Book Review: Our Magnificent Bastard Tongue

I recently borrowed this book from a cousin of mine, upon her recommendation:
It was a decent piece of revisionist linguistic history. The arguments are well-reasoned, and the prose is nice. People with an affinity for language will like this book. More specifically, native English speakers who know at least a couple of foreign languages will have a good time reading this book.

A few criticisms:

First, the book is written at least at a high school reading level, perhaps even a junior high reading level. I realize that making the language a bit more intellectual would put it at risk of overflowing with technical jargon, but the simplicity of the language did not keep me engaged. What should have been a book read over the course of an afternoon ended up being drawn-out over the course of a couple of weeks, as I could only read it in short bouts before I lost interest.

Second, the citations were difficult to find and follow. Whereas more formal writing will cite references immediate and include footnotes or end notes, in this book McWhorter simply made his case and supplied a long appendix of sources at the end of the book. The sources were listed by chapter, but were otherwise out-of-context. People who are interested in citations at all would like to have them a bit more traceable than that. I suppose the author's or publisher's assumption is that the average reader of this book doesn't care about citations. Not so.

All the same, it was a good book with an interesting story. I especially liked the subtle use of adjectives in McWhorter's prose. When discussing German language, he tended to use German-based adjectives; when discussing French language, he tended to use French-based adjectives; and so on for Celtic, Sanskrit, and so forth. I consider these "Easter eggs" for people who have significant exposure to a variety of foreign languages and their influence on English. The "average person" would likely not pick up on this.

All in all, the book was okay. Not amazing, and not bad. Just okay.

Poor, Sensitive Justice Roberts

The Los Angeles Times reports that poor Justice Roberts got his feelings hurt.
Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr.considers it an insult when he hears it said that he and the justices are playing politics. He has always insisted his sole duty was to decide the law, not to pick the political winners.
Well, farbeit from me to hurt the feelings of the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court. Golly, the poor guy. Imagine how tough it is to have to answer to the court of public opinion. I mean, he's the chief justice of the most important court in the world, right? I mean, how dare anyone condemn him in lowly courts like that of... *shudder*... public opinion!?

What a heel.

Roberts' written decision is wholly incoherent. To make any sense of it at all requires that we are more generous about his thoughts than even he was about the ACA. I seem to recall that when Roberts was nominated for his current position, many of those opposed to his nomination pointed out his relative inexperience - but this is just a memory I have, and may not be fully accurate. If true, the written decision on the ACA is fully consistent with a poor mind and a novice thinker. I know most bloggers I admire are far too classy and charitable to make a statement of that kind - but not me. I'm gruff and opinionated and I think it is good for public servants to understand that many of us reject their so-called authority, especially when they uphold it using such primary-school logic.

The inconsistency of his ruling has been discussed at length on better blogs than mine. For a few, concise demonstrations of just how clumsy the logic is, I recommend starting with Landsburg's excellent couple of posts at www.TheBigQuestions.com. No need to re-hash it here.

As to the question of whether or not the Supreme Court plays politics, of course it does. Despite the LA Times' attempt to sell it the other way, the story goes on to say:
"It was masterful. Roberts believes in a modest role for the court, and he was doing just what he promised he would do," said Stanford law professor Michael W. McConnell, a former appeals court judge appointed by President George W. Bush. "Had the court struck down the law, they would have been the focal point of the campaign. Now, the court comes out with its reputation enhanced."
What is an "enhanced reputation," if not the booty of a political maneuver? Are we to believe that maintaining the reputation of the Supreme Court is some noble, apolitical act? I thought courts were supposed to be rule according to a preponderance of evidence, not to the perceptions of the teeming masses.

The ultimate conclusion here is not a particularly rosy one. Governments will act to self-perpetuate. I figured the ACA would be upheld, simply because it greatly expands the size and scope of government. When has the Supreme Court ever had the courage and objectivity to limit the size and scope of the federal government? Even those rulings which we are taught have "limited" the power of government are often rather minor issues affecting very few people. When it comes to actually limiting the government's power, the Supreme Court has been no friend of the 10th Amendment.

If an argument can be made to expand the government, the Supreme Court will lend it credence. And, as we saw this past Thursday, when the government itself cannot make that argument, the Court will make it on behalf of the government and rule accordingly.

Do you still think we live under a government of the people, by the people, and for the people?


A Nation That Knows No Suffering

Courtesy: http://www.asianews.it
Taxes and mandates do not produce food, clothing, shelter, healthcare, or entertainment. They produce need. And brothers, you asked for it.

The photo above shows a poverty-stricken boy literally dying in the streets of Dhaka, Bangladesh. I found it using Google Image Search, under the search string "poverty Bangladesh." I ask that my readers look at that image, and the others they find under that search string, and carefully consider what they see. It is possible - today, as in right now - to buy a plane ticket and fly to a place where people are literally dying in the streets, from hunger.

Things are worse in the villages, of course, but please understand that the poor in Dhaka have travelled from the villages in a final attempt not to starve to death, and many of them fail. Why? No, it's not because the hideous, evil, profit-seeking corporations have destroyed them. It's because there isn't enough food, clothing, shelter, or healthcare to go around. Resources are insufficient to sustain life. These poor people could live, if they could find work, and they are willing to do so. But, there is no work to be found. What little work they manage to do simply does not pay enough to keep them alive.

Again, I ask that you consider what that means. Imagine what your life might be like if you could do work, sleep in the streets, go without new clothing for years, put all your money toward food, and have it be insufficient means for keeping you alive. Not happy, alive.

Just consider what it means to be completely unable to obtain enough food to keep yourself alive, no matter how hard you work. Think about it. Think about it.

The people of the United States of America do not know suffering. They do not know poverty. They do not know want or need. It is possible in this country to find steady work at a fast food restaurant, that pays you enough money for you to afford a roof over your head and - at the very least - food enough to keep you alive. Over time, you will even be able to afford health insurance, a computer, a cell phone, new clothes, and so on.

Don't get me wrong - you won't live a fabulously opulent life. You won't have much. There will be many things you will simply have to go without having. You probably won't ever be as happy as the middle class family with 2.3 children and a dog. You may never realistically be able to climb to the top of the corporate ladder, and you will never know the kind of life that Warren Buffett or Bono lead.

But, on the other hand, you won't die of starvation in the streets, either. Not unless you're mentally ill.

The vast, overwhelming majority of US citizens have never known the kind of scarcity, the kind of ever-pressing, clear and present danger that real poverty poses to millions of people in Bangladesh, and many millions of people elsewhere.

Because Americans have no concept of scarcity, we have grown accustomed to making demands for trivial things: government healthcare, government day care, government education, government roads, government green energy...

We beg the government to raise our prices by subsidizing industries and closing our borders to trade. We plead with the government to regulate every aspect of our lives, raising our prices, reducing our choices, putting our neighbors out of work. We beseech the government to raise our taxes. We wax long and boring about "we can afford to pay more taxes." We call the police on our neighbors when they play music in their garage. We flash a middle finger wildly at someone taking a telephone call on the road, screaming, "There ought to be a law!" We stare helplessly as wildfires claim our neighbors' land and then implore of our government, "Why don't you do something???"

We have lost all perspective on scarcity. We have it so good here, that we anxiously await our next chance to throw it all away.

It never once occurs to us that our lack of scarcity is a priviledge we enjoy solely because our taxes are so low, our borders so free, our markets so open, and our wages so high, that even the lowest among us can afford to pay more than she has to without worrying about literally starving to death on the street, no matter how hard she works.

Economics teaches us that the source of wealth is our ability to feed, clothe, shelter, heal, and entertain ourselves. Paying a little extra for any one of those things (food, clothing, shelter, healthcare, or entertainment) simply reduces our ability to consume all of them. We may go for years without noticing the difference. We may even go a lifetime without seeing it.

And then, one day, some of us start dying in the streets, while the rest of us look on from the comfort of our cars as our chauffeurs drive us to the mall - just like the rich and middle class people do in Dhaka.

If Americans want to live in a banana republic, they very well can. If they want to turn America into one, they're doing a very good job. Just make sure you're not the one in the street, and every thing will be fine.

Taxes and mandates do not produce food, clothing, shelter, healthcare, or entertainment. They produce need. And brothers, you asked for it.


Health Care Retrospective

I don't want to be overly dramatic, but I do see tomorrow's ruling on the ObamaCare law as being an incredibly momentous day in US history. Pundits have written a great deal on this already, and I don't have too much more to add.

What I will say is that the ruling on this law will define exactly what the nature and scope of the Legislative branch of government is, and how our government can relate to its own citizens. On the one hand, you have the view that anything that may whatsoever be termed "commerce" - specifically by people who oppose free, unregulated commerce - can be regulated ad infinitum by the federal government. On the other hand, you have the view that there are at least some limits to what the government can do.

How omnipotent is your god? I am not sure whether Ludwig von Mises himself coined the term "statolatry," but I consider it a good descriptor for the view held by many, that governments have the power to simply issue a decree against an evil, and it will magically disappear.

Statolatrists often counter, "But what would you do instead, Ryan?" The answer is nothing. It may surprise some people to discover that not every evil in the world has a corresponding policy solution. You can't have everything you want. Wants are unlimited, resources are scarce.

Besides, most (all?) of these "policy solutions" are nothing more than crony capitalism wearing the garb of progressivism. This means that all of those laws and regulations governing health care are driven by special interests and political friends. This is true of both Democrats and Republicans, your favorite politician included.

Of course, as I have stated many times, evidence does not matter to the Holy Church of the Omnipotent Government. People want socialized medicine. They just want it! But they want it, Mom! Mom, they waaaaant it!!!! And that's where the discussion ends. Period.


When the Supreme Court heard the case, I stated: "I will, furthermore, take a ruling in favor of Obamacare as my signal to start buying gold at virtually any price." This is because the US government is fiscally insolvent and cannot afford a new batch of welfare spending, no matter how much the rich are taxed. (Really - run the numbers. There is not enough wealth held by the rich in the United States to pay off the debt and finance new welfare spending, even at a 100% tax rate.) Additional healthcare spending means nothing short of monetary collapse. It's not if, it's when - look at Greece. We'll know how that pans out tomorrow, I suppose.


Money, Investments, and "The Average Person"

The average person doesn't know how to invest.

The average person invests in stocks, but can't beat the street, and often won't break even. The average person buys a home, but loses money on it and finds herself in a worse position than had she invested her money elsewhere. The average person does not have access to the corporate bond market. The average person's business fail nine times before it succeeds once. The average person will never have as much money as Bill Gates or Warren Buffett. The average person earns between 1% and 2% on her modest bank investments (savings accounts, CDs, and the like). The average person puts far too little money in her 401k. The average person does not have an IRA. The average person has too much debt, and a certain rolling value of credit card debt.

When it comes to money, the average person is an abject failure. If this is true, then why do so many people succeed? More importantly, what is the difference between a good investor and a bad one?

My Rich Dad, Poor Dad Moment. 
Over the years, I have met many different people and have encountered many different philosophies when it comes to saving and/or investing money.

Some people religiously deliver a certain percentage of their paycheck immediately into a savings account; they call this "saving," and they believe that they will somehow be able to afford a retirement if they keep doing this. They're wrong; central-bank-driven currency inflation wipes out more than the low rate of interest they gain from the typical savings account.

Some people count on a pension from their employer, but in this economy and according to modern hiring practices, it is probably best not to assume that we'll all work at one job, for our entire lives, and draw a nice, cozy pension beginning on our 65th birthday.

So most people start looking at 401k plans, IRAs, mutual funds, and the like. Some of these investments makes money, some of them lose money. In the end, these folks make a modest sum and, unless there is some radical change to the way our economy works, will manage to save enough to experience a "normal" retirement, consisting of having less money than they thought they would have, and maybe end up in a retirement home funded by their children. If they had children.

Then there are people who are just... different...

The most successful people I know all share a pretty interesting world-view with respect to money.

First of all, like the pious savers I mentioned above, these successful people seem to be almost obsessed with getting a bargain. If they find they could have saved more money buying something at store A rather than store B, they curse themselves. If they manage to catch the lowest possible price for something, they beam with pride and brag to all their friends. They then share their good fortune with others in the form of letting everyone in on the "secret" of where the lowest price is. It good be something relatively sizeable, like a computer, or it could be something trivial, like underwear. What matters is that it can be had for the lowest possible price. Frankly speaking, I don't know any legitimately rich person who isn't always on the hunt for a bargain.

This observation inspired me to state my First Postulate of Being Rich: You don't get rich by throwing your money away needlessly.

Like our pension-earners above, the rich people I know make employment contract decisions based on the total offering of the company in question. If the company offers a nice pension, that fact will enter into the successful person's decision-making process. Unlike our pension-earners, though, the successful people I know will consider the total package. That consists of all salary and fringe benefits, health insurance, vacation time, pensions, and cost of living involved. In addition, a successful person won't stick with a bad company just to get a good pension. A company that will screw you will also screw you out of your pension. A company that is bought-out by a larger firm and subsequently downsized will only sometimes honor pension commitments made earlier.

I know lots of people who have stuck with bad companies in hopes of ending up with a good package. Most of them never get it. A successful person knows when to cut-and-run.

All of the successful people I know are heavily invested in 401ks, IRAs, CDs, mutual funds, stocks, and so on. But, only few of them rely on this as being their source of retirement income. Most successful people expand into entrepreneurial areas. They invest in properties or businesses. They seek out ways of making supplemental income - especially passive income streams. They set aside some money in a safe place, and put the rest into investment situations that yield good returns.

To put it concisely, they diversify and hungrily look for the next opportunity to earn a return.

Life is about more than money, but of course that's easy for us to say when we're young, employed, and have only modest expenses. Notwithstanding all the other things that take up your time, saving money to improve your lot in life and to cover all the foreseeable expenses you and your family (present and future) will face is a fundamental responsibility that we all face. Because at least some of life is about money, it's important to adopt the right strategy. Don't put all your eggs in one basket. Don't assume that just because you put something in a savings account it will be enough when you face a major expense. Don't assume that someone else is going to take care of everything.

Take responsibility for your expenses by saving, investing, and planning for even more saving and investing.


A Killer Workout

Yesterday, I was feeling pretty lethargic. As you may have gleaned from my previous post, I had stayed up later than normal watching Coldplay live in concert. By the time the afternoon had rolled around, I didn't feel like doing much of anything, much less pulling on workout clothes and getting in a good, hard bout of exercise.

So I had to think of something to keep myself engaged. I needed to conjure up a workout that would be worth my while, and yet that wouldn't be so difficult that I would give up half-way through it. I thought long and hard about the various possibilities. Did I want to swim, for a change? What if I did a Hyperfitness workout? What if I did one of those loopy workouts my wife is always telling me about?

Finally I came up with something that seemed to offer me everything I needed. It's a workout that combines the best elements of my Matrix workout with a new dose of variation that seemed to offer me good recovery time and a nice enough change of pace to keep me going from start to finish. This is what I decided on:

First Set:
  • 40 push-ups
  • 50 push-throughs
  • 40 wide-arm push-ups
  • 50 combined leg raises/hip raises
  • 90 seconds rest
Second Set:
  • 40 tricep push-ups
  • 50 combined single leg raises/hip raises
  • 20 one-arm push-ups
  • 50 trunk-twist crunches
  • 90 seconds rest
Third Set:
  • 30 front rows with a heavy resistance band
  • 30 squat-jumps
  • 30 front rows
  • 30 jumping lunges
  • 90 seconds rest
Fourth Set:
  • 30 front rows
  • 30 jumping lunges
  • 30 front rows
  • 30 standard burpees
Let me begin by highlighting a few of the exercises with which some of you may be less-familiar. I am not an encyclopedia of the absolute real, standard, universally known name for each and every exercise. As a result, I've tried to give the exercises descriptive names that seem meaningful. I may have gotten some of the names wrong. I'll explain some of the funny ones.
Combined Leg Raise/Hip Raise
Lie on your back with your legs straight and your hands under your hips. Keeping your knees straight, raise your legs until they are at a 90-degree angle to the rest of your body. (That's the leg raise.) Then, using your abdominal muscles gently lift your hips off the ground (that's the hip raise), then set them back down. Finish by lowering your legs about two inches off the ground. That's one repetition - do 50 of those.

Combined Single Leg Raise/Hip Raise
Same as the above, except lower only one leg each time you begin another leg raise. Alternate which leg you lower/raise for each repetition.
Trunk-Twist Crunches
Begin in crunch position with your feet off the ground and your legs bent at 90-degree angles. As you crunch upward, attempt to touch your right knee with your right elbow; as you do this, bend your torso so that your oblique muscles flex. Return to starting position. Repeat on left side.
This ended up being an extremely difficult workout for me. Interestingly enough, however, it did not feel difficult at the time.  Fundamentally, it is a workout highly similar to what I've been doing for the past two weeks. There are, however, a few important differences.

The most obvious difference is the fact that, rather than doing four sets of four exercises with 60 seconds rest between them, I am doing two sets of four exercises with a single 90-second rest placed halfway in-between, followed by two more sets of four different exercises with another 90-second rest at midpoint.

Varying the interval/rest periodicity in your workout is a great way to inject variety into a routine that has become stale. For some reason, it also seems to make the workout go by more quickly.

The second big difference is the fact that I incorporated more variation in my push-up exercises. Rather than doing one or two push-up exercises, I changed things up for each set. The first set was the same old vanilla push-up we're all familiar with. The other three sets consisted of the most typical push-up variants we see: wide-arms, tricep (triangle), and one-arm push-ups. This injected some good enough variety that I could look forward to each type of push-up, but wasn't so back-breaking (as a clapping push-up would have been).

Finally, doing that much plyometrics with that little rest between each set offered a good challenge, but my cardiovascular health being what it is, I didn't feel that 30 of any one exercise would do me in. It seemed to work. My heartrate increased dramatically, but I never felt like I couldn't finish. I knew I could finish.
Notwithstanding all of that, by the time I was finished, I was totally drained. I had worked out harder than I have in at least two weeks, and perhaps much longer than that. I was starving, thirsty, and I even had to go to bed a little early to get enough rest. It was great!

If you work out consistently for a long period of time, you're bound to experience low motivation days. Adding some variety to your workout is a great way to overcome this feeling. By shaking up your scheduled workout's periodicity, you can breath new life into an old routine. You can also use your strengths to their disadvantage by coming up with exercises that you feel good about; then, by taking a left-turn, you can push your body harder than you guessed you might.

I'll likely be doing this routine a couple more times this week, interspersed among some modest running mileage. Give it a try, and let me know how you like it!


Concert Review: Coldplay

Last night, I had the good fortune of attending a Coldplay concert at the American Airlines Center in Dallas, Texas. What follows is a review of my experience.

Downtown Dallas
I rolled into downtown Dallas in the mid-afternoon. The city center on a weekend was predictably empty, but I was in for a big surprise when I arrived at my hotel. Multiple, high-profile conferences were being hosted there, and the two large buildings that made up the Sheraton Hotel in Dallas, Texas had all the bustling appearances of a major airport.

Within the hotel itself, there were a number of places to relax and chill out: a sports bar, a coffee shop, two restaurants, and an enormous, pleasant lounge. Unfortunately, these were all rather "hotely" venues, and not the greatest place to grab dinner or drinks. Even more unfortunately, the surrounding downtown area hosts precious few restaurants or pubs. I managed to find a passable hamburger bar, but not one I would strongly recommend.

If nothing else, the hotel was close to a train station, enabling us to catch a short, inexpensive train ride to the concert.

Opening Acts
The concert featured two opening acts.

The first was a band I had never heard of before: Wolfgang. A five-piece band from London, England, Wolfgang's style can be described as a bit of a throwback to 80s new wave music. Perhaps the best comparison would be to Tears for Fears. Wolfgang is obviously heavily influenced by Tears for Fears. Nevertheless, their vocalist was fantastic, and the songs were all well-written and well-arranged. Compositionally speaking, their songs are a few steps above Coldplay in terms of braininess, although they will obviously never achieve the same level of success, for the same reason. They played a brief, 30-minute set, and I was sorry to see them leave the stage.

Next came Robyn. I had heard of Robyn before, but I couldn't for the life of me remember what song I had heard. Doing a brief web search just now, I discovered this song, that which I had most likely heard before (although I don't seem to remember it now):

Listening to this song is a lot like seeing Robyn in concert: There is some energy there, but for the most part, the music is forgettable. She played for what seemed like a small eternity, and I was glad to see her depart.

Coldplay is touring in support of their most recent album, Mylo Xyloto. The album continues down the road first paved by their 3rd album, XY. This fact seems a little anachronistic, considering that the band released an album in between the two. But aside from that minor surprise, the album delivers everything one can expect from a Coldplay album, which means that faithful fans will enjoy it, while longtime critics will not be won over.

And yet, when the band hit the stage, it was impossible to argue with the energy they brought with them. From the first note to the last, the band played physically, jumping around on the stage in a manner I haven't encountered since the heyday of Van Hagar.

But the physicality of it all was really just where the energy began. Those of us who have always felt that Coldplay's recordings lack a certain amount of energy can take heart in the fact that their lives shows make up for this in spades. The band seems to throw themselves, heart and soul, into every note they play. At one point in the show, frontman Chris Martin said, "We have the best job in the world," and it's clear from their performance that they genuinely believe this. The result was a hit-packed setlist of bright lights, big sounds, soaring melodies, and excellent performances.

Perhaps the biggest surprise of the night (considering I had never before seen Coldplay live) was the fact that drummer Will Champion is something of the band's backbone. Not only does he play drums, but also sings rather excellent backing vocals, and also plays piano and guitar throughout the set. Without his hefty contributions, Coldplay would be a very different band indeed.

The setlist favored the newest material, but all of the radio releases were there, the very most successful of which were reserved for the encore. They must have played for approximately 90 minutes, and there was extensive variety throughout: from dance pop, to folk, to folk-rock, to as close to Coldplay might get to rock. For me, the highlights of the evening involved acoustic, drumless arrangements of popular Coldplay songs, which seemed to inject new life into familiar songs by highlighting Coldplay's excellent (and, by me, quite underrated) sense of arrangement.

All in all, it was an excellent show. If you have a chance to catch an upcoming show on this tour, I highly recommend you take it. Come early enough to enjoy Wolfgang's set, and leave with the memories of a great night.


Virtues and Motives

A couple of days ago, I discussed internal and external motivational factors, both positive and negative. The issue there was, if we are supposed to be satisfied with who we are, what is the point of trying to improve? That post brought to light the fact that we are inherently driven toward self-improvement by people around us, and also by our own personal value systems.

It almost goes without saying that our values shape our desire to improve. It need not be a competitive situation. Someone who highly values honesty, for example, will always endeavor to tell the truth. Invariably, there will be times when he or she falls short of perfect honesty in all situations. Telling the truth seems like an easy thing to do, and yet various situations come up that pit our other values against a given virtue. For example, one might be driven to lie out of deference to a person's feelings. The question, "How do I look?" should seldom be answered negatively, for example.

But I am getting ahead of myself. The point here is that behind every effort toward nobility is a virtue; and in front of every virtue is a chance to improve - not because we're currently inadequate, but simply because being better is, well... better.

Let's take a closer look.

If You're Not Going to Win, Why Run the Race?
Unlike jogging on the treadmill at home, running a race involves pitting your body against a whole crowd of other runners. Only a handful of these runners have any hope of winning the race, and everyone knows who they are long before the race gets started. And yet, major road races still attract dozens, hundreds, or even thousands of runners who have no intention of winning. Why?

The first answer is the obvious one: It's fun. Road races are a good source of family entertainment, even if you don't win. There are snacks, door prizes, and a large community of like-minded people to keep participants entertained all morning long. For many of us, that is reason enough to compete.

I also previously mentioned the possibility that a participant may want to inspire others, so I will leave that aside today.

Another reason to participate in a road race is to check your progress. While it's technically possible to set aside one, unchanging loop of, say, 5 miles that you run every time you want to check in on how well you're keeping in shape, most people prefer to use races for this purpose instead. First of all, this is because it's a refreshing change from doing the same loop every day. Second of all, we do this because our fellow racers are also trying to do their best, and that raises the bar a little, inspiring us to do better than we otherwise would, were we running alone. Third, by running in a variety of 5-mile races (for example), we get a better idea of how our performance is stacking up than if we only ever do one.

But the main idea I hope to be conveying here is that there are a great many reasons to race, even if you don't expect to win, and that a lot of these have to do with self-assessment. What is behind the average person's desire to check their physical "progress" with a race? A lot of it is the simple desire to reap the rewards of all that hard work. If you're going to invest weeks, months, even years, in hard physical training, it's satisfying to note when you're enjoying some good progress.

This kind of appraisal is good for self-esteem. It affirms that a person is capable of achieving something, even if that "something" isn't an outright win. Simply stated, it's nice to know that we can improve, even if we're not focused on winning. So we race. It's natural.

Practical Virtues in the Workplace
Of course, not everyone is interested in exercise. Some people derive more satisfaction from a job well done. Once again, we might ask why anyone should endeavor to do better on the job if they are already "good enough."

Taken in this light, the idea is almost silly, isn't it? And yet it is very important to highlight the difference between feelings of inadequacy driving a desire to "improve" (really, it's more like not be so terrible) and taking pride in what you do.

We spend a large part of our daily lives engaged in work. We're motivated to work first by necessity, but second - and more importantly - by the desire to provide for the kinds of lives we wish to have. We want our families to live in comfort, we want our children to have every educational and professional opportunity to which they can gain access. We want to treat ourselves and our families to nice luxuries, and we want our situations to generally improve.

All this adds up to being powerful motivation to perform well in the workplace. For most of us, work is our primary vehicle of improving our lot in life. We may not be particularly interested in the actual work we're doing, but we want to do the best possible job, so that we can gain a higher salary, more workplace responsibility, better benefits and working hours, etc.

What's important here is that improving our lives is an unquestionably good thing.

Of course, that's not the only motivational reason people reach for the stars on the job. Some of us do so because we are actually very interested in what we're doing at work. In that case, many of the same principles I described above about racing applies equally to workplace performance. It's a game, a competition, a chance to demonstrate personal performance from the standpoint of honing and developing a skill set.

Pride: That Dicey Virtue
Finally, many of us are motivated toward improvement by an innate sense of pride. Some people consider themselves perfectly capable of delivering high performance in everything they do (or at least everything that is important to them). For these folks (and I am one of them), delivering anything less than what our own internal standards deem appropriate is delivering something less than what we feel others deserve.

Note that concept carefully. The idea here is that our internal standards determine what we think others deserve. At play is a bit of a Golden Rule. Give others the best you can give, because you want the same in return.

Some people think pride itself is a sin. These people feel that taking pride in one's ability to perform at a certain standard is an act of vanity. Somehow, these folks believe that in feeling this way, we are somehow discounting those who are incapable of meeting that particular standard. They're wrong. No one with a strong internal sense of pride spends that much time thinking about what other people are incapable of. But covering this topic in depth is a post for another day.

This morning, I've tried to discuss some of the practical, internal motivational factors that lead us to self-improvement. My purpose here was to highlight the fact that self-improvement is not necessarily - and indeed need never be - traced to some sense of personal inadequacy.


Calcium and Diabetes

For the past few years, I have noticed a growing sense that I somehow feel better when I consume an adequate amount of dairy products. While many people take vitamin C or zinc supplements when they feel as though they're coming down with a cold, my approach has been to increase my intake of calcium. I have had no scientific reason to believe that calcium helps me ward off colds and makes me feel better. Rather, it has just been a vague impression I've had. For the most part, I have seemed to anecdotally feel better if I consume a lot of milk and fish, and these things are typically regarded as healthy, so I assumed that even if I were wrong, I wouldn't be hurting myself much if I continued to eat a good amount of dietary calcium.

Because my routine has been significantly disrupted by my move, my dairy intake has been significantly lower than it typically is. Usually, I start my day with a couple of homemade cafe lattes, each having about 8oz of 1% milk. That's two servings of dairy, plus a serving of cheese or Greek-style yogurt at some point later in the day.

Predictably, in absence of all that good calcium, I have been feeling a little sluggish. On a bit of a lark, I decided to scan Google for a connection between calcium and type 1 diabetes.

As I said, I haven't had a scientific reason to favor dairy and dietary calcium... until now. Okay, pay attention, kids, because what follows is vitally important for all diabetics to know (type 1 and type 2 alike). My focus will as usual be on type 1 diabetics, but it stands to reason that the conclusions implied here will ring true for type 2 diabetics also.

Research On Calcium and Diabetes
My best find was this .pdf copy of an article from the Suez Canal University Medical Journal, entitled "Calcium Homeostasis in Children With Type 1 Diabetes Mellitus," by Zeiton, et al. Do yourselves a favor and read this article in its entirety. I do not consider it beyond the layman to understand. (I'm a layman, and I understood it.)

What we most notably learn from this research is:
The results of the present study clearly demonstrate that children with type I diabetes mellitus have significant abnormalities in calcium homeostasis compared to healthy control children.
In other words, I was right to think that I felt better when I ate more calcium; I was likely suffering from minor calcium deficiency. This is because diabetics, for unknown reasons, cannot metabolize calcium the same way normal people can. (The authors postulate that we diabetics suffer from an imbalance in parathyroid hormone and calcitonin.)

Zeiton, et al., also demonstrate that the less control you have over your blood sugar, the less likely you will absorb dietary calcium.

All of this results in osteopenia, or below-average bone density.

Another interesting article is "Calcium insufficiency accelerates type 1 diabetes in vitamin D receptor-deficient nonobese diabetic (NOD) mice," by Driver, et al., from the journal Endocrinology (gated copy, but the abstract is adequate for most of us). This study found that calcium deficiency actually accelerated the onset of type 1 diabetes in laboratory mice.

Finally, research by Amado, et al, and Singh, et al seem to suggest (to me, anyway, given my limited understanding of medical research) that diabetics have lower levels of ionized calcium, which may be a major contributor to the cardiovascular co-morbidities that occur among diabetics.

Don't Believe the "Paleo" Hype: Eat Your Dairy
What all this adds up to is that we diabetics really need to watch our calcium intake. We are at risk of low bone density (if we don't already have it - remember, there are no symptoms of low bone density until your bone cracks), and the reduced calcium ionization is causing our hearts to slowly malfunction. This is bad.

The key is to make sure you're getting adequate levels of calcium, and therefore vitamin D, which is required for calcium absorption. We might not be able to control how well our bodies absorb calcium, beyond keeping tight control of our blood sugar readings; but we can certainly control whether or not we consume adequate amounts of vital micronutrients.

Now, there are many good sources of dietary calcium out there, and spending a little time in the sun every day is probably the best way you can get adequate vitamin D intake. Fish bones (such as those found in canned or very bony cooked fish) are a very, very good source of calcium, but of course you can't eat too much fish without risking mercury poisoning. My vegetarian sister (who eats plenty of dairy) suggested to me once that sesame seeds are a good vegan source of calcium.

But for the "average" person with an "average" diet, I'd suggest there is no better reliable, daily source of dietary calcium than dairy products. My dietitian recommended I eat dairy. Medical research seems to indicate that if you are a member of the lucky majority who has no problem eating dairy products, it is healthy to do so. (If you're lactose intolerant, then I suppose that's another story.)

Most of the anti-dairy sentiment out there comes from "paleo-diet" practitioners who oppose dairy because dairy production required the advent of agriculture. Apparently, these people believe that agriculture dealt a terrible blow to human health, but I know a few substance farmers who would disagree.

If you're not diabetic, eat dairy and get enough calcium. But if you are diabetic, it is vitally important that you are getting adequate calcium and vitamin D on a daily basis.

File this fact under the list of things for which I developed an intuition before eventually being proven correct by medical science. That's my patting my own ego - you need not worry about that. Just make sure you're drinking milk.

Some Links

  1. Society's growing animosity toward governmental overreach continues to receive support from the Supreme Court. This is good news.
  2. I'm still trying to figure out why oil is dipping alongside major world currencies. The MSM would argue that it's in anticipation of reduced demand, but that story doesn't jive to me. Oil demand is relatively inelastic, and always quite high. Oil as a commodity is a good hedge against falling currencies. Maybe I'm just an idiot.
  3. Daniel Henninger thinks the upcoming US Presidential election will be a defining moment of our times: "Trying to conjoin Obama growth theory with that of his opposition will produce economic stalemate. Voters have to choose." Do you agree?
  4. If you ever needed real-world evidence that medical doctors are megalomaniacs, consider the AMA's recent endorsement of taxing soda pop. "If you don't do what we say, we'll force you to do it." Maybe this kind of attitude is why soda consumers aren't listening to the advice of their doctors. Whatever happened to bedside manner and the inherent strength of scientific evidence? Why does society continue to favor the billy club over a finding of facts?

Additional Comments on the Decline of Music

Some time ago, I wrote some Comments on the Decline of Music. Today, I'd like to provide some additional comments, as a sort of continuation on that post.

Dinosaurs of Rock: The Baby Boomer Stranglehold
I was in a pharmacy this morning, looking at the magazine section, which featured two separate editions of Time Magazine. One was an issue dedicated to Paul McCartney, and the other was an issue dedicated to the Rolling Stones. I didn't exactly find this surprising, but it is at least remarkable that there would be two different special editions of the same magazine on the same shelf at the same time, each dedicated to musical icons of the Baby Boom generation.

A recent Marginal Revolution post discussing whether or not popular music has gotten sadder over the years generated some thoughtful discussion in the comments section. One fantastic comment was made by a commenter named "Edward Burke:"
I chalk it up to the simple confrontation between rock ‘n’ roll and reality. The surviving Stones and Beach Boys are celebrating FIFTY (50) year anniversaries this year; anyone who’s seen Mick Jagger lately knows he’s no geriatric teenager. So it begins to become clear that RNR is no actual rivulet streaming from the Fountain of Youth. Also, with RNR on the verge of its own SIXTIETH (60th) birthday (or just passed: I still assign the birth to Les Paul’s/Mary Ford’s “How High the Moon” from 1951), the view dawns that RNR is NOT “the eternal music of eternal youth” but the popular musical mode of the Baby Boomers and their children, the latter perhaps in a growing funk over their inability to transcend the RNR idiom. (Somehow, I don’t anticipate a fresh rush on Beethoven, Mr. Burgess.) –Thus my working definitions of “rock ‘n’ roll”: “a genre of popular music celebrating adolescent frivolity and excess; amplified hyperbole or cliché of geriatric vintage”.
Emphasis mine. The highlighted statement above has really stuck with me, because it captures what I think are the two essential facts about rock and roll, i.e. modern music in general.

The first is the fact that Baby Boomers claim all ownership of rock and roll, period. The second is that no subsequent generation has been able to transcend the Baby Boomers' own personal musical tastes. Think about it. There is only one official story of rock and roll.

It begins with a vague, primordial period no one ever discusses, in which Elvis Presley is said to have marched out of the wilderness with a crude invention called "rock 'n roll." What follows is about a decade-long dark ages about which we know very little, but which has a nebulous notion of "Motown" and "black music" floating through the air like a miasma. At any rate, this music is so poorly understood by modern society (because the Baby Boomers were in grade school at the time, and so they themselves don't understand it) that it might as well have never existed at all.

What follows is The Beatles. The Beatles (apparently single-handedly) appeared on the Ed Sullivan show, and suddenly music mattered a lot. Suddenly music started changing the world. Enter a lot of drug abuse, free love, war protests, and hippies. This is the legendary Golden Age. Every band from this period was wonderful, innovative, original, and understood what music was all about. Here we ignore Herman's Hermits, because naturally the music of the 60s didn't have any corporate shilling, and the listening audience was way too genuine and enlightened to be duped by any corporate marketing, right?

The Beatles - with Bob Dylan's help - taught everybody how to properly write a song. Then Led Zepplin came along and did all the experimentation that ever needed to occur. Jimi Hendrix did all the guitar innovating that ever needed to occur. Music since then has been nothing more than a failed attempt at recreating the magic of the 60s.

New artists are either sanctioned by the Old Guard or not. If they are, they succeed; if not, they fail. That's the end of it. (Note that The Black Keys are releasing an album in which members of the Old Guard cover Black Keys songs. Case in point.)

The Baby Boomers own all the record companies and radio stations and determine themselves what is and/or will be cool. All of their friends were given the opportunity to make millions. (Take for example the fact that Steve Winwood had to wait until the 1980s until he was given his chance - but he was given his chance despite being an incredible anachronism back then. And don't even get me started on Jefferson Starship.)

Simple stated, the Baby Boomers own and control rock and roll. It has always been thus (except during a 10-year primordial history we don't get to talk about anymore).

This Wouldn't Matter, Except That Today's Kids Sanction It
The result of all this is that even today's kids - today's teenagers - are not taught to be musical or innovative. They are taught to emulate the past; and not even the recent past, but the 1960s. I recently met a middle-aged man, for example, whose prodigal teenage sons had an encyclopedic knowledge of classic songs from the 1960s, and played the blues better than many people I've met. But they were kids. Why are kids learning that music from 50 years ago is some sort of rock pinnacle to which to aspire?

Art has always been a slow and steady evolution from the past to the future. That evolution halts as soon as nostalgia becomes such a strong force in artistic study that people stop listening to what's going on around them in favor of what was going on much earlier.

I'm not suggesting that nostalgia is inherently bad, but I am asking how long people expect musical innovation to come out of the same source material?

The evidence I submit in favor of the fact that we've exhausted the source material is modern music in general. There are basically two types of modern music: Rock music inspired by the 60s (currently called "alternative rock") and something called "Pop."

Rock has become an endless parade of one-hit wonders fronted by crooners doing their best impression of The Turtles while the backing band tries to do Bowie circa Ziggy Stardust. The Strokes, The Black Keys, Kings of Leon, Gotye, and so on and so on...

"Pop" seems to be a computer-generated calculus based on a formulized analysis of Beatles chord cadences. Just add "a good beat" and some Auto-Tune, and you can basically make a hit out of anything. Because the chord cadences are based on The Beatles, radio will play it. All it takes is a little payola. (Payola is a fact, let us please not dispute the facts.) To sweeten the deal, music executives have at least had the decency to make pop stars out of beautiful talentless people, rather than merely talentless people. It's all part of a glossy package. Idealized, electronic, and fake. Nobody expects innovation from "Pop," because that isn't the point. The point is to airbrush music to the point that it sounds like the aural equivalent of the cover of Cosmopolitan Magazine.

The Way Out
So, where do we go from here? Is this really all music has to offer us?

Before I answer those questions, I should add that stagnation in rock and roll was inevitable. Just as there is no more new Classical music, no more new Romantic music, no more new 20th Centure Composers music, no more new Ragtime music, no more new (in the sense of innovative) jazz music, so there is no more new rock and roll. All artistic movements reach a point where they can no longer proceed. Imitators can always generate nostalgic throw-backs to previous artistic movements, but such work isn't progress, it's regress. It can no longer be assessed in the context of the original art movement.

Considering that fact, the answers to the above questions are obvious. Let's start with the latter: Is this really all music has to offer us? No, certainly not. Art is only ever limited by the imaginations of artists. There are infinitely many innovations to be made out there.

But only if we pay attention to the answer to the first question. Where do we go from here? Not rock and roll. If we want music to cease declining, we have to get innovative.

Over the past 20 years, music-making technology has driven a great deal of experimentation in "electronic music," which probably needed to occur from a technical standpoint. But nearly everyone agrees that this music lacks a great deal of artistic integrity, considering that it consists mostly of arranging and overlapping pre-written clips of music. If there was innovation there, it has already had (at least) 20 (and perhaps 30) years to develop.

Great art requires a fresh injection of style and imagination whenever possible. If you're thinking of starting a band, writing and recording an album, heading out on tour, etc., please pause to consider whether the music you're making is a forward step. Chances are, you're merely trying to fit in with existing trends. But the problem is that there are no existing trends. What appear to be current trends are nothing more than the worn-out trends traced back to the 60s. Think fresh!

A Final Word
To be clear, I am making no claim here that I am some kind of highly original musical genius. Quite the opposite - everything I have said above applies to me as much or more as it applies to you, the reader.

As I grow and develop as a musician, I that find "the source material" seems progressively more clunky, out-dated, age-inappropriate, and obsolete. I want to write and perform music that excites people, but nearly every music scene in the world is disappearing in the face of lack of audience interest. I want to generate that interest, but feel I have less and less of a chance by writing rock songs and appealing to the magic of yesteryear.

Simply stated, I too am searching for new ideas, new sources of inspiration, and new ways of expressing myself. The past is over. I'm looking to the future.

So as you read what I've written above, consider that I am condemning myself as much as the rest of the world. We all need to push ourselves in a new direction. We need to think less about creating new rock music and more about creating rock and roll's successor. If we don't, music will simply continue to decline.


Please bear with me as I experiment with my AdSense settings. For the last little while, I have been happy to provide an ad-free blog experience. I may revert back to the ad-free experience if I start to feel that the ads crowd-out the quality of the Stationary Waves experience. We shall see.

If you have any strong opinions for- or against- AdSense ads, by the way, feel free to let me know. I have no major stake in this, so reader preference will be my first priority here.


Stop the "Witch Trials"

Here's an interesting take on the Lance Armstrong situation:
The hypocrisy of this witch hunt is epitomized by the moralizing over Armstrong's alleged use of erythropoietin (EPO), a natural human hormone that stimulates production of red blood cells.

According to the moralists and the rule-makers, it's OK to train at altitude to stimulate EPO production, or to sleep in a hypobaric chamber, which simulates altitude. But achieving the identical result using the same hormone by injection, or by infusing one's own banked red blood cells, can cost you all of your medals and a prison term if you lie about it.
That's from a recent USA Today op-ed by Dr. Norman Frost.

He makes a compelling point. Why is sleeping in a pressure-chamber (as Khalid Khannouchi once did, as he blogged on his now-defunct website) considered "fair," but injecting the hormone that such a chamber stimulates is "cheating?"

You know my view - I actually don't think Armstrong didn't do this for cheating purposes, but I do think he did it as part of his post-cancer regimen. But Frost's point fits my general theme of "where do we draw the line?"

Go With What You Know

This post does not directly deal with the subject matter found in my previous post, but the issues are at least tangentially related.

For the past two weeks, I have tried committing myself to a morning run and an evening strength training workout. This is a reversal of my typical regimen, in that I have always preferred to lift weights in the morning and run in the evening. As I put it a couple of weeks ago,
Moreover, to my chagrin, I have little other choice but to run in the morning rather than the afternoon. In the case, the heat is a bit of a culprit, but the main culprit is the evening after-work traffic. It’s simply too heavy for me to get home in time to run and eat safely, without risking an overnight low.
What I've discovered since then is that the traffic is manageable as long as I leave for work by a particular time, and start my return voyage before a critical point in the afternoon. If I dutifully stay on top of this, the traffic problem gets solved.

As for the heat, it is a substantial obstacle in my evening runs, but no moreso than the tight muscles and general sluggishness that plagues me during an early-morning run. In fact, I feel just as sluggish in the morning as I do in the pervasive heat.

Sage Advice From An Old Veteran
Shortly before leaving Ottawa, I was in a shoe store, looking for some new trainers. As luck would have it, the owner of the store happened to be helping me with my shoe selection. This is one of the old guard, one of those guys who got into running in the early 1970s and stuck with it. He clearly has years of solid experience and wisdom under his belt.

At the time, my problem was that the trainers I already had were hurting my feet, so I needed to replace them. With the store owner's help, I chose a pair of Sauconys, which have been my favorite brand of trainers for a long time. In discussing my choice with the owner, he told me, "Your feet obviously like running in Sauconys. You should probably just stick with them."

He was right. I had spent the previous few months trying some different shoes here and there, looking for "something new" to shake things up in my daily run. In doing so, I had managed to give myself some minor-yet-chronic muscle and joint pain, which predictably disappeared as soon as I returned to more comfortable running shoes.

The moral of this story is: Go with what you know.

You Can't Fight Your Nature
Like a trusty pair of running shoes, your daily routine is something that makes you comfortable. More importantly, it is a highly efficient way of arranging the tasks in your life. This is especially true if you've been cultivating your routine for many years, as I have.

Unplanned disruptions in your routine can be annoying, and could even cause some adverse effects (as is the case with respect to my blood sugar). Planned disruptions seem to work a little better. But at the end of the day, your routine became your routine precisely because it works for you. Don't fight what works - embrace it, and use it to your advantage.

All that is to say that I'm returning to my more preferred arrangement of strength in the mornings, cardio in the evenings. It is what works, it is what I prefer. It gets me out the door. I simply like it better.

Your routine might not be the same as mine, but whatever it is, I suggest you try to stick to it.


Courage and Being Who You Are

I have written previously about fear, but avoiding fear is really only half the battle. It's a great thing to strike fear from your heart; it's even better to live courageously.

One context in which I see this nearly every day is the simple act of being comfortable in one's own skin. You are who you are. Do not apologize for who you are, not ever. Simply being you, lumps and all, is one of the greatest and most important aspects of the human experience.

I strongly doubt I need to expound on the many benefits of accepting yourself and being who you are. If you have any respect for your own identity at all, then you already know what the benefits are. Those of you who aren't fully convinced that being you is a wonderful thing need only consider the fact that you have good friends and loving family members who happen to really like who you are. So, even if it's not perfectly obvious to you, it's readily apparent to the other people in your life - the ones who matter, anyway. If you respect their judgement at all, then you have to admit that you're pretty great. Own it.

The Fear of Being Who You Are
People fear their own identity for all kinds of reasons - some valid, and some preposterous. Regardless of a person's underlying reasons for this, the outward behavior that results takes a few painfully obvious forms.

One particularly nasty one is something that might be termed building a consensus of scorn. Leveling is a widely understood psychological phenomenon that self-haters like to engage in. But leveling is at its worst when the goal of it is not simply to cut someone else down to size, but rather to convince everyone in the entire room that the target is ridiculous.

Understanding this kind of behavior and all its implications amply demonstrates how truly vicious it is. First, it involves leveling. But more importantly, it involves social abuse. To be clear, social abuse is abuse and possesses all the nasty attributes of abuse. It is just as serious as any other kind of abuse. So the fact that someone would be willing to engage in this kind of behavior simply because the abuser is afraid of being himself/herself is rather astounding.

So much the worse considering that this kind of behavior is a rather petty rebellion. The self-hater would like to reclaim some of his/her individuality. The self-hater desperately wants to be free of the fear governing her own self-image. He/she wants to be able to walk into a room without feeling even a little bit self-conscious. But he/she cannot, because he/she fears the self-confrontation required to be proud of who he/she is.

So instead, he/she abuses others. Despicable.

Setting It Right
A good rule-of-thumb I like to keep is this: If you're too afraid to publicly admit to something that you do, then you are probably not mature enough to be doing it.

For example, children who first start to drink or smoke will often hide that fact from their parents. This lone fact demonstrates that they aren't mature enough to handle the situation. A person who possesses all the maturity required to take individual responsibility for those kinds of choices has nothing to hide from. If his/her parents find out, that person will immediately understand what to say in his/her own defense.

The important fact here is that children are terrified and ashamed of their decisions, desperately requiring parental consent to validate their actions. But imagine a 50-year-old behaving that way. You can't, right? That's because most 50-year-olds possess ample maturity to be able to take responsibility even for decisions that their parents would disapprove of.

I think this is an important concept because I see it as being the most obvious and reasonable way to transition into responsible adulthood. If you have a drink at a party, become intimate with your first romantic partner, get a risque tattoo, or whatever else, your parents might be right - it might be a big mistake. Or, they might be wrong. But in either case, it is the most liberating feeling in the world to look a parent in the eye and explain to them that, right or wrong, your decisions are yours and yours alone; it's your mistake to make. As an adult, it is no longer up to your parents to dictate such things to you.

And what you discover in this process is that your parents actually do respect your decisions. You discover that it's okay to be yourself.

In America, this is basically a rite-of-passage that we all go through. Elsewhere, the process is slightly different, but no less significant. It's a first step toward self-acceptance, toward courageously being who you are.

Once you've been through this, you no longer feel the need to level others for being who they are. They are who they are, you are who you are; live and let live. You grow up, you stop being mean.

And then you discover something else: When you walk into a room with the confidence of knowing that you are who you are, and that's okay - when you speak your mind in the middle of a group of strangers knowing that some will think you're weird or crazy, and that even if they do, it's still okay - then you have captured a power that moves minds and stops hearts. People find you attractive and interesting, not because you have undergone some radical, magical change, but because you were like that all along. The only difference is that now, you've given yourself permission to be that way.

I've tried to do my best to explain that being nasty is one result of hating oneself, and that being a nice and well-liked person comes not simply from a good moral compass (although that sure helps), but from simply having the courage to be yourself.

So do us all a favor and learn to accept yourself, even if you sin. And I do mean you.

Week 2: When To Add Intensity

Last week I initiated a new training regimen for myself. This is not marathon training, nor is it beginner training. This is some steady training to keep myself in shape as I get settled in my new home. As I described last week, the various obligations and tasks I have to complete related to moving to a new country are keeping me very busy, which means I am training on a more limited time schedule.

My first week went okay. It was a bit of a bump up in terms of strength training, relative to what I had been doing previously. My overall running mileage continues to be low; but that is by necessity, due to time constraints and the summer heat around here.

Underpinning this training regimen is the basic philosophy idea that I am not training for a race any time soon, but that I would like to maintain as high a level of fitness as possible. I therefore have a little ground to give when it comes to running mileage, and a little ground to gain when it comes to strength training. I will focus on building some good upper body strength, and perhaps a little muscle while I’m at it. I’ll take the running as it comes; currently, I only have a short period of time in the early morning in which to get any running done at all. There isn’t enough time in the evenings for a good, solid run, and I have to get out the door as early as possible in the morning in order to beat the rush hour traffic both to and from work.

Increase the Effort, or Not?
I would like to provide a small window into the decision-making process in terms of knowing when to add intensity and when not to.

I started last week with the understanding that I needed to add intensity. I knew it was time because my daily strength training regimen had become incredibly easy for me. It was no longer a physical challenge. The only difficult part was having enough will power to do what I needed to do every day. I was starting to stagnate. My body was no longer showing signs of progress, and in fact was showing signs of deterioration. (If you never increase the intensity, the efficiency of your movements will start to undermine the physical effort involved, giving you an ever-easier workout.) Clearly, I needed a new challenge.

Having undertaken it for a week, I can now pause to assess whether or not to increase the intensity some more. The answer is “Not yet,” but why?

First, I do not yet feel comfortable with my new routine. It is still difficult to complete every time I do it. Second, my blood sugar hasn’t normalized to my new routine yet. (You non-diabetics have the disadvantage of less information in this case.) Third, I am never quite sure if I am going to be able to complete the whole workout every day, at least not without compromising the next day’s workout.

On the plus side, my muscles and joints are not at all sore. So while I have increased the intensity, I have not increased it to the point of pain. It’s always a tough balance to strike, and it looks like I managed to do it this time.


Neil Peart, Ayn Rand, and Bleeding-Heart Libertarianism

Here's an excerpt from a recent interview with Neil Peart, drummer of the band Rush, who famously wrote lyrics inspired by the writings of Ayn Rand in the 1970s:
This is somewhat random, but you were interested in the writings of Ayn Rand decades ago. Do her words still speak to you?
Oh, no. That was 40 years ago. But it was important to me at the time in a transition of finding myself and having faith that what I believed was worthwhile. I had come up with that moral attitude about music, and then in my late teens I moved to England to seek fame and fortune and all that, and I was kind of stunned by the cynicism and the factory-like atmosphere of the music world over there, and it shook me. I'm thinking, "Am I wrong? Am I stupid and naïve? This is the way that everybody does everything and, had I better get with the program?"

For me, it was an affirmation that it's all right to totally believe in something and live for it and not compromise. It was a simple as that. On that 2112 album, again, I was in my early twenties. I was a kid. Now I call myself a bleeding heart libertarian. Because I do believe in the principles of Libertarianism as an ideal – because I'm an idealist. Paul Theroux's definition of a cynic is a disappointed idealist. So as you go through past your twenties, your idealism is going to be disappointed many many times. And so, I've brought my view and also – I've just realized this – Libertarianism as I understood it was very good and pure and we're all going to be successful and generous to the less fortunate and it was, to me, not dark or cynical. But then I soon saw, of course, the way that it gets twisted by the flaws of humanity. And that's when I evolve now into . . . a bleeding heart Libertarian. That'll do.
This response is of obvious interest to me because of my own relationship to the works of Ayn Rand.

I was a rabid Rand fan in my late teens and early twenties. While I have gone through periods of ebbing and flowing with respect to adhering to the principles of Objectivism, I don't think I have ever yet reached a point where I could say that her words no longer speak to me.

Part of that may be because my idealism has never been "disappointed." My ideology doesn't always win every battle, but even when it loses, it still remains true.

Part of that may also be due to the fact that I can easily separate Rand's polemics from her actual ideas. Like many people I know, Rand seemed to be someone who spoke harshly first, and then justified the harshness of it later. She was forced into a situation in which she always had to defend her ideas, and when that happens, a person starts to become extremely polemic. So when I read Rand these days, it's more than the literal truth to me; rather, it's a series of ideas conveyed by a very opinionated person with a gift for eloquent and fiery language.

And of course, the other major part of my adherence to Ayn Rand's ideas is the fact that I have investigated a great deal of the source material. Rand described herself as a writer first, and then a philosopher. She is often criticized as a philosopher; she is seldom criticized as a writer.

Like anyone who has a real day-job, she understands less about her hobbies than people who engage in those hobbies as a full-time day-job. But inasmuch as she managed to fuse together the important teachings of Aristotelian logic and the classical liberal tradition, she stood alone in her time. Nowadays, there are so many libertarian thinkers out there that we all have a tendency to forget Rand's role in sparking the modern movement.

And of course, the Rothbard crowd still won't call off their dogs. In a few decades, they will have probably managed to write her out of the history entirely.

So, to sum up... I still like Rand's ideas, but I've delved much deeper than that now. They were a great introduction. The source material is richer. None of this makes Rand bad.

Lubos Motl Explores the Epistemology of Mysticism

Lubos Motl has written a fascinating blog post exploring the epistemology of mysticism. "Epistemology of mysticism" is my term. Motl just thinks he's trying to explain the mindset of people who reject science for one reason or another.

He begins by laying out the core assumption that learning to think scientifically is something that people must do prior to puberty, otherwise they will spend a lifetime rejecting it. He then proceeds to elaborate on this by laying out a few tiers of unscientific (or anti-scientific?) thought.

The first is based on superstition:
I believe that the deliberate priority of various superstitions, obsolete religious dogmas or, on the contrary, newly created religious superstitions such as a frying Earth and so on are seriously lowering the efficiency with which most people on Earth use their brains. For all of them, the world is full of witches, homeopathic solutions, prophets, dowsing sticks, lucky numbers, geopathogenic zones, miracles, divine truths revealed to shamans, tipping points leading to the Armageddon, and so on. Scientists – people who actually try to use brains, logic, and mathematics applied to the observations – are just some exotic freaks who deserve humiliation and who can't ever reach the glory of the true leaders such as the witches and prophets. Many of these 5+ billion people would be capable of disproving this opinion of theirs if they tried (and if they decided not to fool themselves) but they just don't want to try. They have already made their mind – either individually or they were forced to adopt it – and doubting it would mean for them to undermine their own spiritual existence which is what they don't want to do.
This is a pretty important point. Motl describes both a prevailing cultural bias against science, and a deliberate choice made by unscientific people to refuse to question their own mysticism. He then shifts gears and addresses people "who superficially claim that they want to pursue the scientific method but they don't."

The second tier of unscientific thought is the rejection of mathematical logic. What he says in this section is a bit hard to excerpt or condense. Motl points out that there are
...people who don't think or who don't "agree" that our knowledge or their knowledge about the world may be organized into propositions that are either right or wrong or something in between but whose validity may be, in principle, studied, whose validity matters, which can a priori be right or wrong, and which may be correlated with other propositions by the rules of mathematical logic.
This, I think, describes it best. You may have heard people frantically insist that "people aren't numbers" with respect to conclusions from economics. You have heard people dismiss all questions of their own personal viewpoints as "just one opinion." To these folks, everything is a matter of opinion - there is no such thing as right-and-wrong at all. It's all opinion.

A third tier is what Ayn Rand termed context-dropping, although Motl seems to be unaware of Rand's work on the topic.
I decided to insert this short section that covers two errors that are opposite to one another.... The first error is that many people try to answer a question but they ignore other questions that are demonstrably relevant; the second error is that they fail to stop talking about questions that are demonstrably irrelevant.
Using the example of climate change, Motl notes that once we have included all interacting factors into the study of climate change, and incorporate every relevant time scale, we must conclude that the temperature is both rising and falling, which is of course "inconvenient" to many political pundits.

But of course, that's just one example. I find this kind of error to be particularly egregious in the social sciences. Historians seem to do it the most, determining for themselves what is "important" and what isn't, and refusing to consider adjacent events or facts.

The next tier Motl discusses is what he terms the "rejection of quantification of claims," but what he really means is the rejection of degrees or nuance.

In other words, once we have moved on from yes/no questions and determined that the answer is "yes," we next have to consider "yes by how much?" or "yes to what degree?" For the simple-minded, yes is enough. But as I have tried to point out on this blog many times, life is often quite complicated, and real-life issues often involve varying degrees of... everything.

Because I believe in objective right-and-wrong, I often get accused of seeing everything in black-and-white. A lot of this is the rejection of mathematical logic, as Motl would put it. It is all the more ironic that such people are often the most guilty of refusing to consider the degree to which something is true or false. In reality, they are the ones who see things in black-and-white; the only difference is that they think everything is a matter of black-and-white opinion, whereas I revel in the fact that a great many things are absolutely true or false, and especially to complicated and varying degrees.

Motl next writes two sections that seem to apply mostly to the realm of quantum physics and climate science. They are good sections, but  I will not discuss them here.

His final point is something that I encounter most often in political discussions. People have an inherent desire to build common ground, and they do so during controversies by watering-down their original statements so much that they come up with statements so vague that they feel the other side must concede "at least that much." They never consider that there is no descriptive power in such statements - they are vagueries designed to end conversation, not to build consensus. Motl puts it this way:
At the beginning, I mentioned that one shouldn't talk about propositions that can't a priori have both answers at all. They're tautologies or anti-tautologies, whatever is the right term for a proposition that can be proved identically false just by using the rules of logic. But surprisingly many people seem to believe that if they leave "enough wiggle room" in their general statements, these statements must be true or, to say the least, they can't be shown to be false.

However, this is a complete misconception. Whether something may be disproved depends on the actual available evidence, not on your vague feelings whether your statement is sufficiently vague or whether your collection of candidate explanations looks like a large army.
Those guilty of this particular strategy are extremely numerous and cannot be dissuaded, mostly because - as Motl notes - they cannot seem to understand why their positions are still wrong, despite their having watered things down to near-disintegration.

Well, Motl's whole post is long and enlightening. Recommended reading for all!


My Theory on Lance Armstrong

Lance Armstrong is again under investigation for (historical) blood-doping, and can't compete in Iron Man triathalons as long as the investigation is underway. Many of his teammates swear Armstrong doped - but they only say so after they themselves have been caught doping. Clearly, the anti-doping committees are harassing Lance. I mean, why pursue someone who has long since retired from professional cycling and only competes in triathalons basically as a hobby and to generate some publicity for his non-profit work? Lance says it's a vendetta, and I agree.

I think Armstrong used to dope. But here's the catch: I don't think Lance Armstrong necessarily understands that he was doping.

Why do I say that? Because EPO is the "doping substance du jour" (for lack of a better term), and it also happens to be an important medication for people going through and recovering from chemotherapy and cancer in general. Both chemotherapy and certain kinds of cancers induce neutropenia, and you can only really keep yourself alive by taking EPO. Armstrong certainly would have had to take EPO to beat his cancer.

I think he took EPO during his recovery and sort of found himself in a situation where he was training and recovering at the same time. Where do you draw the line? When do you say that your EPO is no longer for recovery, that it is now being taken for doping? I think Armstrong probably took EPO longer than he should have, but didn't necessarily see any harm in doing so. (If you disagree with me there, ask yourself how many perfectly normal, non-criminal people you know who keep a couple of spare pain killers around in their medicine cabinets for a rainy day, from the time they had to have that minor surgery.)

I think if he were a tennis player, for example, nobody would care.

But in hindsight, I think he feels there is a real threat that they can take his medals away, and so he has probably done everything he can to avoid being "caught," even though from a totally objective point of view, it would be hard to find fault in a recovering cancer patient's taking EPO.

I don't think the case is cut-and-dry. I don't think a finding of "Armstrong definitely doped" necessarily proves anything about cheating in the Tour du France. I think there is a big difference between a recovering cancer patient who takes EPO, and someone like Floyd Landis, who takes it without medical justification.

But, this is just a theory I have.


The Sub-Continent's Influence Is Spreading

Although they don't explicitly say so, The Color Run - which I discovered this afternoon - shares obvious similarities with Holi, and I would guess come from a similar place. The degree of direct influence will perhaps remain a mystery.

Seriously, Bangladesh?

The Financial Express, a Bangladeshi online newspaper reports that the government of Bangladesh will no longer accept Rohingya refugees fleeing from violence in Burma:
"Our stand is clear; no more Myanmar refugees will be allowed to enter the country at the moment, as we are already hosting tens of thousands of Rohingyas who had entered Bangladesh over the past decades," said earlier a senior official of the ministry of foreign affairs (MoFA).

Some 10 boats with some 500 Rohingyas, including women, children and elderly people, some of whom also injured, were seen floating on the Naf river along Teknaf border town on Tuesday, according to witnesses.
So, over the span of multiple decades, a persecuted minority has fled to Bangladesh, and for that reason, those currently attempting to save their own lives (just ten boatloads of them, containing the equivalent of a third of the number of students at my former high school) are not to be allowed in the country.

I am sensitive to the limited amount of space in the already-over-populated Bangladesh, but to turn away refugees of war is utterly incomprehensible to me. These people aren't seeking anything more than the ability to cross an imaginary line separating them from people who are no more different from them than their own countrymen are.

This seems particularly unconscionable, considering Bangladesh's own history of refugees during the Liberation War and prior (among which we may count economic Nobel laureate Amartya Sen one of the many great world citizens who were there).

I cannot help but wonder, what on Earth are they thinking?

Cochrane on An Overlooked Minarchist Principle

I am a bit slow on the uptake here, mostly because at the time the following blog post was written, I was in between countries....

In a very concise blog post, Chicago School economist John H. Cochrane (not to be confused with Austrian School economist John P. Cochran) highlights a concept vital to the understanding of the minarchic flavor of libertarianism:
We talk about "regulation," but the real issue is rules vs. discretion. Regulating by simple clear rules is much better than regulation by discretion, or by rules so complex they amount to discretion. When a zoning inspector can come in after the fact and always find something wrong, it's in invitation to corruption. We are increasingly a country in which "regulation" means that regulators can tell people what to do on a whim, not one in which clear objective rules are imposed.
I recall from The Road to Serfdom that Hayek referred to this principle as the classical liberalism idea of "Rule of Law," although that term has been used to describe so many different, competing principles that it is probably best to avoid that phrase.

I believe the prevailing philosophy in American politics shifted at some point from a general agreement that rules are to be imposed like surgical incisions, when deemed necessary, to the general idea that regulation qua regulation is simply "necessary."

When you compare the two concepts, it's clear that there is more ambiguity in the latter notion. It is a lazier philosophy. We simply create an overseer and let him do the rest. If the overseer suffers from glut, we oversee the overseer. And so on, and so forth.

All of this vanishes when society adheres to the principle Cochrane describes. If our focus truly is on making rules to prevent specific outcomes (i.e. something more specific than "corporate overreach" or something), then we will govern well.

If, on the other hand, we simple accept the idea that "some regulation is needed," and then we stop thinking about it, then we are in no position to complain when our freedoms disappear and simple things like opening a business become cartoonishly Kafkaesque.


Big Pharma, Government, and Crony Capitalism

Excuse me, I'd just like to direct your attention here.

Problem-Solving and Logical Sequence

In order to solve any difficult problem, we have no choice but to resort to deductive logic. In the realm of philosophy – and especially in the realm of Austrian-flavored economics – there exist some passionate opinions about whether our deductive reasoning is a priori, a posteriori, or based solely on perception. Heck, there are plenty of other theories we could include here, but I’d like to side-step the issue a bit to avoid direct commentary on that particular subject matter. For now, it suffices to note that complex problems cannot truly be solved without deductive logic, regardless of at which point the theory is generated.

As the term deductive implies, this kind of problem-solving requires iterative thinking: First, we do A, then we do B, then comes C, and so on. Consider climbing a ladder. We start on the bottom rung and work upwards, rung-by-rung. It’s possible to skip a few rungs, but only up to a point. What I mean is, we can’t start at the top rung, and then move to the middle rung, then the bottom rung, then the second-to-highest rung, and so on. (That is, we cannot do this for the average ladder. There may be ladders out there that are sufficiently short, or having sufficiently few rungs, or sufficiently spaced rungs to make any rung order available, but we’d be getting far too pedantic if we considered abnormal ladders for the sake of mere metaphor.)

So, solving a problem with deductive reasoning involves a starting point (the ground), an endpoint (the top of the ladder, or the destination reached with the aid of the ladder), and a sequence of middle steps that preclude abnormalities.

What if you wanted to climb from Point A to Point B, so you climbed a ladder, and you ended up at Point C? If that happened, you have committed at least one of the following errors:
·         You had the wrong starting point,
·         The endpoint is not what you thought it was,
·         You used an inappropriately shaped/sized ladder.

Let’s consider each one of these possibilities individually.

Wrong Starting Point
The important thing about this situation is that your problem-solving process was basically correct. The ladder was the correct size, the rungs behaved the appropriate way. From a different starting point, you would have ended up at Point B. You simply started from Point D instead.

In the real world, this might describe a situation in which a basic assumption was incorrect. To use the terminology of logic, your system is valid but false. You accurately predicted the outcome of an alternate scenario. Your only mistake was that the current scenario is not what you thought it was.

Economists tend to be good logicians. They can usually be counted on to come up with a valid logical argument for the economic conditions they anticipate. However, if their starting point is all wrong, they won’t reliably explain the economy. If the “natural rate of unemployment,” for example, is 2.0% rather than 2.5% (or whatever), then this discrepancy may fully account for the economist’s error.

More to the point, if there is no “natural rate of unemployment,” or if it is impossible to know, then no logical series of problem-solving steps starting from a known natural rate of unemployment can ever lead us to greater understanding of the economy itself.

Wrong Endpoint
In this situation, it is also important to note that the ladder-climber’s ladder is exactly correct. The logic is valid, and the starting point is correct. What went wrong? How did you end up at the wrong Point?

One possibility is that the endpoint is not what you thought it was. Seen from the ground, you saw a ledge 15 feet up. You climbed a 15-foot ladder and realized that the ledge was not flat at the top, so there is no destination at which to arrive. Point C is merely a point on the face of a cliff, not the ledge (Point B) at which you expected to arrive.

We often see real-world examples of this. Consider the passionate novice politician who wins the election, only to discover that the system does not behave as anticipated, and he cannot accomplish what he expected to accomplish. Consider the central banker who sets an inflation target of X%, only to discover that X% is the wrong target for the economic conditions.

Another possibility is that we were looking at a ledge at Point C, mistakenly believing it to be a ledge at Point B. This is a case of mistaken identity.

In the real world, this might be a climate scientist who believes that X degrees of global temperature increase will create an irreversible chain-reaction, only to discover that it does not. Or, it might be an economist who believes that a free-market money supply is essentially a barter system, when in fact it is not (sorry Prof. Rowe).

Wrong Ladder
In this situation, the starting point or the endpoint could be correct or incorrect – but most importantly, you are using the wrong ladder.

If you start from Point A, your basic assumptions are correct; it’s your theory that’s all wrong. Note here that it doesn’t really matter if you end up at Point B because your doing so was nothing more than an accident, a mistake. On a different day, you probably wouldn’t have. If you don’t end up at Point B, though, you’ll never get there without using a different ladder, i.e. revising your theory.

This one is actually easier to see in the real world than in the abstract. Sometimes financiers correctly predict market movements, but it’s pure dumb luck, no different than gambling. Other times, they get it wrong and suffer losses. Sometimes economists get it right, sometimes they get it wrong. But they have only ever explained something when they use the right theory, built from the correct assumptions, to describe the conditions we wanted to know about from the very beginning.

If you want to tackle difficult problems, you need more than just a good theory. You need more than just a good “algorithm” that will take you through an iterative, deductive process. You need to start from a correctly identified set of assumptions, and you need to ensure that what you are describing is what you had in mind  in the first place. If these conditions aren’t satisfied, then you haven’t explained anything at all.