Book Review: Robert Jordan - "Crown of Swords"

Image courtest Wikipedia.org
Robert Jordan was a wonderful writer, capable of narrating events with a charming, almost fatherly, narrative the keeps the reader deeply engaged over the course of an 800-page book. More accurately, his writing is engaging over the course of eight 800-page books, some of them even a thousand pages long or more. It takes a wonderful writer to accomplish that.

Perhaps even more amazing than that feat, however, is what Jordan managed to accomplish with his depiction of the Aiel culture in his Wheel of Time series. In the Aiel, Jordan invented a whole human culture, with its own norms, legends, beliefs, sense of humor, and society. Jordan writes about the Aiel better than an anthropologist could write about a real human culture. It's hard to believe that the Aiel are all made-up.

I wanted to begin with some praise for Jordan before I launched into my review of Crown of Swords, because this novel is, ultimately, a thorough disappointment.

It's difficult to say so, because the novel itself is extremely well-written and keeps the reader turning page after page. While some of the previous books in the Wheel of Time series may have been slow at times, Crown of Swords does not have that particular problem, per se.

In fact, there are aspects of the book that are quite good. In particular, it's nice that some of the angrier characters from previous novels have managed to calm the hell down. It's nice that a couple of the love stories in the series got to make major headway in this novel, all the while avoiding the saccharine sweetness that could easily have arisen in such circumstances. And where there is action in the book, that action is intense and satisfying. Page-by-page, Crown of Swords is a fun book to read.

The problem is that, when you're done and thinking about the novel in hindsight, you realize that not much really happens in the plot of the story over the course of 800 pages. It is, quite frankly, 800 pages of nothing.

Ostensibly, the novel follows a couple of minor story arcs from previous novels: the search for the Bowl of Winds, the military strategy against Sammael at Illian, and the relationship between Rand and Min. All of these storylines are worth telling, of course, but none of them are long enough or important enough to warrant a full 800 pages. Everything that happens in Crown of Swords could have been condensed to 200 pages and added to one of the other novels in the series instead. There just simply isn't a lot of meat here.

There was one scene in the novel worth mentioning in a review because of how disturbing it was. Although the scene is by no means graphic, one of the male characters in the book is quite plainly raped by a female character. Incomprehensibly, this rape is played as comic relief in later chapters of the book, as many female characters learn of the rape and tease and laugh at the male character for this. The impression that the reader is given is that the event is funny. It's not funny, though, and having a rape depicted lightly or comically made me very uncomfortable, and frankly confused about the purpose served in the book.

Beyond that, I have hardly anything to review about the book. The prose is well-crafted, but as a novel it's like reading the middle chapters of some other book. Even the final chapters of the book, which are typically high points in Robert Jordan novels, are anti-climactic and left off ambiguously. Having finished the novel, I don't feel as though I've just finished a novel.

I don't want to feel that way, but that's how Crown of Swords made me feel.


Competing Pardigms

As of this writing, the dominant theory on human health appears to be: Eat very little, limit carbohydrates, and do mostly strength training. Or, perhaps it would be more accurately summarized: ketosis and weight lifting.

Advocates of this approach recommend training your body to metabolize protein and fat in its resting state, so that you don't risk carrying a lot of body fat. While many people who follow keto-style diets don't have the whole story on why cardiovascular exercise is generally avoided by keto practitioners, the idea there is that, since cardiovascular exercise promotes fat matabolism, and therefore some fat storage, cardiovascular exercise is bad for losing weight. Besides, many will continue, weight lifting burns just as many calories and building more muscle mass means increasing your body's Basal Metabolic Rate (BMR). So, even though exercising doesn't hold a candle to dieting for weight loss, building more muscle mass is better than not building that muscle mass. Even if the BMR boost is small, it's still positive. Meanwhile, remaining in ketosis will take care of all that pesky fat tissue. Play your cards right, and you'll soon look like Ronnie Coleman, or so the argument goes.

(Never mind that Ronnie Coleman never actually ate like that.)

Under this paradigm, a person will eat mostly meat and vegetables, and very little of anything else, while doing some daily weight lifting. This is certainly a much healthier lifestyle than the average American is currently living, so if you're the kind of person to whom this lifestyle appeals, I say go for it.

Even so, I'd like to present you with a viable alternative that is at least as healthy, and possibly a lot healthier. That lifestyle can best be summarized as: do a lot of hard cardiovascular training, and eat a Mediterranean/DASH type diet consisting of lean meats, plant-based unsaturated fats, and whole grains. And don't go into ketosis.

The first reason I recommend this kind of lifestyle over the keto/weight-lifting lifestyle is because it is precisely the kind of lifestyle recommended by every doctor and dietician worth their salt. The second reason is because it is the only diet and fitness lifestyle that is consistently supported by scientific evidence.

But if that isn't enough to convince you, then consider a few more things.

Let's tackle the question of burning fat. A keto practitioner aims to burn fat and metabolize protein while his body is at rest. An endurance athlete, by contrast, aims to burn fat during exercise. The sweet-spot for this starts after twenty minutes of cardiovascular exercise and continues for up to about ninety minutes before tapering off. So, any cardiovascular activity you engage in that lasts between 20 and 90 minutes will primarily metabolize fat. If you have 45 minutes today, you can burn a bunch of fat cells and still eat fruit and drink milk and have a little pasta. There is no need to sacrifice pleasant and healthy food like blueberries and whole grain toast in order to burn fat off your body. You just need to spend between 20 and 90 minutes, several times per week, burning fat as fuel for exercise.

I grant that ketosis will enable you to do this while at a resting state. But the science of the matter is that you don't have to, and having that other option just might appeal to you. Especially if you like fruit.

What about increased muscle mass and an elevated BMR? Won't you have to give those up if you focus on cardiovascular exercise? No. The reason is because cardiovascular activities like running, swimming, and cycling still build lots of muscle; it just happens to be a smaller-yet-denser muscle tissue, compared to the hulky fast-twitch tissue required for weight lifting. In other words, endurance athletes still have more muscle mass and higher BMRs than sedentary people, even though their muscles appear smaller.

You might prefer the aesthetic appearance of a linebacker to that of a marathoner, and if so, more power to you. Lift weights. But, if you've been eschewing cardio exercise under the impression that you won't be as healthy as you will if you stick to weight lifting, then I have some good news for you: Do all the cardio you want, you'll still build muscle mass and enjoy a higher BMR.

A final important consideration here is the impact of cardiovascular fitness on longevity. As of my writing this, there is little evidence to support the notion that lifting weights extends your lifespan; but there is solid evidence in favor of the notion that cardiovascular health makes you live longer. So, if your goal is not only to lose weight and be healthy, but to live a longer life, cardiovascular exercise offers you something keto + weight lifting cannot.

So, which paradigm is for you? Burn fat while resting and never eat a carbohydrate? Or burn fat while exercising and eat tons of fiber? The choice is yours. I know what I've chosen.


Album Review: Vinnie Vincent Invasion

Image courtesy Wikipedia.org

In the guitar-playing world, few players are surrounded by such mystique and reverence as Vinnie Vincent. In the year 2019, it's difficult to understand why.

Vincent is primarily known for doing two records and two tours with Kiss, first as "The Ankh Warrior" character, and then later as one of the unmasked members of Kiss during the Lick It Up period. Despite writing nearly a dozen songs between the two Kiss albums and playing guitar shockingly well (especially by Kiss standards), Vincent's personality put him at odds with Gene Simmons and Paul Stanley, and he was eventually kicked out of the band.

From there, he formed Vinnie Vincent's Invasion. Or is that merely the name of the album? It's hard to tell. Combined with the two Kiss albums, Vinnie Vincent's Invasion solidified his reputation as an amazing guitar player, even though he had already been a successful songwriter for years by that point.

Stylistically, I would place Vinnie Vincent's Invasion in the same basic category as Ronnie James Dio's solo albums, which is to say that it is a heavy metal album with a decidedly East Coast writing style and ample room for lightning-fast guitar solos. (The vocals aren't nearly on that level, however.) For the most part, the songs are mid-tempo rock songs familiar to any fans of early glam-metal, back before thrash metal had won over the metal crowd and before bands like Poison Poison-ed the well of pop metal.

Some of songs, such as "Twisted" could plausibly have been found on a Motley Crue record, albeit with that unmistakable East Coast twinge that I personally, could rather do without. The album's high point, a power ballad called "No Substitute" that evokes Cheap Trick and Journey while hinting at the power of the late 80s, sounds far less dated than the rest of the album.

Throughout the album Vincent shreds his guitar basically as hard as he can. In hindsight, it's hard to understand why he's such a revered player. His solos are certainly fast, but they're also tasteless. Vincent prefers quite a dry tone on this album, contrasting against the reverb-draped rhythm tracks. The effect makes his guitar stand out, but not in a good way. It doesn't sound like he's playing with the band, it sounds as though he's playing right on top of them. His note choice might best be described as a scramble. It's as though he's trying his hardest to cram every available note into every available solo. When it works, it can be nice. When he's not playing so fast that it becomes sloppy, he has a few interesting licks to offer the listener. Unfortunately, most of the time, he's so focused on speed that the listener misses out on a lot of the content of the solo. It reminds me a bit of the way Ted Nugent plays -- so fast and so constant that most people don't even realize he's changing keys and doing interesting things.

Now, there are a few reasons why a guitarist would be playing like that in the 80s. It very much sounds like Vincent is high on cocaine while playing these solos. I don't know whether or not that's true, I only know it sounds like it to me.

All that being said, Vinnie Vincent's Invasion is not the kind of album a music fan with a long-range vision of what music should be like will ever care to enjoy. Even as a historical curiosity, a representative moment of 80s heavy metal, the album fails to really captivate. As such, it's a great example of Vinnie Vincent himself: there is plenty of talent on display, it's just put to poor use, and ultimately unmemorable.

Having said that, this album doesn't need my approval to be legendary. Metal fans have been holding this album up as an example of greatness for years. Maybe they're right and I'm wrong. Or maybe this album really is a solid C-.


...That Can Only Be Filled By You

I am not one of those guys who complains about the time he spends with his kids. I know many such men, and I don't know whether they truly mean it. Perhaps they just feel self-conscious about admitting that they enjoy playing with dolls and having tea parties and doing kids' stuff. Perhaps they think the social expectation is that they must always want to go out with their friends and drink beer and talk about football. I have no idea why those men do what they do and complain about the time they spend with their children. I only know that I am not one of them.

I enjoy playing with my daughter and spending time with her. I enjoy reading to her, listening to music with her, playing the guitar for her. I enjoy teaching her new things and going to the playground with her. When she watches a movie, I like to sit on the couch with her; and if the cartoon movies she likes to watch hold little interest for me, I always have a book or a guitar nearby to hold my attention while we sit together. Invariably, she scoots her way right up next to me and either lays her head on my lap or holds my hand while she watches.

The contentment I feel at times like these cannot properly be described, but I'm certain that every loving parent knows what I'm referring to. There is a deep sense of love and satisfaction that comes with being loved by your own children, and it's among the best feelings in the whole human experience.

Familiar and wonderful as it is, it still managed to sneak up on me and surprise me this past weekend.

My wife has been traveling for work the last couple of weeks, leaving me alone to care for our daughter. Even before she left, my wife had a long list of things she wanted to get done before she traveled, so she was working late and going to late work functions, which left me even more responsible for giving our child the care she needs. For about three weeks, I had to take over many of the childcare responsibilities my wife and I typically split, and for two of those weeks it was just my daughter and I at home.

We made it, of course. It was a bit mentally exhausting for me, mostly because I had to keep in my mind a lot of new things associated with the tasks my wife usually takes care of. There's also another dynamic at work. When an adult spends lots of time with children, and not a lot of time interacting with adults, that adult starts to feel an odd sort of lack. It's a little bit like loneliness, but not quite. Mostly it's an unmet emotional need. Children, after all, cannot be adults for us and cannot offer us the kind of interaction that we get from adults. That's just how it is.

At long last, my wife came home from all her traveling and we all had a relaxing day together. I had promised my daughter that, the following day, we would walk to where I could buy her a doughnut. It's a two-mile walk to get there, so four miles round-trip, and my daughter is only four years old. Four miles is a long way to walk for a four-year-old! But she was willing to do it in order to get her doughnut, so we did. We walked the two miles, got a doughnut (I got a cup of coffee), we sat and enjoyed our snack, and then we walked home again. We played with our shadows on during the walk home, and we picked dandelions and blew the seeds into the air. We even stopped at a playground and played for a while. We spent the whole morning outside in the sunshine, playing together, walking, having a doughnut, and finally made it back home.

When we got home, my wife and daughter went to a baby shower, leaving me home alone for the rest of the day. They hadn't been gone more than thirty minutes when my emotions overtook me.

For the first time in about three weeks, I had no present or future obligation to my daughter. We weren't playing together or doing chores together, I didn't need to give her a bath or drive her to school. I didn't need to soothe her and comfort her for missing her mother. She was fine -- otherwise occupied -- out of sight -- being cared for by her mother. I was home, alone. For the first time in three weeks, I wasn't with my daughter, physically or mentally.

Where many men may have felt relieved, or tired, or finally free to get something done, I just felt a big hole in my heart. I missed my daughter so much, after having spent so much time with her.

Well, I spent the remainder of the day occupied by some weekly chores and a book, but I wasn't good for much else the rest of the day. I shifted around absent-mindedly as I tried to take my mind off the hole that was left when my daughter went off to a baby shower with her mother.

Eventually they came home, of course, and all was right with the world again. But the moral of this story is that children create a space in a parent's life that wasn't there before, and when they go, even for an afternoon, the void left in that space is very obvious.

This is just one of the seldom-articulated and difficultly described ways that children change a person's life for the better.


I Miss The Nineties

This morning I turned on the radio during the drive to work and heard one of my all-time favorite pop songs: "Fantasy," by Mariah Carey.

 By now, this old song -- almost twenty-five years old now! -- has been talked about and analyzed to death. There is very little left to say about it. Still, it's such a wonderful song that I must try to say a few things that have perhaps not been said about it before.

The song's lyrics tell the story of a woman who fantasizes about having a relationship with a man she barely knows in real life. That's the long and the short of it. In the first verse, she describes seeing him "every night," so perhaps at a neighborhood hangout or while she's at work. The entire remainder of the song is dedicated to describing her fantasy, which mostly consists of keeping him as a boyfriend and making love to him.

These lyrics certainly didn't win Mariah Carey a Pulizter Prize, but the way they're put together make them pack a heftier punch than the average pop song nowadays, even if the basic subject matter is no different. In "Fantasy," the narrator is in complete control of her situation. Often in similar songs, the singers describe their predicament as hopeless or painful; but in Mariah Carey's "Fantasy," we only experience joy. It's the joy of a daydream, written and recorded at a time when one could simply have a sexy daydream about somebody without wading into the politics of objectification or an analysis of what level of fantasy is appropriate.

That joy finds itself replicated in the song's music and instrumentation, and even in the song's music video. The video, directed by Carey herself, shows her in various scenes doing nothing other than singing and having fun, which is precisely analogous to the song's subject matter. We're not pining for a lover here, we're just having a daydream. Pure joy. The song's music is upbeat. The drums are driving, the bass is deep and moving, and Carey's voice is vibrant and declarative. There's not a moody note in the whole four-plus-minutes of the song.

"Fantasy" is such a shocking song to hear in today's world, where music is progressively both more dramatic and more inane. This contrast made me realize something. There is an important kind of maturity being expressed here. It's a simple, plain-faced, heart-on-my-sleeve, unabashed fantasy being had in this song, and yet we don't have to wade through all that in-your-face "Drrty" hyper-sexuality. We don't have to get a description of the fantasy itself. What's important to Carey as she sings about her fantasy isn't the collection of acts she might be imagining, but only how she feels, emotionally about her daydream. Again, it's a song about being happy.

That's being happy, as opposed to being turned-on, or wanting to advance to the next stage of a relationship, or wanting to get the guy's number, or whatever else. It's a simple description of an emotion at a point in time. In order to express an emotion at a point in time, a person has to be aware of that emotion and take ownership of it. So, in a sense, "Fantasy" is a song about a woman taking ownership of her own fun-filled emotions.

This is a far more empowering message than anything you get in modern music today. When I heard "Fantasy" this morning it almost made me weep for what society seems to have lost over the last 25 years. We've lost the mature ability to take ownership of our emotions and express them plainly and openly. And no wonder -- every attempt to do so online is met with a Twitter mob of critics who are ready to find fault with anything you've thought or said, ready to make you pay for not properly genuflecting to the right sacred altars, ready to find hidden bigotry or privilege in any simple fantasy you might express.

It's sad enough that we as human beings can no longer explore our emotions publicly and artistically in such a way, but think what it's managed to do to art itself. When our emotions are so repressed, so is our art, and repressed art just isn't that interesting.

I really miss the Nineties.


Disloyalty By Proxy

I was discussing an issue with a family member, and with a former colleague who once harassed me at work. These folks don't know each other personally, nor did they have any advanced knowledge of their relationship to me, personally, although I presume that the colleague could have easily determined my family member's relationship to me simply by clicking on her profile.

As the discussion unfolded, it became clear that both my family member and my former colleague shared roughly the same opinion on the issue being discussed, while I disagreed with that position. Over the course of the conversation, I defended my position respectfully, and my family member defended her position respectfully, too. My former colleague however -- and unsurprisingly -- became disrespectful and antagonistic toward me. The conversation soon ended after that.

I noticed that my family member had "liked" certain of the disrespectful comments written by my former colleague. This hurt me twofold. First, it hurt that my own family member would endorse a disrespectful comment aimed at me. Second, it hurt that my own family member would "take sides" with someone who once harassed me at work.

I hasten to make clear that my family member had no idea about the harassment, and I didn't bother to tell her about it, either. I don't fault her for "taking sides" with such a person, per se, because she didn't have any insight into the kind of person she was dealing with. All she knew was that she "liked" the comments with which she agreed.

Still, the situation got me thinking. When we interact on social media, we often have no broader social context beyond the narrow discussion in which we're involved. If my family member knew my former colleague and what he had done to me once upon a time, I doubt she would have so readily endorsed his words. Doing so may have given her quite a bit of pause; after all, if you know someone harasses other people, and you hear something that they say, you will likely weigh that statement differently in your own mind than you would an identical statement from someone you know does not harass other people.

Or possibly not. Perhaps my family member believes the disrespectful things the other person said; perhaps she believes much worse than that; perhaps she even believes I deserved any harassment I got. If so, at least then I'd know to place my family member and my former colleague in the same basic category.

Cognitively, it's a difficult thing to talk myself out of, even now. If you "like" and endorse most things said by a person on social media, and then you later discover that that person is a murderer, for example, would that cause you to reevaluate your endorsement of their ideas? Or, would you simply reason that even though the person is bad, the ideas are still good?

My mental prior is to favor the former. If I think someone makes a lot of sense, and then I find out that he/she is actually a horrible person, I second-guess my initial evaluation of that person's ideas, too. How much sense can a murderer make on tax policy? If someone's brain is sufficiently broken in one way, how can I be sure that it isn't also broken in some other way? How can I be sure that their tax policy views aren't in some way pathological to their respect for human life?

It's an extreme example, but it illustrates the point. If my family member regularly endorses statements by people who harass me and treat me disrespectfully, how can I be sure that that isn't a package deal? Maybe she would be willing to harass me but for our familial bond. Then, of what worth is that bond?

I've had a few other friendships fizzle out in this way, in which friends decided to endorse the positions and statements of people who attacked me. In those cases, it happened often enough that it caused me to second-guess the wisdom of the friendship. I pulled back a bit, and the friendships dissipated to nothing.

Is this right of me, or wrong of me? I honestly don't know. I know that I have never regretted spending less time with people who aren't nice to me; and I have, so far, no regrets about spending less time with people who are very friendly with the people who aren't nice to me.

We must all evaluate our relationships according to the standards we set. Thus far, this one works for me.


More Thoughts On Assertiveness

Assertive communication is one of the best skills I ever took the time to learn. It cost me a fair bit of money to hire an expert who would teach me this, but it was worth every penny; not because it generated an economic return, but because it bought me more happiness and contentment than could any other way I might have spent that money.

Under the theories that underpin assertiveness training, all communication falls into one of three categories: Aggressive, Passive, or Assertive. These categories are mutually exclusive, thus something cannot be both Aggressive and Assertive at the same time. If we define an act of communication as being Assertive, then it is by definition not one of the other two categories; and so it is for each kind of communication. (For our purposes here, communication that is "passive-aggressive" is usually one or the other; it is not both. The phrase "passive-aggressive" is an idiomatic expression that does not correspond to something in the assertiveness training world.)

Here are three statements that contain the same basic information, phrased in the three communication styles, which should help you gain a sense of what these styles are like:

Aggressive: "Listen to me!"
Passive: (No words, but stands near the other person expectantly, waiting for him to make the first move.)
Assertive: "There's something important I'd like to say to you. Is now a good time for you?"

As you can see, Aggressive and Passive communication both place the full burden on the other person, albeit each does it in a different sort of way. Assertive communication, by contrast acknowledges all possibilities plainly and attempts to work with them. "There's something important I'd like to say to you" is a neutral fact; "Is now a good time for you?" gives the other person an equal position in a cooperative attempt to have a mutual conversation.

Seen another way, aggressive and passive communication styles deal with control issues that are not present in assertive communication. Aggressive communicators attempt to control other people using domineering language and gestures. Passive communicators either feel powerless to affect anything, and thus become resentful of others' supposed refusal to acknowledge their needs, or attempt to control other people manipulatively. ("I didn't say you wouldn't listen to me, I just assumed you had no interest in hearing what I had to say…")

So, an aggressive communicator who learns assertiveness might find that he has to relinquish control in order to communicate with people. He might fear this loss of control, but remember that we are talking about things he should never have been in control of in the first place, i.e. other people's choices. Meanwhile, a passive communicator who learns assertiveness might find that the people with whom he wants to communicate are suddenly put off by his newfound assertiveness. Indeed, they might think that by no longer being a pushover or a wet blanket, he's now being aggressive or stubborn for having finally stood up for himself. As long as he doesn't involve himself in taking control of other people's choices, though, he's merely being assertive, and everyone else will simply have to learn to accept his assertiveness.

Since my own personal tendency is toward passive communication, I find this latter problem to be a regular issue. People who know me to be passive are sometimes surprised by what they perceive to be stubbornness. But it's not stubborn to stand up for yourself, provided you do so assertively and not aggressively.

How do you draw the line? It's surprisingly easy. Just keep in mind what things you are entitled to control -- yourself, your thoughts, your behaviors, your feelings -- and what things other people are entitled to control -- themselves, their thoughts, their behaviors, their feelings. Anything that involves yourself is something you can stand up for, provided you do so in plain, non-judgmental, firm, polite language. Anything that involves them is something you must leave to them. Rather than drawing a conclusion about them, ask a question and have them confirm or deny it themselves. Rather than proceed with an impression they've given you, tell them that you have an impression, and ask them if it's the correct one to have. If they didn't expressly state something to you, don't assume that they did so implicitly; instead, ask and confirm.

To people who are healthy communicators, none of this will ever be problematic. It's only among dysfunctional communicators that asking questions and verifying their thoughts and beliefs will be seen as objectionable. This is because aggressive and passive communicators expect you to read their minds and "just know." They don't expect to have to tell you outright what they think or feel. They want to hold you responsible for their thoughts and feelings instead.

As you can probably imagine, assertive communication doesn't solve all problems, and can even create conflict among people who communicate non-assertively. But it's far better than the alternative, which would be to communicate non-assertively yourself. For one thing, two wrongs don't make a right; but more importantly, assertive communication is clarifying and empowering.



I don't want to beat a dead horse on the Sandmann issue, but there is one additional thing to say, which played itself out over the last two days on my social media feed.

Once it became clear that the initial narrative of the event did not reflect true events, I expected the issue to more or less die quietly. At best, I thought perhaps conservatives would start referring to the matter as evidence in favor of "fake news," or media bias, or other such things. That's not what happened, however.

Instead, many of the people who were quick to condemn the MAGA boys tried to dig up additional dirt on them. Some posted photos of other students from the same high school, who had painted their bodies black at a sporting event. The idea was that the students were donning "blackface." The reality was that black is one of their school colors, and people paint their bodies at sporting events all the time. Someone else posted a seconds-long video clip of a group of boys alleged to be the same as Sandmann's group, shouting something unintelligible at a scowling girl, who claimed they "harassed" her. A few additional commentators pointed to problems with Sandmann's school, attempting to damn Sandmann by association.

In short, few of the people who were initially wrong about the Sandmann story ended up changing their minds, even despite conclusive evidence that they were wrong.

Now, I don't expect anyone to write an enormous mea culpa about the matter, although in truth a few commentators did just that. They should be lauded for doing so. But I don't expect that average person on Facebook to should from the pulpit that they got one wrong. That would be an unrealistic expectation; nobody does that.

What I never guessed was that people would cling to empirically falsified claims once those claims had been unambiguously falsified.

Upon observing this, I have to admit that it has taken the wind out of my sails in terms of political discussion. I've already written that people in animated debates might not even be talking about the same stuff. Now it's clear that many recent debates are fact-stasis disputes. Even with incontrovertible video evidence, two people can argue about what is really happening, even while it happens right in front of their eyes.

Given that, what is the use of debating anything at all? Nothing I might want to say will matter to anyone, and not merely because I have different values than another person, nor even because they interpret the words I use differently than I do, but rather because we can't even agree on A = A.

That's exasperating.


Stop Yelling At People For Fun

The big story over the weekend was the curious case of Nick Sandmann, a student caught on viral video wearing a "Make America Great Again" hat and smirking at a singing Native American man who was beating a drum. The whole episode constitutes a lesson in what is wrong with (a) the news media, (b) Twitter mobs, (c) the culture of political protest, and (d) the culture of political commentary.

First, let's review the facts. Initially, a short video was posted online somewhere, and an attached comment claimed that a group of white teenagers were chanting "build the wall" with their Trump hats, and that they then surrounded a group of Native Americans and got in their faces. Later, a series of longer videos appeared that made obvious the fact that the situation was quite different. What really happened was that the MAGA teenagers were killing time after being part of some pro-life Catholic protest, and in doing so came across some fringe group of African-American bigots who started calling them homosexual epithets and saying things that, by all accounts, are pretty bizarre. (For example, they told one of the MAGA boys that the others were going to harvest his organs. That's crazy.) Finally, a third group of protestors -- a Native American group whose goals were not clear to me -- decided to walk up to the MAGA boys for some reason; one of them grabbed a drum and beat it in student Nick Sandmann's face, while Sandmann stood there, trying to put on a defiant face of calm composure.

In short, we were initially lead to believe that the MAGA teens were the agitators; it turns out that they were the real victims here, victims of two other groups who decided to get in their faces and agitate them.

In the wake of the first video, the one that made the boys out to be the antagonists, many news media reports simply piled on without bothering to investigate the full set of facts. I could talk about media bias or about lazy journalism, but what we all really know is that getting the facts wrong, right out of the gate, serves the media's purpose better than getting the facts right would have. By getting things wrong in the first place, the media has created a more dramatic news cycle; more drama equals more clicks, more clicks equals more ad revenue, more ad revenue equals more bad reporting. Think about it: If I tell you something completely false on Day 1, then I get to write another article on Day 2 that merely questions the initial falsehood. On Day 3, I get to validate the additional facts coming in, and then finally on Day 4, I get to write a concluding article with all the right information in it. Then I also get to write a series of op-ed pieces reckoning with "society's" tendency to latch-on to first impressions and come to biased conclusions.

In this way, the media plays on our sense of outrage in order to stretch a single day of click revenue into a full, week-long news cycle, with all the clicks and impressions that entails. And, by participating in those clicks, we reward the news media for that very behavior and ensure that it will happen again next time.

The second most guilty party in this fiasco is the culture of political protest. If you've never participated in or attended a political protest, you likely have no idea what this culture is all about. But if you have, then you understand full well that this is a subset of people who think it's fun to spend an afternoon yelling at people. That should tell you everything you need to know about them. Think how preposterous it is that a school would sponsor a field trip to Washington DC, where the kids will all get together and yell about abortion. That's not education, that is madness. While I don't think the MAGA teens should have been subjected to what they've gone through, perhaps next time they will be a little more circumspect about what they can expect from an afternoon of political activism. Yelling at people for fun will get you all riled-up. So, when you're finished with your "fun," and meet a bunch of people who have become similarly all riled-up, you can probably expect conflict. If you're not expecting it, you're not very self-aware. Hopefully these kids have learned a valuable lesson, and they don't grow up to be anything like the people in the other two protest groups. The people in those two groups obviously seek out differently minded groups to go yelling at. And the result is what you see this week.

Twitter mobs -- a term I'll apply to any social media outrage mob -- also have this proclivity toward yelling at people for fun. That's the main reason I stopped using Twitter: I don't think yelling at people is fun. I don't think snarking at people is fun. I don't think apoplexy is mentally healthy, much less entertaining, and anyone who actively fosters that kind of thing in their own lives -- indeed, in their leisure time -- is, in my opinion, insane. It is far more productive to use your leisure time to foster healthy relationships, get outside, create some art, move your body around, than it is to find things on the internet to yell about or prove wrong.

Many political commentators I follow on social media were quick to take sides. Those who did so early on had a lot of egg on their faces. One rather famous libertarian commentator mentioned that he'd like to punch the kid, and put forth that the kid was a clear example of "toxic masculinity." That commentator now has to retreat into a bit of soul-searching, and I hope he finds it productive, because this is not the first time he's jumped the gun on fake news. Others are smugly presenting the fact that the initial story was wrong as proof of how dumb the reactionaries are. I'm not sure this is a productive response, either, though. Ultimately, they're all just piling-on.

So, what am I doing here? Am I just piling on? Maybe I am. What I think I'm trying to say is this: Stop reading the news; stop participating in the media's use of outrage-marketing to turn minor events into major news cycles; stop yelling at people for fun; stop using social media to make yourself angry.

Go outside, get some sunlight on your face. Breathe deeply. Play some music or draw a picture or read a book. Spend some time improving your relationships with other people. Spend your time wisely on things that make you happy. Life is so short and so precious. Don't waste it on this kind of nonsense. Learn to recognize when you're being played, and run like hell from it. Run into the welcoming arms of the love of your life and stay in that embrace for an hour. That's an hour well spent.


Book Review: Robert Jordan — “Lord of Chaos”

Image courtesy Wikipedia.org

There is much to say about this book. Book six of the Wheel of Time series is by far the least action-packed of all the preceding books. Instead of action, Jordan decided to make this book more about political intrigue. For some, this means the book might be considered “slow” or “boring,” but not to me. In fact, I found all the intrigue exciting and interesting.

One of the things that stood out to me while reading this book was the way Jordan’s writing style evolved throughout the series. By book number six, Jordan had settled on a rather cinematic writing style, by which I mean that many of the scenes he wrote evoke scenes in a movie, and serve much the same purpose. It’s a pleasant way to tell a story, and an especially nice way to build characters and settings. I appreciated that in the book.

My criticism of “Lord of Chaos” is that this book is perhaps the least complete of the series so far. Despite its over-one-thousand pages, the book manages to simply advance the Wheel of Time series. It does not tell a stand-alone story. The book could not be read by a newcomer; the reader absolutely must have read the preceding books to understand this one. And that same reader will have to wait to the next book to have any aspects of the plot resolved. I understand that writers of series must give the reader incentives to read the whole series, but if a writer can’t tell a “complete tale” in one thousand pages, then this starts to speak to the quality of the writing itself.

Like the previous installment, “Lord of Chaos” suffers from a bad title. There is no Lord of Chaos in the book. I don’t even know who “lord of chaos” is supposed to refer to. One might think that the events in the book are a sort of “chaos,” I suppose, but not really. It really seems to be a title pulled out of thin air, only because it fits the ambiance of the story. It certainly refers to nothing within the book itself.

Despite its shortcomings, though, it’s a good book. I enjoyed the intrigue, and I’m looking forward to the next book in the series.


We Might Be Talking About Different Things

If there has been a common thread to all my abstract thoughts lately, it has been my growing awareness of the fact that people often use the same language to mean very different things. I recently blogged about the case of "enlightenment," for example, and success, and about pride.

An important benefit of language is that it gives us a common language with which to describe things and convey ideas in a way that transcends individual experience. This does come at a cost, though, which is the fact that some people will describe, say, "maroon" in the context of purple, while others will describe it in the context of red. In fact, "marron" in Spanish and French means brown! In the end, linguistic precision is a hopeless case. People will choose words and phrases that resonate with them despite how those same words and phrases resonate with others.

The result is… mass confusion.

Consider the sad case of feminism, for example. Much as some would prefer otherwise, "feminism" is a word with baggage. Academically, especially in North America and Europe, it is a word that is strongly associated with Marxism and Critical Theory, neither of which are necessary for achieving equality of the sexes. (Let's leave aside any debate about the merits of both Marxism and Critical Theory today.) Thus, the context in which many English-speakers are likely to discuss feminism is decorated with a rich backdrop of theoretical tangents that are superfluous to specific policy questions.

That's perfectly tolerable, and often reasonable (though not ideal), until a person finds herself discussing feminism in the  context of, say, the Indian Sub-Continent. There, the relevant issues are not "man-spreading" and "boys will be boys." There, the relevant issues are Eve-teasing, gang rape, and the sad refusal of some parents to allow their daughters to use tampons. Elsewhere in the world, the relevant issues are female genital mutilation and child brides.

For better or for worse, women in Africa and India use the same feminist language as academics in the West. Still, despite both parties' discussing female equality broadly construed, they couldn't possibly be having more dissimilar conversations. The right to leave your body unmutilated is nothing whatsoever like the right to be taken seriously at a business meeting. It's just not. The language of the discussion might be the same, the terms might be the same, but the specific conversation being had is quite different.

The greatest level of confusion arises when two people attempt to have the same conversation, because they're using the same words, and end up unwittingly having completely different conversations, neither party realizing what's happening even as it happens.

Imagine discussing wedding colors with a French wedding planner. You say that you'd like your wedding colors to be white and "a rich and beautiful maroon," and your wedding planner tries to talk you out of it. Maroon is not a good wedding color, she says. It's unique, but quite unconventional and perhaps even quite ugly to some. You become offended that she called your idea ugly. You both go back and forth and tempers flare. Neither of you realizes that you've been arguing over different colors. You meant something closer to burgundy, and she meant something closer to chocolate brown. This is why wedding planners use reference cards to discuss color, of course.

Still, that argument is trivial compared to the arguments I've seen on social media regarding "toxic masculinity." This emotionally charged phrase means something different to those who oppose "toxic masculinity" than it does to those who feel opposed by the use of that same phrase. One group of people uses the phrase to denote behaviors in men that tend to victimize women; the other group sees that phrase a means to criticize all men for doing harmless things that men like to do, like being competitive and rowdy. In truth, people ought to avoid and condemn behaviors that tend to victimize women… AND… people ought not be criticized for being competitive and rowdy, if that's how they like to be. But neither conversation has anything to do with the other. They are two different conversations. Those who do not take the time to acknowledge how other people are using and interpreting the same phrase are condemned to have endless, meaningless arguments with people who misunderstand them equally.

…which, I suppose, is punishment enough for refusing to go through the exercise we've all just gone through now. Take the time to understand exactly what people mean, even if they're using words you think are specific. You might be wrong about how they're using them, which means they might be right about what they're saying. You just have to find out first.


A Writer

I've maintained a blog for nearly nine years. I've contributed posts to other people's blogs many times throughout that timespan. I've written some more formal articles for online publication. Professionally, I've written a number of formal pieces, published within industry. I've contributed to academic articles. I've written lyrics and rhymes my whole life. And, occasionally, I write short stories. Considering all that, I suppose I can fairly make the claim that I am a writer.

I don't claim that everything I write is good, nor do I claim that I am a professional. Given the sheer volume of words I have committed to some form of publication, however, there is simply no getting around it. I am a writer.

Larissa MacFarquhar is also a writer. I recently read the transcript of a conversation she had with Tyler Cowen, and it got me thinking. Throughout the interview, she interjects small details of her own beliefs about what constitutes great writing. It's clear that she loves the small nuances contained in the way individuals choose to phrase things. It's clear she's drawn to prose, but not from the standpoint of seeking the ideal way of expressing a thing. Rather, MacFarquhar seems attracted to a person's communicative individuality. That's a strong asset for a person who profiles other people for a living, as she does. It's clear, or at least plausible, that she has risen to her level of career success in part from having an asset like that.

A fixation on the way written prose is constructed, an attention to detail with respect to the poetry of the act of writing, is something I have noticed that many writers have. Being wordsmiths themselves, they seem to delight in the act of wordsmithing, almost as a spectator sport. They can find the uniqueness of the way that somebody did it, and analyze it carefully until it is much more than less attentive people would ever have known. This strikes me as being very natural and normal. Of course it would be so.

Yet, this is an attribute I have never shared with other writers. Don't get me wrong, I appreciate the linguistic acrobatics of James Joyce and the sublime perfection of Herman Melville's prose. Anyone could love that. I, however, don't tend to notice lesser prose. If you gave me five generic magazine writers and asked me to rank-order the quality of their prose, I'd be able to do it, but I'd be splitting hairs. Unless I see a Shakespeare or a Melville, I don't tend to notice the distinctness of a writer's prose.

Nor do I have any such obsession about my own writing. Over the past year, I have been slightly more diligent about the way my sentences are constructed. I second-guess my use of passive voice more often now than before, although I give myself greater license to use it. I make a point of avoiding repetitious vocabulary. I'll rearrange my adjectives and adverbs until they bounce a little more lightly on the tongue. This is all in service of trying to avoid sounding like a technical manual when I write. I want my written sentences to approximate the lightness of the thoughts than inspired them; even if I never reach it, I think it's important to try. I may not really have any readers other than ye Russian bots, but if someone accidentally happens upon one of my blog posts, I'd prefer they enjoyed their accident.

But, I repeat, this does not come from a place of prose-obsession. I am not hunting for the world's greatest metaphor or patting myself on the back for writing seven consecutive sentences in which all the adjectives trace their etymological roots to Sanskrit. Conceptually, that would be kind of cool, but it's just not my bag.

So, I lack an obsession I've noticed that many successful writers have. I am not particularly interested in an aspect of writing that appears highly correlated to commercial success as a writer. Were I to form a Bayesian prior about that fact, it would be that this makes me unlikely to ever be a successful writer. On the other hand, it's not clear to me at all that successful writers are those who possess this obsession. What about Dan Brown, for example? His prose isn't particularly swell -- in fact, I don't happen to like it at all -- and yet he is one of the most successful writers of my lifetime. And no one read Fifty Shades of Grey for its deft use of iambic pentameter. Those writers who are capable of tapping into the fiction market zeitgeist may not need to be great writers from a mere technical standpoint. Maybe they just need to have a good story to tell.

It's hard to definitely say what makes a writer good. Given that writing is an art, perhaps "good writing" just means there is something in it that speaks to the reader on a personal level. Good writing may in fact be the opposite of blog writing; blog writing happens when a writer writes about something the speakers to the writer on a personal level, and hopes that the reader finds a sentence or two to quote and hyperlink-to.

I don't know if I'm a good writer or a bad one, and it might not be for me to say. But I do know that I'm a writer, I've been writing, and I'm trying to polish that ability a little bit in hopes of having something to say in the future. We shall see.


Free Advertising

A little while back, some academics published a paper on moral grandstanding, which they defined as being any attempt to turn public discourse into a vanity project. That's a nice definition of what moral grandstanding is, because it sets out that there is valid public discourse, and then there is discourse that reaches a point at which all a person is doing is proclaiming their own moral superiority, and that latter thing  is blameworthy.

There's a similar concept I apply to my own life all the time. If I'm trying to solve a problem, or convey my feelings to someone, or argue for my way of things, that's a good -- or at least neutral -- thing. But, if what I'm doing ventures into resentment, then I've crossed the line. So, arguing with my wife about how we should invest our money is probably a worthwhile argument to have, unless I'm just using that argument as an excuse to lord something over her or needle her about something. Lecturing my daughter, or giving her a "time-in" or something when she does something wrong is normal and good parenting; but punishing her for the sake of punishing her, or rehashing old acts of misbehavior over and over, is resentful and should be avoided. Or, comparing my way of doing things with the way my neighbors do things is probably fine; but smugly declaring the superiority of my way is resentful and should be avoided.

You get the picture.

In both of the above examples, we have a situation in which we choose to differentiate between making a point because something can be learned, and making a point for the sake of some underlying negative emotion we're feeling. It's not always easy to know when you're doing which thing. It takes a good deal of practice and a large dose of self-awareness to identify when you're doing something for the wrong reasons, especially when what you're doing is perfectly fine when you're doing it for the right reasons. It's hard; it's complex; it's nuanced.

The reason I bring all this up is because this week the internet is talking about a company that decided to weigh in on a hot-button political issue in one of its advertisements. It is perfectly fine for a company to participate in public discourse, as far as I'm concerned. That company can do so at its own risk, knowing that not all of its customers will agree with the company's chosen message. But there is nothing to say that a company should not participate in public discourse.

That being said, it makes quite a bit of difference why a company chooses to do so. To argue for human dignity is a praiseworthy thing, if one is doing it from a place of conviction. If one is doing it merely to sell products, then it becomes disingenuous and also crass.

Disingenuousness is bad, because it erodes the customer's faith in the company's own words. That is, if the company doesn't voice its own core beliefs honestly, and instead voices whatever widely held belief will sell the most products, then the customer can credibly wonder what else the company is willing to lie about. Maybe everything.

Crassness is bad because it makes light of people's deeply held beliefs. Whatever we happen to believe about the issue the company is advertising about, we take it for granted that some things are important enough to avoid being used. It's good to be a shoulder to cry on, for example, unless your ultimate goal is to secure a date with the person you're comforting. Your ulterior motives make your consolation morally blameworthy, and so it goes for the company who voices a political opinion with the goal of selling products.

So, I'm not going to voice an opinion on the issue of masculinity today, because it hardly matters. What matters is that companies don't manipulate the public dialogue in order to SELL SELL SELL. It's gross.


Pace Progress

I inevitably measure my fitness against the peaks and valleys of my past experiences. How fit am I now, compared to the fittest I've ever been? How poorly am I performing now compared to the worst I've ever felt? If I'm injured, how does this injury compare to noteworthy injuries of the past? Those kinds of comparisons bubble up any time I am focused on my health and fitness.

For running, the best period of comparison for me was the year immediately following my "retirement." Sick of competing for other people, I stopped timing my runs and just started doing stuff that seemed fun to me. I'd try to get lost in the suburbs. I'd run deep into the mountains until the trails stopped. I'd go thirty miles at a time, in -10 degree temperatures or worse, wearing shorts, to see if I could make it the whole way without freezing my tail off. The joy of experimentation and freedom, combined with my tendency to run harder than I needed to, helped me reach a level of fitness I've remembered ever since.

I remember one day during that time period, when I went home to visit my parents, and my father asked me to go running with him. Or, perhaps I asked if I could come along with him. Whichever the case, we headed out. For his age and his commitment to running, my father was a good runner at the time. He regularly placed in his age division at road races, and ran strongly and consistently almost every day. Still, he was of course no match for me, so when we went out running together, it wasn't a race. I spent most of my time concentrating on holding way back, so that I could match his pace rather than induce him to run faster than he otherwise would have. It was tough going that day because my natural pace was so much faster than his. By the end of the run, he had commented many times that we were going much faster than he usually ran, and meanwhile I felt almost as though I could walk as fast as we were running. When we finally finished, my father checked his watch and reported that we had run at about seven minutes per mile pace.

This is a mental benchmark for me, because it signifies a period in my life when running as slowly as I possibly could resulted in 7:00/mile.

A couple of weeks back, I started committing to running a little faster during my daily runs. There was really no reason not to. I didn't understand why I was suddenly running my daily runs as slow as 7:30/mile pace. I wanted to reclaim some of my old speed. So, I started running much faster. What I discovered, as previously reported, was that it wasn't all that more difficult to run fast as opposed to running slowly. So why not run fast?

Well, I'm pleased to report that I took an easy run yesterday -- I was tired, and didn't feel much like running at all, but I convinced myself that I could go for at least a three-mile easy run -- and that easy run clocked in at 6:45/mile pace. I'm pleased with my progress. If my easy runs are coming in at 6:45, then it means my average pace really is getting faster, and that's progress.

It just goes to show you that sometimes, if you give yourself a little push, you can do much better than you think you can.


On Politics' Not Being About Policy

The refrain "politics isn't about policy," which I believe was coined by Robin Hanson, packs a lot of information into a small amount of space. It has taken me a long time to appreciate the dense wisdom contained in that seemingly straightforward aphorism, but I think I've finally managed to absorb it all.

Take, for example, the notion that the rich should pay more in taxes. The question isn't really a matter of policy. Why not? Because no one who thinks taxes should be raised on the rich has any specific notion of what that tax rate actually ought to be. Scott Sumner recently posted on this, and it's clear from his post that some of the people who want the rich to pay more prefer a maximum tax rate that is actually lower than the one that presently exists! In other words, "the rich should pay more in taxes" is the whole of most people's beliefs about taxes. They do not have any specific policy in mind. Whatever you tell them about how much the rich already pay, they will always be in favor of "more." It's not a matter of policy, it's a matter of sentiment. It's a description of how people feel toward the rich, not a description of what they think the IRS should do.

Immigration is another example. A lot of people favor putting up a border wall. This perspective is a little silly because people aren't immigrating -- legally or illegally -- for lack of physical barriers. If the border wall is completed, then would-be immigrants will simply find a way around the wall, or over it, or under it. The wall itself is meaningless. It's not really about the wall, it's about describing a person's sentiment. That sentiment is that they don't want Spanish-speaking immigrants, Arab-speaking immigrants, or African immigrants coming into the United States.

There are many reasons why people don't want this, and all of them are bad reasons. Why do I say they're bad reasons? Because they are non-specific. When people lament that immigrants take welfare money, they're not suggesting that the US adopt new policies on welfare. When people lament that immigrants cause crime, they're not suggesting that the US adopt new policies on crime. When people lament that immigrants steal jobs, they're not suggesting that the US implement new economic policies. The immigration debate is not about any policy at all. It's merely a description of a sentiment.

Granted, people like myself, who believe that the rich should be taxed less, and that the US not build a crazy, anti-people wall are arguing similarly. I have no idea what the right tax rate "should" be. I have no opinion on how many people "should" be allowed into the United States. It's exactly the same for me, I'm not arguing for a specific policy, I'm just arguing for "lower taxes," no matter how low they are, and "more immigrants," no matter how many we already have. It’s not about policy for me, either.

The closest I can get to formulating an opinion about policy is this: I think taxes are too high in general, and ought to be slowly lowered, percentage point by percentage point, until we maximize the utility gains from doing so. Similarly with immigration: I think we ought to reduce barriers to immigration point by point until we maximize all utility gains from immigration.

But it's still not a policy debate, it's just a worldview debate. Funnily enough, it's harder to convince people to change their world view than it is to convince them to favor a particular policy. So perhaps political debates would end better if we discussed policy rather than politics.


Understanding And Using Strava's Relative Effort Score

Strava's "Relative Effort" score, which is available to those of us dorky enough to subscribe to their premium membership, is an interesting piece of data to think about.

While the exact formula for calculating Relative Effort is one of Strava's proprietary secrets, they readily acknowledge that it is based on the athlete's heart rate during exercise. When you click on your Relative Effort score for a particular activity (from the browser-based user portal), you are taken to an analysis of heart rate. Specifically, you're given a bar graph, by Heart Rate Zone, of percentage of time spent in each Zone. You're given extra points for time spent "in the red," which any time you spend in Heart Rate Zones 4 or 5. (This is all based on a 5-zone approach.)

Those of you familiar with the fitness industry will recognize this principle immediately. It's the "theory" behind Orange Theory Fitness, ie., you'll get a more worthwhile workout if you spend time in the "orange" zone, which is usually designated Heart Rate Zone 4. (Zone 5 is usually shown in "red," and constitutes the athlete's maximum effort.)

Needless to say (I hope), neither Strava nor Orange Theory Fitness innovated this approach to working out. Targeting Heart Rate Zone 4 a few times per week has been a regular part of heart rate zone training for as long as people have been grouping their heart rates into "zones."

A year ago, as I built up my aerobic capacity, I noticed that over time workouts that covered the same distance and speed were getting "easier" from the standpoint that my average heart rate was getting lower. I might have run 5 miles at 6:45/mile pace every day for a month, but at the beginning of the month I'd spend 10 minutes, say, in Zone 4, whereas at the end of the month I might have only spent 1 or 2 minutes in that zone. This signifies an increase in my aerobic fitness level, but not the fitness of my legs. More on that in a bit.

In order to get at that information last year, I had to watch my Heart Rate Zone diagrams on my Garmin Connect app. Every day, I'd check the bar graph and visually confirm where my average heart rate was going. It was imprecise, but close enough for rock and roll. To improve on that, I may have graphed maximum heart rate during exercise over time, grouping by similar distances, and checked for a downward-sloping trend line. That's not impossible, of course, but it is a little convoluted.

Strava's Relative Effort score works much better. Charting that one number over time gives you insight into how your training is progressing. Indeed, this is the graph that Strava calls your "Fitness" graph. Remember, Relative Effort involves the total amount of time you spend in each Heart Rate Zone, so even if you only spend all your time in Zone 1, 10 minutes is worth more than 5 minutes. So it combines both aerobic effort and total time spent training, which also functions as a proxy for weekly mileage.

Thus, if your aerobic fitness improves, but you do not increase your weekly mileage, then you could plausibly see your Fitness level drop, since you'll either spend less time in higher Heart Rate Zones, or less total time exercising (since you'd be running the same number of miles faster). The only way to increase your Fitness level (that's capital-F Fitness, ie. Strava's "Fitness" number) is to run more miles or run the same number of miles in higher Heart Rate Zones (or both).

Strava's website isn't good at explaining this at all! They give you general information about Relative Effort, heart rate zones, and "Power" (for cyclists), but they don't have any explanation that brings it all together so that you can use your personal Fitness chart. If I hadn't have figured it out, I likely would have cancelled my premium Strava subscription, since without a good explanation, the data is essentially useless. Chalk another one up to the uselessness of the way our data is served back to us by the tech industry.

No, that's not quite fair. Relative Effort is a really good number -- for once, we've been given something that is actually highly useful. Unfortunately, it's just not presented in a way that is readily usable to anyone except people like myself, data geeks who are already quite accustomed to probing the data deeply.

Hopefully the above explanation helps you more than Strava's online materials.