Getting Sick And Using Technology

Here's a little introspection for you.

I came down with a cold this week, which finally "hit me" on Monday, but which didn't really get going until Wednesday.

As a brief aside, let me make an observation about myself. For most of my life, when I got a cold, I got a cold. It was what it was. A few years ago, however, my colds started behaving differently. Instead of just getting a cold, I'll often have several days of constant post-nasal drip that requires constant "management" in order to prevent severe sore throats and chest congestion. And that's before the cold itself ever really "hits." Why does this happen now? Why did it never happen before? I cannot figure out why the behavior of every cold I get would suddenly change. There must be some medical explanation for this, but I haven't been able to find it.

Anyway, the cold finally got going on Wednesday. I woke up with a massive headache, and my head and ears felt… mushy. In the past, I've used the following analogy: It felt like my head was full of oatmeal. But in this case, my head seemed to be stuffed so full of oatmeal that I could scarcely think. I wandered around in a daze. I forced fluids, slept, lied about on the couch watching movies, drank many several cans of chicken broth, and so on. When I adhere to this kind of regimen, my cold symptoms will usually have subsided by the following morning.

Unfortunately, that's not what happened. I woke up Thursday morning with an even more massive headache and, incomprehensibly, more proverbial oatmeal stuffed into my skull. I was miserable. I was coughing, and each cough was unbearably painful on my throat. My nose was full of congestion. My ears felt infected. I couldn't stay awake for more than a couple of hours at a time. My blood sugar was off the charts. I guzzled a gallon of water well before noon, and kept drinking tea, water, and chicken broth throughout the day. It was truly awful.

Somehow, by about noon on Thursday, my cough had become less painful and more productive, which enabled me to rid myself of some of that oatmeal. I took a nap in a bathtub full of hot water and eucalyptus oil. I managed to take a two-mile walk to get some sunlight and fresh air, and to help reduce my blood sugar. Then I cooked myself a small, low-carb meal and took an extra insulin correction while forcing more fluids throughout the night. By bedtime, I had normal blood sugar again and was starting to see the light at the end of the tunnel.

I woke up this morning feeling much better. Not healthy, mind you, but better. Most of the coughing and runny nose is gone. There's still a little congestion, and a prevailing sense of weakness and mental haze, but I can tell that my body is climbing up out of the hole, rather than falling down in it.

As you might imagine, one of the most frustrating aspects of having a cold like this is not being able to work out. I missed my half marathon workouts on Wednesday and Thursday. Today is supposed to be a cross-training day, and because cycling take much less effort than running, I may head out on the bicycle after work. I don't want to over-do it, of course, but it's a balancing act. Too little activity pushes my blood sugar up so high than I cannot fight the illness; too much will prolong the congestion and malaise. A 15-20 mile afternoon bike ride seems like just the ticket to me.

But not being able to do a workout is one thing. Not being able to log a workout on Strava and Garmin is another thing entirely! One of the downsides of "gamifying" your workouts is that if for some reason you find yourself simply unable to work out, you lose the game. This is unlike a traditional game, where you can generally save your progress and leave it until you can get back to it. With fitness games, the more you work out, the more you win; the less you work out, the more you lose. It's a useful environment when all ceteris is paribus, but when you're sick, it sure would be nice to be able to save the game. Meanwhile, all my Strava connections are posting great workouts and look like they're having lots of fun. I'm missing out.

During times like these, it's important to remind yourself that being sick is simply part of the game. No one avoids all illness, all the time. Training for a half marathon takes, in my case, sixteen weeks. It's unlikely that a non-professional athlete will ever find 112 uninterrupted days of training. Life happens. Sometimes you're sick, sometimes you have to meet a family or work commitment, sometimes you miss a flight, and so on.

It's easy to get caught up in the notion that, because you planned your life for 112 days, if your plans become disrupted for some reason, then you've ruined the 112 days. It's a plan, not a reality. The reality is that we intend to do a series of workouts, or meet a schedule of obligations. The best way to meet a schedule is to master the ability of rescheduling when life inevitably happens. Or, in the case of training for a specific event, like I am, accepting that I had to miss a few days of training because I was sick.

What's funny is that when I was at my most competitive level of training, I never felt as though missing a day -- or even a week -- was a compromise to my whole season. It might have been a frustrating setback, but I never thought, "Well, now I'll never be ready for regionals!" It's an outgrowth of this digitized, gamified, social media approach to fitness that missed days start to offset things on the digital experience and mess up your training.

And, to that end, we come to an important truth about the role of technology in our lives. I am an enormous technophile. Whatever the new technology, I say bring it on and let society progress. The more, the better. I love technology. And yet, we still need to be able to draw a line where technology ends and life begins. Technology ought to be a tool that improves human existence, not a constraint that dictates how we live.

It's not as if cavemen invented the hammer and then stopped building things that couldn't be built with hammers. Hammers are wonderful; hammers are important; but hammers are just one technology and if something cannot be hammered, then we need to be able to either choose a different tool or work with no tool at all. The same is true for digital fitness technology. I think this technology has been wonderful for sports like running, swimming, and cycling; I think it has improved the quality of my training and the efficacy of my workouts. But I'm not running for the technology or even through the technology. I'm merely using the technology.

So, if I happen to catch a cold, my various "apps" might not be able to capture that aspect of training; but no big deal. I can take the time to recuperate and then re-join my training schedule wherever it is when I feel up to it again. Just like I did before all this training technology existed in the first place.


Against Quixotic Appeals To Principle

What you’re about to read is a specific complaint that generalizes. I’ll describe a particular kind of situation, and then I’ll explain how the same sentiment can be found elsewhere, and ought to be eliminated.

I’ve heard many people on many occasions lament Valentine’s Day as a “corporatist” holiday or a “made-up” holiday, or etc. They don’t want to celebrate Valentine’s Day because they don’t want to submit to a consumerist sham that obliges them to be romantic with their significant other, merely for the financial gain of Big Greeting Card. When pressed, these folks will often say something to the effect of, “I don’t need a designated day for being romantic. I can be romantic any day at all.” So, the argument goes, screw Valentine’s Day.

Here’s my real simple, two-penny argument against that. I get to be romantic with my wife 365 days in a year, while those people who are against Valentine’s Day only get to be romantic with their significant others, at most, 364 days in a year.

365 > 364, ergo my way is better.

Stop being a stubborn jerk and celebrate Valentine’s Day. Don’t do it for Big Greeting Card, do it for your significant other.

Now, this kind of “hot take” approach to defeating time-tested social rituals might get you a few page impressions on BuzzardFeed or whatever, but it’s ruining your life, one day at a time. First, it ruins Valentine’s Day; but that’s not one day of your life, that’s one day of your life multiplied by however many years your life lasts. The next day this sentiment ruins is your wedding day, which you refuse to plan because you’re convinced that “I don’t need a piece of paper to prove my love to somebody.” Then it ruins your wedding night and the day after your wedding, two irreplaceable unique human experiences that you don’t get to know about, because you’re convinced weddings are antiquated. Then, this sentiment ruins every single day of the honeymoon you didn’t take, followed by every wedding anniversary you’re never going to have.

But hey, some say, it’s your life. No big deal. The only problem is that if you decide to raise a child, then that child also gets to have his or her Valentine’s Days ruined, and he or she gets the honor of awkwardly explaining to all his or her classmates that he/she has a mom and a dad, but they’re not married, and they’re not divorced, and they live together, but um... they don’t think they need a piece of paper to signify their love to society. So a whole bunch of that kid’s days are ruined, too, times however many kids you decide to raise, up until the point they decide they want to perpetuate your cynicism onto the next generation, or until they finally declare that enough is enough and they’re going to start celebrating Valentine’s Day no matter what you say.

Of course, we’re really just scratching the surface here. Many of the same people who are against Valentine’s Day and the institution of marriage are also against monogamy. So their significant others not only get to be not-married for the rest of their lives, but they also get to enjoy the knowledge that you’re not really committed to them in any sort of exclusive sense of the term. You have crushes on other people and you talk about your crushes with your significant other. Boy, I bet that’s a fun convo, too. But your significant other need not worry too much about any of that if he or she is “truly secure in the relationship,” whatever that means to you.

And so on, down the list of social institutions you get to theoretically object to on some flimsy principle, until each and every one of your days is so full of non-commital cynicism that absolutely everything human civilization developed over the course of twenty thousand years gets a big fat “meh.”

At that point, what’s left to do but plop onto the couch and binge-watch Netflix. Now you’re living!


Garmin Delivers A Timely Warning

On Sunday, I set out to run for 105 minutes in Zone 2. I did indeed run the full 105 minutes, and then some, but I ran so slowly that I was very disappointed in my workout. After the first two or three miles, my heart rate didn't want to come down below about 154 beats per minute, which is just barely in the Zone 3 range. No matter how slowly I ran, my heart rate stayed up. By the end of the 105 minutes, I had only run 13.5 miles, and had done so a lot more slowly than I would have preferred.

Interestingly enough, five miles into my run it had already become clear to me that I was running a slower-than-normal pace and that my heart rate was elevated. So, I decided to mostly ignore my heart rate, and just focus on running with good form and a pace that felt relaxed to me. Even so, it didn't help. My heart rate stayed elevated, my pace remained slow, and by the end of the run, I felt awful. I felt badly because running slow is hard on the muscles and joints. A part of me wants to "trust the process" of training according to this fitness program, and another part of me wants to delete the workouts and run at my own pace. I could go either way on that, at this point.

Over the weekend, my 7-day Training Load hit 1,055, which is enormous. On Strava, my weekly Relative Effort was 721. That's almost 100 points higher than my highest-mileage week in years, which was two weeks ago, and almost 300 points higher than last week's score. That's a big increase, by anyone's algorithm. Perhaps Sunday's poor performance is simply a result of having had such a big increase in my mileage. To put this in perspective, I ran more miles last week with a rest day than I ran two weeks ago without a rest day. Hefty.

Or, perhaps my bad running day was just an unfortunate combination of unexpectedly hot, humid, and sunny weather combined with unexpectedly high post-breakfast blood sugar. I was also incredibly nervous for my big long run, for some reason, and it's possible that I somehow managed to "psyche-myself-out." I was pacing around the house a bit, too; maybe all that walking before my workout tired my legs out. Or maybe it was just a really crumby day, and there's nothing more to it than that.

What's interesting, however, is that Garmin was telling me that my training level was "Unproductive" on Saturday night, the night before my terrible long run. In terms of data, Garmin's algorithm said this because my VO2 max estimate had fallen by one point, from 61 to 60. As I wrote the other day, it's unlikely that my "true VO2 max" fell over the course of a day, and it's hard to say that a decrease from 61 to 60 is a meaningful decrease, anyway. But Garmin's algorithms seem to have detected something, because whatever changes they found were reported only a few hours shy of a really terrible run. That strikes me as being significant.

For Strava's part, they are reporting that my fitness level is higher than it's been in months, and that my fatigue level is almost as high as it's ever been. So all the data I see is consistent with all the other data -- nobody's "getting it wrong." But Garmin did a better job at an early prediction.

The accuracy and relevance of this early prediction increases my confidence in what Garmin is telling me. It's one thing to get a bunch of data reported at you and to look for training clues. It's quite another thing to get a piece of very useful feedback at the exact moment it is relevant to your training regimen. Garmin nailed it for me this week. I will pay much closer attention to what it says from now on, at least until they start getting it wrong.


A Theory Of Why People Treat Me Differently Now

A while back, I wrote about the fact that people treat me differently now that I have long hair. I don't really know why this is true, but here's a theory.

For almost all of my life, I have been decidedly different from other people. I like different kinds of music, I like different kinds of food. I prefer more individual sports, most of which make for bad television, and thus don't tend to be fodder for water cooler conversation. I like finding my own way of doing things, rather than learning what everyone else is doing and repeating it. I don't obsess over whether I "fit in" at work, and I never did at school. I've always been comfortable doing my own thing, playing alone if I must, resisting unwanted peer pressure, and so on.

For most of my life, this has served me quite well. Avoiding peer pressure kept me entirely out of risky adolescent and young adult situations. I've never had a problem with drugs, and I've never let social norms or pressures dictate my romantic relationships. My preference for individual sports like running eventually lead to many several high school track and cross-country records, a top-ten ranking, a full-ride scholarship to a Division-1A NCAA university, and a varsity letter there. My preference for funny intellectual pursuits lead to some good academic choices that, in turn, lead to a satisfactory and in some ways lucrative career. My insistence on finding my own way gave me above-average creative ability in music, which has provided me with a (so far) lifelong rock music performance hobby with many good friends who are excellent musicians. Despite occasionally rubbing up against people who resent those who are different, my being different has worked out wonderfully for me.

Despite all these differences, however, I've never been particularly individualistic about my physical appearance. For most of my life, I've had short, clean-cut hair. My fashion sense has always gravitated toward classic time-honored articles of clothing like jeans, polo shirts, cargo shorts, and earth tones; at work, I've always preferred classic dress shirts and flat-front slacks, even occasionally wearing ties. I've avoided styles that struck me as being too trendy, such as hair coloration, too-baggy or too-slim-fitting pants and shirts, facial hair, and so on. I've never had a piercing, nor do I have any tattoos.

Now that I think about it, this combination of a rather conservative outward appearance combined with a rather eccentric and highly individualistic mental disposition is a little mismatched. The most stereotypically individualistic people are often artists and bohemians, whose fashion sense tends to match their free spirits. The most stereotypically conservative, pro-social people are often those who dress the most traditionally, in unassuming clothing that fits in pretty much anywhere.

A possible result of this mismatch of mine is that people see me, and expect a highly conservative, pro-social, conformist kind of a person. When they discover that my mental disposition is decidedly individualistic and personally expressive, perhaps some of them have interpreted me as being stubborn, aloof, rude. A man who looks conformist but refuses to conform is possibly a man who conforms to some social group, but not yours. This might trigger thoughts in people's minds: What's wrong with me that he's not going along with my thing? Why does he keep himself out of my business? Why does he think he's so special?

Long hair is, in today's world, one of the more deviant fashion statements a man can make. It is even more uncommon than tattoos and piercings today. It also tends to evoke the pacifist imagery of hippies and free spirits, unless men with long hair go out of their way to dress like goths or metalheads. Especially on a man like me, who today is dressed in khaki slacks and a polo shirt, long hair presents an air of non-comformism, but also one of non-aggression. And if a man with long hair tends to smile a lot, something I've taken upon myself to doing in public whenever I pass by other people, the peaceful non-conformist presentation is all but complete.

So, with my long hair, it's possible that people now expect me to be a little different, perhaps a bit eccentric, individualistic, and so they're not caught off-guard when I do or say something quixotic. It's possible that my outward appearance is now better-matched to my mental disposition, and that because other people now expect me to express the unexpected, they're more receptive to it.

I'm not certain of any of this, of course. It's just a theory.


A Reductio Against Universal Basic Income

Today, while reading Bryan Caplan's list of "common sense" policies that no presidential candidates are proposing, I had a thought about proposals for a "universal basic income" (UBI).

Libertarians often propose direct transfer payments as economically efficient alternatives to traditional welfare. Thus, the so-called "libertarian case" for a universal basic income involves scrapping all existing welfare programs and replacing them with the equivalent per capita universal basic income. In other words, if it costs the country, say $1000 per capita to deliver $500 in welfare benefits to qualifying citizens, we could improve economic outcomes by delivering $500 in cash to qualifying citizens at less than $1000 per capita. This is achieved by (1) eliminating the administrative burden of submitting welfare applications, (2) eliminating "means testing," i.e. investigating welfare claims, (3) cutting the workforce at the welfare departments, (3) passing the savings onto the taxpayers, and (4) empowering welfare recipients to spend their money however they think is best.

You might not agree with the above argument -- I sure don't -- but that's how it goes.

This underlying argument is often deployed on a much smaller scale. For example, when people debate steel tariffs, economists are quick to point out that steel tariffs cost American consumers hundreds of thousands of dollars per steel worker. If we really wanted to use policy to protect the steel workers, we'd be better off scrapping steel tariffs altogther and then paying each steel worker, say, $150,000 per year not to work at all. It sounds radical, and maybe it is, but the point of the argument is to show how costly steel tariffs are, and how we could lower domestic steel prices and still take care of American steel workers without creating large market distortions that hurt everyone.

In thinking about this, however, it struck me that the libertarian case for a universal basic income can be deployed against policies that libertarians traditionally do not object to. One example is the armed forces. It would be more economically efficient to eliminate the US armed forces and use the Department of Defense's annual budget to pay all Americans an annual self-defense stipend, which they could spend however they deemed appropriate. Some would squander the money on non-defense spending, but others would conscientiously invest in martial reinforcements for their homes and/or communities, thereby eliminating market distortions and saving taxpayers money.

The reason most people reject this proposal is because they broadly believe that the government does a better job providing military protection than home-grown militias do (for a wide variety of reasons). The idea that the government should just shutter one of its essential functions and "pass the savings on to you" suffers from the fatal flaw that it still leaves you without essential services, such as basic military protection against foreign military invasions.

What this reductio ad absurdum demonstrates is that there is at least one case to which the basic libertarian argument for transfer payments must be rejected: the case of "essential government services," whatever that terms happens to mean to you. Obviously, if you're a left-leaning person, you will tend to include more social welfare programs in the list of "essential government services," and if you're a right-leaning person, you will tend to include more national defense and infrastructure programs. In either case, the argument simply falls flat.

And the reason is simple. People don't care about saving money when it comes to essential care. They'd like essential care at the lowest possible cost, of course, but they would still rather ensure that the government spends money and provides essential care than eliminate essential care and disseminate the savings among the populace.

One group of people are clear exceptions to all of the above argumentation, however: Anarchists, especially anarcho-capitalists.


Against Steps

Tracking the number of steps you take in a given day is not a useful measure of anything. It doesn't serve as a proxy for overall activity level. It doesn't serve as a proxy for distance over time. It doesn't provide an estimate of calories burned. Two people with very different overall levels of health can take the same number of steps in a given day and cover very different distances. Walking 5,000 steps is not equivalent in any way to running 5,000 steps, except in mere step count. Two runners covering the same distance can and will have very different step counts, depending on their height and their running form and speed. Even two runners running the same speed and distance can have different step counts.

Step counting is, therefore, meaningless as a measure of activity or health. Luckily for all of us, there are plenty of alternative measurements we can use to estimate our activity level and to work toward a goal of bettering our health.

I suspect that the main reason step counting became so pervasive in the world of activity trackers and smart watches is because it is technologically easy to measure. The "problem" of pedometry, if indeed it ever was a real problem, was solved back in the 1970s or 1980s, when someone figured out how to put a little shaker inside a plastic doohickey and attach it to an LCD digital display. For all I know, there were already analog pedometers out there before then, but I never saw one. It's not clear to me that the people ever demanded such a contraption as a pedometer. My first encounter with them was when my friends' parents and grandparents received doctors' orders to start increasing their activity level for health reasons. Sometimes the reason was to lose weight, sometimes the reason was to rehabilitate an injury, sometimes the reason was to recover from surgery. These folks were given pedometers and told to take an arbitrary number of steps per day, with that number presumably increasing until some therapeutic goal had been achieved.

In this light, I can see the rationale behind step-counting. For a recovering heart surgery patient, I can see how taking first 2,000, and then 3,000, and then 5,000 steps per day could be an important path toward rehabilitation. I can see how this advice would be far more medically meaningful than telling the patient to "try to walk around the block tomorrow, but if you can only make it two mailboxes down the street before you have to come back, no big deal." Providing patients with a number that can be increased over time can provide them a means by which to track empirical improvements in their recovery while still ensuring that the recovery is more or less individualized to each patient. This is especially true for people who have never trained for any sort of competition, people who need easy exposure to the concept of training without having to feel overwhelmed by a "training regimen."

That, however, comprises the limits of my understanding of step-counting. Beyond this kind of medical scenario, there is no reason for anyone to count their own steps, to challenge each other to step-taking competitions, and to measure their daily health by the total number of steps they've taken.

To give you some level of how absurd this sort of thing is: two weeks ago, I placed 3rd in one of Garmin's step-taking competitions despite running more than 60 miles that week and putting in three days of more than 12 miles of running. While it is always possible that the two people who placed ahead of me in the step competition were training even harder than I am, it's highly unlikely, since I train harder than about 98% of the fitness-tracker-equipped population. Statistically speaking, I should win these competitions about 98% of the time, and place second in the competitions I don't win outright. But that is not the case. In reality, I often place below the top 5 out of 10 participants.

The reason I lose, of course, is because I take nice, long strides and go really fast; not just when I'm running, but also when I walk. Someone with a shorter stride length who covers the same distance will exert himself less while taking more steps and beat me in a step-counting challenge. But who is in better physical shape?

If counting steps is not indicative of anything useful for gauging fitness, what else can we do? Well, I happened to write about Training Load just the other day, and I think this is a pretty good measure of how much exercise a person gets. It's hard to argue with a linear combination of time spent exercising and relative heart rate increases. No wonder academic physiologists have been using measurements like these for half a century.

The downside to comparing a community of recreational activity tracker users by something precise and objective like Training Load is that those who don't get much exercise may start to feel discouraged. Why keep trying to beat last week's effort if you're in the fifteenth percentile of people who exercise? On the other hand, if you're in the fifteenth percentile, but you can win a bunch of step-counting competitions, that may provide you with better incentive to keep exercising. At the very least, it provides you with better incentive to keep paying for and using fitness trackers and apps. Thus, it comes as no real surprise that profit-maximizing fitness tracking firms would provide their customers with a measurement that has high motivational value despite its low physiological value.

Still, one of the unintended consequences of this approach to fitness tracking is that it draws a larger crowd of unserious athletes than it draws serious athletes. It's good that so many unfit people are motivated to go couch-to-5K using step-counting competitions to get them there, but ultimately races stop catering to good, competitive runners. In some cases, race organizers stage two separate events, one for competitive athletes and the other for fun-runners. The major commercial draw, of course, is the fun-runner race: the exact opposite of what the major draw ought to be.

We ought to live in a world in which seeing great marathoners edge ever closer to breaking the 2-hour marathon barrier is an exciting spectacle. We ought to live in a world in which fast runners awe us and inspire us. Instead, we live in a world in which the fifteenth percentile can regularly best the ninety-eighth percentile in a "step challenge," and nobody who enters the Boston Marathon actually cares who wins!

Holodeck, Here We Come

I watched Captain Marvel the day after opening day. As you can imagine, it was not easy to find three contiguous seats in the early evening for a massively popular movie. Still, I managed to do it by using Cinemark's mobile application, which enables you to see all possible reserved seats for all possible show times.

I didn't even have to sit on the front row (why do they even sell those seats?). I did, however, have to choose seats that seemed to be unwanted by most people: "D-Box seats." Prior to my arrival at the movie theater that evening, I had no idea what "D-Box seats" were, and the Cinemark website was decidedly vague on what I was in store for. As it turns out, they were kind of neat; I'm not sure that they were worth the extra ticket cost, but they definitely enhanced my movie-going experience.

You've probably experienced something like "D-Box seats" in a science museum before. Basically, the seats are bonded leather recliners attached to a mechanical platform that leans, turns, and vibrates in coordination with the movie. So, whenever there is a big explosion, the seats vibrate. Whenever there is a flying scene, the seats move and sway right along with the camera angles to make you feel like you're "there." I can imagine that in an iMax theater with 3-D glasses, the effect is quite incredible.

It was a good experience, and I recommend that anyone who likes action movies give it a try, at least once, to see whether it's "for you."

*        *        *

So "D-Box seat" technology exists.

Zwift also exists. Zwift is a pretty interesting phone/tablet app that can be used in conjunction with an indoor bicycle trainer, which is a contraption that you can attach in place of your road bike's rear wheel, so that your nice road bike functions like a spin bike, with varying levels of resistance. The way Zwift works is that it displays landscapes such as roads in Paris, London, New York City, and even imaginary landscapes, as you ride your indoor trainer. Within the Zwift application, you have an avatar, a cyclist who looks like you, with your name on it, that rides through these landscapes as you ride your indoor trainer. You can even see other Zwift riders' avatars as they ride along the same courses, and you can race against them or just ride with them.

It's an elegant combination of a racing video game, "Second Life," and indoor training. The workouts you do through Zwift can also be uploaded to Strava, complete with GPS information. So, at least digitally speaking, it's almost exactly like "being there." It's a novel and fun idea, and if I can ever justify the overhead cost of the necessary equipment, I might give it a try myself. It certainly looks like a good time.

*        *        *

Another thing that exists is virtual reality technology.

Lately a few companies have either released or announced the future release of new virtual reality technology. Oculus recently announced the "Rift S" package, which is a substantial technological upgrade from its existing Rift technology. Magic Leap, the virtual reality technology that has been promising big things for a few years now, finally looks like it's getting ready to deliver on its promise. And almost every higher-end smartphone is capable of limited virtual and augmented reality technology.

That includes, for example, Samsung's "Bixby Vision" app, which enables users to look through their phone's cameras and find out information about major landmarks, translate text written in foreign languages, shop for any item contained in the viewfinder, and so on.

The era of virtual reality, heralded since at least the 1980s, is almost upon us.

*        *        *

The so-called "Internet of Things" is something I have previously criticized for not being particularly useful, but it is a kind of technology that exists.

In particular, smart light-bulbs, smart speakers, and smart temperature thermostats can all be coordinated through a central hub - be it something like an Echo device or some other such central hub - to produce home ambiances that can enhance a person's quality of life. One oft-touted way of doing this would be to create a "scene," coordinating a variety of your home smart devices, that enhances your morning routine. With present and affordable technology, it is possible to set specific lighting throughout your home when it's time to wake up, turn on your favorite music at the correct volume and in the correct rooms in the house, turn on your coffee machine so that your coffee finishes brewing right as you step into the kitchen, and so on.

Or, you could set a homecoming routine, so that whenever your car arrives home from work, the garage door automatically opens, the house lights turn on, the temperature inside your home adjusts to your preference, the door unlocks to let you in, etc.

There are people who like to set up their homes this way because it's their hobby. Some of us like to run, some of us like to build model trains and dioramas, and some of us like to set up smart home technology. It's an expensive hobby for as little utility it brings to your daily routine, but for those who enjoy the process of making their homes high-tech, who am I to question?

The point is, this technology exists.

*        *        *

A few years before the internet was formally released to every household with a modem, Frank Zappa wrote in The Real Frank Zappa Book about how all of the underlying technology involving computers, telephony, and audio/video already existed. He envisions - and predicted - that this technology could be set up to deliver any kind of music or video to public consumers any time they wanted it. Ten years after he wrote about it, it was a blasé part of every-day life: the internet.

Now let's think about all of the technologies I've just listed above: virtual reality, smart home technology, virtual indoor bicycle training, and mechanized furniture that moves in conjunction with audiovisual cues.

Imagine that you built a room or a shed, equipped with its own HVAC, driven by a "Nest" smart thermostat. Imagine that the room temperature could be coordinated with the brightening and dimming of the interior lighting. Imagine that the temperature and lighting could both be triggered by audiovisual cues produced by virtual gaming system, with sounds coming from surround sound speakers installed throughout the room. Imagine that the floor of the room, or a small platform in the center of the room, was attached to a machine that gently vibrated, twisted, and leaned in conjunction with the same set of audiovisual cues, and that a person riding an bicycle trainer on the platform, or running on a treadmill on the platform, was wearing a virtual reality headset that could display any course on Zwift, or indeed any landscape available on Google Earth.

In such a room, a person could take a virtual tour of any such landscape, feeling the temperature of the air, the slopes of the landscapes, racing against other athletes from around the world, or even just taking a nice stroll around a foreign city; or perhaps even Mars!

The really amazing thing about all of this is that the technology already exists. Most of it is available at reasonable middle class prices. And my prediction is that VR rooms like this will be here very soon.

Holodeck, here we come.


The Three-Thousand-Calorie Meal You Didn't Know You Ate

I recently had dinner at Chili's. (To steal a line from Bill Hicks, "I'm not proud of it, but I was hungry.")

Although it isn't the best restaurant in the world, there are many good things to say about Chili's. So, let me begin by listing a few qualities I genuinely appreciate as a Chili's customer. First, I almost never have to wait a long time to get a table, and it's not necessarily because Chili's is unpopular. More likely, there are enough Chili's restaurants, and their subsidiary restaurants, On the Border, in a given geographic region to service their clientele without making us wait. Second, Chili's restaurants aren't merely ubiquitous, they are often located in attractive locations within close proximity of other establishments I want to be near: movie theaters, shopping centers, and so on. I don't have to make two separate trips -- one to go shopping, and one to get dinner, for example -- because Chili's is always nearby wherever else I want to be. Third, their loyalty program regularly provides valuable coupons that help my family minimize costs and maximize value. Fourth, they are an unabashedly kid-friendly restaurant chain that has always been welcoming of my daughter, starting from infancy and continuing to the present day. Finally, there is enough variety on their menu that, no matter how I feel, I can almost always find something I want to eat at Chili's, and so can the rest of the family. I've been there for casual and impromptu outings, date nights, daddy-daughter dates, celebrations, happy hours, and so on.

Considering all of the above, it's no surprise that Chili's has been as commercially successful as it has been.

With that out of the way, let's make one thing absolutely clear: Chili's will never be a health food restaurant. During my most recent visit, I paid close attention to the calorie count on all the menu items. I have to do this in order to properly manage my blood sugar, because a meal's total calories is one of the things that plays a role in my blood glucose control. (All other things being equal, a higher calorie count means a higher postprandial blood glucose level.) With very few exceptions, all of the main menu items were more than 1,000 calories apiece. There is a calorie-conscious section of the menu, featuring items that are about 400 calories each, but 400 calories is a little on the low extreme for me.

It's not that Chili's coats all of their food in cheese, bacon, and/or barbecue sauce (although there sure is a lot of that going on at Chili's, too). Some of the calorie counts are downright inexplicable. I cannot understand how, for example, half a dozen buffalo wings could amount to 1,000 calories. I'm under no illusions about the health status of buffalo wings, but six pieces of bone-in wings involve a lot of inedible mass in the form of bone and cartilage, and less than a serving of real chicken meat. This would suggest that Chili's' chefs have somehow found a way to more than double the caloric content of chicken.

Perhaps even more surprising is the fact that Chili's' salads are over a thousand calories, too. A bowl of lettuce and vegetables, no matter how large, should never add up to 1,000 calories. That's just… odd. I understand that salad dressing is a calorie-dense food, but there is about 50 calories in an entire head of iceberg lettuce, which means that Chili's adds 950 calories' worth of condiments to their salads. Suppose, for the sake of argument, the salad comes with 400 calories' worth of chicken on top; then, that's 50 calories for the lettuce and a remainder of 550 calories of salad dressing. Compare this to a serving of a best-selling brand of ranch dressing here in America: two tablespoons of which amounts to 130 calories. This seems to suggest that Chili's uses half a cup of salad dressing on its salads.


Well, in light of all these 1,000-calorie foods, I opted for one of the lowest-calorie items on the standard menu: a 10-ounce sirloin steak. I repeat, ten ounces of pan-seared sirloin steak with an enormous pat of butter on top and a cup of cheese-and-bacon drenched mashed potatoes is one of the lowest-calorie items on the standard menu.

The truth is, my steak was tasty, even if it was slathered in garlic butter and pan-seared in probable vegetable oil. And I was able to find a menu option that worked for me both in terms of overall nutrition and blood-glucose control. So I really shouldn't be complaining.

Still, it's important to be aware of what we're putting into our bodies. I had to do some careful menu analysis to find something that worked for me. The average diner, especially in my area, will be more inclined to choose something that looks tasty and rich, add a beer or two, perhaps an appetizer, and finish it off with dessert. If so, that person could very easily consume more than 2,000 calories in a single sitting; perhaps even 3,000 calories.

When we talk about America's "obesity epidemic," it exists in the context of inexpensive, highly convenient, family-friendly restaurants that serve 3,000-calorie meals.


Comparing Garmin's Training Status And Strava's Fitness & Freshness

There is nothing new about using biometric data to estimate an athlete's level of "fitness." Researchers have been perfecting various measurements of fitness for over forty years. But it wasn't until the advent of the fitness tracker or GPS watch that the underlying equations behind these measurements could be applied to the average weekend warrior. You won't find this data in Samsung Health, and likely not in Apple Health either, because those companies are more interested in producing consumer products for people who like to count steps and receive phone calls through their wrists. The companies that are serious about competitive training, though, do provide us with this data.

Every company that is interested in providing this kind of data to users has their own preferred approach. It is all more or less based on upon the same underlying principles, but it's served up slightly differently. The numbers mean slightly different things, depending on how they've been calculated. For our purposes here, I'll compare Garmin's "Training Status" and Strava's "Fitness & Freshness" measurements.

Both Training Status and Fitness & Freshness are calculated based primarily on moving averages of "Training Load," and both approaches are pretty interesting based on what the teams who designed them wanted to accomplish.

To be brief, "training load" is a measurement of how much exercise you've done recently, and how vigorous that exercise has been. "How much" is easy to determine simply by adding up how many hours, minutes, and seconds you've spent exercising over a given calendar period. "How vigorous" is a question that ultimately comes down to a physiologist's preferred measurement of workout intensity. Strava's team prefers to analyze heart rate data during exercise. The higher your heart rate, the harder you're exercising. Garmin's team, by contrast, prefers to measure exercising intensity with a slightly more technical analysis: excess post-exercise oxygen consumption (EPOC). To that end, my guess is that Garmin estimates EPOC by analyzing how long it takes the athlete to recovery from a given exercise session.

Both of these measurements have pros and cons. One mark in Strava's favor is the relative simplicity of the calculation. Time + heart rate = load. (That's not the exact calculation, but you get the idea.) But the drawback to a calculation this simple is that anaerobic activity can increase a person's heart rate without doing much in the way of training load for, say, cycling. A competitive cyclist can get her heart rate up during a 30-minute arms workout without impacting her overall "training load" for cycling. In fact, she might go out for a 30-mile ride immediately following the arms workout without feeling too much different than she would have otherwise. By contrast, Garmin's EPOC calculation will capture that level of nuance here. That same cyclist's post-weight-lifting EPOC will be quite short compared to her 30-mile ride, and her Garmin-calculated Training Load will adjust accordingly.

But a mark against Garmin's concept of Training Load is that it fails to account for real-world factors. What I mean is, Garmin can't measure EPOC directly through biometric testing, so they estimate it through heart rate measurements. If I go for a ten-mile run, and then get caught in bad traffic on the drive home, Garmin's calculations will erroneously assume that I'm having a hard time recovering from my run, and my Training Load number will rise. If I take a nap or sit in a hot tub immediately following my run, I'll have a much better EPOC profile, and my Training Load number will fall. So different non-exercise circumstances can impact Garmin's estimate of Training Load even when they probably shouldn't.

To complete things, Garmin outputs a "Training Status," based on a 7-day moving average of Training Load combined with the athlete's VO2 max data. That's not a bad estimate, but there is a problem in that VO2 max is a measurement that doesn't tend to move much. When it does, it moves steadily over time; it doesn't tend to fluctuate a lot over a 7-day period. It likely doesn't change much at all in a week. Some of the underlying data used to estimate VO2 max, however, can change: namely, if you have a birthday this week, your age will change; if your weight tends to fluctuate based on water weight, or diet, or menstruation, or any of the other things that make small impacts to a person's weight, the number you see on the scale will change. These things can have a statistically relevant impact on the output of the VO2 max estimation equation. But remember: it's just an equation. It aims to estimate VO2 max. If your estimate changes by a point here and there, it's unlikely that your VO2 max actually changed. It's far more likely that you had some slight weight fluctuation or something.

The result of all this is a "Training Load" and "Training Status" output that is roughly on point, but somewhat confusing. Take a look at mine:

Over this period, I inexplicably vacillated between "productive" and "maintaining" before finally ending up at "unproductive." Then I went back to vacillating during my recovery week. It wasn't until the last three days that Garmin recognized I was actually recovering. And, I hasten to add, I am training under a training plan supplied by Garmin through the Garmin Connect app itself.

That said, Garmin did get things right in general. At the end of my third week of training, I had run nine consecutive days and was feeling tired, so "unproductive" might not be linguistically accurate, but it was certainly true that I needed some rest. And Garmin did recognize the recovery week eventually.

Strava's "Fitness & Freshness" curves are based on what they call an "impulse response model." That sounds fancy, but all it really means is that Strava uses a weighted moving average of training load based on activity duration and heart rate. Precisely how they choose to weight the moving average is a mystery to me, but when compared to Garmin's data, Strava's seems to place slightly more weight on the past. While Garmin states with certainty that their output is based on a 7-day moving average, Strava does not state how long their time window is. I would venture to guess, though, that their time window is three weeks.

Why three weeks? Because when you access Strava's "weekly effort" graphs from their mobile app (these graphs are strangely unavailable in the browser portal), the area denoting "consistent training" on the graph adjusts based on the previous three weeks. I can see this by watching how it moves with my week-to-week effort.

The result of this longer time window provides what I believe to be a better overall measure of a person's fitness level. Here's a piece of my Fitness and Fatigue curves, covering my recent training regimen:
As you can see, Strava tracked my fitness level as increasing over the first three weeks of training; then, during my recovery week, my fitness curve stayed relatively flat, while my fatigue curve fell. This is, at the least, an accurate representation of what my training schedule was supposed to achieve.

On the other hand, take a look at the local maximum in that graph. On March 10, I went for a long run and in doing so achieved a fitness level of 81, and a fatigue level of 114. How should an athlete interpret that kind of information? Strava supplies a third number, called "Form," which is nothing more than the arithmetic difference between Fitness and Fatigue. This should correspond to how "fresh" I was feeling that day. Using this data, I can say that I was fit, but fatigued. Strava seems to have accurately assessed my feelings. What they didn't do was give me a direct recommendation, as Garmin did. Garmin told me right then and there that my training was getting unproductive and I needed rest.

There is no "right answer" here. I find both sets of data useful in their own way. But I am a very atypical athlete. Most people who use GPS watches aren't used to calculating various weighted averages and applying statistical models to time series. It just so happens that I do this for a living, and my great familiarity with data science puts me at an advantage for interpreting calculations like these.

The average athlete -- i.e., the average person who does not work in data science -- needs a little more help interpreting this information. To that end, I can tell you this: Garmin's Training Load and Training Status numbers jump around a bit, because they only look at your most recent training week; but they tend to get close to a good recommendation if you're seeing the same output two or three days in a row. Meanwhile, Strava's Fitness & Freshness gives you good perspective in your overall response to training, but you should probably not take the data too seriously if you are not actively engaged in an actual training plan of some kind.

Always take this data with a grain of salt. But if you can manage to think like a biostatistician, you can get some good information out of these numbers.


The Killer Was Sick, Not Suggestible

My social media were filled with think-pieces and hot takes on the tragedy in New Zealand over the weekend. This is inevitable; tragedy strikes, and people want to talk about it, to think about it, to write about it.

Unfortunately, much of the discussion I saw centered on the killer's manifesto. It seems that people wanted to delve deeply into his ideas and figure out which of those ideas are particularly dangerous. The implicit concern among these thinkers appears to be that some ideas can turn good people into killers; that we ought to hunt down these evil ideas, expose them for what they are, and…? Eradicate murder?

These folks mean well, but their thinking is sadly misguided. First of all, death and destruction has used any and every available philosophical justification. The fact that people use a given idea as a pretense to commit murder says nothing about the quality of those ideas. Murder has been committed in the name of god and anti-god, christ and antichrist, communism and capitalism, individualism and community. Every conceivable belief system has had its fair share of zealots and crazies, ready to pull the trigger at a moment's notice. Zealotry -- even murderous zealotry -- is not unique to any particular set of ideas. And since it isn't, we can't use the existence of a murderer who believed XYZ as evidence showing the bankruptcy of belief XYZ.

Secondly, though, and most importantly, we are talking about a killer, a mass murderer. We are talking about a young man who created some kind of manifesto for the world to analyze, and who then went on a media-captivating killing spree so that his manifesto would be analyzed. We're talking about a man who was callous, opportunistic, and bold; a man who was immoral, deceptive, and manipulative; a man who was shameless, arrogant, entitled, envious, and exploitative.

In other words, we are talking about a deeply disturbed individual with an atypical neurological construct. A sick man. A madman.

To be sure, understanding the pathologies of the criminally insane is a worthwhile endeavor; but rooting-out bad philosophies from the screeds of a psychopath is a fool's errand. This was a nutcase who wrote nutty things. His problem wasn't that he was a perfectly well-adjusted individual who, once having stumbled onto a bad philosophy, grew into a murderous savage. No, his problem was that his brain wasn't normal or healthy, and that he could use literally any philosophy he encountered to justify his terrible rampage.

I do understand the impulse of a philosopher, having encountered a disturbed manifesto, to poke holes in that manifesto's flaws in an effort to somehow defeat the evil he's encountered. But this is a defense mechanism, or a type of grief. This is an exercise in trying to shun the evil ex post facto. The truth is, evil will always be there, because in many cases evil is biological. That's what happened in New Zealand, tragic as it might be. The key to stopping this kind of evil in the future is in recognizing sick people and giving them therapeutic treatment before they have an opportunity to act out. Trying to prevent evil ideas from corrupting sick minds is foolish, because sick minds can corrupt even the best of ideas. That's precisely what makes them sick minds.


Libertarianism And The Light Triad

Most people are familiar with the so-called "Dark Triad" of psychological traits that are sometimes used to define people as being evil. That triad of traits is: narcissism, Machiavellianism, and psychopathy.

Now, a new study seeks to define a "Light Triad," three traits associated with particularly good people and prosocial outcomes. Psychology Today reports:
The three subscales of the Light Triad Scale are conceptualized as follows:
Faith in Humanityor the belief that, generally speaking, humans are good.
Sample item: I think people are mostly good.
Humanismor the belief that humans across all backgrounds are deserving of respect and appreciation.
Sample Item: I enjoy listening to people from all walks of life.
Kantianismor the belief that others should be treated as ends in and of themselves, and not as pawns in one’s own game.
Sample item: When I talk to people, I am rarely thinking about what I want from them.
Whether these three factors truly comprise a "Light Triad" is certainly a matter of opinion, but it's hard to argue that anyone who significantly expresses these traits is anything other than prosocial.

What I found most interesting about this proposed "Light Triad" is how closely it corresponds to run-of-the-mill libertarianism. Libertarianism in the classical tradition is based on the belief that human beings can figure out tough problems emergently, without the aid of government decrees to force it to happen; that's faith in humanity by anyone's measure. Libertarians also believe deeply in a profound sense of human dignity (via freedom) and respect (via equality); and that's humanism through-and-through. Finally, freedom in the libertarian sense of the word is steeply rooted in the belief that human beings are not slaves and should not be forced to do anything. We often contrast this to the implications of things like socialized health care, which seem to suggest that patients are entitled by right to the labor of doctors and nurses. In other words, we object to such things because we don't think doctors and nurses ought to be treated as means to someone else's end. And that is the essence of Kantianism.

Naturally, none of this should imply that libertarian individuals should score high on the "Light Triad." All I mean to suggest is that libertarianism is consistent with the "Light Triad," and thus we can consider it prosocial, at least by that measure.


Adventures In The Long Form

Two rest days in one week!? What am I supposed to do with myself!?

Not being accustomed to de-training, otherwise known as mixing in a recovery week between periods of heavier training load, I find myself getting antsy. It's easy to let my mind wander too far, especially with the availability of all this training data my fitness watches and apps give me these days. It's easy to let fear creep in, too: what if I lose my fitness?

That is absurd, of course. I can't lose all my fitness in a week, and I especially can't lose all my fitness during a week in which I spend most days working out! It is physiologically easier to maintain fitness than to build it; that's one reason why recovery weeks are important for good training. If I spent three weeks ramping up my training load, I'd need some maintenance time -- that is, time spent maintaining my current level of fitness, without pushing too hard -- in order to decrease my overall levels of fatigue and prepare my body for the next three weeks of heavy training.

This morning was a case in point. I woke up at the usual time: early, so that I could get a workout in. Today, however, is a rest day, so I closed my eyes for another fifteen minutes of rest before having to take a shower and get dressed. I closed my eyes momentarily, and when I opened them again, I discovered that I had slept for an extra hour! This was technically no cause for alarm; I still had plenty of time to get ready for work. What's remarkable is that, five days into my recovery week, my body was still so exhausted from the previous three weeks of training that I unintentionally nodded off for a whole hour.

The same thing happened to me a couple of days back, too. On the agenda for the day was a 60-minute Z3 (tempo) run, which I happily completed in the warm March sun with a smiling face, a lifted spirit, and spring in my step. When I got back to my desk at work, I nearly nodded off. That evening, when I got home from work, I took long nap, an hour or more of sleep that I normally wouldn't need.

I've never been one for napping, not one to try to get more than my share of sleep. I like to get up and be active. The fact that my body was basically taking me by the proverbial shoulders, shaking me, and crying, "Nap, you dolt!" indicates just how much fatigue it's currently dealing with. This kind of fatigue is precisely what recovery weeks are aimed to alleviate. By next Tuesday, when I kick off a planned ten consecutive days of running with a two-a-day, I should have recovered enough to go back to killing my workouts with style. Or so I intend.

However, fatigue is not the most interesting feeling I have as I work through this training schedule. Anticipation is. I find myself looking ahead, not just at the workouts coming up this weekend, but at the workouts coming up over the next two weeks.

Saturday, it will be rather enticing 20-minute Z4 aerobic threshold run. Sunday's a bit of a downer; it's a long run day, but I only get to run for a measly 60 minutes. Monday is a prescribed cross-training day; the prescription is for 30 minutes of cross-training, but how much fun is a 30-minute bike ride? Not as much fun as a 60-minute bike ride, that's for sure! Then, the next two weeks will be dominated by exciting "Mixed Runs," consisting of intervallic alternations between not just aerobic threshold pace and recovery pace, but also tempo pace and random pace variations. There are so many different kinds of workouts coming up over the next month that I have to look forward to. I'm positively bubbly over it.

This anticipation, this effervescence, demonstrates something that has been missing from my training for quite some time: real variety. I haven't had this much training variety to look forward to in years. Even my P90X training, which emphasizes "muscle confusion," and thus variety, hasn't offered me the same kind of variety that this half-marathon training schedule has. (To be fair, it is economically infeasible to produce a video-based workout series with this amount of variety. You can't produce 112 workout videos and expect to make money on a venture like that! Besides, most people cannot commit to the full 90 days of a P90X program, much less to sixteen week of serious training for distance-runners.)

But print-based training schedules, or perhaps we should say long form training schedules, have that advantage over home video series and "couch-to-5K" beginner programs. Freed from the confines of a flashy package and every-man marketing principles, unconstrained by the need to sell non-athletes on a quick fix, long form training schedules can get an athlete down to business, offering difficult workouts, comprehensive recovery weeks, and a wider variety of workouts than people normally get from online home workout programs. That's their advantage.

It's not so very different from watching a movie or reading a book. Most people appreciate the flashiness and shorter timeframe of a good movie, but those of us who can commit to a thousand pages of Moby Dick gain access to the advantages of long form storytelling. Physical fitness works much the same way.


Faster "Recovery"

I'm on my fourth week of half-marathon training. Today, I had to run "40 minutes in heart rate zone 2," which I have taken to calling a "40 minute Z2 recovery run."

Each one of the runs on this Garmin half marathon training schedule include a "5-10 cool down" segment, which I have taken to just interpreting as "keep running for another 5 to 10 minutes." It's an easy way to squeeze an extra mile into your workout for no reason other than, hey, let's go nuts. So, today, I went nuts-er than usual and ran the full 10-minute cool-down in addition to the 40 minutes prior, for a grand total of a 50 minute Z2 recovery run.

Put your calculators down, I'll help you with the math. I averaged 7:22 per mile, which is not particularly fast for running in general, but as a recovery pace, it's a little interesting.

But what makes it really interesting is how it compares to my recovery runs from the last few weeks. I kicked off this half marathon schedule with a recovery run, and I ran it at an 8:10-per-mile pace. Granted, I had really high blood sugar that morning, but still, if that were my Z2 benchmark, I've almost increased my recovery pace by a minute per mile.

More accurately, here is every recovery run pace charted against date, with a trend line added so that you can better see how I'm improving:

Not too shabby, considering that the overwhelming majority of workouts on this schedule so far have been recovery runs. I'm about done with Z2 -- psych! There's still more than twelve weeks of this to go!

But I'm not really getting tired of it; after all, it's working. The data is right there. Aside from that, my qualitative analysis is that these runs are getting easy. I know they're easy runs to begin with, but they feel like strolls to me now. I feel as though I could go outside and Z2 myself all the way to Abilene, if I had to. Double entendre intended.

More data to come.


Institutions Of Higher Social Status

By now, you must be aware of this week's "scandal," which is that B-tier celebrities and other folks committed what the police are calling "mail fraud." In this case, the "fraud" consists of pretending that their kids were athletes or faking their kids' SAT scores, plus paying a few hundred-thousand dollars, to gain admittance to universities like Stanford and USC.

Well, I'm not a legal expert, so I can't comment on the integrity of the legal case against them. It does strike me as being a little odd that faking your SAT score counts as "mail fraud," instead of just "application denied." But melodrama is sign of the times, and calling this turn of events "mail fraud" helps insulate the reputation of the universities involved. After all, you can't blame the universities for running a payola college-entrance scheme if they were poor, pitiful victims of fraud!

And there is plenty more cynicism to go around. Some are calling it "a victory for the signaling model of education," which states that education is itself meaningless beyond the system's ability to give you a certificate that says, "let the bearer of this bond be paid $40,000 per year or more." Others are saying that colleges brought this scandal upon themselves by submitting to Affirmative Action; after all, a policy that admits unqualified applicants for demography reasons is no better than a policy that admits unqualified applicants for financial gain, or so their argument goes.

For my part, the question is much different. All of the above commentary is based on the assumption that universities ought to be high-status institutions. Even though the majority of college educations are financed by debt, even though we all know that the average holder of an English Literature degree is no more intelligent than the average high-school-educated network administrator, even though anyone can learn any of this material for free on YouTube, we still cling to the notion that universities are super-special places where only the best people in society go.

That assumption belongs to one of the two competing ideas of what education should be. If we assume that universities are "institutions of higher status," then the university model as it currently exists makes perfect sense. Of course you should fund your education with debt; this is your ticket to the high life! Of course universities should be extremely choosey about who gains admittance; if they left everyone in, then we'd never be able to tell which ones of us really deserve higher social status! Universities are places for the Beautiful People to go, so that they can learn how to Be Beautiful. We can't question this assumption without rupturing the whole system.

But there is a competing viewpoint, one that I first encountered some fifteen years ago. I, too, resisted this viewpoint when I first heard of it, but eventually I got over my resistance and warmed to it. Here's the pitch: Universities should admit everyone. By "everyone" I mean 100% of applicants who can pay their tuition. College, you see, ought to be a place where you purchase lectures and graded exams, and ultimately diplomas. If you can afford the price, who cares how many times you fail a class? Who cares what your high school grades were? Who cares what your SAT score was? If you can afford to buy a seat in the classroom, does any of that other stuff really matter? Of course not, not if college is just a place where you can go to buy lectures, grades, and diplomas.

There are usually two objections to this competing idea of college. The first is raised by proponents of free college, who warn that by making college a matter of money, we'll create a two-tiered society of people who can afford to buy their way into college, and those who can't. Well, gee, take a look at the news headlines this morning. What do you think you see?

The second objection is the one I raised when I first heard the idea: If colleges let everyone in, then they'd run out of space and resources. The answer here, of course, is to just use the tuition money to build more space. So long as tuition is covering the cost of doing business, there is no problem. Let everyone in.

The unstated assumption behind both objections, however, is the tacit plea that college "mean something," that it retain its protected position as an "institution of higher social status." We can't leave it up to crass things like the ability to pay. We have to keep it exclusive; after all, ever everyone could get an Economics degree, then I wouldn't be any better than anyone else!

And isn't that what we really want?