Paradoxically, Culture Is Preserved By Impurity

I seldom speak Bangla around other Bangla speakers.

The reason for this is quite simple. I've been exposed to the Bengali language for more than a decade now. I know far more Bangla than people realize, and more importantly, when I choose to use a word, I know I'm using the right word and pronouncing it accurately enough that a reasonable person should be able to understand despite my accent. Despite this, however, every time I use a Bangla word with a Bengali speaker, they make a big production of saying, "Whaaaaat???"

At first, I thought it was my problem. Perhaps I used the wrong word, or pronounced the correct word very badly. As time went on, though, I realized that I was doing just fine. So, I tried a new approach: when people ask me, "Whaaaaat???" I now say nothing and simply wait. Invariably, without my even so much as hinting at what I had just said, my interlocutors suddenly, magically decide they know what I said.

How can I interpret this? One interpretation is that they're just being hard on me in an effort to get me to improve my Bangla. If so, their approach isn't working; rather than improving my Bangla, I'm simply discouraged from speaking. This brings me to a second interpretation: they don't really want me to speak Bangla.

Whatever the true interpretation might be, the fact of the matter is that Bangladesh is a small country, the greater Bengal region is not all that much bigger, and no one outside of Bengalis themselves speak Bangla. As the world's languages consolidate to only a handful, Bangla is becoming an increasingly irrelevant language on the international stage. When the language goes, so too will important Bengali cultural artifacts like poetry, music, and art; to say nothing of Bengali history and philosophy. Language is the doorway to culture. If that doorway remains tightly shut, outsiders will never be able to experience Bengali culture.

This closed-door approach to language might seem protective from an insider's perspective. Bangladeshis did, after all, fight a literal war to protect their language. I can understand how important the language is from a cultural perspective. Thus, I see why Bangla is a language worth saving from extinction.

The only question is: Is this the right way to save a language?

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English is, for all intents and purposes, the language of the world. Everyone knows English. Where business is to be conducted, it is conducted in English. Where politics is to be done, it is done in English. Peppering one's speech with English words and phrases is very much a status symbol or a power play in many cultures today. All the best music and movies are English-language music and films. How did English, of all languages, become the de facto language of the world?

While I'm sure the British Empire and the 20th Century rise of the United States as an economic power had a hand in this, it's not sufficient to explain the whole story. There must be a better explanation. Well, here's a theory...

Although English does have rules, everyone breaks those rules and nobody cares. For many, breaking the rules of the English language is expressive of their individual cultures. Every part of the English-speaking world has some unintelligible version of English, and for the most part, English speakers don't care. Nobody gets upset at a Southerner speaking like a Southerner. Nobody cares when a Newfie says Newfie things. Nobody bursts a vein upon hearing Caribbeans speak like Caribbeans. For the most part, we English speakers find such regionalisms charming or quaint.

Likewise, when immigrants speak English poorly, nobody really cares. It's true that some people get mad about the fact that some immigrants don't bother to learn English, but nobody gets mad when an immigrant makes a good, solid effort at speaking the language, no matter how poorly they speak it. I just saw an old European lady make conversation with the cashier in the grocery store yesterday. Was she Russian? Hungarian? I don't know. I couldn't hardly make out what she was saying. But, between the two of them, the cashier and the old lady made themselves understood and had a pleasant exchange. This is emblematic of all such exchanges I've ever encountered.

In short, English-speakers cut each other serious slack when it comes to speaking English. Only a real jerk corrects someone else's speech in the middle of talking to them. The rest of us just let things slide.

The impact of this is that it enables new English-speakers to learn the language in the context of safety. They can screw up, because no one bites their head off for screwing up. It's not like France, where people will stop talking to you if you botch your French. In the English-speaking world, people are allowed to make mistakes with the language. It's fine.

This encourages people to learn and practice English.

Does it come at a cost? Yes. The cost is that English isn't a very pure language. We get our vocabulary from virtually every other language on Earth, we add new slang terms to the dictionary every year, most of us have really noticeably bad grammar, and our best cultural output tends to be pop music and pop film, rather than, you know, LITERATURE.

In short, we give up the purity of our language, but what we get is pervasiveness. English is everywhere precisely because we don't invest a lot of energy gatekeeping people about what's allowed in the language. We overlook people's mistakes and we readily allow outside influence into our mother tongue.

Not so with Bangla.

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Interestingly enough, there are aspects of English-speaking culture that are incredibly closed. The two that come most readily to mind are: (1) British aristocracy and (2) American conservative, white, male-centric culture. Is it any surprise that these are the two cultural artifacts of the English-speaking world that are dying off the quickest and most completely in today's world?

Both of these micro-cultures are closed to outsiders. Both fiercely protect their special in-group language. Both have steep barriers to entry. And both are quickly becoming culturally irrelevant.

Now, whether you think this irrelevance is a good thing or a bad thing is a matter of opinion, and quite beside the point. The real point is simply that it is no surprise that the most closed aspects of any culture are the ones that eventually disappear from the face of the Earth. If you want to preserve your culture, you have to open it up to outside influence. This definitely means that your culture will change noticeably; and maybe you don't want that. But what's worse -- a culture that changes over time, but lasts forever; or a culture that remains perfectly pristine, but disappears?

Those who wish for their culture to be preserved should take notice of the fact that only by accepting outside influence can a culture persist. Otherwise, it simply disappears. This is natural, isn't it? Those who want to shut outsiders out of the culture must accept that the culture will only appeal to an increasingly small number of people, all the way to oblivion. You may have wanted the outsiders to stay out, but if you don't let them in, there will be nothing left to  preserve.

Funnily enough, the Hutterites learned this lesson very well. Their numbers and gene pools shrunk so drastically that they were forced to recruit outsiders, famously offering them lucrative land deals in order to join the colonies. As far as I know, that practice is still going on. It has to, otherwise Hutterites, too, will disappear.

Cultures only survive if they indiscriminately accept outsiders.


Training Changes: Start Small

As I wrote last time, I'm in need of some changes to my exercise regimen.

One thing that has helped me a lot in other aspects of my life is, once having identified a problem, to make small and incremental changes, one by one, until I arrive at a desired result. I find it easier to adjust to new things if I don't have a lot to adjust to. That is, it's much easier to turn your life around one step at a time than it is to become a completely different person overnight. At least, it's easier for me.

With that in mind, I started thinking about what kind of changes I wanted to make to my exercise regimen, and what kind of goals I wanted to pursue. Regarding goals, I arrived at the following:

  • I want to condition my body to run at faster paces. Over the past three months or so, it's become obvious that running under 6:00/mile pace during interval training -- and probably also shorter races -- is not just feasible, but entirely appropriate. I don't know if I'll ever be able to go back to cranking out 400's in 75 seconds maximum again, but doing so in under 90 seconds has not been that big a deal for me lately. So, I should embrace that. And, in time, I should seek to dial it down to as fast as possible. With fitness, it's use-it-or-lose-it, and I'm not ready to accept an average pace of 7:00/mile for the rest of my life. I still have a little speed left in me.
  • I do not want to fixate on long races. Marathons and half marathons are fun, no doubt about it. But they also involve a lot of running-for-the-sake-of-running (during training runs) that starts to feel a little mindless to me after a while. I want all of my workouts to serve a productive purpose, I want to dedicate my concentration to that purpose, and I want to achieve that purpose as I run. Then I want to take a shower and go on about my day. Realistically speaking, it's not hard for me to go out and run 13.1 miles whenever I want to. So I don't really need to train for that.
  • I want enough flexibility in my training that I don't feel FOMO for missing a day of running. As I've started to ramp-up my miles, I've noticed a tendency to feel really bad if I miss a day. Not guilty, just... bad. Bad, as though if I don't do at least 8 miles in a day, then I'm going to lose all of my fitness. That's obviously nonsense, but it's hard not to feel that way when you run 8 miles or more every single day and then have to miss a day or two because you're traveling. I can fix this problem by planning a training regimen that is less tied to daily mileage and more focused on -- as I mentioned about -- purpose.
With these goals in mind, I think I am going to return to a training plan that worked well for me during my last year or so in Ottawa. Lately I've been running two fast days per week (T and Th), a long run (S), and a lot of long, slow miles. Instead of that, I'll run two fast days per week (M and W), plus one plyometric workout per week (F), plus recovery days and a long day if I feel like it.

This arrangement will satisfy my first goal by maintaining my current speed workout regimen, while adding a day dedicated to explosive power, which is also a way to increase footspeed.

I'll satisfy my second goal by giving the long, slow miles a bit of a rest. I anticipate that I'll still be doing a lot of those 8-9 mile recovery runs, but with an added plyometrics day, that will be at least one fewer of these runs, and may require a shorter recovery run on Saturday.

I'll satisfy my third goal by dedicating one day per week to a non-running workout, plus potentially allowing myself to cross-train on the various recovery days. I'd rather run than do something else, but by formally giving myself permission to not run, I'll hopefully avoid the pitfalls of feeling as though my fitness is decreasing if my recovery run is 6 miles instead of 8 or, god forbid, it's a bicycle workout instead of a run.

It's a small change, but one that I think will make a good difference for me as I head into the last two months of winter training. Wish me luck.


A Year In Training

This past year, I have trained harder as a runner than I have in years. Part of this was because I wanted to try out the training features of my GPS watch, but once I started training as hard as the schedule was asking me to, I found that I wanted to keep up with it. I started hitting sub-6:00/mile pace work, got back to running long-runs in distances exceeding 15 miles, and easily achieved my mileage goal for the year (1,600 miles) with months to spare.

When December rolled around, as I was trying to push my mileage ever-upward and perhaps do a 20-mile long run for the first time in over a decade, I started feeling some aches and pains in my legs and feet that wouldn't go away. So, I made the decision to rest for a full week. No running, minimal anything else. I did do some strength training to manage my blood sugar, but I concentrated solely on my upper body to ensure that my leg muscles were fully rested.

When I got back to running the following week, I still felt good, but my desire to keep driving myself so hard started to wane. Part of this is natural -- it's getting cold out there, and I hate running in very cold weather. But most of it is, I suspect, a challenge associated with training hard. Unless you have a reason (e.g. a professional reason) to train like a college athlete, it's hard to keep yourself motivated to do that kind of training for twelve solid months (or more).

I love to train. I love it more than racing. I like doing challenging interval workouts, I like pushing myself to see how hard I can go. Training is "my jam." Training is also repetitive, difficult, and physically uncomfortable. It's natural that, after a solid year of pushing, one would start to lose some intrinsic motivation to push, push, push.

Usually, this calls for something new. Time to take on another round of P90X? Time to train for a different kind of race? Time to try to do X, Y, or Z? I definitely need to freshen up my fitness routine, but none of the usual options seem very appealing to me right now. I've enjoyed become a lot more of a runner again. I've enjoyed slimming down, doing form exercises and speed work, hitting fast paces, and looking and feeling like my old distance-running self. I've also enjoyed the increased blood sugar control that comes with that.

It's hard to keep pushing toward the same thing, but I also have a low level of interest in the other stuff. I need something new, something interesting, something motivating.

Suggestions welcome.


Book Review: The Proper Care And Feeding Of Husbands

"Dr. Laura" Schlessinger rose to fame during what one might call a golden age of conservative talk radio, in the 1990s. Compared to today, this was a very different time. Angry talking heads had not yet been completely discredited, and traditional media still ruled the roost. Everyone got all of their information from major, corporate news conglomerates. Conservative radio personalities like Rush Limbaugh represented a sort of "underground," where overtly conservative viewpoints could be discussed. Perhaps best of all, every-day listeners could call in and interact with those ideas in a way that didn't happen on, say, CBS Nightly News.

Dr. Laura, of course, was not a conservative political commentator. She was a practicing marriage and family therapist who ran a call-in radio program to help people sort through their ethical dilemmas. But her traditional approach to organizing the family, coupled with her firm take on human morality, found a ready audience among the listeners of conservative talk radio, who then fueled her fame.

As tends to happen with famous conservatives, mainstream media found plenty of offensive-sounding quotes and private scandals in Dr. Laura's past, and amplified them. There is nothing the liberal media likes more than a conservative hypocrite they can parade around and lampoon. Dr. Laura's core fanbase was able to accept her explanations at face-value and her apologies as genuine, but I definitely have the sense that media attacks prevented Schlessinger from rising quite as high as similar 90s talk icons, like Oprah Winfrey and Dr. Phil.

Published in 2006, The Proper Care and Feeding of Husbands hit bookstore shelves at a time when Dr. Laura was still quite popular, before she moved her website to a subscription-based model, and before she moved her radio show to Sirius XM. While I believe it is a successful book (in terms of book sales), it has a terrible reputation for being "anti-feminist propaganda."

To be sure, some women who read the book will end up feeling attacked. These women have probably never heard Dr. Laura's radio program, or if they have, find it to be highly offensive for its non-feminist bent. Also to be sure, there are plenty of passages in the book that directly criticize the prevailing views of feminism circa-2006. Anyone who sympathizes with those feminist views will probably object to the book from start to finish.

I, however, committed to reading the book with an open mind. I'm tolerant of people with so-called "black-and-white" moral views, mostly because I, too, lean toward the belief that there is a mostly objective moral right and a mostly objective moral wrong. I believe that it is right and important to "judge" in the sense that judging human behavior helps clarify one's own moral beliefs. Consequently, reading or listening to someone else's view of concrete right and wrong serves the same purpose for me -- it helps me better understand my own moral philosophy.

What I found from reading The Proper Care and Feeding of Husbands is that its ideas -- even the non-feminist ones -- have aged remarkably well.

For one thing, Dr. Laura's view of marriage is founded on the belief that men and women simply think and act differently. This was a stark and unpopular contrast to the 2006 feminist view that sex is a social construct. Even so, subsequent research has proven increasingly clear and robust; there are unambiguous cognitive and psychological differences between the sexes, and those differences are precisely the ones that common sense would suggest. Dr. Laura was right.

For another thing, the central principle that permeates the entirety of the book, if only openly stated a time or two, is that people can derive great and profound meaning in their lives from the act of tirelessly dedicating oneself to one's marriage. That dedication, in Dr. Laura's view, should come first and foremost, ahead of all other things. One's commitment to marriage should come before career; it should come before good times, before girls-only weekends, before fatigue, before one's commitment to one's parents, and sometimes even before the children. Such a commitment is obviously difficult, but Dr. Laura's position is that it is worth it. When one commits to the marriage ahead of all other relationships, then that enables people to better raise their children, draw better boundaries between themselves and their friends and family, and most importantly, find profound joy in the bedrock relationship of our adult lives: our marriage.

This notion of meaning found in living a better life at home certainly presages the ideas of Jordan Peterson, although the target demographic is obviously quite different.

Another aspect of the book that might raise liberal hackles is Dr. Laura's approach to sex. Her belief is that men only really find a meaningful bond with their wives through the act of sex. This idea rings true to me, and anyone who has bothered to listen to Schlessinger's radio program can attest to the vast number of men who have thanked her profusely for saying so. The truth is, Schlessinger has a keen understanding of what physical intimacy means to a man, and she incorporates it into her marriage philosophy. Where others might object is when she advises women to try to please their husbands even if they're "tired" or otherwise not in the mood. While a feminist objector could protest quite loudly at that, it's important to understand it in context. Dr. Laura's advice is for wives who are married to loving husbands; it's for wives who have good lives, but who have let their relationships deteriorate through the inertia of a hectic, modern life. So, when she writes that women can often find themselves in the mood if they just get started with their husbands, she's pointing out that two people who love each other can ultimately have a lot of fun, and grow closer together, if the "tired" wife can simply get herself started, even if grudgingly.

I hasten to add, as Schlessinger herself adds at the outset of the book, that her advice is not intended for women who are genuinely abused. In fact, she refers to what she calls "the three A's" throughout the book: adultery, addiction, and abuse. Any of these three A's are, in her view, grounds for divorce.

What's left is a book full of practical tips for wives in less-than-perfect marriages on how to improve the quality of their marital bond. That is, Dr. Laura wants women to take responsibility for and control of their lives, and argues that in doing so, they will be happier and have more profoundly meaningful lives than they ever imagined. Despite its conservative bent, The Proper Care and Feeding of Husbands is a manual for empowering married women.

This brings me to my main point: The Proper Care and Feeding of Husbands occupies a very unique space in the world of ideas, because it articulates a philosophy of conservative sex-positive feminism. Conservatives, as you know, are not typically known to be either feminist or sex-positive. The fact that Dr. Laura seems to be all three things highlights the fact that concepts have far more potential for overlap than our polarized world would like to believe.

If today's feminists could manage to do so with an open mind, I believe reading this book would greatly expand their understanding of what feminism could be. Meanwhile, conservatives have their own lessons to learn from this book, lessons about practicing what they preach, lessons about the importance of sex in a committed relationship, and lessons about putting one's spouse ahead of one's meddling extended family.

It's an excellent book, a very short read, and I highly recommend it.



As I've previously blogged, I follow some pretty awesome runners on Strava, and I try to pay attention to fast people in hopes of learning new tricks and gaining some of their wisdom.

The other day, I noticed an athlete who did a very interesting workout. In it, he ran out to a particular location, ran around the block repeatedly, then ran back to his starting point. When I looked at his pacing information, I noticed that he was doing intervals as he ran around the block. I thought it was really interesting to do a series of short, fast intervals in the middle of an eight-mile run.

So, I thought I'd give it a try. Here's the workout I did, which is a slight modification of the original.

  • Warm up: 3 miles at an easy pace
  • Intervals: 10 repetitions of 1 minute at 5:00/mile pace or so, followed by 1 minute at recovery pace (about 3 miles)
  • Cool down: 3 miles at an easy pace
Here's my pace graph:

It was really interesting to do these shorter intervals after 3 miles of steady running, and then to finish off with another 3 miles. The intervals are short enough that it feels pretty easy to crank through them. (I can run pretty much any pace for just sixty seconds, right??) Ten seems to be just the right number of repetitions, too. By the end, my muscles were full of acid and my pace was starting to suffer -- but only just. It seems that the workout takes an athlete right up to the saturation point.

Give it a try!


The Old Days Versus These Days

Running in the Icelandic summer weather was almost pure bliss. This summer's exceptionally high humidity and seasonal heat made training in Texas a real struggle. My pace times decreased by a minute per mile, speed work was practically out of the question, and anything longer than a five-mile run was a chore. By the time I hit the roads and walking paths around the suburbs of Reykjavik, I was ready for anything cooler than 95 degrees. The pleasant high-60s, combined with the coastal winds and the cool cloud cover, were like a barrier had been lifted from in front of me. Quite literally overnight, I was running ten or more miles at per-mile paces in the low 6:30s.

In was not particularly surprising, then, that when cooler weather finally found its way to Texas in the Fall, my paces and distances improved accordingly. For example, I went for a 13-mile long run and very nearly set a new personal best half-marathon time. I built my long runs up to 14, 15, 16... even 18 miles. (No 20-mile long runs yet, but it's not a fitness challenge so much as it is a diabetic-logistic challenge.) This was very encouraging.

So encouraging was it that I soon found myself running as much as ten miles during a weekday run and up to eighteen miles on the weekend. That included two speed workouts per week. And recently, I even add form drills to my repertoire. It felt great.

Still, one can only train so hard for so long. I started training for a half marathon in February, and without exception I have been training like a relatively serious runner every week since then, taking time off only for illness or heavily extenuating circumstances. Now heading into December and my tenth consecutive month of hard training, my body is starting to feel the strain, in the form of little aches and pains, whispers of shin splints, muscle shortening, sore feet, and an overall lack of confidence during movements that require balance.

In the old days, I would have simply powered through all this. The pain means the training is doing its job. I would have doubled-down, running perhaps more miles and looking for ways to add even more time to my workouts. That was then, this is now.

Today, I need to figure out how to become a stronger runner without compromising a pretty good running streak. Not only that, I've discovered that no other activity gives me better control of my blood glucose levels than running, which means that whatever time I spend on other activities may ultimately come at the cost of better blood sugar control. Even so, what I'm doing isn't sustainable. My body is getting tired, and I'm starting to detect evidence of muscle imbalances which could cause injuries if they're not corrected.

As much as it disappoints me to have to say so, I might need to replace some of this running with strength training, to rehabilitate my muscle imbalances and allow my running muscles to rest and reset. 


Are Their Legitimate Responses To "Culture Clash?"

Someone over at the Open Borders Action Group posed a question: Assuming that people who oppose immigration because they fear it will cause "culture clash" are arguing in good faith, what is the best way to respond to their concerns, without calling them racists?

This would be a good question if anyone who fears "culture clash" were arguing in good faith. No such person is. In order to see this, we simply have to attempt to steelman the culture clash argument. If this can be done, then we'll have a guideline for our rebuttals. If it can't be, then we'll know that such arguments are bad-faith arguments.

Let's consider the possibilities:

  1. We can't let "them" into the country because "they" will clash with "our culture."
  2. We can't let anyone into the country because it will disrupt the existing culture here.
  3. We can't let "them" into the country because "their" ways will severely conflict with at least some of the other people who live here.
  4. We can't let anyone into the country because at least some of the newcomers will severely conflict with at least some of the other people who live here.


"Xenomisy" is my word for "hatred of foreign things and people." Some people call this "xenophobia," but I don't think fear drives this attitude; I think hatred does.

Argument 1, above, is clearly bigoted, for the following reasons: (a) The argument predicts with certainty the behavior of foreign people before they have a chance to demonstrate otherwise; (b) The argument assumes superiority of the natives' own culture; (c) The argument assumes that all clashes between foreigners and natives result in negative outcomes, rather than acknowledging the possibility that foreigners may be a positive influence on locals; (d) The argument refuses to hold natives' clashes to the same standard as those allegedly caused by foreigners.

Argument 2 is bigoted for the following reasons: (a) The argument predicts with certainty the behavior of foreign people before they have a chance to demonstrate otherwise; (b) The argument assumes superiority of the natives' own culture; (c) The argument assumes that all clashes between foreigners and natives result in negative outcomes, rather than acknowledging the possibility that foreigners may be a positive influence on locals.

Argument 3 is bigoted for the following reasons: (a) The argument predicts with certainty the behavior of foreign people before they have a chance to demonstrate otherwise; (d) The argument refuses to hold natives' clashes to the same standard as those allegedly caused by foreigners.

Argument 4 is the weakest of all of these arguments, but possibly the least-bigoted. It argues that foreigners should be barred from immigrating merely because some of them might have a conflict with some of the natives. It implicitly accepts that many, possibly even most, people will not have any conflicts. It relies on the assumption that any conflict, however rare it might be, will be so terrible as to outweigh all of the other benefits of immigration. For that reason, Argument 4 is bigoted because: (c) The argument assumes that all clashes between foreigners and natives result in negative outcomes, rather than acknowledging the possibility that foreigners may be a positive influence on locals.

In summary, the reasoning behind "culture clash" arguments are racist because:

  • (a) The arguments predict with certainty the behavior of foreign people before they have a chance to demonstrate otherwise 
  • (b) The arguments assume superiority of the natives' own culture 
  • (c) The arguments assume that all clashes between foreigners and natives result in negative outcomes, rather than acknowledging the possibility that foreigners may be a positive influence on locals 
  • (d) The arguments refuse to hold natives' clashes to the same standard as those allegedly caused by foreigners.

But People Make These Arguments -- Does That Mean People Are Bigots?

The presumption of good-faith argumentation holds that someone arguing in good faith is willing to consider countervailing evidence and be persuaded by it if it is a strong enough answer to his or her concerns.

In order to address any of the above arguments under the presumption of good faith, we would need to collect evidence demonstrating:

  • (i) That the behavior of immigrants cannot be predicted en masse
  • (ii) That local culture is not inherently superior
  • (iii) That there are empirically demonstrable benefits to immigration
  • (iv) That locals and natives can/should be held to the same standard when evaluating the costs and benefits of immigration in theory
Note that (i) is a description of stereotyping or racial profiling. There are no non-bigoted ways to hold this opinion. It is not a good-faith argument. It is also merely a belief.

Likewise, (ii) is a belief. It is a belief in national chauvinism. It's unlikely that anyone who holds that Italians are the greatest people in the world will ever be "convinced" by "evidence" that other people are just as good. It is merely a belief.

(iii) is something that has been done to death. Oceans of ink have been spilled articulating the many economic of free trade in the labor market. The notion that immigration advocates have failed to do so is simply false. Anyone who maintains this false belief has either never seriously evaluated immigration one way or another, or has chosen to ignore the mountains of evidence in front of them. Since presuming complete ignorance is uncharitable, the only viable explanation for (iii) is that it is an argument of bad faith.

Meanwhile, (iv) is a mere belief.

The reason I've taken the time to point out that (i), (ii), and (iv) are mere beliefs is because beliefs are not subject to empirical evidence and logical persuasion. If someone opposes immigration because he believes that all immigrants are Lizard-People, it simply doesn't matter what blood tests or autopsies you place in front of them. They will not respond to the evidence because there is always a "what-if" on which to hang a further objection. Sure, the Lizard-Man passed the blood test, but what if the blood test was designed the pro-Lizard-Man lobby? Sure, there are a few good immigrants out there, but in general, we can predict their nefarious behavior and contrast it to our saintly locals.


One of the more startling things people discover when they begin to evaluate their own beliefs is that good people can believe nasty things. Aunt Nellie might be a perfectly sweet lady, but if she thinks "the Chinese are taking over the neighborhood with their laundromats and their doughnut shops," then she holds a bigoted belief. Aunt Nellie doesn't want to be convinced that her beliefs are bigoted, because that would suggest that she herself is a bigot, i.e. a bad person. She doesn't want to believe that about herself. You also probably do not want to believe that about your Aunt Nellie. But you've heard what she says about the Chinese when she gets going. How else would you describe those beliefs?

Similarly, people draw a conceptual difference in their minds between "hating Chinese people" and "being worried that Chinese immigrant culture will 'clash' with the prevailing local culture." They don't want to believe that they're bad people -- but how else can you describe the presumption that more Chinese = worse local life, if not by calling it "bigotry?"

This refusal to acknowledge our own, personal bad behavior (and bad beliefs) is the driving force behind all culture clash arguments against immigration. The reason immigration advocates cannot overcome these fears is because it would require the bigot to come to terms with her own bigotry through logical argumentation and the presentation of evidence.

People don't want to do that.

Arguments about culture clash are not made in good faith.


You Don't Need A Reason To Break Up With Someone (So Don't Wait For One)

I answer a lot of questions on Quora. One of the major topics of my answers is romantic relationships. It's not that I'm an expert player or a really great Don Juan, and that's not generally the kind of question people are asking about, anyway. No, people are asking a different sort of relationship question on Quora.

What seems to stump people is what I would describe as "the basics of common decency." In short, how to be nice to your romantic partner. This is apparently a mystery to some people.

A good example is a question I answered yesterday. A woman wanted to know if she should issue an ultimatum to her boyfriend: Include me in your social media life, or I'm dumping you! There are two components to this issue, and both of which are completely incomprehensible.

In the first place, the woman's boyfriend was a real piece of work. They'd been together for three years, and in three years, the man had kept his girlfriend blocked on social media. Blocked. He never posted anything about her on social media, and he kept her blocked, while for three years she begged him to unblock her and to post a photo of her from time to time. In a Quora comment to me, the woman explained why she thought he was doing this. I won't include that information here, because it's not necessary to include her speculation when the facts alone are bizarre enough and incomprehensible enough to tell the story.

People, if you're keeping your significant others blocked on social media for three years, you're headed for a break-up.

But that's just one incomprehensible component to this situation. The other is the woman's response to the situation. She thought it was time to issue an ultimatum. I probably don't need to explain here why ultimatums are a bad way to conduct oneself in interpersonal conflict. They're aggressive, threatening, and manipulative. But, for three years, this woman was blocked from her own partner's social media and her response to this was to ride it out, ride it out, ride it out, and then finally issue an ultimatum! This is wrong.

What I think is going on in the woman's situation is something that seems common in romantic relationships. People don't break up for the right reasons, even when it's right to break up.

The right reasons to break up are: "Your values are incompatible with mine," or "Our relationship does not make me happy," or "Our lives are on two different and incompatible trajectories." Note that there is not much to explain here. If you ask your partner, "Why are you breaking up with me?" and they answer simply, "This relationship does not provide me with the kind of happiness I'm looking for in a relationship" then the conversation is over. You could try to follow up with, "But why??" You won't get a useful answer, though, because there is no useful answer. One partner's life goals aren't aligned with the relationship, that's why.

It doesn't mean that one person in the relationship is "bad" or did something wrong. It doesn't mean that there was a bunch of conflict in the relationship that couldn't be resolved (although there might have been). We don't need any more specific a reason to break up than the simple fact that we have other ideas about what constitutes a satisfactory relationship and other preferences in a relationship. This doesn't have to be "justified" with evidence or a catalog of unacceptable behaviors. We can walk away from a relationship for any reason at all. No one needs to be told what they did wrong; they might not have done anything wrong. It doesn't matter.

In this woman's case, however, the man had indeed done something wrong. It was bizarre, suspicious, and emotionally closed that her boyfriend blocked her on social media. The woman should have walked away from that relationship early on. Somehow, she got it into her head that if she just resolved the social media conflict, the rest of the relationship would have been fine. But that couldn't have been true. In the end, the two of them wanted different things out of a relationship.

And so, the woman didn't need to issue her boyfriend an ultimatum. She didn't need to take to Quora to find out "what to do." She didn't need a specific reason or a final cataclysm to justify her break-up. She just needed to break up with the guy. For all I know, he might be a great guy with a very quirky way of managing his social media. That doesn't matter at all if his girlfriend wants something else out of the relationship. It's no offense, it's just a difference in relationship needs. Au revoir.

Imagine how much time this woman could have saved -- and how many years of fond memories she could have had -- had she simply trained herself to recognize early on that her relationship wasn't giving her what she wanted. Imagine how much happier she could have been if she had simply allowed herself to break up with a man for the simple reason that the relationship wasn't doin' it for her, whatever "it" was. She wouldn't have needed to construct a narrative about his social media habits, and she wouldn't have felt the need to design a break-up rule and rig an ultimatum to illustrate the breaking of the rule, to justify a final break-up.

What a waste of three years.


More Running Is Safer Running

I've been saying this for years: Running slow, and taking days off in between regular workouts increases your risk of running-related injury. Now no one can argue with me about it anymore, because it has been proven!

Well, not really, but a recent study confirms my theory. Runner's World UK reports:
A study of 784 runners training for a half marathon has concluded that training load, specifically milage [sic] and pace, are dominate [sic] factors in causing running related injuries. 
However, the study called ProjectRun21 concluded that it was those who ran less and slower who were more likely to become injured, stating "runners covering less than 15 km per week, and/or runs slower than 6 min/km, may sustain more RRI than their counterpart runners."
For years, people have been saying to me, "How can you run that far every day? That would destroy my knees!" The answer is quite simple. I can run 6 to 15 miles per day, every day, because I run 6 to 15 miles per day! If you never develop the skills required to do this, you'll never be able to do it, and thus your every attempt will tend to injure you.

One of these required skills is running form, which is a natural byproduct of running speed. The faster you run, the better your form, the safer your running will be.

The bottom line is simple: run fast to run safely; run more often to run safely. Often times, friends and readers react negatively to my insistence that people train as though they're actually trying to run fast. They lament that they'll never be a winner and that they're not interested in the Olympics. Har, har, har. Fine. But this attitude merely makes running-related injuries inevitable.

You don't have to be the greatest runner in the world, but you ought to be the greatest runner you can possibly be. That is, at least if you don't want to get injured.


A Word Of Caution

Incredibly, it is now 2019. I've been blogging for over a decade, and my life has undergone many changes since I started. I've now reached middle age, and so I suppose there's no shame in blogging about middle-aged things. Perhaps you can benefit from reading this.

For most of my life, my blood pressure has been on the low side of the normal range. Regular readers will understand why that is: I'm an enthusiastic and borderline-obsessive fitness nut and distance runner. Imagine my surprise, then, when a routine medical checkup resulted in a reading of "State 2 hypertension," 140/90. That's high blood pressure.

Well, I thought, it's just one reading. Besides that, my blood sugar was high that day; it stands to reason that my blood pressure may have temporarily spiked. I wrote it off. Then, a couple of weeks back, I was at the pharmacy and got curious, so I strapped myself into one of those blood pressure kiosks and took another test. The result was the same. I took a few deep breaths, relaxed, and tried again. The result was confirmed again.

For a moment I started to worry. When otherwise-healthy people get hypertension, it's usually indicative of very serious health problems. When otherwise-healthy diabetics get hypertension, it usually means kidney failure. I admit it, I was scared.

My mind raced back to events from the past few months. What could cause sudden hypertension? What would have indicated kidney failure? The thing was, I felt perfectly fine. Still, there were some very odd things that had happened recently. The most jarring of those was this: One day my urine was an absolutely bizarre dark brown color. Upon seeing it, I frantically googled every conceivable health and medical website and deemed that I was either severely dehydrated, or indeed, I had kidney failure. I spent the next twenty-four hours drinking as much of every possible fluid as I could. I downed two cans of chicken broth, a pot of coffee, a liter of sparkling water, multiple cups of tea, and who knows -- possibly a gallon of water.

The next time I went to the bathroom, everything had returned to normal. I breathed a deep sigh of relief. I was fine. But, was I? Suddenly, a few weeks later, I had hypertension.

I decided to approach this new situation the same way as the other one. Rather than accept that I had kidney failure, I decided to make incremental changes to see what impact that would have. So I went from drinking about four cups of coffee per day (two with breakfast, and one or two during the workday at the office) to drinking a cup of tea for breakfast, and perhaps another in the evening. Basically, I eliminated caffeine from my diet almost entirely. I also reduced my alcohol intake.

The result of eliminating caffeine was that my blood pressure returned to normal within three days. Three days.

I never would have guessed that a coffee habit -- something that I've been maintaining for twenty years or more -- would cause high blood pressure suddenly. I figured if it ever happened, it would happen gradually if at all. So the first thing I'd like my readers to know is that caffeine can cause high blood pressure "all of a sudden," even if you've been drinking it for years. The second thing I'd like my readers to know is that your blood pressure will become completely normal again if you stop drinking caffeine.

Now a word on withdrawal. I've never been someone who was highly stimulated by caffeine. It never kept me up at night, and never gave me the jitters. I could drink one cup or eight cups and feel pretty much the same in all cases. In light of this, I was not expecting to experience withdrawal symptoms from quitting coffee. I was wrong. While I didn't get the headaches that other people report, I was overwhelmed by fatigue, which lasted about three days. I was falling asleep in the early afternoon while hard at work. I had to take two days off from exercising because my body wouldn't physically move. It was bearable, but unpleasant. I was so tired that I almost felt drunk.

I hate to admit it, but my body feels a lot better now. I do miss the taste of a great cup of coffee, but I'm tolerant of the decaf they give us at the office, and there is no way that I would trade the way I feel now for a cup of coffee. After years of believing that coffee was just a great-tasting way to enhance life, I've suddenly discovered that being uncaffeinated actually feels better. So, I'd like my readers to know that if you ever have the chance to stop drinking coffee, go for it. I think you might discover, like I did, that it feels good to be caffeine free.

I did drink a diet Coke yesterday. It didn't give me jitters, nor did it elevate my blood pressure. I think it's probably okay to drink one caffeinated beverage per day and still enjoy the benefits of being caffeine-free. As for me, I'll try to avoid it from now on.


Exciting Times

I've been listening to a lot of Sublime lately. Sublime sold 6 million albums shortly after their frontman and principle songwriter, Brad Nowell, overdosed on heroin. The death prompted many people at the time to wonder what might have been, since Nowell was a gifted singer and lyricist, an excellent guitar player, and a great songwriter. Sublime was a really good band.

Listening to their albums, I have become absolutely engrossed in the artistic world created by these recordings. Sublime's use of recorded speeches and clips from movies, fused with their deft hip hop sampling techniques and punk and reggae rock served to make their albums feel more like movies than like a mere sequence of songs. Each album is a little treat, from beginning to end; we step into Sublime's world for an hour or so, we enjoy ourselves, and then we wave goodbye. It is an extremely good use of the album platform, showing us how albums can be works of art unto themselves, over and above the songs themselves.

In that context, it is interesting to note the lyrical subject matter of Sublime's work. A lot of their songs are autobiographical. "I don't cry when my dog runs away" is not just a chirpy mantra; Nowell's dog really did run away. He really did have a dalmation. He really did get high. He really did pawn all his gear. I don't know how much of Sublime's lyrics are fictitious, but I do know that a lot of it comprises stories of their lives on the southern California punk/ska scene. It's gritty, and it's real: crime, drugs, sex, poverty, addiction, and lots of music.

What strikes me about this, however, is that when someone actually lives this kind of a life, it is not nearly so glamorous or exciting as it sounds when Sublime sings about it. When you're dog runs away, it's not an adventure; it's just a lot of feeling bad and being unable to do anything about it, and maybe hanging some posters around the neighborhood. Music is awesome and performing is great fun, but there is nothing about performing music that is really worth telling stories about. You get up on stage, you perform the music, you exit. And I do not suppose I need to go into detail about how utterly boring the life of a drug addict is. The only exciting thing a drug addict experiences is the high, and by the time addiction really sinks in, the high isn't even worth much anymore. It's more like misery-avoidance, especially when it comes to heroin.

In short, Nowell lived a life that was not exciting, but he wrote songs as if it were the most exciting thing that ever happened. That is a wonderful skill, and more to the point, it is a wonderful attitude with which to approach your own life.

I once found myself drinking at a bar in Edmonton, Alberta. A large, jovial man approached me and struck up a conversation. He was an interesting character, from Norway, who had some bombastic ideas, or perhaps it was the liquor talking. Either way, we entertained each other for hours over many beers, and then parted ways.

At one point during our conversation, he naturally asked me what I did for a living. At the time, I was a bank teller. I told him this, and he asked what that meant, so I explained how bank tellers in credit processing centers in Canada in the early 2000s stamped, counted, and sorted transaction receipts. (This kind of job probably doesn't exist anymore -- thanks, technology!) It was a dumb job and not particularly interesting to explain to gregarious drunken strangers, but the man took it all in. Then, he said, "You shouldn't say it that way. You should put it like this..." He then proceeded to describe my own job back to me, using much more exciting language, and making it sound like truly interesting work.

His point was simply this: No matter what dumb, boring thing you have to do in life, make it seem amazing.

Brad Nowell and this Norwegian stranger I met had a similar approach to their own existence. Whatever it was they were doing, they wanted it to be exciting, even if it was just sorting transaction receipts or lying around in a drug-addled stupor in a shitty apartment while the dog runs away. Obviously, I don't recommend getting addicted to heroin. The lesson to take from this is that the difference between your life and a more amazing, adventurous life is often not in what you do, but how you tell the story to yourself. You might live a pretty mundane life; but you might also live a pretty exciting life and just not realize it.

I think about this a bit when I'm running. From my perspective, a 6-mile run around one of my usual loops is a pretty mundane way to pass the time. I can't hardly even get excited about it anymore. It's just part of my day, no different than pulling on a pair of pants. But what would an onlooker see? He'd see a guy in a bandana and a fancy pair of sunglasses coolly striding down a scenic river path with the Fort Worth City skyline as a backdrop. It's practically a postcard, if I could only see it from that onlooker's point of view.

This is really nothing more than finding meaning in your life. If you see your life as a bunch of boring routines, or as an unremarkable thing not worth talking about, then you will probably tend to live your life that way, too. If you instead frame your life as a series of exciting adventures, it's possible to grow more enamored with what you're doing.

Kiss your wife when she comes home. It could be just a kiss to say hello. It could also be an integral part of your epic love story. Make your usual breakfast in the morning. It could be just an almost automatic process of pouring cereal and milk into a bowl. It could also be an indelible part of your idiom:

This is especially important for children, because children haven't been alive very long and haven't yet reached the point where absolutely everything is potentially mundane and boring. Fostering in them a sense of story-telling in their daily lives could potentially help them construct a more satisfying personal narrative. But you'll never instill that in a child until you know how to instill it in yourself.


Neringa's Crazy 8's

Here's an absolutely brutal workout I got from an athlete I follow on Strava. She didn't come up with the name, this is just what I call it. Here's how it goes:

  • Warm-up: 2 miles @ an easy pace
  • Workout: 8 x 1-mile repeats @ race pace, with 60 seconds of recovery jogging in between
  • Cool-down: 5 kilometers @ an easy pace
This is an ingenious workout. First of all, eight one-mile repeats is really hard! But it's even harder when you only give yourself one minute to recover. Holding that pace over the course of a long workout like this is phenomenal training for your body. Not everyone will be capable of doing a workout like this, but for those who are in good enough shape, it's amazing.

And the masterstroke of the workout is the total mileage: 13.1 miles of running, i.e. precisely the length of a half marathon.

It was such a great idea that I just had to try it. I failed my first attempt. On my second attempt, I made it through the warm-up and the workout, but had to bail on the cool-down. I may not be running enough miles to pull off the full workout, but I'm willing to try again!


UPDATE #2: Email To Race Organizers

On Friday, I blogged an email I had written to the organizers of a local half marathon, voicing some suggestions about how to improve the race, if not for the current year, perhaps at some time in the future. Shortly after posting to the blog, an administrator responded to my email soliciting some additional feedback, thanking me for providing my opinion, and promising to follow-up with me later, after she had had a chance to discuss things with the other staff.

Late in the day, my contact sent me the response from "Ampt Running's" USATF Course Logistics Director and Certifier. (Now there's a job title!) The response reads as follows:
Runners will not run in opposite directions and into each other, nor do outbound and inbound runners share the same lane. The overlap is as runners in all races approach the finish at different speeds. There are a number of options with pros and cons for each. We ran models on each start time to see who / where all overlaps occur. This only happens with the very fastest and slowest runners, and it is extremely minimal.
I am disappointed by this response. In my opinion, a race ought to give utmost deference to "the very fastest runners." After all, attracting a good field of very fast runners is the best way to attract runners at any other speed, too. It's not that I don't think slower runners matter, it's that the whole point of a race is to see who wins; thus, the winners are the ones who are supposed to be the focal point of the race. They're the ones whose times should be modeled, they're the ones for whom the course map and starting times should be tailored. They're the ones the race organizers ought to really care about.

*        *        *

When I was young, road races were most typically community events sponsored by the city. The municipality would gather volunteers and put on a race, usually in conjunction with some city celebration, such as the "Strawberry Days 5K," which was a road race that commemorated the founding of a small city in Utah. After the road race, participants would disperse and move on to other parts of the "Strawberry Days" celebration, which included a professional rodeo, an art fair, a parade, and a fireworks show. Every local city had one of these celebrations. During the summertime, it was possible to find a city celebration anywhere within a 60-mile radius, and spend the weekend running a road race. Race organizers would arrange for door prizes and light refreshments at the finish line, medals for the overall and age-group winners, and... that was pretty much it.

There was generally no major "fitness expo" at the starting line, live bands would not typically perform, loudspeaker systems that blasted music were quite uncommon, there were no "live announcers" who would call runners' names as they crossed the finish line, racing chips were rare, race photography was nil...

In short, the "good-old days" were quite light on the fringe benefits that now come with road racing. They were local, small-town affairs that relied on community volunteers and a running community that didn't care much about anything other than just running a fun race. Consequently, the races that consistently drew the highest number of participants were those that offered the best swag. One day, I showed up to a race and discovered that they were feeding finishers bagels! I couldn't believe it! As time went on, we got more and more: cups of yogurt, bottles of Gatorade, tech t-shirts instead of cotton t-shirts, and so on.

Today, when you enter a road race, you usually get a shirt, plus a grab-bag of items. The last one I got had a shirt, a pair of socks, various samples of energy bars and sports drinks, some packets of laundry detergent (yes, really), and dozen or so coupons. That race also featured a lineup of bands performing at the finish line in a fancy outdoor amphitheater, a two-day fitness expo, microchip-based timing, race photography, finisher's medals, finisher's photos, huge ice buckets of bottled water, a post-race breakfast, and a team of sky-divers to start the race. All for sixty dollars.

It is worth considering what kind of organization is capable of putting together a race like that. Clearly, a small country town reliant on volunteers is not going to be able to pull all this off. To deliver this kind of race experience, you need incorporated staff. The Boston Athletic Association, for example, which produces the Boston Marathon every year, is a registered corporate non-profit organization. There is a similar corporation that produces the Cowtown Marathon here in Fort Worth. The truth is, planning a major road race is a full-time job. These aren't community events so much as international spectacles. If that's the kind of race you want to put on, you need real firepower to do it.

*        *        *

I do not want to write a hit-piece on Ampt Running. They put on four successful local road races throughout the year, and from what I can tell, all four of these races feature all the accoutrements you'd expect from a big road racing event: chip timing, aid stations, race photography, prizes, food, swag, and the whole nine yards. That is commendable.

I will say this, however: I get extremely uncomfortable when I see a money-making, full-time enterprise that relies on volunteers to do what they do. It's a lot of work to put on a road race; it's a lot of work to run a company that puts on a road race; the idea that someone could make money, professionally, by leveraging the goodwill of unpaid volunteers is not how I, personally, would choose to make money

The matter is slightly different with the B.A.A. or the Cowtown Marathon organization. These started out as volunteer organizations whose primary purpose was to promote sports within a specific community. They only began retaining staff as the need arose, and only ever in support of community events that had the financial backing of the cities in which they were founded. This is home-grown, non-profit, community activity. These are not companies started by people who realized that they could put food on the table by putting on road races.

And to be clear, I have no objection with a company that puts on road races professionally. The only thing that makes it weird is when you ask people to volunteer their time so that you can earn your paycheck. Imagine I offered to sell you fast food hamburgers, earned a sweet profit on every hamburger I sold, and then come to find out the hamburgers were all made by community volunteers. There's nothing wrong with selling hamburgers, and there's nothing wrong with having a community burger-cookout. But when the community volunteers to make someone a nice profit, that strikes me as being bizarre.

On the other hand, a lot of people run these Ampt races. If Ampt didn't make a profit off the backs of volunteer labor, these races wouldn't exist. So which is the better scenario? 

*        *        *

I love money as much as -- or more than -- the next person. Still, it seems inarguable to me that some kinds of activities are ill-suited to the profit motive. One example of this is art: When artists do not have to worry about selling the most paintings, they tend to create starkly creative and personal works that have the possibility of breaking creative ground and making human progress in art. When artists do whatever sells the most prints, we end up with the abstract art they sell at IKEA, which is literally designed and painted by robots. It becomes "a real art product" rather than a work of art. It's not designed to express anything an artist wanted to express, it's designed solely to sell. I argue that this is bad for art.

I also argue that this is bad for road racing. What better example of that than the act of designing your race such that the winners' experience is sacrificed for the sake of the middle of the pack?

Clearly, this is a decision designed to maximize the experience of the greatest number of runners. Not the number of greatest runners in the race, but the large, bloated majority of fun runners who will never stand a chance of winning a race. They're the ones who pay the checks, after all. They're the customers. If you're in the business of serving customers, it's perfectly rational to please the large area under the bell curve, rather than making a tailor-made experience for the fastest six runners in the right-hand tail of the distribution.

It makes commercial sense to operate a race this way, but it makes no sense in the context of sport. The frontrunners are the running elite; they're the key opinion leaders of the running world. They're the ones whose opinions matter, because they define what running is. Like art, if you want something that changes the way we think, you hire an artist and give her free reign to creative expression; so with running, if you want the funnest, most rewarding race possible, then you ought to design your races such that they're really fun for the very best runners. Whatever it is that the best runners enjoy, that's what the back of the pack will come to enjoy in time, because the back of the pack are followers.

In you want a quality running event, you should care what the fast runners think. You should care what their experiences are. You should not make course decisions based on the bell curve.

*        *        *

I realize that this is kind of a bitchy post, but it's important to form the right context for fixing the problem. I would love to reform the running community, to remake it more in the image of what running can be, if only people knew where to start.

The reality is, I don't think that the problems with running can be boiled down to simple idiocy like "corporations ruined it" or "participation medals ruined it." I think this has been a slow, multi-dimensional evolution (devolution) and that if anyone thirty years ago had known what running would become, they would have put a stop to it before it went this far. 

But all those old guys are gone, and there's no one else to carry the flag. We take it as given that races must be run this way, and so we accept it. The very best runners focus on major events, don't waste their time on community events, and basically operate in a parallel universe. The frontrunning community is nothing like "the running community." 

Consequently, I dream of leading a change for the better. I dream of teaching kids how fun -- how incredibly awesome -- running can be. It can be so much more than a community fun run, or "an event for all ages and abilities." It can be more than an event tailored to the bell curve. And the beautiful thing about it is that if you create races that focus on the best of what could be, it's not just frontrunners who will benefit. The whole running community could be amazed at how much fun they've been missing out on all this time.

I really think it's possible to make this change, and I dream of making it. Only time will tell if I'll ever get off the ground with my ideas. 

Speaking of ideas, I'll post more about them later.


An Email To Race Organizers

I sent the following email to the organizers of the upcoming Toyota Music Factory Half Marathon, but it's a sentiment that could be expressed to the organizers of many similar races. I'm posting it here in hope of popularizing the sentiment.
Hi [Redacted], 
Thanks for responding. I took a look at the course maps and race starting times, and decided I won't be entering the race this year. 
I realize you probably aren't involved in planning the course, but I wonder if you'd be willing to pass along some feedback to those who do? 
It's obvious from the course map and start times that the half marathon frontrunners will inevitably have to run through a crowd of slower 5k and 10k runners, from behind, especially if a lot of runners sign up for the race. It's great that your organization took the effort to have the course USATF certified, but an important part of running a certified race is having the ability to run fast without dodging obstacles and people on the course. Perhaps next year the courses could be designed such that pack leaders in the half marathon will not have to run through a thick crowd of slower runners who are participating in an entirely different race. If other runners are anything like me, they'll appreciate being able to try for a fast time on an unimpeded route. 
Friendly suggestion only! 
You can find the course maps and event schedule on the race's official website. My hope is that the race organizers care enough about the quality of the race that they will plan future events differently. They obviously care about the quality of the race, because they took the effort of having the course officially certified. As I say in my note, that certification cannot fully be taken advantage of if runners hoping for a good race time must squander precious energy dodging their way through a crowd of back-of-the-packers.

I have nothing against slow runners, and for what it's worth, I think this would even improve the quality of the race for the slowest runners on the course. It can't be fun to try to bring up the rear while being lapped by people who are zipping past from behind, and who themselves may be frustrated by having to do so.

And a fun race course that is both certified and designed to enable fast running times will surely attract more and more participants, year after year. Good course design is good for both athletes and race organizers/sponsors.

UPDATE: To my surprise and delight, the organizers responded very receptively to my feedback. This is great news! Cross your fingers, everyone!


The Robot Vacuum Cleaner And The Universal Basic Income

I've blogged about the UBI before. I like to call it the "Basic Excise Guarantee" (BEG), because it is an idea that is almost certain to result in massive new taxation for any society that attempts it.

Bryan Caplan has a good, and short, blog post at EconLog about people who advocate for the UBI. Here's his closing paragraph:
If I were an enthusiastic UBI advocate, I would know this experimental evidence forwards and backwards. Almost all of the advocates I’ve encountered, in contrast, have little interest in numbers or past experience. What excites them is the “One Ring to Rule Them All” logic of the idea: “We get rid of everything else, and replace it with an elegant, gift-wrapped UBI.” For a policy salesman, this evasive approach makes sense: Slogans sell; numbers and history don’t. For a policy analyst, however, this evasive approach is negligence itself. If you scrutinize your policy ideas less cautiously than you read Amazon reviews for your next television, something is very wrong.
I read this, and it got me thinking about Eufy, the robot vacuum cleaner I bought my wife for Mother's Day. She had always wanted one, and I found one for an attractive price, so I bought it. We like it.

Through Eufy, I discovered something important about using robot vacuum cleaners. It's counter-intuitive before you buy one, but in hindsight it is totally obvious. In order to make good use of a robot vacuum cleaner, you need to consciously remind yourself that your floor is being vacuumed by a mobile algorithm, and not by a human being.

How does a human being vacuum a floor? I'm a human being with some vacuuming experience, so I'll tell you how I do it. I start at one end of the room, and thoroughly vacuum the floor by covering every square inch repeatedly, from one side of the room to the other; then I move on to the next room.

How does a robot vacuum a floor? The robot starts at any random point on the floor and moves in one direction until it encounters an obstacle. When it reaches the obstacle, it deploys one of a series of evasive maneuvers. Those maneuvers appear to be:

  1. Turn in a drastically different direction and continue straight until it encounters another obstacle;
  2. Treat the obstacle as a "corner object," and attempt micro-turns until it can find the way around the obstacle;
  3. Treat the obstacle as a "wall," and attempt a 90-degree turn;
  4. Treat the obstacle as a "lump in the carpet" or other insignificant setback, and reattempt the same path to see if continuation is possible.
From the standpoint of a human being, this approach is utter lunacy, because we can see the entire room and already know exactly how to solve the problem. But from the standpoint of a robot, this approach is perfect. The robot has managed to reasonably account for 90% or more of all possible encounters with obstacles, and has figured out a way to process the obstacle without the need for advanced image-processing or computation. Or eyes.

The result of all this is a situation in which a human could vacuum the floor in five minutes, while it might take the robot twenty minutes. Some customers might be inclined to think, "If it takes longer, then what's the point?" But if that's what you're thinking, then you haven't absorbed the economic lessons of comparative advantage. Remember, when a robot vacuums the floor, you don't have to. It might have taken you five minutes to vacuum the floor, but then you'd only have 55 minutes left in the hour to do anything else. If you deploy a robot to vacuum the floor, then you get those five minutes back and use them for literally anything other than vacuuming the floor. That's an efficiency gain.

And if you have more than just one room to vacuum, the robot ends up being really great. I turn the robot on early on Saturday morning, when I'm making breakfast for my daughter and I. I don't have to spend my weekend vacuuming the floor, and my daughter gets to have waffles; everybody wins. But in order to capture this efficiency gain, I have to consciously ignore how I, personally, would vacuum the floor and just let the robot do its thing. It takes more vacuuming time, but it's not my time that's being used for vacuuming, so who cares?

The Universal Basic Income seems to be particularly popular among Silicon Valley tech-types, and it's easy to see why. Rather than sinking lots of time and money into a means-tested welfare system with high administration costs, wouldn't it be better to deploy a simple algorithm, like a "negative income tax," to address society's poverty automatically? We'd reduce administrative costs all the way down to $0, and gain economic efficiency by replacing a complicated system of price distortions with a cash stipend, no strings attached. Sure, we'd lose some efficiency by failing to give the severely needy more money than the just-kind-of-needy, or even than the not-needy-at-all (it's a Universal Basic Income, remember); but means-testing costs time and money, which "we'd" save by out-sourcing our decision-making process to the algorithm.

So, the UBI (the BEG) starts to look a lot like a robot vacuum cleaner for poverty. It's not as efficient as a direct cash transfer to someone in the greatest need, but it a reliable-enough algorithm to do most of the necessary work without having to think too much about it all.

The problem is that when we conduct UBI experiments, the algorithm fails. Rather than modify the algorithm, though, BEG advocates just double-down. Robot vacuum cleaners work because the algorithms were rigorously tested to meet acceptable thresholds; and even then, buying one is a free choice. The UBI doesn't enjoy the same benefits.


Stupid Machines

Because -- and not in spite of the fact that -- I love gadgets, I have grown increasingly antipathetic toward a category of devices I call "stupid machines." They're stupid because they either invented for stupid reasons or attempt to solve problems that don't exist.

One example is the electric rice-cooker. Steamed rice is pretty much the next-easiest thing to cook, after a bowl of cold cereal. You don't even have to measure the rice. You just pour rice and water into a saucepan and apply medium heat until the rice is finished. We can try to complicate it with more nuanced instructions, such as "bring the water to a boil, then cover and reduce heat," but if you left a six-year-old alone in a house with saucepan, a bag of rice, and water faucet, the child would be alive for as long as the rice lasted. There is no need to create a special device for making steamed rice "even easier." There is nothing that a rice-cooker can do that a saucepan cannot. It's stupid.

Okay, I concede that perhaps rice-cookers were originally invented for space-limited kitchens in dense, urban, Asian kitchens where range tops may not be big enough to cook rice, meat, and vegetables simultaneously. Outside of that narrow situation, however, a rice-cooker is stupid, and they still sell quite well in the American midwest and similar places.

Electric pencil sharpeners are another stupid machine. We use a loud motor driven by a fair amount of electricity to avoid having to crank a lever for, what, three seconds? Or, if you're a young child, twist your pencil in that little doohickey with the hole for three seconds? Why do we waste electricity and fossil fuels to sharpen pencils electrically? It makes no sense.

The mechanical pencil is plausibly not stupid, since enables us to avoid writing with trees. But the disposable mechanical pencil is certifiably insane. What a stupid machine!

I am a big fan of electric scooters. I think they are fun to ride, and I think they are efficient transportation for people who need to cover sizable distances faster than they can walk. I can walk a mile in about fifteen minutes, which is perhaps on the faster side of normal. But an electric scooter can get me to the same place in five or six minutes, possibly less. That's ten minutes faster, or a 66% improvement. This is not a stupid machine.

But a hoverboard? Get real. Why did someone feel the need to invent an electric-motor-driven, unstable skateboard whose primary purpose is entertainment? Skateboards, scooters, and roller skates were already fun, and no electricity required. And we can see that, now that hoverboards have been around for several years, they are definitely not "catching on" and becoming a new sport like rollerblades did in the 90s. Yet, people still buy hoverboards, instead of a $20 skateboard or a $10 razor scooter, for "fun." They ride them for two weeks and then store them in the closet. What an utter waste of resources.

Here's a funny one: If I want to know what temperature it is outside, I pull out my smart phone, open the weather app, transmit my signal to a radio tower, then to a satellite, then back down to another radio tower, then to a receiver attached to a computer server, then the signal is processed and computed, and sent back to me the way it came. The fact that phone manufacturers consider this more efficient and cost-effective than simply equipping the phone with its own thermometer -- onboard thermometers are currently available on smart watches, by the way -- a truly baffling display of stupid machine-building.

There are many such stupid machines out there. I'm sure you've noticed a few all on your own: electric things that don't need to be electric, SmartThings that don't need to be "smart," plastic things that don't need to be plastic, cloud storage that doesn't need be cloud storage, things that transmit information that does not need to be transmitted anywhere...

Why are there so many stupid machines out there?

Some, like the rice-cooker, start out as legitimate problem-solvers that somehow find their way into the wrong places for the wrong reasons.

Others, like the electric pencil sharpener, seem like cool ideas in theory, until you stop to consider that it wasn't a problem anyone wanted solved in the first place.

There are those like the disposable plastic pencil, which exist almost purely as an artifact of price distortions in the plastics market. And there are those like the hoverboard, which someone hoped would be a smash hit toy sensation, but which really only served to dump more plastic into our oceans and more dead batteries into our watersheds.

And there are those like the current-temperature-app, which was invented by a software engineer who probably never considered how easy it is to put a thermometer on a phone. Or perhaps the software engineers just never get to talk to the hardware engineers, and so no one ever takes full, over-arching responsibility for the efficiency of the product as a whole.

Thus, for various reasons, our world is absolutely littered with stupid machines; problems waiting to be fixed by savvy people who can reinvent the manual pencil sharpener or create a hoverboard worth riding for more than a week. I hope you're out there, I hope you're reading this, and I hope you will develop better future technology for us, whoever you are.



Almost fifteen years ago, I started working on a small technical team at a large company. My boss collected some personal information about me and introduced me to the team. Inevitably, one of the personal details he revealed was that I was an avid runner. This was especially relevant because one of the other members of the team was also an avid runner. We had running in common, therefore we had something to talk about, therefore we had a way to bond with and get to know each other.

The only problem was that, each time I tried to talk to him about marathon running, he hastened through the conversation without saying much. It was disappointing for me, because I heard him having fun running-related discussions with other coworkers. With me, though, he was always very brief; not curt, exactly, but brief.

After many months of failed attempted conversations, he finally "admitted" to me that he had "only" run one marathon. That didn't matter to me; I just wanted to talk to him about running. The way he told me, though, gave me the strong impression that he had been caught in a lie, as though I was a "real" runner because I had had a pretty good amateur running career, whereas he was -- what, exactly? -- something less because he had "only" run one marathon. 

It was confusing to me. I didn't care how many marathons he had run or how fast he was, or even how many miles he ran per week. So why did he?

*        *        *

I was thinking about this old coworker of mine today after reading an old post at MarathonInvestigation.com about a social media influencer who calls her self "RunGiaRun." Apparently, Gia had given her Boston Marathon bib to a friend, who ran in her stead. This is against the rules at the Boston Marathon, mostly because what's to stop me from paying Meb Keflizighi to run the Boston Marathon with my bib and chipset, therefore logging a very good time for me. I get to bask in all the accolades -- and perhaps some lucrative coaching fee income -- without having to put in the work required to actually run well at the Boston Marathon. Everyone wins, except the integrity of the Boston Marathon, I guess.

So, Derek at Marathon Investigation once again "catches" middling housewife social media influencer breaking the rules, and his work results in a lifetime ban from the Boston Marathon. Good work, I guess? An anonymous comment left at MI reflects my views on the subject (comment reformatted for readability):
I've never run Boston as I only ever ran one marathon on a lark and ran 3:18 when the qualifier was 3:11. However, I was a serious runner with PRs from 9:11 for 3000 to 56:11 for 10 miles so had I focused I'm sure I could have. 
I would never run as a charity runner because I think that is cheating your way in as well. 
All of that said… Is this really the best use of your time? Getting all worked up about 3:30 marathoners?
Throughout my dive into the world of Marathon Investigation, I've been left scratching my head over why all these slow runners care about equally slow cheats. What does it matter? Why all the vitriol? Why does the word "cheat" send these people into a sputtering frenzy of indignation? Why does all this eat at people so much?

Derek, for his part, appears to be relatively stoic about it all. That can't be the whole story, though, because he's reached the point where he owns a website dedicated to catching middle-of-the-pack road race cheats. He obviously cares about this enough to pursue it with a lot of his free time. As for the commentariat, well... sputtering frenzy.

Here's a sample of the replies to that anonymous comment:
Anon, congrats on being a very fast runner. Not all of us are as fast you apparently are. I, personally, think 3:30 is a damn good marathon time. I've hovered around the 4:00 mark. Faster runners should support slower ones, not belittle their speed with comments questioning why people are "getting worked up about 3:30 marathoners," as if those runners are not important to the sport... [ed: comment continues for a couple of paragraphs]
 Suddenly, I understood what people were getting worked up about.

*        *        *

One way to interpret this indignant response to the comment about 3:30 marathoners is to realize that Gia Alvarez wasn't cheating against the dude who ran a 3:10 practically in his sleep. No, she was cheating against the dude who hovers around the 4:00 mark. She was cheating against the runners who "think that 3:30 is a damn good marathon time." Who cares about middling marathon cheaters? Middling marathon runners, of course! They're vying for a spot that Gia Alvarez cheated to get. How dare she?

Still, though, why do they care? There are literally thousands of runners who run faster than 3:30 in any given major marathon, and tens of thousands more runners who can do it in their sleep, like that anonymous guy. I'm diabetic and haven't run a marathon in more than ten years, and I could probably do it without thinking twice. With so many people in the world who regularly run faster than that, why do these people care so much that Gia Alvarez cheated?

It starts to make sense when you see their indignation for what it really is: painfully sharp jealousy. Envy.

These runners would love to be able to run faster than they run. For whatever reason -- lack of time, lack of understanding about what it takes to get faster, lack of proper coaching support, whatever -- they're unable to crack the 4:00 marathon mark, and certainly unable to qualify for a major marathon like Boston.

It's not that they want to be as fast as Gia Alvarez, it's that they want everything that comes with it. They want the social media following, and the appearances in fitness magazines. They want the glamorous social media photos...

They want to be what my old coworker was before I arrived: The person everyone in their circle associates with running. When someone cheats against the top-down rules of a game, it doesn't really matter much. But, when someone cheats against the identity you wish you had, that's much more serious. That is, in fact, a narcissistic injury, fueled entirely by the envy of middling people who wish they were more than middling.

I don't think Derek at Marathon Investigation really gets this. I think he probably sees himself as someone who is protecting the integrity of road racing. I don't think he puts two-and-two together when it comes to paying attention to his audience is.

If you provide content for a bunch of sputtering rage-mongers who wish they were Gia Alvarez, it might be pertinent to ask yourself why your content appeals to so many people like that. You can tell a lot about your own thoughts by paying attention to who they resonate with. Aspirational marketing and social media influencing are the kind of activities that appeal to society's envy. Road race cheating is the other side of that same envy.

I, personally, can't fathom the thought processes of people who dream of being Gia Alvarez, rather than Deena Kastor. If you have dreams, why not dream big? If you wish you were someone, why not wish you were someone genuinely amazing? What is it about Gia that makes her life more envious than Deena's?

I think it's because, if you're Deena Kastor, you don't stand around the water cooler giving your coworkers tips on how to run or telling them stories about the zany cheats in the Boston Marathon. If you're Deena Kastor, you spend your time with other great athletes, or you write articles or give TV commentary to news agencies like ESPN. Gia Alvarez, by contrast, probably gives a lot of advice at the water cooler, or the PTA meeting, or wherever it is she gives advice. She lives an attainable sort of fame, the kind you wouldn't have to try very hard to get.

Except, of course, that you do have to try hard to get it. You have to spend your time cheating in the Boston Marathon. What a mess.

Photo Op

I don't remember whether I mentioned it on the blog, but some time ago, I took a trip to Iceland. It's an absolutely amazing country that is sure to make any visitor fall completely in love with it. There are no words or even photos to convey what a magical place it is.

Since visiting Iceland, I've come to miss being there. Consequently, I've started following Icelandic hashtags, photographers, and outdoor sportsmen on Instagram, just to remind myself of what a lovely place it is, and of how much fun I had there. In doing this, however, I've noticed something.

When you're driving through the Icelandic countryside, you can pretty much stop your car anywhere, and you'll be guaranteed a scenic photo. It seems as though every inch of that island is photogenic. This is so true that, no matter where I went in the country, there were people stopped on the side of the road, taking photos. One of my tour guides told me that this was actively encouraged. Tourism is the largest industry in Iceland; the more we do for Icelandic tourism, the more successful Iceland's economy will be.

The highly scenic nature of the country creates an opportunity for photographers -- especially Instagram-types -- to "cheat." They do this by driving somewhere relatively mundane, such as a highway pull-off a few miles outside of Reykjavik, and having a friend or a drone take a photo at just such an angle as to make it appear that they have trekked into the distant wilderness somewhere. Given that they're often wearing name-brand outdoor gear or presenting themselves on social media as experienced "travelers," this almost creates the false impression that they have done much more than what they really did. What it looks like they did was backpack into the deep sub-arctic wilderness. What they actually did was pull off the side of the main highway and snap a good photo.

There is, of course, nothing wrong with taking a nice, glamorous-looking travel photograph of yourself, but the way you present that photo to others may call your authenticity into question. What are you really trying to say with your photograph? You might be trying to say something nice, such as "Please take a look at this beautiful place." But you might also be trying to say something questionable, such as, "Isn't it awesome that I traveled here?"

As I have blogged about many times, in the context of many different issues, it is important to me that we reserve great praise for the truly great. A traveling adventurer such as Kilian Jornet or Sean Burch deserves our utmost praise for their many amazing expeditions. A social media influencer who is good at taking nice sunset photos over roadside fjords deserves some praise for his or her photography skills, and perhaps even a little of our envy for being able to live the kind of life that takes you to beautiful places like Iceland. But nice social media photographers should not be praised as great adventurers, at least not until they have some real adventures.

When I say "praise," I'm not just talking about lauding a person. I'm also talking about the mental energy we expend when we scroll through social media and consider a person. In the face of glamorous photos that are, in essence, a form of personal advertising, it's easy for us to get caught up in what we're seeing, and to assign higher value than we really ought to. The great adventurer isn't the one with the perfect sunset photo; the great athlete isn't the one with the perfect race photo; the fitness expert isn't the one with the most or the best fitness photography on their social media accounts.

The best among us are those who spend more time doing what they do, and less time presenting a fabulous photo of it. Photographs shouldn't be used to define an experience, but rather to remind us of the experiences we had.