Appalling Vanity

Every so often, I read something so revolting that the only thing I can think to do is engage in an act of public shaming by writing about it on my blog.

Ladies and gentlemen, this is what vanity looks like (all emphases mine):
But I see myself, and Mark Thoma, and Brad DeLong, and Mike Konczal, and Simon Wren-Lewis, and a few others as something quite different — as voices in the wilderness. 
Now, you may say that it’s a pretty cushy wilderness — and in my case it definitely is; not just monetarily, but my spot at the Times is a dream gig for many journalists, I have a million Twitter followers, etc. etc. You may also say that there is indeed a choir that hears my preaching — and for sure there is; plenty of liberals read me for reassurance in what they already believed.
But other people also read me — often with distaste, but still they do hear what I say. What I and other econobloggers write is heard at the ECB, the IMF. the European Commission, CBO, the White House, Treasury, and so on. So there is some outreach.
And against all this power of conventional wisdom — which is often, by the way, at odds with basic economic analysis and the preponderance of evidence — you have … a handful of progressive economics bloggers. Some of them — well, mainly me — have prominent perches...
He might be right or he might be wrong, but who can tell from beneath the thick, slimy coating of his all-consuming, overweening vanity?

For shame.

An Unrequited Gift

So much of my life has involved running. To me, it's an interest, a hobby, and a form of meditation. It's provided me with rich experiences, college scholarships, and a means by which to control my blood sugar and adjust to my diabetes. It's a means by which I've met new friends and a glorious source of therapeutic solitude. Suffice it to say, running has had a profound impact on every important aspect of my life.

What's interesting about this is that I was inspired to run by someone who, to my knowledge, was never interested in running and who, after inspiring me to run in the first place, never again ran much of anything at all.

It was the last day of school, at the end of my second grade year. The day kicked-off with a one-mile race from the top of the hill, down Main Street, finishing at the school. Almost every student in the school used to run this race. Afterward, I found my way to my classroom, and the only other people there were my teacher, and another student we'll call BD.

The teacher asked us what place we finished in the race. Since BD had finished before me, she asked him first. I remember the look on his face as though it was yesterday. He had an enormous smile on his face, and his eyebrows were raised in surprise, pleasure, and pride. He was beaming as he declared, "Eighteen!"

That's remarkable. It's remarkable that a second-grader would finish so far ahead of so many of the other students in the school, including a substantial number of students who were as much as five years older than he was. (He was eight years old at the time.) Keep in mind that in our school the typical class size was about thirty students, and each grade level had about three classes each. So, every grade consisted of about 100 students. This means that a second-grader who places 18th in a school-wide race has managed to out-run no less than 80% of the entire field of sixth-graders, plus however many fifth-, fourth-, and third-graders he bested.

I remember hearing this and being impressed. But I also remember thinking to myself, "I bet I could do that..." Or perhaps I wondered whether I could do that. I do remember going home and telling my mother that BD had ran so well, and I remember that she told me I could do it. Whatever the particulars of my thoughts, that was the day I was inspired to become a runner, to take running seriously, and to actually try to excel at it as a sport, rather than just something I did.

Arguably, that day - and in particular, the fact that BD ran so well that day - has affected every day of my life since. I owe BD an eternal debt of gratitude for the mere fact that he ran well. Clearly, BD had a gift, a talent for running. I went on to be the kid in my community who was known as a great long-distance runner, but how might life have been different if BD had attended to his gift? Would we have inspired each other to run faster? Would he have smashed all my best running times? Would we have become good friends?

Alas, BD's talent for running proved to be an unrequited gift. As I mentioned above, he did not pursue an interest in running over the years, at least not to my knowledge. He went to my high school, so if he had been interested in the track team, I would have known. For sports, he was always more in basketball, football, and baseball. Later, I believe his interests turned to hunting and the great outdoors. I have not communicated with him since I was a child.

Yet, he had a profound impact on my life, and I wonder how great a runner he might have been, had he received more encouragement to develop his gift. I suppose that should have been my responsibility, as thanks for his having inspired me to become the person I became, and I failed him in a way. A child can't be blamed for lacking the wisdom of an adult, but perhaps one of the downsides of being shy is that one can never properly pay back the many debts we owe to people who inspired us along the way.


Fitness Experiments #2.2

So two rather significant workouts in one day lead to multiple mild blood sugar lows today. If you're diabetic like me, you should remember to back off on the long-acting insulin when you make significant increases to your daily training regimen.

I'm no doctor, so make sure you consult with yours. What I can tell you about is my own personal experience, which is this: Mealtime insulin seems to behave more or less the same way. What's changed is the fact that I feel like I have too much long-acting insulin on board. If you end up in the same boat I'm in today, then watch yourself very carefully.

For example, I woke up on time and ready to work out this morning, but promptly went hypoglycemic (mildly). Going for a run this morning would have been pretty stupid, so I skipped it, ate a predictable breakfast, and went about my day as usual.

This afternoon, I plan on doing last week's back/bicep workout (see Fitness Experiments #2), only in reverse, similar to what I did yesterday. But the fact of the matter is that I've trained pretty hard the last few days and I'm not going to push myself ultra licitum just for the thrill of it. If I feel a little unwell, I'll half my workout and get some food.

I do intend to workout twice tomorrow, but I will reduce my Lantus dose accordingly.

Be safe out there.


Fitness Experiments #1.1?

I was able to get up this morning and go for a run first-thing, as I mentioned I wanted to. This is a huge win for personal motivation. Sometimes just taking the first step to prove you can do something ends up being the biggest hurdle in front of you. I say that now because I am still stoked about my success this morning. If I can continue to wake up early for morning workouts, then I really will be able to call it a success.

Here's a brief tangent: In order to pull this off, I really had to make it impossible to fail. I shaved at night so that I wouldn't have to do it in the morning. I packed a week's worth of lunches for myself on Sunday afternoon, so that I wouldn't have to do it in the morning. I laid out my running clothes so that all I had to do was roll out of bed, put my shorts on, and head out the door. It all worked like a charm. It's amazing what a little organizing will do. While some may feel that this was "a lot of work to do on the weekend," it really wasn't. I made my lunches at the same time I made lunch on Sunday, and I scaled the operation so that I just had to put the food in boxes. I take a shower after every workout, so shaving was just another couple of minutes on top of my evening shower. It all really came together.

But I didn't do all that work just so that I could swap-out my afternoon workout for a morning workout. My intention was to workout twice. Now that I have some cardio out of the way, thanks to a fabulous morning run, I can focus on my afternoon strength training.

Last Monday's "fitness experiment" was a good one. To eliminate all the guess-work here, I could easily just repeat it every Monday until I've mastered it. I did end up over-reaching last Monday, which means shooting for the same number of sets and reps this week would still result in an excellent workout.

But it's always nice to do things a little differently. So today, I'm going to try doing the same workout in reverse, starting with the tricep dips and ending with the standard push-ups. If I still have energy left-over by the final couple of sets, I'll turn them into clapping push-ups for an added plyometric boost.

And I ran this morning, which means I can skip the afternoon cardio, right?


Some Links

I have a theory that almost everyone who is a Roy Orbison fan is a good person. Roderick T. Long is apparently a Roy Orbison fan. Assume my theory is true and complete the syllogism.

Nick Rowe asks a good question about r and g.

This new (actually "re-branded") economics blog promises to be... promising. Some of you may remember one of the authors from previous Stationary Waves installments of "Some Links." Case in point.

Williamson is skeptical of Piketty. But, more importantly, Williamson has redesigned his blog!

We can now manufacture beta cells by cloning DNA.

Speculative, but interesting: Magic Johnson may buy the L.A. Clippers. When he announced his HIV infection, I remember thinking that he was basically dead. I also remember feeling a sense of stigma surrounding him. I feel neither now that I am a grown man. It would be cool to see him own a team.


Sunday Throw-Away Post

That is Arcadia Trail Park. It's nice. I ran there today and yesterday.

I've been trying to pry myself out of bed at 5AM to do morning workouts. I've been trying to do this for, oh, say, six months or more. No matter how hard I try, I can't seem to do it. It's not that I'm particularly sleepy, it's that right at the moment when I want to be motivated, I'm simply not.

But tomorrow I'd really, really like to be motivated to work out in the morning. I want to either go for a run or jump some rope.

I'm posting that here so that I feel extra-guilty tomorrow if I can't do it. I'm pressuring myself to rise to the occasion. Please keep me honest.


A Few Brief Thoughts From Facebook

Some Facebook friends and I were having a discussion, and there were a few things coming out of that discussion that I would like to reiterate here.

First, one of us expressed the idea that liberals (leftists) seem to care more about racism and "the little guy," while conservatives seem to be more focused on "the welfare of those that aren't at the bottom." I didn't think that was quite right, so suggested a correction. While leftists seem to care more about about correcting for the direct welfare effects of things like racism, rightists seem to be more resigned to the idea that government reallocation of resources is Pareto inefficient (or Kaldor-Hicks inefficient, if you prefer).

That went over well enough, but even though I was the one who offered the correction, it still doesn't quite sit right with me. It doesn't feel fair enough to leftists.

Earlier in the conversation, I had pointed out that many rightists and libertarians are attracted to those belief systems not because they believe in liberty, but because those belief systems offer them a philosophical justification for some pretty hateful tendencies. It's not exactly a secret that many non-leftists harbor latent or not-so-latent bigotry. While many people fervently believe in the right to (for example) freedom of speech, some simply give lip service to the idea because it makes them feel more justified to say hateful things.

Similarly, there are many genuine leftists out there who belief that socialism is definitely the way to go; but still, there are a lot of people who blabber socialist rhetoric simply because it provides them with a justification for robbing the rich and fancying themselves poor. Or because they want larger welfare checks or higher wages.

I guess the point I'm trying to make is that some people espouse a particular philosophy out of pure ideological conviction, or perhaps even due to rigorous logical or empirical analysis. But a lot of other people cling to any lousy argument, so long as it justifies their priors.

It's probably worth it to know which kind of person you're dealing with before you enter a political discussion with them. (FYI - No one involved in my recent FB discussion was the "bad" kind of political adherent.)

Fitness Experiments #4 - Friday Killer

Everyone hates leg day. Everyone, that is, except me. I happen to love leg day, but this is probably because I don't have a strong incentive to bulk-up my leg muscles. So, for me, leg day involves a lot of movement that is just plain fun.

So today let's go out there and really enjoy the fun of it all. Here's my version of fun:

First, do three super-sets as follows:

  • 15 pull-ups
  • 15 hanging leg-raises
  • 30 seconds rest
Then, do a ladder consisting of the following:
  • Box Jump
  • Burpee
  • Side by Side Jump Over Box/Bench/Platform
  • Lunge (one per leg)
  • 30 seconds rest
First do one of each, then two of each, then three... Keep adding one repetition until you cannot do any additional sets.

Have fun!!!


Fitness Experiments #3

Today is intended to be a shoulder day. There is only one small problem with shoulder day: it is difficult to get a really good shoulder workout using only calisthenics. Thus, I am going to let creativity guide me here. This is what I have come up with:
  • 4 sets of 10 front raises from push-up position. (10 per arm.)
  • 4 sets of 20 decline push-ups. (Put your legs on bench or platform)
  • 3 sets of 10 handstand push-ups.
  • 3 sets of 6 dips w/ forward lean. (Courtesy Jason Altidor: Do a tricep dip as usual, but go slowly and lean forward as you dip.)
  • 4 sets of side planks. (Four per side, maximum hold isometric.)
  • 10 sets of jumping rope as follows: (a) Jump twice between each revolution of the rope for as long as you can until missing a jump; (b) Jump once between each revolution for as long as you can; (c) Jump twice on one foot, then the next, as though in a skipping motion, for as long as you can; (d) Jump once per foot per revolution, as though in a running motion, for as long as you can. [All of this should take you approximately 30 minutes to complete.]
This, too, should be a difficult workout. Try your best - you can do it!

Movie Review: Transcendence

Hollywood occasionally attempts to appeal to more intelligent movie-goers by producing films that are intended to appeal to brainy people. The main problem with most of these movies is that actors, writers, and other artistic types are usually so far-removed from the world of science, mathematics, and logic that the attempts come off as worse than hackneyed. They feel like scripts written by precocious grade-schoolers who just heard the word "multiverse" or perhaps just finished a Madeleine L'Engle book.

So it is with Transcendence, a film about artificial intelligence that, in my opinion, wrote more than a few checks it simply couldn't cash.

The film tells the story of Will Caster, a genius engineer leading ground-breaking research in artificial intelligence. Caster and his colleagues believe that artificial intelligence represents the next major breakthrough in human evolution, but a hippy-ish terrorist group feels otherwise. When an assassination attempt leaves Caster with only a few weeks to live, his wife decides to "upload" his personality into a computer. The endeavor is a success, and the AI - which may or may not be the real Will Caster - becomes sentient and self-interested. With the help of Caster's wife, the AI builds a laboratory in the Nevada desert, where they are free to conduct breakthrough technological research and amass a small army of employees and solar panels. The advanced intelligence and computational power of Caster-cum-computer proves to be an eerie and invasive presence in the lives it touches, and as its relationship with the human beings around it starts to change, the movie's primary conflicts arise from the question of just who this computer really is, and what it really wants to accomplish.

The most immediate problem with Transcendence is that - yet again - Hollywood has chosen to insist that true genius always comes at the cost of social intelligence. The cool kids in L.A. simply can't be trusted to depict a character who is both a genius - intellectually superior to the L.A. arts crowd - and as cool and socially deft as the L.A. socialites.

A still more significant problem with Transcendence is the way technological advancement is portrayed: as a series of magic miracles and "major breakthroghs," rather than the slow march of scientific progress. The computerized Caster, free of the limitations of human intelligence, quickly figures out how to build human tissue from scratch and create solar panels from the soil. Its desert laboratory is a series of technological demonstrations. But in the real world, computerized minerals don't float through the air to do the bidding of a central processor, and no sentient computer would waste time and resources demonstrating scientific experiments the outcomes of which can be perfectly calculated in advance. Hollywood thinks science is magic, or at least they have no other way of depicting science, except as some kind of mystic miracle.

Worst of all, the writers of Transcendence don't even seem to have a good handle on human behavior. Humans are motivated not by the miracles of scientific accomplishment, but by pleasure-seeking and pain-avoidance. A super-computer equipped with a human mind would never waste its time on scientific advancement when it could spend its time like the infamous rhesus monkeys who starved to death because they preferred cocaine to food. A computer that can 3-D print human bodies and conjure up nano technology from thin air can and certainly would quickly solve its boredom problem, write a perpetual pleasure algorithm, and become worthless.

This, indeed, is the whole problem with ideas about "the singularity." Computers don't need to reproduce or think up solutions to complicated scientific problems. It's humans who seek those ends. All a computer needs to do is remain active and pleasured. As such, ideas about the singularity being anything other than a waste of time are, in my view, improbable.

There is not much in this movie that would appeal to nerds like me. And unless non-nerds hold a latent interest in the singularity - but not a strong enough one to actually inspire them to go learn about it - there is not much in Transcendence that will appeal to them, either. In short, it simply isn't a very good movie.

I was hoping for something more like The Lawnmower Man, but instead, I got a vapid and artistically drained attempt to reboot 12 Monkeys. My advice? Skip this one.


Paradigms, Part III - Okay, Fine! I'll Talk About Piketty!

Everyone is talking about Thomas Piketty's new book, Capital. Some on the left have lauded it as a great argument for why the government's welfare safety net system should be expanded. Some on the right think otherwise. I haven't read the book, but I'm deeply skeptical that anything like that book could be used to substantiate a political opinion. This skepticism leads me to conclude two things:

  1. Piketty's most vociferous fans probably think that Piketty has "proven" something that he has not, i.e. they think his work is more revolutionary than it actually is.
  2. The principle benefit of the theory outlined in Piketty's book is that it provides a scientific veneer for an existing set of political priors.
If this doesn't remind us of the perils of paradigms, I don't know what does.

We learn from Piketty that large rates of return on capital imply financial gains for business owners and some displaced employees. This is a good lesson, but not a revolutionary one. Most of us know this without needing to be told. Holding on to this paradigm too long leads us to conclude unlikely things about the world economy; at that point, we're better off letting go of his model, relaxing the constraints, and living in the beautiful, un-model-able nuances of the real world.

Familiarize Yourself
Before you formulate an opinion on Piketty's main idea, you owe it to yourself to find out what he's actually saying. I'm not a reliable source of economic summaries, so do your due diligence. Jonathan Finegold Catalan has already located a free version of the appendix in which Piketty articulates his underlying idea. (Read it, understand it, then come back and finish this blog post of mine. Start on page 36.)

In particular, I think Finegold Catalan does an excellent job of summarizing the key idea when he writes:
The heuristic the book sells to the reader is r > g. That is, if the return on capital is greater than the rate of economic growth, inequality will increase. The concept, explained like that, is somewhat cryptic. It’s an easy heuristic for those who don’t want to get bogged down in the theoretical argument. The theoretical argument is actually not that complicated (theory makes up a very, very small minority of the book). Piketty makes it near the end of the sixth chapter of his book. His argument is that if the elasticity of substitution between capital and labor is > 1, the share of income accruing to capital will grow relative to that of labor.
My Reaction
I'll start with the positive:
Piketty's idea is prima facie correct. If you make more money investing in new machinery than you do by doing "business-as-usual," then this will tend to produce situation-specific income inequality.

Imagine Peter owns a sandwich shop. Peter wants to open a new restaurant: Peter can either choose to hire Roy to make sandwiches in the new shop, or invest in a sandwich-making robot. If Peter makes more money investing in robots than in employees, then Peter - who is wealthy enough to own more than one sandwich shop, unlike Roy - will make an increasing proportion of his income from machines. Roy, who never gets hired, loses in this scenario. You can see how "inequality increases" here because people like Peter earn more money while people like Roy earn less.

Now the so-so:
One objection here is that somebody has to build the robots. Roy may lose out on sandwich-making employment opportunities, but he wins big at the robot-making factory. So there is no reason to merely assume that inequality increases when Peter buys more robots. It might, or it might not. It depends on the particulars of the case.

Piketty makes clear that when he's talking about r and g he means for the whole economy. So he's not just talking about Peter and Roy, he's talking about everyone in the whole world. The claim becomes this: If investing in robots makes more sense for all the people in the economy who make the most money than "business-as-usual," then inequality will increase.

This is a stronger claim, and a more easily disputed one. Suppose we live in a two-good economy where people either make sandwiches or build robots. As sandwich-makers seek to replace employees with robots, robot-builders will need to hire more people to build those robots. The more robots we need, the more we need people to build robots! This will be true, unless the robot-builders also replace robot-builders with robot-building robots...

But doesn't this just kick the can down the road? Who designs and builds the robot-building robots? Somebody has to. The production process has to begin somewhere, and that's where the people will be, if for no other reason than to build the robots that will perform all the other tasks.

Now the negative:
Thus we come to the Achilles' Heel of Piketty's ideas about capital. If capital were a giant, amorphous blob of electrodes produced en masse and then formed like clay into whatever shape required to perform whatever task, then Piketty's claims would be a lot stronger. But capital - especially modern machinery used to produce modern goods and services - is highly diverse and highly specialized.

For example, insulin cannot simply be cranked out by a machine. Recombinant RNA must first be grown in a laboratory (by some combination of humans and machines), and then shipped to a manufacturing facility (by some combination of humans and machines) before the machines at the factory can produce insulin in vats. Synthetic insulin is among the most complicated products in a modern economy, and it requires people to produce it.

On the other hand, assembling automobiles is an almost fully roboticized process.

Modern vehicles and modern medicine are both incredibly important and lucrative and technologically advanced fields. The same macroeconomy that produces the modern automobile produces synthetic insulin.

In short, we can say many superficial things about "manufacturing," but we cannot make specific claims about the "capital" involved in both industries that accurately describe both industries. Different parts of the economy behave differently.

In economic jargon, r and g aggregate up to the macroeconomy, but that includes the summation of a lot of positive and negative numbers, numbers greater than 1 and numbers between 0 and 1. Just like the price of iPads can decrease while the price of gasoline increases, so the price of insulin-making robots and car-making robots can go in opposite directions. Just because the aggregate number is X doesn't mean it's X for every industry in the world.

We can assume-away all the variation in an economy if we want to, but it doesn't provide us with the kind of insight needed to arrive at important policy conclusions.

Piketty's ideas will resonate with leftists who are hungry for a technical justification for implementing leftist policies, such as steep taxation on the rich or on capital itself, and large welfare payments to people who do not own large amounts of capital. It's equally likely that rightists and libertarians will scoff at Piketty's claims and seek to explain why they just cannot be true.

The truth doesn't lie in the middle. The truth lies in the strength of expressing ideas only vaguely, and steering clear of specifics. That is, the truth is that Piketty's ideas are accurate as a shotgun theory and inaccurate otherwise.

Piketty's theory isn't wrong, but it doesn't provide a good justification for leftist social policy, either. Those two facts are bound to disappoint leftists and non-leftists alike, and this is why it's important to take paradigms as learning tools, absorb the knowledge, and then cast the paradigm aside again.

UPDATE: Arnold Kling's view is similar to mine when he says:
The way I see it, Piketty and Solow work with models that incorporate homogeneous workers (with no differences in human capital) and homogeneous capital (with no differences in ex ante risk or ex post returns). The real world is so far removed from those models that I simply cannot buy into the undertaking.
Solow's take, as referenced by Kling, is here


An Aside From An Aside: Greed

Stephen Williamson, quoting Tom Sargent, says something that made me think. First, the quote - and to be clear, the first paragraph is a quote from Sargent; the part in brackets is Williamson. The bold emphasis is my addition.
I remember how happy I felt when I graduated from Berkeley many years ago. But I thought the graduation speeches were long. I will economize on words. Economics is organized common sense. Here is a short list of valuable lessons that our beautiful subject teaches. 
[I had to think about whether I agree with the "organized common sense" view of economics. If common sense is supposed to be what the average layperson possesses, then economics is not common sense, as it's sometimes (if not often) counterintuitive. For example, Adam Smith told us that greed can be a good thing. That's certainly not part of collective wisdom, I think. But Sargent was trying to put the Berkeley graduates at ease. He's telling them that doing economics is just a matter of putting pieces of straightforward logic together to come up with a coherent set of ideas.]
The word "greed" really just means "self interest," and self interest can be good or bad, depending on the circumstance. This is the revelation that Williamson credits to Adam Smith. His saying so made me think of another word that functions similarly: pride.

Like greed, pride is often disparaged as an unsavory characteristic. But unlike greed, and depending on where you grew up and how that word was used in your place of origin, pride can have a decidedly positive connotation, too. Members of visible minorities who are often subjected to bigotry, for example, are often encouraged to be proud of who they are. When a loved one does something that we greatly admire, we often tell them that we're proud of them. And even when we accomplish something very difficult ourselves, we don't mind too much describing it as "something we are proud of."

In the case of pride, it's not the pride itself that seems to be the problem, but whether our pride is expressed as an affront to others. Pride can be an act of disparaging other people, and when that's the case, pride is bad. In other cases, it's either good or at least harmless.

I'd suggest that greed works the same way. Self-interest in and of itself is natural, and positive, and results in our ability to survive and thrive. If you're not a happy person, I challenge you to make anyone else happy. You'll find it's impossible; only happy people make others happy. But when greed is expressed in such a way that it deprives others of their just desserts, that's when it goes wrong.

Why do I bother writing about this? Only to highlight the fact that language is often a very inadequate way of expressing things. Words don't perfectly capture the ideas we hope to express. The moral ambiguity of pride and greed is a good example of that.

What Are We Teaching Our Youth?

From Slate.com:
In the fall of 2008, when I was 11 years old, I wrote to the CEO of McDonald’s and asked him to change the way his stores sold Happy Meals. I expressed my frustration that McDonald’s always asked if my family preferred a “girl toy” or a “boy toy” when we ordered a Happy Meal at the drive-through. My letter asked if it would be legal for McDonald’s “to ask at a job interview whether someone wanted a man’s job or a woman’s job?”

A few weeks later, I received a short response from a McDonald’s customer satisfaction representative claiming that McDonald’s doesn’t train their employees to ask whether Happy Meal customers want boys’ or girls’ toys, and my experiences were not the norm.

This response was unsatisfying, so I began visiting more than a dozen local McDonald’s locations with my father to collect data. Ultimately, we brought a complaint to the Connecticut Commission on Human Rights and Opportunities against McDonald’s for discriminating on the basis of sex. Despite our evidence showing that, in our test, McDonald’s employees described the toys in gendered terms more than 79 percent of the time, the commission dismissed our allegations as “absurd” and solely for the purposes of “titilation [sic] and sociological experimentation.” All in all, this was a pretty humiliating defeat.
The byline in this article indicates that its author, Antonia Ayers-Brown, is a junior in high school. This would seem to indicate that Ms. Ayers-Brown's parent(s) or legal guardian(s) have nothing better to do than to help her bring human rights lawsuits against fast food corporations for the manner in which their employees distribute toys.

No matter where you stand on the burning issue of complimentary toy distribution, we should all agree that parents who would teach their children to litigate when they see something objectionable are frankly teaching their children the wrong lessons.

Fitness Experiments #2

Yesterday's workout was heavy on the triceps and calves, but strictly adhered to the calisthenics principle I'm working with. Today's experiment is more of the same (calisthenics), but the emphasis is on back, bicep and abdominal muscle groups.

  • 4 sets of 15 one-arm bicep rows from push-up position. (Get in push-up position with your hands holding dumbbells; raise one dumbbell into your chest, and return to starting position. Alternate arms.)
  • 2 sets of 10 standard pull-ups.
  • 2 sets of 10 reverse grip (underhanded) pull-ups.
  • 1 set of 10 standard pull-ups - hold the "up" position and move first to one side, then the next.
  • 4 sets of 15 hanging leg raises.
  • 4 sets of 15 hanging oblique twists.
  • 4-5 mile run.
Obviously, this will not be a very easy workout. I'm going to do what I can, aiming to finish.

Important Note:
If you're not used to doing a lot of bicep work, there is a risk that you will hurt your bicep or possibly develop some light tendonitis or "tennis elbow." So take it easy and use common sense. Remember a burning sensation in your muscles that subsides during recovery periods is "good pain." Burning that doesn't go away with rest, or sharp pain (pinching or stabbing) in your tendons or joints is "bad pain." If you start to feel some bad pain coming on, reduce the number or repetitions you do.

The goal here is to complete the workout; there is no shame in not being able to complete it. As long as you get a good workout, you've succeeded.


Fitness Experiments #1

Three and a half decades into life, and having been interested in fitness for most of those years, I feel like I have more or less "seen it all" when it comes to workout ideas. I've encountered every fad and every approach that's likely to come along - and when you've been doing it as long as I have, you come to realize that there really is nothing genuinely new out there in the fitness world. The fads ebb and flow throughout the years. You might think CrossFit and "total body training" is where it's at right now, but eventually that fad will be replaced by a rebooted version of the same old fitness fads that have been circulating the fitness world for at least a century.

All that is to say, it takes a lot to surprise me. So when I tell you that the workouts Jason Altidor posts on his YouTube channel are some of the most exciting and innovative exercises I have ever seen, I really mean it. Here's a slice:
Call it what you will. I'm calling it incredible.

Introducing Fitness Experiments
Now, when I see a video like that, it makes me want to do a little fitness innovation of my own. So I started thinking to myself, "What if I took a workout regimen designed for building muscle size, and then converted all the exercises into strength-building calisthenics workouts?"

Sounds crazy, but that's the project I intend to undertake, starting today. The general idea is simply this: I've located a solid, reliable online body-building trainer. Every day (or at least, every day that I am able to do so), I'll be applying that trainer's principles to the creation of a workout. But, where that regimen provides a daily send-up of weights workouts, I'm doing what I imagine to be the equivalent in calisthenics.

The result is something I'm calling "Fitness Experiments." I would caution against considering this a "workout regimen," because I'm not certain it will work. I want it to, but I don't really know. So, instead, consider it more like a "workout of the day," with an underlying guiding light hovering behind it.

Without further ado, here's today's workout:
  • 4 sets of 15 standard push-ups*
  • 3 sets of 15 incline push-ups*
  • 4 sets of 15 rolling push-ups* (Hold dumbbells in each hand, in push-up position. Slowly roll your arms out, keeping them straight until they are fully extended. Then, push inward until you rise to starting position again.)
  • 4 sets of 15 dips*
  • 10 sets of jumping rope as follows: (a) Jump twice between each revolution of the rope for as long as you can until missing a jump; (b) Jump once between each revolution for as long as you can; (c) Jump twice on one foot, then the next, as though in a skipping motion, for as long as you can; (d) Jump once per foot per revolution, as though in a running motion, for as long as you can. [All of this should take you approximately 30 minutes to complete.]
Try it out, then let me know how it went in the comments section when you're finished.
* I may adjust the exact number of sets and/or repetitions as I go, based on how I feel.

Movie Review: 2 States

It's been a while since I've seen a Hindi film new enough to review, so I was excited to travel across the metroplex yesterday to catch a matinee of the excellent new film, 2 States.

Based on the 2009 Chetan Baghat novel of the same name, 2 States tells the story of two graduate students - Krish, a Punjabi (played by Arjun Kapoor), and Ananya, a Tamilian (played by Alia Bhatt) - who meet in university, fall in love, and then attempt to convince their culturally dissimilar families to consent to their "love marriage." That, in a single sentence, discloses the entire plot of the film. Ordinarily, I might consider such a simple story a drawback, but the film itself acknowledges its simplicity in a recurring theme throughout the dialogue of the movie. (I'd like to get more specific about that, but doing so would entail plot spoilers.)

At its core, 2 States is a movie about multiculturalism. While the writers did attempt, at the end of the movie, to broaden the scope of to love marriages in general, the movie is most effective as an honest depiction of what can happen when the parents of two fiancees from very different backgrounds attempt to overcome their traditional perspectives for the sake of a relationship that, for whatever reason, just works.

This theme resonated with me for obvious reasons. While my case involved hardly any conflict at all, the movie could be seen as a hyperbole of my reality. Parents who aren't used to how things are done in "the other culture" can and do say enough things to make the rest of us cringe. Each set of parents wants theirs to be the dominant culture - or, if not dominant, they at least want their culture to be fairly represented in the new household. But of course, this can never be. Mono-culture can't exist in a multicultural household, it simply cannot. The grandchildren will grow up with a blend of perspectives. They will neither "favor" one particular side, nor choose cultural attributes a la carte. The environment in which they grow up will shape their perspectives more than the combined knowledge of either set of grandparents.

Perhaps there is bound to be some concern or rejection experienced by parents who "lose" their child to a multicultural marriage, but they must put this out of their minds because culture is not something that an individual feels or experiences. Culture is a phenomenon that can only ever be observed among groups of people.

This might be what parents don't understand. Culture tends to disappear in a multicultural marriage, until outsiders, such as in-laws, insert it by force. My wife and I never have any conscious cultural conflicts. Occasionally we discover that we have to phrase things to each other in a different way, one that will resonate a little better. Other than that, we see each other as people, as equals, as members of the same "group," i.e. our household.

When outsiders force us to discuss cultural differences, they are mostly forcing us to resolve conflicts that do not exist between my wife and I. The outsiders imagine that X must be a conflict, and so talk to us about it. X is never a conflict. "Why not?" the outsiders often ask, and the answer is Because we just relate to each other as husband-and-wife, not as cultural ambassadors. This isn't satisfying to the ones who consider culture hugely important because it undermines the whole narrative. The narrative states that culture is a person's most treasured identity, one that presents conflicts with members of other cultures. When such a conflict doesn't arise, it's a hole in the theory.

It's not that my culture doesn't inform my point of view, it's simply that it's not my culture that relates to other people. It's my mind.

One of the things that makes 2 States such a great movie is that it highlights the fact that all the cultural conflicts that arise in a cross-cultural marriage arise from the spouses' collective desire to appease other people. When that isn't a concern, we relate to each other simply as individuals who are in love.

So it really is outsiders who make things painful for the married couple. Take that factor out of the equation, and it's just a normal, happy marriage.

Please watch this movie.

Bias Bias (Meta-Bias?)

From Bryan Caplan:
Why is the psychologists' approach so superior to the economists'? Simple. Economists reject all-pervasive testimony on lame methodological grounds. Psychologists, in contrast, aggressively cross-examine this all-pervasive testimony, and empirically expose its all-pervasive perjury. Despite what they say, people really are selfish, businesses really are greedy, students really are lazy, and workers really are materialistic. Econo-cynicism has a firm basis in psychological fact.
Of course, a "firm basis in fact" is hardly the same as "unvarnished truth." Some deviations from narrow self-interest handily survive cross-examination. Voting really is largely unselfish, workers really do obsess about nominal pay, and managers sincerely hate firing anyone. The point, though, is that the economic way of thinking is on much stronger empirical ground than economists themselves have managed to demonstrate. Though we've often belittled psychology, it's ably served us for decades. Perhaps if economists give psychologists some much-deserved credit for Social Desirability Bias, they'll be more eager to vouch for the value of what we do.
Does social desirability bias apply to discussions of social desirability bias? Will people be more likely to detect social desirability bias if they believe signalling acceptance of social desirability bias theories are socially desirable?

It sounds like I'm trying to be funny, but I'm not. Whenever we start talking about systemic biases, we raise implicit epistemological questions. How do we know that the bias exists without priming for it? But how can we prime for it without compromising the results?

In some ways I think the means-end approach of e.g. Ludwig von Mises neatly and effectively sidesteps this problem, but then again I have never been very warm to behavioral econ.


YouTube Round-Up

Extreme plays "Kid Ego" live at the Monsters of Rock Festival in England, 1994. I'll never understand how Nuno can make such a trebly tone sound so heavy. And here is amazing footage of them writing "Rest In Peace."

Speaking of Gary Cherone, here's a band of big names pretending to be The Who.

I live for lost treasures like this. Here's a full-concert bootleg from a 1978 Rush concert in Tuscon, Arizona. Two hours of vintage Rush at the peak of their art-rock phase. And it sounds fantastic.

Here's a vintage clip of Huey Lewis & The News, circa 1984.

A version of "Sofa #1" I had never heard before. Interesting acoustic guitar over-dubs throughout. One thing I've always loved about this piece is how many "Zappa-isms" are condensed into such a short and easily accessible piece of music.


Hello, My Israeli Readers

My blog stats indicate that I received over 1,000 hits from Israel yesterday, mostly from readers running Windows operating systems and browsing via Google Chrome.

Stationary Waves does not often receive that kind of web traffic, and especially not from Israel. Occasionally, some of my album reviews get "tweeted" by the artists I review, resulting in a few hundred extra cite visits. My product reviews of my Chinese-manufactured track bike, the Windsor Clockwork, have remained popular among my Chinese audience ever since I wrote them.

But never have I received 1,000 hits all at once, over the span of an hour. And never from Israel.

Oddly enough, they do not seem to have been drawn to any one, particular blog post. It seems to have been 1,000 hits of random, curious web traffic.

Hello, Israeli readers. Please leave a comment and introduce yourselves. I'd love to get to know you better.

The Morality Of Immorality

Jason Brennan has some very different ideas about what constitutes moral behavior than I do.

First, he wrote an argument in favor of politicians' lying to stupid voters. He suggested that it "might be obligatory and praiseworthy in some circumstances," and called it a "duty." To illustrate his point, he first established that we would all lie to a pack of killers if it meant saving the innocent from murder. I'm sure I don't need to tell you where this lead. In Brennan's analogy, "stupid voters" are comparable to a murderous posse. Ergo, it is obligatory and morally praiseworthy to lie to stupid voters.

Against the many sound objections to his theory, Brennan wrote another post arguing that, just because his argument could be used to promote the actions of a despot, doesn't mean that the idea itself is bad. Specifically, he writes:
Many of the commenters said that my position can’t be right because people will misapply it in dangerous ways. They are right that politicians will misapply it in dangerous ways. In fact, I bet some politicians who wrongfully lie do so because they think that they mistakenly fall under a murderer at the door-type case. But that doesn’t mean that the principle is wrong. It just means that people tend to mess up the application.
One interesting aspect of Brennan's point here is that he might not realize how it could be used to nullify his whole initial idea. To wit, just because voters tend to mess up the application of their votes doesn't mean they're "stupid" and ought to be lied to. But anyway...

It doesn't take a Socrates to see why this kind of thing doesn't sit easy with most people with an interest in being moral. I might be able to craft a thorough rebuttal of the idea, but I don't feel much inspiration to do so. As I commented at Bleeding Heart Libertarians, there is no need to defeat with logic what can be defeated by common sense. It doesn't strike me as a valid moral premise that the bulk of the people you are dealing with are stupid ignorami whose actions are dangerous.


YouTube Round-Up

Here's something I can try to turn into a new feature: YouTube Round-Up. Here I'll supply links to notable YouTube content, primarily music.

Movie Review: The Grand Budapest Hotel

Last night I watched The Grand Budapest Hotel. I liked the film, but.

For the most part, when you go into a Wes Anderson movie, you know what you're getting. Not only do all of his films have a "common look and feel," with respect to special effects and cinematography, the tone of the script is always quite similar. Perhaps, most importantly of all, however, are the common themes that underpin all of his work.

They always deal with a character who has somehow declined from his glory days. All the central characters in Anderson's films have a back-story of great success and acclaim, and usually also great fortune, which has waned over the years. The characters are all fighting off their inevitable obscurity by going on some sort of a final hurrah, proving that they, in fact, still are as praiseworthy as they once were.

While each of Anderson's films tackle these issues in a slightly different way, in many ways a viewer might consider them all more or less the same story. One might be tempted to call this a criticism of Anderson's work, but once you get over that, you start to understand that in Anderson's oeuvre, the backdrop, the setting, and the imagery provides the variation that people typically expect in plot.

(Or do they? We see so many variants of the same 5 Hollywood plot lines, that why should we fault one filmmaker for telling a story he originated the same time many different ways?)

If you read a lot of my reviews, you know that I generally start out with some kind of plot summary, but for reasons I've just outlined, I simply feel it's unnecessary here. Because this is a Wes Anderson movie, you the audience already knows what to expect, for the most part. And, for the most part, you will already know whether you will enjoy the film.

All of the criticisms that could be applied to The Royal Tennenbaums, or The Life Aquatic, or Rushmore also apply to The Grand Budapest Hotel. The dialogue isn't realistic, but it isn't intended to be. The film has thick shades of pessimism and melancholy, but mixed with an intelligent sense of humor. The characters are all flawed, but we root for them anyway. The movie is very slow.

The reason these criticisms fall flat is that The Grand Budapest Hotel isn't really trying to be a "Hollywood" movie. It's trying to be a Wes Anderson movie. It succeeds by a wide margin, but the audience still comes away feeling a little tired, a little dejected, a little glum. 

In other words, Anderson once again masterfully delivers more of the same. If people like myself faithfully watch every Jason Statham movie or comic book movie that hits the silver screen, who am I to criticize The Grand Budapest Hotel for delivering exactly what Wes Anderson fans want to see? They surely already know what they're getting, and they surely already know they want to see it. It's a well-done movie that sits well inside the oeuvre.

I liked the film, but. And so it is with all Wes Anderson films (except The Darjeeling Express, which I simply couldn't finish): I like them, but. 

And so it is with The Grand Budapest Hotel. I liked it, but.

Oh, Boy...

Scott Sumner writes:
It is assumed that total labor compensation is a stable fraction of NGDP. Arnold Kling found this assumption so reasonable that he once called the model an "identity."
I guess it's admirable that Sumner is phrased that in a way that makes Kling's criticism of Sumner sound like an agreement. Or perhaps he's joking.

[UPDATE] - Meh, I'm probably being too hard on everyone here. All I really mean to say is: Is this a clever jibe on Sumner's part, or what? I'm not on the inside of all this stuff, so I can't really say. And I continue to be a NGDPLT skeptic, but hey that's just me.


Order From Accidents

I shouldn't speak in generalities without empirical justification to back me up on my generalizing. So, I won't say that intellectuals have a tendency to assume order from accidents. Instead, I'll say that a certain kind of intellectual often falls into this sort of trap.

Two major examples come to mind: evolution and free markets.

Regarding evolution, we often here people reasoning back from what they see in current organisms (especially humans). This is such a prevalent error that I often wonder whether most people really do think that evolution has "motives." The way this works is that someone will take a physical feature - say, the comparatively smaller physical features of a woman versus a man - and construct an evolutionary theory for it.

Now, as a matter of pure fact, women are generally smaller than men. As a matter of pure science, is must be evolution that is "responsible" for this fact. But that's as much as we can say. Anyone who ventures any sort of theory about "evolutionary advantage" or human sexual behavior based on height, or any other such nonsense is just making stuff up.

We simply can't say that evolution happened the way it did "because _________." We can see what happened, but explaining the motives of nature is absurd. Genetic mutation is an accident. It doesn't happen for a reason. Once a mutation becomes prevalent, there may be some reason why it spreads more rapidly than other genetic varations, or there might not be. Not every genetic mutation need present any kind of evolutionary advantage, and there's no reason to assume that it does.

The stories we tell ourselves about evolution are mostly false. Evolution just happens over time. There are no "motives." Thousands of years after the fact, we honestly have no idea whether or how a particular mutation is/was "advantageous." It could have been an impotent accident that just spread. We don't know.

Some free market types also make a similar mistake regarding economics. This is especially prevalent among people who lean toward Hayek. There is a certain confirmation bias involved in assuming that an "institution" that has developed over time has reached its current state by virtue of the fact that the "institution" has an inherent value. It might, or it might not, but the mere fact that it exists and evolved over time tells us nothing about its merit as an institution. Nor does it tell us that the particular "institution" in question is the best way to solve a given problem, or that people couldn't design a better version of it themselves just by sitting down with a pencil and a piece of paper.

Of course, the Hayek types recoil at the mere suggest that "emergent institutions" might well be inferior to one that was designed. In particular, libertarian types hate the idea that a central authority of some sort could ever design an effective institution. I will let these folks hum and haw a bit at what I'm saying, if they so choose. However, the burden rests with them to demonstrate that every "emergent institution" is superior to what someone might deliberately design and mandate. That's a tall order, and everyone knows it. Using the aetherous language of an "old Whig" won't change that fact.

In a way, I think both categories of thinkers are anthropomorphizing change. That's a bad idea. Change just happens, sometimes for the better and sometimes for the worse. There is no God Hand. There is no motive.


Ryabetic Fitness Today

Time passes, bodies change, diabetes management gets easier. To be an athletic person requires a substantial amount of effort, but to be an athletic diabetic person is a whole other level of thinking.

While a "normal" fit people think about improving their diets and sticking to a steady workout regimen, I face certain additional constraints. The most binding of these are the per-meal fat and carbohydrate limitations my doctors have recommended for me: 60g or fewer of carbohydrate per sitting, 30g or fewer of fat.

Do the math: 4 calories per gram of carbohydrate and 9 calories per gram of fat translates into an upper limit of 510 calories per meal. Assuming I eat a reasonable amount of protein, this means that I am basically getting about 700 calories per meal. This would be perfectly reasonable for a sedentary male about my size, but for an athletic person like myself, I find myself hungry all the time, with no good solution to alleviating my hunger.

What this means is that if I worked myself up to 80 miles of running per week, like a good competitive runner would, it would be a struggle for my diet to keep up with my physical demands. Since I can't eat more food per meal, the only available option is to eat more meals. The challenge here is that eating a fourth meal would be highly disruptive to my daily schedule.

I could invest time and effort into figuring all this out, but on the other hand, more modest running - say, four to five miles per day - combined with a robust strength training and plyometrics routine solves my problem without my having to reconfigure my lifestyle. As an added benefit, I feel physically equally as healthy if I'm doing this as if I were to increase my running mileage at the expense of weight training. I also don't feel that I'm "missing out" when it comes to running, because even at four or five miles per day, I'm still fully capable of completing a half-marathon and recovering with ease.

With that in mind, here's a sample of how I've been exercising lately:

I. Calisthenics Ladder: (Do a set of one motion each, then a set of two each, three each, and so on.)

  • 1, 2, 3, ..., 7, 6, 5, ..., 1 box jumps
  • 1, 2, 3, ..., 7, 6, 5, ..., 1 push-ups
  • 1, 2, 3, ..., 7, 6, 5, ..., 1 pull-ups
  • 1, 2, 3, ..., 7, 6, 5, ..., 1 hanging leg raises
II. Cardio: 
  • 4-5 miles of brisk running, OR
  • 30-40 minutes of jump roping, OR
  • 60+ minutes of brisk road biking
This is similar in nature to my Jason-Altidor-inspired 8W workout plan

One drawback here is that there isn't room for much progress, and remember that progress is an important aspect of fitness. And, as it turns out, it's a major contributing factor to my blood glucose control. Thus, having done this for a couple of weeks now, I'll likely work to incorporate more weight training into my routine. Perhaps it's time I dusted off 8W and took it for another spin.

Who Are We? Who Are We Not?

First Jason Brennan and then Kevin Vallier respond to the claim at Salon.com that "in a democracy, the government is us." Both do a decent job, as far as it goes, but I can't help but think that all of these ideas seem so terribly old-fashioned.

What I mean is that "modern" representative democracy was designed over two centuries ago. Those who designed it did a good job, in my opinion, but they lived in a world that was very different from ours today. Back then, news traveled on the order of weeks and months; today, you can track it in real time. Back then, there were real technological and time constraints around traveling between two important cities; today, it takes about twenty-four hours to travel from your home town to the farthest point on the globe. Back then, the scope of what central governments had to do was quite small, while the scope of local governance was both more important and more participatory than is the case today.

In the end, I think representative democracy, aka "the American system," was the perfect innovation for its time and place in history. Over the centuries, it has evolved to meet our most urgent needs. Nonetheless, if we were tasked to design a new system from scratch, it wouldn't just look different than the current one, it would look radically different.

Reasonable people can disagree about the particulars of the "social safety net" and the various social issues that become legalized under a hypothetical new system. Politics will always be politics. Setting all that aside, however, I think a new and modern form of government would take into account the following important points.

  1. The current state of telecommunications technology: It should be extremely low-cost to collect a unanimous vote on anything. Set up a computerized ballot, or even just a robo-call, and the people could literally vote on everything, if they so chose. It goes without saying that tax collections, too, could be managed this way. 
  2. The education of the populace: News travels fast these days, and information is available at the touch of a button. We simply no longer live in a world in which we require "experts" to represent us in the civic arena. We can do it ourselves. Coupled with Point #1, above, this basically spells the complete obsolescence of professional politicians.
  3. Greater personal freedom: However you define it, personal freedom has the potential to reach a high-water mark in our lifetime, if we choose to allow it. For reasons outlined by Points 1 and 2, it seems clear enough that most of our governing can happen quite effectively at the local and individual levels. There is little need to get "Washington" involved in anything that happens where I live, extenuating circumstances notwithstanding. The more locally we manage our problems, the less our choices have the potential to adversely impact unrelated parties on the other side of the country. This is to our benefit as well as to theirs.
  4. Greater migratory freedom: Relevant to Points 1 and 3, people can now uproot themselves and move to greener pastures more easily than at any other time in history. Embracing this means that people can "vote with their feet" and thus hold local governments more accountable than they have been in the past. Greater accountability means better outcomes for citizens. 
My view is that the most important thing that the Information Age has given us is the ability to manage virtually all aspects of our lives from the comfort of our own homes. We pay our taxes online, why shouldn't we vote online? We gather news and information at home, why should we be forced to rely on the so-called "expertise" of politicians?

The main problem with this, as far as I can tell, is that those who favor a large and expansive central government would have less power to enforce their will on the rest of us. While that sounds attractive to libertarian types, I must acknowledge that it would spell the end of social democracy. Considering, however, that I've just argued for the end of modern democracy as we currently understand it, it stands to reason that social democracy would be tossed out, too.

We live in a glorious, technologically advanced, wealthy age in history. We should consider reducing the administrative constraints of "modern" representative democracy. We should explore new ways to govern ourselves. This need not be a violent or disruptive process. So long as we can pull a few of these things off without compromising anyone's quality of life, I think this kind of innovation is worth exploring.


Movie Review - Captain America: The Winter Soldier

While the rest of the world may be growing a little weary of superhero movies, I enjoy them as much now as I did when they started making a major "comeback" in the early 2000s. What's not to like? They're full of action, excitement, and great special effects; they frequently explore "the big questions" (as all fantasy tends to). And, perhaps most importantly, after nearly a century of experience in telling stories, comic book writers have mastered the fine art of character development.

This, the second-or-third-installment-of-the-Captain-America-franchise-depending-on-how-you-look-at-it, was a delightful surprise for me on so many levels. I'd like to spend some good, solid time exploring this, so let me cut straight to the point early on: Captain America: The Winter Soldier is an excellent movie, and you should go watch it. Now that that's out of the way, let me explain a bit about why I liked it so much.

The Captain America Turn-Around
As a comic book character, Captain America started out as nothing more than a propaganda tool. This is an assertion that should not require too much evidence. He's a guy painted like the American flag who runs around fighting an obvious metaphor for both Nazism and communism. He was created during World War II. It's a pretty straight-forward thing. Captain America: The First Avenger actually did an excellent job of establishing this fact. They made Captain America a literal propaganda tool, travelling around the country and to military bases as a performer, before finally going into battle himself.

So it is with this in mind that we must process the story outlined in The Winter Soldier. In this new movie, Captain America finds himself questioning the wisdom - and indeed even the democratic authority - of the security state being built before his eyes by Nick Fury and the US government. Sure, the obvious thing to note is how closely this parallels actual reality in the United States. But even setting that aside, there is an added depth embedded in the script. It's not just the superhero-guy questioning the actions of the American government; it's not just some characters on a screen. No, it's more than that: it's Captain America, the American propaganda tool himself, questioning the actions of the American government.

Whatever your political stripes, the elegance with which this statement was made - by a nerdy superhero movie, no less - is a cut above the typical Hollywood anti-war movie, and reflects a truly literary effort to make a statement. I loved that about this movie.

The "Boring" Superhero
Captain America is not a particularly "sexy" superhero. I don't mean Chris Evans (be at ease, ladies), I mean the comic book character. He wears a dorky-looking uniform. Instead of having an incredible weapon or super-power, he wields a shield. He possesses great strength, stamina, and speed, but beyond that he isn't much of a superhero. He doesn't have indestructible retractable claws. He can't breath in outer space, he can't fly, he can't change shape. He can't manipulate matter or shoot beams from his eyes or hands. Unlike many other "mortal" superheros (like Batman or Iron Man), he does not possess a genius-level intellect. He doesn't even have a secret identity. 

No, fundamentally, Captain America is boring. He's pretty much just a really fit guy with a shield and a funny costume.

What's great about Captain America is that, unlike every other superhero, he has an unwavering moral integrity. He's polite, he treats women respectfully, he takes responsibility for danger, he is courageous despite his fears, and he never gives up on his friends. The great thing about Captain America is that his super-power seems to be his moral virtue.

They made a big deal out of this in The First Avenger, but I felt that they really showcased his morals in The Winter Soldier. Someone at Marvel understands that moral virtue, especially in this day and age, is a super-power. They write it into the script, they use it as a springboard for plot development, and best of all, they never waver. Whatever his flaws, Captain America is portrayed as morally unshakable, even in impossible circumstances.

This kind of thing has an obvious attraction to a moralizer like myself, but beyond that - it's such a rare and wonderful thing for blockbuster Hollywood movies to take moral character seriously that when they finally do it, it hits you full-force. Morality does not sell as many movie tickets as violence and special effects, but nevertheless, when it's part of the script, you know it's there. It makes a difference.

What I liked about the movie might not appeal to everyone. Not everyone loves to watch a movie with strong moral themes and clever character juxtaposition. Some people just like exciting movies with good action, great special effects, pretty girls, and a good dose of humor. Another great thing about Captain America: The Winter Soldier is that it offers views all of that, too. You don't have to take things on the same level I do to appreciate the movie.

And while it wasn't perfect - there are a few significant plot holes and some overly shaky camera work, for example - this is another strong contribution to the superhero movie genre and another great send-up of the Marvel universe. I cannot recommend it highly enough.


Three Ideas For Making Art

Three possibilities for making art can be found by considering Realism, Impressionism, and Modernism.

Realism reflects an artist's desire to replicate what s/he sees exactly. Impressionism reflects the artist's desire to produce a stylized version of a vision. Modernism reflects the artist's desire to produce an image that is completely detached from what we see and experience in the real world.

As you can see, I am using these terms quite loosely compared to their formal definitions. In my version of "Realism," I would also include Surrealism because, like Realism, it is an effort to replicate a "realistic" image exactly, even if the image is not something that would ever be observed in physical reality. In my version of "Impressionism," I would include literally any stylized image of something that exists or could potentially exist in the real world. Finally, in my version of "Modernism," I include all images that are essentially detached from any obligation to physical reality, images that are fully abstract.

The definitions I've just given are obviously unsatisfying, so let's use them for this one blog post, and drop them thereafter. For the purposes of this post, I mean only to highlight three significant approaches to art: replication, stylization, and abstraction.

We can apply the same theoretical concepts to music.

One kind of musical artist is s/he who endeavors to replicate. Here I include musical virtuosos - people who are so technically proficient that they can more or less play anything. These artists tend to be excellent repertory players because they can train themselves to reproduce a wide variety of sounds. In rock and jazz, they learn the great solos and the famous songs exactly, note-for-note.

Another kind of artist begins with what s/he hears in the body of existing music and stylizes it to his/her own liking. Like the "Impressionist" category above, this is likely the largest category of musicians. They don't necessarily learn songs note-for-note, but they aren't trying to tear down any barriers. The most innovative of these musicians innovate by applying new sounds in traditional ways. Like The Tea Party, they might fuse traditional Eastern music with Western pop-rock. Like Yanni, they might fuse modern electric pop and synthesizer sounds with traditional Western orchestral ideas. Like Jack White, they might bring together vintage 70s rock and roll and modern punk rock. Whatever the case may be, the pattern nearly always involves drawing inspiration from the music they artist loves, relaxing the constraints imposed by exact replication, and exalting in the new ideas that get produced by the artist's inherent individuality.

The last kind of musical artist is the one that corresponds to "Modernism." This sort of artist draws much less inspiration from the music s/he hears, and has little to know interest in producing exact replications of existing material. Instead, they endeavor to create musical sounds that do not already exist. Their goal is to produce wholly new music; the less their music can be compared to existing material, the better (to them).

Any musical artist can, at any moment in time, engage in Realism, Impressionism, or Modernism. Most will do a fair amount of each thing, while ultimately concentrating most of his/her "serious" efforts in one particular realm.

It's also important to keep in mind that these are only conceptual ideas. It may well be that a virtuoso sees his work less as exact replication and more as something else. He may choose to describe what he does some other way. It may also be that musical "Modernism" is an impossible ideal-type. Perhaps, on some level, every act of musical artistry is an example of "Impressionism," putting one's own spin on a type of material that already exists, and that "there's nothing new - it's all been done."

But I am less interested in whether these three ideas are "real" or "truly represent three kinds of artists" than I am in the fact that they are three ideas or methods or paradigms that can be employed to the creation of art and music. You may identify more strongly with one of these "methods" than the other two. If so, when you run into writer's block, you could potentially leverage one of the other two concepts to make some progress that you otherwise wouldn't have.

Friday Rapid Fire

It's more than just links - it's rapid fire!

1) School Is Boring
Bryan Caplan writes on boredom in American public schools as though it were a serious problem. David Friedman agrees, and says it's one of the main reasons he chose to home school his children. You can say it's silly, but the fact that Caplan and Friedman believe school boredom to be a major problem nudges me toward agreement. Like most people, my initial reaction is, "Yeah, so what? It's school. It's work. It's not supposed to be fun." But there is a difference between not fun and boring. Learning might not always be fun, but when should it ever be boring? Yes, it is a problem. Yes, changes should be made.

2) Should People With Controversial Opinions Be CEOs?
Tyler Cowen offers his thoughts. They consist of three main points:

  1. Producers of free products have to be more publicly palatable than producers of products that are purchased. The idea is that the company image is where the competition is happening, since it's not happening on price.
  2. "[A]mbitious young people just got more boring."
  3. People are trending toward "outbursts" that can be "recanted" later, as compared to a consistent, long-run pattern of beliefs or behavior.
Of Cowen's three points, the first seems pretty obvious and uncontroversial, but I think he has the mechanism running in the wrong direction. Mozilla doesn't fire controversial CEOs because they are bad for business, they fire them because signalling tolerance is good for businesses. His second point is, as far as I can see, groundless. Cowen doesn't really establish who he's talking about. Brendan Eich is in his 50s, so he's clearly not an "ambitious young person." His third point is true, but old news. This has been the trend in politics for the majority of my lifetime. It's the same as saying, "I take full responsibility" and then moving on as if nothing happened.

My view: The Chief Executive Officer is fast becoming the public persona of a corporation. It stands to reason that, so long as they remain CEOs, they will have to watch what they do. Eich could have easily passed his money through a 3rd party that could have made the controversial donations, but he did not. It is not unacceptable that people would object and hold him accountable for it.

3) Male Circumcision
Yesterday's post at The Reference Frame got me curious about male circumcision. Motl calls it a "cruel ancient ritual," which is consistent with the views of anti-circumcision activists. But the post was heavy on the opinions and light on the science, so I did a little digging of my own.

First let me tell you what I expected to find: I expected to find that the evidence definitely stacks up in favor of either circumcision or non-circumcision. I expected the matter to have been studied in-depth and the answer to be relatively clear cut.

What I actually found was a lot of idiocy on both sides of the issue, and relatively weak science. That is, the benefits of male circumcision are greatly overstated. While there is an unequivocal reduction in the risk of certain complications when a boy is circumcised, those complications aren't particularly common, and can often be eliminated by simple non-surgical self-care (like wearing condoms and keeping yourself clean).

This knowledge puts quite a different spin on the issue. Foreskin removal is non-invasive and does not reduce a person's quality of life in any appreciable way; even so, it's benefits are minimal. Despite all the chest-pounding on both sides of the issue, it really does appear to be mostly a choice, a preference. Calling it cruel and barbaric on the one hand, or akin to vaccination on the other is terribly misguided. It's a simple elective surgery. Choose what you prefer for your child, or perhaps leave it up to him to decide later on.



Spring-boarding off my two recent posts on Modernism and art equivalence, I'd like to explore a somewhat related concept, which for lack of a better term I will call oeuvre.

Technically, the word oeuvre means the work of an artist regarded collectively. According to this (the primary) definition of oeuvre, Romeo & Juliet is not "an oeuvre," but The Complete Works of Shakespeare is (are?). Oeuvre is what you get when you produce an entire collection of art and then take a look back in retrospect. Philosophically, oeuvre is an artifact of art appreciation. We might love all the individual paintings of Claude Monet, but his oeuvre presents us with a whole new way to appreciate them, and it happens on an almost "meta" level. Not only will you love his Impression, Sunrise as a great work of art, you will also love it as an aesthetic chapter in the book of Monet's oeuvre. You'll conceptually link it to The Luncheon and The Magpie and others, and experience a form of appreciation that both involves and yet still transcends any individual painting.

Furthermore, just as you might compare 1984 to Brave New World to explore and contrast two individual works of literature, you can do the same thing with oeuvre, too. You can compare, say, the underlying themes of the individual within society as it pertains to Nathaniel Hawthorne's oeuvre versus how it pertains to Franz Kafka's oeuvre. Many academic papers and high school book reports have undertaken that and similar tasks. It's a form of art appreciation to look for similarities and differences within and across oeuvres.

Now, every artist has an oeuvre, but not every artist's oeuvre is worth talking about. Some artists produce more or less the same art from the beginning to the end of their oeuvre, and even their choice of subjects is not particularly noteworthy. Others have an oeuvre that evolves over time. Still others produce very consistent art work, but their choice of subjects is conceptually meaningful. We can say much about these last two artists, but almost nothing about the first.

Clearly, there is more potential for the audience to appreciate an artist with a highly noteworthy oeuvre. But here's the even more interesting thing: this implies that there is greater room for artistic expression, too. That is, an artist can choose to "say something" with his/her oeuvre, in addition to making stand-alone statements with each individual work of art. If an audience can appreciate something about art, then the artist can therefore leverage this sense of appreciation to build additional messages into whatever it is they're appreciating, even if that means manipulating his or her own oeuvre for the sake of a deeper message.

Does this mean that artists with noteworthy oeuvres are more interesting than artists who do not? If so, how so?


Art Equivalence

It took an unbelievable amount of preparation, practice, and effort to paint the Sistine Chapel. Is that fact important?

Here's why I ask: We all understand that art consumption is subjective. That is, not everyone would like to hang a piece of Renaissance art in their home; some would much rather hang a pretty landscape picture painted by a no-name artist. We know this because most people hang that sort of art in their homes, if only in the form of a print, whereas very few hang prints of Renaissance art in their homes. So, the consumption of art - the determination of what we most prefer to look at - is an entirely subjective thing. There are no right and wrong answers.

Still, Bob Ross was cranking out nature landscapes on PBS at the rate of once per 30-minute segment, whereas it took Michelangelo four years to paint the Sistine Chapel. Setting aside what you personally prefer to look at, my question is whether it matters at all that Michelangelo's efforts were many orders of magnitude greater than Bob Ross'. Does it matter?

Similarly, most people these days would rather listen to Katy Perry than Beethoven. There's nothing wrong with that. If you like Katy Perry, you ought to listen to Katy Perry without having to feel like you have to justify your decision to music snobs. Heck, I like Katy Perry. She's great. Still, is there a legitimate comparison to be made between "Teenage Dream" and the Moonlight Sonata?

Seriously, I'd like to know what my readers think. To what extent do you feel that there is artistic equivalence between "Jesu, Joy Of Man's Desiring" and "She Loves You (Yeah, Yeah, Yeah)"?


Some Thoughts On Modernism

Recently I have been immersing myself in musical Modernism. I use the term "Modernism" loosely since I understand that it carries different connotations among different sets of people and different branches of art and thought. So let the reader understand that when I say Modernism, I'm referring to atonal music, serial composition, 12-tone music, and the off-shoots thereof. "Modernism" serves as my catch-all phrase for those areas of music that challenge the listener to conceive of sound differently, as expressed primarily by 20th Century composers like Arnold Schoenberg and Igor Stravinsky.

Modernism in orchestral composing was bound to happen at some point. The adventurous work of the late Romantic-era composers seemingly leaves no stone upended in harmony. Wagner, as a particularly extreme example, had to invent new musical instruments and new kinds of singing in order for his work to be performed. That composers had begun imagining music that wasn't yet physically possible to perform fully underscores the fact that the late Romanticists had fully tapped the well of their own creativity.

Future composers, then, had a choice: continue the late Romantic period for another hundred years, or create a new era. Keep in mind that the Baroque period, for example, lasted about 125 years and that Romanticism had already been around for about a century. That, combined with the sweeping changes that were occurring politically, scientifically, and artistically throughout the world virtually ensured that Modernism would happen exactly when it happened.

Imagine that you are a potential Modernist composer, but that Modernism does not yet exist. You've heard the shockingly elaborate compositions of Wagner and the delicious rhythmic and harmonic exploration of Tchaikovsky and Chopin. Where do you choose to take music?

It is a challenging question for people my age, because we grew up at a time when the conventional wisdom proclaimed that there will never be a better group of musicians than The Beatles. It has been repeated, over and over again, that everything important about "modern music" was said by The Beatles and Nirvana. Perhaps some would include a few other pop bands. Perhaps the jazzers would expand on the palette to include some jazz favorites. But there it rests, and if orchestral music is included at all, it stops at the year 1900. The few "modern" composers who make it into the discussion are folks like John Williams or Andrew Lloyd Webber; excellent composers indeed, but compositionally innovative they are not.

And yet, somehow, some way, the kids found their way to Modernism. They did this by following an unlikely path: heavy metal. If we wanted to be academic about it, we could probably trace a line from Frank Zappa to King Crimson, then to Fates Warning, then to Tool, then to Meshuggah, and finally to Animals As Leaders.

There's our lineage. And there is no denying the strong Modernist undercurrents in modern "djent" music. 

In the end, the connection is a logical one. Frank Zappa described Stravinski's music as "angry" and "loud," two words that can easily be applied to heavy metal of all forms. Modernism always had a sort of dark aesthetic to it, too. And considering metal's evolution away from blues-based rock architecture and toward the more traditionality of "neoclassical" guitar compositions, it shouldn't be too surprising that metal would follow a similar trajectory to orchestral music.

And now here we are. Djent bands are wandering ever-closer to atonalism. Already the vocalists often eschew toned notes entirely. The instrumentation tends to have a tonal center, but that's often as far as it goes. The music focuses mostly on its aesthetic expression through driving rhythms and intricate riffs, rather than through harmonic development. The really adventurous ones, however, like Animals As Leaders, let harmonic ideas weave in and out of the thematic elements.

I guess what I'm trying to say is that exploring Schoenberg and Varese has given me a better appreciation for the likes of Periphery and Tesseract. That might seem unlikely to those who believe that the two branches of music are worlds apart, but in fact it's not unlikely at all. It's natural.

I hope to have some additional, more coherent thoughts as I continue exploring.