Haken: A Revision For My Previous Comments

Last October, I wrote a review of Haken's most recent album, The Mountain. My review was full of glowing praise, but in hindsight - having spent more time with this album - I realize that my review was not as adequate as I hoped it would be.

The Mountain isn't just "an excellent album" that "manages to deliver the bread-and-butter of prog."

It is, in fact, the most exciting progressive album from a new band in my recent memory. It's a true stunner. The more you listen to it, the more you uncover deep and fascinating musical layers that are easy to miss during more casual listening.

Personally, I think this album is incredible.


Freebirds World Burrito And Market Share: A Conjecture

I have a loyalty card with a local fast food burrito chain called Freebirds World Burrito. For those of you unfamiliar with the chain, it is a competitor to Chipotle or Q-doba, with similar menu offerings. I'd rate them a little more highly than I would rate the other two, but that's a personal preference.

As a result of having a loyalty card with Freebirds, I am on their e-mailing list, which is a source of coupons and the occasional advertisement. Today, they sent me an email which contained the following excerpt about price increases [sic - All grammar and punctuation errors are in the original text.]:
Yes, it's true. For the first time in two years, we're raising our prices. 
Simply put, over the last couple years prices have gone up everywhere. Given this, we were faced with the option of compromising quality and keeping our low price, or raising prices and keep selling great food. We stuck to our guns and chose not to bend on quality so that we can continue to offer delicious, made-from-scratch ingredients. This meant we had to rethink our approach on several menu items, which resulted in the removal of the Taco Combo Meal and an increase in portion and price of our nachos. 
As you know, we're committed to giving you the best bite in town. But, we also pride ourselves in providing the best work environment for our rock star team. We take care of our employees because we know we have the best out there. Our Tribe Members make it possible to provide you with great food and unparalleled customer service on the daily. They're rewarded by the dollar incentive that you personally pay. Higher prices, therefore, mean we can maintain our standards and continuously reward our Tribe for their hard work. And for your contributions, we thank you.
A couple of brief observations:

First, a price increase is not necessarily the result of inflation. While that is one obvious source of upward pressure on prices, it is not the only one. The fact that Freebirds ultimately decided to raise its prices suggests that it could not capture any additional market share by competing on price. I will note that Freebirds tends to be a dollar or two more expensive than Chipotle for the same burrito - and that's before the impending price increase.

Second, the missing menu items represent another kind of "price increase" that does not directly increase monetary costs, but does in fact impose a cost on the consumer in the form of reduced selection. Those customers who preferred the now-removed "Taco Combo Meal" now have a lower incentive to eat at Freebirds. This, too, suggests that Freebirds' primary difficulty is gaining adequate market share to support their business model.

Third, I find it a little odd that Freebirds would raise its prices rather than eliminating its loyalty program, which involves awarding customers points toward free food. Clearly eliminating the loyalty program is a more logical first-pass at avoiding a price increase without eliminating menu items. This is yet another consideration that leads me to believe that Freebirds is struggling to capture a limited market share.

Finally, when I eat at Freebirds, I do so because I want to eat a delicious burrito, not because I want to support the lifestyles of Freebirds' staff members. It's nothing personal, it's just that if I want to help a lower-income person, I donate to charity; whereas, if I want lunch, I go to a burrito restaurant.

I enjoy the comparatively zany atmosphere that Freebirds offers, the rock and roll music they play in each franchise, the friendliness of the staff, and the freshness of the ingredients. But only two blocks away from my local Freebirds is my local Chipotle, which has not increased its prices, and which also offers friendly customer service and a good-tasting burrito.

Simply stated, I can't justify spending more than $10 for a burrito and a soda when I can get a similar product for several dollars less with only minimal compromises on quality and atmosphere. I fear Freebirds has essentially lost me as a customer. I'll still eat there occasionally, but not nearly as frequently as I used to.


Alter Ego

I thought I could keep Lauren and Aurora separate, compartmentalize parts of myself, and have two alter egos. Perhaps in hindsight that’s not healthy for me. I’m still getting used to the integration of the two, but, that being said, I do not want my identity to be porn star. I want my identity to be Lauren: activist, kind, sweet girl. I don’t want be defined by my work.
A young girl who does not want to be pigeonholed into being a sex object decides to carve out a separate sexual identity for herself, an identity that she does not actually want to interact with the rest of the situations in her life. She gives it a different name, a different standard of sexual morals, and a different set of waking hours in the day. She then proceeds as though she, Lauren, does not need to accept personal responsibility for the actions of "Aurora." This itself indicates that Lauren is ashamed of Aurora, that Lauren does not subscribe to Aurora's morality. And this is what makes the rest of what she says so shameful.

She's giving lots of interviews. I suppose the people who want to cheer for her - because having a bunch of leering creeps attempt to ruin your life based on a single choice is invidious - will read interviews like the one in NY Mag and come to believe she is intelligent.

For my part, I find her thoroughly confused. She seems to lack a moral compass. She seems to be afraid of her own choices, and she seems to want to escape the consequences of her actions. This is obvious enough from the mere fact that she created a literal alter-ego on whom to pin her most questionable decisions.

The entire interview is illuminating. Here's a noteworthy sample:
You wrote in your xoJane essay about how unfair it is that women carry the full moral burden of sexuality, so I wanted to talk about the guy who outed you to a fraternity. It seems like he’s the one who morally transgressed, here.
I begged him not to tell anybody. We went to a party that same night, and he got really drunk. I wasn’t with him when he told all the people. He knew I didn’t want people knowing, but he told people. Immediately after I realized that he told people, I told him, “You have just ruined my life,” and I completely meant that. I’m not sure he understands the gravity of what he did. That being said, nobody deserves to be harassed and I don’t want people to harass or threaten him. I think he needs to take personal responsibility and come to terms with it and that’s his thing. We were friends, but I will never talk to him again. He forgot my personhood and my humanity for the sake of spreading a juicy rumor, for the sake of saying, “I’m friends with a porn star.”
What is perhaps most interesting about this comment is her use of the word "rumor." She has admitted to doing what she does, so why refer to this as a "rumor," rather than what it is: a fact?

The young woman is not smart enough to keep herself out of a bad situation, but she is smart enough to deflect matters when her choices are scrutinized, and deftly so.
You’re not the first woman at Duke who has come under intense scrutiny for her sexual choices. Is there something about the environment that explains why the rumor prevailed over your humanity? [Note that the interviewer continues with the "rumor" charade. - ed.]
Duke is an extremely complex culture, but I’m just going to go out and say it: We are a culture that disrespects and slut-shames women. If you look at the anonymous CollegiateACB forums of other schools, there are maybe four topics. At Duke, there are 800 topics. All of them are “rate freshman girls on a scale of one to 10” or “which Asian has the biggest boobs.” So Duke has this — and I blame the Greek system a lot for this — culture of objectifying women.

I personally attribute that to male privilege. The median income of students at Duke is $350,000. So you have these rich, entitled males coming to Duke and what that translates to is a sense of entitlement over women’s bodies and women’s sex. Men essentially feel entitled to have sex with us because they’re used to getting everything they’ve ever wanted. You have this extremely intense school that’s really competitive academically and then you add into the mix a social scene that’s rooted in social hierarchy and wealth, and then you combine that with male privilege and chauvinism and misogyny and what you have is this really horrible rape culture.
So instead of coming to terms with the complicated moral issues associated with her decision to get involved with pornography, she rants against male sexuality. This is astounding. A woman who sells men downloadable sex decides to criticize the primary end user of that product because they have the nerve to objectify women? The mind fairly reels.

Next, she decides that the issue is not actually about someone violating her privacy, nor is it about the objectification of women. Instead, she decides it's about rape [emphases added]:
Women are so discouraged from reporting it because, as institutions, colleges want to keep the sexual-assault rates low so they look good to other colleges. Women are simply silenced or not given the proper resources. In many colleges, probably most colleges, the punishment for rape is a slap on the wrist. That’s something that we need to evaluate and consider: what kind of message that sends to the young women of the world. It tells them that their dignity and their humanity isn’t important enough to the university to do anything about it.

I’m not very fun to go to parties with. All my friends are getting drunk and when guys are hitting on them I’m always saying, “You better not rape her, you better not take advantage of her.”
I had a lot of sympathy for this girl when I first became aware of the issue. It must be a difficult, tumultuous experience to have one's sexual choices questioned by tens of thousands of people in one's local community, in addition to millions of consumers of national media.

Still, her dishonesty in dealing with this issue belies her own words. She is not as strong as she would like us to believe. If she were, there would be no need for Aurora, her alter-ego. But, in many ways, this represents the inherent contradictions of the Eat Pray Love philosophy that has been sold to women en masse, leaving them confused about their inability to draw links between spirituality, self-esteem, and sexual identity.

Like Lauren the activist, kind, sweet girl, Eat Pray Love author Elizabeth Gilbert compartmentalized her existence, shirked responsibility for her bad choices, got herself off the hook using cheap emotional obfuscation, and came out the other end of the psychological meat grinder by simply declaring that she was okay - whether or not she actually was.

See, morality and philosophy aren't about being self-righteous, they're about being happy. If there is one thing I would like to convey to the modern-day "Slate.com feminist" crowd it's that making stuff up as you go along may help you escape the scrutiny that other people apply to your decisions, but it will not help you get rid of the monkeys on your back. We need less pop philosophy that sells young women a cheap "anything goes" false spirituality, and more concrete moral structure. It's only the latter that will help them come to terms with the complex twists in life. Perhaps if Lauren had had access to a cogent moral philosophy she might have made different decisions, ones that she would not have to obfuscate with non sequiturs. Or, perhaps she would have made the same decisions, but would possess more self-esteem to stand up for herself frankly and confidently. Either way, she'd be a happier person.


Another Day, Another Fitness Fad

It seems as though every year comes with a new trend in fitness, promising to cure an expansive list of problems by "getting us back to nature." We can all think of a long list of examples, but let me give you my own list: Paleo-dieting, barefoot running, Crossfit, high-fat diets, and now... fat-soled running shoes. A surprisingly ungated article in The Financial Times (of all places - more on that in a moment) has the story.

Before I provide my own personal take on fat-soled running shoes, I'd like to take a brief moment to explore the often ridiculous claims of fitness fads and underscore what I think we should all keep in mind as we find our way through the never-ending list of new fitness technologies.

Back To Nature
If there is any one concept that should give you pause when considering the validity of a new idea in health or fitness, it's the idea of getting "back to nature," or doing something that is somehow more like what ancient humans used to do. There may or may not be a good reason to do what ancient human beings used to do, but the mere fact that they used to do it is not in and of itself a justification for doing it.

Why not? Because nature is a cold and brutal place that is constantly trying to kill you. There is nothing good about getting closer to what nature intended. What nature intended was for you to be eaten by a lion. The fact that you and your fellows figured out how to make tools and language and books and agriculture and modern technology is a fact that takes us all further and further away from nature's intentions. In doing so, it has extended our lives by decades and enabled us to live a quality of life that would make us appear as gods to our ancient forefathers.

The point is that science and technology are good things. So, if a new fitness idea is based on the best available scientific information, then that is the best we can do today. If, by contrast, a new fitness idea is based on old, long-forgotten folklore that makes you feel like you are living in a cave, that is only going to be a good thing if it is also based on the best available scientific information.

Note that this does not mean that "the best available scientific information" is a constant that will never change over the course of your lifetime. It will. That's because new information is always coming along, upending what we previously thought, and improving on our total knowledge. That's what the scientific process is all about.

Barefoot Running Versus Fat-Soled Shoes
Readers know that I gave barefoot running a try last year, and found the experience largely favorable. I suspected at the time that one reason it worked for me is because I already had good running form. I've never been a heel-striker. Most of the "lessons" people "learn" from barefoot running shoes are things that I already knew. So when I tried out a pair of barefoot running shoes, I felt sort of connected to the road.

But after the initial mystique wore off, I realized that I was really just running in racing flats, which I had been racing in for decades. There's nothing dangerous about running in racing flats - if there were, people wouldn't do it. But is it a panacea? Is it an ancient secret for being a great Tarahumaira runner? No.

The real secret is the one I stress on this blog over and over again: Good running form is the difference between a good runner and a bad one. Without good running form, it won't matter much what your shoes look like.

So when the Financial Times article talks about an uptick in heel and Achilles tendon injuries or tight calf muscles, there is a proper way to interpret that information. Barefoot running shoes didn't cause heel injuries, heelstriking caused them. If you land on your heel, you're going to get a running-related injury, and this is true no matter what your shoes look like.

The next question we need to ask is: Why is The Financial Times reporting on barefoot running shoe injuries? The answer is because the second half of the article goes on to promote a new type of running shoe fad: fat-soled running shoes. These new shoes are based on a new idea, with a new design, but hearken back to the old days when shoes were designed to reduce impact. More cushion = less stress; plus ca change, plus c'est la meme chose, meet the new boss / same as the old boss, etc.

Will these new shoes finally unlock the secret to injury-free distance running? No! Because it's not the shoes that help you avoid injuries. It's your own running form. Fix your running form, and you'll avoid future injuries, no matter what shoes you wear.

If you need "barefoot running" shoes to fix your form, then use them. If you need "stability shoes" to fix your form, then use them. If you need fat-soled running shoes to fix your form, then use them. Use whatever shoe or lack thereof it takes for you to improve your running form. Then just run. The fads will come and go, but proper running form has been the same for 20,000 years.

It's no coincidence that every new fitness trend comes with a list of products that will help you achieve it, no matter what it is. The marketplace is always and everywhere actively trying to meet your needs. The minute a new piece of information becomes available, an entrepreneur will try to leverage that information to make some money. The upshot of this is that you get a wide range of products that can meet your needs, no matter whose story you find most appealing.

The downside is that a lot of the available "information" out there is really just marketing. That's why it's important to keep up with what science is actually telling you. Don't just take claims at face-value, analyze them. Just because The Financial Times reveals a new running shoe doesn't mean that the shoe is actually based on sound technology. In this case, it may or may not be. It all kind of depends on what your running form is like, and what changes you need to make to improve it.

The point is, think. Thinking is what will help you make the best possible decisions.

Some Links

Rebecca Gebhardt-Brizi out-does herself in this post.

Speaking of TED Talks, this one came up in the Less Wrong Facebook group the other day. It is interesting, so I am linking to it, but I also think it is deeply flawed.

Foreign aid tangibly affects economic growth. (HT: Tyler Cowen) This is not exactly earth-shattering news, but it is nevertheless important. There are implications about capital stocks that I think many people are inclined to miss.

An excellent post on personal finance strategies, if you can parse it all.

James Schneider writes about the fact that hijab bans often backfire. In other words, the more hostile you are to a person's ideas, the more polarized they tend to become.

David Friedman has been writing some great posts on climate change: Here, here, and here.

I'm not an expert on these things, but I think this marks the end of Bitcoin, but not the end of "crypto-currency." I think the technology is too revolutionary to die. I also think that the major lesson to be learned from Mt. Gox is that nobody actually needs this kind of "exchange" to use crypto-currencies. I say, "I think," because I am just speculating based on my impressions of things.

I had no idea this was going to happen.


Never Stop Living

It's easy to forget what an amazing, fleeting thing life is. It's something we all emotionally grapple with in some way or another, but no one ever gets comfortable with the way life changes through the years. I am sure I'm not alone when I say that I still feel like the same person I was ten years ago, maybe even twenty years ago. I certainly have more knowledge and wisdom, but I still feel like the same guy.

This is seldom clearer to me than when I listen to music. Soundgarden is getting set to release a 5-CD, twentieth anniversary edition of their classic album Superunknown and to me this is a striking thing. I vividly remember what was happening in my life when that album came out. I remember the time of year it was, I remember the conversations I was having with my friends, how I discovered that album for myself, and of course the many times I listened to that album and learned how to play those songs. As tacky as it might sound, it really does feel like only yesterday.

But it wasn't yesterday. I was a teenager. Then, as now, I was obsessed with music and running and reading thick books. My sense of humor was more or less the same as it is now. It's not that I haven't progressed as a person, it's just that twenty years ago is a whole other world, whereas my consciousness is the only world I've ever known.

Life passes by slowly as we experience it, but once the years have gone by, we realize how quickly time really has gone by. I blogged about this once before.

Suddenly, with a burst of strength, he squeezed my hand and his voice boomed forward. "Sean! You need to live your life! There are so many things I wish I could have done but now can never do... I have so many dreams that are going to be left as that. Look at me. I am a shell of a man who can't even go outside for a walk. Don't let your dreams go unfulfilled. It's too late for me, but it's not too late for you..." 
...Then I began to cry. But to try to offset the tremendous sadness I was feeling, I also began to laugh and smile. As I continued to talk, his last words to me finally anchored themselves to my soul: "I will from now on, until the day I die, live every day as if it's my last. Every adventure I perform will be in his honor." 
I reached down and grabbed a bottle of Aquavit... I poured the Aquavit into a shot glass that my grandfather had used and raised it to the audience. "To you, Grandpa. Skal," I said, and I gulped the liquid down. 
I believe, to this day, that those two ounces of Aquavit just might have contained my grandfather's spirit, because by the time I returned to the pew I silently vowed to strike out for the big goal that had occupied my daydreams over the previous four years: climbing Mount Everest. I was not going to let fear and doubt kill any of my dreams anymore...
-- Sean Burch, Hyperfitness

So life passes us by quickly, and before we know it, we're on our death bed with a list of regrets, and the solution is to live each moment of every day to its fullest. It's been said millions of times by millions of people, but it's something that doesn't seem to resonate... until it does.

When I finished the Cowtown Half Marathon yesterday, I didn't want to do much of anything but sleep. I spent a lot of time at home, remembering all the great runs and races I've done over the years. Part of this line of thinking involved pining for the days when I was not diabetic, when I could just strap on a bottle of water and run thirty miles through the mountains. It was such an amazing period of my life, and such a fulfilling experience. I can't really even describe in words what it feels like to run over a hundred miles in a single week, but I've never felt anything better. It's not just the sense of accomplishment, but the level of physical fitness required to do it.

At that time in my life, I could have directed my energies elsewhere. I could have accomplished a totally different set of feats, which would be satisfying in their own right, or I could have done what many people mistakenly do with their time, which is while it away on TV, video games, drugs, and various other wastes.

A lot of people waste their time. And I`m not talking about people who spend their time doing things that I don't find fun. I'm talking about people who don't ever do much of anything. They never try to accomplish anything big, they never go anywhere interesting, they never do anything exciting or satisfying. Instead, they coast through life doing the absolute bare minimum. Life is easy for these folks, but I can't help but wonder what they'll think of themselves on their death beds.

Meanwhile, I am intensely grateful for the time I was able to spend running through the mountains without a trail map. Now that I no longer have access to that kind of activity, I can't help but appreciate how thoughtful it was to do that while I still had the chance. It makes me really happy.

And then, I think about how much life lies ahead of me, and how many other things I can still do, and it makes me excited to tackle it.

You have to use the life you have, you absolutely must. Life passes quickly and the opportunities you have today will not necessarily be there tomorrow. It's easy to say seize the day and live life to its fullest, but internalizing that message is a real and daily challenge.

Cowtown Half Marathon

Yesterday I had the opportunity to participate in the 2014 Cowtown Half Marathon. I wrote earlier that I was mostly unprepared for it. Did that impact my race? How was it?

The Cowtown Half Marathon
The race course itself is an interesting blend of Fort Worth site-seeing and necessary evils. 

One unstated purpose of marathons and half-marathons is tourism and promotion. What you'll often find at races like these is that the race organizers will make an effort to "show off" the most scenic local areas, presumably to make their city look like the most attractive city in the world. This tends to work better for attractive cities and worse for unattractive ones.

The City of Fort Worth falls somewhere in the middle. There are a number of very interesting tourist attractions. The city's downtown and uptown areas are vibrant and green, with parks, waterways, historical buildings, and everything else people tend to expect from "beautiful" cities. At the same time, Fort Worth is both a relatively small city and an extremely Texan city, which combines to add two additional elements: sparsely populated industrial zones and large spaces between attractive sites.

The impact this has on the race course is predictable: The racer get to pass by all the nice places in town, but in between each of those places are a few long, unattractive course legs. Predictably, the race spectators crowd around the pleasant spots, and are completely absent in the less pleasing parts of the course.

This makes the psychological game hard.

On the upside, the course is lined with some of the best local bands around. There was a particularly good metal band playing during mile 3 or so, and a truly fantastic Norteno band playing at around mile 5. I found the music invigorating, and it made the whole experience a lot of fun. And if you like running to the crowd, I don't think I've ever seen one touting as many rattling cowbells as I did yesterday.

The race course is also surprisingly difficult on the physical side of things, too. Take a look at the elevation change my Garmin watch captured as I ran:
There are two major uphill climbs during the race - one at the beginning of mile 4, and the other in the middle of mile 9 - and both of them are extremely steep relative to the rest of the course. While the course is generally as flat as you might expect in Texas, the first two thirds of the race is basically a gentle elevation descent. Then, just after mile 9, there is a long and difficult uphill climb along an empty patch of highway on the industrial side of town. You're running straight into the sunlight and trying not to hit the wall, climbing right up into the downtown core. It's a bear. Note also that the race finishes uphill. For my readers in more mountainous areas, I know it doesn't look like much, but trust me - once you've acclimatized to Texas elevations, this becomes pretty difficult to handle. I recommend that competitive racers do plenty of hill work.

My Race
Had I trained for this properly, I obviously would have run a much better race. Considering my low level of preparation, I ran as expected. For the first seven miles, I ran well under 6:30/mile pace, including one mile in 6:03. That is a brisk, but not Earth-shattering pace, exactly the sort of pace I would expect myself to run had I been adequately trained. Thereafter, I hit the wall falling to about 7:00/mile pace, with a couple of splits almost as slow as 7:30. I felt myself lose energy, and perhaps I could have hung on a little longer than I did. But my objective was not to win or to impress myself. My objective was merely to finish.

Keep in mind, this is my first ever formal half-marathon. I've run the distance many times, but this is the first time I've ever raced it. Also keep in mind that this is the longest race I've run since my type 1 diabetes diagnosis in 2009. To a large extent, what I really hoped to achieve with this race was to show myself that I could physically handle a race that long without experiencing some sort of bad blood sugar event. 

On that level, the race was a smashing success. I deliberately ran my blood sugar slightly high. At two separate hydration stations along the race, I took a few mouthfuls of Powerade, rather than water, to maintain a healthy blood sugar level. At the finish line, I ate half an orange, and when I got home about a half-hour after the race, I drank a protein shake and had a low-carb snack. I then tested my blood sugar: 86. Amazing! Right in the normal range.

Having had to deal with erratic post-race blood sugar in the past, I watched myself carefully all day long yesterday.. I was able to keep my blood sugar low and in-control with minimal effort. All that is to say, I've proven to myself that I can run half-marathons healthily. This was an important thing to prove to myself, and gives me hope that I might one day (soon) run a full marathon, too.

All said and done, the race was a lot of fun. The racers were friendly and supportive throughout, the race was well-organized, the course was challenging-but-fun, and my blood sugar was in control the whole time. What more could I ask for? 

I'll surely be running a few more half-marathons in the future. This was an excellent experience, and I'm looking forward to the next one. I hope to see you there, too.


Keynesian Economics Bleg

Scott Sumner's latest at EconLog got me thinking. I understand that the multiplier is a useful theoretical item in the Keynesian toolkit, but as far as I am aware, the empirical evidence for the multiplier is basically nil. I've read many articles making the case for the non-existence of the Keynesian multiplier, and I have read a few conservative articles claiming that the multiplier is between 0 and 1.

But I have never read any really good paper claiming that the Keynesian multiplier is greater than 1. Can anyone point me to the most compelling evidence? 


A Collectivist's Guide To Individuality

I spend a lot of time on this blog writing about the importance and benefits of Individuality. As I've written before, it's true that human beings are social animals that like to associate in groups, but we also possess an existential need for self-actualization. That is, we all possess both a group impulse and an individual impulse.

It's tempting to think that these forces are somehow at odds, but they're not. If you're the kind of person for whom the group is extremely important, I'm writing today's post for you. I'd like to show you how small changes in how we look at groups can improve both the success of the in-group and the existential individuality inside of you.

The most important thing in art is The Frame. For painting: literally; for other arts: figuratively-- because, without this humble appliance, you can't know where The Art stops and The Real World begins. You have to put a 'box' around it because otherwise, what is that shit on the wall?
-- Frank Zappa, The Real Frank Zappa Book

Maybe Frank knew it when he wrote that, or maybe he didn't, but he was expressing the philosophical concept of difference. In order to say anything about X, I have to know first and foremost that X is something meaningfully different than Y.

There is infinite variation among individuals within any group. How can it be that so many people who are so different belong to the same group? Clearly the most important aspect of any group is where you draw the boundary line between your group and everyone else. This could be an imaginary line, drawn on a map. Or, it could be something more tangible, like religious affiliation or language. It could be something entirely transient and artificial, like the intramural sports team you're on, or it could be something permanent and irreversible, like the color of your skin.

In any case, on the one side of the boundary lies everyone who doesn't belong, who you have decided to see as "different," and on the other side lies a mass of infinite individual variation that we happily ignore for the sake of having a sense of "belonging."

It's almost paradoxical: Once you belong to a group, you're free to be as colorfully individualistic as you wish to be, so long as you adhere to the confines of the boundary line that has been drawn. But if you're outside that same boundary, it doesn't matter how similar you are to the group that lies inside it. Subject to the one defining feature of the group, you're an outsider, and thus "different," even if you're actually the same.

So I might be nothing like the other white Utahns with whom I grew up - and indeed, I am not - but I belong to their in-group because of the accident of geography. Meanwhile, I might have everything in common with someone who grew up in, say, Bangladesh, but will have to overcome a series of ingrained group biases within her in order to demonstrate that we ought really belong to the same group.

Whether we're talking about immigration, racism, corporate sponsorship, nationality, or anything else - whenever anyone moves from an old group to a new group, it's not that person's individual character traits that change, but rather the application of the boundary line.

This simple truth is enormously important. What it means is that anyone can be brought into the fold at any time - or cast into the outer darkness - at any time whatsoever. All it requires is that you draw the boundary in a different place. Is this easier said than done? Not at all - it is both easily said and easily done.

Here's a great example: Say you live in New York City. You could draw a boundary at the edge of the New York metropolitan area, as many do, and include only "New Yorkers" among those with whom you identify. Or, you could include even those quaint upstate New Yorkers in your group affiliation. Or you could include anyone in Connecticut, and Boston, etc., and call yourself a New Englander. Or you could call yourself an American, and include everyone across the country, and even in Hawaii, and Alaska, and Guam. Or you could just keep expanding your circle to include the entire human race. It's really up to you.

You might argue that the lines that define New York City or the United States are important demarcations of culture; and you might even be right. But what's critical is that you have chosen the culture to which you belong, out of a great many that potentially apply.

Would it be erroneous to say that a person feels more "culturally American" than "culturally New Yorker?" Would a person who said so be wrong? No, of course not. At any possible moment, we can migrate from in-group to in-group intellectually by simply choosing to self-identify with one group rather than another.

Nor does this mean that the group affiliation itself is meaningless. You might feel a great attachment to your culture, and you would be right to feel that way. My point isn't that group affiliation is bad or meaningless, but simply that it is a choice you make. You choose to draw your own boundary lines, and you do so for your own benefit.

But if your choice of in-group is made for your own benefit, it can come at a cost. In many cases it costs us nothing, but costs someone else a great deal. Excluding other people from your own national identity, for example, can result in great poverty and suffering for some of those you choose to exclude. Excluding other people from your own racial identity fans the flames of racism, the results of which have been tragic throughout human history. And there are many other, more minor costs such as social anxiety, social isolation, peer pressure, and so on.

Most of these costs are unequivocally bad. That is, unless you are a vindictive person, you don't actually want to make people suffer at the hands of your in-group. You don't want to foist anxiety or isolation on someone, at least not knowingly. You don't want to be a racist jerk. You don't want someone to starve on a boat.

What you really want is what's best for your in-group.

In light of what I've written above, the solution seems obvious: All we need to do is have some flexibility in where we draw the boundaries of our in-groups. Why exclude people needlessly, especially when there is no clear benefit to you or your in-group? The larger you draw your circle, the less you have to worry about how to punish people who don't fit inside of it.

To be sure, we still need some boundaries: Crime, for example, is an important boundary to set for any in-group. If you violate the group's laws and become a criminal, you ought to be punished as an outsider. Hence, we send murderers and thieves to jail and force them to "pay their debt to society" before they can join up with us again.

But if a person is a lot like you, except for an innocuous or entirely victimless criterion (skin color, religious affiliation, hobby, place of birth, etc.), then what do we hope to gain from excluding them from the group? No one gains from that.

So, why not choose otherwise?


Is It Uptalk, Or Is It A Loaded Question?

The always-controversial Amanda Marcotte has an article at Slate.com, covering another article in The Atlantic, which tackles the most important social issue of our day: uptalk.

Uptalk? Is that thing? That some girls? And even some boys? Do with their voices? When they end each clause? As though it were a question? Even though it's not?

Clearly this is a crushingly important social trend that needs to be investigated, analyzed, re-analzyed, and otherwise gone-over with a fine-toothed comb. Because I write a blog, you can almost bet that the previous sentence was sarcasm, as almost assuredly will be the next sentence; but how can you be sure whether this one is or isn't?

Men and young boys have all kinds of vocal tics, but of course the interesting thing is that they fly under the radar. In The Atlantic, Jessica Lahey remarks, "If... baby voice is learned, it can be unlearned through practice, positive reinforcement, and more practice." She then goes on to quote one Katie Hurley, a psychotherapist who says that uptalk "can stem from low self-esteem or is used to seek attention from peers and/or adults."

Here's a brief aside, although I concede that it is possibly a cheap shot: How seriously should we take the self-esteem theories about uptalk when they come from someone who goes by "Katie," rather than "Kate" or "Katherine?" I'm not simply saying that because it makes a good "gotcha." I am legitimately curious why a manner of speaking, popular among young girls in North America, is appreciably different from calling oneself a more "cutesy" version of one's real name.

In a more rational universe, these would be the sort of ideas that would lead Amanda Marcotte to write her own critique of Lahey's article. Instead, Marcotte signs on to Lahey's thesis statement and pushes the point even further. Writing about a young girl who was successfully taught self-confidence through one of Lahey's uptalk interventions, Marcotte says:
The interventions that seem to have worked were more positive ones, such as public speaking lessons and teachers taking the time to actually listen to the girl. One wonders if the three year process would have shortened if the confidence-building had started earlier, instead of forcing the girl to go through a phase of having her uptalk and baby speak monitored heavily first.
In other words, if you want to teach a girl self-confidence, then go directly to the confidence-building, and skip the step where you criticize her for the way she talks. It's a fair point on an individual level, but both Lahey and Marcotte want us to believe that the way girls speak is emblematic of the fact that young girls in general supposedly lack self-esteem. (And, by implication, that boys do not.)

In truth, though, teenage girls have always lacked self-esteem, as have teenage boys. The teenage years are an emotionally tumultuous time in a person's life, in which we refine our sense of right and wrong and our ability to engage in abstract reasoning, but lack the neurological maturity required to consistently act according to our logic and beliefs. This is fact of neuroscience, not a byproduct of "the patriarchy."

And anyway, do we honestly believe that writing pages and pages of articles about how teenage girls all lack self-esteem is the right way to tackle that problem even if it were true? Would it raise your self-esteem if I were to show up at your doorstep early every morning with a declaration that through no fault of your own, you have been taught to feel bad about yourself?

This brings me back to what I was saying above. Boys also have all kinds of vocal tics. They also have funny little walks and displays of bravado that they learn and hone in their early years to compensate for a lack of self assurance. The primary difference between boys' tics and girls' tics is that we do not have an army of self-styled feminists who eagerly declare that every childish misstep a boy makes is emblematic of society's refusal to tolerate their self-esteem.

Boys don't tend to have self-esteem problems because boys are not pummeled with a daily narrative about how they feel bad about themselves, so it never occurs to them to think about it. To be sure, some boys do have self-esteem problems; but some do not. We don't analyze the issue sociologically, we analyze it psychologically, on an individual basis.

But when it comes to girls, and even grown women, we have sites like Double X and Jezebel eagerly informing us that women are addled by self-doubt and a lack of self-esteem, that it's been imposed upon them from above, and that there's nothing they can do about it other than engage in vocal fry and hate men.

Considering that, is there any wonder so many young girls end up with self-esteem problems?

Trolley Problem

See also: This post.

Pre-Half-Marathon Musings

This Sunday, I'll be running the Cowtown Half Marathon in Fort Worth, Texas. I have spent the last few weeks trying to build up as much of an endurance base as I can, considering a uniquely tight schedule and some various passing illnesses. This isn't the first time I've run a race despite being completely unprepared, but it is perhaps the longest race I've ever been unready for.

Why run such a long race if I'm not ready? The answer to that question is, like virtually everything I blog about (heh), multifaceted. Let's take a look.

The first thing I must say here is that, as someone who started competitive distance running at or around the age of eight, I am not one who typically has to worry about being truly unprepared. As long as I keep up the exercise with some bit of regularity, I can be confident that I'll be able to finish pretty much any distance. And since most half marathon participants are in it for the participation of it - the experience, the satisfaction of merely finishing - I can safely say that I am every bit as prepared as the average racer.

This implies that my being "unprepared" is more about whether or not I'm in good enough shape to win, or to run well, or to place near the front of the pack. To be sure, it's an attractive prospect, one that dominated a significant portion of my childhood and young adulthood. But I often forget that it's a prospect that ultimately proved off-putting for me. That is to say, I retired from competitive running on purpose, and I did so nearly fifteen years ago. This brings me to my second reason for running.

Even if I were in peak shape right now, I would certainly not win the race. I would almost certainly not place in the top ten. I may place in my age category, but it is also equally likely that I wouldn't. The fact of the matter is that, whoever you are, whatever your history with athletic excellence, at a certain point you reach a stage in life when winning isn't everything. People who start running as adults are already at that stage of their "running careers" the first time they put their shoes on. People like me, who spend many years with "excellent distance runner" tied up in our identities, need to go through a transition from "I am an awesome distance runner" to "I used to be an awesome distance runner, and now I do it just because I enjoy it. And I don't have to win, or even run well, in order to enjoy myself."

So a major objective in my running this half marathon while being unprepared is to help myself transition to that later stage, to help teach myself that I can participate in an actual race, with actual medals and trophies and cash prizes without feeling obligated to make a go of winning.

It sounds preposterous to some of you, I'm sure. But before you judge me too harshly, consider this: I once had the opportunity of hearing a speech from legendary American distance runner Billy Mills. He told us the story of how he used to mentally prepare himself for his eventual Olympic win. He told us he used to repeat the date of the (future) race, the time he wanted to finish in, the place he wanted in the race (first, obviously), and that he would repeat this over and over in his head obsessively. (I'm not sure he used the word "obsessively," but I don't mean it in a bad way.) That mental preparation translated into a glorious win for Mills at the 1964 Olympics, but that's when it really gets interesting. Even now (he told us), when he goes for a run, his mind goes back to rehearsing his goal and the date of the 1964 Olympics.

The point is, once you acclimate yourself to this mental space, it's a real challenge to go back to being normal. When I left my college track team, I spent the next five years or so running without a watch. I needed to stop timing myself. I needed to stop keeping track of my pace. I'm finally back to where I like to track it again, but the simple fact of the matter is that a transition to normalcy is important. That's one of the things I'd like to achieve - or at least a goal on which I'd like to make some headway - this Sunday.

A third reason I'm doing it is hidden between the lines of everything I've written above. It might not be totally obvious to some of you, but it's true: I'm doing it because it sounds like fun. I know I can finish the race, I know what it feels like to run that long a distance, I haven't done it for a while, I like getting up and running in the morning, I like being part of a road racing community... In short, it sounds like fun. So, despite my lack of preparation, I want to do it. I know that if I don't do anything stupid (like try to win), I'll have a good time and I won't hurt myself. So why not?


Worth Blogging

I posted this to Facebook, but it's worth putting it on my blog as well.

Donald Boudreaux at Cafe Hayek links to an article in today's Wall Street Journal discussing income inequality and the so-called "1%."

I received some anticipated skepticism around the idea that "$300,000 isn't that rich." That is, many people are under the impression that households that make $300,000 per year are incredibly wealthy. While adding a human element to the $300K number is out-of-scope for the WSJ article, I thought it would be useful to highlight what that number actually means.

I expect that I do not have a lot of readers in, say, New York City or San Francisco. If I do, then those readers will surely find this blog post rather unsurprising. For those of you who live in more rural areas or states with a lower cost of living, consider the following:

$300,000 of employment income per year in Manhattan is approximately equivalent to $161,000 per year in Portland, Oregon, according to this online cost of living calculator. What this tells you is that households that make $161,000 per year in Portland, Oregon would require an additional $139,000 in order to enjoy the same quality of life that they enjoy, were they to move to Manhattan.

Right away, some of you will see where I'm going with this. $300,000 seems like a large number to those of us who do not live in Manhattan, but $161,000 does not.

Let's look a little more closely. I happened to look up the median salary for school teachers - an obvious middle-class occupation - in Portland, Oregon. The number is reported to be $56,000 per year. What this means is that the median dual-income household of school teachers makes approximately $112,000 per year. That household requires an additional $49,000 per year to enter the so-called "1%."

What would get them there? Any of the following:

  • If one member of the household were to be promoted to school principal, that would do it.
  • An adult in-law staying under the same roof and working at, say, Costco, would also do the trick.
  • Multiple teenage children working part-time jobs.
  • A wise investment in an income property.
We often believe that "the 1%" consists of some nefarious gang of cognac-sniffing, world-domination-plotting, back-room old boys. But, as you can see, all it really takes is having an ambitious middle-class income in a city with a high cost of living.


So far, 2014 has been the year of making changes to my blog. Further to last night's post on rhetorical nukes, I am thinking it is time to make some more changes around here regarding how I choose to blog and what I choose to blog about.

As always, I'd like to ensure that this blog remains a source of exposition about running, fitness, and music. I'd like to keep providing information and perspectives on diabetes, and discussing economics as it comes up. 

What I'd like to avoid, however, is excessive opining. If you've been a long-time reader, then you can already predict with certainty that I will be giving plenty of opinions in the future, as I always have. Let's face it, I'm an opinionated guy.

But when I read through my blogroll these days, I find myself completely skipping over the blogs written by people who write some snarky opinion about current events. I have my own opinion on current events. It's nice to know what people are thinking, but after you have a good sense of what various opinions are floating around out there, it doesn't do anyone any good to keep hearing them. In the end, who cares? If there is more information to be learned, then that's always good - information can change the opinion of an honest truth-seeker. But if there isn't any new information being provided, only a new, super-witty, super-snarky way of describing a particular opinion, then why bother? I would rather apply my time doing more productive things.

And since I'm not particularly interested in reading those blogs, I should do the decent thing and prevent myself from ever becoming one of those blogs.

So, while this is by no means an end to the opining altogether, it probably is an end to deep discussions and back-and-forth on Issues X, or Y, or even Z. I'll provide an opinion when I encounter new information, or when I'd like to highlight some concept that I feel has been partially ignored.

But as for a daily send-up of my strong opinions... meh. Who wants to read that?

Some Links

Robert Murphy wonders whether quantitative easing has ever worked.

John Taylor provides a handy reference guide to his recent empirical work investigating the American economy since the dawn of what they all call "The Great Recession." To answer Robert Murphy's question, above: "No."

David Friedman reports that his family's three-generation-long attempt to breed musical ability into an unmusical family has been successful. I say he's failed to rule out nurture, since mothers obviously play a role in a child's musical nurturing, but in either case, this should give the tone deaf some hope.

Lubos Motl covers the recent emigeration of US residents to locales with lower tax rates. That is, Americans are leaving America in search of lower tax rates. This should strike a blow to the argument that open borders is about a claque of elitists seeking to gain from cheap labor (ha ha, conspiracy theory).

Not really news, but public education sucks. Today's example is this story about how public schools fail to provide the basics of learning computer coding to kids. I'm not sure coding should be an important part of primary school, but if you disagree with me, then this story is for you. (HT: Kids Prefer Cheese)

There is now a saliva test for boys with mild depression, to measure the probability that they will develop major depression.

This headline is a major misnomer. The prank didn't "go wrong," the prank went just fine, it's just that the homeowner was batshit crazy and opened fire on a crowd of kids. That said, it is deeply disturbing that this man is charged with terrorism. Now anyone is a terrorist.

Elephants reassure and console each other.


Scorched Earth

Closely related to the "intellectual nuke button" is the rhetorical nuke button.

One presses the intellectual nuke button when one no longer wishes to think, i.e. apply one's intellect. In my previous post, I referred to two different kinds: childish tantrums and righteous indignation. Certainly there are more, but I just wanted to recap what an intellectual nuke button is: It's an emotional outburst intended to silence anyone who's second-guessing you.

On the other hand, there may be some instances during which you don't want to nuke your intellect, you just want to nuke the argument. In that case, you'd want to apply a rhetorical nuke button.

This one is common in romance, folks. What happens is that two lovers will quarrel, each hurting the other's feelings, until the moment one or both of them decides to patch things up. He or she will extend an olive branch and work toward a reconciliation. If the other person decides to extend an olive branch of their own, then the two lovers are well on their way to a passionate make-up.

But sometimes people let their emotions get the better of them. Sometimes, rather than accepting an olive branch, one lover will use the temporary lull in fighting to POUNCE! He or she will take advantage of the momentary quiet to throw their lowest blow. This may feel satisfying in the moment, but it's not a touchdown, it's a punt. It's a Pyrrhic victory.

Naturally, this need not necessarily happen between lovers. It can happen between any two people having any sort of a disagreement. During a disagreement, it's really only the emotionally stable people who fail to be adequately respectful. So "olive branches" don't come in the form of apologies or tenderness, but rather in the form of common ground.

Let's say you have a problem with free markets or immigration, and you're debating it with me. I might just sneer the whole time and make my point over and over again without listening to yours. Or, I might actually take the time to hear you out and carefully respond. I might say, "You know, you make a good point. I will have to think about that a bit. But what do you say about X?"

At that point, the person speaking to me has a choice: He or she could throw it in my face and accuse me of having no good response, or... he or she could hear me out, find something redeeming about what I'm saying, and try to build common ground.

This is called being an honest truth-seeker. We take the most charitable version of our opponent's arguments, find something redeeming about it, and see if it can be used to forge some common ground toward an agreement, or at least a recess. It's just basic respect.

But some people would rather not avail themselves of that option. Some people would rather take the lull as an opportunity to sink lower, get angry, get snarky, or whatever.

It would be silly to lament that such people exist, but nonetheless it is important to know that they do exist. It's important to learn that some people aren't really interested in truth-seeking or common ground. These folks aren't interested in hearing your side except to poke holes in it. These folks aren't interested in finding out what the truth is. The folks are convinced they already know it; they're just waiting for you to slip-up so that they can POUNCE!

You can't really have a conversation with those. You're better off direction your energy elsewhere.


Happy Valentine's Day

Last year, I wrote a pretty comprehensive post against all sorts of people who ruin Valentine's Day. I re-read it just now, and I'm happy to say that I still agree with it. I am somewhat ideologically consistent, after all!

This year, my Facebook feed is absolutely brimming with Valentine's Day wishes and celebrations. It's a refreshing change of pace from the usual hating. From this, we can posit a number of potential hypotheses:

  1. I am finally starting to get through to you people. Just kidding. I know I don't have any influence on anyone's Valentine's Day celebration or lack thereof - except for my own, and that of a certain special someone, wink-wink, nudge-nudge, etc.
  2. People in general are feeling happier this year than they were last year. This sounds silly, but I think it's worth considering. The 2012 election is a distant memory, the economy is not exactly exploding, but it's better than it was, there are some good movies out. It's not all good news out there, but it could be that people just feel a little happier these days.
  3. All the haters moved to Google+. This is also a ridiculous assertion, but it's worth noting that all the V-day hate I've seen this year has been on Google+, not Facebook. Coincidence?
  4. My peer group and I are finally growing up. Marriages. Babies. Promotions. We had a good run while we were still irrepressibly immature, but we finally have regular incomes and comfortable home lives. Maybe that makes us more inclined to be happy about Valentine's Day, rather than sad about it.
  5. I've eliminated most of the haters from my peer group. Maybe it's just the 80/20 rule at work. Everyone got tired of reading my Stationary Waves links, and I got tired of reading their anti-V-day hate. Self-sorting occurred. It's possible.
I hope it's obvious that I'm not being totally serious here. But still, in the back of my mind, I hope that reason #2 applies. Life can be a long, hard journey. We could all use a little extra romance in our lives. It's easy to rain on that parade; it's easy to bristle at the pressure of having to be romantic, or being expected to be romantic, but it's still important to get over ourselves long enough to hold someone close and tell them, "I love you."

Of course, it's easy for me to say. After all, Valentine's Day isn't just a philosophical declaration of happiness to me, it's a day I look forward to every year, a day I get to spend with someone who knocks my socks off. Naturally I'd be in favor of having a happy, sappy Valentine's Day - I get to spend it with her.

But as I look over the Facebook photos and hokey little romantic messages flying around out there, I get the sense that many of us have a her or a him in our lives that makes us glad we can have a Happy Valentine's Day. There's no shame in not having found yours, but there's also no shame in having found him or her, and really enjoying it.

Happy Valentine's Day.


George Selgin Is Too Good A Writer

He's so good at composing his prose that it probably gets in the way of people who would much rather have "just the facts, ma'am." At least, that is the lesson I've drawn from his most recent post at Free Banking. (Hot off the presses! I'm blogging about it here because I can't be bothered to register at Free Banking in order to comment - which I am sure they are ultimately happy about, as my blog comments tend to get annoying sometimes. Just ask Daniel Kuehn.)

For all its colorful and delightful language, Selgin's post can perhaps be condensed into a single sentence:
Indeed, the only sort of thinking that I insist is unhelpful to doing good economics is thinking about, so as to better obey, the particular methodological credos of some school.
I am reminded of that old Frank Zappa quote, "Without deviation from the norm, progress is not possible."

It's possible that every valid method for conducting economic analysis was outlined by Ludwig von Mises - or anyone else, for that matter - a hundred years ago, but I doubt it. Science, social or otherwise, should always seek to discover new ideas about how to discover new ideas. Otherwise, it risks becoming an internally consistent but logically false circularity. See also: "Begging The Question Or Brainwashing Yourself."

The Trick Is Moving

It's been said that the best way to wake up in the morning is to get some light shining on your face. It's sort of a trick of human evolution, we're hard-wired to be awake when light is shining on us, and asleep when it's dark. So they say that if you have trouble getting up, you should turn the lights on immediately.

There is an analogous trick I've noticed when it comes to getting up early for a morning workout. Sure, the lights help, so go ahead and turn on the lights. But on top of that, it's always the first batch of movement that proves the most challenging.

If you decide to get up and do some push-ups, for example, it's always the first few reps that are the most difficult. After they're over, something happens: your body switches over into active mode, and you hardly notice that you were moving sluggishly before. By the time you're finished with your first set and stand up to take a rest between sets, it's like you weren't even asleep just five minutes ago. Amazing.

You've almost certainly noticed this with anything. The most difficult part of doing something you're dreading is getting started on it. After that, it becomes a lot easier to focus on what you're doing. Even when I get occasional bouts of stage fright, they tend to disappear after the first note. Something about just moving, or just taking that initial step, does most of the motivational heavy lifting.

If you're having trouble getting up for a morning workout, or getting started on a big project, or running despite the stormy weather outside, try to overcome your initial reaction. After that, things get much easier.

Housekeeping: I'm adding a "Motivation" label, since it comes up frequently.

Open Borders Critics: Mostly Just Annoyed

More fodder from the "meh" files:
Why don’t you see that you can put forth a case for a policy change without going the extra mile of insisting that your preferred policy is *required* due to ‘rights’ and (therefore) that other people are *invalid* for disagreeing?
OpenBorders.info is one of the most comprehensive single-issue websites I have ever seen in my life. The quality of that website is the main reason I chose to respond to one of their calls for guest- and occasional-bloggers. The depth of information there is truly astounding.

What sets OpenBorders.info apart from most other websites of its kind is that it is not merely an advocacy blog. Beyond the blog, it is essentially an immigration wiki, offering moral, practical, "second-order," and country-specific arguments for immigration. The arguments covered are not merely the arguments posed by the website's bloggers; as I said, the website functions as a sort of wiki for all known arguments in favor of immigration, categorized and annotated.

But wait, there's more. In addition to the four categories of arguments in favor of open immigration, OpenBorders.info also offers five categories of arguments against open immigration: harms, more harms, harms (theoretical bases), other practical objections, and theoretical objections.

If you've been keeping score, that means the website covers objections to open borders as thoroughly or more so than it covers arguments in favor. And as well it should: understanding people's objections is an important part of effective advocacy and intellectual rigor.

So claims to the effect that open borders advocates are "deceitful" or "dishonest" ("intellectually dishonest") or that open borders advocates refuse to address the criticisms of others are not just untenable, they are preposterous.

Which brings me to the topic at hand. What bothers critics of open borders, such as AnonySonic or "Christopher Chang," is not the many overwhelmingly good arguments in favor of open immigration, but simply that they find a few such arguments irritating. As Chang writes:
Asserting that open borders are a moral imperative is much more specific, and among other things, condemns everyone (including myself) who honestly believes that letting countries voluntarily set border policies achieves better outcomes for practically everyone than forcing them all open immediately as evil.
The idea that it might be completely immoral to bar immigrants from improving their lives using a means that has proven benefits to you, and minimal costs, irritates the critics because they can't respond to it. Instead, they recede into the usual send-up of abstract philosophical reasoning around property rights and the state of nature, and whether this aggregates up to the state level, and whether it implies that if we open the borders we have to disband the army and lolz, lolwut, wtf, bahaha, etc...

One of the reasons open borders advocates make such a hobby horse out of the moral case is that it is completely irrefutable. There is no good argument against the moral case. And because restrictionists understand this, they become irritated and say, "It's not fair! It's not honest! It's not reasonable!"

But of course it is. If it's fair to let refugees die in a boat thanks to border restrictions, then it's perfectly fair to condemn those who defend such practices. I won't call them evil, but I will call them misguided to the point of having questionable morals.

If they find that irritating, I can live with that.

Housekeeping: I'm adding an "Immigration" label.


Some Links

I don't know if it's a faux pas to do this sort of post multiple times per week, but there's a lot of interesting stuff out there.

There is evidence of liquid water - or something like it - on Mars.

Not yet time for Austrian-School I-told-you-so's, but a US economic recovery appears to come with the potential for asset bubbles. For my part, I wonder if it's just the way we've grown accustomed to talking about economics nowadays. At any given point in time, there is always an over-priced asset and an under-priced asset. I am not sure it's useful to call the one a bubble and the other a burst. In other words, when are disequilibria simply disequilibria? Why does everything have to be systemic?

Doubtless you've already seen this excellent George Selgin post on truth and individuality, but I'm linking to it anyway.

Another one you must have already seen: Bryan Caplan on "The Futility of Quarreling When There Is No Surplus To Divide." The example is dating, but I think the principle holds true for ideological differences in general.

If your life's been touched by myeloma, or even if it hasn't, here is Nick Van Dyk on successful treatments, parts one, two, and three.

The Washington Post, and indeed the data itself, catches up with my heroin prediction.

Crocodiles can climb trees. The day they decide to take over, there will be no hope for the human race.

Everest And The Gnome Hypothesis

Photo courtesy Wikipedia
No sooner had I written about minimum wage and the Gnome Hypothesis then did James Schneider write a post over at EconLog suggesting that people climb who summit the "eight-thousanders" do so mainly as a status-seeking enterprise. He also has a few choice words for marathon runners.

What do these two blog posts have to do with each other? Everything.

Clarity of reason is important because it enables us to spot fiction much more easily. That's why I come up with ideas like "Gnome Hypoetheses" and "shotgun theories." They function as good shorthand for ideas that would otherwise take a long time to explain.

Schneider begins by stating:
If status is important, then climbing mountains just over 8000 meters will be much more desirable than climbing mountains just under 8000 meters. Even if the peaks just under 8000 meters are similar in deadliness, there is no simple shorthand way to communicate your achievement.
He then checks the record books to determine whether or not there is a cutoff in the frequency of summits, and finds that there is indeed a dramatic cutoff at the 8000 meter mark. He concludes that, since the 8000-meter elevation mark corresponds with a decrease in the frequency of summits, status must be important.

Do you see the problem? Schneider is affirming the consequent. As I wrote last week, a large proportion of economic analysis comes down to assuming that X is the only valid cause of Y, testing for Y, and then proclaiming that you have demonstrated X. But it doesn't work that way.

Status is probably one reason that some people climb Everest or other "eight-thousanders." But is it the only reason? Is it even the "average reason?" Schneider never establishes this, he simply assumes it.

So, his argument that people run marathons and climb Everest purely as a status-seeking enterprise is a fallacious one, for affirming the consequent, but also a Gnome Hypothesis because "status-seeking" is entirely speculative.

This kind of speculation is particularly unreasonable since all one needs to do to find out why people climb Everest is to ask them. As commenter "DougT" points out, the case of Everest has a particularly noteworthy example in Edmund Hillary's famous explanation, "Because it was there." Not, "Because I wanted to impress people." Not, "Because I wanted to get laid." Not, "To attract donor funding to my Nepalese development charity." Because it was there.

Schneider's point gets less convincing when he tries to apply it to marathons. Marathons, as a distance, have a rich folklore justifying the length of the race. Schneider wonders why we run 26.2 miles instead of 25.8, but the question is silly. The distance of 26.2 miles came about as a result of the legend of the race. It's true that, once upon a time, there was no set, agreed-upon marathon distance, and so races were of varying lengths. But the push to length standardization was the result of competition. Winners like to know how they compare to each other. Standardizing race lengths enables us to set world records, etc.

Schneider might argue that attempting to break a world record is a status-seeking enterprise, but how cynical is that? Are people nothing more than status-seeking, utility-maximizing machines? Or, can we trace some of our ambitions to personal, romantic, spiritual, etc. motives?

To me, it seems unlikely that the only reason people are driven to greatness is status. I don't deny that some of us are wired that way, but it is yet to be determined that underneath it all, status is our only motive. It's just a hypothesis, and a Gnome Hypothesis at that.


The Lines Blur Further

According to a site called News Ledge, the validity of which I cannot vouch for since I've never actually seen it before (but hey, there is a corroborating story at The Washington Times, so what are the odds that everyone is just making stuff up... oh wait...), the State of Illinois plans to spend $150,000 on heavilly discounted advertising at the website of The Onion, that satirical news site.

There is a reason people read The Onion beyond the mere fact that "it's funny." The reason is to basically escape the news. People read The Onion because real-world news is so depressing and preposterous that we need a dose of healthy humor to keep ourselves grounded. It's funny to read something that sounds real, but which is still obviously funny because, well, it's nice to know that there are people out there who find the world as ridiculous as we do ourselves.

But politically motivated advertising at The Onion changes things quite a bit. Now The Onion is no longer an escape from reality, but a brief dose of entertainment while the government hunts you down through your web browser and propagandizes you.

There is something very sad about this. The idea that the only respite you can ever hope to get from the government's "messaging" is to turn off all electronic devices and go off the grid. How sad is it that the only way to make sure the government's propaganda can't get to you is to make sure that no one can get to you at all?

This isn't the kind of life we all want to lead, is it? Don't we want the ability to pursue an apolitical experience at some point during the course of our daily lives?

Steve Sailer Just Makes Stuff Up

Steve Sailer is in the habit of making stuff up out of thin air. I've mentioned this before - see here and here. But if you still think I'm wrong, consider some additional evidence.

Exhibit A - Writing on Bryan Caplan's reaction to the recent Swiss anti-immigration vote, he says:
And, you’ll notice, not only are the Swiss having second thoughts about Inviting the World, for centuries they have failed to shoulder any of the burden of Invading the World.

I say, this unacceptable Swiss majority vote just proves that it's time to put Victoria Nuland and the rest of the Kagans in charge of having the National Endowment of Democracy pay for a Color Revolution in Switzerland. There are probably some bored soccer hooligans in Switzerland who wouldn't mind a grant to camp out downtown for the Swiss Spring and battle the riot police in the name of Democracy.

And if that doesn’t work, well we tried to destroy nativism peacefully, but there are limits to our patience. So, let the drone strikes begin.
I'm not an idiot. I get that he's attempting to be "funny," but where does this stuff about drone strikes come from? Any clues? Has any immigration movement ever resorted to that kind of violence in order to get what they want?

But let's stick to the point. I'm not writing to argue with Sailer about immigration. I'm here to call him out on the fact that he likes to just make stuff up. It is, for lack of a more appropriate term, bullshit, and it's time we demanded more from people who proclaim themselves to be "journalists."

Exhibit B - Two days ago, he wrote:
The notion that maybe, after 116 years it's getting toward time for Puerto Rico to stand on its own two feet simply doesn't come up in 21st Century thinking.
Really, Steve Sailer? It doesn't come up at all? Like, it didn't come up here (Jan. 26, 2014), or here (Jan. 28, 2014), or here (Jan. 27, 2014), or here (Jan. 22, 2014), or... well, you get the picture.

Sailer cannot simply rest his arguments on facts and reasoning; that is really the only explanation for his pervasive tendency to just make shit up off the top of his head.



Here's a tip to making your day a little bit better. This might seem a little simplistic, maybe even stupid, but it really pays off. The idea is to take whatever recurring or unpleasant task you might be faced with on a given day, and to make small changes that result in major improvements to your level of satisfaction.

I'll give you an example from my own life: It's typical for me to come home from work, throw on my running shoes, and head out the door for a run. The benefit is that it's quick and convenient; the main drawback is that the surrounding neighborhood is not a very good one to run through. There aren't many trees, there isn't any water, traffic is heavier than I'd prefer, and I have to run at least a mile in any direction before I arrive at any sort of pleasant scenery. Even then, what scenery actually is pleasant is relatively fleeting, and I soon find myself running next to a home improvement store, or a freeway, or road construction, or something.

Well, a few weeks back, I took a wrong turn on my way to the store, and ended up on a little turn-off right before a highway overpass. As I made my way back to my point of origin, I noticed a little parking lot and a drinking fountain. I'd stumbled on an inlet into the local trail system in town, only about a three-minute drive from my home.

Since then, I've been running there. The trails are well-maintained, pleasant to run on, there is plenty of wildlife and fellow runners, and the scenery is about as great as you're likely to find around here. Almost instantly, I found my running pace had increased and my overall satisfaction with every run was much more than it had been.

Such a small, easy change - finding better scenery - translated into a big satisfaction gain.

Similarly, I recently loaded my phone up with a lot of mp3s, and I now plug my headphones in and listen to some of my favorite music, even when I'm caught somewhere that I don't usually get to hear anything.

Of course, these two examples are no-brainers for many people. The point isn't that these two actions in particular will change your life, but simply that there must be dozens of things you go through every day that you could make incrementally better by simply doing things a little differently. Add them all up, and it will make for a much better day. Really.

Some Links

Angus highlights a head-scratcher on macroeconomic jobs data.

This is a post from Tyler Cowen, but it seems more like a post from Alex Tabarrok. Anyway, more data pertaining to the US prison state.

A pair of interesting quotes, side-by-side, courtesy Roderick Long.

A run on Bitcoin?

Robert Murphy has some questions for James Schneider.

I don't know. I like to believe I don't sound like this when I critique real economists (unlike fake economists such as myself), but I wonder. Is this what my blog sounds like?

Every preventable death is a tragedy.



Well, I did it. An hour solid of jazz/fusion guitar improvisation. Inspired by those nutty 70s fusion bands.



Ryan Ruins Requests: "Straight Through The Heart" By Dio

It's baaaaaack... That's right, it's Ryan Ruins Requests!

Today, I've decided to ruin the Dio classic, "Straight Through the Heart." I hope you enjoy it. I had a lot of fun making it.


Art Is Relevant To The Times

I once met a young man, about fourteen years old, who played a pretty mean blues guitar. His father had raised him on a steady diet of The Beatles, Led Zepplin, and the usual parade of blues and blues-rock classics. He was a genuinely good player, but when I jammed with him, he didn't know anything but oldies. And the White Stripes.

It's not that this kid had bad taste in music - I mean, those bands and songs are all pretty much the time-tested treasures of the rock music genre - it's that I struggled to comprehend what a fourteen-year-old kid in the second decade of the 21st Century sees in the music of the Baby Boom. 

Perhaps that's not even it. After all, I like a good slice of that old music, myself. But when I hear it, it doesn't sound like music I want to play. It doesn't sound like art I want to create. It sounds like good, old music that people will be listening to for a long time to come. 

This is not unlike when I go to the art museum and see a famous Renaissance painting. It's amazing (especially in person). It's a wonderful work of art. It is every bit as great as it gets credit for being. But if someone were to paint that painting today, it would be largely irrelevant. It wouldn't have the same impact. It's not that people don't paint as well anymore, it's that the artistic movement encapsulated by Renaissance painting has expired from relevance

It is still good. It is still great. It is still remarkable. We can still love it

But it is no longer relevant to the contemporary art scene. It is old, great stuff, that's all.

Here I must separate two different concepts: (1) We enjoy music as fans, (2) We create music as artists. I don't want people get confused and assume that I am complaining about (1). I'm not. Whatever music you love to listen to, I think you should listen to it, and love it, and let it move you. Music is a beautiful thing, and no one else's opinion of it ought to stand it the way of your enjoying it.

But if you're a music artist and you find yourself creating art, then we're talking about (2). The problem of creating art in the pattern of artists from 60 years ago (or more) is that your art will not be relevant to today's audiences. It might be good. It might be well structured. You might think you're doing everything right. Inevitably, though, you'll be missing one crucial element: Relevance.

It may be a crying shame that music no longer sounds like it used to. It also might be a crying shame that art is no longer as good as it was during the Renaissance. That's a matter of opinion. But it is important to remember that part of what made the music of the 1960s so artistic is the fact that it was relevant to the times. It was one important part of a larger social impetus. It encapsulated an era. It is part of art's job to do that. 

This implies that, if you make music that sounds like oldies, you are encapsulating an era - but it's not your era that you're encapsulating. You may as well put on a tunic and head to the local Medieval Fair. Again, nothing wrong with that; in fact, the Medieval Fair aficionados are fully aware of the fact that they are paying tribute to days long past. That's part of the point.

My point here is that, to make really great art, we as artists have to make that art relevant to what's going on in the world here and now. We have to interact with other human beings, partake of the human experience, and then report what we feel - in music. In art.

If, by contrast, we report what we feel about days gone by, then we are little more than a throwback to artists gone by. It might be good, but it's not relevant. Art is relevant.