New Year's Wishes, And My Resolution

I had an offhand thought this morning. For a long time, I've simply assumed that "the flu season" exists primarily because flu viruses peak at a certain time of year, much the same way that pollen peaks at certain times of year. I can't say why I thought so; I just sort of took it for granted.

This morning, however, it occurred to me that one reason people get the flu in the wintertime is because we tend to spend more time cooped-up indoors. This leaves us essentially locked up with people who carry the viruses. Of course you're more likely to fall ill if you're quarantined in the same airtight box as someone already infected with the virus!

Curious, I spent a few moments with an internet search engine before discovering an article that more or less confirmed my suspicions:
Here are the most popular theories about why the flu strikes in winter: 
1) During the winter, people spend more time indoors with the windows sealed, so they are more likely to breathe the same air as someone who has the flu and thus contract the virus.
The article didn't stop there, however. Most of the latter half of the article actually confirms my prior belief, that the flu simply thrives in wintertime. The author of the article discusses research that confirms exactly that; the flu is more communicable in cold, dry weather.

This might be a matter of the-chicken-and-the-egg. After all, if the flu season is generally caused by people staying indoors, then we might expect flu viruses to evolve such that cold-and-dry-preferring viruses are naturally selected, while flu viruses that favor warmer and more humid weather would tend to die out, at least in regions that are further away from the equator.

*        *        *

I was thinking about flu viruses in the first place because I fell ill last week. I don't know if what I had was a flu or a cold, but it laid me out most of Christmas Day and the day after. I felt generally miserable for two days on either side of Christmas, too, and am only now starting to feel more like my old self again.

Colds and flus are very hard on diabetics. We have weaker immune systems to begin with, and then on top of that our blood glucose levels tend to skyrocket whenever we get sick, making our immune systems even weaker, and thus rendering it even more difficult to kick the bug. What for most people would be a three-day bug ends up being at least a week-long bug for diabetics. Sometimes non-diabetics have colds or flus that are so vicious that they last a week or two. Imagine how long it takes us diabetics to get over that kind of illness.

The sheer length of time we spend fighting off these illnesses, combined with the increase in blood glucose, tends to make us -- or at least tends to make me -- shed pounds like crazy. I'm about 155-160 pounds, depending on the day. I easily drop five to ten pounds whenever I get sick, and that's five to ten pounds of body mass, not five to ten pounds of unwanted fat. The flu doesn't care about what weight you want to keep or lose. It all goes.

What keeps my blood sugar down? What keeps my body healthy and able to easily fight off infections? Exercise. What keeps my body full of lean muscle mass and with minimal amounts of excess body fat? Exercise. What's the last thing anyone can or wants to do when they're laid up in bed with a bad cold or flu? Exercise.

Put it all together, and it adds up to this: When I get sick, I lose a lot of my physical fitness. It's a race to fight off the infection before my body wastes away to a 145-pound skeleton with no muscle to speak of.

*        *        *

Thus, in the middle of wintertime -- generally around New Year's Day -- and despite my best efforts, I am generally at the point where I feel weak and unfit, ready to get back into shape, put muscle back on my frame, take on a new challenge. For most people, "New year, new you" is the order of the day. Not for me, though. I just want the old me back, the fit guy who can run 15 miles without think about it and who can do a bunch of push-ups and pull-ups.

Nor am I getting any younger. I'll finish up my fortieth year on earth this year. Don't get me wrong, I look and feel great for my age. Still, I remember seeing the photos of my old classmates at the ten-year high school reunion. Even at age 28, many of them looked middle aged for failing to take care of their bodies. They were visibly carrying extra weight, both physically around their waists, and mentally. Take it from a goddamn diabetic, it feels just awful to be unhealthy. You can see it in a person's eyes.

That was twelve years ago. Ten years of unhealthy living had already caught up to people who should have been physiologically peaking. (The last estimates I've seen for average physiological peak were ~28 years for men and ~32 years for women.) And, I hasten to add, this is among a cohort of people who by and large eschew alcohol, tobacco, and drugs. Twelve additional years of unhealthy living has surely caught up to these folks even further. Meanwhile, I can generally pass for someone who is at least ten years younger than I really am.

So, I firmly believe that when it comes to being in shape and looking younger, it's use it or lose it. Be steadfast. Stop exercising even for a moment, and you may be leaving years on the table, withering like a bouquet of gas station roses.

That's the urgency I feel after having been ill: My body just lost a ton of muscle mass and I have to cut my weekly running mileage down in order to build back up again. I've lost some conditioning; I need to get it back. Use it, or lose it. I can rest when I'm dead. That's the idea.

And it always happens around New Year's Day. It always tends to be that I'm at my lowest point around the start of the new year, having been ransacked by some virus.

This year, however, I did a little extra. With all that P90X-ing I did, I managed to build a little more muscle mass, make my muscles a little more flexible, bring myself up to even greater levels of physical conditioning. I have still preserved a great deal of that, and I'm going into the new year with a new exercise regimen and a good, solid VO2 max in the upper fifties.

In 2019, by my fortieth birthday, I might well be as fit as ever.

*        *        *

Wisely (for once), I didn't spend my sick time idly staring at a computer or television screen. I didn't spend my time in bed, trying to sleep away my feelings. I spent my time reading.

I'm already three books deep in the Wheel of Time series, as readers know, and wrapping up the fourth book in the next two days or so. Consider the scope of that, though: each one of these books is over seven hundred pages long. The one I'm reading now is over a thousand. That's well over a thousand pages of reading per week, since I started on my vacation earlier this month. Prior to that, I was barely reading at all. I had the impression that I had no time to read at all, but I found time to read by stealing it from time wasted on social media. That's a good trade-off.

I remember the last time I read as much as I'm currently reading. That was the year I got rid of my television. But that was 2008, ten and a half years ago, when social media was a strong presence, but not nearly as strong as it is now. I spent lots of time online back then, and used to joke that I had "read the entire internet. All of it." Back then, though, reading the internet was time not completely wasted. A person could read all kinds of ideologically neutral information about almost anything in 2008. Nowadays, advertising has undermined a person's ability to get unbiased and useful information from the internet. Gotta monetize, amirite?

So, the internet has become what television was ten years ago: A complete waste of time. Almost a complete waste, anyway. One can still study and learn with the internet, but one has to be deliberate about it now; just as with television.

And, anyway, books are cheap. Because everything is online now, or in "Kindle format," the relative price of an actual, physical book (or an actual, physical CD, or etc.) is so low that anyone with a thirst for knowledge or of entertainment that doesn't constantly scream advertisements at you all the time can get it on any budget. Best of all, it can be had used, i.e. for even cheaper.

Market forces, sociological forces, personal preferences, and finally a bad cold all conspired to drive me back into the world of books, the beautiful world of books, and I am reading again. And writing again.

There will be much more of this, too, in 2019.

*        *        *

A strange calm came over this past year. No, calm isn't quite the right word. Enlightenment is closer, but too grandiose…

It could have been as simple as leaving my former workplace, a vicious, ugly place full of vicious, ugly people; racists, back-stabbers, social climbers, sycophants… and a few really nice people that I truly enjoyed knowing. It's easy for such an environment to bring a person down into a bad headspace. I'm the kind of person who desperately wants to be friends with people, albeit in my quixotic and uncompromising way. Consequently, it's easy for such an environment to riddle me with self-doubt, even shame.

But it wasn't really as simple as getting out of a bad work environment. As I've grown my hair out, I've started to become a long-haired kind of a guy. It's difficult to explain why exactly, but I feel more like my own true self with longer hair, even if I'm not quite sure I look better. People certainly treat me more like myself. I even play the guitar differently, more self-assuredly, more expressively.

The world becomes a much clearer place when you feel self-confident. 

That's another slightly inaccurate phrase, "self-confident." It's the right phrase, although I've never before understood what it really means. For years, I think I've believed self-confidence to be a feeling or an emotional state. I felt self-confident when I dressed in a nice suit. I felt self-confident when I stepped up to the starting line of a road race. I felt self-confident when solved a tough problem at work.

That is no longer how I experience "self-confidence." Now, to me, self-confidence is a plain acknowledgement of the reality of one's own being. (Hmm, I might have to add that definition to the lexicon.) Self-confidence means knowing that when I try to solve a statistical problem, I'll likely succeed. Self-confidence means that I'm a guitar-playing guy with long hair who likes to wear dress slacks and ties, not because I think people "should" dress that way, but because I like it for me. I like the way I look. My daughter likes the way I look. And my wife.

My gorgeous wife! I still get butterflies. People in the office see photographs of her and they're rightly impressed. They pat me on the back for being able to land myself a beautiful woman like that, and that's well before they learn about her career success and her brain. She has stop-the-world caliber beauty, truly, with rich, dark hair and eyes like liquid obsidian; her skin is like smooth, soft caramel and her voice like velvet. And on top of a beauty like that, she has the ability to do seemingly anything. She speaks three languages fluently, holds advanced degrees, she completed both Hyperfitness and P90X with relative ease. She once learned professional-level cake decorating just to prove a point. And in her career, she is seemingly unstoppable. (I could go on and on, here; I seldom do, on the blog anyway, because for some reason people get turned off when a guy spends too much time singing his own wife's praises. But it's worth elaborating a bit here, because it is directly relevant to my point.)

No fool could ever take a woman like that for granted, but at the same time, I have to admit that it fills me with self-confidence to know that she is mine. The plain acknowledgement of who she is is likewise a comment about me: That a woman like that took my last name means something about me, too. I am grateful for what I have. I am also deserving of it.

I am. I don't want to be arrogant, but my life is what it is. It's a good life, and I'm surrounded by good people, not the least of whom includes my beautiful wife and a daughter who is, I'm half-convinced, literally magic. My choices brought me to where I am today. Self-confidence means simply acknowledging and being comfortable with that fact.

I'm comfortable with all of it. The shirtless running in the rain. The P90X. The guitar-playing, the prog rock. The nerdy books. The libertarianism. The fact that I mostly want to be left alone on the weekend and not see anyone except my wife and my daughter. The coffee consumption, the love of beer. The electric bike. The large words that few understand, and the peculiar sense of humor that nobody understands. The oatmeal, by god! My favorite food is oatmeal!

I am what I am, and being what I am has resulted in a fine life indeed. I'm happy about that. I'm self-confident in it. I never expected to feel this way, and I never really did anything to try to cultivate that feeling. But in 2018, I somehow managed to achieve it. In 2019, I might just be able to channel it somehow.

*        *        *

Working out, reading, playing music, being self-confident. I guess 2019 will end up being a lot like 2018, but just marginally better. That's what I'm aiming for. That's my New Year's resolution, to live one more year of the good life, but to live it better than I did last year. And so I shall.

I wish the same for all of my readers, even if the only ones still "reading" are Russian spam-bots. May you be the best damn Russian spam-bots you can be; may you be better spam-bots than you were the previous year. May you find ever more comfort and self-actualization in your life as Russian spam-bots.

But seriously, to any and all still reading after all these years -- and those of you who just accidentally stumbled upon this post while you were searching Google to figure out how to sync up Google Fit with Strava -- may you have a healthy, happy, and deeply satisfying 2019. Happy New Year.


Emotionally Intelligent Men

I have a rather large idea in my head, but I haven't been able to straighten it out in such a way that it makes comprehensive sense. Sometimes, when we encounter a thorough and intractable knot, it is better to unravel one small piece at a time than it is to attempt to straighten the whole thing out at once.

I want to tackle the matter in pieces, to see whether that straightens things. I'm not fully confident in where I'm going with this line of inquiry, so take this blog post in that spirit. Don't nail me to my every claim here. Let's see if we can improve the state of the knot, even if only slightly. These are the front lines of my ideation.

Let me begin with something that should hopefully be the least controversial aspect of the whole matter.

The stereotype says that men and boys are less emotional than women and girls. The stereotype says that boys are pushed into a kind of machismo that hamstrings their emotional sensitivity, rendering them incapable of communicating their emotions in a healthy way, i.e. in the same way that women do it. This culturally enforced strangulation of emotional connectivity, so the argument goes, causes all kinds of mental problems for the men, and can cause them to lash out at women in all manner of problematic ways. According to this argument, the solution is to foster emotional sensitivity in young boys while they are children, so that they can grow into the kind of emotionally sensitive men we want them to be.

I think this argument is partially correct. I think boys are discouraged from being outwardly over-emotional. I think they are discouraged from crying and from talking a lot about their feelings. I also think spending more time guiding young boys through their emotions would make them better off as men. These aspects of the argument ring true to me.

By the same token, I think it's unreasonable to use female emotional sensitivity as a template for how boys and men should behave. I also think that there are a whole slew of female-concentrated emotional problems that males mostly avoid, because their behaviors are less inclined to cultivate those problems. It is also not clear to me that so-called "toxic masculinity" stems directly from matters of emotional sensitivity.

So, first this: Boys are encouraged to be masculine, and I think that is mostly appropriate. If a boy is just dead-set on rejecting anything that looks like traditional masculinity, I don't think his life ought to be made miserable. To the extent that boys want to self-actualize as men, though, I think they ought to be encouraged in that endeavor. To the extent that boys endeavor to be courageous, strong-willed, physically dominant, confident, and self-determined, I think they should be encouraged. To the extent that they sometimes waver in their endeavor, I think they ought to be pushed, lead, guided, and cheered-on. We should help boys who want to become men, become men.

Second, this: Emotional awareness, emotional intelligence, emotional sensitivity, and the possession of a language with which to discuss emotions are all vital for good mental health. This is as true for men and boys as it is for women and girls. We do boys a disservice if we do anything to discourage them from obtaining and using knowledge of their own emotions. It's not as if boys don't have emotions. Even the most macho of men experience the full spectrum of human emotion. And because emotion is a bellwether of psychological activity, boys and men need to recognize what's going on with their emotions so the matters can be dealt with in a healthy and appropriate way.

Third, this: Emotion is one of the areas of human psychology in which males really and truly differ from females. Although men and women both experience the same set of emotions, those experiences are different for the sexes. This matters because boys want to be men, not women. They will tend to reject any solution that is geared toward girls. They don't want to be girls. There is no use wringing hands over it. People want to be the gender with which they identify. (Leave aside discussions of non-binary sexuality as exceptional cases for the time being.)

Fourth and finally, this: Given the above, female emotional health cannot serve as a template for male emotional health. Rather than trying to teach boys to handle emotions more like girls do, we ought to be clarifying how an emotionally intelligent but masculine man handles his emotions. Rather than encouraging boys to talk about their feelings the way girls do, we should make an effort to discover and understand the language of human emotion that is unique to men, and teach that language to boys, so that they can grow up to be well-adjusted men, not emotionally intelligent men who discuss emotions like their mothers.

In the unraveling of this great knot I have been thinking about, the first point I think needs to be made is that men and women experience emotions differently, and that an emotionally intelligent man will behave differently than an emotionally intelligent woman. While it is true that boys are often discouraged from becoming emotionally intelligent as they journey toward manhood, it is not true that their emotional needs will be satisfied by a template of mental health first established by women. Boys don't need to be more like girls, they need to be more like emotionally successful people; especially where those people are men.

Thus, we ought to endeavor to teach boys how to be emotionally intelligent men.


Running Is The Best

After having spent the better part of the last three weeks reading every chance I get, the other night I decided to watch a movie before bedtime instead. I chose a genuinely interesting documentary about an obscure artist -- precisely the thing that should have captured my attention. And it did… basically.

Still, I was surprised by how much more boring it was to watch a movie, compared with reading. By the end of the two hours, I felt a pang of regret at not having spent that time with my book instead. I'm glad I took the time to do this, because it was instructive to be reminded how much better it is to do X rather than Y, but now that I've confirmed this, I'll stick with X from now on.

It's not that I think everyone would be better off reading than watching TV. (Although who among us would dispute the veracity of that claim?) No, what I found interesting about this discovery is that it hit me emotionally, similar to the way I discovered that I'd much rather be running than doing hardly anything else.

On one significant occasion, I remember golfing with my father on a beautiful course set within a state park, near where I grew up. Lush and beautiful forest land rose up from a pristine lake and twisted high into the mountains before dwindling into the tree line. Anyone in their right mind would be beyond pleased to golf in such a picturesque location. Instead of that, though, I found myself peering deep into the trees, searching for little winding singletrack trails where I could imagine myself running; running free with the birds and the deer, high into the mountains, leaving the golf course far behind me.

It happened again on another occasion. This time, I wasn't golfing, I was hiking with friends. We were laughing and having a great time, too. Still, it felt wrong. Somewhere in the back of my mind, I was pining for a missed opportunity. It was only after hiking a long time in silent reflection that I finally realized what I was pining for. I didn't want to hike this trail, I wanted to run it.

Dozens of such experienced piled up over the course of my youth until I finally relented to the realization that all these various activities just aren't for me. I don't want to waste my precious time meandering along boardwalks or swinging expensive clubs. All I want to do is tie my running shoes on and go. The only thing that's come anywhere near that feeling for me is cycling, but it's still a second-best option.

I don't know whether other people have similar feelings. I expect that many people place at least some significant value on variety. No matter how much they love running, or reading, or movies, or golf… they still desire variety to such an extent that they'd rather engage in second-tier and third-tier activities if only for the sake of change. I don't think this is a bad way to go, but it's not a sentiment with which I can identify. For me, once I've established what my favorite activities are, that's what I'd like to spend my time doing. In fact, I dread having to be pulled away from my books and my running shoes and my guitars in order to go to some party or have some picnic somewhere. More often than not, I will figure out a way to work a run into the excursion, or bring a guitar or a book along.

I like my primary hobbies so well that I'm willing to sacrifice even refreshing changes in order to keep to my favorite activities. There might be no one else out there like me in this regard, but I am what I am, and I enjoy it this way.


Where Young People Have Something To Say, Art Will Flourish

An offhand thought I had the other day: Art is only any good in societies that have something to say.

First of all, I can't prove this, so don't bother arguing with me. It's simply a consideration.

Consider the most recent artistic explosion of my lifetime: the early 1990s. Reasonable people can argue as to the inherent worth of the things that Generation X had to say, but it seems impossible to contest that they did, in fact, have something to say. The result was a massive wave of artistic output that has not since been equaled. In music, there was the so-called "grunge" or "alternative" music revolution. For better or worse, an entirely different sound took hold of the musical landscape and changed things basically forever. In film, there was a flood of new styles that, in hindsight, are perfectly obvious. No one who watches even a B-movie from the 90s can deny the stark difference in cinematography compared to the average movie from the 80s. The book world moved away from classic murder mysteries and toward dark new thrillers from the likes of John Grisham and idiosyncratic takes on familiar themes, like Interview with the Vampire.

This is not the only example, of course. Before that, there was the great and disruptive social revolution of the 1960s, during which every conceivable art form changed drastically; and, I would argue, beautifully. Before that, the early 20th Century brought us atonal music, jazz, Dadaism, and even "modern art" itself, all during a time of remarkable social upheaval. When young people had something to say, art flourished.

There is nothing like that happening today. The closest thing is perhaps the Netflix series thing, where beautifully shot serial soap operas are made available all at once, and then viewers "binge watch." It's close, I admit, but it doesn't seem to have the same kind of staying power that Full House did. Think about it -- nobody goes back and watches old reruns of Deadwood. Once you've gone through it the first time, you never think about it again. It exists only in the vague memories of "stuff you once binge-watched." But almost everyone smiles and laughs when they see old re-runs of Full House or The Fresh Prince of Bel Air. Even cheap sitcoms were more artistically sound in the 90s than the cream of the Netflix series crop. As for music and visual art, forget about it. There is no revolution going on out there; it's a never-ending quest to achieve viral status with increasingly more generic-sound or -looking artistic output.

And this is because today's young people have nothing to say. There is no great message from the up-and-coming generation. They seem cynical and socially engaged, but it somehow never manages to go beyond social media memes and "campus protests." Even the campus protests strike me as being quite tame; not the least because there is no safer and less-disruptive place to stage a protest than in the common area of a university. They sure ain't marching on city hall!

Interacting with young people today is no more encouraging about what their message to the world might be. In general, they seem skittish and distracted. At best, they sound like they're leaving something important unsaid, which they will only divulge to their friends on Snapchat or some other such direct message platform. As for holding their heads high and saying something genuinely controversial -- leaving themselves vulnerable to widespread criticism and peer-review: forget about it.

There are probably good reasons for why young people no longer behave this way. It likely all makes sense and is not at all their fault that they do so. I don't mean for this to be a value-judgment. It's simply a plain fact: wherever young people have nothing interesting to say, art will not flourish.

Bear in mind, too, that I'm speaking primarily from a North American perspective. There are places in the world where this is not true. Much has been written about the booming heavy metal scene in Africa. Much less has been written about the thriving art scene in India, where young people gather at open mic nights and sing, play music, read poetry, and more. And there are surely small pockets of artistic output scattered elsewhere throughout the world, including even right here at home. This is great. The point is, where young people have something to say, art will flourish.


The Future Is Still Not Now

Speaking of progress, the great technological revolution that was supposed to have us all riding in self-driving cars still has not arrived, and by some measures might even be worse now than it used to be. All AI has really seemed to accomplish is the invention of increasingly more parasitic ways to deliver advertising to your various LCD screens.

What a waste of great technology. We carry in our pockets computers that are manyfold more powerful than those that landed human beings on the moon. It would be nice if we could use these machines for something more than taking photos, checking email, staring at advertisements, and surreptitiously looking at porn.

Hardware manufacturers, at least, have done their part. At least, in my opinion, they have. There is no mechanical barrier between us and the future we might rather be living in. The binding constraint seems rather to be that nobody's making the kind of software -- what a tragically ineloquent word "apps" is -- that might genuinely improve our existence.

*        *        *

Using an extensive spreadsheet full of all kinds of personal data, I was able to develop an explanatory model for my blood glucose readings. The model is partially auto-regressive, since one of the dependent variables for current blood glucose is the previous blood glucose reading and the time since that last reading. The other variables are: total calories eaten at the most recent meal, most recent insulin bolus, and a dummy variable for cardiovascular exercise in the past twenty-four hours.

Each of these variables were significant at 95% confidence, and the coefficients on each variable made logical sense with respect to how we might predict they relate to blood glucose. That is, insulin and exercise reduced blood glucose while calories increased blood glucose. And just as any good endocrinologist will tell you, the higher your previous blood glucose reading, the higher your current one is likely to be.

I had attempted to include a sixth variable, accounting for any period of exercise between the previous and the current blood glucose reading. I included this variable based on the fact that glucose tests have consistently demonstrated that any period of exercise decreases my blood sugar by about 1.1 mg/dL per minute of exercise. (Some forms of exercise do more, and some do less, but on average it's about 1.1 mg/dL.) Unfortunately, this variable was not significant, and the model improved slightly when I omitted it, while the significance and magnitude of the other variables were unaffected.

This five-factor model produced an R-squared of just 0.19. That's a low value, but it tracks the data very closely, even if it doesn't track the variance closely. Thus, the model isn't highly predictive, but it offers good explanatory power. It's possible that I've left out some important factors. I certainly did not include all the data I had. Rather, I came up with an a priori model of what I think should explain my blood sugar, based on my many years of living with my condition, and tested that a priori model against the observations I had.

One way of interpreting these results is banal: I think I have a good idea about what explains my blood sugar, but that doesn't translate into perfect or even "tight" blood glucose control. A more optimistic take on the data is that I have correctly identified a few highly significant explanatory factors and I have empirically validated my thinking; now all I need to do is slowly work toward incorporating more and more of my data into my model. There is certainly no shortage of unused variables in my spreadsheet. Over time, I should be able to improve both my model and my blood sugar control by approaching the problem empirically.

*        *        *

And so, my dissatisfaction continues. No one's connecting the various data collection points we have and fusing them into something actually useful.

Here's a simple idea that would make Amazon.com a lot of money: Wouldn't it be great if Amazon kept track of the items purchased by me but shipped to various addresses and names in my contacts list? For example, wouldn't it be great if I could just click on my sister's name and find out every Christmas present I sent her via Amazon.com for the past x number of years? Wouldn't it be great if Amazon produced recommendations based on that product history? This is a simple, basic idea that utilizes everything that Amazon is already doing, but grouped on one additional variable. Amazon already knows that I sometimes buy skin cream, and they recommend products accordingly. Why can't they figure out that I never send that skin cream to my home address?

My smart phone can take a photograph of anything I point to, and provide me with a location and price of a similar item on sale somewhere close. What it doesn't do is any level of price-comparison. This is madness. I don't merely want to know one instance of a place that might sell something similar; I obviously want to know: (a) where is the nearest location of such a thing, (b) what is the price of that thing at the nearest location, (c) what is the lowest price for that item at any location, and (d) how soon can such an item arrive if I have it shipped, rather than going to the nearest location? Four simple data points based on information available through simple web querying and using technology that is already sitting on my phone.

Health and fitness apps, ubiquitous on every smart phone, give a person ample ability to track health data, but what good comes from "tracking?" Many of these apps don't even make it obvious how the customer is to download his or her own data for more refined empirical processing. I certainly shouldn't have to consult a "FAQ" just to download a csv containing the stuff I took the time to upload in the first place! A few of these programs do me the additional service of summarizing my data for me on a weekly basis. That, at least, is a step beyond merely using me as a platform to harvest data that I myself cannot use.

But so far, the closest any of these apps has come to offering me any predictive value -- any value at all, beyond merely capturing my health data -- is that Garmin's "Connect" service and Strava's paid platform both offer their own estimates of how much rest I should take before my next workout. Near as I can tell, it's not a personalized service, it's simply the output of a mathematical formula that uses heart rate, watts, and calorie data as its primary inputs. It's a cut above the rest, but I still can't help thinking that, with all the data to which these companies have access -- health and fitness logs from athletes and non-athletes from all over the world, of all age groups -- their algorithms ought to be able to produce more. Only Garmin's service estimates VO2-max, and that's just simple arithmetic based on age, BMI, and the user's current fastest mile time!

Amazon Echo and Google Home devices don't even play music in stereo. Think about it: monaural home stereo systems in the year 2019, when people were recording quadraphonic albums in the 1970s!

*        *        *

"Silicon Valley" has gone nutzo. After all these years of micro-dosing LSD, studying cryogenics, and living 16 to a townhome, they're no closer to producing anything close to a real technological revolution.

It's always been a bit of a canard that software engineers have no people skills and no sense of design; that they can write the code that will make any idea happen, but that they have no common sense about what the end user actually wants. In my many years working in that industry, I always held out hope that it was just a canard, that real-world people would never be so dumb as to produce millions of lines of computer code that offered no greater insight into my own life than I could produce with a single spreadsheet. Alas, I have to admit that my spreadsheets are many times better than anything Silicon Valley is producing today.

And so, the future waits, locked in a box that can only be opened by someone who wants to solve an actual problem, by someone who is in it for more than just upvotes at StackOverflow.com. So much elegant code in the world, and so few elegant solutions to real-world problems .So many predictive algorithms, and so few ways to predict the outcomes of our most pressing concerns.

It was inevitable that, once the computer and the telephone line had been invented, we would eventually connect the computer to the telephone line. So it is probably inevitable that many of these problems will be solved eventually. In the meantime, think how many resources we waste tracking the arrival of our next package rather than predicting the day on which we'll need to re-order.

Inventory software applied to the common household pantry; so obvious, and yet so far away from fruition.

Album Review: Derek Sherinian - "Blood of the Snake"

Image courtesy Wikipedia.org

Derek Sherinian's fifth "solo" album, Blood of the Snake, is an interesting foray into keyboard-driven metal that is progressive without actually being Progressive.

For those of us who became Derek Sherinian fans by way of his work with Dream Theater and Platypus, the album is almost straight-forward to a fault. After the crushing 5/4 timed album-opener "Czar of Steel," the album veers into classic metal territory, featuring heavy metal mainstay players like Zakk Wylde and Brian Tichy. They're great players, to be sure, but not musicians you can expect much progressive rock from.

Indeed, the album's second track, "Man With No Name" is a vocal track, sung by Wylde, and almost sounds like a demo intended for submission to Ozzy Osborne. This fact is doubly underscored by the fact that Wylde appears to be doing an actual impersonation of Ozzy's voice. It's a bizarre thing, the Ozzy impersonation, because first of all I've heard Zakk Wylde's real voice, and he sounds nothing like Ozzy. Second of all, while there is surely significant overlap among Sherinian fans and Ozzy fans, I never would have expected to hear an Ozzy song on what I expected to be a prog-metal album.

From there, the album moves into fusion territory, with a swinging sax-driven tune co-written by Simon Phillips, who also plays drums on the track. It's a good piece in its own right, but doesn't exactly flow in its place on the album, sandwiched between on ostensibly Ozzy tune and a slow, plodding classic rock type number, "Been Here Before." At least this latter piece feels more like what we'd expect from a prog-rock keyboard player, and almost evokes Steve Winwood in some places.

By the time the album's title track comes along, with its 6/8 metal beat and its guest appearance by none other than Yngwie Malmsteen, it becomes clear to the listener that the album was intended to be more of a heavy metal album than previous, more fusiony, more proggy Sherinian releases. Ditto for its twin, "The Monsoon," which starts out with a pleasant Indian influence, before going back into that same 6/8 Tichy/Malmsteen shuffle. But if heavy metal is the name of the game here, why is there so much saxophone on the record? Why so much Simon Phillips?

It's a confusing record. My general impression of this album is that, despite a couple of strong tracks, it is somewhat of a confused album. It's unclear to me what the album is supposed to "be," beyond a collection of tracks Sherinian had lying around from his various collaborations with other artists. There are standout solos and performances, but the album doesn't resonate as a comprehensive whole. Maybe that doesn't matter, though. Maybe this is just an album for people who generally like heavy metal and instrumental music and don't want to get bogged-down by artistic statements.

It shouldn't be surprising that a progressive rock fan like myself would like the most progressive-leaning songs on the album best. I mentioned the album opener, "Czar of Steel" above. The haunting, Eastern-influenced "Prelude to Battle" is another excellent track. Between the two of them, we see what the album truly could have been.

But, no matter. The album is what it is. Over twelve years old at the time of this writing, I still find occasion to go back to this record from time to time, which is much more than I can say for a number of records in my collection. I rate this a solid three stars out of five.


Book Review: Robert Jordan, “The Dragon Reborn”

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The third book in Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time series is excellent. There is excitement from beginning to end, and each chapter moves at an extremely fast pace. That pacing is perhaps he biggest change from the first to books to The Dragon Reborn, although it’s not the first change the reader will notice.

Unlike the first two novels in the series, very little of The Dragon Reborn is told from the perspective of what I assumed to be the main character of the book, Rand. Instead, most of the book is told from the perspective of Egwene as she continues her training as an Aes Sedai sorceress, and Perrin, Rand’s childhood friend who has unique supernatural powers of his own. Many other of the stories characters feature prominently in the book, of course, all taking their own turns as the reader’s focal point.

On the one hand, this is a refreshing change. By the end of the second book in the series, I had had just about enough of Rand and his doubts, fears, and brooding. I had begun to dislike the character, and that sentiment carried over to the first part of this book, too. Meanwhile, Perrin had become a bit of a favorite of mine, so it was nice that he featured more prominently in this book.

Unfortunately, much of what I liked about Book 2 over Book 1 was abandoned here. The characters in the first book were a little uni-dimensional, especially the females. That got better in the second book, but worse here. Three books into the series, and it’s still not yet clear who among the female characters is definitely a protagonist. I like thematic ambiguity and intrigue as much as the next guy, but it would be nice to know who I’m supposed to be cheering for by the end of 2,100 pages of reading.

Furthermore, some of the female heroines are downright mean. There’s a scene in the book in which some of them are saved by a male character in the book, and they treat them in an extremely rude and haughty way. It’s evident that Jordan intended this for comedic effect, but it’s so out-of-place that it merely highlights the female characters’ meanness. When I first started the series, I forgave a lot of this behavior as part of the author’s feminist proclivities, and to a certain extent, this works. The books were written in the early 90s, which was a time when spunky, headstrong heroines who threw their male foils for a curve were a popular thematic device. So, that could be part of it, too.

Even so, it’s tiresome when page after page of story is filled with well-meaning men doing what they think is right, and cruel, condescending females who consider themselves to be above almost all interaction with the male characters. I look forward to the parts of the story that do not involve any male-female interaction, if only because I’m guaranteed that none of the heroes will antagonistically condescend to the others.

...except, of course, that isn’t true, either. The Nynaeve character in the book is practically defined by that sentiment, and by the end of the book it has bled over to Egwene as well.

Robert Jordan writes a wonderful story, and The Dragon Reborn is certainly no exception. It is, however, the third book in a row in which I find myself despising characters that I think I am supposed to like. Time will tell if this holds throughout the series. For now, it’s on to the fourth book.


More Than Carpe Diem

A long while back, I read an article about a man who realized that he did not have enough time left in his life to listen to all the album in his record collection. He did have a rather large record collection, but not so large that he did not know what he owned. He wasn't collecting for the sake of collecting. He was buying albums that he was legitimately interested in listening to. It just so happened that he reached middle age and realized that there were many records in his collection that he would never hear a second time.

In part, he meant this as an exposition on focusing on what you love. In part, he meant it as a commentary on the sheer volume of music out there, and how most of it is destined for obscurity. In part, he meant it as an expression of the realization that life is so very short.

Children, with their whole lives ahead of them, can afford to while away some of their time. For them, it's not really "whiling away," anyway, since children learn by playing, after all. For adults whose life path is essentially set, however, time is of the essence. There are only so many performance reviews before you have to give up on ever getting that big promotion. There are only so many years to start saving for your child's education, or for your own retirement. There are only so many summers to be spent climbing Kilimanjaro or visiting the Louvre. You don't have to do it this year; but you only have so many years, and if you don't plan on doing it during one of those years, at least, you'll never do it at all.

It takes time to lose weight and get in shape, time to get yourself "beach-ready," time to get dressed up and go to a fancy party. If you don't start today, how much time will you have? Do you think you'll be "beach-ready" when you're 65 years old, no matter how good of shape you're in? You need to be fit today to get to the beach tomorrow. You need to train today to run a marathon next year. You need to apply now if you want to get a passport for this summer.

The book I'm reading now is seven-hundred pages long. I can read fairly quickly, but it still takes time to read seven-hundred pages. If you want to read the great literature, you need to get started. If you're as old as I am, it is already likely that there is some great literature you'll never have the chance to read, no matter how fast you read. And if you want to write a book one day, suffice it to say that it takes longer to write seven-hundred pages than it does to read them; longer still to have them edited; and longer yet again to have them published -- if your first attempt is even good enough to be published!

To strum a few chords on the guitar or to plink away on the piano doesn't take all that much time. It does take months, though. And to play with any degree of pleasantness, you'll have to study for a couple of years. As for mastery, you had better be in it for decades. How many decades do you have left? If you've ever dreamed to learning to play an instrument, you ought to start now.

As for love, the time is simply now. Now or never. You offer your love to those who might want it today, or you waste your years away loving no one. Every day spent without love is a day never to be regained, and love itself evolves as we age, going from one phase to another. A truly mature love requires as much time as anything else, and probably more.

You may have supposed that my purpose in writing this is merely to say carpe diem. Sure, seize the day, that's a good idea. But my real point is to spend your time wisely. Invest in the things that you want to say that you did. If you want to say that you made great art, or achieved great work, or loved passionately, then do those things. Do them now. Invest yourself now.

Do not spend any more time "binge-watching" television programs. Do not waste any more time scrolling mindlessly through social media. Do not lose your hours to soap operas and other such time-thieves. Imagine how embarrassed you will feel on your death bed when you realize that the time you invested in The Sopranos could have taken you to The Matterhorn, or that the time you spent on Facebook could have enabled you to retire in the tropics, if only you had invested yourself a little differently.


A Soul-Food Model Of Morality

"It is possible to oppose evil without doing violence." Her voice held the simplicity of someone stating an obvious truth.
Perrin grunted sourly, then immediately muttered an apology. "Would it were as you say, Mistress Leya."

"Violence harms the doer as much as the victim," Leya said placidly. "That is why we flee those who harm us, to save them from harm to themselves as much for our own safety. If we do violence to oppose evil, soon we would be no different from what we struggle against. It is with the strength of our belief that we fight the Shadow."
-- Robert Jordan, The Dragon Reborn, pp. 38-39.
If your quest to attain a good end requires that you first do something evil from which you expect the good to come, you have fatally undermined your quest from the get-go. This seemingly obvious proposition may well be the most poorly understood and most often rejected moral precept in the world today.
-- Robert Higgs, Facebook post, December 20, 2018.

I happened to read both of these things within an hour of each other, and it set my mind ablaze for a while.

Coming from the Midwestern United States as I do, I am used to viewing morality from a sort of "redemption framework." In the typical Judeo-Islamo-Christian framework, we do good so that we can meet our salvation in the afterlife. All sin stems from the actions of Adam in the Garden of Eden, and we are doomed to live as imperfect sinners, struggling to be worthy of the love (and rewards) of our god.

Most people I know think of ethics this way, even if they don't believe in any Abrahamic religion; even if they don't believe in any religion at all. The Western view of ethics is that we are struggling against our nature to be better than we are naturally inclined to be. All ethics in Western philosophy are presented in this way. Left to our own devices, we would behave no more ethically than the beasts, so we turn to moral principles and ethical philosophies to improve upon our nature. Doing so successfully means, if not salvation, then at least moral achievement.

There are many strengths to this approach to morality, and I don't mean to criticize it in the slightest. The two quotations I cited above, however, present a way of looking at morality that offers a strength that is not readily available from the traditional Western framework; or at least, one that hasn't played a large role in Western ethics since the time of the Stoics.

An alternate way of seeing ethical behavior is in considering what it does for your "soul" (broadly construed). In this model, good behavior -- ethical behavior -- nurtures your spirit, while bad or sinful behavior is self-corrupting. The Hindus and Buddhists have the concept of karma to serve them here: the more you exhibit good moral behaviors and right thinking, the more it fosters goodness from within you. The more you exhibit bad behaviors and thinking, the more it sort of poisons your life.

It's possible to think of this in a mystical sense, but that's not how I mean it. It is generally true that if you walk around with a smile on your face, being kind to people, your mood improves. One of the key findings of happiness research is that the more a person lives for something larger than himself, the more a person chooses to serve his friends, family and community, the happier he tends to be. The more a person keeps to himself, dwells on negative thoughts, and/or pursues hedonistic pleasure-seeking and pain-aversion, the more unhappy that person tends to feel. It's simple cause-and-effect. As in The Picture of Dorian Gray, the worse is the life we choose to lead, the uglier our picture gets. The better the life we lead, the better the picture.

This is a useful way of thinking about ethics because it reminds us of the journey as well as the destination. Moral valor is not necessarily an achievement, but rather a lifelong set of choices that build upon each other. Start with small decisions to do the right thing, and gradually build up to the point where doing the right thing becomes second nature. And every bad choice you make takes you marginally in the other direction, toward moral poverty.

This need not be either-or, of course. We can see morality both ways, or neither way. But there are strengths to every kind of moral reasoning, so it's nice to keep this particular moral model in mind.


People Treat Me Differently Now That My Hair Is Longer

I have started to notice that people see me differently, and treat me differently.

My hair has finally reached a length that could be called "long hair" by some. It hangs in my face, it blows in the wind, I can form it into a ponytail. It comes down to my chin in the front and is slightly longer as it moves back.

As it was growing out, it went through many stages, but each stage was a version of "short hair." Even as it began to get floppy, I still would have called it short. Now, though, it has unambiguously reached the "long hair" category, even if it isn't yet shoulder length.

This is important because now, when strangers first see me, they form an impression of me that includes my long hair. I still dress more or less the same, and I'm obviously still the same person I was when I have short hair. I haven't changed, but my hair has; it's the only significant physical change I've undergone over the past year or so.

The result of all this is that the first impression I give to people is different now. I notice that people treat me differently now that I have long hair.

For one thing, people used to mostly ignore me as I ran. In some cases, I think some were afraid of me, because I typically run faster than most people, with sunglasses on, without a shirt, etc. I'd even wear a bandana as my hair was getting longer. Now, I put it in a ponytail, and no one seems afraid. People smile at me much more often as I run; pleasant, friendly smiles as though acknowledging a neighbor. It's great.

At work, or walking around downtown, the case is similar. Whereas before people would refuse to make eye contact with me, sometimes seemingly attempting to walk right through me as though I wasn't there, now people smile, or nod, or even greet me.

When I play live music, people are much more receptive to my on-stage persona now. The music is the same, but the look is enough to capture a little more attention from the crowd. Perhaps it gives me more credibility as an artist, since people expect artists and musicians to have long hair. Or perhaps it's just visually more interesting, which helps the audience tune-in to what we're doing a little more.

I expected that, at work, long hair would reduce my credibility. I expected people to take me less seriously and think less of my ideas when presented. So far, though, that hasn't happened, either. And since people seem to be a bit friendlier to a long-haired guy, I've been able to make good working relationships with coworkers I've only recently met. Perhaps they remember me a little easier, since I'm more easily identifiable now.

This has been a good change for me, and very unexpected. At the risk of reading too much into everything, I feel more as though people see me the way I see myself: friendlier, more artistic, calmer, more open. Maybe, for whatever reason, the long hair conveys more of that impression to others. Or maybe I simply feel different with long hair and therefore act differently. Perhaps it's a combination of both factors.

One thing is for certain: people treat me differently now that I have long hair. I didn't really expect it, but I quite like the change.


Fantasy Novels And An Elongated Sense Of Time

A feature - I cannot exactly call it a shortcoming - of fantasy stories is their elongated sense of time.

That is, the "ancient ones" in a fantasy story have about the same level of technological development as the story's main characters. If anything, the "ancient ones" may actually possess greater knowledge in some areas than the main characters, but that knowledge was lost to the ages in some way. But in terms of civilization's fundamentals, the ancient ones lived no differently than the modern ones. The ancient ones had about the same level of metallurgy, of architecture, of textile-making and leather goods, the same level of agricultural production and mining, and so on.

When you stop to consider that the lost ages in the average fantasy novel often occurred thousands of years prior to the story's main plot, you begin to see how unlike the real world this sense of time really is. In the real world, the development of civilization has occurred far more rapidly, and the time periods we would be most inclined to associate with the setting of a fantasy novel - medieval times, or perhaps Classical Antiquity - were but a blink of the historical eye.

Consider the well-publicized fact that two of US President John Tyler's grandchildren are still alive. That means that merely two generations from the present day brings us back 230 years. Let's round this up to 250 years and call it a historical timespan of "one John Tyler."

Extrapolating from this means that 1,000 years of human history is only about 8 or 10 generations. The Middle Ages, then, happened "four John Tylers ago." Just four. This was a period of spreading Christianity across Europe, which means that the pagans who inspired fantasies about "the ancient ones" were already well on the decline - again, just four John Tylers ago.

Classical Antiquity - the Greeks and Romans with their fantastical gods, the impenetrable Egyptian empire, the great Druids, the brilliant architects of the Mesoamerican pyramids, and the authors of the great Hindi legends - ended just six John Tylers ago. Six!

Four John Tylers before the Roman Empire, we have the Bronze Age, and the Bronze Age lasted a relatively long time: eight whole John Tylers. And prior to that was the Neolithic age, when many societies were wearing loin cloths and had no written historical record beyond hieroglyphics.

In Robert Jordan's The Great Hunt, the antagonist tells the protagonist that they have done battle throughout the ages. "A thousand times," he says. "A thousand times a thousand." That's a million times they've done battle, and each of their battles constitues an "Age," which again constitutes a thousand years or more. So, the time horizon of Jordan's "Wheel of Time Series" stretches across some billion years. By comparison, human beings on planet Earth appeared about 70,000 years ago. Multicellular organisms may have appeared on Earth less than a billion years ago.

So human history in the "Wheel of Time" series stretches across the same amount of time as all multi-cellular life on Earth, and the novels seem to imply that metallurgy and stone masonry and agriculture have been roughly the same throughout all of those years. This is what I mean when I say that fantasy novels have an elongated sense of time. (I don't mean to pick on Jordan, of course. His aren't the only fantasy novels structured this way, they just happen to be the ones with which I am most recently acquainted, so I can easily draw from them as an example.)

Whether this elongated sense of time is a good thing or a bad thing is a matter of opinion. It certainly lends an "eternal" nature to the stories, and that can be a very good thing. On the down-side, a society that lasts for a billion years and never has an industrial revolution of any kind is a little odd. Perhaps living in the 20th and 21st Centuries has spoiled me. I am so used to technological advancement that it seems incomprehensible that humans could exist for thousands upon thousands of years without ever progressing beyond the middle ages.


Book Review: "The Great Hunt" By Robert Jordan

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And now on to Book 2 in Robert Jordan's famous "Wheel of Time" series. You may remember my review of Book 1, which I posted only about a week ago. That, in and of itself, is an implicit and positive review of the book. After having not read much for several years, I find myself having read over 1,400 pages in just two weeks. These novels are certainly page-turners!

The best part of The Great Hunt is that it seems to have overcome almost everything I disliked about The Eye of the World. The female characters have more depth, and the story is told less from a strictly male perspective. The action is a lot more exciting, since Jordan was unencumbered with having to establish the foundational mythology of the book’s world. (Obviously, the first novel in a series has to provide a lot of context, but subsequent novels need not move so slowly and provide so much background information.)

The result is a fantasy novel that focuses on the action. My favorite aspect of this novel was the “political” intrigue in the book. That is, I found the various competing interests of the groups in the book to be more compelling and exciting as they unfolded than even the sword fights and thrilling chases. There is not a lot to dislike about the novel.

If I’m nitpicking, I do have a few criticisms to make. At this point in the story, the principle character, Rand, is among the least likable people in the book. I don’t like his attitude, I don’t like the way he treats other people, I don’t like how gullible he is, and I don’t like that the hero of a story is constantly wracked by fear and self-doubt. If any other character in the story were like this, it would be fine — but the hero? 

Another criticism mirrors a problem with the first novel in the series. While the female characters are much more interesting in this book, they still feel like “character-types” rather than real people. You’ve got the sweet one, the older sister type, the sexy one, the spunky one... like the Spice Girls. 

My final criticism is that there doesn’t seem to be a moral to this story. It’s just a series of exciting events unfolding, with no greater thought about how we readers might apply these ideas to our own lives. 

Still, though, it’s a great book.


Weight Loss And Will Power

Just because you lack will power, that doesn't make you a bad person. Everyone lacks will power when it comes to something.

For example, I don't know anyone who always drives under the speed limit. Not a single person. Everyone I have ever met in my entire life, and in any culture in any country, has occasionally driven faster than the speed limit. If we're being honest, most of us would have to admit that we exceed the speed limit pretty darn often.

It may seem unusual to think of speeding as a lack of will power, but what else is it? We all know what the posted speed limit is, and yet we choose to exceed it anyway. We all know exactly what we'd have to do in order to avoid speeding, and yet we don't do it. In the end, we don't care so much about the posted speed limit. We're normalized to a world in which exceeding the speed limit is common and socially acceptable. So we don't have any incentive to be the one person on the road who adheres to the posted speed limit sign.

Since this is true, we ought not cower away from saying it like it is: none of us has the will power to consistently obey the speed limit. It doesn't make us bad people, it just means that we ultimately don't care about speed limits. That's just fine.

Unfortunately, when someone makes the same point about obesity, the world objects. If I were to say that obese people aren't bad people, but they simply lack the will power to be thin and healthy, many would start talking about the supposed "addictiveness" of sugar, or the hormones of obese people who lose weight, or the notion of body-shaming, or etc. etc. I think these objections only serve to defend against the charge that obese people are bad people.

But obese people aren't bad people, even if they do lack the will power to be thin and healthy. So, rather than object to the notion that they lack will power, we should embrace the inherent truth of it. Every obese person knows what it takes to lose weight, and to keep the weight off. Everyone who has ever gained weight knew full well what eating all that crap and never exercising was going to do to their bodies. They know, and they don't care, because they don't have the will power to fight against it any more than they have the will power to obey the speed limit consistently. And, just as they are not bad people for speeding, they are not bad people for putting on weight. But that doesn't mean they have will power, either.

As with speeding, obesity is so common that we now live in a society that doesn't much care about it. Obesity has become so normalized that it's no longer discussed using the language of will power and self-control. Why practice self-control, anyway? You can still be a good person, even if you're obese. So, really, why bother?

Well, there are many reasons why a person should aim to be healthy, but I think many adults underestimate just what is required to avoid obesity. One either has to be willing to eat very small meals and seldom snack, or one has to exercise almost constantly, or both. It's painfully obvious that the average American has no intention of living this way any more than the average American intends to follow the speed limit. It's a lack of willingness to do what's necessary to achieve a particular goal, plain and simple. A lack of will power.

It doesn't mean you're a bad person, but it is what it is.