Swipe Right

I was thinking about 80s movies tonight, and how much narratives around romance have changed.

The core romantic conflict in 80s movies was either that the guy didn’t have the guts to ask the girl out, or he wasn’t cool enough for her to agree to go out with him. Really, this is two versions of the same story; after all, a cool guy wouldn’t lack the guts to ask a girl out. Over the course of the movie, the guy would have to figure out how to be cool enough to captivate her attention.

Initially, he’d start out by trying to fake it. He’d pretend to like the same music she likes, or have the same interests as hers. He’d act like a jerk, try to display some knowledge about her interests, and then she’d roll her eyes and say, “Get lost, you creep!” Then he’d fall down or something, and a crowd of people would laugh at him, underscoring the fact that he was not cool enough to get the girl.

But the movie would always offer our hero a path to being cool. Either he’d learn to display some skill or prove some talent, or he’d learn to stand up for himself in the face of various bullies (parents, rich squares, a school jock, that sort of thing). Often the girl he thought he wanted would turn out to be shallow; she’d like him only when the crowd liked him, and despite him otherwise. Meanwhile, the girl he ultimately gets ends up appreciating him for who he was even when he wasn’t cool. He’d realize by the end of the film that he’d been a jerk the whole time — a “jerk” here being a type of uncoolness. And by the end, they’d fall in love.

However, exactly, the old movies told these stories, it was basically the same narrative. What strikes me about this narrative in hindsight is that it offers a path forward to people who are unlucky in love: By demonstrating coolness, we find the people who appreciate us. “Coolness” is a broad concept that encapsulates whatever happens to be important to you: your talent, your dignity, your ability to triumph over adversity, whatever. Prove that you’re cool enough, and you’ll get the girl; and if you’re true to yourself, you might even get a better girl than the one you wanted in the first place.

Modern romance stories do not function like this.

For one thing, if you’re not already cool, you have no chance with the girl. The message conveyed is that if a woman isn’t interested you from the beginning, you shouldn’t try to win her affection through personal merit. No means no; get lost, you creep.

For another thing attraction is instantaneous in modern love stories. A lot of these stories mask this assumption by having either the guy or the girl be “unaware” of his or her own feelings, until late in the movie, when he or she realizes that the whole reason all that emotion was bubbling to the top in the first place is because he or she subconsciously loved the other person.

And finally, the hero may win or lose (he usually wins, of course), but winning has no direct relationship to getting the girl. Sometimes he gets the girl before he wins, and they lie together and brood. Other times, he gets the girl after winning, but only on her terms.

So the modern love story is about two people who are already in love, deciding to act on their feelings, while other important plot-stuff happens to them independently of the love story. The message this is bound to convey to young people who unfortunately end up learning about love from the movies is that love is something that just happens to the heroes of the story, and nothing anyone actually does has anything to do with it.

Swipe right.


A Message To My Prior Self -- Hair Edition

In my early twenties, I somehow managed to apply my will power to the project of growing my hair out. It took a long time, but eventually it grew out to the point where it could be considered “long hair,” could be assembled into a ponytail, etc. It only lasted this way very briefly, though. In a fit of self-consciousness, I shaved it all off and went back to short hair from then on out. From time to time, over the ensuing years, I’d attempt to grow it out again, quickly grow frustrated, and let it be short.

I most recently shaved my head last summer. I can’t really recall my reasoning, other than that I wanted a change. As it grew back out, I kept the sides short and let the top grow, until it became what they refer to in haircutting circles as an “undercut.” At that point, my wife suggested that I let it grow long and see what happens. I’ve been growing it out ever since.

There are a few things I’ve learned from this, which I’d like to share with all those who might consider growing their own hair out in the future.

First, there is no “awkward phase.” More precisely, nobody cares what your hair looks like, as long as it’s clean and combed. When your hair is short, you can put some gunk in it and mess it around, and it looks good no matter what, because that’s the style: messy. Once it achieves a critical length, you can start combing it. Comb it back, to the side, or whatever else. Whatever you do with it, it will look like hair that you take care of. It might fall short of your GQ Magazine dream, but no one is really evaluating your sense of style on that level. So, just relax about awkwardness. If you stand up straight, and comb your hair, it will only be as awkward as society’s tendency to weigh in on your hairstyle, which society almost never does. So you’re good.

Second, starting with an “undercut” was a good idea. I remember that the first time I grew my hair out, the back and sides always appeared longer than the top, risking a sort of mini-mullet look. That look persisted until my hair got long enough to need to be cut, mostly to correct this very problem. But starting with an undercut type style ensures that the top is always a bit longer than the back and sides. As it starts to grow longer, everything will have an overall more natural appearance, almost as though it’s all closer to one length (even though it isn’t). I wish I had had this foresight in my early twenties; if so, I might have had long hair for many years.

Third, you only need enough patience to grow your hair out to the point that it looks like it’s being grown out. After that, the eye perceives “long hair,” even though it’s short. Put another way, short hair that has grown too long looks messy; but long hair that isn’t long enough still looks like long hair. It took me roughly 9 or 10 months to get to this length, again, from a starting point of “completely shaven.” But a lot of that time was easy to sit through because I had clean-cut short hair styles during the period of growth. So it’s really powering through 2 or 3 months of final growth from “short hair” to “longish hair” that requires any patience. If you can keep yourself busy for those 2 months, then you’ll finally reach a point that requires no additional patience.

Long story short: If you want to grow your hair out, but you’re worried about how difficult it is, don’t worry. It’s surprisingly easy.


Sunk Costs; Don't Worry, Be Happy

David Henderson recounts an airline experience that could have made him upset. It could have, but it didn't, because Henderson elected to have a good attitude about it. Missing a flight is loss enough; missing it and then getting angry about it is a double loss.

As he puts it,
I could have got all pissy and woe-is-me about the cancelled flight, but what's the point? Then I would have paid for it twice: by missing a meal I had been looking forward to with some faculty and by having a fit. The loss due to the cancelled flight is a sunk cost.
When I have taught sunk cost in the past, I would sometimes remind my students of the expression "Don't Cry Over Spilt Milk." Then I would say that that wasn't quite the right expression. Maybe you need to cry, but recognize that it's spilt and that you can't get it back.
Now I think it's an apt expression. The crying over the missed flight would, as noted above, have added to the cost.

I learned a similar lesson about sunk costs while traveling on Greyhound buses in my college days. At least on the routes I used to travel, these buses are extremely slow, and connections are often late.

I remember traveling from Utah to California to see my sister. We made a stop/connection in Reno, Nevada and the connecting line hadn't arrived yet. It was hours late, and angry people were lining up at the customer service counter to... do something. Complain, mostly.

The sun had just risen. I was eating a breakfast bar and drinking a cup of coffee. I did not have to go to work that day. I had a good book. I was on vacation. I just sat down on a bench with my breakfast and my book and decided to enjoy myself.  It's not always pleasant riding a Greyhound bus, but it doesn't have to be miserable.


Comments Versus Blogs

I've been neglecting this blog. Instead of writing content here, I've been writing down my thoughts as comments under other people's blogs. I'm going to try to reverse that trend for the following reasons: (A) I have the sneaky suspicion that linking to websites abroad will increase my own traffic; the selfish motive revealed at last. (B) My gut tells me that removing myself from the fray of blog comments, at least when I'm making cogent and possibly useful points, will improve the cognitive time-horizon applicable to those points. Put differently, long-form thoughts are often of a higher quality than off-the-cuff improvising in commentary below the fold. (To be sure, there is gold to be mined in both media.) (C) Improving things along both of the aforementioned dimensions might improve my reputation in general, which is never a bad thing.

Alright, let's get started. I posted a long comment under a recent blog post, and after reading it, I realized it would have been better if I had written it here. So, with some modifications, here it is.

At Bleeding Heart Libertarians, Jason Brennan writes:
Public reason theorists do not think actual consent is necessary for coercive government policies. But they also deny that “The correct theory of justice says we should do P” is good enough. They want something in between.

But they face a number of problems, including how to deal with real-life citizens, who are often quite unreasonable (according to their theory of what counts as “reasonable”), who might lack any potential to converge on or have consensus on policies, and so on.

So, every theory ends up “idealizing” citizens to a certain degree.
Brennan then goes on to highlight some criticisms of this approach.

Full disclosure: I don't know enough about public reason theory or its criticisms to provide strong input on this particular matter. However, in reading Brennan's post I was reminded of a point Jordan Peterson makes in his book 12 Rules for Life.

Many attempts in political philosophy to conceive of an acceptable justification for government policy begin with a policy in mind and then proceed to model a set of conditions under which that policy is justified. "When do I get to shoot people?" is an absurd question, even after engaging in philosophical rigor, and even when ultimately concluding that "the only appropriate time to shoot someone is in self-defense of a credible existential threat." Here, there is nothing wrong with the conclusion, it's the question that's problematic. Why are we wondering when it's okay to shoot people?

Peterson might that we've gotten it backwards. The more pertinent question is, "Why not shoot people all the time, whenever you want to?" At first, this sounds like an even more ridiculous question; yet, it's in answering this question that we demonstrate why the first question is wrong. It's the answer to this second question that demonstrates a comprehensive philosophy of non-violence.

So, back to politics. It seems to me that political scientists and philosophers are often tempted to ask "When can I do X?" or "Under what conditions can society be forced into Y for its own good?" Wrong questions. The real question is Why shouldn't the government do X and impose Y on all of society all the time, irrespective of what anyone else thinks about it?

My guess is that, if you have a good set of answers to that question then the former questions and their possible answers are no longer relevant.


A Marginally Better Life

For a long time now, I’ve considered that my approach to life is best termed “getting better at being happy,” or perhaps simply, “Getting better at getting better.” Self-improvement has always featured prominently in my psychology; why, I cannot say exactly. At a certain point early on, I adopted the perspective that, if I push myself in a few important ways, I might be able to reach a mental position that would be – I’m not sure, exactly. “Better” than average.

The important caveat here is that it was never about being superior to other people, at least not in the sense of moral worth. I’ve always considered life to be a bit of a sport. Some people live well, and some do not. Among those who live well, some live better than others. The hypothetical happiest man is he who lives best of all, or so goes my mental framework, anyway. We need not get caught up in comparisons (the better man wouldn’t waste time comparing himself to those beneath him, anyway). The point is marginal. At any moment, we all have a choice to do better, or not. Thus, the guiding vision of my life so far has been: Identify as many of those choices as possible, as they come up, and then choose to do better.

When we’re young, this is easy. To be a better student is to study harder and more effectively. To be a better athlete or musician is to practice more. Our personal relationships in youth are often quite simple, consisting of people and situations that are relatively easy to read, where doing the right thing is not so difficult to intuit.

As we grow older, though, maturity and the complexities of adult life combine to make our relationships much more complicated. Wooing a potential date can be hard, but it’s nothing compared to keeping a spouse happy for decades. The former involves making a good impression; the latter involves reading complex and subtle emotional cues every day for the rest of your life. The workplace, too, demands more as we grow. Early in our careers, we’re tasked to perform well. Later in our careers, we’re assigned more responsibilities, encouraged to mentor the younger employees, expected to rise in the ranks, entrusted to build confidence among our clients, and so forth. As for things like art and athleticism, our bodies age and our potential for artistic achievement narrows, so our goals transition from vying for “first prize” to something more introspective: “Being the best I can be.”

This is the landscape I’m in today. I still want to be a continually better person, but it’s no longer so simple as practicing hard and putting in more effort. Nowadays, it’s a matter of trying to identify the margins most in need of improvement, and working at those margins to the exclusion of others. For example, I have a good job and a good amount of savings now; but how can I better invest that savings? Would I be better served to further my career to increase my income, or invest more wisely the income I already have? If the latter, then which is the better investment?

Or, physically speaking: I’m not winning any races any time soon, but how should I best invest my time for managing my health? Is it better to accept that I only have time for [whatever], or should I make more time to build more muscle, increase some running speed, etc.? If the latter, how hard can I push before I start to risk injury or long-term damage? What can I get away with before it becomes counterproductive?

Or, morally speaking: Now that I have adopted the basic healthy patterns of a moral individual – consistent honesty, integrity, conscientiousness, the living of my life in accordance with my values – what, then? What next? Can I afford to give more to charity? Am I investing enough time in training my child to become a moral person? Am I doing enough to promote my values within my community? If not, what more can I do?

In all aspects of life, these are tough questions. The answers don’t come easy, at least not to me, and I can sink a lot of time into chasing unsatisfactory answers. Given that, I have to ask myself what the most practical approach is to solving all my dilemmas?

I don’t know for certain, but I’ve come upon an approach that seems to work. The approach relates to a concept I wrote about on this blog years ago: Stop Beginning. In that post, I discussed how to transition from being a novice runner to being someone who no longer needs to learn or establish the basics. It’s only at that point that a person can undertake to solve some of the “next-level” problems associated with running, like how to increase your speed and endurance after getting to the point where you can finish a 5K without issue. So, it’s not “how to run,” but rather, “how to run better.”

We can apply this same principle to any aspect of life, of course, including the over-arching idea of “living a good life.” If you accept that you are no longer a young person still learning the basics, then you can transition away from tackling the basics, and spend your time addressing more mature problems. The issues change from “how can I invest my money” to “how can I improve my investment portfolio?” Or better yet, “What small change can I make to my portfolio that will get me a decent improvement in my savings plan?”

But the key is not to ask the big question. The key is to sit in the moment and make a simple, utility-maximizing decision. You’re sitting at a restaurant, wondering whether to order another beer. At the margin, this will make you a little drunker, a little fuller on empty calories, and a little poorer. You have to make a choice in the moment: Which decision – to buy the beer, or not – is more consistent with your idea of living the good life? Are you someone whose life will be enriched by another beer? Or, are you someone who could stand to have a glass of water instead? Don’t just ask yourself the questions, envision both scenarios. What would they look like? What would they feel like? How are you likely to feel about your decision tomorrow, when you’re eating breakfast? Take stock of how and to what extent your present circumstances reflect “the good life,” the life you want to lead. Then, make the right choice for living the good life. Maybe have that beer, or maybe not, based on your own personal vision of the good life.

This simple, marginal, low-effort approach can help you make slight course-corrections toward a better life. If you do this often enough, your choices will add up, and you’ll be living an even better life in no time at all.


P90X Review / Retrospective

So, my ninety days are over. I’m officially what Beachbody calls “a P90X grad.”

How did it treat me? It re-shaped my body. By way of example, I’ll tell you a story. For as long as I can remember, I’ve been a stereotypically skinny distance runner. When I’d run shirtless in the summer, people would yell, “EWW!” at me as I passed by. Many people have taken potshot jibes at my “chicken legs.” While I’ve always been healthy and fit, that fitness has always come in the form of a distance-runner’s build because, after all, I am a distance runner. The other day, though, I was running through the park – not shirtless, although it was a hot day. As I neared some tennis courts, I saw some school children filing off the bus and standing in line. So, these are kids who don’t know me and who have no exposure to my history of being a scrawny guy. As I ran past them, they yelled, “Look at those muscles!

So, they noticed.

They’re not the only ones. While talking with a coworker over lunch, he told me that I seem to have gotten even more fit than I was before, and remarked that I’ve put on quite a bit of muscle mass. He’s right. My wife, too, has been enjoying the change in my body, and the other day she cooed that my body has become “hard.” That’s a good thing. And the before-and-after photos, which I don’t think I’ll share, don’t lie. My body is simply better now.

The long and the short of it is simply this: P90X works. It works because it’s the real thing, a home fitness program that emphasizes the right moves at the right times for the right duration. The core-emphasizing workouts build not only muscle tone across your trunk, but also improve flexibility and balance, so that you can do more of whatever you do all day without risking injury from simple things like bending over or standing up all day. The weekly plyometrics workout puts a spring in your step that, if you’ve never done plyometrics, will frankly surprise you. Weekly yoga workouts offer you a combination of core strength and flexibility exercises that facilitate recovery from the weight lifting sessions; even a yoga skeptic like me had to admit that the yoga days helped me recover faster.

I’m also pleased to report that I didn’t have to or want to stop running while I was working through the P90X program. I did my P90X workouts in the morning, and then continued to run during my lunch hour on most days as usual. In fact, I ran 160 miles last month, tying my highest-ever monthly miles since I started using GPS watches, and just last Saturday completed an eleven-mile run with a 1-mile tempo run at mile #7, which I completed in 5:37, my fastest mile in a year. This is a pretty significant thing here. Recall that last year I was attempting to run a 100-day streak on top of P90X. At my most consistent, I wasn’t putting in the same number of miles that I’ve been putting in this year, I wasn’t running as fast, and crucially, I wasn’t able to complete my streak or P90X. I knocked it all out of the park this year.

What’s next?

From what I can tell, most P90X grads either do a second round of P90X or go into some sort of maintenance pattern. A few of them try a new Beachbody program, and a fair number of people go back to piecing together their workout schedule on an ad hoc basis. In general, it seems that once people complete P90X, they’re essentially “done.”

Me, though: I’ve learned a lot from doing P90X. More than just familiarizing myself with the workout program, I’ve gotten a good idea about Tony Horton’s general exercise and training “philosophy,” and I like very much what I see. Consequently, I’ve decided to see how much more I can absorb. To wit, I started P90X2 this morning, which is a very different program, but which still follows Tony Horton’s over-arching training ideas. I plan on doing a round of this, and then moving on to perhaps P90X Plus, or another round of P90X. Thereafter, I’ll be cycling among the three for a while. I want to see what happens when I make P90X a regular part of my life. I’m encouraged by my results, and I want to go further.

Of course, I’ll keep you updated as I go.