Life On The Scene

Lately I’ve been thinking about how much influence our chosen social scenes affect our lives, often times in unexpected ways. For example, it’s well documented that former drug addicts usually have to stop hanging around their old, drug-using friends in order to avoid a relapse. It’s not that those friends deliberately try to sabotage the addict, it’s just that the social environment itself promotes drug use. Similarly, and at the opposite end of the spectrum, people whose friends are interested in eating right and working out tend to exercise more often and eat healthier food than other people. And again, it’s not that fitness enthusiasts pressure everyone else to live a healthy lifestyle, it’s just that the atmosphere they create when they socialize promotes physical fitness and a good diet.

Our malleable human minds seem to adapt to the social conditions we’re living in. What you see, hear, and experience becomes your version of normal. And while “being normal” is an individual choice, it seems as though normalcy itself is environmentally dependent.

Consider also, for example, the fact that everyone in every small town in America listens to country music. Everyone. Every small town. Why? It mostly comes down to the fact that country music is what gets played in small towns. These folks like to camp, and go fishing, and ride horses; it’s not because they’re genetically predisposed to enjoy these activities, but because the prevailing culture places a high value on them. We’re influenced by the people around us.

This is obvious enough at the cultural level, but less obvious at the friendship level. We’ll all readily admit to being influenced by our friends, but I think we tend to understate just how much the prevailing sense of normalcy among a group of friends defines what each individual sees as “normal.” I’ve known people who became drug users only because one or two people in their friends group became so; and soon enough, the entire group was using. It’s not all bad news, of course. I’ve known other groups of friends who all got interested in saving for retirement, and before they knew it, they were all exchanging tips and tricks to save the most possible.

Those are single-activity examples. What I’m really interested in is how choosing a particular social group for one reason influences several other, unanticipated aspects of life. For example, a lot of people get into the heavy metal scene because they love the music. There’s nothing about the music that demands that a person dye her hair or wear a metal-studded bracelet, get tattoos, and ride motorcycles. But, invariably, there’s a social culture surrounding the heavy metal music scene, and as one becomes more active in socializing over heavy metal, one becomes more interested in those other things, too.

Some of those things are fine, like riding motorcycles and dying your hair. Other things are not so good for us, such as staying out late, drinking heavily, smoking, vaping, and so on. 

Again, my interest is in how choosing one kind of scene influences other aspects of your life. Or, more specifically, my life. My social scene, when push comes to shove, is the distance-running scene. I never realized how much I identify with that social scene until much later in life, when I spent some years away from that scene and then entered a race one day. I showed up, and my friends all said, “Look, Ryan. Everyone looks like you!” They were right. Suddenly, I was surrounded by people who looked like me, dressed like me, spoke like me, and acted a bit like me. I was “home.” Weird.

Well, distance-running is a fun sport that promotes good health; those are the good things that come with being part of that scene. What about the other things that go along with distance running, the unanticipated things, perhaps the negative things? 

Well, distance runners actually drink a lot of beer, and that’s not so healthy. They obsess over their sport a lot, are a little bit neurotic, and, because distance running is an individual sport involving a lot of time spent alone, they tend to be a bit self-absorbed. When I spend too much time in the distance running community, I, too, am susceptible to those things.

There is also a sense of style that goes with distance running. Short hair, t-shirts, running shoes on every occasion, hemp bracelets and necklaces, running watches. Truth be told, I love all these things, and the only reason I can make sense of is because that’s the style within my community. Still, it’s not always a positive. Among my non-running friends, I am perhaps the least stylish one. The only people who understand my sense of style at all are those who have seen me among my running community. That’s when it clicks and they realize that I’m not just an unstylish schmo. I’m just a distance runner.

I think it is an illuminating exercise to consider what community you belong to, what positive things come from being a member of that community, and also, what potentially negative things.


"Then You're Not A Daddy"

I was playing with my daughter at a playground in a park recently when two young boys ran up to the swing set we were playing on and struck up a conversation with us as they, themselves played.

Because the boys didn't know who we were, they did not make any assumptions about my relationship to my daughter. For example, because I was referring to her as "kid" or "kiddo" as I spoke to my daughter, one of the boys, perhaps about four years old, asked me if I had "stolen her."

My daughter laughed and said, "No! He's my daddy!"

"Then why do you call her 'kid'?" the boy asked.

"I call her all kinds of things," I explained. "Kid, kiddo, bub, boop, sweetheart… but her name is…" and then I gave her name. The boy looked confused, but he seemed satisfied at having learned what her name was.

A few moments later, the boy said something I don't quite remember, but he was talking in the abstract about how my daughter, like other kids, should behave well. It was a harmless, playful comment, I just don't remember what it was. Something sort of like this: "You better not make any messes, or else your dad will give you fifty swats!"

"Oh, no," I said emphatically. "I would never swat her. We don't do that at our house."

Seemingly accepting the correction, the boy repeated the same comment, only this time he said "spank" instead of "swat." I corrected him again, telling him that I don't spank my daughter, not ever, and that no one hits each other in our household.

The young boy gave me a bewildered, drop-jawed look and said, "Then you're not a daddy." He was very serious.

After some additional explaining, the boy either understood how discipline works at our house, or he lost interest in the conversation. At that age, it is more or less the same thing, anyway. Still, the situation stuck with me. The question for this small boy was not whether spanking a child is appropriate. The question was much more definition-level than that. To him, a "daddy" is a category of human that is a sub-category of "things that spank children." If someone does not belong to the "things that spank" category, then someone cannot belong to the "daddy" category. And that's just how it is.

We talk about the appropriateness of spanking, but we never consider how that shapes a child's understanding of the world beyond the mere act of spanking or the associated disciplinary situation. How does a child who believes all fathers spank react to the universe?

One possible reaction is that the boy will interact with any male he knows to be a father as though the threat of corporal punishment is always hanging over the exchange. Maybe it doesn't matter; maybe the boy has been through enough spankings that he doesn't fear them. If so, that suggests that spanking is not an effective disciplinary strategy in the long run. If not, then it suggests that spanking is wrong for a different reason, namely that it instills fear and distrust of parental authority figures in children.

I have written in the past about how wrong it is to spank children. All the psychological studies I have ever seen have concluded that spanking is psychologically harmful. There is no scientific argument in favor of spanking. The best non-scientific argument I've heard is that a lot of reasonable people I know were spanked as children and turned out okay. That's not a terrible argument; after all, a process that leads to a widely salutary outcome (good people) is at least potentially a good process. But there's no telling how much better these folks would be, how much better the world would be, had they been given proper discipline rather than spankings.


Pacers Are Unethical: Why "Participation" Ruins The Sport

An interesting discussion arose on Facebook over the weekend.

Last week, I wrote about the website MarathonInvestigation.com, which investigates allegations of cheating in marathons and other races. Most of these instances involve stealing race bibs, illegally duplicating race bibs, or running in races without paying the registration fees. As you can see, a lot of this doesn't quite add up to being what we'd traditionally call "cheating." It's certainly against the rules to steal race swag, but that's more an example of theft than it is an example of cheating at a race.

As it turns out, MarathonInvestigation.com also runs a Facebook discussion group. In my fascination with the world of middling runners who cut corners and steal race bibs, I joined the group to gain more exposure to this world. One recent discussion began when a member of the group posted an article ostensibly about runners who pay professional athletes to serve as their pacers or "rabbits." Despite the somewhat inflammatory title, "Want to Run a Fast Marathon? Pay a Top Athlete to Run It With You," most of the article is about the rise of the coaching industry, not about the prevalence of pacing. Still, many of the coaches in the article freely admit to pacing runners during their marathons, retrieving Gatorade and sports gel for the runners, and even running in front of them on windy days so that the client can draft off them. (Running behind another runner into a headwind, known as drafting, is a way to avoid wind resistance and conserve a lot of energy on a windy day.)

From there, the discussion in the Facebook group took off. To my great surprise, most of the discussion participants didn't see a problem with using a pacer, so long as the pacer himself/herself was a genuinely registered participant in the race. Some brought up the fact that pacing is against the rules in USATF events, but most quickly pointed out that if the race in question isn't USATF-sanctioned, pacing is not expressly against the race rules, and the pacer is not "banditing" the race, they didn't see a problem in using a pacer.

As you can imagine, my opinion is quite a bit different. It seemed rather surprising to me to discover that the prevalent attitude among a group of people who are interested in preventing cheating in road races would take the tack that, so long as something isn't expressly prohibited, it's not a problem. I am not personally of the belief that all permitted things are ethical and that all prohibited things are unethical. In my view, things that are permitted can sometimes be morally wrong; and things that are prohibited can sometimes be morally permissible, or even morally required.

Thus, when it comes to using a pacer in a road race, my view is that it is unethical even if it is permissible. To understand why, we should take the time to examine why using a pacer was ever prohibited by organizations like USATF. If there's really no problem with using a pacer, then why would they ever be made against the rules? I think most people recognize that pacers confer an advantage on the athlete who uses them. Among elite athletes, this advantage is believed to be unfair, that's why it's against their rules. Isn't it hard to claim that an advantage that is deemed unfair at the elite level would somehow be perfectly fine for middling runners?

But why is using a pacer unfair?

Well, one reason is that physical space in a race is limited and therefore precious; occupying some of that space with a teammate whose only goal is to help you run at a particular pace, and has no plans on attempting to with the race himself/herself inhibits the free competitive movement of other athletes. Imagine an important moment in a race occurs during a tight corner turn. If the person I'm trying to pass is running alone, I might have enough space to pass them on the turn, unexpectedly, without wasting too much energy of my own. But if that same competitor is running side-by-side with a pacer, then a race non-participant is blocking my path for a strategic pass. That's not fair. What's to stop such a runner from using twelve different pacers, all of whom surround him and prevent anyone else from passing?

Another reason using pacers is unfair is that it passes off a large part of the sport of running onto someone else. What I mean is, part of the game during a race is monitoring one's own pace and making running speed adjustments accordingly. Not everyone monitors their per-mile pace. Doing so is a major strategic initiative that puts a runner at a distinct competitive advantage. Working with a coach to develop a plan to hit certain mile splits at certain paces is an even more refined version of this. All that's required for this is a stopwatch and the mental ability to remember what pace you're supposed to be running. If a runner can't manage this much, then what has the sport of running become? Essentially, the athlete moves his or her legs while the coach does the rest of the work. Maybe that's what running is to some people, but that's never been what it is to me. The strategic dynamics of a race are, in my view, as important as the physical dynamics. Pacers reduce the mental expenditure required of the competing athlete and thus provide what I consider to be an unfair advantage.

And here we are, back on one of my favorite running-related hobby horses. People who are attempting to win a road race would never even consider using a pacer. They know it's cheating. Even people who are attempting to place well in their age division - weekend warriors and people who are serious enough to compete even if they aren't fast enough to win - do not use pacers. Those who consider running an activity with the power to unleash human potential, who consider it a vehicle for self-improvement and a refinement of their ability to focus mentally through great adversity or great pain, are not inclined to use pacers.

So, who uses pacers? Mostly, it's runners who emphasize the importance of merely finishing. It's the runners who say "anyone who finishes the race is a winner." It's the runners who are willing to do anything it takes to qualify for the Boston Marathon, even though they have no hope of ever winning or placing in the Boston Marathon.

In other words, people who use pacers are the people for whom running is a social signal. They're not interested in competing in a high-profile race, they're only interested in being able to say "I was there!" They're interested in the finisher's medal and the finisher's photo and in telling everyone that they qualified for the Boston Marathon and that they ran in it. They're interested in earning the social signal, but they're not interested in what the signal is supposed to mean. If you talk to such people about running fast, they'll downplay the importance of that, and emphasize participation. "Hey, as long as you get out there and do your best, that's all that matters!" But why, then, is it so important for them to advertise their participation in an exclusive event like the Boston Marathon?

This kind of sentiment, along with stealing race bibs and evading registration fees, is the kind of thing that arises when we make the sport of running a thing about "participation" instead of about competition and winning. When we emphasize the competitive element, then the line between good runners and bad ones becomes clear: those who are fast are good, and those who are not fast are at least not as good as the fast ones. But if we draw the line at "participation," then people find other, less-savory means to express their superiority. They'll resort to using rabbits or stealing bibs in order to be able to say to people that they ran the Boston Marathon. They still want the exclusivity that comes from being a fast runner, but they don't want to have to earn it the way fast runners do: by training hard and learning how to excel in the sport.

So, in the end, this is one more reason why I wish the sport of running would return to its earlier spirit.


On Setting A Proper Life Path

I believe that it's very important in life to set oneself on a good path. A good path isn't a guarantee of success and happiness, but it does minimize the potential for avoidable catastrophe.

For example, I believe that most children should set themselves on a scholastic path that trends toward college. This is not because I think college is right for everyone, but rather the fact that the toward-college path will generally tend to set a person's life up for either college or not-college. The not-college path only sets a person up for not-college.

Another example is drug use. I believe most people should put themselves on a path toward eschewing recreational drugs. I don't think mild experimentation will ruin a person's life, but the pitfalls of drug use are well-known and well-documented. While some people are able to escape from youthful experimentation relatively unscathed, the overwhelming majority of people will be set up best in life if they steer away from drug use. This will also tend to keep them away from criminal communities and dangerous outsiders that could influence them in other unwanted ways.

These two examples are relatively obvious, but there are lower-level gradients of these same examples that I also think are life-enhancing.

To the toward-college example, I think people - no matter who they are - ought to put themselves on pro-knowledge or pro-curiosity life paths rather than on anti-intellectual paths. One need not be a genius or an academic to appreciate the fact that more knowledge is better, and even a plumber will have a more successful life if he learns comparatively more than his peers, and always demonstrates curiosity and a thirst for knowing more.

And, to the anti-drug-use example, I think people would be better served to avoid "beer culture," "cigar culture," "vaping culture," "barbecue/meat smoking culture" and so on. This is not because I think those things are gateways to additional drug use, but because communities that enthuse about unhealthy activities will tend to make a person's overall health worse. By contrast, it is well-documented that people who hang around physically fit friends with good diets tend to adopt those same healthy habits themselves.

I hasten to add that it is entirely possible to have a good life even if you aren't particularly curious about the world, even if you love to brew your own beer at home, even if you put bacon on everything, even if you enjoy the occasional cigar, etc. You can have a good life under many different circumstances. My point isn't that such things are impossible, my point is that people should generally stick to positive paths if they want to have a generally positive life.

Our lives tend to become whatever it is we surround ourselves with. If we surround ourselves with good, honest people, our social groups will tend to become good and honest. We might even become more good and honest ourselves. Surrounding ourselves with dishonest criminals, casual drug dealers, unhealthy or uncurious people, and so on is of course no guarantee that we ourselves will become worse. But the risk is obviously higher for those who surround themselves with bad things than it is for those who surround themselves with good things.

Now, you might disagree with me about which specific things are good and bad. That's fair. It's not so important to me that we agree on the list of good and bad as it is that you come up with your own list, and set yourself on a path toward more of what you consider good and less of what you consider bad. Whatever things end up on your "good" list, steering yourself toward those things will tend to make you happier and more fulfilled in life.

I occasionally see friends and acquaintances who deliberately set themselves on bad paths. In time, it becomes obvious that they're dissatisfied with their lives, but they never make an effort to change their life paths. This is bewildering to me and, from a friend's perspective, more than a little frustrating. The friends who spent a lot of time at clubs and raves had mental and physical health problems later. The friends who chose highly unfocused and idiosyncratic career paths - stints at the Peace Corps, stints teaching English in faraway lands, long and winding paths to eventual college degrees, and so on - are all now saddled with debt, living in small apartments, and wondering what to do with their lives. The friends who never took care of their health are all predictably overweight, and unhappy about it. Those who delayed marriage and children until later in life have struggled to find good people with whom to build a later life. And, indeed, those who rushed into marriage and children too early have experienced broken marriages and poor relationships with their children.

In hindsight, it is all very predictable. Anyone could have expected that too much of Thing A would put a person at risk of Unsatisfactory Life Outcome B. I'm not gloating over their poor choices, and that isn't the point. The simple fact of the matter is that it's easy to expect a certain kind of outcome if you set your life on a particular path. When I see my younger friends setting themselves up for lonely, unhealthy, or financially difficult lives, I try to subtly and inoffensively nudge them marginally toward a better path. But their problem is not insufficiently good influence. Their problem is that, in the moment, they think they will be the exceptions.

In the moment, everyone thinks that their own personal bad choices are inconsequential and that they have plenty of time to reverse them later on. And, indeed, life is long enough that we can all afford to make a few really bad decisions and recover later on. But, on the one hand, why plan your life such that you'll have something to have to recover from? And, on the other hand, you're going to have to set yourself on a good life path eventually, so why not now?

In the end, I think a lot of this has to do with having a sense of personal "restraint," or what Aristotle called the virtue of "Temperance." When we achieve independent adulthood, it's tempting to set out to do almost literally whatever you want to. It's a natural inclination, a fully understandable feeling. But having a sense of temperance or restraint means that you can think of a few good reasons why you wouldn't want to just go for it, whatever it is. Our decisions ought to be mindful of the risks and consequences. Some of what we might choose to do is worth the risk. And, indeed, if we set ourselves on a broadly good and constructive life path, we'll even be able to afford a divergence now and again. Healthy bodies recover quickly. Treating romantic partners with kindness and respect will result in a string of fulfilling relationships, even if they aren't all successful; eventually, one will be. Pursing knowledge and opportunity where you find it will get you far enough ahead that you can take a risky career move or two in pursuit of something great.

But all of that depends on a person's conscious decision to set out on a good life path to begin with. If you decide from an early age to live life in the fast lane, by the time you're 30 or 40 years old, you won't be able to afford to make too many mistakes. If you instead take the time to build a strong foundation for your life, you'll never have too far to fall, and you'll usually land on your feet.



Today, I became aware of a website called MarathonInvestigation.com, and I'm experiencing a flood of emotions.

The website, which is independently run and appears to be funded by the voluntary PayPal contributions of its readers, investigates claims of cheating in road races. Many of these races are, of course, major events like the Boston Marathon, but not all of them are. Many of the runners being investigated - in fact, most of them, as far as I can tell - are not race winners. Many of them aren't even age group winners or frontrunners. A lot of the people who are investigated, and generally confirmed as cheaters, are just average people who are middling or even bad runners, but who somehow end up cutting their races short and then claim later to have run the full race.

This is a mentality that I cannot understand. On some level, it makes sense for an athlete to attempt to cheat in order to win. I don't personally believe in cheating, but at least I can reason out why someone would cheat in a bid to win a race. But I cannot even begin to understand why someone who had no hope of winning would pretend to have finished a full race.

First of all, if you try your hardest on race day, there's no shame coming in second, third, or even last place. Disappointment is certainly understandable from anyone who ended up performing worse than they wanted to. But there's no shame in it. It's not shameful to run poorly, it's not shameful to run slowly, it's not shameful to finish last, it's not even shameful to drop out of the race. It is shameful to cheat. No one should be so afraid of a bad day at the races that they would be willing to cheat to avoid it.

Second of all, unless you're a professional runner in a major race with real prize money attached, there isn't much at stake in the average road race. Many major races won't even let someone collect prize money unless they are registered as an elite racer in the first place. No one actually cares if you finish the race or not. Your spouse will give you a hug and take you out for pizza to cheer you up, your colleagues will politely ask you why you had to drop out, and then everyone will go back to living their lives. Finishing a road race doesn't actually impact anyone.

So, why are people cheating?

One explanation involves stealing bibs. I only learned about this today, but it is apparently possible to make a little money by fabricating race bibs and then selling them online. You put up an ad that says, "Oh, I registered for this race, but now I can't run it. I'll sell it to someone who wants it." I don't think re-selling a legitimately purchased race bib is morally problematic even if it is against a particular race's rules, but making phony bibs and selling them is obviously a form of fraud and a type of stealing. In many cases, people who purchase these illegitimate race bibs know they're buying fakes, and do it anyway, to save money on the race or to gain access to the extras that races often make available to participants: t-shirts, coupons, freebies, swag, and the like.

So, that explains people who steal bibs.

Another explanation is that many people who cheat appear to have a strong social media presence and sizeable community of followers and friends. If I enter a race and find that I can't finish for some reason, all I have to do is stop running; but if I were running to benefit a major charity or to advertise for a business venture, logging a DNF ("did not finish") might be a problem. If people essentially paid you to do a thing, and you couldn't finish the thing, you might feel obligated to give them their money back. Pretending to have run the whole race anyway enables you to run away from that particular issue.

I'm sure there are also people out there who are either too poor or too stingy to pay the registration fee. They cross the starting line, run the full race, and then the expectation is that they step aside near the finish line, without crossing it, so as to make clear that they are not official race participants. In the past, I have jokingly referred to these folks as "race bandits" or "race pirates." I've never seen any of them steal participation medals or pretend to have registered. Most of them, in my experience, are people who want to do a time-trial but don't want the pressure of real competition. Or sometimes they only heard about the race the night before and wanted to jump in to get a faster trial time, but didn't want to bother with proper registration and wanted the option of canceling at the last minute without losing their registration fee. I myself have never done this, but I've also never considered it morally problematic. As long as you step out of the race before you cross the finish line, and don't ruin anyone else's race while you're there, I don't see that you've committed any moral infraction.

This last point puts me a little at odds with the people who run the website. Apparently they, and probably lots of other people, consider this kind of "banditing" unethical. I think, big deal. As long as someone doesn't help themselves to race freebies and amenities, they're only really cheating themselves.

…And I guess that's one my strongest reactions to this whole concept. People who cheat in fun runs and road races, especially when there's nothing important at stake and they have no chance of winning, are only really cheating themselves out of a legitimate race-day performance. If they care about tracking their performances over time, cheating in the race gives you, at best, an asterisk. It's a data point you'll always have to ignore, knowing that it doesn't accurately reflect your performance.

Then there are people like this guy. This guy apparently ran a legitimate Boston Marathon in 1996, and clocked a 3:05, which is a very respectable time for a recreational runner. Good for him. For years, though, he's been re-using his 1996 race bib to run the marathon, cross the finish line, pose for photos, and collect swag. Why would he do this? Marathon Investigation discovered that the man is a graduate of the prestigious Massachusetts Institute of Technology, MIT. So he is a good runner, a smart person, likely very successful in life. Why would a guy like that steal Boston Marathon entry year after year? What's going on with that guy?

There's another side of this that has a big impact on me. As far as I can see, Marathon Investigation is run by just one person, who appears to have made a hobby out of outing road race cheaters. On the one hand, this is a valuable service to race organizers who want to minimize theft and fraud and improve the reputations of their races. On the other hand, what kind of person spends his free time outing race bandits? It is definitely pathetic for a person to cheat on a fun run when there's nothing at stake; but spending your hard-earned free time basically tattling on pathetic people who cheat at pathetic things is… weird. Wouldn't you rather spend your free time with your friends or your family, or writing a novel, or making music, or watching a movie, or having a beer, or… What is the mentality of a person who makes it his hobby to get riled up by petty race fraud and diligently report on it?

The last major emotional pull I experienced from discovering this website was reading the story of a woman who won a marathon, but in order to do so, had to almost come to blows with another racer. The other racer kept "boxing her in," not letting her pass. When she tried to pass, she'd get run over of blocked, and when she finally made it past, the offending woman shoved her hard in the back.

I had an emotional reaction to this because it reminds me of an experience I once had. The story quotes a USATF (USA Track and Field, the official governing body of major race competitions in the United States) rule that expressly prohibits this kind of behavior. You're not supposed to obstruct other runners, and of course it goes without saying that you're not supposed to run them off the course or physically accost them.

During my senior year of high school, I competed at "regionals," where all the high schools in my region got together and had a track meet. Going into the 3200m race, I had the second-fastest time in the region and was a favorite to win. I had a plan to beat the first-place-seeded runner, and I felt fresh and confident. The weather was gorgeous. I was ready. When the race started, though, two slower runners deliberately boxed me in and prevented me from passing them. Then they ran a deliberately slow race. Frustrated, I moved over to the third lane and sprinted past them. I successfully passed them, but used all my energy to do it. I blew it and ended up taking third or fourth, I'm not sure which.

A lot of people were disappointed in my decision. They wanted me to hang back with the people who were blocking me, and then maybe out-run them in the final lap. But I was already over 100 meters behind the first-place seed when I blew the race, and the obstructionists were pushing me further and further behind. I could have placed second, but not with a respectable time. It would have been pointless for me to run a race like that. I may have blown it, but at least I went out trying.

But I've never seen that USATF rule before, and USATF rules applied to my high school track and field career. In other words, I just discovered this morning that one of the great "failures" of my running career was actually a case of other runners violating USATF rules in order to beat me. In short, they cheated.

I don't really know how I feel about that. I've spent many years feeling stupid about that race and wondering how I could have overcome their "strategy." It never occurred to me that I didn't have to overcome it in the first place, because they broke the rules in order to beat me.


Is It Unfair To Be Born Faster Than Everyone Else?

NBC news reports:
The IAAF wants Semenya, Niyonsaba and other female athletes with high levels of natural testosterone to lower them — either through medication or surgery — to be eligible to compete in events from 400m to the mile at top track meets like the Olympics. The IAAF argues that female runners with abnormally high testosterone levels have an unfair advantage.
When is an advantage unfair?

Steroids are made from synthetic testosterone, which is why they call them ster-oids. The issue in this case seems to be that athletes who are born with naturally elevated testosterone levels are capable of building larger, stronger, more powerful muscles than other athletes.

It's true that steroids give athletes an unfair advantage. Steroids create the kind of athletic advantage that cannot be overcome by training alone. They're also hazardous substances that cause major health problems for users over time. The reason steroids are banned substances is because, if they weren't, all athletes would be required to permanently jeopardize their health just in order to be able to compete, let alone win. Officials don't want to foster a sports atmosphere in which medical intervention is the major determinant of elite competitiveness. That all makes sense.

But, in this case, we're not talking about any of that. We're talking about women who have naturally elevated testosterone levels. They didn't ask for elevated testosterone levels. They didn't aggravate their levels. They were simply born on the upper tail of the bell curve and found a way to make use of their natural hormonal profile: Train hard, and win races.

At the elite level, every advantage counts. It is probably true that an athlete with abnormally low testosterone levels will always lose to an athlete with abnormally high levels. In a cosmic sense, that might not be fair. It certainly comes down to pure, dumb luck. But in the sense of starting from a blank slate and rising to the upper echelons of competitive sports through hard work, isn't it impossible to call this "unfair?"

There are a few problems here. First, "normal" testosterone levels are not a static thing. We don't have testosterone records that go back 500 years, but I'm willing to bet that, just as humans have grown taller over time, so human testosterone levels have changed. So who's to say that the line drawn today is worthy of setting a competition policy on?

Second, elevated testosterone is something experienced by multiple athletes in the same competition. There is no evidence that these races have come down to "whoever has the highest testosterone levels on race day wins." Instead, there has simply been a trend showing that those who test high also tend to perform well. The correlation is clear enough, and perhaps also the causation, but there's still a lot more to it than hormones.

Third, if the IAAF can make a determination about how much is too much testosterone among women, does that mean they also plan on doing so for men? Or is "too much testosterone" only something that matters among women? If this rule applies to both sexes then the IAAF will have a lot to account for when they start demanding medical intervention for qualification. And if the rule only applies to one sex and not the other, despite the fact that both sexes make testosterone, it's impossible to see this as anything other than sex discrimination, even beyond the medical discrimination issue already being discussed.

And finally, what does it mean to become a great athlete if the very biological differences that give us an advantage over our competitors are outlawed from competition? Will the IAAF eventually decide that only people of average height be able to compete? Only those with average-sized hearts or average hemoglobin levels? Should people of above-average intelligence be banned under the argument that they can train smarter than all other athletes?

If the body an athlete was born with - naturally - disqualifies them from competition, then what if anything is fair?


Above All, Laud The Winners

Whatever happened to cheering for the winners?

All the news outlets are pumping the story of the Boston Marathon marine guy who crawled across the finish line. I understand the superficial value of the story: all-American boy does good; guy who lost his friends (in 2010) decides to do something difficult in their honor and manages to complete the task through the force of true grit. What I don't understand is why anyone thinks his story is more significant or amazing than the story of the winners.

Congratulations to marine guy for running the Boston Marathon, and my sincere condolences for his fallen friends. Still, there were hundreds of other runners at the Boston Marathon this weekend who were running for similar reasons, and who managed to finish ahead of this marine without crawling to the finish line. Why does marine guy deserve a disproportionate share of attention and accolades? He doesn't, at least, not for his marathon performance.

Every year, tens of thousands of human beings finish a marathon. It's difficult to complete a marathon, and it requires a lot of training, but it's feasible for most healthy people to run a marathon at some point in their lives without being the high-water mark of their existence. It's not that I want to pour cold water over people's accomplishments, but neither should we over-inflate the significance of a thing. The continuum between a huge accomplishment and a mundane task is long and granular; if we cheer loudly for any minor accomplishment, we risk ignoring truly great things. If we waste all our energy on cheering for people who merely finish a marathon, how much energy do we have left to cheer for the leaders?

Nor am I impressed that he crawled across the finish line. Crawling across the finish line is not the mark of great will power and determination, it's the mark of someone who did not adequately prepare for the marathon. We should not ignore that fact just because he ran for a noble cause. As runners, we must train in order to finish our events safely and strongly. This is a serious matter, and we ought not lose sight of its seriousness just because the media attempted to pull our heart strings and mouse strings. Every year, thousands of athletes use the Boston Marathon to fund-raise for charity and to call attention to many noble causes. They manage to train effectively and they manage to finish the race. If we're being frank, we must acknowledge that their accomplishments at the Boston Marathon are superior to the guy who crawled across the finish line.

Marathons are tricky business. Even a well-trained athlete can have a bad day and not finish the race. Perhaps the marine came down with a cold or flu a few days before the race, and ran despite being physically ill or exhausted. That's not worthless, but it's also not particularly great. The marine's friends did not lose their lives so that this guy could hospitalize himself in an effort to pay them tribute. It's good that he finished, but it's not newsworthy.

And we ought to be able to say so.

We also ought to be able to say this: the people who had the greatest accomplishment yesterday morning were the top finishers: Lawrence Cherono and Worknesh Degefa. They may not be former US marines who have seen active combat, but they had the best marathon performances in Boston this year, and they deserve the highest marathon accolades.


In My Body Or In My Head

How's my training going?

This past Sunday, I was scheduled to run a 10K race. I couldn't find any local 10K races for April 14th, and the one I signed up for on April 13th was rained-out. So I did the next best thing, was to run what the kids are calling a "virtual 10K." In other words, I ran ten kilometers all by myself, pretending it was a race. It's definitely not the same thing as a real race, but it's also better than nothing.

I aimed for an average of 6:00 per mile and started off strong at 5:50/mile pace. During the second mile, I ran up a steep hill, which was followed by a two-mile stretch of running into the wind, followed by another steep hill. The next four miles were all over 6:20/mile pace. My final two miles came in under 6:10 pace and I finished with a 38:38. Final average pace was 6:12/mile. That's quite a large difference from my goal pace of 6:00, so I was disappointed on the one hand. On the other hand, it's hard to run at race pace when you're all by yourself; so, with that in mind, I wasn't all that disappointed. Overall, I was satisfied, as far as it goes.

Still, this training regimen I've been working on has taken up a lot of time and effort. I last ran a 10K on August 25th, 2018, and my time was 37:29, more than a minute faster than Sunday, and I managed to do that with very little training and on an extremely, unpleasantly hot day. I was facing stronger winds and steeper, longer hills this past weekend, but I've been training hard for eight solid weeks.

At the halfway point of my half-marathon training, I am not where I would otherwise expect to be. Why not?

One explanation is that heart rate zone training doesn't work for me. During my competitive racing days, the first mile of any competition was always the most crucial for me, since it set the pace of the entire race. If I ran a good first mile, I knew I'd have a chance of running a good race. By contrast, I have never successfully recovered a race from a bad first mile. Heart rate zone training, in which I am required to run 7:30 pace, 7:45 pace, 8:00 pace during recovery runs, might be habituating me to slower running. If so, it's making faster runs more difficult for me.

That's a plausible explanation, but it's also a bit of a weak excuse to claim that the reason I can't run a fast 10K is because I have to run slow on my easy runs.

This brings me to my second possible explanation: Maybe I am not trying hard enough during my threshold runs. In the moment, some of these threshold runs have felt quite difficult. After they're finished, though, I always feel… fine. I don't necessarily want to believe that I'm leaving something in the tank, especially when I think I'm pushing it. But how energetic should a person feel after a very hard workout? It's one thing to feel fully recovered the next day, but it's another thing to never feel like my muscles have gotten a good, solid workout. I remember in the good old days, if I had a tough track workout my muscles were always burning the next day. Not my joints. Not my tendons. My muscles felt like they'd been through an hour of heavy lifting at the gym, all from a track workout. The truth is, I haven't felt like that at all since starting my half-marathon training -- with the exception of today, this morning, the day after my 10K time trial.

Now, again, part of this might be the Z4 upper heart rate limit on my hard workouts. My watch beeps when I hit "Zone 5," and I try to keep it at Z4. But should I? Why shouldn't I push as hard as I need to in order to hit my goal pace? Why should I slow myself down during speed workouts? And who's to say that the heart rate zones on my watch are even accurately configured? They're based on an algorithm. It might be a good algorithm, for all I know, but there is no guarantee, and if my times aren't dropping despite running hard workouts and 60-mile training weeks, isn't that a problem?

Of course, in the back of my mind, there is another invidious little voice whispering about a third reason: It's all in my head. Maybe taking on a big, 16-week training plan has gotten into my head and I haven't been able to relax and stride out like I need to. Maybe more casual running works for me specifically because I don't put this kind of pressure on myself. Or maybe the pressure would be good for me, if I could handle it.

Coincidentally, my daughter had a sports experience this weekend in which she may have put a little too much pressure on herself, to deleterious effect. Perhaps the apple doesn't fall far from the tree. Perhaps the tree needs to get out of his own head about running and get back to pushing hard and enjoying himself.


Take The Time To Notice Your Loved Ones' Accomplishments

An ex-colleague of mine once told me that, when he had his first child, he created a spreadsheet that charted his son's first words. He listed each new word his young son learned, and the date on which it was observed. Then, after some time, he created a graph with time on the x-axis and the count of known words on the y-axis. He said it was interesting to see the line. It was roughly "exponential" in shape.

(I guess I should say that the line was convex and increasing. I have no idea whether it truly resembled an exponential function, and likely neither did my coworker. Hurray for pedantry.)

When you learn Bangla, it can be hard to learn all the different written verb conjugations that exist, and then to learn all the different spoken verb conjugations. Written and spoken conjugations in Bangla all line up one-to-one, but they're different. Khaisi is a different word than kheyechhi, even though they mean the same thing. One you'll only ever experience in written form, and the other you'll only ever experience in spoken form. Written and spoken conjugations each have their own rules, but luckily they both do have rules, and the rules can be learned and applied. The hard part is figuring out what the rules are. Once you know the rules, though, it's no more difficult to conjugate khawa than it is to conjugate kora or any other verb.

It took me about six months of daily practice to get good enough at playing chords on a guitar that I could learn and strum any old pop song I wanted to. That first six months was excruciating. My fingers hurt, and it wasn't any fun trying to sing and play a song because there was a large gap between the strumming of each new chord, as my fingers fumbled for the correct position. That, too, if I didn't have to look up how to play the chord in a book or chart! Memorizing a chordal lexicon and then training your hands to play each chord via muscle memory fast enough to be able to play a song on-tempo is a difficult and slow-going process on the guitar. But it's about six months of work. After that, the number of songs a person can learn increases at an increasing rate.

So, I think it's safe to say that the concepts described above generalize. The hardest part of learning anything is learning the fundamentals. Once you know them, applying them is a relatively straight-forward process. It takes more time to learn and understand the fundamentals than it does to apply the fundamentals to new concepts, so our rate of learning will tend to increase over time. When we know nothing, the learning is slow; when we know a little more, the learning comes much easier.

Of course, learning to communicate, learning to speak a new language, and learning to play a new instrument are activities that all involve much more than the fundamentals. There are subtleties and implications. There are inferences that must be made. There are greater levels of accomplishment to be had. Even though we learn at an increasing rate as time goes on, there are perhaps an infinite number of concepts leading up to mastery, if mastery is even possible. And thus, after a time, our additional accomplishments become less noticeable to outsiders even if we're learning more now than ever before.

This morning, my daughter correctly guessed how to spell the word "habitat." She's four years old, so this is somewhat impressive. She can read, and that was impressive when it finally happened. She knows some good words, words beyond what the average four-year-old knows, among which I count the word "habitat;" and her having a good vocabulary is impressive to me. Still, it doesn't elicit the same kind of emotional reaction in me the way it did when I heard her say "Dada" for the first time. That's not because it isn't equally as impressive, it's just because hearing a child's first word is a leap into interpersonal communication, whereas hearing a young child spell the word "habitat" is a fully anticipated outcome of her having been taught the phonic principles of reading.

Ironically, her spelling "habitat" is probably more impressive on objective terms, even though it didn't rock my world quite the same way. She spoke her first word at about an "age-appropriate" time. It was a developmental milestone that she crossed at roughly the time the average parent might expect. By contrast, she learned to read earlier than average, and I don't know any other four-year-old who knows the word "habitat," much less knows how to read it or spell it.

So, in fact, I am more impressed that she did this today, but it requires some introspection on my part to fully appreciate it. That got me thinking: How many other things will she learn today that would impress me this much, if I but merely took the time to think about it for a second?

I'm not writing this to brag to the world about cool stuff my daughter did. The lesson to be learned here is that I think we should occasionally take the time to appreciate the remarkable things our friends and loved ones do. We don't always notice what's going on. We don't always take the time to consider how impressive it is that they've managed to accomplish what they have. We're naturally impressed when people learn a new set of fundamentals, but after that, we stop paying attention. It becomes harder and harder to differentiate between a person's being able to play The Entertainer and The Moonlight Sonata, except to people familiar with piano-playing. But we don't have to be familiar with piano playing if we merely take the time to follow along with our loved ones as they work through their own sets of accomplishments.

So, the bottom line here is to take that time. Recognize what your loved ones have done. They'll amaze you, if you're paying attention!


Lateral Oscillation: The Running Form Problem Good Runners Have

This morning, I was scrolling through my Instagram feed, and I came across a video of a team of runners somewhere in Colorado, running together during a workout.

That's not unusual. I come across similar videos all the time, and have been doing so ever since I started following elite distance runners such as Mo Farah and Eliud Kipchoge on Instagram. What caught my attention, however, was the running form of these American distance runners in Colorado as compared to African-native professional runners I follow.

While there are many small differences I could discuss between the two running forms, there was one huge difference: lateral oscillation. "Lateral oscillation" isn't something you'll find in running physiology books, because it isn't generally a factor worth discussing scientifically. This is because most everyone already understands that bounding from one side and then to the next is a bad and inefficient way to run. A runner should always be stepping forward, never sideways. A runner's torso will naturally twist as his or her center of gravity moves to support one leg's stride and then the next leg's stride. But sideways motion in the body should be as minimal as possible. To the extent that runners do it at all, it shouldn't be noticeable; and it shouldn't be so pronounced that a casual social media observer would take notice of it.

Perhaps one reason I reacted so strongly to seeing the video is that I recently took a slow-motion video of myself doing a few strides after a long run, and caught myself engaging in a surprising amount of lateral oscillation. Mine wasn't nearly as bad as what I saw in these Colorado runners, but it was enough that I had to do a bit of a double-take. "Huh," I thought to myself, "that doesn't look quite right." I chalked it up to the fact that I had just run fifteen miles, my farthest run in a decade. Surely diminished running form is partially excusable after a two-hour slog. I don't think these Colorado runners had the same excuse, but at the same time, I can't dismiss the fact that both they and I were caught on video making the same mistake.

Mistakes like these are often more psychological than they are biomechanical. The major reason I tell people to run, not jog is because the very concept of "jogging" calls to mind an unnatural running gait, slow and lumbering, shoulders too high and tense, legs too low to the ground. This "jogging" form is unlike anything you'd use to escape from a man-eating tiger and unlike anything you'd observe in "the wild," if you somehow managed to see "wild" humans. A running gait, by contrast, defined to be the motion that comes most naturally to you, the gait you'd use to flee from a man-eating tiger, is safe and efficient. It is the motion that human beings evolved to perform, no different than the fact that cheetahs evolved to run the way they run. It's what nature demanded of our species, and it's what we'll have the most success with if we choose to embrace it as our running form for exercise.

This lateral oscillation, though, is a bit more complicated. It's not something a jogger would do. Instead, it's a kind of swagger; it's something that someone would do if they got it in their head that they were running fast and being awesome. It's conceited and performative, exactly what you'd expect from a glamorous social media video clip of a group of tough-guy runners being awesome on Instagram. In a way, it represents the opposite of the "jogging" problem. Where a jogger jogs because he's often a bit self-conscious and wants to look like what he thinks a fit person looks like, a lateral oscillator moves side-to-side because he's feeling confident and wants to project an air of speed and ability. Ironically, the result is a lot of energy wasted through inefficient motion, a corresponding reduction in running economy, and, ultimately, a slower and less-capable runner.

The moral of the story is that good runners aren't immune to form problems. The solution is to somehow find your zen. When running is done right, it feels magical, like flying. One hardly has to think about it. It's a comfortable and efficient glide. The more you get into your head when you run, either due to too much or too little confidence, the greater your risk that your attitude will adversely impact your running form.


Kindness, Not Sex, Is A Woman's Real Power

An interesting conversation sprung up at Marginal Revolution. What started it was a rather silly trio of tweets from a journalist who put forth a two-penny theory about how feminism was initially aligned with "raunch culture," and then over time, anti-feminism became aligned with "raunch culture." To be clear, I don't think this idea has any explanatory power whatsoever, and I don't even think there is such a thing as "raunch culture" to begin with. But, that's what started the conversation.

Before you know it, many commentators were presenting their own theories to account for what we see today: a confluence of shrill feminist rhetoric paired with an ever-diminishing rate of sexual activity among young people. One smart person called "derek" argued that the sexual mores of the world that existed before the (1960s) sexual revolution were designed to facilitate, rather than restrain, coupling. As he put it,
The sexual revolution was about defining sex as simply a source of pleasure, and that any restraint is unnecessary. It obviously is far more than that. The most interesting thing is that a couple of generations with no restraint ends up not doing it very much. Who would have thought that the rigid sexual morals were a societal basis for vigorous horniness? I doubt that any religious person would be surprised by that finding…. 
The most interesting thing is that the upper middle class largely lives a life of chastity, honor and faithfulness because it works very well. And it does, but no one dares say so.
This is not such a radical idea. Hundreds of years after its development, people in society still have trouble absorbing the concept of "Rule of Law." When we sketch out the clear boundaries of acceptable behavior, we all have more freedom within those rules than we do when we eliminate all rules and the boundaries become fuzzy. Certainty, it turns out, is good for freedom; even sexual freedom.

Next came a fascinating game theory treatment written by a person called "asdf." I post it here in full:
Both sexes would like to be strategically promiscuous (in different ways, but still promiscuous).
However, this is a prisoners dilemma. If the double cooperate box is "pre-sexual revolution mores", then the other two boxes (my sex does as it pleases, the other sex continues to play cooperate anyway) seem to be what playboy and pro-sex feminism we're going for for either sex. Turns out defect/cooperate combos weren't too stable, and you tend to end up in a defect/defect equilibrium.

Conservatives though such an equilibrium would mean lots of teenage mothers, and for a time it did, but it seems that equilibrium can also mean sterility due to lack of ability to form the trust necessarily to facilitate sex for most normal people (long term monogamous pairs).

"Feminists" seem to think we can still get to that "women defect, men cooperate" box if only we implement enough Orwellian pressure. Hence the kangaroo courts and such. Mostly it just seems to push us further into defect/defect.
There is a lot of wisdom in that comment, so read it a couple of times over. I won't belabor any of "asdf"'s great points by repeating them in my own words.

For now, let us merely consider where our inquiry is taking us. "Derek" tells us that well-defined sexual mores promote sexual behavior by defining where freedom exists. "Asdf" tells us that, as in a "prisoner's dilemma," stable social equilibria in sexual behavior exist only when both sides either cooperate or refuse to cooperate; when one side wants the other to cooperate, but refuses to cooperate themselves, the situation is both unpleasant and unstable. Note here that "double cooperation" is a more optimal equilibrium than "defect/defect." That is, people are happier when they're in stable, cooperative romantic relationships than they are when they're only ever taking what they can get and looking for the next best thing.

Next came an exchange between "Hazel Meade" -- a ubiquitous econ blog commentator whose comments are almost always of stellar quality -- and myself. [Note: I have no idea if "Hazel Meade" is a nickname, pseudonym, nom de plume, or real name; for our purposes here, I will treat it as a real name merely to avoid having to over-use quotation marks.]

Hazel rightly pointed out that "raunch culture" can be sexist, but can also not be. She then opined that she preferred the brand of feminism that was attached to "raunch culture," typified by the pop culture of the early 1990s, to the more Victorian feminism of today. I responded by recounting an interview with Prince, in which he revealed that the mere act of being raunchy attracts unsavory characters, making it something that we generally can't do often, if we care about respecting each other as individuals.

Then Hazel presented an opinion that seems wrong to me. She suggested that the right way forward is to put women, and only women, in complete control of sexuality. After all, they're the ones with the "scarce resource," and men who want to increase their chances of "getting laid" will allow this to happen if they know what's good for them.

There is plenty to object to about that position, but what made the biggest impression on me was Hazel's simultaneous demand for complete control of all sexual decision-making and her veiled threat of withdrawing sex. It was as if she was saying, "Give women all the sexual power in the romantic marketplace, or else we will take sex away from you."

Let me outline a few problems with that.

First, any man who would trade self-respect for sex is not likely to be a man that sexually appeals to most women. It's been my experience that most women want a man who is confident in who he is.

Second, any man who is willing to do pretty much anything in order to get sex is also unlikely to appeal to most women. A man who can be convinced to do what you want him to do simply by offering him sex is also a man who can be convinced to do what someone else wants him to do simply by offering him sex. His cooperation comes cheaply, and yours is not always the most attractive offer.

Third, any woman who would attempt to manipulate a man in such a way is unlikely to appeal to most men. Men don't want sex to be used as a bargaining chip. Men also don't want to pursue long-term relationships with women who threaten to withhold affection in order to get their own way. That's pretty much the definition of a dysfunctional relationship.

Fourth, this grand ultimatum requires total cooperation from all other women. Unfortunately for Hazel, there will always be women who are willing to give a little ground in order to land a good relationship with a good man. I say "unfortunately," but that's actually a wonderful thing. Humans should generally be willing to give a little ground for the sake of a great romance. That's the foundation of a successful marriage.

Fifth, and finally, Hazel's presentation of the matter only applies to young twenty-somethings. By the time people start to reach their thirties, the power dynamics have completely shifted in favor of the men. At a young age, women can dangle their attractiveness in front of all the young boys and make them dance to the snapping of their fingers. But youth and beauty are both fleeting, and more so for women than for men. A 30-year-old woman can still be beautiful, but she cannot afford to demand as much from men, or else they will simply trade her for another beautiful 30-year-old woman who demands less, or a beautiful 20-year-old woman who expects less. Either option is a Pareto improvement. A beautiful 20-year-old woman likely has more than 20 childbearing years ahead of her; a 30-year-old woman has half that, and maybe less than half. As we age, the pool of quality mates shrinks, but an attractive middle-aged man appeals to both middle-aged women and young women, whereas an attractive middle-aged woman only appeals to much older men. Thus, a woman's insistence on being in complete control of sexual decisioning in her thirties and beyond is unlikely to yield anything positive for her. At best, it might buy her some time; at worst, it'll cost her one of her last good chances with a quality man. That's a fool's bargain.

The point of view I attempted to advance, contra Hazel Meade, was that sexual decisions must be arrived mutually between two equals. For all the reasons outlined above, I think it's a foregone conclusion. The modern feminist notion of putting women in control of romantic decision is an unstable equilibrium that is unlikely to get women what they actually want from their relationships.

Feminism is not the answer; equality is the answer. Two people in a romantic relationship must negotiate the terms of that relationship as equals. If they don't, they jeopardize the integrity of the relationship itself.

In the old days, this was all laid out in no uncertain terms in the form of traditional sexual mores. That's where "derek"'s comment comes in. We had more freedom, and better-quality relationships when we had clear rules and everyone understood when they were being violated. Today, by contrast, we're stuck trying to negotiate the terms of our acceptance of each other. Men and women push each other's boundaries and challenge each other in unhealthy ways, at all points demanding to know, "Do you still accept me now? And how about now?" How much sex can she get away with depriving him of? How much domination can he exert on her before she protests? How long can they afford to wait before they're willing to cut-cord and find someone more compatible?

In the end, women can offer men sex, but in the long run they must offer us kindness. Sex is not a good enough offer from one woman to justify a man's full cooperation. He can always find sex. He cannot always find kindness. Kindness is the truly scarce resource, and it's the one that determines whether she will be a good wife, a good mother, a good in-law, and a good life-partner. Besides, women can only bargain with sex for about ten years before they must start to bargain with other things by necessity.

Men, who never get pregnant or carry a child to term, whose bodies never change to accommodate pregnancy or the nursing process, who remain sexually virile deep into old age, are the ones with the true bargaining power. We can afford to hold out for as long as it takes to find a truly kind, non-manipulative woman. And we can obtain sex in the meantime.

The good news for women is that kindness is an easy offer to make, it doesn't cost a woman any self-respect or challenge her self-worth as a woman. It doesn't make her less a woman and it doesn't compromise her feminist ideals. Kindness is also an offer that is unlikely to be taken up by men who are knaves. A man whose only interest is in taking advantage of a woman and using her will generally make that clear, whether or not she offers him kindness. But a good man will respond to kindness with a clear, obvious, and unambiguous devotion to her.

Kindness, not sex, is a woman's real power.


Getting Outside

Last night, I watched the movie Free Solo, which is a National Geographic documentary film about Alex Honnold's successful free solo climb of "El Capitan" in Yosemite National Park. The film has been positively reviewed elsewhere, and I won't do so here. My short review of the film can be summarized as follows: Free Solo is a wonderful film for people who have familiarity with rock climbing or the rock climbing community, while non-climbers may find the pace of the movie a little slow and will almost certainly miss out on some of the technical details of the climb. This movie is not merely "guy does amazing thing," it is specifically "guy who is an amazing climber does an amazing climbing thing." The better you understand climbing, the better you will appreciate the movie. That said, my wife enjoyed it, and she knows nothing about climbing.

Beyond the element of rock climbing in the movie, the film jolted my memory about a great many things I haven't been in touch with for a very long time. Watching the film, I was impressed by the rock climbing community, people who hang out at the same national parks and wilderness areas, pursuing the same outdoor hobbies, with a sort of similar attitude toward nature and toward technology. It's not merely a rock climbing community, it's a subset of the broader "outside" community.

This is a community that surrounded me as I grew up. It's impossible to avoid this community in Utah - or at least, it was when I lived there - because Utah is such a wonderfully special place for outdoor sports. In addition to featuring bar-none the best skiing in the entire world, Utah is home to impressive red rock formations that attract rock climbers and mountain bikers from all over the world. The northern part of the state is home to some of the best single-track mountain biking trails in the Rocky Mountains, along with plenty of limestone climbing routes, national and state parks, mountains for hiking and ice climbing, rivers for kayaking and fishing, reservoirs for boating, and endless routes for trail-running, camping, caving, and exploring. In short, if an outdoor sport exists, there are many beautiful places where you can do it in Utah. I am not sure that any other place in the world has so many great, world-class outdoor sporting locations as Utah does.

Consequently and unsurprisingly, the outdoor sporting community thrives there, so much so that when I moved away I slowly had to adjust to the fact that people who live in other places don't necessarily do something. In Utah, everyone does something. Some fish, some bike, some run, some climb, some ski, some camp, and some do more than one of the above, but everyone does something. Outside of that world, though, a lot of people don't do something. Outside of that world, it's not uncommon to meet people whose only real hobbies involve watching TV and eating. The point I'm trying to make here is that I literally didn't understand this until I left Utah, because I had never really met such people when I was there. The outside community is everywhere there. I hadn't realized how much I missed it until I watched Free Solo.

This outside community is an interesting group. They're a people who like to spend the majority of their time in nature, doing very low-fidelity things - they're campers, not glampers - but who are also extremely tech-savvy. In fact, the outside community has their own thriving world of gadgets and gizmos that many people don't know exist, but again, this is all in support of fundamentally low-tech passtimes. These are people who eat extremely healthy diets, and yet who are also stereotypically passionate about beer and coffee. They're among the most physically fit people in the whole world, and yet they spend little time in gyms and don't tend to bulk-up like body-builders. (Indeed, one of the more impressive things about Alex Honnold is how incredibly strong and muscular he is, despite his somewhat gangly appearance. That's not something you'd encounter in your average gym rat.) The gear they need to do their thing is horrendously expensive, as anyone who has tried to assemble the most basic, fundamental rock climbing kit can attest, and yet they are generally not a community of people who exude affluence or wealth.

Stepping into this world means stepping into a world of people who have made it a point to spend most of their time outside, and who have figured out the means to do so. Why run on a sidewalk when there is a trail available? Why take a car when you can take a bike? Why eat indoors when you can eat outdoors? Why sleep under a roof when you can sleep under the stars? It's a romantic world, borne out of the community's close proximity to the kind of wilderness that is capable of being enjoyed. That is, you're unlikely to meet a great outdoorsman living in the Sahara desert; you're much more likely to meet one at the foot of Mount Rainier. Like people who live on the coast and cannot imagine life in a place where one can wander miles without seeing a drop of water, so the outside community lives in places where there are copious trails and fun things to do outside, and they cannot fathom what it might be like to live in an urban center, or a flat, sprawling suburbia like you find in the South.

It's a great world, and I miss it. I like living in north Texas, but it would be nice to be able to transport my lifestyle and resources from here to a place closer to the community of people I grew up around. Maybe a better choice would be to make small changes to my own life, to see if I can enjoy a little more of that lifestyle than I otherwise would.


The Unaffordable Decadence Of Cycling

The trouble with a bicycle is that its two primary benefits are at odds with each other.

Bicycles are a technical marvel. The more one learns about bicycle mechanics the more impressive it seems. Or, perhaps the reality is that bicycles present various aspects of mechanics in ways that laymen like myself can easily understand. At any rate, the story of the development of the modern bicycle is a story of the development of the industrial revolution. We go from wooden frames propelled by legs on the ground, like a toddler's "balance bike" (they were called "dandy horses" at the time) to tubular frames and spoked wheels, to rear-drive "safety bicycles" with chain-driven hubs, to interchangeable parts and pneumatic tires… and so on. Every new development in the world of mass-production and industry has a corresponding development in the world of bicycles, to the point that even today the world's leaders in electric cars are also manufacturing futuristic electric bicycles.

In short, the bicycle is the ultimate case study in applied mechanics, and this plays directly into the first of the bicycle's two primary benefits: It is an extremely energy-efficient machine. This accounts for its popularity as a pure utilitarian means of transportation. Some estimates state that a bicycle traveling somewhere between 14 and 25 miles per hour requires the same amount of energy from the rider as the rider would spend walking. I don't know about you, but I certainly can't walk 14-25 miles per hour.

The bicycle's other primary benefit is, for the most part, totally unrelated to the first. Bicycles are extremely fun.

For those who do not ride, it's impossible to understand. No description can give it justice. Is it the act of balancing, or the ability to achieve high speeds in a short period of time, with minimal effort? Is it the wind in your face, or the gravity working with you as you lean into a turn? Is it the communion with nature, or the connection to the road? Perhaps it's all of those things. It is a multi-sensory experience that is continually satisfying, from beginning to end. Oh, sure, there are times when one must ascend a steep hill at great effort, or ride mile after mile into a strong and unforgiving headwind. That isn't always fun. Still, it isn't exactly miserable, either.

There's something magical about it. The same stretch of road looks and feels different from a bicycle than it does from a car. When you have a tactile connection to the slope of the hills and you can hear the birds, you find appreciation in a place that, from a car window, might look otherwise boring. You certainly won't discover a blue-jay's nest while speeding by an empty lot in a sedan at 45 miles per hour. On a bicycle, though, you might hear the jay's song, which will cause you to turn your head and catch it flying by; you follow it with your eyes until it lands in a tree up ahead, and then you take a look as you ride past, spotting the nest, the bird's mate, and possibly even hearing the chicks peep as they cry for food. All that in an empty lot, a potentially dirty lot, on an ugly side of town that makes you frown when you see it from your car. Bicycles give you access to the hidden lives of the city.

But that's romance. Bicycles also offer us thrills. Is there any better word than "thrilling" to describe the feeling of speeding down a long, steep, empty hill at speeds well exceeding 30 miles per hour, with nothing keeping you from scraping your face across the pavement than your own sense of balance and your ability to control your vehicle? There are many cyclists who make the trek miles and miles up a steep mountain road, solely so that they can have the experience of coasting back down it. We do this because we cannot help ourselves. It's dopamine, pure dopamine, pumping through our brains as we descend. To hell with the station wagons honking at us to move. They don't know what it's like, because they can't feel the wind on their faces.

It's almost worth the inevitably inhaled insect, although I could do without the coughing fit.

A bicycle's two primary benefits are its mechanical advantage and the fact that it is unbelievably fun to ride. These two features combine to present an experience that a rational person capable of riding will want to take advantage of at every available moment. In doing so, however, the rider must make a sacrifice. Riding a bicycle can be physically strenuous, but it's designed not to be. The whole point of bicyclical transportation is to avoid energy loss. That's why, in many countries, even old ladies ride bicycles. Bicycling itself won't make you a sweaty mess, not like a ten-mile run will. When you finally dismount, you'll feel a little wobbly, as if you've just been on a long boat ride; but it's not wobbly from physical expenditure, it's wobbly from having spent a long time atop a fast-moving gyroscope.

For some, lengthy bike rides might be a good form of fitness. It would certainly be better than nothing at all. But for someone who enjoys dedicating a lot of his free time to physical fitness, bike riding is a decadence I can seldom afford. I enjoy my "cross training days," when I can get out on a bicycle and just enjoy a ride. I don't have to worry about the workout I'm missing, because the point of the day is to rest my muscles and to give them a change of pace. But on an "on" day, who can afford to do something that's equivalent to walking? Even a very long walk can't give your muscles, heart, and lungs the same kind of workout that a run will. So, much to my chagrin, I must leave the bicycle home.

Still, I am a middle-aged man. I know that life is short, and virility even shorter. One day, I won't be able to run like I do, and on that day, I'll be glad to have my bicycle. It's a wonderful machine.