Social Media: You're Doing It Wrong

There is plenty of information out there for how to use social media to... profit, become popular, make gain, whatever. Most of it smacks of guru-ism, but if you're into that sort of thing, it's out there.

Far less digital space has been dedicated to strategies for optimizing our consumption of social media. Once you get out of the realm of protecting your privacy and stuff, no one's really talking about it. How should one navigate social media such that it actually enhances your life?

What inspired me to start thinking about this is the fact that I have an Instagram account and a Twitter account, and although most of the people I am interested in following are active on both, I made different decisions about who to follow on each medium. Consequently, I have very different experiences while using each medium.

On Twitter, I started out mostly following a few friends, and then a bunch of economists. Serious people. On Instagram, I decided to follow a bunch of Hollywood and Bollywood celebrities. (My reasoning at the time was that Twitter would be a vehicle for the advertisement of my blog, while Instagram would be a vehicle for the advertisement of my music.)

When I started following people on Twitter, I was very picky. I didn't want to be advertised to, I didn't want a bunch of music and entertainment, I wanted to follow people for whom I had genuine respect and admiration. By contrast, when I started following people on Instagram, I had almost no standards whatsoever. As long as the person looked like some sort of celebrity, then it was clicky-clicky. Most of the people I follow on Instagram are people I have never heard of or seen before, except in the context of Instagram. When people ask me who they are, I answer honestly: I have no idea, just some person on Instagram.

Over time, I've discovered that logging into Twitter fills me with a sense of dread, whereas logging onto Instagram almost always makes me happier than I was before I logged on. But how can this be? How could it be that the social medium on which I follow only people I respect could end up making me sad or angry, while the medium on which I follow people for whom I have hardly any respect at all can make me so happy?

The answer is: Content.

My Twitter feed is full of intelligent people analyzing current events, typically from the standpoint that the world is sub-optimal, and they have some ideas for how to make it more optimal. In other words, people on my Twitter feed are angry and complain a lot. When they do make jokes, they make them at other Twitter users' expense. It sucks.

By contrast, my Instagram feed is full of beautiful people taking pictures of themselves doing fun things. They're young, they're fit, they're frequently in exotic locations, they're engaged in sports, or cooking, or wearing nice clothes. They smile, they kiss, they travel, they play.

In hindsight, it should have been obvious all along that Instagram would make me happier than Twitter. It's counter-intuitive to think that meticulously curating a Twitter feed full of good, respectable people would produce an inferior outcome compared to indiscriminately following any celebrity I could find.

But that's how it is.


Dialogue, Not Monologue

As I see it, one major problem with the media through which people communicate their ideas is that they are insufficiently participatory.

For example:

  • I might commit my ideas to a blog. I might even solicit and receive comments from the public. But if I don't read the comments, and think about the comments, and reply to the comments (either directly, or via a follow-up post), then I'm not really collecting the feedback my ideas need in order to grow. I might receive a  lot of bad comments, but if this happens consistently, then I ought to consider how I'm delivering my message, and ask myself why I get bad comments instead of good ones. The other possibility, of course, is that the "bad" comments I might receive aren't really bad at all; it's my attitude that's bad.
  • I might describe my ideas in a scholarly journal. I'll be peer-reviewed, edited, challenged, and so on. Setting aside the potential corruption in the academic journal system, the main drawback here is that both my articles and the peer reviews are themselves lengthy monologues, some of which might be true, some of which might be untrue. Making heads or tails of it all - especially within the context of the full issue - requires a level of dedication and intimacy with the subject matter that few will possess. Even among those who try to possess it, many (most?) will fail. Some crucial piece of information will always elude us. It's one thing to be wrong about a few points, but it's quite another to never have sufficient context surrounding an issue to really offer a workable idea.
  • I might present my ideas in the political space, and subject them to the contorting influence of ideologically motivated reasoning. This is unsatisfactory for all sorts of reasons: first, because it's unpleasant; second, because it's factually inaccurate; and third, for every other reason.
  • I might seek the counsel of a trusted friend or confidant. But if I'm not receptive to the reply - even if it's not the kind of reply we expect. What if my confidant tells me that I'm wrong and that I need to change? What if my confidant says something I never expected and didn't want to hear?
If conversation is to be productive at all, we have to be receptive to the feedback we actually receive. We can't just furrow our brow and say, "No, no, you simply don't understand what I'm saying. Here, let me say it again..."

The world doesn't exist as a platform for you to voice your opinion, give your take, offer your perspective, and then disappear into the night. Once you send your own thoughts into the world, they join the collective dialogue. The desire to control the kind of feedback we receive is for one thing childish; yes, it's childish to wish to control the thoughts of others.

But more importantly, it's disingenuous. It suggests that you were never really interested in the truth or accuracy or value of your statements to begin with. You wanted to say something, and you wanted to be right. You did not want to have to consider the alternative.

Join the dialogue.


Movie Review: Sultan

Sultan, starring Anushka Sharma and Salman Khan
Image courtesy Wikipedia

Sultan is possibly one of the more inexplicable Hindi movies I've ever seen.

Ostensibly, the movie tells the story of an Indian mixed martial arts league that is failing to sell tickets; so, its founder, Aakash Oberoi sets out to recruit a retired Indian Olympic wrestler to compete in the league, in an attempt to spark more interest from Indians. It's essentially a play toward nationalism, an attempt to give Indian spectators a home-grown "local boy" to cheer for in the league.

What Oberoi discovers when he meets the retired wrestler, Sultan Ali Khan, is that Khan has refused to ever enter the ring again, and upon probing Khan's childhood friend Govind, Oberoi learns the story of why Khan will never wrestle again.

This story makes up the first half of the movie, and it is build from the typical Bollywood playbook. If you've seen a few Bollywood films, you probably already know how it goes: a young man who has extended his youth too far into adulthood (to the dismay of his parents) meets a beautiful and talented young woman who inspires him to make something of himself. In winning her hand, he also makes his family and his country proud, follows his dreams, achieves fame and fortune, but still has not yet managed to learn humility. In an act of arrogance, he loses the girl, falls from national grace, and pursues self-exile so that he may engage in self-flagellation.

And, true to the Bollywood playbook, Sultan tells the rest of the cliched story in the second half of the movie, offering the hero a chance to win back his self-respect, and all the romance and familial respect and fame and fortune that goes along with it.


The problem with Sultan, though, is that it is the heroine, Aarfa Hussein (played brilliantly by the ever-talented Anushka Sharma), who has the dream to become the world's greatest Olympic wrestler. She dedicates her life to this dream and, as we learn in an early monologue, dedicates herself to the pursuit of female equality in India. That is, she has a reason to become the greatest wrestler in the world. Khan merely becomes a wrestler because he wants to impress her. In just three months' time, Khan manages to make wrestling history, and only because he wants to date a girl. Movies often demand the suspension of disbelief, but this is ridiculous - no one could become a national wrestling champion at age 30 in a sport they only first encountered a few months ago!

Once Khan gets going, Aarfa becomes pregnant and subjugates her dream to his - which is exactly what she vowed never to do, and all in the name of female equality. Yet Sultan's script writers never really pursue this. *Shrug*, oh well, Sultan Ali Khan is the greatest of all time!

If all this weren't bad enough, eventually the time comes for a retired Sultan to make a comeback and learn mixed martial arts, and - gee, whiz - he has to train to become the greatest MMA fighter in India... in just three months!

This is a bridge too far. Even if the audience could believe that he could win ever relevant international wrestling competition, including the Olympics, in his first year with the sport, to then repeat it all over again eight years later in a totally new sport is preposterous. And it's frustrating because there was no good reason for the writers to write the movie that way. A training montage could have spanned 3 months or 3 years, the audience shouldn't have to care about that. Making such a simple part of the plot just a little credible would have cost the producers nothing. So all this really is is bad writing.

Despite the bad writing, the movie has two major selling points. First, Anushka Sharma's performance is everything we've come to expect from her. Her facial expressions, mannerisms, and acting perfectly encapsulate a real wold-class female athlete. Those of us who have had some proximity to elite sports have some insight into this, and what I can tell you is that I was really impressed by how well she nailed her character. Brilliant.

Second, the soundtrack is pretty good. While not every song will be a hit, at least two of the songs are really quite good, especially compared to the quality of Hindi songs these days. For moviegoers who are mainly interested in the song-and-dance aspect of Bollywood films, this one will not disappoint. However, don't expect much in the way of great dance sequences.

All in all, I think this movie was pretty bad. It's not horrible - for example, I'd much rather watch Sultan than, say, House Full. But "not the worst Hindi movie I've ever seen" is not exactly great praise. Ultimately, I'd recommend skipping this one.


Upside-Down Libertarianism

Jason Brennan often argues (here, for example) that democracy is a bad idea, because voters are idiots with respect to social science, and that it should be replaced with something he calls "epistocracy." What he has in mind is some kind of test of basic knowledge - if you pass, you can vote.

Much like a UBI, I consider this kind of thing to be "upside-down libertarianism." Brennan takes an important implication of libertarianism at face-value, and then makes exactly the wrong prognosis.

The heart of the issue is that democracies leave important decisions in the hands of those least equipped to make them. Brennan is certainly right to highlight that shortcoming of democracy. Logically speaking, though, there are only two ways to address this problem:

  1. Make a change to who, within the political process, gets to make the important decision.
  2. Take the important decision out of the political process entirely.
In plain language, the government is probably too powerful if we are using it to make decisions that require the expertise of a small number of university professors. The government ought not be making those kinds of decisions, democratically or otherwise.

Notice that, under this argument, we work our way toward a truly libertarian objective: smaller government.

By contrast, reducing the number of people who are allowed to participate in the democratic process without making any reduction in the size or scope of government sets on the path toward greater levels of despotism than what already exists. And this is generally true of all states, not uniquely true of mine or yours.

My critics might argue that there is no political appetite for smaller government in the current environment, so isn't Brennan's "epistocracy" a good, next-best option? My answer is no, because there is even less of an appetite for voting restrictions than there is for smaller government. Both ideas seem like political long-shots, but as long as we're choosing from a list of long-shots, why not make the choice that results in a smaller, less-intrusive state?

But regardless of which policy stands the greater chance for implementation, we can see that certain new-fangled "libertarian" policies just seem like an upside-down or Bizarro version of libertarianism, in which we tackle the problem of increased despotism with ever-increasing levels of despotism. This is the philosophical version of a nanny state, where our epistemic superiors aim to save us from ourselves.


Introducing The BEG

What with all the libertarians out there attempting to write justifications for a Universal Basic Income, i.e. a welfare payment from the government given to every man, woman, and child simply for existing, a thought occurred to me. That thought was, If a Basic Income Guarantee is justifiable under libertarianism, then so ought be its opposite, a Basic Excise Guarantee.

What I mean by "Basic Excise Guarantee" (hereafter, BEG) is not the "certainty of death and taxes" we've all heard about before, but rather the literal opposite of a UBI. The UBI is a guaranteed payment from the government that you get simply because you exist. The BEG, then, is a tax justified by nothing more than the fact that you exist. You pay a tax not because you own certain kinds of property or engage in certain activities, not because our government needs funds to enforce the social contract, nor as a behavioral-economic "nudge" to prevent you from smoking. No, a BEG is a tax you pay because you exist, and by virtue of your own existence, you owe money to your state. No matter your place in life, your age, your ability, your means, or your demographics, a BEG would charge you a single tax level.

If you prefer, you can consider the BEG a negative UBI, in the same sense that the UBI is, as Samuel Hammond has recently argued, a negative income tax. However, income taxes are not levied universally, but rather they are only levied on those who earn income, whereas most formulations of the UBI are truly universal. The BEG, then must be universal in exactly the same way as the UBI.

Please note: My purpose here is not to advocate for a BEG, but rather to highlight the fact that a BEG is equally as justifiable as a UBI. In doing so, I aim to highlight the important shortcomings of arguments in favor of the UBI, for if they fail to justify a BEG, they must also fail to justify a UBI for exactly the same reasons.

I thought I'd start by going through the various cases that have been made for the UBI in the economics and libertarian blogging landscape over the years, and addressing the arguments directly. This has two primary benefits: First, I'll be able to learn a lot about the arguments for a UBI as they were being made during the time they seemed to have been most convincing, i.e. in context. Second, I'll be able to build on my arguments against the UBI in the same sequence that the arguments justifying them were made. 

Today I'm taking a look at Jessica Flanigan's 2012 blog post at Bleeding Heart Libertarians on this topic, and searching for weak points.

A BEG Mitigates Coersion

At the time it was written, the authors at Bleeding Heart Libertarians were attempting to differentiate themselves from "hard libertarians," mostly Rothbardians of the Lew Rockwell variety, by framing arguments in terms of "social justice." But "social justice" is an ambiguous phrase, and there was a lot of controversy across blogs as to just what it meant, and whether such a concept was even compatible with libertarianism, "hard" or otherwise. Thus, Flanigan states early on in her piece:
When I say ‘social justice,’ I mean UBI. Below are several arguments for a basic income. I don’t endorse them all, but I’m including them all to show that there are many libertarian paths to this kind of ‘social justice’ conclusion.
For Flanigan, then, "social justice" (to paraphrase Adam Gurri)  just is a Universal Basic Income.

The problem with this point of view is that Flanigan assumes that which she needs to prove. There are a few different angles here, too, but the most difficult to swallow is that a UBI is sufficiently powerful to redress all other social justice issues.

Let's consider that claim by way of example: I happen to think that African-Americans have experienced a long history of social injustice as a result of early America's complicity in the slaving system, and the bigoted culture it produced even after the Emancipation Proclamation. Few people would disagree with me. Under Flanigan's conception of libertarianism, whatever the lasting social impacts of this matter might be - including some thorny legal issues as-yet unresolved - a libertarianism that includes a Universal Basic Income is sufficient to address this sort of social injustice.

Do we really believe that paying African-Americans a monthly welfare stipend - one which also went to every white person in the country, no matter how priviledged - would correct the kind of social injustice experienced by people of color in America? I certainly don't.

Now let's consider a BEG. Given that privileged, white, wealthy people have carved out an unfair systemic advantage in America, couldn't we re-frame social justice as libertarianism with a compulsory, universal tax? That is, perhaps we can close all those unfair tax loopholes by mandating a universal tax paid by every man, woman, and child. Granted, this would place a significant burden on poor people and people of color, few of whom benefit from egregious tax loopholes, but by levying the BEG on the wealthy, we could partially correct outcomes in terms of social justice.

That sounds like a decent justification for progressive taxation. I wonder what Flanigan might think of it? I can't know for sure, but here's what she wrote in her blog post (all emphases in the original):
So any state-run property system is impermissible, but moral reasons still weigh in favor of certain property systems over others. In particular, the balance of moral reasons tells against adopting a system of property rules that causes innocent people to starve (a totally ‘free market’ system) and also against a system that requires constant interference in everyone’s lives and leveling down (an egalitarian system). A UBI balances our claims that states not prevent us from 1) meeting our basic needs and 2) pursuing important projects, including economic projects, without excessive interference. 
This position is not absolutist- I just mean that to the extent that states coercively prevent either 1) or 2) the property system is morally worse. This view also doesn’t hinge on the idea of positive duties, about which I remain ambivalent. Rather it is just to say that people have claims against coercive interference, and that a UBI will mitigate the wrong of a coercive system of property better than a totally free-market or egalitarian system.
Flanigan uses the phrase "egalitarian system" to denote the sort of progressive taxation scheme I've just mentioned. Apparently she rejects such a system on grounds that it "requires constant interference... and leveling down" and that "people have claims against coercive interference."

Notice, however, that both a UBI and a BEG (read: "egalitarian system") involve coercive interference. Flanigan is simply choosing which one she prefers. In her defense, she admits that this isn't a "full argument," but all she's really done is sketched out a case for a minimally invasive social justice policy - not any policy in particular. Thus, she cannot reject a BEG/"egalitarian system" on the grounds she presents thus far; nor can she justify a UBI.

A BEG Is Market Friendly

Flanigan's next point is that the UBI is market friendly:
Second, the UBI is relatively market friendly. As Hayek (also a fan of the UBI) argued, states provide services in ways that distort markets and crush private competitors that would better reflect the diversity of our values.
So, too, is a BEG market friendly in exactly the same way. Gone are loopholes, tax credits, and write-offs in the tax code that serve to benefit some kinds of economic activity over others. Just as Hayek would have preferred to replace the entire welfare system with a UBI, so too, ought we replace the entire tax code with a BEG to avoid distorting market behavior.

Flanigan says the UBI minimizes "adverse incentives" and keeps government small. A BEG would likewise eliminate the need for a large Internal Revenue Service in charge of administering tax complexities and replace it with a simple, easily enforced question: Did you pay your BEG this year, or didn't you? It would also spare households the indignity of having to report the intimate details of their financial lives, risking embarrassment (at best) or identity theft (at worst) just to pay the government what they owe.

A BEG Justifies The Existence Of Government

Flanigan's third justification for the UBI - really, a set of justifications - is as follows:
Third, consider libertarian types like John Tomasi, Loren Lomasky, and Gerald Gaus, who argue that a UBI makes state power justifiable. Tomasi thinks that impartial institutional designers would first choose to protect important liberties (including economic liberties like contract and ownership) but then they would endorse redistributive policies to benefit society’s worst off within the limits of said liberties. Lomasky argues that a coercive system of property is only justifiable to everyone if it gives everyone enough to pursue their projects and have meaningful lives, and this may require a UBI. Gaus thinks any reasonable citizen must accept that some modest redistribution is permissible. I also suspect that this is what Jason was getting at earlier, but I’m not sure. In any case, I’m not convinced by all this Rawlsian public justification and moral powers talk, but if you are, these are reasons for the UBI.
A major upshot of the BEG is that it renders all of these arguments irrelevant. By assumption, a Basic Excise Guarantee is what you owe your government by virtue of your own existence. You come out of the womb with a debt to your masters, and without paying that debt, you cannot hope to expect proper enforcement of liberties or redistributive policies. Thus, you would have no reasonable expectation for a meaningful life.

Flanigan likely wouldn't be convinced by such an assumption, but if you are, it's a reason to implement a BEG.

In truth, though, Flanigan ought to be convinced by this argument. Why? Because in her very next paragraph, she writes this:
Even if you were entitled to your property holdings, you are not entitled to coercive public enforcement of those holdings. Just because we have negative rights doesn’t mean that those rights merit full public accommodation. Once libertarians start demanding that their property is protected and their rights are publicly enforced, we can think of taxes as the public fee for that enforcement.
Flanigan has made my case for the BEG on my behalf!

Look, you don't buy and drink a gallon of milk before you pay for it - you buy it first, and then drink it. Even in restaurants, where we typically do eat first and then pay, there is an a priori assumption made as soon as we place our order with the wait staff that we will pay our bill in full. So it goes with liberty: you can't have it unless you pay for it, which means you owe your fee the minute you begin enjoying your supposed liberty, i.e. at birth. There should be no reason to think that you will receive public enforcement of your liberties, including property rights, unless there is also reason to assume you will be paying your fee. That is, after all, what a social contract is all about.


Alternatively, some people think that paying taxes promotes an overall feeling of civic involvement. (See above.) Or, say you think that freedom requires the ability to leave a coercive workplace without terrible consequences. A BEG will ensure that no employer is so monetarily privileged that he can create coercive workplace arrangements with his employees, according to this thicker conception of voluntary. The BEG also doesn't take a stand on how people spend their money, and in this way, it avoids paternalism, unlike, say, a marriage tax credit. Additionally, a BEG would reduce some of the stigma associated with tax debt, and while the government isn't required to encourage people not to be social freeloaders, it would be nice. Finally, maybe positive duties to pay into society do exist, even in the absence of a system of taxation. If so, a BEG could help on that front.

These arguments for the BEG also explain why libertarianism at its best is aligned with the state. The world is really unjust in part because states coercively enforce laws that make people really badly off. On this we agree. Sufficiency is on the path to priority or equality, so for a while, libertarians and statists can walk the path from here to social justice together.


* Note: This entire section is a paraphrasing of Flanigan's exact language.


Loss Of Status As Anti-Immigrant Backlash

One of the reasons mercantilism was so difficult to defeat among the kings of the western world centuries ago was that it's really difficult to convince somebody that they are wealthy if they're not staring at a huge vault full of gold bars and coins.

You might, for example, own a mortgage. If you spend $1500 in rent every month, and then move into a home and take on a mortgage that costs $1500 per month, you won't feel any richer than you were before, but in fact you are. And the more you pay into your mortgage, the wealthier you'll be. A mortgage payment isn't really an expense in the same sense that your electricity bill is an expense, because as you pay into your mortgage, you retain a part of that payment in the form of equity, i.e. wealth.

In this way, your wealth grows even though your lifestyle hasn't noticeably changed. You won't consider yourself any wealthier than the next-door neighbor from your old apartment complex because you're both spending $1500 a month. Only after decades will you realize how much better off you became.

The Small-Mindedness Of Comparative Wealth

There's a comparison between that situation and the freedom of labor movement across national borders. Our lives improve every day as a result of worldwide economic development, but our incomes are rising much slower than they are in, say, Mumbai. We feel like we're losing something because our way of life seems more common, less exceptional. We look to politicians to do something about it, by managing trade and immigration restrictions, to keep our firms and our salaries "competitive," meaning higher than they are in other countries. It's an understandable desire.

But why do Indians have to suffer in poverty just to make us feel better about our lives? Why can't we simply be happy that we have all the iPhones and craft beer we can get our hands on, and Chinese people are getting more and more access to that lifestyle, too? Why must we define our prosperity in relative terms? In short, if everyone's lives are getting better, why is it particularly important that American lives are getting exceptionally so?

What is it about the poverty of foreign peoples that make us feel better about ourselves?

On Immigration

Tyler Cowen responds to Bryan Caplan on anti-immigrant "backlash" in the United Kingdom. (Caplan makes his main claim a little better in this older post, so start there.)

Caplan's claim is that social opposition to immigration is strongest in the areas where immigration happens least. He cites some specific examples, but I think the conclusion is fairly intuitive: A small community is going to react more harshly to a single unusual newcomer than they will to dozens of them. Consider American attitudes toward divorce: when it was rare, society treated divorcees harshly; as it grew more common, attitudes changed. The same has held true for Chinese restaurants, atheism, taco trucks, K-pop, and alternative sexual identities. The more unusual something is, the more push-back it will face. We see it all the time.

Cowen responds to this idea by saying that "changes often have different effects than levels." What he means is that a community that experiences a 10% increase in immigration will tend to experience more backlash than one that experiences a 1% increase, even if the latter results in more total immigrants (e.g., if it is a larger community). This is a thoughtful, albeit weak, point since, in the case of a small community, the first few immigrants to arrive would represent the largest percentage change in immigration. In other words, it's a story that is fully consistent with Caplan's.

Cowen makes two other points: (1) There is a selection bias in the type of person immigrating, i.e. Cowen believes that pleasant immigrants (intelligent, skilled, highly assimilated) end up in London, while unpleasant immigrants end up in Birmingham. (2) The current "backlash" is a symptom of post-1980s changes to UK immigration policy, so if those changes aren't fast enough to avoid what Caplan's talking about, then nothing will be.

Regarding that first point, it's worth noting that Cowen doesn't actually make this case, he simply asserts that it's true. Even if it is true, it requires more analysis. For example, the only immigrants to Iowa corn fields are people who intend to farm corn. That's a function of the corn field, not on the attributes of the immigrant. Moreover, immigration is low to corn fields, so this hardly weakens Caplan's claims at all.

Cowen's point about backlash is less obviously wrong, but I feel more strongly about it, and it's the one that inspired this post. The "backlash" thesis relies on the assumption that the distress over immigration is directly tied to the specific policies in question. That's a tough claim to prove, and it's likely true that the UK would have experienced a significant increase in immigration even had its policies remained unchanged. The Caplan thesis would predict that backlash against immigration would have been even stronger in that case, and I that may be true. Who knows? (Once again, Cowen doesn't really defeat the argument at all.)

Even if not, though, it's important to consider why, beyond the changing appearance of a neighborhood, people are voicing any backlash at all. Here is where mercantilism comes in.

Back To Mercantilism

What if all this isn't really backlash against immigrants, but rather against stagnant nominal wages dressed up as anti-immigrant backlash? What if the western world is experiencing a large and painful real wage deflation as it faces stiffer competition from non-western labor? The Chinese are already far better than the west at manufacturing. The tech world commonly outsources its coding work to low-priced programmers in India, Pakistan, and the Ukraine. Textiles haven't really been made in the west for a long time now, aside from luxury tailoring. And while agricultural output is still substantial in the United States (thanks largely to immigration, please note), the west could hardly be considered the breadbasket of the world's food supply. The one area of commerce in which the west seems to excel is the least economically meritable: bureaucracy (corporate and public).

In light of this trend, it's important for people to remember that their wages will continue to stagnate whether or not the immigrants come. Look at the tech world: we're being out-competed even over VPN! Should governments make immigration even more difficult than it already is, and the immigrants stop coming, then the backlash we see against immigration will convert itself into an anti-trade backlash as people come to believe that foreign products, rather than foreign people, are to blame for their woes.

Meanwhile, though, we are living better at similar income levels - all of us, western and non-western. We are better-educated than ever before. We have access to technology that has literally revolutionized our way of life for the better. We have better health care, more entertainment, greater access to things previously considered "luxury goods" (like Caribbean cruises, which can sometimes be had for hundreds of dollars, well within middle class reach), a cleaner environment (despite challenges), and pretty much more of everything.

But we don't feel it unless we're able to point to some other country and see, "There! Misery! I have it so much better than they do!" This is lunacy.

Nor is this mainly a macroeconomic problem. When Walmart arrives in town, people weep for the loss of their precious mom-and-pop shops despite the fact that Walmart brings prosperity with it. The fact that the owners of mom-and-pop shops often enjoy their lifestyles at the expense of the community, in the form of high prices, is lost on many people.

And, hey, it's understandable. If you've made a comfortable living for yourself by charging more for products and services than your competitors, simply because your community can't gain access to outside markets, you'll be highly resistant to those outside markets when they finally come knocking. Musicians rue the losses they've suffered at the hands of music broadcast systems. Data-crunchers gnash their teeth in the face of automated cloud-based services that render their Excel sheets obsolete.

The story is always the same: The steady march of economic progress raises wealth by lowering prices, and the price that gets lowered is often an income, often your income. It's pointless wringing our hands over it, but it's particularly ill-advised when our collective lot in life is getting better with every step. That's freedom, for you.

Freedom, however, is not something people are accustomed to anymore, and many of us would simply rather be better-off than Joe, rather than being better-off in relation to ourselves.


Constitutional Amendments?

The news is a-flutter with word that presidential hopeful Hillary Clinton intends to introduce a Constitutional amendment aimed at over-turning the "Citizens United" Supreme Court decision.

My reaction is only this: As president, Hillary Clinton would prioritize that constitutional amendment over, say, an Equal Rights Amendment.

Nice to know what we're getting from our presidential hopefuls.


Fitness Tracking As Augmented Reality

For a long time now, I've struggled for the right words to explain why I like fitness trackers so much. It's not that I'm obsessed with the data, and I was already a fitness nut before I got any of this stuff. What is it about these apps that I find so engaging?

A few days back, I downloaded Pokemon Go and gave it a whirl for a few minutes. It was fun, but it also seemed to use a lot of data and battery power. I also didn't like how I had to keep my eyes glued to the screen, rather than walking around with my head held high, enjoying the scenery. After a quick walk around the neighborhood, I uninstalled the game.

But don't get me wrong: I saw the appeal. What could be more fun than going on a little treasure hunt, no matter where you are in the world? What's more literally engrossing than having your own surroundings become the location of a video game? It was cool.

Over the course of the next several days, I observed the tsunami of Pokemon Go virulence via social media. That was not as much fun, but whatever. People are talking about what is currently the most popular game out there. People talked about Angry Birds, Farmville, Cards Against Humanity, and etc., too. People talk about football basically non-stop. People like to talk about games, and more power to them.

But what I came to realize as I read the various social media posts and articles about this particular augmented reality game is that I already have an augmented reality game of my own, which I have been playing for years now. I'm talking about the "game" I play when I use my running watch / fitness tracker - currently the Microsoft Band 2.

Like a "true" augmented reality game, I go out into the world, and my game follows me there. I interact with the digital augmentation of reality via my wearable tech and collect points along the way. I can compete with my friends for these points, track my progress over time, improve my score, and so on. The only difference between my game and everyone else's is that mine is merely augmented information, as opposed to the augmented imagery of a true AR game. Augmented metaphysics, if you will.

The criticism you could offer here is that tracking your health data isn't actually a game. Fair enough, but it's as much of a game to me as anything else is. I don't spend a whole lot of time playing video games on my phone, but on the other hand, I'm always anxious to interact with my fitness trackers and data. 


Sleep, Insulin, And Wearable Tech

I woke up with extremely high blood sugar yesterday morning, which I fought to reduce all day long, to only partial satisfaction. And yet, there didn't seem to be any obvious reason why this would have been so. I had a very healthy, low-carbohydrate dinner the night before, took the appropriate dose of insulin, took my Levemir, had a really nice, low-stress evening full of great conversation with my spouse, and headed to bed at a reasonable hour. I slept through the night and had a nice dream.

What happened? Well, this happened:

Output from my Microsoft Health sleep dashboard

On this graph, orange represents time spent awake after clicking the "sleep" button on my Microsoft Band 2. Light blue represents light sleep, while dark blue represents deep sleep. As you can see, on Thursday I got plenty of sleep, but absolutely no deep, restful sleep whatsoever.

As we diabetics know, a lack of sleep causes the body to produce cortisol, which both raises blood sugar and increases insulin resistance. It's a double-whammy of increased blood glucose levels and a reduced ability to bring them down. My blood sugar was high all day yesterday, and now I know why.

To better manage my blood sugar, I should look into how to get the most out of the sleep I get, but that's a huge problem. A more immediate solution would be to simply check the sleep output from Microsoft Health and adjust my basal insulin intake accordingly: Less sleep should mean more insulin to get me through the day.

News pieces are still coming out about some of the design flaws in the Microsoft Band 2, and almost all of them are serious problems with the physical durability of the product. This is a real shame, because, as I have written elsewhere, the actual functionality of the Band 2 is basically the best of the best. By pure functionality, the Band 2 wins on virtually every metric you can throw at it. This thing can do almost everything you'd ever want a wearable fitness watch to do. The fact that such a powerful device breaks so easily is very disappointing. I guess there are reasons to look forward to the next generation of fitness trackers, after all.


Album Review: Redemption - The Art Of Loss

Album cover art for Redemption's "The Art of Loss"

Over the years, Redemption has consistently delivered strong, hard-hitting power-metal-inflected progressive metal. Their sound has developed into something consistent, and to most of us fans, great. Still, if there were one criticism to make of Redemption, it might be that they never stretch themselves beyond their platform; they know what their comfort zone is, and they tend to stay there.

Enter: The Art of Loss. This album finds the band exploring somewhat slower (read: mid-tempo) paces and more expressive rhythmic structures. This allows the songs to benefit from some significant breathing room. The upshots here: the listener gets better insight into the guitar/keyboard interplay, lead vocalist Ray Alder doesn't need to work quite so hard to cram all those lyrics in, the more atmospheric song sections groove a lot better, and more attention paid to bassist Sean Andrews.

The signature Redemption sound consists of tight rock song structures decorated with prog-metal embellishments. For listeners who don't spend much time listening to progressive music, this has the benefit of "sneaking prog into" otherwise straight-ahead hard rock music without jarring the listener. For prog-metal fans, by contrast, there is always a risk that we might underestimate the technicality of the music, although it's generally safe to say that the average prog-music fan is attentive enough to music that s/he will catch all the goodies.

There are a lot of goodies to catch on The Art of Loss. A standout here is the angry "Thirty Silver," which features a lot of pretty intense lead guitar work, yet despite all that, manages to captivate me with its bass and drum work. Musicians know this is a hard thing to get right - it's hard for every player in the band to be working that hard, all at the same time. One risks over-loading the listener with a flurry of notes if the song isn't well composed. Redemption nails it.

Even so, it's not all bombast here. This band has always had a penchant for approachable melodies, and this album features plenty of material to hum in the shower. And speaking of melody, I'd be remiss if I didn't mention the album's biggest surprise: a cover of The Who's "Love Reign O'er Me." Typically Who covers are staples of the punk-rock scene, not the prog world, but it's crazy - this just works. Chris Quirarte's drumming truly shines here, and again the magic ingredient is musical space. Particularly during the guitar solos, he manages to put in some Keith Moon-inspired, but almost Rod Morgenstein-sounding drum fills that are an absolute delight to hear.

The bread-and-butter for prog fans, though, is sure to be the album's closing epic, "At Day's End." For me, this song is representative of the spirit of The Art of Loss album as a whole. From its atmospheric beginnings, to its groovy and spacious verses, to its progressive musical interludes, this is one prog epic that delivers the goods, and might be the best one Redemption's written yet. Note the keyboard tones. Note the many times when bass takes the lead. The band really must have had fun writing and recording this one - and it certainly shows.

For me, this is an extremely refreshing album. I can always count on the guys from Redemption to deliver hard-hitting prog-metal and incredible, technical performances. But it's nice to hear them groove a little more. It's nice to hear their musical evolution move ever-so-slightly away from the GO! GO! GO! pacing of their previous work and into a relaxed and mature band with a fuller command of their art.


Tough Love And Another Failed Narrative

Taking a trip through the narratives of our past reveals the emotional complexity with which society was once equipped. I sometimes worry that we are more poorly equipped these days.

"Babylon and On" album cover
Image courtesy Groove Music

I've been revisiting an old, old album from my favorite 80s band, Squeeze, Babylon and On. This was a hit album at the time, but in hindsight it was not their biggest album. While many people recognize the band's biggest hits, such as "Pulling Mussels from a Shell," and "Tempted," the only people who would recognize the hits from Babylon and On at this point are dedicated Squeeze fans.

The third track on the album is called "Tough Love." Here's how it begins:
There she sits in an empty room
The look on her face says it all
A bruise appears round a crying eye
As the tear drops sadly fall
He knocked her over he hit her
And told her she's stupid
He's high as a kite once again*
So a woman sits alone, with a black eye, which she got from her husband or boyfriend, who was drunk and/or high at the time. Before you guess how the story ends, here's the final couplet of the first verse:
She knows that tough love is needed
To save the love of her friend
The rest of the song tells the story of how the protagonist uses tough love to help her man get clean. She throws him out of the house, he sobers up, they talk and argue about the whole issues, and eventually he stops "the drugs and the drinking" and "he's back in her arms once again."

Importantly, the song ends with the words, "She knows it's tough love that she finds in her heart to dissolve the pain." So this is not just a story of how he got clean and she forgave him.  It's also a story of compassion and forgiveness. She loves him, and she is strong when he is not. Her love and her compassion not only see her through the difficult process of helping an addict get clean, but also help her heal her own heart at the end of the process. It's not happily ever after when he gets clean; it's happily ever after when she takes the time to heal her own wounds after helping him through his demons.

Lucky guy.

What strikes me about this song is that it's the kind of good story that would never be told today. In today's world, getting high and beating your wife is verboten, as it should be, but it's also unforgivable. A fictitious character who does such a thing in the year 2016 is an unabashed villain. He's not worth saving. Of course she's stronger than he is, so she would leave him. If he managed to clean himself up after that, it's none of her business. At best, they would come to a friendly understanding of each other and move on with their separate lives. But under no circumstances would he ever find himself "back in her arms once again."

This narrative is coupled with the another significant one, which is the belief that addiction is simply a disease, that addicts have no control over their actions. Once you catch this terrible, hereditary disease, you are stuck and there's nothing you can do except never touch drugs or alcohol ever again. Period.

In today's world, addicts aren't allowed to heal and rehabilitate themselves. They're given the opportunity to simply acknowledge their disease, make amends, and then proceed as forever-broken people whose only "second chance" is finding a new circle of friends, a new family, and etc.

Longtime readers of this blog know how critical I am of drugs and of addiction. Still, the modern treatment of these very real situations leaves everyone who ever has to experience them with two choices: (1) Girl leaves boy and boy becomes a chronically diseased, broken person, or (2) Boy dies of his addiction disease. Neither of these options seems particularly therapeutic to me.

Way back when, society still had narratives that enabled recovery and healing along multiple possible trajectories. Maybe there is still hope - maybe if you get clean she can still find it in her heart to forgive you, and the two of you can move beyond your past mistakes. Maybe you can build a positive future for yourself.

But in today's emotionally stunted world, it's scorched earth. He hit her, therefore he is evil; he takes drugs, therefore he is diseased; the only viable solution is for them to break up - she'll live happily ever after she finds a good, non-diseased, perfect guy; and he'll live miserably but wisely ever after once he acknowledges his disease and wears it on his shirtsleeve until the end of time. Maybe if he's lucky, he'll find some equally broken woman, and they'll both brood together in their brokenness. But happiness is for perfect people who don't ever make mistakes - especially not bad mistakes.

The problem here is that people make terrible mistakes, and that emotionally mature human beings are capable of compassion and forgiveness. Not every person who ever makes a terrible mistake deserves our forgiveness, of course, but that doesn't mean that there is a list of mistakes out there which, if any one of them is committed, means that all love and compassion falls off the table and we cast the sinners out into the outer darkness of broken-people-land.

That's just not rational.


* On my copy of the album, in place of the lyric "He's high as a kite once again," vocalist Glenn Tilbrook sings, "He's out of his head once again."