Stupid Machines

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Why are there so many stupid machines out there?

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

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

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

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

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



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

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

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

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

*        *        *

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

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

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

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

*        *        *

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Photo Op

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


House Work

We hear a lot about how women do the lion's share of the housework. Recently, we have begun to hear about "cognitive labor," which more about identifying what needs to be done, and arranging to have it done, even if you yourself don't ultimately do it. For example, arranging a babysitter, or planning meals that you don't necessarily cook. And researchers are telling us that cognitive labor, too, is mostly done by the women of the house.

There are two possible problems with the idea of "cognitive labor."

The first is that, according to the definition and description of it, a woman who decides she wants new paint in her bedroom, and who subsequently nags her husband to repaint the walls, gets credit for "cognitive labor," even though all she really did was decide that she wanted something and then make her husband do it for her.

The second problem is that people with a lot of anxiety will tend to fret unnecessarily about things, making long "to-do" lists and stressing themselves out about them; this symptom of anxiety could be misconstrued as legitimate "cognitive labor," especially in one who is both anxious and not particularly self-aware. Imagine a person who obsessively cleans the counter-tops at home; does such a person genuinely have a lot of housework to do? Of course not. When people assign themselves unnecessary work or unnecessary cognitive labor, they're not doing more than their fair share, they're wasting time and energy, and typically at the expense of things that genuinely do need to be done.

Provided a "cognitive laborer" is not engaging in those two activities, I think it is perhaps a useful concept.

But, there is another kind of "invisible work" that gets done in a household. We can't call it genuine housework, and we can't call it "cognitive labor." We also can't call it "emotional labor," because that's a term that has already been reserved for a different concept.

What do you call the responsibility a person has toward providing emotional support to the other members of the family? What do you call the work a parent does if she handles most of the disciplinary problems, most of the soothing and comforting, most of the story-telling and happy-birthday-singing? What do you call the work one partner does when the other is feeling depressed or anxious and needs some cheering-up? What do you call it when one partner needs to take a break, and all the responsibilities and interpersonal interaction fall to the other partner: playing with the kids, talking to the kids, talking to the partner who is taking a break, checking-in with an anxious family member, ensuring that homework is done, etc.? What is that kind of work called?

In some families, the majority of the emotional support required of all the family members falls to one person. Despite what other chores might need to be done, the emotional work comes first. After all, you can't get to the pile of dishes in the sink if someone is crying on your shoulder. You can't re-caulk the bathtub if a toddler is going stir-crazy and desperately needs to be entertained. You can't go get an oil change if your romantic partner feels lonely and needs to be held.

Undoubtedly, the mother of the house is often the one who must do the majority of these tasks. But I think it is equally common -- perhaps even more common -- for the father of the house to be the one who does this. It is the father who often serves as the "final disciplinarian" toward children. It is the father who must consistently woo the mother and shower her with gifts to keep her feeling loved. It is the father who must retain cool composure and determination in the face of any kind of hardship. He provides protection against both little spiders and loud noises from outside. He is the jester of the family, the one to turn to when one needs to hear a good joke, or a silly song, or a much-derided "dad joke." It is the father who must teach the son "how to be a man," as well as teaching the daughter "how a woman ought to be treated."

Men do a great deal of emotional housework, and they seldom get credit for it. So, to you men who spend many hours per week providing emotional support to your families, I say: Well done. I notice your efforts.


On Not Going Through The Motions

Here's a comment I left at Marginal Revolution
Right, just like reading a book confers no knowledge. You have to do more than just get through the book. You have to pay attention to what it says and think about it. Same deal with exercise. I know people who have been running 10-minute miles for 30 years. Imagine running for 30 years and never once breaking a 6-minute mile. They're putting in the time, but not mindfully
Now, the wrong conclusion to draw from that is "Exercise doesn't help most people." The right conclusion to draw is, "Don't just go through the motions when you're living your life. Do things deliberately." But do you think the average person even wants to become aware of the difference? Inevitability is the mental inertia that drives all other psychological defense mechanisms.
Now, if you'll excuse me, I'm going to re-blog this comment... 
If I had a nickel for every time someone said to be, "But Ryan, not everyone wants to be a fast runner!" I would be a multi-millionaire. This level of whining has always missed the point. I'd like to take a moment to explain why.

I know people who have cooked almost every single day of their adult lives, but who have never put forth any effort into becoming a better cook. On one level, I understand this, because I usually have to cook dinner for everyone in my house, and that daily task quite often becomes a chore and a time-suck that I'd rather trade for the chance to practice my guitar for an hour or get a bonus workout in.

But on another level, I think it's crazy. How can you do something that you have to do pretty much every day of your life, and not make some minimal effort to turn it into a more pleasant task? How can you steam vegetables every day of your life, and never wonder what it might be like to saute something in garlic and olive oil for a change? One does not require a cooking class to sprinkle some rosemary on a sprig of broccoli.

It's not from a lack of talent, skill, or knowledge that people wind up in a situation in which they are completely incapable of substantive life-improvements. It's a mental block preventing them from making a change, and most likely a defense mechanism belying an unwillingness to change.

In order to make your life better -- better in any way whatsoever -- you have to identify a problem that needs to be solved, along with specific steps that will solve the problem.

If you date someone for another year and don't end up getting any closer to marrying that person, you're not dating them correctly. If you dedicate yourself to diet and exercise for a year and don't feel healthier, then you're not working out correctly, or you're not eating correctly. If you run every day and never get any faster, then you're not running correctly. If you study Spanish for a year and can't carry on a simple conversation with a Spanish-speaker, then you're not studying Spanish correctly.

This is not an attack on you. This is not my proclamation of moral or didactic superiority. This is a simple set of facts. If you engage in a skill that never improves, then you are not building that skill the right way. You are merely going through the motions.

But, you protest, why does it have to be about improvement? Why can't I just be happy with where I am? The simple answer is this: You can be, but you're just going through the motions.

Imagine being married for twenty years and you never get any better at pleasing your partner in bed. Wouldn't your partner have a legitimate grievance? Couldn't he or she say that you just go through the motions and never spend time on your partner's needs? Well, I'm here to tell you that everything is like that. Running, cooking, learning, parenting, being a better friend, whatever it is. Any skill that can be honed must be honed, and if you're not honing it, then you're going through the motions.

Is it bad to just go through the motions? Not necessarily. I'm not very good when it comes to playing Settlers of Catan, and I don't have any desire to be very good at it. When we play that game, I go through the motions, I enjoy it for what it is, and I leave it at that. One cannot hone every imaginable skill. One must prioritize.

But, if you're not prioritizing some of your skills, chores, relationships, or etc., then you're living your entire life by going through the motions. That's your right, but it won't make you happy in the long run.

"Politics The Mind-Killer" And Other Stories

Twelve years ago, Eliezer Yudkowski introduced a concept that has taken root across the international community of smart people. In a blog post entitled, "Politics is the Mind-Killer," he writes:
People go funny in the head when talking about politics. The evolutionary reasons for this are so obvious as to be worth belaboring: In the ancestral environment, politics was a matter of life and death. And sex, and wealth, and allies, and reputation . . . When, today, you get into an argument about whether “we” ought to raise the minimum wage, you’re executing adaptations for an ancestral environment where being on the wrong side of the argument could get you killed. Being on the right side of the argument could let you kill your hated rival!
Right off the bat, he loses me. The ultimate thrust of his idea, is a good one. He concludes by saying simply, "It’s just better for the spiritual growth of the community to discuss the issue without invoking color politics." In order to arrive at this point, however, Yudkowski makes a terrible error that no one has ever bothered to go back and correct. Yudkowski thinks politics is an evolutionary response. I don't.

The fact that human beings are social is almost certainly an evolutionary fact. All of the great apes and most of the primates are social animals. It would be strikingly odd to discover that one of the most common primates was completely atomistic, in contrast to every other similar species. I think it's also self-evidently true that politics is a form of social interaction. From this, we'd be tempted to follow a chain of logic that goes something like this:

  1. Social interaction is an evolved behavior.
  2. Politics is a form of social interaction.
  3. Therefore, politics is an evolved behavior.
This kind of analysis is so superficial that I'm surprised it could convince anyone. Consider an analogous argument:

  1. Social interaction is an evolved behavior.
  2. Laser tag is a form of social interaction.
  3. Therefore, laser tag is an evolved behavior.
What's the problem here? Human beings evolved to link up with each other and behave cooperatively. Playing a game of laser tag certainly involves linking up with other human beings and cooperating, and thus involves a cognitive response that can be traced back through the millennia, but the specific context of a game of laser tag is completely disconnected from any evolutionary pattern. Laser tag is not a biological fact, but a technological one.

Humans put their evolutionary abilities to use to invent laser tag, just as chimpanzees put their own abilities to use to build nests in the trees. No one would argue that nests are a part of chimp evolution. Chimps evolved to sleep and to prefer comfort to discomfort; thus, over time, they discovered a technology that satisfied their needs. Humans evolved to reason, and to think up games to practice strategy; thus, over time, they developed a laser tag technology that satisfied their needs.

My argument: Politics is merely a kind of social technology*.

When we invoke politics, we're not engaging in something inevitable from out evolved biology, we're choosing a particular kind of social technology designed to facilitate cooperation. Ludwig von Mises would ask, Is the chosen means the best way to achieve the desired end? Well, doesn't that depend on what end one is working toward?

There is an unstated assumption among good people discussing an issue in good faith that we're all looking for the truth, and that if we can debate it and publicly investigate the evidence, eventually we'll all come the same understanding of an issue and agree on what is to be done. We commonly deride others when they "play politics," because on some level we know that politics is antithetical to the search for truth and evidence-based consensus. On some level, we all know that politics is more akin to short-circuiting rational analysis in favor of a cruder emotional response. In light of that, one possible alternate definition for politics is: Appealing to emotions to gain consensus when evidence and logic is insufficient or costly to present.

Consider any political issue about which you feel strongly. Any at all. Consider the things you most typically say about this issue. Does most of what you say consist of formal presentations of the best available empirical evidence, and a clear outline of the underlying logic in defense of a particular policy response? Or, do you mostly say emotional stuff about how the good guys agree with you, the bad guys disagree with you, and that anyone with a modicum of humanity should obviously prefer your policy set? Probably the latter, right? We tend to save our formal, empirical reasoning for our professional lives, mostly because it's hard work (i.e. "costly to present").

We humans are obviously not computers or robots. We evolved both logical and emotional cognitive abilities to handle different kinds of scenarios. Emotional appeals work particularly well in resolving the conflicts of love, for example, while logical appeals work well to get jobs done, put food on the table, solve immediate technological problems, and so on. Love is the glue of social cohesion, and so it's not particularly surprising to see people use emotional responses to attempt to solve problems of social cohesion.

For better or worse, the human species has flourished to the point that some of the things that used to be entirely about social cohesion, such as the distribution of resources within a community, have now become mostly technological problems. When we were hunter-gatherers that acquired resources communally, emotional appeals were probably appropriate means of requesting additional resources in times of need. In the modern world, the economy is so complex that acquiring additional resources can no longer be seen as a matter to be solved through emotional appeals. We now have technologies for the collection and distribution of financing, and many worthy causes that compete against one another for limited resources. The worthiest cause is no longer the one with an important moral claim or a particularly emotional backstory. The worthiest cause is the one that can make the best empirical case that it will put the resources to good use.

You can argue that this technology is cold and unfeeling, but you cannot argue that it isn't fair or that it doesn't distribute resources efficiently. Playing politics thus becomes a way to distract from the best use of our resources and to express emotional vigor over a particularly hard empirical problem to overcome.

Politics isn't a "mind-killer," exactly, but rather a technology best used to resolve individual emotional conflicts, rather than large-scale problems within the state.


* Here I am using "technology" in the same sense that Mises would have used it.



Ineffective training is hard. It leaves the athlete feeling tired and sore, as any tough training regimen will, but it also leaves the athlete feeling mentally drained, frustrated, and dispirited. It's difficult to keep following an ineffective plan because the athlete keeps giving more and more to his or her training, while the regimen continues to ask for more and gives nothing in return. It's awful.

Effective training is another matter entirely. Every workout seems to build on the one before it, even when the athlete doesn't have 100% to give that day. One still gets tired and sore, but the pain and fatigue feel manageable. Even as the athlete takes his or her first few strides in the workout, muscles and ligaments start to limber up, and within seconds, one feels like pushing harder. The more the athlete gives, the more the training regimen seems to give back. Everything seems light, fun, and easy. Arguably, there is no better feeling in life.

I have experienced both kinds of training this year. My heart rate zone half marathon training was a well-documented and colossal failure. Almost nothing about that training regimen felt right. I gave plenty of effort, and received little in return. I did manage, however, to re-acclimate myself to longer runs and twice-a-day running, both of which were important building blocks for what's been happening since.

What's been happening since has been wonderful. I took a little time off to gather my bearings; not a ton of off-time, really, but a few weeks of just getting miles in without bothering to train, per se. Then, I unwittingly stumbled upon a highly effective training strategy, and it's been reinvigorating my body to quite an unexpected degree.

What's different?

First of all, I've dedicated myself to one long bicycle workout per week. I've been doing this on Sunday mornings, first thing. These are three-hour rides or longer, so while the aerobic intensity is lower than I'd get with a long run, the duration is actually much longer. Cycling also works out different muscles than running does. This cross-training allows my running muscles to rest all day Sunday, despite more than three-hours of training. My legs and lungs feel fresh on Mondays even though I am still getting an amazing workout.

Second, I've decided to incorporate treadmill running into my weekly regimen. The hot and humid Texas summer prevents me from running much more than six miles at a time, without only about three or four of those miles available for speed work, before my body overheats and quits. Two weeks back, I started doing speed and tempo work indoors, on a treadmill, allowing me to crank up the intensity of my hard training days without having to fight the heat and inevitably lose. Since I still run outside on my easy days, I'm not compromising my outdoor running form. It's the best of both worlds.

I also don't feel too bad if I have to lose a running day to jumping rope, which is another activity I can do indoors or in the outdoor shade. It's not a running workout, but it's better than nothing, and it does my body a lot of good. Giving myself "permission" to do non-running workouts while still training as a runner has freed me of a lot of mental anguish and opened up a lot of training possibilities for me.

Finally, doing calisthenics at work has enabled me to actually ramp-up my strength training without having to dedicate an hour before or after work to a big second workout. I can drop and do 50 push-ups pretty much whenever I want, and as I've been working out, I've been writing down my repetitions and focusing on consistent forward progress. It's been working.

Sample Workout Week

  • Monday: 45 push-ups every hour from 6:30 to 1:30; 1-mile brisk walk at 10:00 AM; 6-mile easy run at noon.
  • Tuesday: 15 pull-ups every hour from 6:30 to 1:30; 1-mile brisk walk at 10:00 AM; 8-mile threshold run on the treadmill at noon.
  • Wednesday: 45 push-ups every hour from 6:30 to 1:30; 1-mile brisk walk at 10:00 AM; 6-mile easy run at noon.
  • Thursday: 15 pull-ups every hour from 6:30 to 1:30; 1-mile brisk walk at 10:00 AM; 10-mile tempo run on the treadmill at noon.
  • Friday: 45 push-ups every hour from 6:30 to 1:30; 1-mile brisk walk at 10:00 AM; 6-mile easy run at noon.
  • Saturday: 8-10 mile easy run early in the morning; walking or light swimming in the afternoon.
  • Sunday: 40-mile bicycle ride early in the morning in HRZ 1 or 2; rest and hydration in the afternoon.


Misleading Visuals

I have the vivid memory of walking down the sidewalk between classes at my university. The weather was brisk, but the sun was shining through the trees, and there were a lot of us walking to our next class, all in different directions.

As I looked up, I noticed a tall, attractive man with long hair and wire-rimmed glasses, nodding smartly as he carried on a conversation that I imagined to be quite erudite. He was wearing name-brand outdoor clothing, the kind you might find have found (at the time) in a store like REI, expensive and high-quality clothing. He was wearing a scarf, and it was tied just the way a man's scarf ought to be, such that it looked both fashionable and rugged at the same time. He carried himself with an air that was both intellectual and physical. He just looked damn cool.

And he was smoking a pipe.

The pipe was an interesting touch. It was highly unusual, for all kinds of reasons. Most people don't smoke pipes, and those who do typically smoke them at home, not when they're out-and-about on a busy college campus in the morning. Even those who do carry their pipes with them would not likely be inclined to go through the rituals of pipe-smoking -- pouring out the loose tobacco leaves, packing them appropriately, lighting the pipe, and so on -- early in the school day, and especially not between 10-minute class breaks. From this, I concluded that this was a man who was committed to his idiom. He was also a relatively young man; older than my twenty years, but too young to have fallen into pipe smoking accidentally. The pipe was something he had deliberately sought out as a tobacco enthusiast. This fact, too, demonstrates commitment to the idiom.

Needless to say, the pipe was the capstone to the entire image. It absolutely cemented his outward presentation as that of a rugged, intellectual, and individualistic man.

I never met him and I never saw him again, but the image is burned into my memory. He pulled his look off very well, but in hindsight his whole image was heavily contrived. He bought his way into his idiom, and must have dedicated time as well as money toward cultivating and maintaining it. Why else would one invest, say, twenty percent of his class break time in lighting a pipe that he could hold in folded arms while he carried on intellectual conversations? Why else jaunt about campus wearing name-brand outdoor clothing on day when one's "outdoor activities" consist of moving between campus buildings during class breaks?

And, above all, why smoke? This man was an Instagram star in the making, but for the fact that there was no Instagram back then. At the time, though, I accepted his presentation whole-hog without skepticism. He must have been the rugged intellectual he presented.

Granted, there will always be those who work hard to cultivate an image. What strikes me as interesting is the fact that omnipresent cameras have helped us create a situation in which every mundane task can be presented as amazing.

A few year ago, I knew a blogger who mostly just posted updates about her family, but she had a nice camera, and she was really good at taking photos of the flower arrangement on her dining table, or the way her children would throw an arm around each other. Basically, her blog looked like a collection Martha-Stewart-branded stock photography. But their lives were far more mundane, comprised mainly of school work, hobbies, games, the occasional weekend getaway, and so on.

What do we make of the family who seems to be living the perfect life, but who is in fact just living a life. To be sure, it's a good life, but absent the latest iPhone camera, those bouquets would look just like the ones everyone else buys. The blogger I knew had a wonderful life, but that fact wasn't in any way demonstrated by a set of nice photos. If she had posted only lousy photos, her readers might have erroneously concluded that her life was miserable. But that doesn't make any sense.

We humans have created a very odd meta-problem to have: If your life is wonderful, but you struggle to take photos that look as good as your life feels, that seems to us like a shortcoming of some sort. How can you have a happy family if your family does not have any non-blurry photos taken of it? How can this woman really be attractive if she's always wearing Walmart clothes?

It's not exactly shallowness, but a tendency to reinterpret the facts based on visual cues that may or may not indicate something more. Take any plain-looking woman and put her in a skimpy bikini with a floppy sun-hat and a large pair of sunglasses, and pretty soon everyone will comment on how beautiful she is. Is she, or are we reading too much into the clothes? And suppose the problem were reversed, that nobody bothered to notice a beautiful woman because on most days she just wore a broomstick skirt and a cardigan.

I know what you're thinking: Some blog, Ryan. 2000 words just to say, "Don't judge a book by its cover." But don't blame me. My blog is designed terribly.


The 2 x 2 x 2 x 2

It's extremely hot out there these days, so I have taken to running my important workouts on the treadmill. I have no problem with this. I'm not training for a race, and so fitness is my number one running goal right now. I can get nearly double the workout on the treadmill than I can in extremely hot weather. My pace is faster, and I can run a longer distance. So long as I continue to do easy runs outside, I doubt I will feel any adverse impact from all this treadmill running, and in fact will likely get in better shape in the end.

While training on the treadmill, I discovered a neat-O workout that you can do anywhere, treadmill or otherwise. I call it "The 2 x 2 x 2 x 2," and it goes like this:

  • 2 miles at warm-up pace (Heart Rate Zone 1)
  • 2 miles at easy pace (Heart Rate Zone 2)
  • 2 miles at aerobic pace (Heart Rate Zone 3)
  • 2 miles at threshold pace (Heart Rate Zone 4)
If you can manage it, you can do another two miles as a cool-down for an even 10. This is a great workout that requires self-control as well as will power.

As I've said before, I am not a huge fan of heart rate zone training, but in this case, I believe it works. Anyway, this is not a workout that one should do all the time, but it's a nice reprieve if you're looking for something different to do on "fartlek day."


This Isn't A Movie, It's A Race

When it comes to team sports movies, Hollywood loves a great come-from-behind victory, a story about an underdog team overcoming long odds to win a fantastic final championship. Who doesn't love a story like that?

But when it comes to racing, Hollywood loves contrived garbage. At some point, long after Brad Pitt and Rick Schroeder starred in the surprisingly excellent Across the Tracks, Hollywood decided that movies about running should always be about community and friendship, rather than about excelling at a sport. In the movies, runners give up their first-place finish so that they can tie with their friend, they stop running in the middle of the race to demonstrate good sportsmanship or to help an injured competitor. On the silver screen, running is all about the clownish and puerile concept of "finishing."

In light of this, I was pleased to read the story of two top finishers in the Tokyo Triathalon, Jess Learmonth and Georgia Taylor-Brown, who were disqualified for finishing, "in a contrived tie situation, where no effort to separate their finish times has been made." This is against International Triathlon Union rules. And there is no doubt that Learmonth and Taylor-Brown did indeed violate the letter and spirit of that rule.

There is predictable outrage in some quarters, of course. They were the first two finishers! Don't they deserve first and second place? First of all, no, because they deliberately violated a clear and unambiguous rule. Second of all, which place do they both deserve: first, or second? Thirdly, if winning wasn't important to them, then neither should be their disqualification.

Listen, I have never been a rabid competitor bent on smashing the other racers. I did well in my early running career, but I did not race to win, I simply raced to run fast. Other runners drafted off me regularly, and I was fine with that, because it wasn't important to me that I beat other people. It was important to me that I ran as fast as I possibly could. Running has always been a meditative act for me, a chance to commune with nature, to regulate my emotions, and to explore my own, personal, physical limits.

But ending a race in a contrived tie is pure idiocy. It's against the spirit of everything we do as endurance athletes. We need not end the race in a tie to be happy for our fellow competitors and to consider them our equals. We owe it to ourselves to do the best we can possibly do on race day. Trotting into the finish line, showboating, contriving a tie with your friend, and other such nonsense is not merely childish, it is also unsportsmanlike.

Unfortunately, this is the world we live in, a world in which friendly competition is shunned in favor of agreeableness and non-competition. It's sad. We could be pushing each other to greater heights and greater feats of athletic accomplishment, and instead we're hamming it up for finisher's medals.

Running is supposed to be fun. The spirit of friendly competition is supposed to be fun. To push each other, through competition, to achieve things we never could have done alone is the whole point of racing. And anyway, this wasn't a fun run.

I guess you could say, I'm in favor of their disqualification.


"The Best Tech"

There's a scene in the excellent True Fiction, by Lee Goldberg, in which one of the characters leans back in his chair and marvels at how the US intelligence forces have all "the best tech." It's a silly scene in a silly book, and I won't spoil it by delving too deeply into it. The reason I bring it up is because it's emblematic of a common belief about law enforcement in the United States: that their skills and technological prowess are on a level far superior to anything ordinary human beings can fathom. In the psyche of many Americans US law enforcement and military have taken on almost the same esteem of super-heroes.

I thought about this over the weekend, while I was riding my bicycle.

It was supposed to be a pair of relatively easy rides. For a week, I had been looking forward to exploring a bicycle path I'd recently heard about from a fellow cyclist. Meanwhile, it's long been a goal of mine to ride my bicycle from my house to a particular relative's house, some 30-40 miles away, across the metroplex. Last weekend, a friend of mine was having a music concert at a block party just off the bicycle path I wanted to explore; then, later that afternoon, my relative was having a house party of her own.

Perfect! I thought, I'll ride the twelve or so miles to see my friend's concert, then I'll ride from there to my relative's house, another twelve or thirteen miles from the concert. At less than thirty total miles of easy riding, I was disappointed that I wouldn't get a hard ride in, but happy about being able to "kill two birds with one stone" by exploring the new bike path and riding to my relative's house on the same day.

The ride to the concert was pleasant and uneventful. The concert was also very good. I hopped on my bicycle and started riding to my relative's house. I made it about halfway when I noticed that a major stretch of road had been closed, including an overpass above a major highway. I decided to try to ride through the closed road anyway. I went a few blocks before a police officer indicated with her siren that I needed to find another route. I waved acquiescence and turned onto a side-street to see whether I could find my way to the next overpass.

I rode for another 10 minutes or so before I finally realized that I needed the help of my GPS. I scanned for a route on my phone, found something I thought might work, and headed out. To my chagrin, my GPS map kept "resetting" the route to the shortest, most direct route: across the closed overpass. There was no way for me to find an alternate route. I decided to head back the way I came and ask the police officer for directions.

The officer and I talked for a while. To my surprise, when I asked her for directions, she pulled out her personal cell phone, fired up the Google Maps application, and showed me a 10-mile detour I'd have to take to get around the road closure. I thanked her and went on my way.

But: the officer didn't tell me anything I hadn't already learned looking at my own Google Maps app. In fact, as we were discussing possible routes, I also pulled out my phone and searched right along with her. The police don't seem to have any better sense of directions than anyone else, and it's all based on the same "tech." Their Google Maps is exactly the same as mine. I'm grateful to the officer for trying to help me, but I marvel at the fact that consumer technology and police technology are one and the same.

If anything, with more bicycling and route-finding experience on my end, I might have been the better one with finding a route.

While this, of course, "proves nothing," I think it is a good example of the fact that law enforcement is not necessarily any more technologically advanced than the average person. When libertarians occasionally suggest that certain government provisions could be painlessly eliminated, we are stereotypically presented with a confrontational question: "But without government, who would build the roads?" In this case, this "road" has been built by Google, and placed in the hands of consumers and government alike.


Emily Ratajkowski's "Feminism" Is Really Just Individualism (And That's A Good Thing)

Even women from the left, who fully supported the purpose of my protest, made comments about my missing bra underneath my white tank and jeans. In their minds, the fact that my body was at all visible had somehow discredited me and my political action. But why? 
I often think about this. Why, as a culture, do we insist on separating smart and serious from sexy?
That is from Emily Ratajkowski's essay on feminism in Harper's Bizarre. Later, she writes:
And there is no right answer, no choice that makes me more or less of a feminist, or even a “bad feminist,” to borrow from Roxane Gay. As long as the decision is my choice, then it’s the right choice. Ultimately, the identity and sexuality of an individual is up to them and no one else.
Ratajkowski makes two principle points in her somewhat short essay. The first is that we shouldn't discredit a woman's message just because she chooses to express herself in a hyper-sexual way. The second is that absolutely any way a woman chooses to be is a valid form of feminism.

I like Emily Ratajkowski. She's intelligent, she has good taste in art, and her Instagram account makes it look like she has a lot of good fun with good people. But on the two points she makes in her essay, I think she is wrong.

*        *        * 

Near the beginning of her essay, Ratajkowski writes, "I’m well aware of the privilege I receive as someone who is heteronormative, and I don’t pretend to act like my identity hasn’t made some things easier for me." This simple sentence, meant to acknowledge her privilege, constitutes the primary error underlying the entire essay.

To wit, in Ratajkowski's telling of it, her privilege comes from the fact that she is "heteronormative," meaning that she is a heterosexual, biological female who considers herself a woman by gender and who has sexual and romantic interest in heterosexual, biological males who consider themselves men by gender. (Phew! What a mouthful!)

Nowhere in her essay does she ever acknowledge the possibility that her privilege comes instead from another important fact about Emily Ratajkowski: that she is an extremely physically attractive and highly paid supermodel. Throughout her essay, she refers to her proclivity for dressing in scanty clothing and putting on makeup as "playing with sexiness" or "playing at being sexy." It doesn't appear to occur to her - and her essay makes no references whatsoever to the fact - that less-attractive women with a different set of physical features do not have access to this kind of "play."

The image accompanying Ratajkowski's essay is a photo of her dressed only in a lace bra and panties, with her arms raised, revealing a thicket of armpit hair. When you're a young and successful model, presenting yourself in a such a way means something remarkably different than it would if you were an old, overweight woman, to say nothing of what it might mean if you were a transsexual with a very non-traditionally attractive body type. Ratajkowski's "play" with armpit hair has roughly the same effect as Kim Basinger's "cross-dressing" scene in 9 1/2 Weeks. When beautiful actresses and models do such things, they're essentially acting as constumed tourists, able to return at any time to the beautiful life.

For the rest of us, ugliness is our permanent state. We don't get to "play at" being supermodels, or rich-and-famous superstars.

This is the true source of Emily Ratajkowski's privilege, not that she is a heteronormative cisgendered woman, but that she is widely considered to be one of the most beautiful people in the world. It doesn't much matter what she does with her arm hair or what she wears to a political protest. People are going to purchase her swimsuit line or pay her for photo shoots regardless of what she chooses to "play at," and for that matter, the sexier she tries to be, the better it is for her financial bottom line.

Normal people do not operate under those circumstances. Emily Ratajkowski has never had her analytical credibility evaluated on her performance in a boardroom in front of an overhead projector. She is free to post sexy photos of herself at political protests on social media or write feminist musings in fashion magazines without suffering any career setbacks for it, because "playing with sexiness" is her brand.

Every other normal woman in America has to make a deliberate effort to ensure that her physical appearance is consistent with the message she intends to convey that day, because if she doesn't, then the one thing detracts from the other. A woman who shows up in the courtroom braless and in a tank top can kiss her intellectual credibility goodbye. A woman who shows up on a first date wearing see-through underwear and displaying patches of body hair can be sure that she will not receive a call for a second date, and that the attention she gets in the meantime will be decidedly negative.

This isn't because society is insufficiently feminist or that women are insufficiently liberated. It's because when you're not a gorgeous supermodel, you're held to the full set of operable social mores. It's because people who have to make money doing things other than looking pretty must present themselves as serious, capable, credible, reliable, and sane.

If Ratajkowski's question is, "Why can't I play at being sexy while people take me seriously as a woman?" then the answer is, "You can, but only because you're a supermodel." If her question is, "Why can't a female data scientist play at being sexy while reporting confidence intervals to the VP of Risk Portfolio?" then the answer is "Because millions of dollars are riding on this decision, and nobody can figure out if she's reporting the facts or trying to get a date."

But why though?

This is a business, for chrissakes!

*        *        *

Ratajkowski's error of judgment regarding exactly where her privilege comes from leads her to an overall highly confused take on feminism: that pretty much anything goes, so long as it's the woman's choice. Were it true, this idea would absolve all women of any responsibility they ever had toward feminism. Anything can be feminism because women can do anything they want.

The problem here is that no real feminist anywhere actually believes this. Feminist theory was developed to articulate a precise theory of women's issues and equality. If the culmination of all this theory boils down to, "Well, as long as you chose what you chose, then it doesn't matter," then society could have skipped feminism entirely from the beginning.

No, the core question underlying feminism is, "What would a world without misogyny look like?" What would women's choices be if they weren't influenced by the corruptive power of the "Patriarchy?" Women can and do make choices that run counter to the objectives of feminists; as long as they make these choices freely, how can the likes of Emily Ratajkowski complain on feminist grounds at all? Ratajkowski is, after all, an outspoken advocate of abortion rights. Is she now saying that, so long as female pro-life advocates make their case by choice, they're still good feminists?

Perhaps this is Ratajkowski's contradiction, or perhaps it is a contradiction inherent to feminism itself. Perhaps the notion of choosing freely was at one time controversial, but is now so pervasive - at least in American culture - that we must now recede into a sort of meta-feminism, in which every outward expression of being a woman makes is a feminist statement, so long as it reflects her free will. 

What Ratajkowski fails to realize is that in making this case, she's no longer talking about feminism. She's talking about self-confidence. Observe:
Two summers ago, while vacationing with my friend and her girlfriend, my friend made an offhand remark about me being “hyper femme.” It kind of threw me because in many ways, probably like anyone would, I felt that her comment was an oversimplification of my identity.
Her friend didn't stop Ratajkowski from expressing herself any way she chooses to. She also didn't "shame" her for being who she is. She simply attached a phrase to it, "hyper femme," that Ratajkowski herself believed to be "an oversimplification of her identity."

I'd be surprised if anyone's identity could be well-encapsulated by a two-word phrase. People have called me lots of two-word phrases from time to time. Sometimes they've attempted to explain me in one word, and other times they've dedicated whole sentences to the task. Even a book is an oversimplification of the human condition. It's impossible to capture a person's identity in words; that's merely a fact of language. Language is a close approximation of meaning, and only the poet and the great writer of literature has ever managed to present adequate language for describing something as complex as identity itself.

It seems odd that Ratajkowski would take offense to or feel ashamed of her friend's quick attempted description of a part of her identity. But feminism isn't the cure for that. Her friend doesn't need a more feminist vocabulary or a better understanding of women's choices. The antidote to this kind of situation is self-confidence.

Ratajkowski needed the self-confidence she reportedly discovered later that night: "The truth is, I thought, I love being feminine." Great. Now if only she had the confidence to accept that one fair descriptor for that disposition is "hyper femme."

So, the reality of it is not that feminism is expressed any time a woman chooses to do anything, so long as it's a choice. The reality of it is that feminism at times interferes with a woman's true expression of self. And, you know what? That's perfectly alright.

Perhaps Emily Ratajkowski is on the precipice of discovery. Perhaps she's nearing the point where she realizes that it's more important to be yourself than to be a feminist. Maybe she's coming to understand that feminism is a set of academic theories, not a pattern of existence or a description of an identity. All she needs is the confidence to own that realization, to know in her whole heart that some people will always find something to criticize, and that critics will use any theory available to them to make their criticism.

When she realizes that, she'll be something better than a feminist. She'll be an individualist.


Focus On What You Control

Needless to say, it was devastating to be diagnosed with type 1 diabetes after living thirty years of healthy, active life, but I woke up the following morning and proceeded to live, not as a "newly diagnosed type 1 diabetic," but as someone who was living with diabetes. What I mean is that I didn't carve out adjustment time for myself, I simply switched "cold turkey" to a lower-carb diet and a more routine lifestyle. I credit this decision for insulating me from some of the depression that many other diabetics often grapple with.

What worked about this wasn't that I made a quick adjustment, and therefore everything turned out fine. Rather, I employed a well-known trick for fostering resilience: focusing on what I control. My diagnosis and my new state as a disabled person with a chronic, life-changing illness was beyond my control. Grieving for that kind of change is worthwhile, but ruminating on it is bad for resilience. What I could control was my diet and my lifestyle habits. I could control which foods I decide to put in my body, what and how much exercise I got, what time I went to bed and got up in the morning, how to plan my insulin doses, and so on. By making these control points the focus of my new diagnosis, I adapted quickly and avoided emotional pitfalls that could have been a real challenge for me, and that have understandably been a serious challenge for others like me.

Quite obviously, this concept applies to all aspects of life, not just chronic disease. In fact, it applies to small discomforts every bit as much as it applies to major life-changes.

The other day, for example, I was driving in rush hour traffic when another motorist suddenly decided to do something inconsiderate of me. The fact that I don't even remember what happened is strong evidence to me that my reaction was precisely as it should have been. Rather than getting upset, swearing, and thinking of all the reasons the other motorist shouldn't have done what he did and should have done something else instead, I told myself the following: "Rather than thinking something negative, why not think of three positive things instead?" I'll admit that it was difficult to think of three positive things about an unpleasant traffic situation, but I managed to do it. (One of things was pretty thinly positive, but positive nonetheless: "I'm happy that I'm raising my daughter to be a more considerate person than that.")

Sometimes, at work, I'm asked to compensate for the poor work of someone on another team. This could be really frustrating, and in the past I've grumbled to myself about it quite a bit. In truth, however, there isn't much I can control about a situation like this. If my boss tells me to work on something, I generally have to work on it. I can't fully control my work assignments, so I'm better off not ruminating on whether certain assignments "should" fall to me or not. Instead, I can invest that energy in thinking of the things I can control: my personal scheduling, my ability to take advantage of peripheral opportunities, the extent to which I can delegate some tasks, and so on. By focusing on these things, I can avoid dwelling too long on the emotional sunk costs of "unfairness" and keep my work moving in a positive direction.

I imagine that something similar will crop up next week, when my daughter starts school for the first time. I'll have to rearrange my work hours so that I can pick her up on time. Working earlier, and then watching over her in the afternoon, means that I'll have fewer viable hours during which I can exercise, so I'll need to think of a way to stay as fit as I want to while still meeting my responsibilities to my daughter. I could waste a lot of mental energy mourning the loss of my current routine, or I could focus on the things I can control to maximize the time I'll have. I mentioned calisthenics at work, but I have more options. I can go to the gym on my lunch hour, I can jump rope at home. If I can't sneak out for a run or a bike ride, I can use an indoor trainer to get a good ride in. I can re-vamp my breakfast so that it takes less time to prepare. I can work out with my daughter, too.

Well, these are all examples from my own life. What examples from your life can you think of? 



Comic book author Alan Moore wrote a comprehensive critique of American culture's preoccupation with violence. The critique became a smash hit, sold record numbers of copies while in production, continues to sell millions in reprints, and was made into a box office hit film.

The critique is called Watchmen.

Most people my age and older have seen or read Watchmen, and many of those people have entirely misconstrued the message. Part of the reason for that is that Moore is an extremely intelligent man who presents moral issues as they are - complex and nuanced - rather than as we would like them to be - dichotomous, discrete choices between "good" and "evil."

In reality, it is pathological to American culture to simultaneously engage in dichotomous moral thinking and to conclude that the proper solution to any major policy issue is put the largest proton blaster into the hands of the side you're cheering for. Thus, the perceived solution to illegal immigration is to "shoot them." The perceived solution to mass shootings is more good guys with guns. The perceived solution to terrorism is a never-ending war and constant drone-bombings. And so on.

As my fellow libertarians are quick to point out, all laws are essentially violent threats against non-compliance. A gun control law is a threat to shoot anyone who attempts to own the wrong kind of gun. An anti-immigration law is a threat to shoot anyone who attempts to cross the border without "papers, please." If you ever doubt that laws are violent threats, then consider how many people are shot by police for "resisting arrest." A law against resistance is a threat to shoot anyone who tries to resist.

The reason I bring this up is because many people believe that the solution to our culture's violence-obsession problem is more laws. They fail to realize that the proposed solution is a reification of the problem itself. Everyone seems to think that if bastards will just do what I say then everything will be fine!!! This is violent thinking. It's authoritarian thinking, for sure, and that might be a problem, but I think the more serious fact is that this kind of thinking is inherently violent.

Thus, every policy dispute tends to turn violent, if not in actual fact, at least in overall emotional content. This is why Twitter is such a toxic medium; there are so many violent opinions that level-headed discourse is impossible. This is why politics has become so polarized in America; we're given a choice of competing violences and asked which we prefer. The option of non-violence is neither requested nor given. Nobody wants it, and nobody gets it. It's easy to blame the political system for this, but that blame is misplaced. Politicians can only succeed by making us offers that seem to appeal to us. Non-violence does not seem to appeal to Americans.

You could say that "not all Americans" feel this way, and you'd be right. After all, I'm an American, and I don't feel that way. But look around you. We are in the minority.

The violence inherent in the political system means that any policy change that attempts to reduce the number of mass killings will not solve our underlying violence problem, even if it does reduce mass shootings. You might be passionate about gun control, but I am passionate about violence reduction. I would like to see a concrete reduction in Americans' obsession with violence. But how?

*        *        *

It's clear that our violence problem is cultural. I don't merely mean to say that it's "culture-wide" (although it is that, too), but rather to say that our preference for violence is hard-baked into American culture. This might seem like an incredible claim to you, so I'll offer a few points to help make my case.

First, consider the entertainment media. Consider how we arrive at movie content ratings. As long as violence is not depicted with blood or presented in an anatomically correct way, it can make its way into any PG-rated movie, and even plenty of G-rated movies. By contrast, non-sexual depictions of female nipples are basically an automatic PG-13 rating. Even sexual content without nudity can get a film an R-rating. Whatever your opinion on the appropriateness of sexual content ratings, you can't deny that there is a bizarre disparity between how Americans rate movie violence and how we rate movie sex. If you've ever seen American films in foreign countries, you know that foreign countries rate these things differently. The point here is a simple question: is it really safe to say that violence is more appropriate for children than sex is?

N.B.: I'm not arguing that children should be exposed to more sex, I'm arguing that they should be exposed to less violence. But our entertainment media is keen on giving violence the lowest possible rating, while giving anything remotely sexual the highest possible rating. Sex might not be appropriate for children, but it is at least a non-violent expression of positive emotions.

Next, consider the phenomenon of road rage. I am unable to find reliable international statistic on road rage, but the statistics presented at The Zebra are sobering. Road rage violence isn't just an American problem, it's an American problem that is getting worse as time goes by. The Zebra's statistics show us an ever-increasing problem that younger generations are increasingly susceptible to. From my perspective as a late Gen-Xer, I can remember first hearing accounts of "road rage" in the 1990s. For a while, it was a much-discussed topic. Because I seldom read or hear discussions of road rage as a concept anymore, I was surprised to learn that road rage itself has been steadily increasing for 30 years. I shouldn't have been surprised, though. It stands to reason that a culture obsessed with violence would express more violence on the roads.

Now, it does surprise me that a nation whose majority religion is Christianity would become obsessed with violence. Say what you will about Jesus Christ, he is a peaceful figure in the history of religion. He turned the other cheek, he let the centurions take him, he was arguably quite radical in his pacifism. Perhaps other religious figures are more pacifist than Jesus, or perhaps not, but at any rate, anyone who considers himself a Christian should probably have a bias toward peace and non-violence. It is quite a surprise that a nation founded by Quakers and Puritans would become a nation dominated by displays of force.

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From within the culture is hard to see. Batman is awesome, I mean come on. He beats up bad guys. He's got all the best tech. He lurks in the shadows and then pounds criminals into oblivion. It's only when we see this image reflected back to us through conduits such as Watchmen that we begin to understand.

In the movie version of Watchmen, there's a scene in which Dr. Manhattan walks in slow motion through a Vietnamese battle field, zapping Viet Cong soldiers one by one. He points a finger and they are vaporized, torn apart in a way that does not look like flesh and blood. It looks more like paper, or smoke. One zap, and that's the end of them.

This scene is powerful for a variety of reasons, but the one relevant here is the contrast between the act of human killing and the utterly fantastic, unrealistic depiction of death itself. Those who are not copacetic to the underlying social critique of the story will tend to view this scene as a display of Dr. Manhattan's might. Look what he can do! He single-handedly won the Vietnam War! But the juxtaposition in this scene was a deliberate choice. The Vietnam War was, after all, the first televised war, the first time Americans had to confront the brutal reality of wartime violence face-to-face. There is actual video footage of actual Viet Cong soldiers being blown to bits. Americans old enough to have been alive at the time remember seeing the footage on the nightly news.

Moore's point is that we sanitize violence by making it seem like "comic-book violence." It's less real that way. The good guys in a war movie always die while sputtering a heart-felt message to their squadmates, "Tell Donna Mae I love her!" Not the bad guys. The bad guys just explode. No need to dwell on that, after all, they're bad guys!

This is the reason why police body-cam footage of violence causes such controversy among the "back-the-blue" crowd. They find it offensive to be reminded that police have gunned people down as they begged for their lives or shouted messages for their loved. They are vexed to know that "bad guys" don't die in real life the way they do in the movies. Or that sometimes the police are the bad guys. It is quite annoying to find that death cannot be so easily compartmentalized when you're staring it in the face.

Still, it's not enough to turn the tide. Twenty years of Columbine and 9/11 and drone bombs and beheading videos and body cam videos and all the rest of it. 20 years, and we've yet to recoil from all this violence. 20 years, and we're no closer to shutting down the torture chambers in Guantanamo Bay or the concentration camps at the border. 20 years of teaching preschoolers how to react to active shooter situations. If anything, things are worse now than they've ever been.

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I don't know what it will take to cure America's obsession with violence. What could be powerful enough to overturn our legacy of hunting down Native American scalps for money? Of torturing and killing African Americans for fun, long after having declared them "emancipated?" Of living in a state of perpetual war since the Pearl Harbor attacks? Of injecting deliberately Guatemalans with gonorrhea just to see what would happen? 

I don't think gun laws will change anything, although I concede that they may reduce the number of deaths, and that might help. I don't think more laws or changes to the education system will fix the underlying problem. 

Somehow, Americans need to unlearn violence on a cultural level. We need to become a nation of "lovers, not fighters." Imagine the American spirit of rugged individualism and independence combined with a commitment to peace and love. God, that sounds like hippy bullshit, but think about it. If we could somehow extract the best of American individualism and mix it with the best of peaceful humanism, we'd really have what the American system was supposed to produce.

Instead, we have this thing, this sad thing. We have a debt-driven war machine that cranks out drone bombings and road rage and mass shootings, and there is no end in sight. I don't know how it will ever be fixed, but if you've ever considered becoming a more peaceful person, I think now is the right time to start.


Painless Micro-Changes

A good number of my recent posts have involved making small changes to improve your overall quality of life. We might call these "painless micro-changes."

This morning, I read an article about the fact that the flagship cell models released by the likes of Samsung and Apple are indeed the best phones on the market, but that they are likely not worth the marginal cost for anyone other than cell phone enthusiasts and tech geeks. He made the point that one can get an admirably equipped cell phone for $400 or less, which is more than half the cost of the latest flagship model. The real question is how much a slightly better screen is worth to you? $100, maybe, but $400 for a better screen? The author wasn't putting this out there as a universal truism, he was just pointing out that, for a lot of people, "pretty good" is often "good enough."

That nice. Suppose you're someone who has decided that your next phone need not be the latest flagship model. When the time comes to buy a new phone, you could take that writer's advice, and buy a less expensive model, and you'd be slightly better off. You'd be slightly more better off, however, if you implemented a simple micro-change: If you were paying $40/month for your old phone, and your new one costs $25/month, you can now take the difference ($40 - $25 = $15/month) and set up a monthly deposit into your savings or investment account. You're not going to retire early on a $15/month savings plan, but it's better than the $0/month plan. What's more, you won't even feel the difference because you're already paying $40 per month. This way, your lifestyle stays exactly the same, but you end up with money in the bank. Now that's a micro-change.

The real power of micro-changes, though, is that they stack. Saving $15 per month on your cell phone bill won't make you a millionaire, but if you manage to combine that with the savings you get from shopping around on your insurance bill, your utility bills, down-sizing to a more affordable car, and so on, before you know it you'll be saving hundreds of dollars per month and investing in financial security with virtually no cost to your overall lifestyle.

For this to work, however, it's important that you choose line items that reflect your values. If you're not the kind of person who can get away with an inferior cell phone, then you're better off spending the extra $15 per month and being happy! The cell phone isn't the point. The point is that there is something in your life much like a cell phone, something that you won't mind buying the cheap version of. Buy that cheaper version of whatever it is and invest the difference.

Micro-changes can be applied to so much more than personal finance. Consider the office. You're stuck in one place for hours at a time; you may as well get a standing work station or an under-the-desk exercise bike, if you can tolerate either. You'll never get a real workout that way, but it's a low-cost way to make your health just slightly better than it might be otherwise. Or take a break every hour and do a set of push-ups. You get two legally mandated 15-minute coffee breaks per eight hours of work; maybe you smoke or like to drink coffee, but you might consider spending that time going for a brisk walk. That's two miles of walking per day, for some people, and the only lifestyle change you'll have to make is bringing a pair of sensible shoes with you to work.

Modern technology facilitates micro-changes like these so well that there's almost no excuse. A bread machine can make you a fresh loaf of bread that's warm and ready-to-eat when you wake up; it makes it while you're sleeping! Coffee machines can be run on a timer, too. Suddenly, you don't have to waste time making breakfast in the morning; there's a micro-change for you. (If you like, you can even program this into your "smart home" machinery.) Crock pots can make your dinner for your while you're at work. Life is so easy!

But in order to capitalize on it, you have to identify your life's potential margins. Where are you willing to give up a little? Where are your pain points? Where do you lose the most time? What gets in the way of your savings or your health the most? Find these things, and make micro-changes on the margin. Before you know it, your life will get much better!


Calisthenics At Work

Because I've been keener to run and bike lately, I haven't made time for P90X. That's not necessarily a bad thing, but I have started to feel a little nostalgic for my P90X physique. I also follow Indian actor/former model/fitness ambassador Milind Soman on social media, and he is always doing some kind of calisthenics exercise. His fitness is readily apparent when you see his physique, too.

I'm in a really good place with my running and cycling right now, and I don't want to stop. It took me a good six months to get to where I am, and I don't want that to wither away as I change moods, switch gears, and go on another P90X binge. Now is not the time to get bored and start something new.

Instead, now is the time to learn from what I have done in the past and successfully incorporate it into my current training. This, after all, is the key to moving forward, rather than endlessly "beginning." P90X isn't the final word in fitness; after all, Tony Horton himself has come up with several programs since releasing P90X, and judging by his social media posts, it's unlikely that he follows any of his programs on a daily basis. Instead, he applies his knowledge to his own particular situation, and works progressively toward something based on that. This is also something that I've learned by reading Meb Keflizighi's book, 26 Marathons. After each major race, Keflizighi took a little time off to rest, and then jumped into a training again; not the same old thing, right where he left off, and certainly not something brand new. In fact, he cautions against completely revamping one's training regimen and suggests instead to stick to what works.

So, in the spirit of those examples and that advice, it's time to keep doing what's working for me in terms of running and cycling, while incorporating knowledge that I've acquired elsewhere. I've settled on what I think will be an interesting "fitness experiment."

I'm going to dedicate each weekday to a particular kind of calisthenic exercise. I started on Wednesday with "pushups day." I set a one-hour timer on my computer at work, and every time it gave me a notification, I dropped and did a set of pushups. It was great. I got a good pump and landed on something discreet and repeatable that will help me build muscle without taking too much of my time. Thursday is "wall press day," Friday is "pull-ups day" (I don't have a pull-up bar in the office, of course, but I can do pull-ups underneath a table. Ash Ravens suggested I dedicate a day to squats, so Monday is "squat day."

The only day I don't have something for is Tuesday. I don't want to have three leg days, so I'm looking for an arm or ab-based day. I suppose I could make it a plank day, but to be perfectly honest, running is such good ab exercise that it's almost unnecessary for me to do dedicated ab work, especially considering that push-ups are basically a plank combined with a chest-and-arms workout. One option is for Tuesday to be an anything-goes calisthenics day, where I mix it up and do as I feel. Wildcard day, perhaps. Arm circles day would be nice, but it's not very strenuous.

We shall see. 


Inherently Good

Some people say that something is inherently good. For example, knowledge is often said to be inherently good, good for its own sake and for no other reason. It is better to know something than not to know it, because just expanding your mind and your knowledge is good. Just because.

I am skeptical of this view. In fact, I can't think of a single good thing in the universe that is merely inherently good. Every good thing I can think of is good for a particular reason. Food is good because it keeps me alive; producing more food is good because it keeps more people alive. Love is good because it produces positive feelings in human beings that can be reproduced time and time again by mere exposure to the object of that love; and, because it binds human beings into a cohesive society, which itself is good because it helps human beings achieve more of their individual goals than they could ever achieve alone. As for knowledge, any knowledge that can be called good is good because it helps people figure out how to solve their problems, remove their disutility, and so on.

Suppose something were inherently good, and not good for any other reason. How would we know that this thing is good? We couldn't look at any tangible benefits provided to us by the inherently good thing, because then we would be tempted to say that it is a good thing because of those benefits, and not because of the inherent nature of its goodness. How would we differentiate that thing's inherent worth for something that is inherently bad, but likewise has no tangible impact on our lives? That is, by what standard could we call the thing good?

Well, by no standard at all, because standards are external. Standards aren't inherent, they're imposed on a comparison from the outside, based on some list of criteria. Usually those criteria are tangible if not physical. Good things produce good feelings, at the bare minimum, and do so reliably.

The most likely explanation for the inherent goodness of a thing is that it reliably produces good feelings, despite producing pretty much nothing else.

Suppose I draw a picture of a cartoon cat, for example, and I think the cat is cute. Maybe just looking at this cat produces nice feelings. I didn't otherwise gain anything from the drawing; it didn't improve my drawing ability, it actually cost me money in terms of paper and ink resources, it cost me time to produce, and because I drew it in my own private office, no one will see it. It's also unlikely that I'll ever tell anyone about the cat drawing I made, that I enjoy. Is this an inherently good thing?

Actually, no. It's not "inherently good," because in order to enjoy my cat picture, I have to spend some time looking at it, or at least thinking about it and remembering what it looks like. The time I spend looking at or remembering my cat picture is a diversion from some other task. In other words, it's leisure time. Maybe other people prefer playing the flute in their leisure time, or going swimming, or having a snack, or playing a game, or any number of other things. But whatever else anyone does, they're spending their time on leisure, and when I look at my cat picture, so am I.

Some would say that spending too much time on leisure is wasteful, but I don't know anyone who would claim that leisure serves no practical or tangible purpose. It serves many purposes, from giving our brains and bodies time to relax between more strenuous physical or metal tasks, to generating social conversation and thus strengthening social bonds, to helping us prepare for a good night's sleep. All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy, so Jack needs to invest at least part of his time in leisure activity.

My point is that I cannot think of a single thing that is inherently good, but not good for some other reason. And this, to me, suggests that there is no such thing as "inherent goodness." Anything worth being called good has some sort of tangible benefit to someone. Otherwise, it's not really good.


Things I Learned From Having Long Hair

FYI, I cut my hair short again, after allowing it to grow to shoulder-length. It's not that I want to provide the universe with a permanent record of how my hair grows, but it was an interesting undertaking, and I learned some things from doing it. Here are a few of the most significant things I learned:

1) People treat you differently when you have long hair. I blogged about this a couple of times, but it always surprised me. I enjoyed the openness with which people treated me when I had long hair, and I'll miss it. I also miss being less "visible." When you're a man with long hair, you stand out in a crowd. When you have short hair, you need to devise other ways of standing out in a crowd.

2) Long hair is a fashion accessory unto itself. Because long hair stands out in a crowd, it feels a little different to wear, say, t-shirts-and-jeans when you have long hair versus when you have short hair. It's automatically less "plain," and so dressing to impress takes quite a bit less effort. There's a credibility trade-off in professional situations, of course, but it's not insurmountable. As a man with short hair, however, one must either make more of an effort to accessorize and appear more fashionable, or one must accept that one looks plain.

3) Messy hair is not that big a deal. With long hair, I discovered through necessity that people don't much care if your hair isn't perfect. If you tie it back and it's not 100%, you still look roughly the same as if you tied it back and it was perfect. If you keep it down and it doesn't fall quite the way you'd prefer, you still look more or less the same as if you're having a great hair day. People spend more time than they need to on styling their long hair. Just let it be, don't waste your time blow-drying it except for very special occasions. Use "product" to keep your hair healthy, but don't over-invest in styling.This is one lesson I've applied to my now-short hair. Nobody's going to care if it's not perfect. Nobody cared if it wasn't perfect when I was growing it out, but it wasn't quite long yet. Over-investing in hair styling is a waste of time and money. Get a good haircut and then let nature pretty much take its course.

4) It takes about two years to get long hair. Just keep that in mind. Your hair will go through many stylistic "phases" as it grows, but it will take about two years to go from buzz cut to shoulder-length hair. One year of growth is enough for society to start seeing it as "subjectively long-ish."

5) Long hair is fun, and worth growing. I enjoyed growing my hair out, and I enjoyed having long hair. So much so, that I will likely do this again some time. For the time being, I just needed a change. I spent so much time following athletes that I needed a more athletic hairstyle. Long hair is more about having a flair for the artistic rather than the athletic. Should I lean toward my artistic side again in the future, I'll certainly consider long hair again.

6) Shaving with long hair is hard. It's constantly falling forward toward your face. One option is to tie it back long enough to shave, but then you still have to shave around your neckline, and it gets in the way there, too. By contrast, shaving with short hair is not a problem in the least.

7) Older people like long hair better than younger people. People with any kind of connection to the 60s or 70s will really love your long hair. Younger generations will generally not. It is what it is.

8) Long hair makes you look younger. It's not the only way to look younger, but it is one way, and a fairly reliable one at that. This plays into Point #2 a bit, though. A lot of what's going on here is that long hair is a fashion accessory. If you make a point of having other accessories, you won't look old with long hair.

9) There are a lot of short hairstyles that convey similar vibes. As I discovered, long hair isn't the only hair style that can make you look younger, more artistic, more fashionable, and so on. There are many shorter hairstyles that fit the bill equally well, and this was one reason I decided to cut my hair short again.