Album Review: Dream Theater

Typically, when I write album reviews, I add some biographical information and retrospective thoughts about how the album I am presently reviewing fits within the context of a band or artist's complete history. I am tempted to do that once again for Dream Theater, the self-titled new album from the world's most famous progressive metal band. Unfortunately, in the case of Dream Theater, so much has already been written, and so much is currently being written, and so many fans have yet to write, about all of that stuff that it just becomes superfluous.

What is it about Dream Theater that inspires so much fanaticism among their loyal following? There are many possible qualities: the individual members' much-noted virtuosity, the consistency of the band's output, the lofty lyrical themes, the grandiose album concepts, the tireless outreach efforts lead by some members of the band...

It could be any and all of these characteristics, but if I would like to advance an alternative hypothesis. Throughout the years, Dream Theater has managed to fuse all the most exciting elements of progressive music - the odd time signatures, multi-movement compositions, and adventurous instrumental solos - with what is essentially pop-rock sensibility. That is to say, while a Fates Warning album is dense with occasionally jarring harmonic passages; while a Gordon Knot album is potentially so thick and confusing as to be difficult to bob your head along with; while a Symphony X album is thick with orchestral passages and fantastical, mythological lyrics; while a Porcupine Tree album is full of gloomy ambience; while a Meshuggah album is full of grit and growl; while the rest of the prog-rock and prog-metal world is neck-deep in a rather unique artistic vision, Dream Theater has always managed to pull back before going too far in any one direction.

When it`s bad, it tends to come off as disingenuous. At their worst, Dream Theater is like a prog-rock cover band. Heck, they've released their cover songs as albums and EPs. They've played whole classic rock albums from other artists live, in concert. They specialize in being able to perform the music of other people, and their fans eat it up. But there is no denying that a valid criticism of the band is their tendency to cover, copy, and cite from rote.

When it's good, though, Dream Theater's music offers what many progressive bands simply cannot: A dive into the prog-metal pool without getting too wrapped up in silly lyrics, without getting too bombarded by jarring time-sig changes, without getting too heavy or too deep, without getting too ambient or too improvisational. In short, Dream Theater offers progressive music for the casual listener, and this is no small feat in a genre that tends to appeal to obsessive music nerds like myself.

This brings me to Dream Theater's latest, self-titled album. Upon listening to this album, I find that for the first time since 1994's Awake, the band has managed to record an album that is worth taking at more than face-value. There is musical interplay between the instruments, not merely technical unison lines interspersed amid solos and power chords. There is a variety of tones produced by the bass, in addition to some surprising tonal choices by guitarist John Petrucci. Jordan Rudess's compositional fingerprint is felt in ways that haven't really shown themselves on previous Dream Theater albums. And LaBrie's vocals are as strong and appealing as ever.

To put it succinctly, this is the most musically interesting Dream Theater album I've heard in years. I don't mean this in a way that detracts from the band's prior output, either, although it is probably inevitable that a band that has recorded as much material as Dream Theater has will always have comparatively stronger and weaker albums.

Part of what makes the new album interesting is the aforementioned interplay among the instruments. But another part of it is that the band's softer side is on display for a change. If you're the kind of fan who always had a soft spot for songs like "Lifting Shadows Off A Dream," or "Surrounded," this album is for you. If you're the kind of fan who always identified with the more-rock-less-metal aspect of songs like "Take The Time" or "Caught In A Web," this album has you covered. It's not that the album lacks heaviness, it's just that it demonstrates some much-needed maturity. After all, critics of progressive music are always calling it juvenile or cheesey. Mature compositions render that kind of criticism impotent.

So what we have in Dream Theater's self-titled album is music that is simultaneously approachable, mature, well-arranged, and classically Dream Theater. It is exactly what one might hope to see from a self-titled Dream Theater album. And, to my great delight, the album is the first one in a long time to hearken back to the Awake era.

To be sure, criticisms of the album can be made. The sterile production quality hides some of the best aspects of the album, such as the excellent performances of new drummer Mike Mangini. The vocals also sit a little too high in the mix. In fact, each instrument seems to occupy such a well-defined sonic space that the songs can sometimes lack the live feel that exists on related albums like The Winery Dogs or Levin Minnemann Rudess. There are also clear musical references to band's influences. The first two songs sound like they could appear on a Symphony X album, and "The Bigger Picture" is a clear and lofty tribute to Rush.

Still, the band has packed so much into their self-titled album that it's easy to forgive them for some of the shortcomings. For my money, this is the best Dream Theater release in twenty years. It seems that they have rekindled the creative spark that got lost in the new millennium. Perhaps the departure of founding member Mike Portnoy was ultimately an impetus for good. It certainly seems that way, because the new album is much, much better than I expected.

Workout Of The Day

As I may have implied a couple of days ago, my fabulous beach vacation is over, and after spending nearly two years building up muscle mass, I am feeling the urge to get back to running again.

What the heck, I'll tell you a little story. Age twenty or so was the first time in my life during which I ever made a serious attempt at building muscle mass. Prior to that, I was completely absorbed in being a fast, competitive distance runner. When the NCAA burned me out at age nineteen, I embarked on a long personal journey through the world of ultra-running and various kinds of fitness-related physical experimentation. The "average workout week" for me looked something like this:
  • Sunday-through-Friday: Run between 10 and 15 miles.
  • Saturday: Run between 20 and 30 miles.
I did that for a long time, and it felt great. I also started adding push-ups and crunches to my regular workout days. I started with 200 crunches and I believe three sets of 10 push-ups, and slowly worked my way up from there. At age 20, I moved into a rented house with the kind of spiral staircase you might find on a boat of some sort, which I promptly put to use as an ersatz pull-up bar. I discovered that the addition of pull-ups to my daily routine added a lot of muscle mass. I had long hair back then, and my muscles were growing. I'd spend my weekends running 30 miles on mountain trails. You can imagine how good I felt back then.

This was, of course, long before my pancreas decided to die. I ate a lot of great food, drank a lot of great beer, and generally enjoyed myself in a way that only a super-fit twenty-year-old can.

The reason I bring this up is because this period of my life was the first time I discovered that human bodies can be sculpted according to the activities one chooses to perform. What I mean is that I am not sold on the idea of "mesomorphs" versus "ectomorphs." In my experience, "mesomorph" just means "someone who is husky because he/she eats a lot and likes to lift weights," whereas "ectomorph" just means "someone who doesn't lift much weights, but maybe enjoys endurance sports and an active lifestyle." You may feel free to disagree. I speak only from personal experience.

At the minimum, I have found that it is true for me. When I want to put on muscle mass, I can do so, by increasing the amount of protein in my diet and lifting a lot more weights. When I want to be skinny, I say
"Screw the weights, I'm going running." My body shape changes according to what I demand of it.

Thus, after having invested a good amount of time in pumping a lot of iron and trying to put on muscle mass, I am getting a little bored and tired of pushing and pulling on things. I want to go for a nice, long run without feeling like I'm carrying a military backpack everywhere I go.

For you, dear Stationary Waves readers, this means that my workouts of the day will emphasize running and endurance for the foreseeable future. (At least until I grow tired of being a scrawny distance runner and go back to lifting weights.)

Today's workout is as follows:
  • 3 x 10 pull-ups
  • 3 x 40 push-ups
  • Standard plank (maximum hold)
  • Right side plank (maximum hold)
  • Left side plank (maximum hold)
  • 40-45 minute run

Some Links

  • Kevin Erdmann has an excellent post about unemployment.
  • Alex Tabarrok brings our attention to the news that India is adding a "none of the above" option on their future ballots. How might such an option play out in the United States, I wonder?
  • Tyler Cowen supplies us with this Bloomberg link that looks more or less like an ObamaCare "fact check." Cowen calls it "very good," but I would call it "just okay." The author should have reduced the number of points and only addressed those for which she had strong, tangible arguments.
  • Speaking of health care, Donald Boudreaux discusses the impossibility of economic price calculation when health care prices are socialized. This is a good companion piece to my recent point about ObamaCare.
  • I link to this Anti-Gnostic post not because it's interesting, but because it's deplorable. The point is clear: he's saying that European peoples have accomplished more than non-Europeans because there is less in-breeding in Europe. It is a theory supported by nothing other than the graphs he supplies, and steeped in ethnocentrism. The Steve Sailer crowd would prefer I not call this racism, but what else do we call it?
  • Here's a brief, interesting point about the Misesian approach to economics that I think plays well into my rules-versus-merit framework
  • This baffling Penelope Trunk post about Huma Abedin highlights (unintentionally) the left's need to turn leftist politics into some combination of religion and fairy tale. Here I must exclude the far left, which has a much less romanticized view of politics and politicians, and that gives me the sickening feeling that the centrists in America are more wrong than the extremists on any end of the political spectrum. But maybe this just means that Americans are finally starting to shrug off the shackles of the Democrat-Republican false dichotomy, and each one of us is coming to that point of view our own way, some from extreme leftism, some from extreme rightism, some from extreme libertarianism, and so on.
Well, that ought to get you all caught up on the blogosphere after my two-week absence!


Book Review: Cat's Cradle

Before I read Cat's Cradle, all I knew about author Kurt Vonnegut is that he was a famous and highly praised master of 20th Century fiction. At some point, I had picked up a copy of Slaughterhouse Five to be read later. If I'm not mistaken, I was using up a gift certificate at a book store. Then I packed it into a box and moved to Texas. The book is still in a box, somewhere.

Fast forward a year and a half, and I found myself at the airport in Denver, looking for some reading material for the flight back home. The book selection at airports has gone decidedly downhill since the introduction of e-readers and Amazon Kindle. This is understandable. Still, for at least an hour out of every flight (30 minutes during the ascent, and 30 minutes during the descent), keeping e-readers on is against the rules. Thus, the paper book still fills an important space in my entertainment world.

At any rate, one thing you can always count on being able to purchase at an airport bookstore is a Kurt Vonnegut book. Having already stowed away a copy of Slaughterhouse Five, I chose one of his other books, mostly at random. What I picked up was Cat's Cradle. I'm glad I did.

Cat's Cradle tells the story of a man whose fate puts him in contact with the three children of Nobel Prize winning physicist Felix Hoenikker. Initially intending to write a book about the day the atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima, the story's narrator seeks out the Hoenikker children, travels to their home town, interviews former classmates and colleagues, and ultimately loses interest in the story; but not before learning about a mysterious substance called ice-nine. Ice-nine is, in essence, a special crystalline form of ice that causes a chain reaction whenever it comes into contact with water, turning all water it touches into ice-nine.

The narrator's fate further takes him to a Caribbean island, where he meets the islands despotic leader, "Papa" Monzano and his beautiful daughter, Mona. Along the way, he also meets the U.S. ambassadors to the island, a captain of the bicycle industry, the founder of the island's major unofficial religion, and a series of zany characters.

At its heart, Cat's Cradle is a story about human nature, our obsessive need for scientific knowledge, our less obsessive - though no less destructive - need for religion, and the ultimate fate of a humanity that refuses to learn its lesson, no matter how much destruction and misery we cause. The story is told with a remarkable level of wit and humor, yet still manages to capture the essence of the sci-fi doom-and-gloom social commentary of the first half of the 20th Century. I found the book fully engrossing and impossible to put down.

Suffice it to say, I am moments away from prying open the boxes in my closet, in search of Slaughterhouse Five. Cat's Cradle will not be my last Vonnegut book.


Album Review: Levin Minnemann Rudess

When I saw Joe Satriani in concert on September 6th, he took to the microphone at one point to call touring drummer Marco Minnemann the hardest working musician in the world. When I saw The Aristocrats perform in August, Bryan Beller noted that Minnemann seems to release "an album a year." His extensive discography spans every conceivable music genre, and includes session work, and group and solo compositions with musical legends the likes of not only Satriani, but Steven Wilson of Porcupine Tree, Andy Partridge of XTC, Eddie Jobson, Adrian Belew, Paul Giblert, Terry Bozzio, etc. etc. etc...

Basically, the guy is a monster. If he can make my drum-hating, rock-hating wife love a drum solo, then he clearly has super-human musical ability.

That musical ability is on full display on the new album by, and entitled, Levin Minnemann Rudess. This time, Minnemann is jamming it out with one of the best-known, best-loved bassist in rock music history, Tony Levin, and the keyboard player from none other than Dream Theater, Jordan Rudess.

Those of you familiar with each musicians' discography may go into this album suspecting something like Liquid Tensions Experiment, the Levin/Rudess super-group that also included fellow Dream Theater musicians John Petrucci and Mike Portnoy, the project that spawned the 21st Century incarnation of Dream Theater, the album that introduced the prog rock world to Jordan Rudess in the first place. To be sure, considering that half the members of LTE make up two-thirds of the LMR band, that influence is there. But if you're hoping LMR to follow in the footsteps of the free-jam shred-fest that made up both LTE albums, you had better adjust your expectations.

The album consists of decidedly prog compositions, including all the lovely hallmarks that attract prog fans like myself: time signature changes, song feel changes, instrumental virtuosity, and that unmistakable prog ambiance. The conspicuous sidelining of the electric guitar, however, enables the trio to explore prog-rock territory not fully explored since the 70s. The drums/keyboards/bass core of LMR certainly hearkens back to the days of Emerson, Lake, and Palmer. Even the albums only two vocal lines, which appear at the very end of the album and are sung by Minnemann, suggest a sort of ELP feel. It's unavoidable that such a comparison would be made, I suppose. But it's important to clarify that the comparison comes more from similarities in ensemble construction than compositional elements. This album is no throwback to the glory days of prog, this is new music played in new ways.

Each of the album's fourteen songs - a delightfully large helping of music, by super-group standards, by the way - seems to start from an underlying groove of some sort, and to that end the band seems happy to explore all possible combinations of foundational grooves: drum/bass, bass/keyboard, keyboard/drums. The band layers various textures, keyboard solos, call-and-response, and all the trademarks of great modern improvised jams, but manages to keep the songs in line. Rather than meandering across the vast expanse of jazz/fusion, the songs are kept tightly in line with the underlying grooves and melodies upon which they are based. Thus the band succeeds writing instrumental music with that elusive balance between melodic approachability and explosive free-form virtuosity.

Hence, LMR presents itself as a strong addition to the discographies of three musical legends while also breathing some fresh air into the progressive rock super-group world at a time when the world seems mostly focused on Miley Cyrus' tongue. I give this album full marks for creativity and execution, and I highly recommend it.

Additional information can be found at the band's website, http://www.levinminnemannrudess.com/


Big News

I am quoting this Reuters article in full:
(Reuters) - The U.S. Food and Drug Administration has approved the first artificial pancreas system for diabetics that reads blood sugar levels and automatically shuts off the flow of insulin. 
The device, made by Medtronic Inc, could help the 3 million Americans living with type 1 diabetes better manage their disease, which causes the immune system to destroy cells in the pancreas that make insulin. 
Patients suffering from type 1 diabetes, the inherited version of the disease, have to regularly monitor their blood sugar levels and take insulin several times a day. 
Too little or too much of insulin can lead to several health problems, ranging from kidney failure and heart disease to brain damage. 
The device includes an insulin pump and a glucose sensor that stops insulin delivery when blood glucose reaches a preset level. 
The system has been approved for use by diabetics aged 16 years and older. Medtronic said it would conduct a post-approval study that would include children aged 2 years and older. 
The Minneapolis, Minnesota-based company said it would begin ramping up production immediately to prepare for a launch in the next few weeks. 
The company will also directly follow up with patients and make certain manufacturing changes according to the requirements of the approval and an accompanying warning letter it was issued on September 19. 
Medtronic said it has already addressed many of the observations in the warning letter and was committed to resolving the remaining issues as quickly as possible. 
(Reporting by Esha Dey and additional reporting by Natalie Grover in Bangalore; Editing by Kirti Pandey)

Plateaus For Experienced Runners

Lately I've been running with very good regularity. In the past, when I've done that, I've found myself getting faster and faster, and steadily improving in general. Typically, it takes me about two months to get back into a position where I feel that I can run comfortably, and at a rapid pace.

There are some things that need to happen before I get there. If I'm carrying much muscle mass, I typically have to lose a great deal of it in order to run at a good speed. So, some of the time spent "getting back in running shape" involves simply shedding upper body weight.

Once that happens, the muscles and joints in my legs require some time and experience in order to get back into what I might describe as a "competitive running gait." Part of this process is the development of sufficient flexibility in my legs to handle the kind of running I do when I really get going quickly. For any level of runner, there is a stride length at which the runner feels most comfortable. The faster the runner, the longer that stride length tends to be. This isn't a steadfast rule, of course; every runner is a little different. But the general pattern seems to hold, and it definitely holds true for me. When I'm just getting into running shape, my stride length is shorter because the total range of motion in my hips, knees, and ankles is much shallower. As my speed increases, my range of motion increases. Over the course of a few weeks, it all starts to come together and I return to the classic, time-tested running posture I've had for years.

At that point, it's really just a matter of putting in the work required to get up to a competitive speed. And that's typically how the process goes.

As I said above, though, I've been running regularly lately, and I have found that my body isn't quite locking into the same pattern as before. Running a given distance gets a little easier every day, as expected, but my speed isn't decreasing much, and my overall running form hasn't improved. There may be a couple of reasons for this.

First of all, as I have covered quite extensively on my blog, I have built up a lot more upper body mass over the past year and a half than I am used to carrying. I did this for a new personal challenge, and I have felt good carrying approximately ten additional pounds of muscle in my arms, back, and shoulders. But if I want to run fast, I may have to consider letting some of this muscle mass go. It's slowing me down.

Second, I haven't done much to really challenge myself in terms of speed. The moment things start to get difficult, I push just enough to maintain a constant pace. This is a good exercise to develop a strong sense of pacing, but doing all-pacework means the for speed has suffered. If I want to run fast, I'll have to start prodding myself to genuinely run faster than I have been.

Finally, my long runs have been non-existent. I would like to blame the Texas heat for this, but ultimately I know that I bear full responsibility for my dearth of long runs. It may not seem obvious to the novice runner how important long runs are for becoming a fast runner, but it's true. The stronger one's sense of endurance the longer one can push oneself at higher speeds. If I want to run fast, I'll need to start doing a weekly long run.

I guess the bottom line here is that if you're an experienced runner finding yourself stagnating despite your consistency, you may have to prod yourself to really embrace what it takes to run fast again. I'm going to give it a try. Why not join me?


You Can't Buy Authenticity

Somewhere along my internal journey toward I-haven't-yet-quite-determined-what I developed a sort of self-check mechanism. The mechanism works something like this: for any idea I encounter that seems plausible and attractive, I ask myself, "What if this were entirely true for most people? What would the world look like?" I must have been onto something when I cooked that up (I certainly didn't do it consciously, so let's call it a happy accident), because The Last Psychiatrist is starting to build a strong reputation for himself on that idea.

It's not a schtick, it's a mental exercise. He starts with something he's noticed in the media and combines his observation with the base assumption that anything presented by the media is intended to be aspirational. That is, the media shows us, if not what we want to be, what the media thinks we want to be. The resulting analysis either tells us something about ourselves, or tells us something about how the "key opinion leaders" wish us to be.

Is Nothing Sacred?
I have written before about the idea of unappealing theories - theories which, if true for most people, present an utterly unattractive potential universe. One of the unappealing theories to which I referred in that post was the Austrian-libertarian idea that we should all drop out of college, buy Bitcoin and bars of gold, drive used cars, and live in rented rooms. Austrian economic theory - especially the Rothbardian kind - seems to highlight just such a way of life. It is often brilliantly argued and eloquently stated. But who wants to live that kind of life.

Where are we going to put our bars of gold if we live in an apartment? Don't worry, there's an Austrian School business waiting to store it for you! How are you going to afford all those gold bars if you drop out of college? Don't worry, just take a few online courses from the Mises Institute! Etc. etc.

And, on that note, Christopher Cantwell wrote this article about the ailing industry of "liberty events." When I responded (via Google+) that forming an industry out of a set of ideals reduced the appeal of those ideals in the long run, he was critical. But the fact of the matter is that hiring a prostitute does not give a person the same level of exhilaration that one gets from wooing a woman for real. Ideas, especially highly personal ideas like love, philosophy and ethics, were never meant to be commoditized. The Dr. Phils and Naomi Kleins of the world have done a good job of commoditizing ideas, but in the end they do their causes more harm than good.

No one wants to buy libertarianism (or liberalism, or communisim, or whatever), and perhaps the reason for this is because we seem to have an emotional need to keep some things sacred. I don't mean "sacred" in the religious sense of the term, although that's obviously part of it. I mean we are emotional human beings, and because of this, we need to know that not everything can just be bought-and-sold. Some things have to be earned through genuine achievement.

This is as true for an ideology like libertarianism as it is for love. You can't just buy tickets to a free world, you have to actually take liberty to the bank. "The tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots." That's why the new libertarian movement doesn't feel anything like the exalted, quasi-spiritual, battle-hymn-of-the-libertarians movement that spawned the American Revolution. We're trying to buy liberty like a prostitute, only to discover that she's only faking it so that we'll get off sooner and she can move on to her next trick. No wonder it doesn't feel like love.

There's No Such Thing As A Fair Fight
I'm no historian, so I can't tell you whether the old stories are accurate. But at any rate, we all have an image in our minds of what "dueling pistols" are. We picture an ornate box containing a pair of identical pistols. One day an indignant, stiff-lipped prig decides he can bear it no more! He will challenge his nemesis to a duel and settle the score, once and for all! So he presents his adversary with the box of dueling pistols. They each take one, and each one is loaded with a single bullet. They agree on an objective referee. In the full light of day, before the gawking eyes of the general public, they stand back to back. On the referee's command, they take twenty paces, turn, and shoot. The matter is thus resolved, however the cards fall. Perhaps one man dies. Perhaps they both die. Perhaps neither die. Everyone accepts the outcome as it is, and all the survivors go home with their pride intact.

The reason this concept sounds so novel to us in this day and age is because this kind of duel has rules, dignity, some semblance of mutual respect, acceptance of the outcome, and so on.

Compare that to the average fight in the halls of a present-day high school. The two interlocutors weave around in a circle, like cowards. Instead of throwing punches, they kick like girls. The crowd watches with glee, mocking the fighters for their pathetic display of childish raucousness. There are no rules. Hair is pulled, groins are attacked, high-pitched screams are exchanged. It might as well be pre-school.

Later, under cover of darkness, gang-bangers shoot innocent men in the back. Even those who fancy themselves tough guys are cowards in today's world.

The problem isn't that men have forgotten how to fight (although many certainly have). The problem is that, in the old days, at least according to story books (which are "aspirational" in The Last Psychiatrist's parlance), fighting was only deemed honorable if men fought honorably. Brawling was a brutish, dishonorable thing to do. If you wanted to settle the score with someone, you chose your weapons, set the rules, and let the best man win. But because there is no best man anymore, winning doesn't feel like winning.

Similarly, in the old days - again, at least according to the fiction that has defined our species for the last five hundred years or so - a professionally successful man was he who could perform the job better than anyone else. If a man wanted to become captain of the wagon wheel industry, he would learn how to make the world's best wagon wheel, and leverage his superior knowledge and craftsmanship into a corner on the market.

What do men do today when they want to become captains of industry? They get an MBA and then supplicate themselves to any corporate executive to which they can latch on. Men have become some hideous combination of barnacles and courtesans, clinging to the status of their superiors, pretending to "walk the walk" and "talk the talk," all the while trained in nothing other than how to create a PowerPoint slide deck about synergy.

It's crazy. Henry Ford became the president of the Ford Motor Company because he had the know-how to revolutionize both the transportation industry and the manufacturing process. The modern day CEO of Choose-Your-Automobile-Company got there by spending a few years in management consulting after getting an MBA and then pretending to know about corporate strategy.

Okay, but what do you know about manufacturing cars? It doesn't matter anymore. It's not about agreeing on the rules of the game and letting the best man win. It's about image, it's about messaging, it's about PowerPoint. It's become show business, and just like show businesses, everyone knows that showtime is make-believe. What's real is whatever it is we go home to, which tends to be things like grocery bills, mortgage payments, and chores.

That A-Word Again
The problem with all this is not that "messaging" is a bad skill to have, but that it's a lot like kicking and pulling hair when you should be throwing punches: It's a defensive maneuver designed to keep a safe enough distance that you never have to do any actual work.

To people like me, that seems like it would be disadvantageous at first-blush, but what we often forget is that when someone is screaming like a girl and kicking at our groin, we can't throw any punches their way, even if we're the superior fighter. You've heard "the greatest defense is a good offense?" That's wrong. What's true in today's world is that the best offense is a great defense. If you anticipate the fact that all your adversaries throw better punches than you do, then you just kick at their groin until all the real men walk away, pitying your pathetic-ness.

...Only the joke's on the real men, because they've given up the fight under the assumption that the rest of the world can see that it's not really a fight. The rest of the world, however, has lost their ability to differentiate between kickboxing and just kicking like a girl. Similarly, the world has lost its ability to differentiate between someone who knows about manufacturing products and someone who just gives YouTube-able PowerPoint presentations. Thus, all the real men - and women, of course - are disqualified from the upper echelons of professional success because they want something that the PowerPoint crowd can't give us...


The End?
The pretenders need authenticity, too, of course, which is why they spend so much time searching for it. They've created the "man-o-sphere," a silly, juvenile ring of bloggers whose only knowledge of masculinity is convincing a large number of women to sleep with them. Real men have their pick of the ladies, of course, but they also know that "too many lovers in a lifetime ain't good for you." I could blog about that for days, but I'll have to defer that post to another day. I've rambled on long enough.

The point is, what the pretenders would like to believe - what would lend their world authenticity - is the idea that they genuinely can out-compete everyone else. They want to believe that their corporate success is attributable to a superior skill set. Unfortunately, their only real skill is the business-world equivalent of kicking like a girl. They can't produce more and better cars than the next man. All they can do is make a PowerPoint presentation about what such a thing might look like.

So the real producers of the world are taken out of the competition by a bunch of pretenders who throw PowerPoint presentations instead of production ideas. The pretenders will the top positions, but at the expense of a gaping, existential vacuum in their hearts where their counterparts generations ago once had authenticity. And all they can do to try to fill the gap is cook up unappealing pretend-theories about how they can reclaim their souls. (By becoming an "alpha-male?" By attending a liberty conference? By getting an MBA?)

But you can't buy authenticity. You have to earn it the old-fashioned way.


Obamacare Is - By Definition - An Increase To Health Care Costs

Discussing the whole Ted Cruz thing with friends on Facebook today, I realized something that should have been obvious from the beginning, but for some reason it hadn't quite clicked with me until tonight.

Thanks to the individual mandate, ObamaCare is an increase in the cost of US health care. Please note: I do not mean to say that "ObamaCare will raise costs." What I mean is that, by definition, ObamaCare is itself an increase in the cost of health care.

Think I'm wrong? Hear me out.

Let's suppose tomorrow they passed RyanCare. RyanCare is a law that states all human beings in the United States must either purchase an autographed photo of me at the going rate of $500, or else pay a $500 fine. In exchange, I - as the lone producer of autographed photos of myself - agree not to increase the price of said photos.

Yesterday, before RyanCare was passed, my mom bought one of my photos for $1000, and that was the only one I had ever sold. The average cost of these photos is therefore $1000. The total cost of these photos nationally is $1000.

Tomorrow, all 300 million Americans will purchase one of my photos for $1000. The average cost of these photos will be... $500. Voila! RyanCare has reduced the average cost of autographed photos of Ryan! The legislation is a success.

Of course, the total cost of these photos, the total expenditure paid for autographed photos of me is now $150 billion dollars, a net increase of $149,999,999,000.

Book Review: Born To Run

Out of the three books I read over my summer vacation, Born To Run by Christopher McDougall stands out as the best by far.

Ostensibly, Born To Run is a book about the anthropological and biological evidence for why homo sapiens is a species that evolved explicitly to run long distances. Here, "long distances" means not just "a mile" or "10 kilometers," or even "a marathon." Rather, McDougall, with the help of a pile of fascinating evidence, reports on the theory that human beings were meant to be, essentially, ultra-marathon runners who survived by engaging in "persistence hunting." Persistence hunting is a technical term for chasing wild game across tens of miles in a single day. Humans can handle these kinds of distances so much better than any other animal, according to this theory, that they can pursue large game until it collapses from exhaustion, at which point we can club it over the head and eat.

If this sounds implausible, keep in mind that the people written about in McDougall's book were actually able to find the few remaining African indigenous people who really do engage in persistence hunting, for real, and successfully. Thus, the question is not actually whether human beings actually survived by persistence hunting, but rather to what extent they did so.

Of course, this alone is a fascinating topic for a book. If that were all Born To Run were about, it would be a very good book indeed. But the book is about so much more.

McDougall manages to fuse the humans-are-distance-runners story seamlessly into an exciting tale about an obscure ultra-marathon held in Mexico that pits American ultra-marathoners against a reclusive tribe of Mexican indigenous people famed for their seemingly inhuman ability to run long distances better than anyone else in the world. This part of the story takes us across the lives of a number of professional American ultra-runners, their humble beginnings, the trials-and-tribulations of their lives, the discovery of their love for distance running, and their eventual success in the sport, culminating in the aforementioned race in Mexico.

And, in a wonderful display of gonzo journalism, McDougall himself plays the role of the story's principle narrator, as he learns the sport of ultra-running and meets a rich and compelling cast of characters. There is Arnulfo, the revered indigenous Mexican running champion; Scott Jurek, the greatest American ultra-runner of all time; Bobby and Jenny, the hard-partying pair of up-and-coming ultra-runners who join the race in the spirit of adventure; "Barefoot" Ted, eccentric father of the barefoot running movement; and of course, Caballo Blanco, the story's central character.

It is important to keep in mind that everything in Born To Run is true. It is a true story, the characters are real, and the events in the book all actually happened. It's told as though it were a murder mystery, the end of each chapter begging you to move on to the next to learn what happens. The scientific information is woven into the story to create a single, cohesive tale of human biology and athletic achievement.

If you're a runner, you simply owe it to yourself to read this book.


Running While Lost

I'm on the road today, and for the rest of the week. Because I had an afternoon flight, I was doubtful that I would even have a chance to work out today. Hence, you did not see a "Workout of the Day" appear on my blog this morning, even though I'm back from vacation and ready to hit the gym (and the road) hard again.

I arrived at my destination right on schedule, and continued to believe that I lacked enough time to get a workout in. But after getting settled in my hotel room I realized that I had some time to explore the neighborhoods around my hotel. I wanted to find a grocery store so that I could commit to eating healthy food during my stay. I wanted to find a bus stop, and bus tickets. I wanted to know my way around.

...And I still had some time before dinner. So I figured, Why not? I'll strap on my running shoes and have a look around. I hit the road with my head held high, searching the horizon and peering down side-streets to see what I could see.

Then something happened that hasn't happened to me in years. I got kind of lost.

Now, back in the day I used to run around in strange neighborhoods, hoping to get myself lost so that I could try to find my way back home again. It was a way to keep my workout interesting because, not only did I have to keep running no matter what, I also had to keep a mental picture of where I was and how I'd return. It also gave me the experience of seeing some totally new places, even if they were just little communities hidden from the view of all my "usual routes."

One runs differently when one is lost. Rather than barreling down the street at breakneck speeds, one acts tentatively for a while, choosing turns based on their relative direction in relation to one's intended destination. One studies the landmarks more carefully, which causes that scenery which is usually in more direct view - houses, buildings, trees, etc. - to appear more foreign. One can accidentally run in circles. As the run wears on, one starts to get more tired and hungry, and so the desire to return home becomes more urgent. That urgency causes one to make mistakes and take ill-fated gambles, which can prove costly later on.

Running while lost is a totally different experience, and hence a welcome change from the daily grind of prescribed mileage.

So, that's what happened to me today. I got lost. I took a wrong turn and then ran with it, expecting that one bad decision to prove a minor mistake, and just circle around later. But in fact, the longer I stuck with my wrong turn and the resulting route, the further I got from my hotel.

It was great! I set out for a 30-minute run and came home 50 minutes later. I highly recommend this sort of run to those of you looking for a way to make things fresh again.

Book Review: Quiet

Susan Cain's Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can't Stop Talking starts out very good. The front end of the book is loaded with the untold story of introverts. They're good at solving complex problems. They make excellent confidantes. They represent as much as half of the world's population. They can be excellent leaders despite their soft-spoken nature. They make excellent teammates with extroverts. There is a lot to like about what Cain has to say about introverts.

Somewhere just before the halfway point, however, Cain's message goes astray. While the ostensible intent of her book, and her research, and her private consulting business, is to promote - and therefore unlock - the power of introverts by helping them understand their strengths and helping extroverts communicate with them better, there comes a point in her book where her message runs off point in a few important ways.

The first is that Cain seems unable to identify the strengths of introverts without coming off as though she's making excuses for them. When she describes them as being successful leaders, she does so by pointing out that they excel at leading teams of extroverts (so, "Who is really doing the work?" becomes a credible criticism of introvert leadership). When she describes introverts as needed a "recharge" after social interaction, she almost pleads for extroverts to understand that introverts aren't antisocial. In short, she spends a lot of time delivering the same excuses that all introverts are mostly comfortable delivering in more effective (less pleading) ways.

The second way Cain's message runs off-point is that, while the first part of the book does an excellent job of clarifying the difference between shy and introverted, the rest of the book seems dedicated only to shy introverts. This problem with the book is close to my heart because I myself am an introvert who is not shy. For people like myself - comfortable in our own skin, but not particularly interested in going "WHIZZ BANG BOOM HEY BUDDY!!!" all the time - Quiet does not have a lot of information to offer. I know what my personal strengths and weaknesses are. I don't need permission from a best-selling author to be myself. I'm already there.

The third point on which Quiet goes astray is that Cain never really sticks to her guns about extroverts. The subtitle of the book refers to a "world that won't stop talking." The implication is that it damn well ought to - sometimes, at least. The appeal in theory of a book like Quiet is that someone actually took the time to lay out the case for those of us who find the prospect of live-as-a-never-ending-series-of-handshakes-and-small-talk simply unappealing, for very good reasons. For example, there is a point at which carrying on with shallow conversations is offensive or insulting - such as a funeral. There is a point during business meetings - typically around the 10-15 minute mark - where all the useful information has been conveyed and entertaining the further ramblings of the most gregarious people on the project team causes real damage to the work plan. There are times in our life when we need true emotional support and empathy, not just a slap on the back and a night out "to forget about it."

In short, the extrovert's toolbox is insufficient to provide all the different types of human interaction we need in our communities and social groups. While Cain dedicates some of her book to highlighting this fact, she stops far short of explaining that if the introvert's toolbox is getting drowned out in a sickening chorus of go-nowhere small talk and cheesy stories, a given group of people might run into serious problems. Hence, the message we want to read from Quiet is not simply that it's okay to be an introvert or that extroverts should understand us better. What we want to read is that extroverts sometimes need to STFU. Now. Their over-bearing dominance of every conversation, their dedication to the most shallow and uninteresting aspects of any topic of conversation, their loudness and situational selfishness has the power to destroy. It doesn't always happen. It doesn't even usually happen. It just frequently happens, and extroverts need to know that.

But Cain minces words.

The final shortcoming of the book appears in an appendix. Once the reader has finished the meat of the book, one finds a series of notes, citations, and afterwords that seem optional. It was lucky that I took the time to read them, because one important section clarifies that Cain did not actually write the book about introverts at all. Instead, she wrote the book about people who are meek, quiet, shy, and egg-headed. In other words, Cain wrote about people like herself.

This very important fact sheds light on much of what I found objectionable in the book. Cain minces words about extroverts because she herself admires them. Cain focuses on shy introverts because she herself is shy. Cain makes pleading excuses for introverts because she wants desperately for extroverts to like them better. The book isn't about introverts, it's about Cain.

Thus, what could have been an excellent book making the case for the strong, silent type ended up being palsied appeal to the world of extroverts, begging them to be more accepting of those who are shy to a fault.

Book Review: Nickel And Dimed

Once I stand and watch helplessly as some rug rat pulls everything he can reach off the racks, and the thought that abortion is wasted on the unborn must show on my face, because his mother finally tells him to stop.
As I read the book, I thought about the kinds of things I might say as I wrote the review. I wanted to highlight the author's elitism, her all-encompassing hate for anyone who doesn't share her politics, her sneering judgementalism, and her inability to relate to anyone or anything that isn't already a perfect mirror of her own preconceived thoughts. Then, near the end, she finally cooked up a phrase so hideous that it makes anything I might say superfluous.

"Abortion is wasted on the unborn." In six shockingly ugly words on page 165 of her sensational book Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By In America, Barbara Ehrenreich manages to succinctly encapsulate all the hate for humanity she displays throughout the rest of it.

The story behind my reading of this book was an economic policy debate I had been having with an old friend of mine, faithful Stationary Waves reader CH. As we know, I favor free market solutions to most of life's economic problems. CH, on the other hand, tends to favor the more mixed-market-leaning-toward-greater-government-paternalism at the heart of modern leftism. And while CH doesn't consider himself a leftist, the one book he chose to recommend to me in hopes that it might change my mind about welfare policy was Barbara Ehrenreich's - a book filled to the brim with actual quotes (cited approvingly) from Karl Marx, Mao Zedong, and so on. Thus, even if CH considers himself a centrist, Nickel and Dimed is unequivocally a leftist book.

The premise runs as follows: Moved by her own insistence that the working poor can't make it in America without an expansive social welfare safety net, Ehrenreich hatches the idea of attempting to live as a member of the working poor. She would show up in an average American town - which, for the book's purposes, turns out to be Key West, Portland, Maine, and Minneapolis - cook up a fake story and a fake resume, take a low-paying job, rent an apartment, and prove to the world that she couldn't do it. Instead, she manages to prove a different thesis altogether: Barbara Ehrenreich hates humanity.

I would like to critique Ehrenreich's approach to this problem, but what stands out more than anything else in the book is Ehrenreich's all-consuming hatred. It is shocking. It is so pervasive that it makes an objective analysis of her work nearly impossible.

For example, while working for a maid service in Portland, Ehrenreich tells the story of a bizarre murder fantasy she has while cleaning the home of a person whose crime appears to be that he/she is politically conservative:
The exalted mood [of trying to see her position as a maid as a noble calling - ed.] lasts for about a day, and there is back-sliding even within that - for example, when, in a huge, gorgeous country house with hand-painted walls, I encounter a shelf full of arrogant and, under the circumstances, personally insulting neoconservative encomiums to the status quo and consider using germ welfare against the owners, the weapons for which are within my apron pockets. All I would have to do is take one of the E. coli-rich rags that's been used on the toilets and use it to "clean" the kitchen counters - a plan that entertains me for an hour or more. (p. 109)
A page or two later, Ehrenreich's maid experience reaches its stunning climax when one of the other maids slips and sprains her ankle. Ehrenreich implores her to go to the hospital, but the maid is adamant that she does not want to go. For reasons still mysterious, Ehrenreich decides to incite a labor strike among the rest of her 4-person maid team in an attempt to pressure the injured maid to go to the hospital and to pressure the franchise manager to give her a paid day off.

This is perhaps the most interesting part of the book because the maids refuse to go along with Ehrenreich's strike. In fact, they resent her for trying to make them strike. They never look at her the same way again. Yet even this experience is insufficient to get Ehrenreich to question her own thesis. She reasons that they suffer from some kind of Stockholm syndrome. She cooks up a strange rationalization theory about how their manager emotionally manipulates them. All because they refused to go along with a strike aimed at getting a single maid a paid day off.

To top it all off, the allegedly emotionally manipulative manager ends up giving the injured maid a paid day off anyway, and gives Ehrenreich a raise because she stood up for her teammate. But, as a manager, he plays the role of villain in her story, and Ehrenreich misses all of this, so committed she is to her own priors.

Earlier in the book, while in Key West, Ehrenreich describes her experience outing herself. She tells a fellow colleague that she's not really a waittress - she's a writer! His response to her is classic: "Oh yeah? Who isn't?" The message is clear. The working poor don't care about Ehrenreich's messianic complex, they don't care about her noble calling to low-wage work experience, nor about her noble calling to journalism. The reason they don't care is because they're too busy living their own lives to play into Ehrenreich's misguided fantasy about what their world is like.

Above all, Ehrenreich's hatred and elitism shine through as the only consistent message throughout the book. A friend-of-a-friend offers her a place to stay for free in Minneapolis in exchange for house-sitting. Rather than enjoy the experience and be grateful, Ehrenreich launches into a paragraph-long criticism of the decorum of her hosts and what she imagines their personalities to be. (She never actually meets them!) She disqualifies herself from jobs requiring a drug test by smoking marijuana (apparently it never occurs to her that she might have more food/rent money if she stops buying drugs). She takes sleeping pills for non-medical reasons and wakes up hung-over for her first day at a high-paying job, and so decides to give up the job entirely. She condescendingly refers to Wal-Mart employees as "Wal-Martians" (hurr hurr hurr, geddit? martian? hurr hurr...). She picks fights with her managers, describing them all in entirely one-sided, negative terms, speculates about their character. She freely admits to her problems with authority. She refuses to

In short, Nickel and Dimed is full of page after page of anger, disgust, elitism, indignation, and criticism. So much so that nothing in the book can actually be taken seriously.

That doesn't mean Ehrenreich's thesis statement isn't true. It might very well be. But we'll never know from this book because the only thing she manages to prove is her own all-consuming misanthropy. Reading this book made me sad and uncomfortable - not because the poor in the book were suffering, but because nearly every sentence of the book was hateful and ugly.

I wanted to evaluate the merits of Ehrenreich's experiment. I wanted the book to be about something tangible, that I could discuss with my friend, CH. I wanted it to challenge my assumptions about life as a member of the American working poor. But, I know no more about the plight of the working poor after reading this book than I did before I read it. Unfortunately, however, I now know a lot more about Barbara Ehrenreich's personal character. And what I learned does not bode well for her.

Considering that, the one remaining question I have is why on Earth anyone else felt the book was so powerful? How can people read a phrase like "abortion is wasted on the unborn" and feel anything but a pang of disgust. (And look, I'm no pro-life Bible-thumper here. That phrase is disgusting on a human level, regardless of how a person might feel about the issue of abortion.) Why did this book sell?

If there are any silver linings to be found here, it's that the working poor Ehrenreich meets do seem to be "making it." One of the maids she meets aspires to live in a mansion like those she cleans. The young runaways she meets in Key West manage to better their situation from living in a truck to living in a dingy apartment. Many of her fellow employees manage to get a raise while she's working there. While Ehrenreich manages to lose most of her money and own up to effective homelessness, her coworkers never do reach that point. They don't have a good life, but they live it a lot more effectively than Ehrenreich does. If she had been more honest about her experiment, she would have seen that.

Hopefully, someone out there will repeat this experiment and provide the debate with something more useful than hate. 


A Few Reasons Why I Like Central America

  1. The plants are beautiful.
  2. The animals are unlike anything I am used to seeing.
  3. The beaches are stunning. The water is a lot warmer than what you find at most US beaches. Usually less crowded, too.
  4. The coffee is superior.
  5. The dairy products are not just superior, but vastly so.
  6. People tend to be more polite to strangers as a general rule, at least in my experience.
  7. The combination of beaches and mountains is unlike anything you'll find anywhere else, except perhaps Hawaii.
  8. The pace of life is quite a bit more relaxed.
  9. Yucca in any capacity is delicious.
  10. Although they can be annoying, street dogs are always good for a laugh.
  11. All of the local bands I've ever heard have been absolutely top-notch quality.
  12. The air feels different, and it's really nice.
  13. It's a great place to get outdoors and be active.
  14. I'm a bit of a sucker for Mayan history and ruins.
  15. I like how small towns tend to be built around a central location, where everyone hangs out.
  16. There are some really incredible museums.
  17. The art scene is vibrant.
  18. It offers perhaps the best "bang for your buck" in terms of a holiday destination for North Americans.
  19. It has an intangible magic that just somehow clicks with me.
What else can I say? Plenty, actually, but that will have to suffice for now.

Workout Of The Day

Friday is a good day to take all the pressure out of your daily workout. By now, we are typically so tired from a week of work, responsibilities, workouts, effort that we simply cannot wait for the weekend to begin. It's no surprise that whenever I go to the gym on a Friday afternoon, the place is absolutely dead.

It sure is tempting to just forget about workout out entirely, pack up after work, and head straight to the latest fun-spot. No one will judge you too harshly today if that is exactly what you choose to do.

That said, some of us still like to feel like we've accomplished something physical, even on our lazy days. So why not embrace the comparatively low levels of ambition and just go with it? Head out for a nice bike ride, or a light run through the park. Do your favorite lifts at the gym. Maybe take your things with you so you can head straight to dinner afterward. Work your workout into your weekend plans.

For my part, I'm going to go on a nice, easy run.


I'm Always Right. And Always Wrong

Robert Murphy has been fighting a good fight about "empirical" economics. (Here, here, here, etc... )

While I think I might be a bigger fan of quantitative economic models than he is, the thrust of his argument is absolutely correct. Straight to the heart of the matter, he asks, "What would the world have to look like if the empirical approach didn’t work in economics?"

Elsewhere, at Worthwhile Canadian Iniative, he says this:
[...] In the meantime, though, can you clarify *what it would look like* for NGDPLT to fail? 
For example, my first thought was that we'd need to see a country suffer a typical business cycle, even thought NGDP kept growing at trend. But wouldn't Scott Sumner just say, "Well, that's clearly a supply-side recession. Nothing the central bank can do there." ? 
Then, what if we found a country where the central bankers explicitly told the public they were targeting level NGDP, but then in practice they realized it was impossible, and a recession occurred because targeting NGDP level leads to recessions. Even here, Scott would point to the time when it broke down and say, "Ah, they stopped targeting NGDP level. I'm right again." 
So I'm thinking it might be literally impossible to find an example of what you mean. In fact, I think Scott once wrote a post saying (somewhat tongue in cheek, but not really) that even if the Fed did what he said, and we got huge price inflation, that it would still be the right policy.
It's not fair to pick on Scott Sumner in exclusivity here, and that is not my intention. In fact, in this post, Murphy specifically calls out Paul Krugman instead. The names have been changed, but the story is the same. And the story is what I would like to write about today.

Macro-economic models are always both right and wrong. In today's world, there is very little theoretical disagreement about how the economy works in the long run. This is important because it highlights the fact that on almost all of the major, important theoretical points, most economists largely agree. The disagreement is not over the essential behavior of the economy; instead, economists disagree about the short-run impact of various temporary "shocks."

For many decades now, we've known that economies experience "business cycles." There are "booms" and "busts," or peaks and troughs in the level of economic growth. No one disputes this, although there is plenty of discussion over why it happens, and hence how to react to busts/troughs when they do occur.

But for every recession or depression - for every economic downturn - there is always a recovery. No economy stays in the dumps forever. The "everyman" can consider this cause for optimism. Economists can consider this cause for simply sticking to whatever narrative they have chosen long enough to be exonerated by data.

What I mean is this. Business cycles really do seem cyclical, despite the elegant complexity of the macro-economy. This suggests that anyone's narrative will appear to be true if they stick to it long enough. If Economic Jones is wrong about Ruritania in 2013, he can always wait until Ruritania's macro-economic data adhere to Jones' prediction, at which point he can say, "I was wrong about the exact timing of it. I did not think that the central bank would be so dense as to not follow my sage advice. I did not expect the fat cats on Capitol Hill to make such bad decisions. But, ultimately, I was right about the thrust of it."

And this is true of, not just Scott Sumner and Paul Krugman, but also Robert Murphy and Ryan Long and all the rest of everyone. No one can reliably guess the suit of the playing card I'm holding up right now, but at the end of the day, there are only four suits. If I keep drawing cards, and you keep guessing, eventually you're going to get it right.

So the name of the game that a lot of economists like to play is to just keep calling out the same suit over and over until the card matches what they're calling out. If Paul Krugman keeps saying "more stimulus," then a slow recovery confirms his theory, a second recession confirms his theory, and even a full economic recovery merely proves that the recovery would have been even faster or bigger had the recommended "more stimulus" been implemented in the first place.

Some time ago I wrote another post about this. That was a far more abstract post, but it was written to explain precisely what's going on here. In that post, I pointed out that when logic becomes sufficiently complex it becomes prohibitively difficult to understand the relationship between the various steps in the chain. A implies B is easy enough to follow, but when B implies C, C implies D, ..., X implies Y, and Y implies Z then we do not always have enough intellectual processing power to recognize the relationship between, say, H and Q. We want to start with A and we want to end up at Z. If there are too many steps between A and Z - or if those steps are sufficiently complex - then all we really end up doing is providing a veneer of reason for a misguided set of priors.

The smartest among us figure it out in an almost Pavlovian way. They start to realize that their stories are most convincing when they stick to one point and wait for the data to confirm it. They probably and quite genuinely believe that they have come up with a valid explanation for the universe. But, they have not. Instead, they've just become quite excellent at rationalization.

In that respect, I think Robert Murphy's point about "empiricism" in economics is a valuable and important one. It also extends to other disciplines, such as history. Any historical event is sure to confirm your prior beliefs about some other event that came before it. This is why leftists who opposed the war in Iraq feel vindicated by the events in Syria, while rightists who supported an Iraq invasion also feel vindicated; and yet both sets of people are arguing for opposite tactics to address the Syria question.

A stopped clock is right twice a day. Stay on point, and you'll always prove to be correct. Eventually.

Workout Of The Day

It's Thursday, getting close to the weekend. Try to make today somewhat difficult so that you can relax a little when the weekend comes. Today it's running-only.

I'm going to suggest a more elaborate fartlek workout today:
  • 1 minute hard
  • 2 minutes easy
  • 2 minutes medium effort
Repeat this a total of five times, and take five minutes to warm-up.


Our Need For Autonomy And Some Implications

In bygone ages, the toughest question anyone faced regularly was, "What do I have to do today to ensure that my family and I can eat and stay alive until tomorrow?" As our species has improved our ability to provide for ourselves, this question has become progressively less interesting. But human beings don't just stop thinking once we've solved a problem. Our insatiable minds relentlessly seek out new problems to solve. Hence, regardless of how you happen to feel about Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs, something very much like it is bound to be true of human psychology.

This was formally recognized by the old, pre-Samuelson economists like Ludwig von Mises (with whom I am most familiar, relative to others). People have needs and desires whose urgency corresponds to the immediacy with which we seek to satisfy them. It is as elementary as this: If you feel like eating, but you also want to play some basketball, you will choose your course of action based on how hungry you are. If the urge to eat is overwhelming, you'll opt first for food. If not, it's off to the b-ball court. This may seem pedantic to the point of absurdity, but it is through this very line of thinking that we arrive at things like demand curves and diminishing marginal utilities. That is to say, even if it rather elementary it is nonetheless highly profound.

Courtesy: Wikipedia
So, in Maslow's famous hierarchy, the tip of the pyramid - the highest and most final set of needs - consists of all the attributes of "self-actualization," such as morality, creativity, problem-solving, and so on.

These problems, however, were most famously explored by the Ancient Greeks, and we've been taking a crack at each one of these problems for nearly every second of our lives since then (and probably beforehand, too). For perhaps three thousand years - three eons - human beings have been grappling with the very apogee of the famous hierarchy of needs. This says to me that, if the hierarchy is to be seen as some sort of gauge of societal progress, one of two things must be true: Either society has not progressed much in three thousand years, or there is a higher level on the pyramid that Maslow hadn't yet identified.

I'm neither a psychologist, nor a sociologist, nor anyone particularly important really. But at the risk of a small stroke of vanity, I would like to propose a new tip to the pyramid: Autonomy.

Today, we seem to have managed to come to grips with self-actualization. This was no small feat, but also not out of the question in today's world. We have endless piles of technology helping us solve problems. Mass communication has enabled most of us to overcome prejudice (not that prejudice has been eradicated, of course, but society does seem to have provided social and psychological mechanisms for dealing with it in a healthy way). Morality and creativity have been explored for the past three thousand years, and we are now able to pursue both with relative ease... via mobile phone apps in many cases, for chrissakes.

Where we now seem to struggle most is with self-direction. In the health care sector, for example, the main frontier of medicine is tailoring (and even genetically synthesizing) health care solutions to the individual, i.e. having some self-direction when it comes to our bodies. In the political sphere, the major challenges around the world involve over-throwing despots and learning to function in systems that allow each of us to live our lives freely independently (whatever the particulars may happen to be, in your opinion). In the professional world, we grapple with managing our own careers, getting to the positions we want, and having some say in the day-to-day business operations. DIY is all over YouTube. We no longer reach for a cold Budweiser, but think long and hard about setting up a small micro-brewery in our own garages.

Make no mistake about it, the new frontier of human progress is autonomy, and how to achieve it without having to completely dismantle society itself. This brings me to my last set of points.

There will always be a trade-off between individuality and being part of a group. It is inevitable, and I have spent some time in the past arguing that humans are both individualistic and collectivistic. Getting elementary again: We all want to socialize and be a part of a good group of people; but we also have a set of personal needs and ambitions that we retain only for ourselves. Our goal here should be to balance our place in our community with staying true to our own individualistic integrity (or creed).

Our individualism may lead us to want to pursue some kind of economic ambition or a lifestyle choice that puts us at odds with the group. We might be inclinded to advocate that society change its ways to conform to us, rather than conforming to group pressure. This is a good thing when the cause is noble and fair, but a bad thing otherwise.

Thus, to achieve the right balance between autonomy and a well-functioning society, we need to practice some kind of restraint. I believe it's more than fair to pursue one's own personal ambitions relentlessly; but on an ethical level, we have to understand that society functions best when everyone collectively has the same leeway that each of us has individually. Respect for other people's autonomy becomes paramount here.

Perhaps there are two additional levels to the hierarchy of needs: Personal autonomy is the more immediate, and after that comes mutual respect for the autonomy of others; otherwise called social cohesion.

Workout Of The Day

Make it a shoulder day today. This can be difficult, but it's the kind of thing that really pays off.

First Do This:
  • 3 x 10 lateral raises
  • 3 x 10 military press
  • 3 x 10 front raises
  • 3 x 10 shoulder shrugs
Then Do This:
  • 4 mile fartlek run: 2 minutes hard, 2 minutes easy, repeat until finished


The Impact Of Fat On Diabetes

My doctor has me trying something new. What you are about to read is still very new to me and I am not sure how well it will pan out. In fact, what follows is information that is apparently not common knowledge among most endocrinology experts. That is to say, take this with a grain of salt because it hasn't been fully vetted. I mention it here simply to report on new information that, for now, appears to be working for me.

According to research conducted at the clinic at which I am a patient - which I am told has not yet made it into the clinical literature - dietary fat in excess of about 30g of total fat consumed at a single meal delays the release of sugar into the blood stream. The delay is on the order of three or four hours after a meal. Thus, should you decide to consume more than 30 grams of fat (which is not a difficult thing to do, considering that we're talking about total fat, not just saturated fat), you can expect to experience a sugar spike 3-4 hours later.

While this sounds like "just one more complication," hearing this news was actually wonderful for me. My blood sugar has not been as controlled as I would prefer, and I have been wracking my brain for reasons why not. I almost completely eliminated red meat from my diet. I stopped eating more than 60 grams of total carbohydrates per meal. I stopped eating foods with a high glycemic index. Yet, nothing seemed to impact my blood sugar at all. My insulin seemed ineffectual because my BG was too high all the time. I didn't know what to do.

But, speaking with my diabetic educator (who behaves more like a clinical researcher), I learned that her patients have been observed to bring their BG within tight controls after putting limits on how much fat they consume at a meal. Well, this all seemed to make sense to me because it jives with my BG mystery and explains why even seemingly low-carb meals have sent my blood sugar into the stratosphere. Over the past few days, I have dutifully assessed the fat content of my meals and imposed limits on how much fat I consume at any given time. So far, it seems to be working.

Of course, the real test for me will be how well it works after the two-week point, which is the point at which my body has, in the past, adjusted to new approaches blood sugar management. But I am hopeful.

Workout Of The Day

I'm just keeping my body healthy for the rest of the week before I head out of town. So, nothing intense or serious at this point, just consistent workouts. Today will be a five-mile run or so. Why not join me?


Some Links

This just in, from Penelope Trunk. I do not typically like articles like this, but this one struck me as incredibly honest and positive-in-spite-of-itself. This is a blog post for married adults; you've been warned.

Tim at Spootville decided to avoid corn syrup in a bid to eat healthier foods. (Follow-up here.) The only reason I haven't joined him is because my doctor just changed my diet recently and I don't want to make too many changes at the same time. I think you, the reader, should join him, though. I'm not against corn syrup, but I think it's useful to avoid certain foods periodically if for no other reason than to see what else is out there.

Posner says something that I found striking:
Partly because of the information revolution, which brings vivid images of war into our cell phones and laptops, it has become difficult from an emotional standpoint for the mighty United States to be seen as standing aloof from grave abuses of human rights in foreign countries, though we managed to do that in the Rwandan and Cambodian genocides, and in other genocidal episodes as well, and Assad doesn’t need poison gas to kill civilians. It doesn’t help that the consequences of our bombing Syria are not easy to foresee, and that wars develop their own momentum.
I find this striking because it is often said that Americans no longer have the stomach for successful war because the information age puts the grisly images of what it takes to win right there on our TV screens. So I guess this means that the information age makes war both unavoidable and untenable. Plus ca change...

This blog comment from Robert Murphy is a good explanation for why I think NGDP level targeting is basically circular reasoning that leads nowhere. But what do I know?

John Cochrane seems optimistic about Raghu Rajan's tenure at the central bank of India. Based on what he's written, I share his optimism.

Workout Of The Day

Monday is triceps-and-chest day. I feel like doing some good, old-fashioned weight lifting today, so here is what I am suggesting:

First Do This:
  • 3 x 10 bench press
  • 3 x 10 incline press
  • 3 x 10 cable crossovers
  • 3 x 10 tricep pressdowns
  • 3 x 10 cable tricep extensions
Then Do This:
  • 4 mile run
Maybe try to work in some isometric movements on those lifts while you're at it. I haven't done that in a while, and I remember enjoying it.

Why Stop At Putin?

David Henderson writes about an article posted on InfoWars.com. The article implies that Putin's opposition to US intervention in Syria is grounded in the idea that he does not want competition supplying natural gas to the rest of Europe.

I did not read the full InfoWars article, I merely skimmed it and read Henderson's post at EconLog. I cannot vouch for any of the information supplied in the article or its accuracy. What I would like to point out is that, if one is willing to accept this argument, then there is no reason to stop this line of thought at Putin. Indeed, the InfoWars article does seem to imply that Obama's motives are no better than Putin's, i.e. that Obama wants to intervene in order to make the gas pipeline happen.

I remember back in the 90s the leftists of the world were pretty thoroughly enraptured with the old "petro-tyranny" arguments, the "American jingo-imperialism" arguments, and so on. It seemed so preposterous at the time, but I think that was because twenty years ago the world had not lost as much subtlety as it has since. People still believed in coyness. Nobody wore their lives on their sleeves (or Facebook pages). National secrets were still national secrets.

Now, on the one hand, I feel that the development of society has been a progression toward the better. I am far more comfortable in a world in which there are few real national secrets held by governments. We are all better off knowing that our governments are spying on us, and sending us overseas to drop bombs for the sake of our oil companies, and so on. We're better off knowing because we can't do something about it unless we know there is something that something needs to be done about.

But, on the other hand, it's a shame that we live in a world in which this sort of thing really happens. That old quote, mistakenly attributed to Frederic Bastiat, is exactly right: "When goods don't cross borders, armies will." One day, society will realize that free trade is the only feasible way to avoid war. The question is not if people will realize it, the question is how much death and stupidity must society wage before it finally learns?


Workout Of The Day

As it turned out, I was able to get more of a workout in yesterday than merely running. So today's workout is really what I did yesterday (and what I did yesterday is what I'm doing today). Sorry for all the confusion, but sometimes you have to grab the lightning when it strikes, you know?

First Do This:
  • 4 x 10 pull-ups
  • 4 x 10 seated cable rows
  • 4 x 10 back extensions
  • 4 x 10 standing barbell curls
  • 4 x 10 deadlifts
Then Do This:
  • 4 mile run


Concert Review: Joe Satriani

As a teenager, I had the good fortune to wear out a VHS copy of the original G3 concert video, the one with Eric Johnson, Steve Vai, and Joe Satriani. (Apparently this video is now available on YouTube, here, for example.)

When I say "wear out" I mean I used to watch that video multiple times per week. I was obsessed with it. My friends would get together for hours-on-end jams, and when we were finally so tired that we couldn't move our hands anymore, we'd head into my basement and watch this G3 video.

Time passes, tastes change, and the music world undergoes unfathomable transformations. Almost twenty years later, I am still listening to Joe Satriani, despite the dire predictions from my friends and others, who condescendingly insisted that I would one day "grow out of it."

But grow out of what? Satriani is an iconic musician, a man who has managed to attract an enormous world-wide fan base by playing instrumental rock songs that are decidedly "uncool" in a world progressively more and more obsessed with what is "cool" with each passing year. That kind of thing doesn't happen in a vacuum. It takes a musician with a real ability to communicate with the audience, a musician capable of composing meaningful, emotional music, to make that sort of thing happen.

I have understood all this on an intellectual level. I even thought I understood this on a profound emotional level, as a dedicated fan willing to buy many Joe Satriani albums.

Last night, though, I realized that - having never seen and heard him live, in concert - I did not really understand Joe Satriani.

This is rare, especially in this day and age. Most good musicians a capable of - indeed, they even specialize in - conveying their musical essence on a recording. Most great artists in this day and age play the recording studio (or the Pro Tools rig, or whatever) as though it were another instrument. They sequence rhythm and ambient tracks, they overlap layer upon layer of guitars, keyboards, and vocals. They record as many takes as they need in order to make the recording sound like what they want. So, when you see the average musician perform in this day and age, you can expect to hear something very much like the album. Coldplay, for example, put on a great show, but at the end of the day the songs were not very different from what you hear on the album. I saw a Porcupine Tree concert once that sounded exactly like the album. In both cases, it was impressive, to be sure.

But last night, when Joe Satriani took the stage with a phenomenal trio of side musicians (Bryan Beller on bass, Macro Minnemann on drums - both from the Aristocrats - and the amazing Mike Keneally on keyboards and second guitar) and started playing, my jaw hit the floor. That's because there is a certain class of musician out there who has the incredible ability to speak to the audience's collective heart during a live performance in a way that cannot possibly be described or anticipated.

It can't be recorded, either. Like I said, I've been watching Joe Satriani live videos for nearly 20 years; I've been buying his CDs, and looking him up on YouTube, and reading about him in articles, etc., etc. But the true essence of Joe Satriani can't really be captured by technology. It must be experienced firsthand.

The set consisted of Satriani standards: "Always With Me, Always With You," "Satch Boogie," "Surfing With the Alien," "The Crush of Love," "Flying in a Blue Dream," "Summer Song," and so on. But I was pleasantly surprised by how much of the newer material they played. I can remember hearing at least six of the eleven songs off the new Unstoppable Momentum album. Thus, Satriani made it clear that he is not simply a legendary, beloved guitarist content to rest on his laurels, but rather a still-vital artist touring behind an all-new album. In fact, I was impressed by how well the new material compared to the older "hits." Satriani easily proved that he still has plenty of impressive material bouncing around in his trademark bald head.

The band was full of an invigorating energy. All four musicians were running and occasionally even jumping around on stage (okay, Minnemann was stuck behind the drum kit, but was no less physical in his performance). Keneally even got to enjoy a few solo spotlights of his own, and proved that he's the right man for the job of keeping up with a guitar legend. The performance was so infectious that even those apparently reluctant audience members - the wives, girlfriends, and mothers of the die-hard Satriani fans, who had been dragged there mostly as a compromise or acquiescence to the intense pleading of their friends and family members - were screaming and dancing (yes, dancing to instrumental rock guitar music) throughout the full course of the evening.

When it was all over, my own wife looked at me and said what we were both thinking: "That was the best concert I've ever been to in my life."

No exaggeration. If you have the opportunity to see Joe Satriani during this Unstoppable Momentum Tour, don't think twice. This is the real deal.

Workout Of The Day

Much to my chagrin, I will likely only have time for a run today. No less than 5 miles, and hopefully at least 7. But we shall see...



I'm a bit short on time for blogging today, so I thought I would pull out a blog post that I wrote a long time ago, but never bothered to publish. The reason I didn't publish it before is because I wanted to respond to something Simon Grey and I were going back-and-forth about, but I didn't want to go back-and-forth so much that it created any animosity. So I thought I would let this post lie for a couple of months and make my point later, after some time had passed. Well, some time has passed, and I think it should be okay to publish this one now.

I don't at all have it out for Simon Grey, unless by "have it out," you mean "closet bromance." Part of what makes the "blogosphere" so interesting is that it enables ideas to not only exist, but also to interact. And since comments are not available on Grey's blog, I resort to continuing the dialog here.

In the end, though, I think this is a good thing. The "blog comment" is a very different medium of communication than the "blog post." The latter is more thorough, more organized, and requires more intellectual energy and patience. The blog comment is a knee-jerk. So while I sometimes feel disappointed that I cannot provide a one-line, knee-jerk reaction to Simon Grey in his own space, in the final analysis, I think it's better if I don't. I tend to think my blog posts are better than my comments, anyway.

Regarding the continuing dialog, Simon Grey responds to my post from a few days ago, with characteristic thoughtfulness. He makes a number of interesting points that I am finding difficulty excerpting. In your own best interest, read the whole thing. However, for standout passages, Grey starts strong:
The most interesting thing about philosophy in general, and epistemology in specific, is how it has a wonderful to tendency to simply go up its own ass.  Eventually, at some point, any logical application of an asserted truth, particularly about the nature of knowledge, leads to some hilarious, and often depressingly self-defeating conclusions.  Most conclusions are nihilistic, at least in the sense that, once you begin to think about knowledge you eventually conclude nothing is really certain, and even things that appear certain may not necessarily be certain, and we can’t ever really be sure of everything, so maybe let’s go home, put a gun to our respective heads, and pull the trigger.
Grey writes about a literal, albeit unintended, nihilism. The more one questions the universe, the fewer certainties exist, the more apparent it becomes that, perhaps, nothing exists. Understanding the world in which we live, with all its frustrating ambiguity and nuance, necessitates that we "let go of the reins," or in typical Stationary Waves lingo, "free ourselves of our illusions." Grey's key point in his post is to remark that there is a trade-off between knowledge and certainty.

He makes his case brilliantly. But is it true?

I Laughed At Love, It Was A Big Mistake / In The Absence Of, I Filled It With Hate
For a long time now, I have had a concept in mind that I like to call "practical nihilism" (see the Lexicon for a definition). Practical nihilism is what fills the void left by uncertainty. Grey describes the process perfectly in the passage excerpted above. You can find my take here.

One way to look at it, as Grey points out, is that certainty is some sort of opposite of knowledge, at least in so far as more knowledge gives rise to less certainty. It's not unlike viewing the world through a microscope, zooming in further and further, only to discover progressively more elementary particles that each behave in a manner quite differently from that of the larger particles they form; a quark behaving differently than a proton, which behaves differently than an atom, which behaves differently than a molecule, which behaves differently than a cell, which behaves differently than an organism, which behaves differently than a species, and so on. 

This is true, but does that mean that the rule generalizes? In other words, can we really say that the result of all additional knowledge is the discovery of more uncertainty?

In my previous post, I pointed out that mathematicians, for example, are certain of specific mathematical truths regardless of their ability to prove those truths. The more they know about mathematics, the more certain they become of basic principles like the value of a number's square root. These basic principles are logically irrefutable; logic is, in fact, one thing of which we are decidedly certain.

At the same time, the more we expand our mathematical knowledge, the more we struggle with the Peano Axioms, for example. For some mathematicians, the ability to call the very definition of numbers into question creates a mathematical world of profound nuance and great uncertainty. But for the likes of Steven Landsburg, it's not a big deal. Why not? Here is Landsburg in his own words:
The point [of the Peano Axioms] isn’t to “allow mathematicians to talk” about numbers; mathematicians from Pythagoras through Dedekind had absolutely no problem talking about numbers in the absence of the Peano axioms. Instead, the point of the Peano axioms was to model what mathematicians do when they’re talking about numbers. Like all good models, the Peano axioms are a simplification that captures important aspects of reality without attempting to reproduce reality in detail.
Or, in my words: when we set out to decipher the truth - particularly when the truth we are interested in is abstract, intangible, or predominantly derived from logic - the nature of the enterprise requires that we simplify some things, or hold them constant (ceteris paribus), or otherwise ignore them, in order to get at the central object of the analysis. Once having learned about the central object, we relax the constraints (hopefully progressively) so that we can learn new things that pertain to the new constraints. But the result of each analysis, if it's successful, is more knowledge and less ambiguity.

It would be wrong to call the relaxing of constraints a new form of confusion, nuance, or uncertainty. At every step in the process, we are more certain of what we set out to know. But each new fact brings with it a hunger for more facts, a curiosity for that which is yet to be explained, a thirst for a greater depth of knowledge.

I contend that it is really this new curiosity that Simon Grey calls "uncertainty." The real challenge is neither knowledge nor certainty, both of which come in due course. The real challenge is building a meaningful understanding of the universe using what you've learned. The real challenge is Authenticity.

Simon Grey himself may have been the one who first made me aware of the inadequacies of language with respect to human knowledge. Just as a human being may express individualist and collectivist tendencies, depending on the context, without becoming any less of an individual or member of the collective, so too knowledge can increase our certainty while providing a higher tolerance for nuance. We need not choose.

Left to our own devices, I'm fairly sure that both Grey and I could blather on and on about the particulars of knowledge, belief, and certainty. The fact that we have the ability to explore the nuances of the matter by no means implies that the nuances we discover make the truth of any situation less certain. It feels less certain, but remember: Newtonian physics is no less true than quantum physics. The physicist's task is to explore the details; for the rest of us, we limit the scope of the analysis to that which provides the best results.

Grey suggests that this means that the value of knowledge is in its ability to predict the future; that we come to believe in the best estimator of reality thanks to its proven value as an estimator. He might even be right about that - but even if so, what does that have to do with truth or knowledge? Something isn't true because it serves as the best estimator, but the exact reverse: because something is true, it therefore serves as the best estimator.

Grey writes about knowledge as it relates to belief. I don't disagree with his analysis, but I would open the matter up to a third variable: meaning.

To work this into Grey's view, recall that Grey wrote:
Before I disappear down a rabbit hole of my own digging, let me simply say that we know what we know, and we know what we believe, but what we believe may not necessarily be true. Therefore it wise to hold fast to our experiences while also considering our beliefs as things to be challenged from time to time.
This is true, but also hinges on the vital assumption that the questions we ask have meaning. Now we're coming full circle, because if you recall, this issue arose out of what I wrote regarding Lubos Motl's assertion that there is such a thing as a stupid question. I'll illustrate this by example:

You find yourself lost in the woods with nothing but a map. There are many meaningful questions you might ask about your predicament. Considering that you possess a map, I submit that one of the most important questions you can ask at this point is: Which way is North? A less useful question would be How did I get here? A somewhat unhelpful question would be: How do I know that this map is even a map of my present location? A very unhelpful question is: What is the meaning of words like 'North' or 'South' considering the fact that I exist in an M-dimensional universe? Or even worse: Does modern physics tell me more about my existence than The Qu'ran?

I'm not suggesting that none of these questions are ever worth asking. Instead, I'm suggesting that some of them are more meaningful than others. I'm also suggesting that the meaning is context-dependent.

So, one can meaningfully question Peano axioms if one knows that the context of the question is the improvement of a conceptual model for Real Arithmetic. One can meaningfully question the scope and relevance of physics if the context of the question is the struggle to find one's place in the universe. One can question even the meaning of the words "North" and "South" if the context is astronomical cartography.

What matters to these questions is the context in which they are being asked, because the context gives these questions meaning in exactly the same way that the context of a physical analysis will determine whether one chooses Newtonian or quantum physics to conduct the analysis. A more casual view of the situation would suggest that "we don't even know which kind of physics is certain," but within the context of our situation and considering the full scope of human knowledge on the subject, the truth is clear. And certain.

Some days I am a bigger fan of Ayn Rand than others. One of her more important contributions to philosophy was her relentless focus on the context in which discussions occur. Without the all-important context of the analysis, we risk slipping into meaninglessness. This meaninglessness eradicates our ability to relate to those facts in the universe that really are certain.

All that having been said, let me end by focusing on the context of this post: I hope that readers will see this post as being a contribution to line of thought originating from Simon Grey, rather than any kind of rebuttal to it. Another way of saying this is that his thoughts on my thoughts spawned additional thoughts, and we seem to have entered an oscillatory cycle of some kind.

Take it all for what it's worth. It's in the universe now, and exists apart from either he or myself, part of an ongoing dialogue that has existed for millennia as is not likely to end any time soon. Such is the nature of the big questions, I suppose.

And to think that you made it all the way down to the bottom of the page.