The Meaninglessness (???) Of Existence

Although I cannot say how large it is, a substantial portion of the population subscribes to the belief that life is essentially meaningless. Before I proceed, let me substantiate that statement by pointing to the following:

The list goes on and on.

The "Singularity" Crowd

I believe part of this phenomenon relates to the fact that the development of artificial intelligence has become such a hotbed of technological research and development. If, after all, we can create a life out of spare parts and circuitry, how much meaning could we possibly derive from being a pile of warm and moist, electrified flesh?

The way we conceive of AI has completely infected our view of what consciousness actually is. Consider, for example, this other question on Quora: Can problem-solving abilities exist without consciousness? A great many of the answers to this question involve the existence and use of advanced computation. It doesn't seem to occur to many of the respondents that computers are only capable of solving problems after human beings have clearly expressed to the computer what the problem is, exactly, and how the computer shall reach its solution. In other words, human beings solve these problems, but to save themselves a lot of time and effort, we leverage computers' comparative advantage in calculation and discrete mathematics to arrive at these solutions in a more timely manner.

A simpler example: I can ask my computer to make a useful prediction about the state of my finances six months from now, but until I specify the model by which my computer will answer that question, I might as well be asking it out on a date.

The meaning behind the answers generated by my computer - and yours, and everyone's - originates with me.

Thus, the philosophers and techno-geeks ask the big question: Will we one day invent a computer capable of originating its own problem, designing the methodology for its own solution, answering its own question, and then generating a new array of life-choices based on this newly acquired knowledge?

But the answer is, "No, not really." The reason the answer is no is that human beings would first have to specify the means by which the computer will originate problems, the means by which the computer can design a methodology, the means of implementing that methodology, the means of interpreting the results, the means of storing the newly acquired knowledge, and the means of specifying new choices and problems.

We're no longer in an efficient scenario. I can specify new problems faster than I can develop a robot to specify new problems for me. And of what benefit would such a robot be?

The Nihilist Crowd

Some people want to draw the wrong conclusion from this. Rather than acknowledging that all meaning originates from the human brain, they remark that the human brain possesses no more meaning than what could (theoretically) be programmed into a computer. Their conclusion: meaning, and indeed consciousness itself, is nothing more than a neurological illusion that has evolved because it is ultimately better for species survival. Our brains trick us into believing that life has meaning and that we are interacting with that life, simply because this produces the evolutionarily positive outcome of childbirth and child-rearing.

To spot the error here, we unfortunately have to get a little pedantic about "meaning." 

Suppose I found that "the meaning of life" was to love and be loved by others. Suppose I was able to prove this somehow, and that all philosophers, logicians, and scientists we able to validate this with a priori logical proofs and physical scientific evidence. Suppose no reasonable person could dispute this. Let's call this Scenario A.

Now, suppose an alternate universe in which I found that "the meaning of life" was nothing more than my neurons cooking up a totally phony, but highly realistic, illusion that merely lead me to believe that the "the meaning of life" was to love and be loved by others. Suppose in this world it were somehow proven conclusively and indisputably that there was no real "meaning of life," but that our brains evolved such that we thought that such meaning existed. Let's call this Scenario B.

Okay, back to the real world, now, where we suspect that either Scenario A is true (or something quite like it), or Scenario B is true. Living as we do in this third world, the question I would like to pose to you today is this: In terms of your life and the practical issues you face on an ongoin basis, what is the difference between Scenario A and Scenario B? 

It's an epistemological question. Assuming one of the two scenarios is true, how will you be able to determine which one is the case?

The simple answer is, you cannot. There simply is no quantitative or qualitative difference between a world in which love is the meaning of life, and a world in which there is no meaning, but your brain is programmed to believe otherwise. At the end of the day, it's a non-issue. Either I love my wife, or I only think I love my wife, but in either scenario, my thoughts, beliefs, actions, and life outcomes are exactly the same. 

Thus, Occam's Razor would suggest that Scenario A is the more reasonable explanation. Nihilism - along with every other claim that life or its fundamental attributes are nothing more than an imperceptible illusion - is a violation of basic human rationality.


I could be wrong about all this, of course, but here's the interesting thing about that: It doesn't matter whether I am wrong, because no one will ever be able to perceive a different set of conditions or experience a different set of outcomes based on the "knowledge" that I am wrong.

In other words, you can live a life in which everything is real, or you can live a life in which you merely think that everything is real, but no matter which way you go, your life unfolds in exactly the same way

Life, therefore, has de facto meaning. 


This Is How I Know Whether You Are A Good Person

Ethics is a fundamentally human question. At some point in the evolution of our species, it became important to us to temper our behavior with principles. It was an existential question: we could indeed survive on our own, but we're better satisfied by the kind of survival that includes treating our fellows decently. A mere chemical impulse? An innate instinct to adhere to a social order, as all social animals do? Perhaps. But only humankind thought settle these questions with theories and ideas, paradigms by which to maximize the well-being of everyone "like us." Some of us even dare to extend these paradigms to other species. And to our knowledge, we're the only ones who do this. To behave ethically is, quite simply, to be human.

Once we acknowledge that fact, many of the interesting questions involve where people draw the boundaries of their own ethics. Why white lies rather than no lies at all? Why alcohol, but not marijuana? Why heterosexual marriage, but not gay marriage? Why abortion, but not euthanasia? Why nationalism and not internationalism? Why is drawing a fence around a patch of land theft if you don't get a stamp from a notary public, but not if you do? Why do we think poorly of prostitutes? Why do we think poorly of foreigners? Why is getting tattoos a violation of religions that originated in areas that were unaware of the practice? Why do mormons consume ginseng, but not caffeine? Why is taxation a moral issue? 

If your response to any of these questions involves frustration about the fact that the questions were asked in the first place, then I don't actually believe that you have a code of ethics. Otherwise, I think you do. And this is the point: You're an ethical person if you don't mind attempting to answer these questions

If you can tirelessly discuss and respond to these ethical questions without growing exasperated, throwing up your hands, and declaring that there is no point to asking why, then I think you're an ethical person.

If you can hear someone else's response to the same questions, understand that the person disagrees with your ethical position, and discuss the matter in as much detail as possible, without growing angry or indignant, then I think you're an ethical person.

If you can accept that some ethical questions simply don't have answers, but that they are still worth asking, then I think you're an ethical person.

If you can come to understand - especially if told by someone else - that you yourself have violated a valid moral code, and ultimately realize that the ethical violation pains you more than the fact that someone called you unethical, then I think you are an ethical person. That is, if the possibility of being morally wrong matters more to you than the possibility of being thought of as being morally wrong, then yes, you're an ethical person.

If you can hear someone articulate a moral opinion without feeling that he or she is criticizing you as a person - if you can separate who you are from a discussion of ethics - then I think you are an ethical person.

If you can recognize that ethical problems are human problems, that learning to be a good person is hard work that we must spend a part of every single day tackling, then I think you are an ethical person.

Being an ethical person is being human; being an ethical person is being a good person. The good is the human, and the human is ethical. That is simply the nature of ethics. If you don't care, don't want to think about it, find it offensive or unpleasant that someone would want to talk to you about it, or feel that it's more important to smooth things over than to be morally inquisitive, then I know you are the other kind of person.


Good Personal Conduct Is Utility-Maximizing


How many times has this happened to you?

You're driving down a busy highway, when suddenly another motorist does something frustrating. Maybe he cuts in front of you too closely. Perhaps he's driving too slowly in front of you and holding up traffic, or perhaps he unintentionally-but-obliviously boxes you in, preventing you from changing lanes when you need to. It could be that you tried to merge, and he prevented you, or it could be that he held you up in order to let in a long line of other vehicles from another lane.

You lose your temper. You honk at the offending motorist, and/or you flash your high beams at him, and/or you yell out the window, and/or you give him an obscene gesture, and/or you drive in such a way that you are able to somehow exact your "revenge."

Once it's all out of your system, you continue your drive, only to discover that the offending motorist is driving to the same destination. Either you're driving home, and you discover that you've been yelling profanities at your neighbor, or you're driving to work and you realize you've been honking at your coworker, or you arrive at your destination to find that you're parking near the other motorist and must awkwardly make eye contact in the parking lot.

At that moment, you feel like an idiot.


I once overheard a colleague discussing an interpersonal conflict with her manager. She relayed the story of an email incident with another employee. It seemed that a particular email exchange had gone sour and the two of them had exchanged terse words (via email). As the story progressed, the employee's emotions ran higher and higher, until the "climax" of the story, in which her interlocutor had written something particularly unreasonable in one of the most recent emails.

When she was finished recounting the incident, her manager replied: "Okay, so what's the issue?"

The employee launched into a passionate description of how unreasonable the other employee had been. She started to describe how she felt the other employee should have responded, but her manager interrupted her.

"I mean, what do you want me to do about it?" The employee stammered a bit. She was caught off-guard and couldn't really form a sentence. So the manager continued. "I'm trying to run a department here. If there's an issue that you need me to address, then I'll talk to [the other employee] about it, but I can't really get involved in all of this when I have work to do."

The manager ended the conversation by telling the employee to let him know if the offenses continue, and then gave her a few ideas for how she could respond the next time something similar happened. It was evident that the employee felt that he wasn't doing enough, but she was forced to accept his decision and move on. 

Even if her interlocutor had been guilty of all charges, my colleague hadn't done herself any favors by taking a personal conflict to her manager. The truth is, they both ended up looking bad to the manager, because neither one of them could find a way to get over their minor differences and have a productive working relationship with each other. 

The employee felt that by tattling, she would be able to come out on top; instead, she made herself look like an ass.


It's easy for one to get so caught-up in a situation that your short-run objectives that one loses sight of one's own long-run interests. Automobile traffic can be frustrating, but one shouldn't get so emotionally invested in it that one's conduct puts one's own best interests at risk. Similarly, letting one's passions get the best of one at work will only make one look bad when things go awry.

It's easy to be susceptible to this problem because, in the heat of the moment, our short-run interests are in the forefront of our minds. If something bad happens to us, well, that's bad. Our minds and our passions will insistently remind us of the fact that something bad is happening. When we're upset about it, it can be difficult to convince ourselves to just chill out, take things slowly, don't act rashly, and above all take the moral high ground.

True, I spend a lot of time on Stationary Waves arguing for ethics for their own sake. But being an ethical person has a huge upshot from the perspective of pure, hedonistic self-interest. That upshot is: if you always conduct yourself ethically, then you never have to worry about making yourself look like an ass.

I'm not really trying to be funny here. It's tempting to cut corners, tell half-truths, sneak around behind people's backs, In some rare cases, it might even pay off. But if you're interested in maximizing long-run utility, then you shouldn't act on your emotions under the assumption that it might pay off. Insteady, you should act on logic subject to the most likely scenario.

So break it down: 
  • In rare cases, you can lie without getting caught, throw colleagues under the bus, honk like a madman at any passing car, etc., without ever having to worry about repercussions. This costs you very little, but only comes with a very unlikely payoff. The expected value is low.
  • On the other hand, you could always choose to take the moral high ground. You'll definitely never get the unlikely payoff of lying, cheating, stealing, and being mean. But you'll also definitely never look like an ass. In fact, you'll always come out with a good reputation whether your win or lose.


Being a good person is the right thing to do, but good personal conduct is also in every person's best interests in the long-run. To see this, you have to be willing to look at more than just the facts that are staring you in the face. You have to form predictions based on the most likely outcome and run a quick cost-benefit analysis on it.

I realize that when you want to complain about someone or yell at traffic, you don't really want to do the cost-benefit analysis. But that's okay - that's why I wrote this blog post, so that you can see that if you had done it, you'd have come to the conclusion that good behavior pays the highest rewards in the long-run.

If, after all these years, I've yet to convince you to be ethical for its own sake, try being ethical for reasons of pure hedonism.


Privacy, Or Something Like It

In For the New Intellectual, Ayn Rand wrote:
Civilization is the progress toward a society of privacy. The savage’s whole existence is public, ruled by the laws of his tribe. Civilization is the process of setting man free from men.
Say what you will about Rand, she had a point. Early society - and modern "traditional" societies - are defined by the extent to which the community is involved in every person's life. We could speculate that this sort of involvement was an early precursor to modern law and order, but that doesn't really matter. What matters is that, until recently, the social order of the western world had reached a point where we could go home and essentially not be bothered or "judged" by others. At home, we were mostly free to do as we pleased, without having to involve "the community."

Two things seem to have reversed our course.

One of them is the extent to which large databases facilitate the collection and analysis of data that was previously considered to be innocuous. Modern data analysis, however, has proven remarkably successful at making accurate inferences about very private matters using data that we did not previously associate with privacy. Knowledge, once acquired, is bound to be used, and this knowledge has mostly been used to advertise to us. While many people bristle at the idea that their most personal information is being collected so that products can be sold to them, I rather consider it to be a very good thing. Markets are getting progressively better at serving the consumer, and for the most part data is either fully anonymized, or so vast that no real-world individual could hone in on a particular person and invade their privacy. Exceptions will exist, of course, and they will be rare.

But there is another, more problematic, factor undermining our privacy: social media. These are media through which we voluntarily make our private lives public on an international scale. The more paranoid streak of social media skepticism will suggest that, having volunteered our private lives, governments can now use that information to monitor and/or oppress us. Consider what rock musician Stuart Hamm recently posted on his Facebook wall: "So...I don't post photos or info of my family here. We are PAYING to have big brother watch us now. Suckers" Of course, as a libertarian, I sympathize with that fear. However, I don't consider it the primary danger of social media.

This morning The Atlantic published an article by Robinson Meyer, the closing paragraphs of which read as follows:
Is living such a public life worth the trouble? Is such a life worth being constantly exposed to vitriol and rage and threats from strangers—especially when the patterns of that abuse seem so random? Is the kind of work that would be required to sustain a “good” public, online social network possible? Is asking people to perform that moderating work something we even want to do? 
We often celebrate the social change and faster communication that public, networked life has brought about. But that kind of life—a new one that we’re all still trying out—requires remarkable sacrifice. We would do well to account for that sacrifice, and, at the very least, thank those who have made it.
So the real cost to living so prominently in the social media is not, in my view, corporate intrusions, nor is it government oppression. Instead, social media threatens to invade our personal psychological space. Every status update we post is an opportunity to be judged, or misunderstood, or threatened, or lashed-out at. Now that cameras are all digital and fully integrated with social media, every picture we take seemingly exposes us to other people's opinions about what we're doing.

Here's a picture of my baby - am I a good parent, or bad one? Here's a picture of my dinner - are you jealous, or is your dinner better, or do you think I'm making myself fat? Here's a picture of my band - is that cool, or am I trying too hard? Here's a picture of me wearing workout clothes - am I sexy enough? Here's a picture of my new girlfriend - how do you rate her?

It's interesting that we take to social media for good times, to gain the approval of the people we care about, maybe even to gain the approval of people we don't care about. Meanwhile, we must also accept the downside of this - maybe the people we do and/or don't care about disapprove of our conduct.

This is just the nature of living life as part of any society. The difference, though, is that in the good old days, we could actually escape society for a little while - go home, decompress, get out of the public eye for a bit. That's still possible in theory, of course. You can turn off all your devices and get away from it all, but today the cost of doing so is higher, because so much more of our lives has gone digital. I, for one, email friends and family many times throughout the day; I "speak" to them on Facebook; I share family snapshots with them; yet I live far away from them, thus social media affords us a level of intimacy that we wouldn't be able to experience without it. When I "unplug," I sacrifice all of that. I miss out on things I really do care about.

Sure, find the right balance for yourself. Find a level of connectivity that gives you the most of what you want the least of what you don't. Go ahead, make the trade-off.

But there's a trade-off to walking down the street, too, and walking down the street is not nearly as invasive to our psychological sense of privacy than the kind of information most of us share on social media. So calling for a "balance" or "moderation" is just another easy non-solution articulated to make us feel better. The simple fact is, we've lost a level of privacy that was previously hard-won. To be sure, we've gained something for it, but figuring out how to be authentic without being an attention whore, figuring out how to maintain a sense of privacy without becoming aloof, is not going to be an easy task for any of us any longer.

How will we regain our old-fashioned sense of privacy? Will we ever?


A Sub-Two-Hour Marathon In 2038?

Everyone's talking about this Runner's World article about the prospects of a sub-two-hour marathon. I first saw the article on Facebook, via my Open Borders compatriot, John Lee. A few days later, Alex Tabarrok at Marginal Revolution reposted it with some mostly uninteresting discussion unfolding in the comments section.

I checked the comments section again this morning, and discovered a link to a rather fascinating (and short) blog post predicting that the sub-two-hour marathon will happen some time around the year 2038.
Inspired by Patrick Makau Musyoki's new marathon record in Berlin yesterday, I looked for trends in the marathon world records for each decade going back a century. I only included the fastest time in each decade. I expected a plateau like this, but I didn't expect it to be so neatly logarithmic....
Followed by:
A whole crop of articles commented over the last year onstatistically improbable sprinter Usain Bolt, who is ahead-of-trend by thirty years. In the same vein, looking at the marathon plot, we shouldn't expect a male human to break two hours in the marathon until 2038. And it's reasonably assumed that the incremental improvements we see in these times is a result of (decreasing marginal) improvements in training, nutrition, and running equipment.


The Heuristic-Heuristic

No Single Standard

This morning, I pulled up the news headlines, and saw the following:

I can see how not having a set of therapeutic guidelines or recommendations based on science and experience would be a serious problem when it comes to controlling outbreaks of potentially fatal illnesses. But, according to the article, an absence of guidelines is not the problem:
Murphy says some of the issues in Texas stem from a "system problem" in the way public health care is managed in the USA. The Centers for Disease Control provides only guidance for infection prevention and management. "What they do in Texas, what they do in Illinois, it's up to the state," he says. 
"The question is, who's in charge?" Murphy says. "The states can follow all the guidelines and take the advice, which they usually do, but they don't have to. It's not a legal requirement. So there really is no one entity that's controlling things."
Do you see the problem now? It's not that medical science is failing us, it's that there is no central authority manipulating things from above.

Homo Heuristicus

Admit it: When you woke up this morning, you weren't particularly worried about whether or not there was one single, standardized way to deal with Ebola. Even if you were worried about Ebola, chances are, you were worried about catching Ebola, not about Ebola governance. Having read this morning's headlines, though, you are far more susceptible to forming an opinion on how "we as a nation" "should" "respond" to "Ebola." Scare quotes intended.

There is probably a propaganda mechanism at work here. Doctors are always angling for new ways to nudge us into complying with therapeutic standards. If they can find a way to force us into a single disaster response pattern, they probably will. That's because clinical and health care data is notoriously subject to variation. The more factors that can be controlled, the closer medical scientists can come to understanding a problem, and then healing it. Society is not a laboratory, however, and it shouldn't be subjected to stringent controls for the benefit of experts.

Well, that's all little more than philosophical bloviating. Human beings are paradigmatic thinkers. We yearn to rid ourselves of life's problems and inherent complexity by applying rules of thumb. To the extent that some problems actually can be solved by applying heuristics, this makes us a powerful tribe of apes indeed. 

But to the extent that standardized rules obliterate our ability to perceive nuance, undermine our dynamism and innovation, and allow for individualized experiences, they are more bane than boon.

The Heuristic-Heuristic

This brings me to the heuristic-heuristic, something that I've begun to perceive as a real threat to anyone who seeks any measure of authenticity whatsoever.

For people actively engaged in solving new problems, heuristics provide an important means by which to find viable solutions. And by "heuristics," I mean mostly the scientific method. Deductive reasoning is a powerful force for good, and we are indebted to those people who solve society's urgent problems.

You and I, on the other hand, do not solve these problems, but rather solve our own individual problems by consuming the products produced by the problem solvers. So, while Jonas Salk invented the polio vaccine, all we do is buy the polio vaccine. While auto makers are actively engaged in producing faster, safer, and more fuel-efficient vehicles, all we do is buy one. 

The point is that, while problem-solvers deploy a heuristic called "the scientific method" to innovate, we deploy a much cruder and far more useless heuristic called "find the product that solves our problem, and buy it." 

In the case of polio vaccines and cars, this heuristic serves us well. But in the case of our daily lives, this is a major source of our existential problems. We complain that the schmoozers get the job promotions, we complain that things just aren't like they were when we were kids, we complain that nobody knows the true meaning of Christmas, we complain that Senior Prom has become too big a deal. We wonder why there isn't a "single standard" Ebola response, but when we get to the hospital, we want doctors to give us personal, individualized attention with good bedside manner. 

The crude heuristic doesn't work for us. We commodify every aspect of our lives and gradually come to wonder why our lives seem to "lack something." 

The Cheaters

Via Facebook, I was pointed to this Slate.com article about why people in happy marriages cheat. Here's an excerpt:
Slate: So what are people looking for?

Perel: What’s changed is, we expect a lot more from our relationships. We expect to be happy. We brought happiness down from the afterlife, first to be an option and then a mandate. So we don’t divorce—or have affairs—because we are unhappy but because we could be happier. And all that is part of the feminist deliberation. I deserve this, I am entitled to this, I can have this! It allows people to finally pursue a desire to feel alive.

Slate: Alive?

Perel: That’s the one word I hear, worldwide—alive! That’s why an affair is such an erotic experience. It’s not about sex, it’s about desire, about attention, about reconnecting with parts of oneself you lost or you never knew existed. It’s about longing and loss. But the American discourse is framed entirely around betrayal and trauma.
Perel makes a lot of points in the interview - some good, some bad. She talks a lot about our expectations of a marriage, and she talks a lot about finding something about ourselves that we've lost. It's not that our partners aren't fulfilling us, it's that we ourselves are lacking what we need to be as happy as we might be.

Perel makes the mistake of suggesting more open marriage arrangements. This is a mistake because it doesn't solve the core, underlying problem. The question goes from "What's wrong with my life and my marriage?" to "What's wrong with my life, my marriage, and my affair?"

The point here is that commodifying marriage has basically ruined it. We expect the cutesy romance, followed by the expensive wedding, followed by childless marital bliss, followed by 2.3 children (it is still 2.3, isn't it?), followed by a commodified set of child-rearing benchmarks (first tooth, first day of school, first etc. etc.). Small wonder this has grown into boredom.

But if it is boredom, then of what benefit is adding one more commodity to the list? {Love, marriage, job, kids, infidelity, death} is not much better than {love, marriage, job, kids, death}. True, there is one more "term" in the "set," but this term would only ever prove valuable if it actually meant something to us. Its value - especially in light of what Perel believes - is not in the fact that it is part of the list of life experiences to "check-off," but rather in the fact that it is not supposed to be there. It is one rare triumph on authenticity in an otherwise commodified set of existence-benchmarks.

Normalizing, i.e. commodifying, the experience of infidelity will surely result in nothing more than rendering the experience itself inauthentic, and therefore no more interesting than anything else on the list. That's the first inevitable conclusion here.

The second one - the more important one, in fact - is that infidelity isn't the important thing; authenticity is. So we'd all be better off if we made our marriages (and our daily lives) more authentic, rather than trying to keep our experiences neatly packaged and then seeking to escape from them by engaging in divergent and self-destructive behavior.

Darn, there's that nuance stuff again!


It's difficult for everyone, of course. Every moment of your life is a moment in which we experience some kind of pressure to commodify. We don't want our children to merely meet Santa Claus, we want them to meet him at a shopping mall, and have their pictures taken on his lap, and ask him for a particular Christmas present. And he has to be wearing a red suit with white trim and a black belt, and he has to be fat, and he has to say, "Ho ho ho." If it's not that, if it's not all of that, then we say that our children haven't had the "real" experience. 

This itself is preposterous, considering first that Santa Claus isn't real, and second that we can therefore define the experience however we want. It doesn't have to be any particular way! The whole thing is made up! So why not just invent a totally pleasant, authentic experience, and make that your holiday tradition?

This is my whole point.

Rather than seeking out a socially prescribed list of experiences and lifetime milestones, hoping that they will unfold in the way that they have unfolded for countless other people, we should take the time to recognize that whatever list of life experiences we have is ours for the choosing. We can define our lives to be anything we want them to be. Every minute of your life can be authentically yours. It can be as satisfying as you'd like it to be.

To accomplish this, you need to back away from the idea that your experiences should look and behave a certain way. You need to get away from the heuristic-heuristic, the mechanism telling you that X is only accomplished through Y. 

There might not be a product available to satisfy your need. There might not be a standard response to every terrible thing that happens in the world. Creating a new product or a new national standard will not necessarily fix things the way you want them to.


Dichotomous Thinking

Heel-Strikers Versus Forefoot Runners

This morning I read an article in The Guardian about proper running form. Author Sam Murphy sets the stage:
A few weeks back, this blog ran a feature on running form and how to improve it. It included the oft-repeated advice about avoiding overstriding, which “causes the foot to land too far in front of the knee and encourages heel striking – and increases injury risk”. A reader commented that they’d “like to see a blog on whether heel striking really is a bad thing”, which spurred me to investigate.
Murphy then goes on to discuss the influence of the book Born To Run (I reviewed it on the blog here) and its role in promoting "barefoot running." Much of the remainder of the article discusses the evidence of whether "heel-striking" is bad, compared to "forefoot running."

The problem with such an article is that, aside from a small number of people with very extreme running form, almost no one is a pure "heel-striker" or "forefoot runner." Most of us fall somewhere on a continuum, where we tend more toward one direction than the other. For some, the tendency is quite mild. Still others land exactly in the middle of their foot.

In short, the problem with the article was dichotomous thinking.

"Cognitive Distortion"

Why is this a problem? Summer Beretsky at PsychCentral.com breaks it down for us:
...[U]sing dichotomous language boosts dichotomous thinking, and the latter is a type of cognitive distortion that can negatively influence the way you feel about yourself. If you’re dealing with anxiety, casual usage of extremely polar words can lead you to magnify thoughts and events through a distorted lens that can ultimately make you more anxious.
So the problem is twofold: First, dichotomous thinking is distorted, and therefore less accurate than having a more nuanced perspective. Second, and perhaps more importantly, dichotomous thinking can make you unhappy.

Murphy herself seems partially aware of this, as she writes that she has recently "begun to feel a little like someone who was converted to a religion by zealots." I can understand this, because when I finished reading Born To Run, I also gave barefoot running a try. It was consistently the one question that everyone asked me when they learned I had read or was reading the book.

When one watches racing events, one is typically struck by the same fact that McDougall reports in his book: good runners tend toward a similar running form. This is not altogether surprising since running is a natural human activity and all human bodies are built more or less the same with respect to musculo-skeletal structure.

That so many great runners have similar form is not a cognitive distortion. However, the insistence  that all runners should adopt the same set of practices to run well or run comfortably, is.

Anti-Vaxxers And Climate Deniers

In an article aimed at promoting the scientific validity of childhood vaccinations, Amy Parker succumbs to dichotomous thinking. While she opens her article with carefully worded sentences laying out the perspective of those who oppose childhood vaccinations, by her final paragraph, she is talking about all people as though the belong to one of two camps:
Those of you who have avoided childhood illnesses without vaccines are lucky. You couldn’t do it without us pro-vaxxers. Once the vaccination rates begin dropping, the drop in herd immunity will leave your children unprotected. The more people you convert to your anti-vax stance, the quicker that luck will run out.
Ah, yes. "Anti-vaxxers." Many commentators at Slate.com pointed out that "anti-vaxxers" are quite similar to "climate deniers" because both groups of people are opposed to the latest scientific research on the subject in question. This claim alone is somewhat dubious, since people who oppose vaccination don't typically feel that the science behind vaccines is bunk, but just that the risks outweigh the benefits. I disagree, but it is a value judgment based on information they have deemed important to them. As for "climate deniers," few if any openly disagree with the idea that climate doesn't change - the question is whether one believes specifically in the climate forecast models of those scientists who believe that anthropogenic global warming is a risk to the survival of the human species.

But just look at all those words. Why bother with all that nuance and fairness when we can simply engage in dichotomous thinking, box people into "camps" or "groups" or "sides," and then declare one group wholesale wrong?


Much has been written and said by many intelligent people about the "state" of political discourse today. We hear a lot about how polarized people have become, and this seems to suggest that dichotomous thinking is a rampant social problem. When was the last time you heard or read a political opinion that you didn't subsequently place into some kind of ideological box? 

In the political sphere, when people try to regain control of all this cognitive distortion, many of them fall into the logical fallacy that "the truth lies somewhere in the middle." The problem with this line of reasoning is that it accepts a dichotomous framing of issues and attempts to reconcile that dichotomy. In reality, dichotomous thinking is dangerous because it doesn't describe reality accurately at all.

For example, most of your day is probably spent indoors, at room temperature, i.e. neither hot nor cold. You wouldn't even think to describe this temperature. Temperature only becomes an issue when you find it either too hot or too cold, and suddenly we are confronted by an extreme from the dichotomy of hot versus cold. Never mind the fact that the vast majority of time spent indoors is spent at a temperature we don't really have linguistic terms to describe. The point being this: our reality is neither hot nor cold, it's room temperature. Framing things in terms of hot and cold doesn't adequately describe the majority of our day!

Meanwhile, at Cato Unbound, Kevin Vallier engages in some tetrachotomous thinking, boxing all possible viewpoints about religion in politics into four boxes. The reader may determine for him-or-herself whether Vallier's point resonates; my only point here is to remark that perhaps there are a few more possible ways to look at it. 


The philosophical concept of "difference" is a powerful one. It is one of the first things we learn as infants, and it forms the basis on which we build the knowledge that guides us for the rest of our lives. To that extent, some elementary form of dichotomous thinking will always be a part of human cognition.

But if we think rationally, then as we apply "difference" to our experiences and observations, we will start to uncover the inadequacy of dichotomy. We start to learn that life consists of more than just conceptual poles. We start to reject dichotomous thinking, and we gain a perspective that is at once more accurate and more curious.


Workout Of The Day

I was somewhat skeptical of heart rate zone training when I started last week, but to my surprise I finished my workouts feeling a little bit more endorphin-charged than usual. Maybe this was psychological. Either way, I finished the week with a five-mile "long run" consisting of 100% negative splits (I'm not sure I've ever done that during a long run before) and peaking at a robust 6:35-per-mile pace. Best of all, I don't feel any risk of injury or over-use of my muscles, joints, or tendons.

Today, the adventure continues. It's a new week, and I'd like to increase my weekly mileage, so I'm heading out for a four-mile run in HR Zone 2 or 3.

Very Elucidating

I can't say much in favor of Kevin Vallier's recent attack on Hans Hermann Hoppe, because - although I agree with Vallier's take on Hoppe - the argumentative logic employed is not strong enough to stand up to scrutiny.

However, the comments section produced a wealth of information I had not read before. Pay close attention to commentator "King Snail," in particular.


Workout of the Day, Surprise! Edition

Due to some laptop issues at work, I ended up doing today's workout in the morning when I had some idle time. Working out is a great way to make good use of small blocks of time you didn't expect to have on your hands.

As per my previous workouts this week, today's workout is/was a five-kilometer run.

I am aiming for 20 total miles this week, and hopefully 22-25 next week. This will be a slow, consistent build-up of miles up until about the 12-weeks-until-Cowtown point, around January 1st. I should be up to over 60 miles by then, and if I don't get too anxious to hit the 50-miles-per-week point, I'll enjoy a low risk of injury throughout the process.

By way of experimentation, I allowed myself to run outside of heart rate Zone 2 today, sticking in about the Zone 3-4 range, based on current heart rate estimates. I want to see how that impacts the way I feel today and tomorrow. My initial thoughts, now 90 minutes post-run are: There seem to be fewer endorphines, but I feel more satisfied with the quality of my workout.

To be continued...


Workout Of The Day

Yesterday's workout went fairly well. I attempted to run in heart rate Zone 2, subject to the default calculation in my Garmin Forerunner watch. What I learned is that the default zone calculation method programmed by the Garmin folks is a bit too low for my tastes. After doing some digging, I discovered the Zoladz method of calculating heart rate training zones, and it seems more in line with my training needs.

For example, during yesterday's workout, I ran in what felt like Zone 2, but my watch had me within Zone 3 for most of the way. I'm comfortable with my maximum heart rate, so I think it was just the zone settings that were off. After some reading, I figured that the Zoladz method comes closest to creating training zones that are appropriate for me, personally. Your mileage may vary, pun intended.

Here's a link to a great heart rate zone calculator you can use to determine your own best-fit for training zones.

As I mentioned, yesterday was my first day back after a pulled calf muscle. To my delight, I was able to complete the workout without any pain or unusual tightness in my calf, and my muscle has felt great ever since.

Thus, today I am going to attempt a repeat of yesterday's workout: Another 5K run or so, in heart rate Zone 2. Try it yourself!


Workout Of The Day

You know the routine, and anyway, I've just declared that I'm reinstating this feature.

As aforementioned, I recently pulled a calf muscle. Thus, I'm not totally sure I'll succeed in my run today. I'm going to give it a try, anyway.

Today's workout is intended to be a three mile run at or around Z2 heart rate, easy aerobic pace. I'm not getting too knee-deep in the heart rate training thing, I'll just use it as a reference guide for now.

Time To Train Again, With Stationary Waves

I've gone and signed myself up for the 2015 Cowtown Half-Marathon. Some of you may remember that I ran this race last year, too. I'm looking forward to it this year, and by way of expanding my horizons, I have also registered for the Cowtown 10K the day before the half-marathon.

I'm told that runners get a special medal and/or t-shirt for doing this. That fact wasn't a decision point for me, but everyone loves a little exclusivity! Truth be told, I didn't want to put a lot of pressure on myself to run the half-marathon at breakneck speeds, so I signed up for the 10K to ensure that I run both races with fun in mind, not speed.

With speed set aside, I have the flexibility to attempt some different training tactics. Last year I received a Garmin Forerunner GPS watch as a gift, and it came with a heart rate monitor. I've never trained with a heart rate monitor before, so I thought I might give it a whirl. My thinking is not complicated, and can be summarized as follows:

  • If I decide I don't like doing it, I can just stop and train as usual.
  • I recently pulled a calf muscle (again) despite doing what I thought was perfectly light and reasonable training, hence an added measure of restraint might help me avoid injury in the ramp-up to my next race.
  • If I document my progress here on the blog, you, the reader, might also learn what I learn.
  • I quite enjoy my Garmin watch and other such gadgets, so this should be a lot of fun, at least in theory.
As I set out to train for the race, I'll attempt to keep my workouts documented here on the blog, as well, by reinstating the on-again/off-again Workout of the Day feature. These tend to be somewhat popular blog posts, so maybe that will give me a traffic boost. Not that I care about traffic anymore. :P



This is L'eterna Primavera by Auguste Rodin:
Courtesy Wikipedia.org
Today, Rodin is perhaps most famous for his The Thinker. Adults also know him for The Kiss. Both of these sculptures have essentially become part-and-parcel to modern, art-aware culture. They are the great works of a genius.

There are probably many reasons why The Thinker and The Kiss are more widely recognized and appreciated than L'eterna Primavera, but I would speculate that one of them is this: Most people have never experienced the kind of passion depicted in the latter sculpture before. Unfortunately, most people never will.

An Empty Vessel

I once met a woman who insisted on welcoming me into her home by hugging me. She made a great show of it. I knocked on the door, and when she answered, she threw it open and energetically greeted me. Her eyes went wide and she beamed from ear-to-ear. She threw open her arms and stepped toward me.

As she embraced me, her arms barely touched me. Her cheek came physically close to mine, but didn't touch. It was almost as though I wasn't even there. Except that I was there, and I was hugging her back. Based on the fanfare with which she had indicated that she wanted to give me a hug, I responded physically in kind. I gave her the kind of hug she appeared to want.

But when I felt the half-heartedness of the hug she actually gave me, I quickly dialed down my own intensity. She fluttered away to greet the other guests, and I stood there, confused. Why would someone make such a show for the sake of such a weak embrace?

The easy answer to the question is that she wasn't really as happy to see me as she made out to be, but I don't believe that. Everything else about her behavior was fully consistent with a person who was genuinely ecstatic to meet me. 

No, it wasn't that she didn't mean it, it was that she didn't understand it. This is likely the same kind of warm embrace she gives to everyone she is happy to see. Perhaps she has never had the experience of embracing a friend she might never have seen again.

Passion And Art

One of the reasons we all like art so much is because artists are uniquely suited to express our feelings better than we ourselves can. Art speaks to us not because it depicts things we have never known, but because it depicts things we have only known and never articulated, at least not in the same way the artist has. In short, art is a stylized representation of a human experience.

If one has never had the experience in question, then one can come to appreciate the artist's technique in depicting something. One can appreciate the painter's ability to make a scene look realistic, or a musician's ability to play or write difficult note-and-rhythm combinations. But if the audience has never gone through the experience described by the art, then the audience cannot ever hope to understand that artist's work.

Thus, many people might find L'eterna Primavera a visually appealing sculpture; but how many among them can say that they understand why Rodin created it in the first place?

If you lack that passion - if you've never lived that experience - then you'll be inclined to feel as though the sculpture is mildly pornographic. You'll see it as a sculpture of two attractive, nude lovers locked in an embrace. True, that is technically what the sculpture is, but what a sorry and dimwitted level of appreciation that is, compared to the experience that sculpture evokes in those who have lived it!

*     *     *

I often tell a funny story about my high school cross-country team. Each year, we used to have a team t-shirt printed up. One year, my sister was kind enough to produce a sketch of Michelangelo's David, with a banner crossing in front of him (covering what more sensitive souls might not want to see); the banner said "Cross-Country" on it, and the statue held a pair of running shoes in one hand and a stopwatch in the other. It was great!

Of course we suspected that my (very conservative) teammates would object to a banner-less rendition of the David, hence the contentious part of the statute was covered up. We realized that they might not have enough maturity to handle "the full Monty." We never dreamed that they would lack so much maturity that even the covered statute created controversy.

Some of the team members objected to what they called "the naked guy." Despite the fact that the David is one of the most iconic sculptures in human history, they identified it as merely a figure of a nude man. They were scandalized, made uncomfortable by the fact that a drawing of a statue of a character from Holy Scripture who was famously depicted without clothing, sanitized by a drawing of a covering over his genitals nonetheless implied nudity. 

The maturity these kids lacked was the maturity of passion. Just as the woman who greeted me with the hug of an empty vessel, so these kids looked at art - and humor - with the wits of empty vessels. While most teenagers readily embrace the prospect of passion, even if they don't fully understand it, these poor souls did not even want to want to experience passion. They weren't even curious. They wanted it gone.

(If you're wondering how this story ends, my sister finally agreed to draw shorts on the statue, which still didn't satisfy the most vociferous objectors, but was enough to make the grade.)

How Empty Is Your Vessel?

When I meet people who squirm in their seats at the sight of the great works of art, such as the sexually charged sculptures of Auguste Rodin, I feel a great deal of pity for them, for obvious reasons. We only get one life, and these folks have lived theirs without ever experiencing the kind of love that Rodin wanted to remind us of. It's sad that they've missed out on such a beautiful part of the human experience. It's also sad that, when confronted with the life's work of one of history's greatest artists, all they see is a combination of technique and salaciousness, the intersection of talent and sin. 

One might say that if you've missed the point of Rodin's art, you've missed the point of life. It's not that passion ought to be pursued at the expense of all other aspects of the human condition, but simply that this kind of passion is one necessary component of a life properly lived. Just as a desert hermit denies himself the company of others is missing out on a sense of social belonging, so too those who lack passion are missing out on a layer of their own humanity. 

We don't very often experience that kind of passion all day long, but if you never experience it, neither during part of each day nor during part of any day at all, it's difficult to believe that your concept of love is as hollow as the hermit's conception of companionship.

No one will think you're a bad person if you never experience this kind of passion. Then again, no one will think much about you at all. Passion is how you leave your mark on a situation. Without it, you, too, are an empty vessel.

The Poetry Of Life

I'll say that again, because it bears repeating: Passion is how you leave your mark on a situation. That goes for any situation.

The passion with which you interact with the loves of your life will determine the mark you leave on those relationships. Perhaps that's just a fancy way of saying that you get out of any relationship exactly what you put into it. On the other hand, loving someone passionately results in more than just "getting something back from them," it also shapes your own perspective on that relationship. A passionate affair that ultimately fails is "stormy." One that endures is "timeless" and "triumphant." One that goes unrequited is "tragic."

The passion with which you tackle your work will determine what you make of yourself professionally. You can go through the motions, bring home a paycheck, and watch the years go by as others move in and out of your professional life, driven by their ambitions and the things they wish to achieve. Or, you can dive into the fray and live your work as though it's an experience worth having. It's a choice. A successful ambition will earn you an extension on your home, a beach vacation, a corner office, and an undeniable lift in your gait. A failed ambition will teach you life lessons that can only ever be learned the hard way, but people will respect you. When you work with passion, you'll be remembered; without it, you're just another face at the water cooler, wondering where to sign up for fantasy football.

In any case, it's your life. If you haven't immersed yourself in it, then you've lived on sidelines. If this were a fine art museum, you'd have spent your whole existence behind the velvet rope. Passion's purpose is to get you inside the frame. Without it, you'll still be able to hand out hugs and go to fancy art museums to see the great works of Rodin, and others. You just won't understand it.

The Life You Want To Lead

There are those who stand by, waiting for passion to happen to them. When it doesn't, they feel that they were either mislead by the passionate ones, or that they are somehow defective. They were supposed to be passionate about work, but they never found a job they could be passionate about. They were supposed to be passionate about their spouse, but when the fire failed to ignite like it does in the movies, they determined that life just isn't like the movies. They were supposed to be moved to write a novel, or travel the world, or achieve something remarkable, and when it didn't happen to them, they resigned themselves to the notion that true passion either doesn't exist, or they don't have the capacity for it.

These people will never understand Auguste Rodin.

At a certain point, a person has to be ready for these kinds of experiences. In order to throw caution to the wind with a lover, you must possess the courage and the willingness to throw caution to the wind. In order to throw yourself into your job, or your marriage, or your community art class, or whatever, you have to allow yourself to do so. You have to warm up to experiencing the poetry of life.

If you feel like hugging people, hug them. You won't experience a hearty embrace by going through the motions and stopping short. If you're in love with someone, then act on it. Don't hold hands and think pure thoughts, go to an art museum and find something that stirs you both. If you're bored at work, find something to care about.

Choose to be passionate, or live a life full of awkwardness and boredom. You get one life, how will you spend it?


One Mystery Solved

Via my Facebook feed, I became aware of this great article on type 1 diabetes, written by an endocrinologist who seems to understand that struggle faced by people with my condition. In it, Dr. Claresa Levetan writes as follows:
During the 1990s, I spent a great deal of my career studying the hormone amylin, which is co-secreted from the beta cell in equal concentrations as insulin. Among patients with Type 1, there is also an absence of amylin. Many patients who have used the amylin hormone replacement therapy pramlintide (Symlin®) have told me how they finally felt full after starting to use the drug; it was a feeling they hadn’t had since their diabetes began. Indeed, amylin works on two receptors in the brain that affect satiety.
People who have known me for a long time have known my persistent, uncontrollable hunger. Since my teenage years, I have seemingly always been hungry, and no amount of food has ever been able to quell my urge to eat. Even when stuffed to the brim, I still felt hungry all the time.

In an effort to better control my blood sugar (as I have previously written), I started limiting my carbohydrate intake to no more than 60 grams per meal, and my fat intake to no more than 30 grams per meal. It improved my control, and so I have stuck with it, but there is no doubt that I am now eating much fewer calories than I used to.

In spite of that fact, however, I have not experienced any weight loss whatsoever. I still work out hard every day, and most other things are essentially equal here. So the fact that a reduction in caloric intake didn't translate into weight loss always seemed to indicate to me that, however hungry I might have been, I was not eating "too little" food. But then why was I hungry?

The mystery is solved: I'm hungry all the time, no matter how much or how little I eat, because my brain is probably not receiving the right signals from the amylin hormone. I'm not really freakishly hungry all the time, I'm just basically a normal diabetic.

Maybe you've been through the same thing.


Album Review: Big Wreck - "Ghosts"

What many of us liked about Big Wreck's "Albatross" album was that it was a return to musical form for Ian Thornley: More rocking, more grooving, more screaming. It felt like 1997 all over again. 

So think back to 1997's "In Loving Memory Of..." and then the years that followed. Big Wreck followed-up their debut album with something many orders of magnitude more eclectic and experimental with 2001's "The Pleasure and the Greed". Always billed as a reformed band of prog-rockers, Big Wreck finally hinted at that history on that second album, which featured many layers of guitars, contrapuntal instrumentation, odd time signatures, and extended instrumental passages. True, it wasn't a Dream Theater album, but at least the narrative made sense. 

After 2001, though, the musical tides turned against them, and Big Wreck seemed to fade away, replaced by Ian Thornley's apparently more radio-focused solo career. 

Even so, he seemed to leave hints at his uneasiness with radio-rock everywhere. Many of the lyrics on the "Come Again" album can be interpreted as expressing discontent with having to make pop music. Or is it just me? One bit of evidence in my favor are the "Come Again" demos that Thornley uploaded to his MySpace page a few years later. They were only available for a short while, but they demonstrated a far more hard-rock, and yes even a bit more of a progressive, inclination than what "Come Again" ended up sounding like. Again in the liner notes of the still-more-pop album "Tiny Pictures," Thornley thanked a friend for reminding him to rock, even as his music took a ligher turn. Well, the evidence seemed to be there for those of us who wanted to see it.

Then came the return of Big Wreck, with their "Albatross" album. As I mentioned before, it was a return to form. Once again, we heard those old hard-and-bluesy Big Wreck riffs. Ian Thornley was screaming again. He was even shredding, which was something we previously only got to enjoy from his live performances. This was the new Big Wreck, but in many ways it was the same Big Wreck that won our hearts over upon the release of their first album.

What's interesting about "Ghosts" is that it seems to have the same follow-up relationship to "Albatross" that "The Pleasure and the Greed" had to "In Loving Memory Of..." What I mean is, "Ghosts" is the more eclectic and progressive follow-up to "The Albatross." This is great news for me, since I always liked Big Wreck's second album better than their first.

"Ghosts," in particular, fuses together so many important aspects of the Ian Thornley oeuvre: There is the heaviness and the groove, as well as the soft melodic singer-songwriter vibe. We hear both the Zeppelin influence and the Bruce Cockburn influence. We hear the bluesy, slide guitar creativity evident on Thornley's earliest work, as well as the pop-focused hooks that were so pervasive on, for example, the "Tiny Pictures" album.

Indeed, what I like best about the "Ghosts" album is that it draws from all aspects of Ian Thornley's creative work. Any of these songs could have been found on his previous albums without sounding too different, and yet at the same time Big Wreck has managed to move the bar up a few notches: better guitar solos, stronger melodies, better production, nicer guitar tones, and so on. For my money, this is the best Big Wreck album yet. I had wondered how Ian Thornley was going to top "Albatross," because I love that album so much. Well, here's how.


Bass, And Things About Which To Muse

Unless you've been living under a rock, you know that I've recently joined forces with the band Morningside Drive, as a bass player. While I've been playing bass on my own demos and home recordings for a long time now, I haven't always been gigging bassist. Of the time I've spent as a gigging bassist, I haven't always been a very good one.

And yet one fantastic byproduct of my playing with Morningside Drive is the extent to which it has honed my bass chops. I'm still not a very good bass player, but I am slowly crawling toward the point of being a fairly decent one.

One advantage I have here is all the years I have already invested in learning music theory. Thus I generally know which notes to play, and that is half (or much more than half) the battle for most people who take up a musical instrument. That is one reason why I've been able to ramp-up on my bass playing fairly rapidly. I don't have to re-learn scales, modes, and what note goes with what chord; I already learned that stuff when I became a guitarist.

Another advantage I have is that bass guitars are - let's be honest - highly similar to guitar-guitars. It's true that they shouldn't be played the same way, but still... they're tuned identically, save for the difference in octaves. All the notes are in the same place, and I use the same fingers to play them. Moving from guitar to bass is a bit like learning French after you already know Italian: there is a real difference in flavor, but the underlying information is the same, and we use it the same way.

So playing the bass is similar to playing the guitar, but being a bassist is much different from being a guitarist. For one thing, one's role in the band changes from being a lead player to being a supporting player. I had expected that aspect of being a bassist to be less fun, but what I've discovered is that I can often make the same contribution to the band I would normally make, but in such a way that no one really objects.

In part, this is because non-bassists don't tend to be very invested in bass notes. Let's face it, what the bass does seldom catches anyone's attention unless the guitarist is doing it, too. Or unless you're playing a juicy, groovy riff. Barring that, though, people tend to focus on the singer or the guitarist. While as a guitarist I might choose to throw in an augmented chord - alienating many bandmates who may not have the same taste for dissonance I have - as a bassist, it is not usually a problem. People just don't notice it as much.

Non-bassists don't always think their way through the overall harmonic movement of a piece the way a bassist does. So a guitarist may fall in love with a particular riff, play it through the entire verse, then comes the chorus, and the guitarist plays the chorus riff... and so on... By contrast, it is a bassist's job to ensure that the transition is pleasant. First, it has to be rhythmically pleasant. A guitarist can just switch to a new, and sometimes rhythmically different, riff. If a bassist did that, it would be too jarring. Thus, the bassist must help the guitarist and the drummer navigate a rhythmic structure that remains cohesive through the transitions in a piece of music.

Second, the transition has to make harmonic sense, and also tell a harmonic story. The basic mistake most songwriters make is not changing the harmonic structure of a song from part to part. Novice songwriters often write whole songs using only one underlying chord, or a single chord progression, across the verse, bridge, chorus, and so on. Were a bassist to merely mirror the guitarist's work, we'd have a very boring song on our hands. But a bassist can inject pleasant harmonic variation by playing notes that the guitarist doesn't want to play, sometimes even changing the root note of the chord without the guitarist having to do anything at all. More advanced songwriters like to play with chord structures a bit more, and here the transitions become the key. It's all well and good to play a verse and a chorus in totally different key signatures, but without a bassist's help setting up the transition to the new key, it just sounds like a harmonic skeleton with no vertebrae, no backbone.

And all of this is what I've been moved to think about as I play bass for Morningside Drive.


Album Review: Demi Lovato - Demi

A few days ago I received a promotional email from Google Play, offering me a free download of Demi Lovato's most recent album, Demi. I'm a sucker for free music, so I hastened to avail myself of the offer, even though I wouldn't count myself among Lovato's fan base.

In fact, prior to listening to this album, I can only remember hearing one other Demi Lovato song, although I had certainly heard her name and seen her pictures before. I even knew a thing or two about the celebrity gossip in which she had been ensconced, whenever it was she was ensconced in it. I am also told that she has been on TV. And this, my friends, was the sum total of my Demi Lovato knowledge, prior to listening to her album.

On the one hand, this lack of familiarity makes me ill-equipped to review the album in the context of the rest of her work. On the other hand, this does give me the advantage of being able to assess the music more or less on its own merits, without being bogged down by the prejudices that come with having a great deal of familiarity with a particular artist or genre.

Having thus set up my review of the album, one might expect me to review it quite favorably. Unfortunately, Demi feels to me like a tragic combination of missed opportunities and the general state of the popular music industry as it exists today.

When I say "missed opportunities," what I mean is that a number of the songs on Demi have very real potential for greatness.

The song "Two Pieces," for example, features a strong vocal performance and some interesting, elaborate compositional elements, both of which are masked by what I would call poor production decisions. The vocal harmonies are hidden behind the over-powering sound of a synthesizer that attempts to mimic the sound of distorted guitars and basses playing in unison.

That song is followed by two more - "Nightingale" and "In Case" - that start off almost identically, with soft vocals accompanied only by a "piano." (I use the term "piano" loosely here since, as far as I can tell, nearly every instrument that appears on this album is a synthesizer.) One can't be too critical of that sort of set-up, considering that Demi Lovato is a female vocalist, and piano intros are the bread-and-butter of female-lead power ballads. In this instance, however, what might otherwise be the album's strongest song, "In Case," gets buried at the tail end of a trio of similar-sounding songs, reducing its emotional impact. Once again, it is a missed opportunity.

The consistently weakest elements of the album are the inescapable domination of fake instrument sounds, which leave the music feeling stiff, over-compressed, and artificial, and the over-reliance on four-chord songwriting. (Think of it as Nickelback in a sequin clubbing dress.)

This is all a real shame, considering Lovato's undeniably fantastic voice, which demonstrates some real maturity over my memory of her previous work. (The fake vintage-Motown r&b accent Lovato over-uses on her previous hits is still there, but it's slowly going away, and good riddance!)

The other problem with Demi is not really the album's fault at all, so much as the fault of the forces that have been working to destroy the quality of music for a long time. As Prince once mentioned in a PBS interview some time ago, many modern musicians seem to have failed to properly learn their craft.

I seriously doubt Lovato - or any of her peers, for that matter - could explain any of the music theory behind her own songs. And while that might not be necessary for a song to be good, it still strikes me as odd that one can consider oneself a professional musician while knowing so little about music. Consider a professional data analyst who knew how to program linear regressions, but couldn't explain basic statistical theory. Both imply that there are problems with the hiring process, even if the work itself still has the potential to be acceptable.

But the real problem with failing to learn one's craft is that songs that might sound kind of special when played with a small ensemble of people collaborating on a nice arrangement end up sounding like bits and pieces of samples strung together via GarageBand. The last thing a professional artist should want to sound like is a bedroom musician toiling away in the basement. The production quality is certainly there throughout the Demi album, but the quality of the songwriting is not far above what you might here from any of the local friends on your Facebook feed.

Isn't it a shame that someone with such a lovely singing voice exists in a world that must stomp out all the best qualities of music with a combination of bad production decisions and songwriting that is simply divorced from the experience of making music with a room full of other people?

High points for me were the songs "In Case" and "Shouldn't Come Back," both of which feature instrumentation that is a bit more realistic than the others, and which demonstrate Lovato's genuinely good singing voice. The lowest point on the record is perhaps "Really Don't Care," which feels too much like a Taylor Swift knock-off. (Can you imagine that someone actually wants to sound like Taylor Swift?)

All it in all, it is a decent album if you are a sixteen-year-old female. The rest of you can pass this one by.


Reminder: I Am Sorry

Due to a recent up-tick in page hits from years-old blog comments I've left throughout the "blogosphere," I feel obligated to link to this more-recent post, in which I articulate some of the many, many mistakes I've made in the past.

Some of those old comments I've left out there have been impolite, sanctimonious, condescending, overweening, and just plain wrong. I've grown a lot over the years. I'd like to say that I can vouch for every opinion I've expressed on the internet, but the truth is that people grow and develop over time. I'm no exception.

Seeing some of these old comments is utterly humiliating. It's actually a good thing that I can embarrass myself like this from time to time. Nothing teaches you to keep your tongue in check better than a permanent record of all the idiotic things you've ever said.

What I do stand behind is the general direction of the compass. That is, while I haven't always made defensible comments, I have always commented with a defensible point in mind. My core beliefs haven't changed, but I now like to think I have a few measures more of humility, kindness, and the ability to admit when I am wrong. I still have a long way to go, but when I see some of these old comments, I'm reminded of how far I've come.

For inspiration on this journey, I'd like to thank my intellectual role-model, David R. Henderson.

I Don't Mean To Brag, But

Over the weekend, this happened:

See what all the fuss is about this Friday, when we take it to The Grotto with Scary Cherry and the Bang Bangs.


Upcoming Events

Catch me playing bass and singing backup vocals with the incomparable Morningside Drive, ReverbNation.com's #2 most-played band in Fort Worth, yeah!

Be there!


Libertarianism Qua Ethical Virtue?

Via Facebook, Open Borders fellow-blogger Paul Crider suggests a resolution to my libertarianism conundrum. His simple-yet-elegant solution: Maybe libertarianism isn't a political or moral system so much as it is an ethical virtue.

This suggestion is immediately attractive on intuitive grounds. That a preference for liberty could be thought of in the same way as a preference for honesty, temperance, justice, etc. just "feels right." It also adds some good potential clarity around the phenomenon of libertarian bigots: They're interested in promoting a legal structure that enables them to discriminate however they see fit. That is, it's in their interest to promote a libertarian virtue ethic among others, so long as they themselves don't have to play.

From that perspective, it almost becomes a question of game theory. If we all agree to abide by libertarian virtue, then the first one who "cheats" on the agreement wins big. Other "cheaters" quickly follow-suit, but gather progressively diminishing returns until no one is playing by the rules anymore. But of course, the first "cheater" always wins.

As you can see, Crider's suggestion also offers insight into why I think failing to abide by a true libertarian virtue ethic undermines liberty in society. If he's correct - and my game theory add-on makes any kind of rational sense - then we have at least a rough theory as to why bigotry is incompatible with liberty. Best of all, it follows a pattern consistent with other virtues. "Cheating" in a world of honesty eventually undermines trustworthiness in a community. "Cheating" in a world of justice eventually erodes faith in the justice system itself. "Cheating" in a world of peace results in war. And so on.

Are there weaknesses in this way of looking at it? Certainly.

For one thing, it doesn't seem fair to take any idea that you happen to agree with and tout it as an ethical virtue that everyone should agree with. Surely a basic preference for liberty is common to all human beings regardless of their political stripes; it wouldn't be right to suggest that the non-libertarians are falling short of good ethics just because they disagree with libertarian policy. Why couldn't, say, a religious conservative simply declare faith in god to be an ethical virtue (as many often do) and decry any non-believer as unethical on that grounds. No, that doesn't jive. Sometimes people simply believe different things.

Another weakness is this: Crider's view of the libertarian virtue is that it might otherwise be called "openness, tolerance, liberality, or inclusiveness," which sounds a lot like the psychological concept of "openness to experience." While this seems okay prima facie, associating a virtue with a psychological trait seems prone to excluding those who do not show the trait when measured by psychologists. Think of it this way: Would it be fair to call leftism a type of neuroticism? Of course not. So, how could it be fair to call libertarianism a type of openness to experience?

That said, I doubt Crider intended his suggestion to be air-tight. Like any other paradigm, its value is mostly educational. By looking at things this way, we might gain some insight into what it is we're talking about. Simply thinking about this concept has offered a compelling window into how another person sees libertarianism, which is valuable and interesting in its own right. On top of that, it's helped me get closer to the idea that this whole "freedom thing" is as much a social or ethical concept as it is a political one.

But I suppose I've waxed enough about this for a while.


Jerk-Excluded Libertarianism

I received some excellent feedback from faithful Stationary Waves reader I'll call FH. (FH did not wish to comment publicly this time around.) FH made many good points. One I thought was particularly good was that he felt in my last post I was trying to define libertarianism in such a way that it excluded jerks. It's a fair point, and a pretty strong one, and so I thought I would respond here.

The FH Counter-Argument
First, I ought to give an example of the kind of thing that creates problems for FH and those who hold similar views. Take, for example, the war on drugs. People like FH and myself believe that, however bad drugs might be, a government-enforced prohibition policy creates more serious problems than simply leaving people free to make their own mistakes. This doesn't mean that we see no problems with drug use, it only means that we think prohibition policy is worse than those problems.

With this example in mind, consider a situation in which I think the racist views of H.L. Mencken are verboten. FH - along many other people, for that matter - believes that if we prevent the Menckens of the world from discriminating on the basis of race, then we run the risk of violating their right to free association. If you can't freely choose your friends (even if they aren't a particularly politically correct distribution of people), then you don't have a freedom of association in any meaningful sense of the term. This is FH's difficulty with the views I expressed earlier.

Morever, FH would go so far as to say that by allowing people to discriminate socially, we ensure that our communities adhere to important, voluntary rules self-governance that do not require state enforcement. That is, if we choose to "discriminate" against good-for-nothing louses, then there will be fewer good-for-nothing louses in our communities, because our intolerance of them either drives them away, or inspires them to behave better.

The Stationary Waves Response

Point #1 - My Argument Is Moral, Not Political
There are a number of points on which I am in total agreement with FH. I agree that creating state laws or imposing state reinforcement of racism and other forms of bigotry probably causes more harm than good, on net. I agree that compulsory integration is a violation of one's freedom of association. And I agree that it is problematic to create a political libertarianism in which all forms of being a bad person are disallowed. In short, if a libertarian were to argue that the state should punish bigots merely because they are bigots, and not because they committed explicit acts of aggression against specific individuals, then that itself would be "un-libertarian," again in the political sense of it.

But I'm not sure I'm interested in a political libertarianism. Stationary Waves has always been more about ethics and doing the right thing than it is about what policies we should/should not enact. In my opinion, the world won't improve by increased political argument. Instead, it will improve by more widespread clarity of moral thinking.

I'll take that point a step further: I believe that virtually any political system would work - including Marxism - if all human beings in that system were perfect moral agents. Many years ago, a much smarter man than I said something similar: If all men were angels, no government would be necessary. Really, any government will do.

So, to push the world in a better direction through improved political systems seems silly. I empathize with those who wish to do it that way (in a way), but fundamentally they are statists. They see people as problems that need to be solved with central solutions.

In short, when I suggest that bigots aren't libertarians, it's not because I think political libertarianism must address bigotry, but because the morality upon which libertarianism is founded is contrary to the (lack of) morality from which racism is propounded. I'm not asking for a state solution; I'm asking for bigots to shape up, morally, within themselves, and otherwise stop calling themselves libertarians, because they're not. This brings me to my second point.

Point #2 - Despite Government, Being Pro-Liberty Matters
To some people like FH, as long as people are voluntarily making decisions together, then liberty hasn't been compromised. I vehemently disagree.

Part of this may relate to the fact that I grew up in a very religiously conservative area, and I currently live in another one. It's not uncommon for bigwigs to meet each other at religious functions and make deals there (sort of like the proverbial "golf course"). It's not uncommon for church-goers to gain employment by "networking" with their fellow church-goers. It's not uncommon for special knowledge to be circulated within, but not outside, the church. The problem here is that these kinds of closed networks foist an ultimatum upon outsiders: join us, or we will shut you out of all the good opportunities.

You can certainly argue that such communities are within their rights, under a libertarian political structure, to engage in this sort of thing. But if you undertook the argument that this sort of network is consistent with the morality of liberty, I think you'd fail miserably.

Why? Because functional liberty in society is premised on the notions of equal competition, equal access to information, and meritocracy. To undermine any of these things with a social network of coercive exclusion is plainly and simply un-libertarian in the moral sense of the term.

A true lover of liberty - my kind of libertarian - is one who welcomes all newcomers with open arms and then judges all by their contribution to society. That means lovers of liberty are people who let others alone to worship however they please (including not at all), without judging or excluding them from anything, and then judges others based on whatever contribution those others wish to make. So, a Muslim fruit farmer in a community of Catholics should be judged by the quality of his fruit, and his friendship, and his ideas, rather than on his Catholic church attendance. To have all the important public debates at church, without the Muslim fruit farmer, is an obvious unequal relationship. This is what I'm calling un-libertarian.

There is a long list of weak arguments trotted out to justify this sort of social exclusion, and trust me, I have heard them all. None of them are very good. So while it may be true that a libertarian political regime may not choose to act against closed communities like the one I just described, that doesn't mean those communities are libertarian or liberty-loving. They are closed, unequal, collusive, and cruel. This kind of behavior simply isn't libertarian.

Libertarianism - as I understand it, anyway - isn't a free-for-all. It involves what the American Founding Fathers often referred to as virtue. I call it a creed. Without a robust and liberty-loving ethics, libertarianism simply isn't worth very much. There is absolutely no value in a political system that relinquishes the role of coercion and tyranny to other sets of conspirators such as religions or corporations. Liberty does not thrive more perfectly when society chooses to coerce each other with special clubs and organizations, merely by virtue of the fact that those organizations are no longer called "governments." (Please see my definition of the word "government" at The Stationary Waves Lexicon to gain more clarity on this point.)

This serves to highlight a major difference between myself and most people who call themselves "anarcho-capitalists." I don't think social coercion is ever okay; an-caps seem to think that as long as the situation is stateless, competition will sort things out. Nonsense.

At any rate, this should highlight some of the major underlying ideas beh