urgently as my sense of purpose.

I remember glancing down at my stopwatch: I had been running for more than three hours and forty-five minutes. I disinterestedly stopped the watch and switched to clock mode. What was important now was whether my friends would be gone by the time I made it to our designated meeting place.

An Inelegant Finale
I figured I still had time, but I'd have to hurry. So I somehow managed to quicken my pace. I leaned forward. I sharpened my determination. I had out-run a charging bull and somehow managed to cheat the desert out of its next victim, thanks to the kindness of a passing stranger. I could certainly make it back to the truck.

The pain worked its way to the back of my mind. I could make it. At the truck, I had a packed lunch and countless bottles of clear, delicious water. I focused on that and just kept running, faster and faster.

Finally I made it. The truck was there, but my friends were nowhere in sight. I peered into the back of the truck, and there they were: all those glorious bottles of clean, cold water. I smiled, I laughed to myself, I congratulated myself on my ability to cheat the odds. 

I tried the hatch.

It was locked.

I smiled wryly to myself and paced back and forth. The insanity of desperation had crept into my thoughts imperceptibly. What seemed a perfectly rational thought echoed over and over in my mind: 

"No problem! HA HA! I'm here. I'm saved. My friends will be here any minute. They're just down that trail right there. They're coming! They'll unlock the door for me, won't they? I'm fine! I had a whole liter of water an hour ago."

It felt like I was pacing for half an hour, but it was only more like five minutes. Desperate, I jogged a short way down the trail on which I expected them. Nope, they weren't just around the bend. I trotted back to the truck. Still not there. I paced around a bit more. I nervously tried the hatch again. Still locked. 

I ran up to the front of the truck and tried the front door. It was unlocked, so I hopped in and found my lunch: Two peanut butter sandwiches - not exactly the right prescription for someone dying of thirst. I rummaged around a bit more and produced a plastic bag full of baby carrots. The sun and the heat had made them moist as they sat, almost cooking, in the front seat of the truck. 

Hey, moisture is moisture. I grabbed the bag of carrots and started running up the road, looking for my friends. Every few steps, I'd eat a carrot. They were deliciously soggy with natural moisture. It was a paltry thirst-quencher, but better than nothing.

I reached a clearing, with a little pond in the middle of some trees. Uneasily chewing up my last carrot, I weighed the pros and cons of drinking pond water. I winced. Could I do it? I slowly approached the shore.

Then, I heard a shout. It was my friends, as they sped out of the forest onto the highway, and spotted me. My heart leaped. I waved them down and deliriously tried to explain my adventure to them. I think I got as far as, "Water...!" One of them unloaded their CamelBak and handed it to me. It was gone in a moment, but I was saved. 

We went back to the truck and had our lunch. The others didn't yet understand how desperate I was. I tried to explain it to them, but it was days before the realized that I had just nearly died twice in the same morning in one of the most beautiful places on Earth.