2020-03-30

Life In A Global Pandemic, Part 5

Last night, I had a dream that gently drifted into being a dream about the xenomorph monsters from the Alien movie franchise. At a certain point in the dream, things turned sort of greyish like the movies, and from that point on, I was being chased by an unseen xenomorph that would destroy me the moment I let my guard down.

The night before that, I dreamed that I was in a crowded convention center of some sort, with people all over the place, glass elevators, ornate gardens, and everything that you might expect from a fancy hotel/resort. A few young, twentyish hooligans started causing trouble, bothering people, being mildly violent, annoying, and bullyish. When they came in contact with me, I did what I usually do with bullies, which is deny them the satisfaction of having their way. And just as in real life, this infuriated the bullies to the point that they decided they wanted to literally kill me. Their numbers increased dramatically, they became cruel and merciless, they started killing everyone in their path. Just when they had me surrounded, I would find a way to escape, usually taking one of them down in the process. As the dream proceeded, it got gorier and more gruesome, and also more harrowing. No matter where I ran, there was a crowd of violent hooligans waiting to pulverize me.

In both of these dreams, I woke up in the middle of the night because they were so intense, then I would calmly nod back off to sleep and find myself back in the midst of the same dream. The dream would continue like that until I woke up again. This process repeated itself several times until I made a conscious effort to put the dream out of my mind and think of something else.

I didn't connect the dots until this morning. A menacing force chasing me everywhere I go, with a feeling of inevitability about it all; people being killed, and me knowing that it is only a matter of time before it's my turn. These are coronavirus dreams.

During the day, I feel calm. It's inevitable that I feel a little stir-crazy. I go running every day, but aside from the neighborhood streets and the inside of my own home, I haven't had a change of scenery in a long time. Other than that, I am happy. I get to spend time with my family, I get to focus on exercising, and eating right, and playing my guitar. All those things are going well, and so it's easy to feel calm when I'm focused on things that make me happy.

Clearly, though, the specter of death and pestilence is working its way through my psyche. It comes into my dreams and gives me nightmares. My wife and I talk mostly about coronavirus -- what it's like to grocery shop now, which people are keeping their distance and which aren't, what are the prospects for a cure or treatment, what the latest numbers from epidemiologists, clinicians, researchers, and so on...? The fear sets in. It's hard to think about much of anything else, even as we stay calm, for the most part.

The people around here are not taking this quite as seriously as I think they ought to. The outdoor parks and paths are packed with crowds who do not keep their six feet apart. Every day, when I run, there are more and more cars on the roads. The sidewalks, which I used to have to myself, are now overrun by people walking and running. It's fine that they walk or run, but they often bring two or three dogs with them, taking up the entire sidewalk, and then refusing to move over for fellow pedestrians. New to outdoor exercise, they have never been versed in basic trail etiquette. That would be bad enough, but refusing to make way during a deadly pandemic seems particularly egregious.

For my part, I give them all a wide berth. Many of them say hello, but a few stare me down. Angrily.

Real information about the virus is impossible to find. The internet is replete with analyses that report a less-than-one-percent fatality rate. Good news, right? One analysis claims that none of the Chinese patients who had "severe" symptoms died; none of them. The deaths are only among those who experienced "critical" symptoms and required ventilators. So more than 99% of people recover from COVID-19.

Side-by-side to these reports are news stories of hospitals being overrun by dead bodies.

It is mathematically true that a virus with a high infection rate and a low fatality rate can still produce millions of deaths. Still, one can't help but feel as though there are competing narratives in the news. One narrative wants to convince us that the virus is not as bad as we think it is; the other wants to convince us that this is the worst thing that has happened to humanity since the Holocaust. Maybe both things are true, but how can a man make sense of that?

I think the senselessness, the lack of good information, the uncertainty of it all, is what amplifies the fear and causes it to penetrate into my dreams. It would be nice for the uncertainty to resolve itself somehow.

But wishful thinking doesn't get anyone anywhere, either.

2020-03-23

Life In A Global Pandemic, Part 4

When I was about 13 years old, I had an odd and scary dream.

I was walking through the halls of my junior high school sometime during the late winter months. The sun was shining outside, but it was still cold, with snow on the ground that had begun to melt, making the ground muddy, but still hard from being frozen. In my mind, I had the sense that the world outside the schoolhouse was radioactive; one could go out there for a few moments, but after that the radioactivity would being to corrode the body and kill a person within minutes. Still, I decided to take a shortcut from one hallway to another by going outside. I walked out one of the doors, crossed the muddy, sludgy ground, found the next door and... discovered that it was locked. Then, reality set in and I realized that I didn’t have time to get back to the other door. I awoke from my dream knowing that I was going to die from the radiation.

This was a vivid dream that always stuck with me, presumably only because the dream itself was so vivid. I remembered this dream yesterday when I went to Costco yesterday to do some grocery shopping.

They had us all lined up outside, and were only letting us in the store a few at a time. I did my best to keep six feet of distance between myself and the person in line in front of me, but the person behind me kept scooting up closer and closer to me — even despite my dirty looks and obvious discomfort. Waiting in lines like those is essentially a ticking time bomb. As in my dream, too much time spent in that kind of crowd may eventually kill me. It’s an awful feeling.

My trip to Costco only got more surreal when I made it inside. I had shown up early to try to “beat the crowds,” but unbeknownst to me, Costco had decided to open early. The only people who walked out of the store with toilet paper were those who had shown up in time for the early opening. Still, I was able to get most of the things I wanted. The clerks in the store ushered us toward a specific path; we all had to shop in the same direction. That, too, felt odd and restrictive.

Seeing all my fellow shoppers inside, it started to become obvious to me which people were going to definitely get this disease, and which perhaps had a shot at avoiding it. I’d say about half of us did a good job of keeping our distance from each other, politely letting people go ahead, and giving folks a wide berth as they shopped. Others had brought the whole family to the store — both parents and multiple children, with everyone crowding around the shopping cart. They’d talk loudly, spend a lot of time standing in one place, sort of “occupying” a location of the store, discussing and debating items on the shopping list. They looked exactly as they might have looked on a “normal” day. The cashiers were all wearing protective gloves, but I noticed that one of them was scratching her nose with her gloved hand.

I’m not faulting or criticizing these people. I’m not suggesting that they’re not taking the situation seriously. Rather, it seems that some people’s habits are too hard to break, even in light of the severity of the circumstances. And these habits may well prove deadly for them.

It’s been a roller-coaster of emotions these past few days. At times, I feel crushing fear for a pandemic that seems utterly inevitable. I expect it to kill some of my dear loved ones. I am terrified that it could kill me, and then what would my poor daughter do without me? I am committed to remaining disease-free for the sake of my family; and yet, at the same time, I am rational and I know what the evidence says. The evidence says that the majority of us will get COVID-19. The evidence says that people with pre-existing conditions like diabetes have a much higher death rate; and that even those who don’t die must often spend weeks in the hospital with tubes stuck down their throats and breathing with the aid of a respirator. Images of the polio patients in iron lungs haunt me before I go to sleep.

But, at other times, I’m impressed by the beauty of Spring. The leaves are coming out on the trees, and Texas is becoming warm and green again. There are birds everywhere. People, ostensibly practicing “social distancing,” have decided to spend more time outside with their families, in local parks, being active. The pace of life is quite a bit slower, which is nice. I am treasuring my time with my daughter. We have been bonding a lot lately. She spends her evenings cuddled up close to me, I with my arm around her, holding her tightly. Then there is the medical news — stories of potential antiviral treatments, and vaccine tests, and technological solutions to various medical shortages. These give me hope.

Of course, all hope borrows against time. It all ultimately comes down to whether the vaccines and treatments will be ready and available if and when this virus strikes me. Can I hold out that long? Can I continue to live like this? Will I lose my job? In the worst-case scenario, what must I tell my family before I succumb?

The emotional toll of life in a pandemic is much higher than I realized. The fear is real. You can see it on people. I hope most of us can pull through this.

2020-03-19

Life In A Global Pandemic, Part 3

At last, for me, the economic reality of this situation is starting to set in. With most everyone stuck at home, bars and restaurants closed, shopping centers empty, the threat to the economy has become clear. Yesterday, for the first time yet, I started to worry about job security.

My family is comfortable, and we will probably be okay... probably. It really depends on how things proceed in the COVID-19 world. The experts tell us that a vaccine is 18 months away. I don’t see how most of the world can continue to operate like this for 18 months. Production of all things is bound to slow down. Paychecks will stop flowing. People will be stretched. Then what?

The comfortable and the wealthy can afford to stay home and simply ride it out. Most people, though, cannot simply stop working. Even in the midst of a global pandemic, nobody can afford to just stay home forever. Eventually, most people will be forced to choose between putting food on the table and avoiding the coronavirus. Starving is a certainty, while contracting COVID-19 is a spin of the wheel. Every rational person will take their chances with getting the disease before they acquiesce to starvation.

In light of that, this is how I imagine things will play out:

People will stay home as long as they can. Some of us will lose our jobs while others will be forced to go back to theirs. Most of us will eventually have to leave home and get to work. Maybe there won’t be any good office jobs for people like me, and we’ll have to take supply chain jobs: deliveries, shipping/receiving, warehousing, manufacturing, and so on. But we will simply have to work; there is no other choice.

Thus, the virus will continue to spread. It is inevitable. It will spread and devastate until we have a vaccine or other treatment. Then, finally, we will go back to normal.

I think some norms will have to change.

Most obviously, working from home will become not only commonplace, but more normal than not. This will be a change for the better, on all kinds of levels. Office complexes are breeding grounds for communicable illness; staying away from them is a matter of prudence. I think telecommuting technologies will blossom. Call centers, for example, are typically staffed in huge buildings, but there’s no reason call center employees couldn’t work from home if their phones are connected to the central call routing system. Most office work could probably be done at home. And it will be, thanks to this pandemic; or at least, that’s my prediction.

Sanitation norms are also going to have to change. Today, I see people wiping down their shopping carts, wearing masks, etc. I think we’ll see a proliferation of touchless technologies: credit card payments with a “tap,” Android Pay, Apple Pay, etc. These technologies involve scanning, rather than inserting or swiping a card. Manually handling paper currency will have to fall out of favor, as it mostly already has. I can only hope that Americans will start to use bidets, wash their hands more thoroughly, be more mindful of coughing, sneezing, playing with their noses, and so on. Those are harder norms to overturn, but I think it will happen.

A few months of social distancing will be enough to convince people to keep their distance on the streets. I expect there to be fewer hellos and more allowance for “personal space.” At the same time, I expect social networks to blossom. Not Twitter or Facebook, obviously, but the networks that actually matter to people. Video game networks like Twitch and Zwift will expand. Strava will do quite well. I imagine virtual socializing will fill the void caused by physical social distance. This will be highly disruptive, though, because it takes a different skill set to excel in social media than it does to excel in face-to-face interaction.

In what other ways might our lives be about to change?

2020-03-17

Life In A Global Pandemic, Part 2

Let's talk a little bit about grocery shopping.

In the "early days" of the outbreak (say, two weeks ago), store shelves emptied almost completely of hand sanitizer. I understand the impulse; I tried to buy some, too. I only ended up with a small bottle for each person in my household, but I expect these bottles to last for quite a few weeks. But this was the beginning of what was ultimately a series of highly irrational responses to the pandemic.

I say irrational because there is only so much hand sanitizer is good for. It's not a bad idea to use some after touching some public surfaces. For example, my daughter and I might go to a playground, spend some time there, and then put some hand sanitizer on in the car on the way home. But it's just a precautionary measure. Our main preventative measure is getting home quickly and washing our hands. A rational response would be to make a run on soap, not on hand sanitizer. As of this writing, however, there is plenty of soap on store shelves.

Toilet paper was next to go. Again, I am not sure what the rational reason is for buying up all the toilet paper on store shelves. Nothing about COVID-19 would suggest that we are in for a toilet paper shortage. But that's how the masses responded. They quickly made a run on toilet paper, of all things.

It's useful to keep these facts in mind when observing the stock market's response to the pandemic. The stock market has predictably plummeted. I keep reading articles, comments on social media, etc., about what the market seems to be indicating about the economy in the future. But I don't believe what's happening to the stock market is any more credulous than the irrational run on toilet paper. That's not to say that betting on a quick recovery is easy money, but I don't think the market has, in aggregate, accurately predicted the future of the global economy any better than my neighbors have, in aggregate, accurately predicted the future of their bowel movements.

There are other grocery store oddities occurring:

  • Frozen vegetables are gone, but fresh vegetables are still plentiful. That, despite the fact that one can turn a fresh vegetable into a frozen one simply by putting it in a freezer bag and placing the bag in the freezer.
  • Walmart and Amazon have little of any kind of grocery left; Kroger is still very well stocked. What does this mean about shopping patterns? What does it mean about the comparative business models of these companies?
  • Sparkling water, apparently a substitute for bottled water, has become almost as scarce as regular bottled water. Strangely enough, there are pallets of Topo Chico available at Kroger, absolute tons of the stuff. Do people think "Mexican" sparkling water is dirty? Do they just not know what Topo Chico is?
An odd fact has arisen from this grocery shortage, too. I'm accustomed to buying things online. When they're in-stock, I add them to my cart, finalize my purchase, and then receive my shipment. But now, when I attempt the same process at Amazon or Walmart (online), it doesn't matter if the item is in stock when I complete my purchase; it only matters if the item is in stock when the store decides to send it to me. Yesterday, for example, I ordered eggs from Walmart, to be picked up at 4 PM. (Actually, I placed my order two days ago.) At the time I finalized my purchase, eggs were in-stock; but Walmart wouldn't schedule a pick-up time until 4 PM the following day. In the meantime, they sold all the eggs out from under me, so that when I arrived to pick up the groceries I ordered, the eggs (and many other items) could no longer be sold to me.

A similar phenomenon occurred at Amazon: I placed a number of in-stock items into my virtual shopping cart, but when I went to finalize my purchase, Amazon wouldn't sell the items to me because they didn't have delivery available until three days hence. So, it didn't matter that the items were "in stock."

Think of this as though it were concert tickets. You buy tickets and have them mailed to you; then, you show up at the venue only to discover that the venue won't honor your tickets because the seats you purchased had been sold to someone else, out from under you.

This is a very bad business practice. I understand the realities of shortages, but the whole point of shopping online is to enter a different queue. Or, if all of us customers are in the same queue, then my place in line should be honored as it is. I ought not get bumped down the queue just because someone else entered the queue from a different doorway.

Anyway, these are some of the shopping issues we're dealing with these days. I honestly expect this kind of thing to pass quickly. I bet shopping, at least will be back to normal within a week or two. But we shall see.

2020-03-16

Living Amid A Global Pandemic, Part 1

By all accounts, we are living through a once-a-century global viral pandemic. The last time anything like this happened was the Spanish Flu of 1918, which happened 102 years ago. I'm not a history buff, but I've also never read any firsthand accounts of what it was like to live through that pandemic. At best, I've read a couple of articles, and perhaps I've seen a few video shorts about the 1918 flu pandemic within the context of documentary films about the time period.

Much of what we know about the turn of the century is from firsthand accounts: letters written to relatives and lovers, newspaper clippings, and journal entries. I'm not vain enough to believe that anything about my blog will survive the next hundred years, much less that anyone will care about my experience. But, what if?

In that spirit, I thought I'd try to document some of my thoughts and experiences from the pandemic virus that, at the present writing, is called "SARS-CoV2."

First of all, let's talk about the name. A few years back, there was another scary virus called "SARS." I don't remember what SARS stands for, but the RS at the end means "respiratory syndrome." (Possibly "Sudden Acquired Respiratory Syndrome?" Check Wikipedia.) Actually, SARS is the disease caused by a virus that was called "SARS-CoV." So, this virus is like the revenge of SARS: It's also a coronavirus that causes pneumonia, but this is the second one they've found, hence "SARS-CoV2." This virus causes a condition called COVID-19, which again is an acronym for something like "coronavirus immune disease, from the year 2019."

I'm obviously not an expert in viruses, but as a layman, it seems really dumb to me that we're calling this virus and its disease by separate names, and that both of those names are acronyms, rather than "the Wuhan flu" or something. (Yes, I know it's not a flu.) Every other major disease has a name, not a code. Call me crazy, but I think people would have a better time dealing with the realities of this disease psychologically if they could give it a name rather than an acronym. But that's just my opinion.

Now let me say a few words about what it was like when this virus started. News of the virus started making major headlines I'd say in January 2020. At first, it was yet another strange illness to come out of Asia. We've experienced those before: swine flu, H1N1, SARS, and so on. I even remember when I was a young boy, there was something called "the Taiwanese flu" that made headlines. So Asian flus are not an unusual thing to read about in the headlines.

It only became unusual when the Chinese government locked down the whole of Wuhan and stories started coming out about how quickly and viciously this virus spread. Within a couple of weeks, it had spread to Japan, South Korea, and to a now-infamous cruise ship. At that point, I became aware of an online map of the spread provided by Johns Hopkins University. I started tracking the cases in real-time via that website. For some days, tracking the virus was quite a scary thing to do. I'd watch the red dots pop up on the map like pox. Eventually, I had to remind myself that every infectious virus spreads like this; this was just the first one I'd seen a map of. That thought helped me calm down a bit.

By March, the virus had reached Texas. At first, everyone was telling jokes about it, but over time the jokes became more sardonic, and eventually people just stopped joking. Schools and offices announced their temporary closures. I myself am currently working from home now, in fact. When these closures happened, that's when people in general started panicking a bit. There was a big, 2-or-3-day run on groceries. People bought up all the hand sanitizer and toilet paper. Eventually, they also bought up all the eggs, milk, frozen vegetables, canned goods, and so on. My current belief is that this panic was irrational. There was no good reason to empty the grocery store shelves. I guess people can't help themselves. I ordered groceries online, and I'll pick them up later today. I don't expect food shortages to be the persistent norm. I have no fear of that. In a few days, I expect grocery shopping to normalize again.

Now word is coming in of the US government's forced closure of bars and restaurants. This is new territory for a country that prides itself on its libertarian values. There is a little bit of debate out there about whether these forced closures are the right thing to do, but most people agree that they are. I, personally, feel otherwise. I think we should voluntarily minimize contact with other people, of course, but I do not think the government should forcibly close our businesses and our social institutions. That's a debate to be had for the future world's historians, I suppose.

For the next couple of weeks, at the least, we'll all be stuck at home, telecommuting to work, looking after our children, and trying to keep busy with things other than nights out and alcohol. Having recently reduced my consumption of both restaurant food and alcohol, I expect I'll have an easier time than most. I also like to exercise at home and go running in my neighborhood, and play music, so once again my introverted and somewhat boring nature has proven to be a major advantage for me in extenuating circumstances.

Young, single people are probably in the worst position right now. Without social interaction, their lives are bound to get lonely. For my part, I have my daughter and my wife to keep me happy. It's a great time to be in a committed, monogamous marriage, isn't it? And indeed, some of my friends have already wondered aloud if there will be an increase in pregnancies in the coming months.

Most of what we Americans know about live among SARS-CoV2 comes from the accounts of people who have already gone through the first wave of the disease, people in China, Italy, and South Korea. So I am waiting for my life to resemble theirs circa-10 days ago. We shall see.

I'll continue to write more about this on my blog.

2020-03-09

Stationary Waves And Coronavirus

The concept of temperance has been a feature of this blog for many years. When I talk about temperance, I'm not talking about eschewing alcohol, but the two ideas do have commonalities. Temperance, broadly construed, means having enough restraint to not just do, you know, whatever the hell you want to do, whenever the hell you want to do it. Temperance means keeping your hedonic urges in check long enough to make sensible decisions in accordance with your longer cognitive time-horizon. See this old post on the issue for a brief primer.

There are many articles and blog posts out there discussing the matter of what is the correct policy response to the coronavirus epi/pan-demic. There is plenty of criticism to go around. Who did what, and did they do it how soon? What aspect of testing or messaging did the CDC botch, what can be learned from the mass quarantines in other countries?

In one sense, I think it's natural that people want to look at it from those angles. I can sympathize with that inclination. It's much easier to have a debate about public policy and to get worked up about all the wrong things someone else did than it is to simply acknowledge that pandemics occur approximately once every one hundred years, and that using political machinery to stop the spread of viruses is ultimately a futile endeavor. We'd have better luck stopping an incoming asteroid.

The fact of the matter is that there is nothing that the government can do to protect you from communicable viruses. They will spread, because that's what viruses do. It's the circle of life.

On a personal note, most readers will probably have nothing to worry about with respect to COVID-19, anyway; the death rate for most people appears to be somewhere between 0.1% and 1.0%. Those are very good odds for a virus like this. But for me, it's different. I'm "immuno-compromised." I'm a type 1 diabetic. For me, the death rate might be something more like 9%, and the rate of hospitalization independent of death is much higher for me than it is for the population at large.

This thing can kill me.

On the one hand, we could say that coronavirus is a public health emergency. On the other hand, we should probably say that the public health emergency already exists. I see just how much other human beings spread their germs around on a daily basis. You people are absolutely filthy. I see multiple people per day walk out of public restrooms without washing their hands. I see people playing with their noses, mouths, eyes, and then putting their hands all over public surfaces. I see people cough without covering their mouths, I see people spit out of their car windows, I see people blow their noses by plugging one nostril, leaning to the side, and blasting debris onto the sidewalk. It's disgusting. And these aren't low-brow "others" in some "other" part of town. These are the middle and upper class people in "nice" neighborhoods. These are the normies. And they're filthy, filthy people.

Earlier this morning, I saw a Facebook advertisement for a bidet. The comments under the ad were everything I've come to expect from filthy Americans. They expressed incredulity and skepticism, they laughed, they mocked, they teased... This is happening during a global pandemic. Here we have a centuries-old device that can vastly improve American hygiene and reduce the spread of communicable illness, and even during a global pandemic Americans' response is one of mockery and skepticism.

That mockery and skepticism, combined with Americans' refusal to wash their hands, cover their mouths, and avoid blowing their noses on the sidewalk, is what will ultimately be to blame for the spread of coronavirus and diseases like it. It's easy to point fingers at the CDC for botching "testing," but the demand for "testing" would be decidedly low if Americans knew how to wash their hands, backsides, and faces, and knew how to keep public surfaces clean and disease-free.

Naturally, there's nothing I can do from my perch above my keyboard, writing on an unread blog about how Americans are a travesty of public filth. But maybe things could get a little bit better on the margins if we all thought a little bit more about temperance.

If you find it tempting to blow your nose on the sidewalk, exercise a little temperance. Find your way to the nearest tissue, and use that instead. If you find it somewhat of a hassle to wash your hands every time you use the bathroom, exercise a little temperance. The expedient thing is to skip the hand-washing step, but the right thing to do is to wash your hands. You might not see the point of covering your mouth when you cough or sneeze in the privacy of your own work cubicle, but I urge you to exercise a little temperance on the margins. Cover your mouth, then go wash your hands. And, for god's sake, get a bidet. They are $15 and install in seconds. Jesus.

Practically speaking, it's unlikely that you'll be able to prevent every cough, sneeze, and itch that needs scratching. You won't always be able to find your way to a bathroom in time to wash your hands or do whatever else you need to do. But if you can exercise a little temperance on the margins, then there's a slightly better chance that people like me won't die.

Please, I beg you, exercise a little temperance. Be a little bit more hygienic. This disease does not really need to spread widely in an environment in which people practice good hygiene.

2020-02-14

Information Asymmetries

If there's one thing everyone knows about diabetics, it's that we eat artificial sweeteners. Judge us if you must, but we find that artificial sweeteners make life tolerable. As a normal person, you have access to all kinds of tasty treats. Not us. We pretty much only have access to artificial sweeteners.

I knew I had completely embraced my condition the day I started buying artificial sweetener in bulk. A big, bulk box of artificial sweetener packets costs something reasonable and lasts for something like two years, plus or minus the scale of my hyperbole. It is stunning how many little packets fit in a shoe-sized bulk box. I use two to three packets per day: one for my morning oatmeal, one for my morning yogurt, and one for a cup of tea I have at some point during the day.

No one else in the house eats the stuff, so it was a mystery when I looked in my pantry one day and noticed a big bag of artificial sweetener.

For the uninitiated, let me explain. Artificial sweeteners come in four different format.

The first format is liquid. To my knowledge, the only people who use liquid artificial sweetener are industrial food producers in factories, and people who like to light dollar bills on fire for fun. That's my way of saying that liquid artificial sweetener is very expensive.

The second format for artificial sweeteners is tablet. The sweetener is compressed into a little pill-sized cookie, and a few dozen of them are poured into a plastic bottle. When you want a little sweet treat, you drop a tablet or two into your tea or coffee, and then wait for seventeen hours while the tablet fails to dissolve. Finally, you lose patience and stab the undissolved tablet with a teaspoon until it becomes several shards of undissolved tablet. You drink the unsweetened tea or coffee with a grimace on your face until you reach the last few drops at the bottom, containing all of the undissolved shards. They slip into your mouth with the final drops of tea, forcing you to chew them up, gag, and ultimately hate yourself. It should not surprise you to learn that the tablet form of artificial sweeteners is a favorite among seniors.

The third format for artificial sweeteners is my personal favorite, paper packets full of powder. The packets are pre-measured by weight to ensure that each one contains exactly the equivalent of a teaspoon of sugar. Taking a sachet by the topmost seam, you can give it a vigorous little shake, producing a satisfying percussive sound, not unlike maracas. Doing so forces all of the powder to the opposite end of the sachet, at which point you can tear the packet at the top seam and pour the powder wherever you need it to be. The sachet is small enough that it can be precisely aimed; spilling is minimal. The powder dissolves instantly, so instantly, in fact, that if you pour it over a steaming cup of tea it sometimes dissolves in the vapor itself without ever reaching the cup. For this reason, I typically opt to pour the sweetener in alongside the tea bag, prior to pouring in the water. Perhaps the only drawback to artificial sweetener in paper packets is the fact that it is usually mixed with dextrose, which is a sugar. Why industrial manufacturers of artificial sweetener have chosen to mix real sugar in with fake sugar as a bulking agent is beyond me. I wish they wouldn't. Still, there is no superior format for artificial sweeteners than paper packets.

Fourthly and finally, artificial sweetener comes in large, plastic, resealable bags of powder. Near as I can tell, this format was developed for people who like to bake with artificial sweeteners, and who have developed an emotional attachment to scooping raw ingredients out of bags. When folks make cookies, they scoop sugar and flour out of bags. If you find this sort of thing comforting, the food industry has provided a solution for you: artificial sweetener in large, plastic, resealable bags. A second advantage of this format is the absence of dextrose bulking agents. A teaspoon of sweetener is a teaspoon of sweetener. On the detrimental side of the picture, artificial sweeteners weigh much less than sugar granules. Consequently, when you open the large bag, air enters the bag along with your scooping implement. When you then proceed to close the bag, the air escapes, and with it a thick cloud of sweet, white dust, which coats the lungs. To my knowledge, the health impacts of inhaling artificial sweeteners have never been studied. We diabetics are a living experiment.

With that in mind, we can return to my pantry, where, for years, there contained the selfsame bulk box of paper packets from which I drew my artificial sweetener. On this particular day, though, I noticed the addition of a big plastic bag of raw sweetener. My mind effervesced with questions. Where did it come from? Who would buy such a thing? When would I ever use it? Within moments, I had dismissed its very existence. I had my paper packets, which I would continue to use at my leisure. No need to worry about an irrelevant and useless thing.

I should have known at the time that I would one day run out of paper packets and need to purchase a new box. I should also have been more self-aware, for when do I ever buy what I need before it's too late? So it was; the day came when I inevitably ran out of paper packets and was forced to scoop my sweetener out of a bulk bag, inhale the white cloud of dust springing forth as the bag closed, and so forth.

It was a livable situation, but not a lengthy one. I replenished my stock of paper packets soon enough, but in the interim an ecological thought occurred to me. Paper packets come in a cardboard box, so after the sweetener itself is dispensed, all that remains is completely biodegradable packaging. By contrast, the plastic bulk bag involves less overall packaging waste, thanks to the absence of individual, per-portion sachets; but that packaging it does have is not biodegradable. Paper products require lumber, which must be forested. Or should I say deforested? Plastic products are extracted from the ground and refined with ample carbon footprint, deep and wide.

As a consumer, I have no insight into the comparative merits of either form of packaging. The price difference is negligible, and I can be trained not to inhale stevia dust. My point here is that I would like to make the most environmentally sound choice at the margin, but I have no knowledge of which option is the more ecological. I can see benefits and drawbacks to either choice. An informed consumer could make an informed choice, but the finer points of the effects of packaging materials on the environment are complex enough that I doubt any consumer - or, indeed, any lone person on earth - knows the answer to this question with certainty.

With better information, we could all make more informed choices. Not all of us would choose artificial sweeteners based on their environmental impacts, but some of us would, and that would represent a more efficient marketplace. It's hard to say that the asymmetrical information of packaging represents an enormous deadweight loss, but life can, and does, get better over time. If somehow this kind of information could be gathered and delivered to people making simple every-day decisions at the grocery store, then there's no telling what kind of improvements could be made to the environment, or to life in general.

The problem, at least in this case, is our inability to fuse together the relevant facts in a way that informs market decisions. I'm cynical enough to guess that any such attempt would quickly become politicized to the point of uselessness, but wouldn't it be great if humans could find a way, anyhow? 

2020-02-13

Ethical Veganism: A Critique

Inspired by the latest Cato Unbound symposium, I'd like to argue for why I think ethical veganism is possibly disingenuous.

Problems With Utilitarian Calculus

The first series of issues I would like to address involve ethical vegans' claims about mitigating the suffering of animals.

Their basic argument goes something like this:
  1. Animals experience at least some level of suffering and pleasure.
  2. Modern meat production imposes widespread suffering on animals.
  3. Even if animals are less morally important than humans, there is so much animal suffering in modern meat production that it overwhelms the human benefit of meat consumption.
  4. Therefore, we should not eat meat.
The first problem with this argument is that it presupposes that humans' pleasure from meat consumption is trivial. There is no amount of human pleasure that would be enough to convince an ethical veganism that eating meat was worthwhile. This suggests to me that the utilitarian calculus involved in this argument is disingenuous. Vegans simply assume from the outset that eating meat fails to generate enough human utility to justify industrial meat production practices. 

The problem is that actually demonstrating that animal suffering is so terrible that it demands we eschew meat was the very task ethical veganism was required to demonstrate in the first place. You had one job, ethical vegans, and you merely assumed what you were supposed to prove. Or even substantiate.

The second problem with this argument is that it discounts all utilitarian benefits to animals that come from industrial meat production. The most obvious benefit is existence itself; were it not for the meat industry, many if not most livestock animals simply wouldn't exist. There are other benefits, such as secured living space, protection from natural predators, opportunities to breed, veterinary care, and so on. All of these things are provided at no small expense to humans and confer at least some utilitarian benefits to livestock animals. Even if the utilitarian value of these things is very low, it's not zero, and thus it belongs somewhere in the moral calculus. The fact that vegans omit this step in the calculus, however, suggests that their utilitarian calculus itself is disingenuous.

A third problem with the utilitarian argument for veganism is that vegans already have responses to the arguments I've made above, but their responses are not utilitarian arguments

For example, when asked to demonstrate animal suffering, vegans often present explicit descriptions of what life for an animal is like on a factory farm. This is an emotionally gripping argument, indeed; but it is not a calculation of utility. We might agree that animals experience suffering on factory farms, but until that suffering is quantified in a way that counter-balances against the human pleasures of meat consumption, it is merely an emotional argument, and not a utilitarian one. If ethical vegans respond to utilitarian critiques of their utilitarian arguments with non-utilitarian reasoning, this suggests that their real reasons for ethical veganism are non-utilitarian reasons.

So, in three different ways, I have shown that the utilitarian arguments for ethical veganism are disingenuous. 

A Problem With "Animal Suffering"

Non-vegans frequently point out that plant foods must be grown, and therefore require farmland. Farmland deprives animals of their habitat, and thus also causes animal suffering. 

Vegans typically respond to this by reminding us that, on a per-calorie basis, plant foods require less farmland than animal meat. But, there are two problems with this argument.

The first problem is that, in making this argument, vegans have already conceded that their food causes animal suffering. They are no longer suggesting that veganism is an ethical alternative to meat-eating; they are only saying that veganism is not as bad for animals as meat-eating is. But ethics is about more than merely avoiding the most harmful thing, it's about avoiding any harmful thing at all, wherever possible. So, the problems with agriculture aren't limited to meat-eating; an ethical vegan ought to avoid any avoidable food that causes animal suffering "unnecessarily."

This brings me to the second problem of the argument. On a per-calorie basis, surely grains and many nuts are more efficient agricultural products than meat. But this cannot possibly be true of many vegetables, such as celery (a net-negative-calorie food), herbs, lettuce, spinach, and so on. These vegetables are extremely low in calories and therefore may actually be worse for animal suffering than the raising of traditional livestock animals. And I hasten to add that this is true of the environmental impacts of such products, as well

Ethical vegans who wish to remain philosophically consistent should not just eschew meat, but also any vegetable product that causes more animal suffering than it's "worth." Yet, the dearth of animal-welfare arguments against the consumption of celery and parsley among ethical vegans demonstrates either that they haven't thought through the implications of their own arguments very carefully, or that the arguments themselves are disingenuous.

A Conclusion

Now, when I say "disingenuous," I don't mean to suggest that ethical vegans are trying to pull the wool over our eyes. I'm only suggesting that the arguments in favor of ethical veganism, as presented by ethical vegans, cannot possibly be the real reason these vegans believe in veganism. If, for example, a person came to believe in veganism based on utilitarian arguments, then that vegan would either be capable of providing utilitarian responses to utilitarian criticisms, or he would have to admit that the matter is as-yet unresolved. When was the last time you heard a vegan do either?

So why are people ethical vegans? 

One possibility is that they have an emotional attachment to animals that causes them to look upon industrial meat production with disgust. It's an emotional reaction, but not a hard one to understand. It's also thoroughly unobjectionable. If the way cattle are butchered makes you sick to your stomach, why should you have to eat beef? That, alone, is a valid reason to eschew beef. There is no need to pretend to be an ethical vegan. There is no reason you can't avoid meat for the simple reason that meat production seems icky to you. If so, it would be better to simply acknowledge things as they are.

Another, more unsavory, possibility is that ethical veganism is a type of moral grandstanding. To have extremely high levels of empathy is a high-status position. Imagine how much higher-status it is to have so much empathy that you are even capable of extending it to other creatures. Some people even extend their empathy to trees, even to rock formations. The more we proclaim our concern for increasingly more inanimate non-human things, the more we seem to say to our fellows, "Look here, I am the caring-est one of us all. Behold the extent to which I care for things!"

It seems likely to me that most self-proclaimed ethical vegans are some combination of the two. They don't like meat, they are grossed-out by meat production, and they want other people to know how much they care deeply for the welfare of all things. I have no objection to people's taste in food, and I don't fault anyone for being grossed out by the meat industry. My only "beef" (get it?) is with disingenuous arguments and moral grandstanding.

2020-02-10

Cleaning Your Room

For many years, I was the sort of man who believed that the path to success and the solution to every problem was to simply work harder and become the best at whatever it is he happened to be doing. While a strategy like that bears sweet fruit in the teenage years, the so-called real world has a way of making mincemeat of it.

So it was one morning, when I found myself sinking into the earth-toned cushions of an old, uncomfortably squishy sofa at the far end of a psychiatrist's office. He was an incomprehensibly thin man with a patch of white hair bursting from the top of his head like water from a lawn sprinkler; his shirts were always plaid, and always of the same earth tones as his sofa; he spoke with earnestness, but I could always tell that he left too much unsaid, usually in response to something I had said -- a terrible quality in a psychiatrist. He also kept two small dogs on the premises with them; they, at least, were a soothing presence in the office.

I found my way into his office by route of my career: No matter how hard I worked, and no matter how good I became at my work, the assignments got worse, the company struggled, and the attitude in the office got darker and darker. A level-headed man could take such things in stride, but this was my first venture into the world of not being able to turn the beat around when the song started to drag, as it were. And this song, to be sure, had become a funeral dirge.

I hadn't much experience in therapy, so like most folks, I went into it with preconceived notions. We would talk about my feelings, I thought. The good doctor would identify some problems with my way of thinking, and help me correct course. Before long, my attitude would be adjusted, and I could go back to doing my work with the kind of pep and ambition I longed for.

In the long run, it didn't quite happen that way. After making weeks of appointments, I eventually figured out the solution to my own ennui. I told the doctor at my final visit that I wouldn't be making another appointment, since it didn't seem necessary. He asked me then, "Would you mind telling me what worked for you?" I told him was something he said -- focus on the things you can control -- that made all the difference. I did that, and life got better. He seemed puzzled.

What brought the old doctor to mind this morning was the sad story of Jordan Peterson, and the memory I had of my first visit to a clinical psychologist.

Sitting in that earth-toned tar pit of a sofa with a small dog rubbing its wet nose against my dangling fingertip, my doctor asked me whether I'd considered antidepressant medication. I told him no, and that I would like to avoid doing so. He accepted my wishes, but first went on a brief soliloquy about the virtues of psychoactive medication. He told me that when he first started his practice, he, too, was skeptical of medication, but eventually came to see it much the same as taking an aspirin. We take an aspirin when we have a headache, and we think nothing of it; the doctor's position was that we ought to think similarly of antidepressants. He delivered his monologue in a pleasant and reasonable way, with calm and academic vocality. I did not come away with the impression that he was either arguing with me or trying to push medication on me. Instead, it seemed as though he wanted his office to be a safe place to discuss the therapeutic benefits of short-term psychoactive medication. But I did not pursue the matter any further, and so neither did he.

Yet, I can't help but wonder what a less thoughtful -- or more deeply troubled -- patient would have done in the face of such a calmly put suggestion by a qualified mental health practitioner in a time of need. It's not difficult for me to imagine that the marginal patient could be persuaded to fill a new prescription for psychoactive medication. In some cases, this might be entirely justified; in others, it might indeed be the wrong course of action. We trust our doctors to make that determination for us, but maybe we shouldn't.

The psychiatrist I saw that day was both an academic working at a university and a practicing clinical psychologist. Jordan Peterson can also make that claim. I point this out to venture a guess that perhaps these two men, similarly aged and of similar pedigree and professional background, held similar views on medication.

The National Post reports that Peterson began taking his medication "to treat anxiety after what [his daughter] described as an autoimmune reaction to food." This is a familiar issue to me: I once suffered anaphylaxis in response to eating a Brazil nut, and for years dealt with the fear of accidentally eating a nut and dying. Such fear is a very real and very palpable thing, and I would never minimize it. Still, it would never occur to me to address a problem like that with anti-anxiety medication, much less with hefty compounds like benzodiazepine tranquilizers.

But perhaps a man like Jordan Peterson, educated in accordance with modern of psychiatric medicine, would think almost nothing of it, just as we don't think twice about taking aspirin for a headache. If so, it would be a terrible lesson to have to learn the hard way.

I'm fond of Jordan Peterson's philosophy of life. I think it's a difficult road to follow, but a very worthwhile one for those capable of doing so. It saddens me to see such a strong advocate of living a deliberately moral life come face-to-face with his own moral failings in such a painful way, a way that risks such terrible long-term neurological damage, and in so public a fashion. The weaker thinkers among us, and those with a taste for schadenfreude, will (and have) pounce on this opportunity to denigrate a man who simply advocated that we live life according to our own moral compasses.

As hard as it will be for the critics to understand, Jordan Peterson's moral compass didn't actually fail him. He most likely took tranquilizers because he genuinely believed that they were the correct way to treat his anxiety. He most likely arrived at that belief through his own scientific expertise in psychology. When his addiction became obvious, he submitted himself to treatment. These are, simply stated, correct moral decisions. Unfortunately for Peterson -- and for all of us -- the world of psychology has not yet caught up with what the rest of the world already knows about tranquilizers.

Jordan Peterson nearly got himself killed. On the wrong day, for the wrong person, at the wrong doctor's office, it could have plausibly happened to me, or to you. Let us remember this episode, then, and learn another important thing from Dr. Peterson. Psychoactive medications are no mere aspirin, to be taken as for when we have headaches. They are powerful, dangerous substances that can leave a lasting and negative impact on your life, even on your legacy.

Be careful out there.

2020-02-06

What Makes A Good Blog?

Prologue

Blogging is, for all intents and purposes, dead. Nobody reads blogs anymore, unless those blogs have been designed in such a way as to create the appearance of a major publication. No, I'm not naming names.

Still, a few of us still enjoy reading blogs. I know I do. When I encounter a blog I haven't seen before, I generally have one of two reactions. One reaction is that I become absolutely absorbed in the blog content and read as many posts in quick succession as I possibly can. The other reaction I tend to have is that, as I start to read one blog post, my eyes start to glaze over, I skim the rest of the post, quickly skim the other posts in search of content that doesn't make my eyes glaze over, fail to find it, and then move on to other things.

So, my reaction to blogs is that I either find them really interesting, or they just plain suck.

My own blog probably falls into the latter category. I can't imagine a single reason why someone who wasn't me or a Russian ad-bot would want to read my blog. That's perfectly fine; I only blog for myself, anyway. It's safe to say, then, that I have cultivated a terrific expertise in blogs that just plain suck.

What about the good ones? What makes them so great? Here's a list of attributes that I think make blogs good. This is my list of attributes; yours might be different. Feel free to provide your list in the comments (ha ha, nobody reads my blog).

  • Good blogs deal in interesting subject matter. Content really is king. I'll forgive a poorly designed, or even a poorly written, blog if I'm interested in the subject matter. I'l forgive a lot of things. But if the blog is just like... autobiographical yammering (hmm, kinda like mine...) then I won't spend much time reading it.
  • Good blog posts tend to be well-written. George Selgin recently wrote a blog post on the history of an obscure rule governing the Federal Reserve's board of governors. I'm as big an economics nerd as anyone, and even I think that's dull subject matter. But the thing of it is, Selgin is such a wonderful writer that he can make anything absolutely fascinating; and so he does with this post. Someone who writes that well can write on virtually any topic and keep the reader engaged. 
  • Good blog posts tend to be concise. There is a time and a place for long-form writing, and some of my favorite blog posts have been quite long. But when I discover a new blog for the first time, I tend to look for short posts whose quality can be easily assessed. It's easier to follow a blog when following it doesn't involve a major investment of time or reading effort.
  • Good blogs tend to have an active comments section. I don't know how to curate this sort of thing, but it can make even a dull blog a lot more fun.
Considering the above, I can think of one blogger who excels on all fronts: Bryan Caplan. I think he might be the best blogger in the virtual-reality-space-that-was-formerly-known-as-the-blogosphere. We bloggers should all aspire to be more like him.

Epilogue

I'm going to make a bit of a blog pivot again. I'm going to pivot away from strongly autobiographical material -- there isn't much going on in my life that would be interesting to readers, anyway -- and toward honing my writing skills. I'll take a two-pronged approach. 

The first prong will be developing more concise, reader-friendly blog posts like the ones I've just described. You know, be a better blogger

The second prong will be developing my own, unique writing voice. I have some book ideas I'd like to work on. I won't use the blog to publish those book ideas, but I will use it as a way to find my voice. Those blog posts will likely be a bit longer.

2020-01-27

Excellence

Last night, I rented the movie Eat That Question: Frank Zappa In His Own Words. It is a well-edited compilation of interviews with Frank Zappa over the course of his career. For the average moviegoer, the film has little to offer, but for the Frank Zappa fan, the film is a must-watch. I will not bother with a formal movie review, however, since Eat That Question mostly consists of footage available on YouTube that has been compiled nicely into a cohesive narrative, providing insight into Zappa's artistic vision. There is nothing new to say about this film footage. If you know about this film, chances are good that you already know whether you plan on seeing it. I'll let my "review" stand at that.

Just because all of this footage had been previously released, however, doesn't mean that I had personally seen it all. One particular moment in the film stood out for me the most. When asked why he thought everyone considered him a hippy rockstar and not a composer, Zappa said something to the effect of, "Probably because they haven't been conditioned for excellence."

This seems like an arrogant thing to say, but Zappa expounded on his point, and the point recurred a few times over the course of the film. He said that the American education system mostly focuses on turning American children into adults who will succeed at getting boring, low-level factory-type jobs and buy cheap merchandise. Elsewhere in the film, Zappa references a rejected article he wrote for Time Magazine. (The article was subsequently printed in Zappa's autobiography, The REAL Frank Zappa Book.) In that article, Zappa makes the claim that Americans have a preference for "cheese," which is Frank's euphemism for cheap, low-grade, low-brow cultural artifacts like cheeseburgers and "chrome dinettes." In the film, he contrasts this American proclivity to the tendency of much older world cultures to take pride in the thousands of years of cultural history they enjoy. He points out how silly it must appear to, say, Europeans, that Americans are so fond of something like a cheeseburger, when in Europe they enjoy recipes that date back literal eons, evolving along cultural lines all the while.

So, Zappa's point was about aesthetics. Zappa believed that people ought to learn how to appreciate art, and history, and music, and pretty much everything else by taking the long view. For Zappa, it made a lot of sense to tout the likes of Beethoven as the greatest composers of music of all time. Their work represents the culmination of hundreds if not thousands of years of musical development. The great composers were worth taking pride in, because they truly represented the evolution of music as art. When we compare that to the latest top 40 thing by... oh, let's just choose a name out of a hat and say Imagine Dragons... there is not much of a comparison to be had.

To be clear, Zappa's point wasn't that it's morally wrong to enjoy Imagine Dragons. His point was that the American culture and education system such as it is leaves people completely unequipped to make informed artistic decisions about what is artistic and what isn't. Instead, the mere suggestion that Beethoven might actually be superior to Imagine Dragons elicits social media vitriol: music is subjective, and what's wrong with liking Imagine Dragons? and I'd much rather listen to pop radio than some dumb orchestra.

Suffice it to say that none of these objections defeat Zappa's point.

On a related note, somebody compiled data from Goodreads.com and provided a list of the most beloved and most hated English language classic novels of all time. To my chagrin albeit not to my surprise, Moby Dick, the single greatest novel of all time, a literary accomplishment so profound that most people will never understand the extent of its genius, ranks as one of the most-hated classics. Why?

Part of it has something to do with what I just said about it: the genius of Moby Dick is so tremendous that I don't think most people can really even understand what Melville accomplished in writing it. Even understanding the profundity of that novel is a pale reflection of the white-hot flame of ingenious creativity that was required to conceive of it; and even conceiving of it is a pale shadow compared to the actual writing of it. Moby Dick tells a thoroughly unique tale with intensely philosophic moral symbolism and a disarmingly charming prose; and that, in and of itself should be enough to make it a great novel. But then Melville found a way to literally fuse the complete works of Shakespeare with the Holy Bible -- literally, I mean he literally wrote his novel by assembling passages from both Shakespeare and the Bible to craft the language of his own story, making symbolic references to each individually, and both simultaneously, all in the service of an entirely separate story he wrote himself. And the unsuspecting reader would be none the wiser, because the novel reads wonderfully and wittily throughout. This novel isn't just Treasure Island for adults; it's a true artistic accomplishment.

But that brings me to the other reason Moby Dick is such a hated novel, and this ties to Frank Zappa's opinions as articulated above. The modern American reader does not have the mental tools required to properly evaluate Moby Dick. It kills me to think that one of America's greatest contributions to mankind's artistic canon is beyond the educational platform of the overwhelming majority of Americans.

This is precisely what Zappa wanted to warn us about: we should be remembering Moby Dick for the ages. Moby Dick is what should be leaving a lasting impression on American culture. Instead, I think more Americans probably recognize the names of politicians, pop stars, and other such flashes in the pan. This is not because Americans are too stupid to understand greatness when they see it. Rather, it's because our culture, our media, and our education system have all failed to provide us with the tools required to evaluate culture and art, and Americans left to their own devices are disinclined to pick up the slack.

By coincidence, I happened to see a video on Facebook yesterday of someone cooking boiled prawns in the Southern style. The recipe went something like this:

  • Put a bunch of water in a giant pot and bring it to boil
  • Add a large concoction of spices, primarily salt, pepper, and cayenne pepper
  • Boil corn on the cob and potatoes in the spice/water mixture
  • Remove the corn and potatoes, then add raw crawfish, prawns, shrimp, whatever, and boil until cooked
  • Remove some of the shrimp and put in a mixing bowl with some of the corn and some of the potatoes
  • Pour a half cup of butter over everything
  • Squeeze some lemon juice over everything
  • Add a bunch of lemon pepper, pepper, cayenne pepper, "cajun seasoning," smoked paprika, and a bunch of other mixed spices that are all various kinds of salt, pepper, and chili powder
  • Stir
  • Dump on a plate
Here's a shorter version of this recipe: Boil three different ingredients, then cover them in butter, salt, lemon juice, and cayenne pepper. This isn't a recipe for crawfish, it's a recipe for butter and cayenne pepper.

Amazingly, the broth that was created by boiling seafood in water for a couple of minutes -- while not as flavorful as it could have been, had someone with a sense of taste undertaken to make seafood broth -- was probably the most flavorful part of the entire recipe. What did the cooks do with the broth? Nothing. It was a wasteful byproduct of boiled potatoes and shrimp covered in butter.

As I watched this video, I heard in my head the voice of an old French colleague of mine, who once complained to me about how disgusting American food looked when they served it. He thought it was revolting to see big, messy globs of food heaped onto plates with no sense of care. He was right. It's hard to find a restaurant in America that doesn't serve big, salty globs of stuff. I ran past Cracker Barrel this weekend, and it was packed; I went to a nice Syrian restaurant, and it was not packed.

Why do Americans prefer boiled Southern potatoes to braised Syrian lamb? Why do they prefer Harry Potter to Moby Dick? Why do they prefer Imagine Dragons to Beethoven?

Because Frank Zappa was right: Americans lack the tools to evaluate culture properly, so we queso dip while other cultures get remoulade. It's baffling. Don't we want more for ourselves?

2020-01-22

A Novelty Problem

There are many reasons why guitars are more popular than pianos. One is that, unless you happen to own a temperature controlled airport hanger, it is impossible to collect pianos. Not so for guitars. You could fit two dozen guitars into a standard-sized coat closet. There are also many different kinds of guitars, each one with its own unique sound, which justifies the purchase of another guitar. "I don't have that kind of guitar, and I need it to make that kind of sound!" They're also priced low enough that one can buy several guitars for the same amount of money as a piano. And then there's all the peripheral stuff that goes with the guitar: the straps, the strings, the pedals, the plectrums, each one with its own claim to improving your tone.

We see a similar thing in bicycles. It's not enough to buy and ride a bicycle. One also has to get the right kind of helmet, riding gear, water bottles, safety lights, fitness trackers, shoes, and so on. If a person decides to make the leap into bicycling, he'll eventually find himself investing in the sport as much as riding his bicycle, just as a guitar player will find himself investing in music gear as much as playing his actual guitar.

Golf, too, is similar. Once you've made the initial investment, there is always something more; a new driver, a better pair of shoes, a ball retriever... anything that will enhance the golf experience. Otherwise, it's just a bunch of club-swinging.

There are many such hobbies and sports. I've chosen to single-out male-oriented hobbies, but I could have mentioned their female equivalents, too. Do you really think women need to buy seventeen different kinds of skin cream, or five colors of eyeliner, or a different jacket for every type of cold weather, or five differently scented candles or soaps that can't be used together without causing some sort of olfactory overload? And, of course, the coed hobbies are the worst of all, since all dollars from sexes and genders can be exploited equally.

Marketeers are quite clever, and armed to the teeth with tools to extract more of your spending money. To be sure, in many cases, there are good reasons to spend more money on your hobby. One very simple reason is that it's fun to own a new guitar, bike, golf club, hair conditioner, or yoga mat. It's fun to complete your collection, to curate a perfect room full of enticing gear, sure to motivate you to do more of what you originally started out doing, anyway.

But if we're being honest, most of us should admit that we over-spend on our hobbies. A few of us will even admit that it would be better to spend less money. So, how do we resist the urge to spend money on fancy new stuff that will surely make us happy -- especially if we're spending within our means?

Here's one solution: Make part of the experience of your hobby the source of novelty, rather than the gear used to engage your hobby. Instead of buying a new guitar, learn something new on one of your guitars. Instead of buying a new bike, go on a new kind of bike ride. Instead of buying a new driver, go to the driving range and perfect your swing with your existing driver.

When we make incremental progress a source of novelty within our hobbies then we are less inclined to buy new things. The trick here is that the increment has to be a meaningful one. You can't simply learn a new song and expect that to replace your desire for a new guitar. Instead, you have to learn something that feels awesome and makes you want to do more of it. You have to learn a new technique, or play a lick you already know at a record speed. You have to impress yourself so much that you don't think a new guitar is as impressive as what you've just done. It's a little more work, but it's ultimately much more rewarding.

This is one of the reasons that children are such a joy. They can learn new things from existing, on-hand stuff and be entertained for hours; meanwhile, the same stuff would typically hold little appeal to us adults. This past weekend, I taught my daughter how to play a new card game. She doesn't usually play with cards, so the opportunity to play a game with dad, using a somewhat novel toy, was irresistible to her. I asked my wife if she wanted to play, and she emphatically said, "No, thanks." Truth be told, if it were only my wife and I, neither one of us would have chosen to play cards together. Those cards had been collecting dust in a closet for a long time. But then again, no one has offered to teach either of us a new card game.

So, my daughter didn't need to watch a new cartoon or a new movie, and she didn't need to buy a new toy. She just needed to expand her ability to play with our existing toys, namely, a deck of cards. It works the same around dinner time, too. She could sit and bore herself to death with cartoons or coloring pictures, or I could have her help me bake biscuits, or cookies, or peel carrots, or measure ingredients to put in the bowl. Things that I find to be relatively mundane, because I do them so often, are new and fun for my daughter. Not surprisingly, I recently found myself in a bookstore, perusing the cooking aisles for a source of new recipes -- something to make my mundane daily task of cooking everyone dinner more interesting. It took me fifteen minutes to realize that I didn't need to buy a new cookbook. I just needed to use the tablet I already own to look up some new recipes!

Again, to avoid seeking novelty in new stuff, seek incremental novelty in stuff you already have. Learning how to make falafel is a nice tool to have in the kit; it's enough to make a person excited to cook again. Learning a new guitar technique, or a better way of chipping onto the green, or a new card game, can all help you find the novelty you're seeking. We seek that novelty when we shop, but we don't need to. We simply need to avail ourselves of the novelty available in our life as it is now.

This relates to another concept I may or may not have mentioned on the blog: depth versus breadth of experience. Finding novelty in a new guitar makes your guitar-playing experience broader. But finding novelty in a new playing technique will make your experience deeper. I, for one, find that to be a positive move.

2020-01-20

Lactate Threshold, Critical Velocity, And Other Stories

Recap:

Some time went by, and I never bothered to elaborate on the training approach I've taken over the last four weeks.

I mentioned that I was going to start doing two fast runs per week (Mondays and Wednesdays), plus a plyometrics day on Fridays. I never circled back to the blog to say that I was also going to incorporate P90X's "three weeks on, one week off" monthly training cycle into my regimen, then change again. Tony Horton bills this as "muscle confusion," but that concept doesn't really apply to running. One doesn't really want to confuse one's running muscles. Still, there's a lot of good evidence in support of taking on a lighter load every fourth week to help reduce fatigue, and that means the fifth week is as good as any other to make another adjustment to the training regimen. Then, on for another three weeks, and yet another lighter week at week #8. Lather, rinse, repeat.

Last week was my fourth week, making it a lighter or "transition" week between what I was doing previously, and what I will be doing now. Interestingly, my overall training load increased last week, rather than decreasing:


Notice that my "relative effort" training load (from Strava) indicates a consistent upward trend for the past four weeks, up to and including last week, which was my "light" week. (The data from Garmin tells a much different story, though, and according to that data, my load did indeed decrease last week.)

As part of my one-month cycle, I did a guided lactate threshold test using my Garmin watch and chest strap HR monitor on Saturday. I will do this again next month in an attempt to chart my training progress using some semblance of cardinal measurements and real data.

Garmin's lactate threshold test produces a lactate threshold heart rate value and a lactate threshold running pace value. My numbers on Saturday turned out to be 167 beats per minute and 6:37 per mile. These results surprised me. I frankly expected a higher lactate threshold, meaning a higher heart rate value and a faster pace time.

Skeptical, I decided to read up a bit more carefully on lactate threshold. The USATF's VO2 max pace chart, as quoted here (p. 2), indicates that 10K race pace corresponds to approximately 92% of VO2 max, and from this value we can calculate various other estimated paces using the percentage values in the USATF table.

My most recent 10K time, taken in early October 2019, was 39:40, or about 6:23 per mile. With the help of some algebra, we can see that lactate threshold pace -- 88% of VO2 max -- corresponds to 6:35 per mile. Thus, assuming I have not lost any fitness between October and today, Garmin's estimate was only 2 seconds off. That's far more robust than I expected! I have gained some faith in Garmin's lactate threshold estimation technology.

Lactate Threshold Training

Having now established a 2020 training benchmark for myself, the next logical question to ask is, "How can I improve my lactate threshold?" The internet is replete with articles on improving lactate threshold, but why read all those articles when it can be summarized in a single sentence? 
The most common recommendation for improving lactate threshold is to run 30-minute sessions at lactate threshold pace
For me, this means something like this: 2-mile warm up, 30 minutes at 6:37/mile pace, 2-mile cool down. Pretty basic stuff. I might try it. 

However, while reading up on lactate threshold improvement, I came across an interesting article here. Read the whole thing. It is highly informative and, if you're a training geek like me, absolutely fascinating. In particular, the article contains a discussion about training above lactate threshold pace. Summarizing the approach used in a York University study, the article states:
The idea that intense workouts are best for boosting LT was even more strongly reinforced in research carried out at York University by Stephen Keith and Ira Jacobs (‘Adaptations to Training at the Individual Anaerobic Threshold,’ Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise, vol. 23(4), Supplement, no. 197, 1991). In the York investigations, one group of athletes trained exactly at LT, a very popular way to attempt to heighten LT, for 30 minutes per workout. A second group divided their 30-minute workouts into four intervals, each of which lasted for seven and a-half minutes. Two of the intervals were completed at an intensity above LT, while the other two were carried out below LT. Each group of athletes worked out four times per week for a total of eight weeks.
What happened? (Emphases mine.)
Which strategy was better for boosting LT – working at LT intensity or putting in the time above it? After eight weeks of workouts, both sets of athletes achieved similar increases in VO2max and LT. The actual gains in LT were absolutely tremendous, averaging 14 per cent in both groups! Advances in muscle-cell enzymes were also rather splendid – and nearly identical in the two groups. In an endurance test in which group members exercised for as long as possible at an intensity which corresponded to their pre-training LT, the above-LT trainees seemed to hold an edge, continuing for a total of 71 minutes, while the at-LT subjects could last for only 64 minutes. However, this difference was not statistically significant. 
At first glance, these results seem to suggest that there’s not much advantage to be gained by sweating through above-LT workouts, but wait! If you’ve been following carefully, you probably noticed that the above-LT athletes really logged only 60 minutes of quality work per week (4 x 15 minutes), while the at-LT subjects put in 120 weekly minutes of quality exertion (4 x 30 minutes). To put it another way, the above-LT athletes achieved the same gains in LT and VO2max as the at-LT folks (and perhaps enjoyed a slight advantage in endurance) – with only HALF the total training time. It’s reasonable to assume that had the above-LT athletes stepped up their volume of above-LT work a little bit, they would have outdistanced the mundane at-LT trainees.
So, training above lactate threshold corresponds to greater increases in lactate threshold than simply training at lactate threshold, because training above LT increases LT more efficiently on a per-minute basis.

This all reminded me of so-called "Critical Velocity" training.

Critical Velocity

The article I mentioned above when citing USATF pace percentage values, by Chris Puppione of UC Davis, includes several amusing discussions about how coaches and trainers are always looking for a new magic training elixir that will enable athletes to suddenly and momentously acquire a tremendous advantage over their peers. Here is one such excerpt:
There are no secrets in distance running—no new revelations and no magic bullets. Somewhere, some other coach has already done it. Somewhere, some exercise physiologist has already written about it. Knowing this, however, has not stopped coaches from exploring better ways to train their athletes year to year. Knowing this does not stop us from picking through our copies of Running with Lydiard, Road to the Top, or Daniels’ Running Formula to find that one piece of information that we may have glanced over without giving it the attention it was due.
Puppione is right, of course. There really is nothing new under the sun. He mentions that "Critical Velocity training," which is gaining lots of new press thanks to the quite admirable success of the Tinman Elite racing team, can trace its roots all the way back to the 1960s! That's more than half a century ago. 

Still, Puppione does incorporate CV training into his coaching of athletes at UC Davis, and reports good results in doing so. He explains that the advantages of CV training over LT training are mainly that the athlete can reap many of the benefits of both LT and VO2 max training, simultaneously, and at substantially reduced overtraining risk compared to VO2 max training.

It makes sense, but keep in mind that the difference between LT and CV training is about 2%, or about 7 seconds per mile. To be sure, seven seconds per mile is a substantial increase in pace over the course of a few miles, but the difference is not enormous. Think of it this way: If my lactate threshold pace were to run a 10K against my critical velocity pace, my CV pace would win by about one minute. My race pace would win by two minutes.

Can seven seconds per mile really result in such great training improvements? It's tempting to buy into the hype, but again Puppione offers a voice of reason. He points out that he uses CV training early in his athletes' season to quickly ramp up their lactate threshold. Then, he focuses on VO2 max training during the middle of the season while reducing weekly mileage, to improve his athletes' speed without overtraining them or over-taxing their muscles. Finally, he incorporates a bit more CV training at the end of the season so that he can reduce the athletes' training load even further as they prepare to taper for the final, major competitions of the season.

In other words, CV training is a good tool to have in the tool kit... but it's not the whole kit.

Back to Me

As for me, what can I learn from all of this? How can I apply my newfound knowledge to my own recreational training regimen?

Looking back across the past month, I realize that I probably was overtraining. By the end of my third week, my muscles felt exhausted, and I couldn't really complete the workouts I had scheduled for myself. Well, I could complete them, but I wasn't getting the most out of them. I was essentially training at VO2 max pace twice a week, and adding a quite difficult plyometrics day to the mix. My weekly mileage decreased a bit, and my body started to feel worn down. 

I can improve my training, at least in the near term, by doing more workouts at or above lactate threshold, although not so fast as VO2 max pace.

I had originally planned on making speed the focus of my next three weeks of training. Speed, of course, involves a lot of training at VO2 max. I am less excited about that approach now, however I did happen to notice an interesting aspect of Puppione's recommended training sessions. He structures his CV training workouts as follows:
  1. 5-10 minutes warm up
  2. CV intervals (say, 4 x 2K at CV pace with 2 minutes recovery in between)
  3. 5-10 minutes recovery run
  4. VO2 max intervals (say, 5 x 200m at VO2 max with 200m recovery in between)
  5. 5-10 minutes cool down
You'll notice he adds some VO2 max intervals at the end of the workout to condition athletes to "run faster in a fatigued state." I believe that adding some VO2 max intervals to the end of my threshold runs and/or CV runs will enable me to improve the quality of my training runs.

So, friends, that's what I'll be doing for the next three weeks. Two weekly hard workouts at-or-slightly-above lactate threshold pace, with recovery runs and a weekly long run.

Let's see how it goes!

2020-01-17

Bond. Jamie Bond.

CNN reports -- a year or more after this was ever a social media issue, anyway -- that there will not be a female 007.

Good.

The notion of a female Bond has always struck me as a disingenuous concept. For years, James Bond was the archetypal example of what men shouldn't want to be: violent, womanizing, etc. He's everything feminism purports to stand against. If traveling around the world, shooting or sleeping with people as an "international man of mystery" is an anachronistic display of chauvinism, then surely this should also be true of an "international woman of mystery," too.

Unless, of course, the proponents merely wanted to give men a taste of their own medicine, in which case, yes, the suggestion is disingenuous. After all, chauvinistic behavior should be sexist and wrong, no matter if coming from a male or a female. And if James Bond's behavior isn't objectionable, then there should be no need to turn him into a woman.

It's a bit sad because, in the old days, someone who wanted to know what a female James Bond might be like would have simply undertaken to write a story about a female international spy. Such a writer wouldn't have needed to make her a literal female James Bond. The story would be written in response to the question, "What if James Bond were a woman?" Then, a completely new story would have unfolded, featuring a female spy placed in a universe of James Bond motifs, and through storytelling, the writer and the readers would get to explore how a woman might handle a similar position.

It's also sad because, it's not like there have never been any attempts to do this before. Take, for example, La Femme Nikita. Or, more recently, Salt. Taking a female spin on a classic spy story is certainly a valid storytelling project, and potentially a very interesting one (even if you're not particularly fond of Salt or La Femme Nikita).

But to take a classic lead character, a romantic hero, and turn him into a woman "because diversity" strikes me as a truly stupid form of storytelling. There's no refined thought behind a process like that. The political declaration becomes the story, and frankly, that's not a very interesting political declaration.

More importantly, though, stories should not be stupid, blunt political declarations. They should be stories. Stories can have political messages, of course. They can be persuasive and moving. But to accomplish this, the writer must put forth a little though and a little care into how the story is constructed, told, voiced, etc. There's more to it than simply chopping off James' head and attaching Jamie's instead. 

2020-01-13

An Offhand Thought On Political Reform

In an overview of his five-part series on wealth and wealth taxation, The Hoover Institute's John Cochrane makes a fairly innocuous and casual statement: "Saez and Zucman want to confiscate billionaires' wealth, because they think billionaires have too much political power."

Years ago, I went on a half-vacation to El Salvador, during which I had the opportunity to hear a lot about recent (post-civil-war) Salvadoran history from the guides at several museums and tourist spots. It was said to me that, after the civil war, the Salvadoran government fired the entire police force and every politician in the country, and hired all new people; people whose families had not previously been in the police or the government. It was a fresh start, so to speak. (The Chapultapec Peace Accords.) I am not an expert in this subject, so I cannot say to what extent the "average Jose's" understanding of the Chapultapec Peace Accords aligns with the literal truth. That's not important. What's important was that it struck me as being an incredibly wise idea to bar prior politicians and their families from getting into politics.

It makes sense in El Salvador, because these politicians and policemen were precisely the aggressors who had stoked the flames of the country's terrible, terrible civil war. Surely it's an idea that wouldn't scale well to a relatively stable country like the United States. But that doesn't mean there isn't some wisdom to be gleaned from it.

Suppose, for example, that Saez and Zucman are correct when they note that billionaires have too much political power. One solution might be to eliminate billionaires. A different solution, however, might be this: impose strict limits on the political power of billionaires. If the problem is that too many billionaires influence government, then why not outlaw that kind of influence?

Perhaps there are gains to be made from barring billionaires from holding public offices or lobbying positions. Perhaps we could limit -- or eliminate -- the ability of politicians to invest in companies owned, founded, or run by living billionaires. Perhaps we could outlaw the kind of private meetings had between politicians and billionaires that are otherwise inaccessible to average, non-billionaire citizens. Perhaps we could prohibit the granting of major tax loopholes, credits, or waivers to billionaire-owned companies unless they are extended to all other businesses at the same time.

These limits would not necessarily need to be so strict as to strangulate a billionaire's ability to participate in the political system. Billionaires could still found non-profit organizations or fund academic research. They could still vote like the rest of us. But they would be prohibited from engaging in special audiences and agreements with the government at any level.

These ideas, too, would limit the political power of billionaires. We need not confiscate their money.

It's a somewhat natural impulse for people to believe that, if billionaires corrupt government, then we should simply do away with billionaires. I think it should be at least as natural an impulse to do away, not with the billionaire, but with the influence. Why do these propositions never seek to impose harsher limits and punishments on politicians? Why do we only ever punish one side of a two-sided corruption?

2020-01-06

The Incrementalist's Mannifesto

Last night, I bought a book that I hope to review on this blog sometime soon. It's called Learn Python the Hard Way: A Very Simple Introduction to the Terrifyingly Beautiful World of Computers and Code, and its author is Zed A. Shaw.

I didn't go into the bookstore looking for a book on Python. I went because we found a bunch of gift cards lying around that we wanted to use up before they expired. When I got to the bookstore, I decided that what I wanted was a book that taught me some kind of practical skill. I seldom have time to read these days, and if I'm going to read anything at all, I'd like it to be something useful, rather than just some excuse to pass the time. (I have many other, more interesting ways to pass my time than reading.) Maybe I could learn how to draw, I thought to myself, as I perused the arts section. Maybe I could find a book on classical or flamenco guitar technique, I thought to myself, as I perused the music section. Maybe I could find a cookbook that could teach me to expand my cooking repertoire, I thought, as I perused the food section...

I found no such books in any section, because all of the books that potentially could teach me such things are written all wrong. I don't want to sit and read for two hours, taking notes, studying supplemental information, and committing concepts to memory. If I were going to do all that, I'd just enroll in a class. I don't have time for all of that. What I need is a way to learn a new skill through short, concentrated, daily practice. That's how we learn musical instruments. That's how we learn languages. That's how we train our bodies. New skills should work the same way.

So, I was slightly encouraged when I arrived at the Technology section and found a variety of programming books in which coding is taught through the use of short projects and case studies. That seemed like something I could work with. Python is also heavily utilized in my career industry, so this wouldn't merely be a practical skill, but also a professional one. I was narrowing down my search.

What sold me on Learn Python the Hard Way was looking at the Table of Contents: The book is organized into a series of coding exercises. I browsed the book's Introduction, and was pleased to discover that the book was written using the Direction Instruction teaching method. Direct Instruction is the method we used to teach our daughter how to read, and it's the preferred teaching method in all the best schools. The reason is because it really works. It breaks a subject down into small sequential lessons in which each lesson builds incrementally upon the one preceding it. By the end of a full set of lessons, students tend to absorb material better and retain it for longer than any other teaching method. Direct Instruction can be a little boring, and the first lessons are often the most difficult -- hence the name "...the Hard Way." But if one persists in this kind of instruction, one stands to gain more than any other competing instructional technique.

So here we have small, incremental changes that add up to major successes in the long run. If this sounds familiar to you, it's because I've blogged about it before. In fact, I write about it all the time. The other day, I wrote about how I was using this approach to modify my current running regimen. More to the point, I wrote a blog post six years ago entitled "Incremental Fitness," that quickly laid out the general idea. The truth is, over the years, I've discovered that the absolute best way to improve your fitness is to stick to a fundamentally sound routine while making small changes to it week-by-week or month-by-month. This ensures that the body has enough time to adapt to new exercises and improve upon them, without ever gaining so much efficiency that fitness improvement is sacrificed to mastery of technique.

Then there's music. I've been keen to improve my guitar technique. I'm pretty fast, but I'm not the kind of player I'd like to be. I'm not the kind of player who can take an interesting passage or lick and play it comfortably with tone and feeling as soon as I think it up. I stumble through a lot of what I want to play. I play well enough to impress laypeople, but not enough to impress fellow players. I want to change that. To that end, I picked up a book recommended by Dweezil Zappa (I think), called Guitar Aerobics by Troy Nelson. Again, the idea here is very simple: One lick per day, every day, for 365 consecutive days. The licks increase in difficulty week by week until, by the end of a year's time, one will have hopefully improved his playing dramatically. Best of all, the time commitment to these practice sessions is minimal. I can work my way through each lick a number of times and still have a little time left over to practice or write my own material. All the while, I'm becoming a better player, day by day.

I've applied the incremental approach to personal finance, stowing away daily, weekly, and monthly amounts of money, based on certain criteria, and funnelling that money into a diversified set of savings and investment instruments. I also stopped buying things that I wanted outright, and instead created a dedicated account for my own personal entertainment expenses. This account grows by a miniscule amount, but it grows every day, and within just a few short weeks it was easy to learn the fundamental lesson here: It doesn't take very much money to add up quickly if you save it consistently.

You don't have to clean every room in your house on "chore day." All you really need to do is commit to spending just five minutes cleaning the house each day. That will add up, and if it doesn't solve your clutter problem, add a sixth minute. Big deal. I don't know what the magic number is for you; maybe it's seven, eight, ten, or fifteen minutes. Whatever it is, it's a small and doable number for you to use to incrementally clean your home, rather than relying on a large and unpleasant house-cleaning project.

Again and again, the lesson presents itself in every conceivable context. If you want your life to get a lot better, don't try to work through a major catharsis. Forget about "new year, new you" and all such nonsense. What works better than anything is to simply identify one small thing that can be slightly improved, make a tiny (but permanent) change to that one thing, and then continue on about your day. Changes like this, made consistently over time, will eventually result in your whole life being better.

I call this approach Incrementalism. It's not a revolutionary idea, and I'm not the first person to have thought of it. But it does have the power to revolutionize your life, and if reading about it here gives you an idea to improve your situation in some small way, that's a good thing.