Exciting Times

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Neringa's Crazy 8's

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

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

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

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


UPDATE #2: Email To Race Organizers

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

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

*        *        *

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

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

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

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

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

*        *        *

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

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

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

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

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

*        *        *

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

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

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

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

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

*        *        *

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

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

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

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

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

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


An Email To Race Organizers

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

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

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

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


The Robot Vacuum Cleaner And The Universal Basic Income

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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