Imagining Mars

I had a dream last night about something that I quite often dream about: the colonization of Mars. I love dreams like this because they always enable me to imagine things that I never would have imagined otherwise.

In this particular dream, Mars had been colonized and built upon to the following extent: There were good roads leading to a wide variety of businesses that existed in support of the primary economy of Mars, which I imagine to be extraction. In other words, it's most likely to me that life on Mars would revolve around mining, and to a lesser extent construction, and that all other businesses would serve to support those industries. There were shops and convenience stores, but they were sparsely stocked. There were bars and restaurants, mostly serving unappealing food like sandwiches, and also serving plenty of alcohol with which the Martian workers could "while away their time."

Interestingly, albeit unrealistically, buildings and cars on my Dream Mars were mostly open-air. Everyone had their doors open and their windows rolled down. Business establishments would generate their own oxygen, somehow, for patrons to breathe. People had grown accustomed to the difficulty of breathing the CO2 atmosphere of Mars as they made their way from Point A to Point B. My "host," the person in my dream who was showing me around the place, could generate oxygen in his car, too, but simply preferred the feel of the open air, just as all the other residents of Mars did. So, a good portion of my visit to Dream Mars was spent kind of suffocating as we traveled from place to place. It was frustrating for me, but my host assured me that I'd get used to it eventually. 

Obviously, such a thing would be impossible on real Mars. You'd only be able to last about as long as you could hold your breath. You'd need to find an enclosed building with breathable air as soon as possible, or else port your air with you in a space suit. But my dream wasn't a dream about what would happen if we plopped a bunch of present-day humans on present-day Mars using present-day technology. Instead, it was about the future.

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A while back, I also thought of a similar sort of story. In it, human beings colonize Mars and exist there for hundreds of years before two major factions have an irreconcilable conflict, and the losing faction is banished from the colony. Ill equipped to survive the Martian landscape with whatever technology they could carry with them, and regularly exposed to the high solar radiation of the surface of Mars, this losing faction eventually, over time, evolves the ability to withstand high levels of radiation without suffering biological damage, and also the ability to breathe Martian air - or at least whatever middle-step the atmosphere of a partially colonized Mars might be like. 

The rest of this story revolved around the discovery of this very profound human evolution and its implications for the two Martian "factions." Would they separate permanently? Would they intermarry and cooperate? What would happen?

I'll have to actually write the book some day to find out.

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The key feature of all of these dreams and ideas I have about Mars is that building up and maintaining a "bubble world" on the surface of the planet, where humans must always be encased in glass with a steady supply of oxygen pumped around, has always struck me as a terrible way of life, one that is only feasible in the very short run. In my mind, Mars is only inhabitable if it can be terraformed. A generations-long project would have to ensue, during which humans would have to discover a way for Mars to maintain a thicker atmosphere, and for that atmosphere to be made of nitrogen, oxygen, argon, and carbon dioxide, just as Earth's atmosphere is. In order to achieve that, humans would have to discover a way to convert the existing Martian atmosphere to something that it currently isn't. Humans would have to figure out a way to protect that atmosphere from the kind of solar radiation that would destroy it - and that means either manufacturing an electromagnetic field around the planet (since Mars isn't capable of generating its own), or somehow constructing a thick ozone layer, under which an even thicker breathable atmosphere would reside.

All of this, and we haven't even tackled the question of potable water yet. Bear in mind that these materials cannot simply be piped-in from Earth or elsewhere in sufficient quantities to maintain and grow a permanent human population. Conflicts of water rights are the kind of thing that we Earth-dwellers have started wars over. Can you imagine how much conflict there would be between the inhabitants of an environmentally fragile Earth and inhabitants of a terraformed Mars whose existence depends entirely on Earth's willingness to ship its limited water and air resources across the expanse of outer space? 

There are plot holes that a clever science-fiction writer can resolve, at least long enough to tell an exciting science-fiction story. However, to the best of human knowledge, there is no way to actually do this on Mars. If Mars will one day be habitable, we don't currently have the technology to do it; perhaps we don't even have the scientific knowledge to do it.

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The primary reason we know we can't colonize Mars at any point in the foreseeable future is because there are vast, dead regions of Earth that human beings have killed and can't bring back to life. A couple of examples include the desertification of the Middle East and large patches of the ocean floor. If we can't build a farm on a plot of land that was farmed as recently as a couple of generations ago - if we can't keep part of a coral reef alive even though it isn't even dead yet - why in the world would we suppose that we can travel to Mars and render its barren soil fertile? (Keep in mind that the primary difference between barren and fertile soil is the presence of existing biological matter. Martian soil doesn't have any biological matter in it. How's it going to get there? Here's one way, but it requires clay from Earth.)

For the entirety of human existence, life has involved extracting resources from out environment and using them. Full stop. Every animal does this, but only human beings make the kind of technology that changes the environment in potentially catastrophic ways. We're the only animal that produces our own fire, for example, and fire can burn a forest down. We're the only animal that has ever managed to scrape the bottom of the ocean floor clean of all life. These are catastrophic changes. 

Don't get me wrong, I'm not a luddite. Humankind's ability to produce technology has created a world that our primitive ancestors would certainly have considered to be the work of sorcery. We have become gods in all but one respect: we've figured out how to produce civilization when given wilderness; we have yet to figure out how to produce wilderness when given civilization. It's a tough problem to solve.

If we don't solve it, though, we can kiss our dreams of inhabiting Mars goodbye. Even supposing that Mars proves to be uninhabitable and we go searching for other worlds to colonize, we'll never even reach those worlds until we've figured out how to produce enough nature aboard a spaceship to provide ourselves with food, medicine, water, and technology along the way. 

Nor is "environmentalism" the solution to the problem. Covering the surface of the earth with solar panels and windmills is no better for the land upon which they reside than is clear-cutting an acreage of forest. There is no way to reuse or recycle medical waste, and if we intend to heal the sick with medical technology, then we intend to perpetuate medical waste, too. There is only so much leeway we can get from "vertical hydroponic gardens" and other such green fantasies. 

No, the problem here is that we human beings simply don't know how to terraform. We don't know anything about it. We know a bit about gardening, and a bit about landfills, and a bit about leaving virgin landscapes untouched. But we know nothing about creating and maintaining a viable ecosystem capable of supporting human life forever. 

How truly odd that a species of ape that specializes in manipulating the environment around it in order to survive knows so little about manipulating the environment in order to survive.


Say The Magic Words

It seems as though people have been lamenting the decline of civil discourse for fifteen years or more. It's been easy to recognize as it has happened. Still, occasionally we encounter situations that remind us just how far out of whack things have gone. 

A couple of different conversations did this for me recently. I won't bother with the particulars of these conversations here; doing so would risk relitigating the whole discussion, and I don't want to do that. Instead, I'd like to focus on the overall discursive climate in today's world.

When controversy arises, there is often One Right And Important Viewpoint You Are Supposed To Declare In Full-Throated Support Of A Slighted Person. If someone says something sexist, you're supposed to loudly decry sexism. If someone says something racist, you're supposed to loudly decry racism. And so on. Still, in many controversies there may be other matters worth discussing.

To name a few easily-recognized examples:

  • Donald Trump may be a big jerk, but it might be worth noting that his Administration marks the first time in decades that the US government has not entered a new armed conflict abroad.
  • Same-sex marriage might be a significant step toward equality under the law, but it could be worth discussing whether the government should play any role at all in marriage licensing.
  • Although there have been many high-profile examples of racist police violence in America, a significant contributor to police violence is police militarization, not merely police racism.
More examples could be provided, but I list these only for illustrative purposes, so I'll keep it short. 

Suppose one wants to talk, not about bigotry, but about one of these other important issues that are not identity issues per se, such as international peace, restrictions on government licensing, or decreasing the level of police militarization. In that case, one need not first recite a set of magic words about opposing bigotry. Especially where space and time are at a premium, it's best to get right to it. 

I've noticed, though, that if one leaves off the magic words about opposing bigotry, the main pushback one receives is that one hasn't said the magic words! If I leave off the magic words, someone invariably chimes in to scold me and argue with me, to attempt to shame me, to call me names, to call me a horrible person, all because I haven't said the magic words, and even though the magic words have nothing to do with my point.

I am accustomed to this sort of behavior from internet keyboard warriors who might cross my path on Twitter, or in a blog's comments section, or the like. What surprises me is that recently, people who have known me for years on wonderful terms - good friends and family members, people who certainly know my true character - will pursue this line of argumentation with me. Not only will they pursue it, but they'll take it all the way to the brink, ready to end a good relationship over my failure to have recited the magic words. 

It is as though the magic words take precedence over years of friendship. Perhaps for some, they do. But not for me. I'm not prepared to end good friendships over a hysterical need to recite magic words of anti-bigotry. If I know someone isn't really a bigot, I won't tap my foot, waiting for them to loudly proclaim their non-bigotry, and potentially end my friendship with them if they don't.

But some of my friends and family members are so inclined. They will (and have) called me racist, sexist, and so on despite decades of personal experience to the contrary. 

How will I respond to their readiness to cut ties? 

The truth is, I see a lot of this magic words stuff as a temporary mass delusion. This will pass, eventually, although I don't know how long it will take before it does. I see people growing increasingly neurotic as they take shelter from the pandemic in their homes, exposed only to a steady diet of internet, social media, Netflix, and high-calorie/low-nutrient delivery food. In short, I think people are going a little crazy. 

I'm willing to forgive some temporary craziness under the present circumstances. If people want to hang their age-old friendships on a few magic words, I think that's a serious mistake, but it's one their entitled to make. However, I'm not going to make that mistake. If any of these people would like to patch things up once times get a little less crazy, I'm going to be there for them. 

I'm willing to forgive them their craziness, in the hope that, one day, they'll forget what was so important about the magic words.


No Garbage Miles: A Case Study

My last blog post was about running high-quality miles whenever you run. It was verbose and rambling, and probably not very useful to the average user. (Where, "average user," in my case, means "Russian bot." But anyway.) Today, I'd like to provide a case study on "garbage miles," miles that you put in for no good reason, that don't do you very much good. And when I say "you," I mean "me."

Earlier, I ran a workout for which I had great expectations. On paper, it was supposed to be a really good workout. In practice? Garbage miles. Let's take a look.

My goal with this run was to complete increasingly faster-paced laps of a one-mile loop around my neighborhood. Here's a graph of my per-mile pace (grey) compared to my heart rate (red):

You can see that, at least nominally, I achieved my goal. My pace increased steadily throughout the run, and indeed every mile lap was faster than the one before it. This was an eight-mile workout, eight laps, each one faster than the previous. Looks like a good workout. My Strava "relative effort score" was nice and high for this workout, too. All the "data" says it should have been a great workout.

The problem here is that I ran eight miles and only hit my lactate threshold at about mile number six. In effect, I ran two good-quality miles, preceded by six miles of complete garbage. That's about forty-five minutes of running that wasn't really doing me much good at all, followed by about thirteen minutes of tempo-paced running. It's better than nothing, but if I were going to push myself today, why on Earth did I put in 45 minutes of garbage and 13 minutes of decent stuff?

By the time I got home, I knew I had blown it. 

A better way to have run this workout would have been to speed up sooner. Maybe the first mile or two could have been slow, and I could have considered them "warmup miles," but after that, I should have gotten right down to business. My third mile certainly should have been well under 7:00/mile pace and dipping into my lactate threshold, and I should have worked my way to sub-6:00 miles.

Indeed, I started my workout hoping for at least one sub-6:00 mile. The reason I wasn't able to achieve that is because I spent the majority of my running time on slow garbage miles. 

It was an interesting mental exercise to run the workout I ran today, and perhaps it could have been a good workout if I had put in two or three more miles. But I didn't. I quit to early, or I didn't start out fast enough, and ultimately I sacrificed what could have been a great workout. 

The lesson here is that good runners push themselves harder than just what looks good on paper. Good runners push into their lactate thresholds and keep the heat on themselves for longer than they can really stand it. If I want to become a better runner, that's what I have to do, too.


Running Fast Versus Logging Miles

In the old days - say, the 1960s and 1970s - one of the prevailing training techniques involved logging a ton of miles, where "ton" means one hundred miles per week, or more. Anyone who was serious about running was putting in that kind of mileage, including and especially the top running talent in the world.

Over time, a new philosophy began to take root, which held that quality miles were more important than the sheer quantity of those miles. Many runners, especially recreational runners, began to find success in focusing on a couple of speed workouts per week and a long run - so, three major workouts per week, combined with either very slow and light running on the other days, or even cross-training. Here it is important to note that "success" means something on the order of being able to run a marathon at a 7:00 per mile average pace (for men). 

While I've been out of the competitive running game for quite some time now, my impression (based on how I've seen elite runners train, as recorded on their websites and memoirs) is that the current vogue way to train is a sort of combination of the two approaches. In this combined approach, the runner gives 100% to his three weekly hard workouts. That's 100% to the weekly long run (comprised of 75% slow, easy running and the last 25% at a threshold pace), 100% to the weekly threshold runs, 100% to the weekly speed workout; and then lots of long, slow miles the remaining days. Under this approach, a competitive runner might be running speed and threshold runs in the 5:30-6:00 per mile range, while doing all other running at 7:30 pace, 8:00 pace, sometimes even slower than that. 

Sometime over the past couple of years, I adopted this new approach. In part, I did so because I was experimenting with heart rate zone training, and that's what ends up naturally happening when you run in Zone 2 for extended periods of time, you run at 8:00 pace. It's bonkers. But I was also inspired by what I was reading from elite athletes, and they, too, seemed to be taking it quite easy on their off days. Well, if they can do it, why shouldn't I do it?

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Unfortunately, and probably predictably, the result of all of this slower running has been... slower running. When I first moved to Texas, I felt silly if I ran a mile over about 6:50. In general, I tried to stay at or under 6:45 pace. For the past couple of years, I've been running 7:40s and thinking to myself, "Oh, well. It's not a fast day, so it's not a big deal."

While I absolutely believe there is some truth to this, I think what has happened here is that some relatively important concepts have become flattened out and converted into bad advice. 

This is common in the fitness world. When "HIIT" cardio training came into vogue, it was just a fancy term for what endurance athletes had been doing for years: dedicating 1-2 days per week to interval training at high speeds. Eventually, the recommendation for HIIT morphed into an argument "against" low-intensity, steady-state (LISS) cardio, which is what endurance athletes do on non-HIIT days. But that's nonsense. The correct way to train is to do HIIT on some days and LISS on others. Fitness trainers, unfortunately, did not get that memo, and started recommending that their clients do HIIT (good) at the expense of LISS (bad). 

And so we have a similar issue in running today. Mindlessly logging 100+ mile weeks is probably a bad thing if you're not thinking about the overall quality of your workouts. Focusing all of your energy on three workouts per week and then completely forgetting weekly mileage is also probably bad. Giving full effort to your most challenging workouts is an absolutely wonderful idea, as is taking things easy on your recovery days. But shuffling along at 7:40 pace for mile after mile, just because you're not doing a speed workout, is completely and utter nonsense, and I feel a little stupid for drinking that particular cup of Kool-Aid.

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In the old days, before we had things like Strava "Fitness & Freshness" graphs, my general approach to getting into great running shape was like this:

  1. Spend about two weeks doing calisthenics, with emphasis on push-ups, sit-ups, pull-ups, wall presses, calf raises and toe taps.
  2. Run 3 miles per day, at about 6:45 per mile pace.
  3. Once that feels comfortable, increase to 4 miles per day at the same pace.
  4. Once that feels comfortable, increase to 5 miles per day.
  5. ...and so on, until...
  6. At 50-60 miles per week (or more, depending on training goals), start to incorporate speed workouts and dedicated long runs.
  7. Then, taper for your race.
This training approach is inherently sound. At every stage, the runner is preparing to take on progressively greater loads, but waiting to ensure that he never pushes beyond his current fitness level. And, importantly, no day is wasted on mindless running. The increase from daily miles of 3 to 4 to 5 and beyond serves a specific purpose, building the endurance base from nothing to something. Once the base is achieved, then additional, harder workouts become the focal point. At that point, the runner is so conditioned to running at 6:45 pace or so that he can easily do so even on easy days. No big deal. And it shouldn't be a big deal, especially for a fast runner.

*        *        *

Years ago, I remember meeting fellow runners who were much slower than me. I'd speak to them and learn that they were putting in so many more miles than I was, and yet running so very much more slowly. Why? I remember hearing my wife talk about a friend who was running X many miles, and yet still didn't look as fit as I did. And I remember saying, "Yeah, but he doesn't run like I run."

That statement reflects the notion of quality over quantity. Don't just mindlessly run miles, run them with heart. Run hard and fast. Push your body. A daily run - even an "easy run" - is not supposed to be easy. The goal is not merely to "log some miles." "Logging some miles" won't help you run better or faster. The real question is, what kind of miles are you running, and for what purpose? 

Thus, in the end, I've come full-circle in realizing that logging 50 miles a week at a slow pace makes about as much sense as logging 50 miles a week at race pace. Your daily run is supposed to make you healthier. If you're finding it easy then you're probably not making your body any healthier. Oh, sure, you're getting some fresh air, and that's better than nothing. But do you want to run faster? If so, then do it.

One problem here, though, is that Strava and Garmin algorithms don't currently seem to be able to measure this. On these platforms, you set up your heart rate zones and/or your pace zones, and then your runs and perpetually measured against those zones. The idea that your zones don't change from October to November is... bizarre. You're either running at your physical peak (which is not true of hardly any of us), or you're progressing or regressing in some way. If instead you find yourself stagnant, then there is something seriously wrong with your training regimen. And if your times are flat, but your "Strava Fitness Curve" is higher, what does that really even mean? Nothing.

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Anyway, there is a lot of information going on in this blog post, and I realize I've rambled quite a bit. I wanted to get this information down in writing so that I could think about it a bit more clearly. In the future, I will need to organize these thoughts a little better. 

For now, the key messages are:

  • Ensure that every mile you run is of a high quality and dedicated to a specific purpose.
  • Ensure that your training is moving in a direction, not just stagnating.
  • Focus on your running paces more than you focus on your running data. Run to run faster, don't run to score more internet points.
  • If you're not running fast enough, it might be time to back up and start over, three miles a day at a good, solid pace, until that's easy and it's time to add more miles.


Achievement And The Cognitive Time-Horizon

 At EconLog, Bryan Caplan has a great post on "unschooling," and specifically the fact that he thinks "unschooled" children ought to be required by the parent/instructor to do one or two hours of math a day, even though such a requirement violates the principle of "unschooling."

He thinks so because, in his experience, unschooled children are seldom strong in math. Here he is elaborating on the problem:

Won’t kids who would greatly benefit from math choose to learn math given the freedom to do so?  The answer, I fear, is: Rarely.  For two reasons:

First, math is extremely unfun for almost everyone.  Only a handful of nerds sincerely finds the subject engaging.  I’m a big nerd, and I’ve done piles of math, yet I’ve never really liked it.

Second, math is highly cumulative.  Each major stage of math builds on the foundation of the previous stages.  If you reach adulthood and then decide to learn math to pursue a newly-discovered ambition, I wish you good luck, because you’ll need it.

I think I'm less experienced than Caplan is, but for whatever it's worth, my experience has been this: The main difference between kids who become successful later in life and kids who don't is that the successful ones learn how to engage in "pain today" for "gain tomorrow." It's the ability to relate a current very unpleasant task to a handsome reward in a far-distant future. 

The kids I know and knew learned this skill from practicing either sports or music. Once they learned it, though, they were able to apply that skill to things like math, computer languages, foreign languages, and anything else that ended up giving them an advantage later in life. 

So, I like Caplan's keyhole solution here a lot; but I also wonder what the best way to teach this kind of perseverance is. As I said, the only way I really know how to teach this skill to somebody is by introducing them to a sport or musical instrument and helping him or her excel. The process of tirelessly practicing a thankless task like free-throws or etudes, followed by eventual success, imparts upon the child an indelible sense that hard practice over the course of weeks and months produces excellence. Once you've learned that, nothing in life can stop you.

But, what's your opinion? How do you think we can best teach this skill to children?


Virtue Signals

Here's another post I've been trying to write for a long time. This one's about letting other people know that you're a good person.

Ordinarily, we might call this kind of behavior "virtue signaling," but that, of course, is a loaded term these days. Nonetheless, there are ways that all of us try to demonstrate to other people that we are not fiendish knaves. 

After having spent decades of my life living among religious conservatives of different stripes, I've come to realize that, for many if not most religious adherents, the religion itself is less an expression of a person's metaphysical beliefs as it is an expression of the fact that a person wants to let other people know that he or she is good.

This is why "the one, true faith" is always the one you were born into. It's never the case that the great cosmic truth is the one that was taught to people on a different continent somewhere, it's always the one right there within your own community. There are plenty of people who study religion and come across one that profoundly speaks to them for various reasons, but for the average adherent, it's much more common that people follow the predominant faith because "that's what good people do." They want to be good people, so that's what they do: they go to church, they present themselves as god-fearing people, they wear the right clothes, say the right prayers, and use the right terminology. All of this is to let the people around them know that they are committed to being ethical by the standards of the surrounding community.

It is much more difficult to convince people that you are a good, ethical human being if you belong to a minority faith, or to no faith at all. Believe me, I've tried to explain to people the basis of my ethics and the fact that I live by good morals every day of my life. It's a tough sell to them, because what they know of good people is that good people are "good Christians," or "good Muslims," or whatever the case might be. To them, I have some explaining to do. It might not be fair, but it is what it is; whereas a person wearing a crucifix or a hijab has much less explaining to do within their own communities. Everyone can see that they are people of faith. Additional conclusions about their moral character naturally follow. 

And so it is that religion, especially nowadays, functions as a sort of social shorthand for "I'm a good person." 

I started thinking about this today because I discovered a newer kind of social signal that serves the same function. To a large extent, leftist politics are not so much a set of policy views as they are a signal to like-minded people that "I am a good person." Someone recently told me about his new favorite guitar player, and he was extremely excited to point out that she was also a woman, and a woman of color at that. We all listen to music with our ears, not with our implicit biases, so her gender and race identities were completely beside the point. Why even bring them up? Well, it's simple: he wanted to tell me that not only is this a great guitar player, but rest assured, he himself is also a trusted "ally" in the leftist cause. He didn't know that I didn't care about that, either. (Really, just tell me about the music, please.) But that's how it works.

Similarly, some people are very keen to tell me, when they learn that I used to live in Canada, that they themselves often dream of moving to Canada. I think the assumption there is that we are supposed to bond over the fact that Canada is more appropriately leftist than the savage United States. The information is presented as a signal to me, and I am suppose to use it to note that the person with whom I am speaking is a good person.

They are, in fact, just as much a good person as the other person I spoke to earlier, who might have said goodbye to me by saying, "Have a blessed day." 

It's easy for me, an atheist and a libertarian, to allow these kinds of comments to get on my nerves. Indeed, when I was very young and stuck in an incredibly closed religious conservative community, I considered it to be a kind of bullying. Over the years, however, I've grown to realize that the true purpose is simply to signal conformity to the idea of The Good. For the religious, it is the trappings of religion; for the left, it is the trappings of leftism. The point is not to spread or even to highlight either thing. The point is merely to present oneself as good.

Ever since I realized this, I've been interpreting these signals that way. It reduces a lot of conflict and confusion.


Dating Advice

I wanted to write this post years ago, but at the time I originally conceived it, I was in a relatively new relationship with my now-wife, and I had been having a lot of dating conversations with friends about their own situations. I worried that writing this post then would make people think that I was writing specifically about them, or specifically about me. In a way, I suppose I would have been, but that doesn't mean my advice would have been wrong.

In the ensuing years, my relationship blossomed into a successful marriage, while the situations of those friends of mine didn't ultimately pan out. Forgiving me the small sample size, it appears that my approach is the better one. I think it's finally time I wrote my post on how to search for and choose a life partner. In other words, this is my post on dating advice.


The approach most people take toward dating is that they meet someone "somehow." "Somehow" might be in school, or at work, or in a social club, or through a mutual friend, or at a party. The initial sparks fly, the connection is there, and so they agree to go on a date. From there, the two of them adopt "dating mentality," and it all goes downhill.

For people who have seemingly exhausted their potential for casual introductions, or for people who refuse to engage in them at all, there are options to skip the step where initial sparks fly and go straight to "dating mentality:" Tinder, Match.com, and so on. I don't have a problem with these platforms, since their main purpose is to introduce people who wouldn't otherwise have had the opportunity to meet. In my book, that's a good thing. But it's worth noting that it's not the only or best way to be introduced to a potential partner.

Dating Mentality

So, what is "dating mentality?" I compare this to the way some people choose to run when they want to get in shape. Caught up in images of things they have seen before, they hunch up their shoulders and scuffle down the sidewalk in bizarre display of "jogging." No one would ever run like that if they were being chased by a man-eating tiger. When you really need to run, you get the hell out of there. The human body knows how to run. So, why do people do that weird jogging motion? Because they think "that's how you jog."

"Dating mentality" is like that, only instead of running, it's dating. People engage in a bizarre set of behaviors that would come across as insane or rude in any other context. More to the point, no one would ever act like they date in a healthy marriage. So, why do people engage in "dating mentality?" Because they think "that's how you date."

What are some examples of "dating mentality?" Here are some, off the top of my head:

  • Endlessly shit-testing your date to find out if they can take the "real you," instead of presenting your true self as an open book and letting your date decide if that's what they want.
  • Concocting a complex set of rules about when you will and will not shake hands, hug, kiss, or have sex, rather than letting the relationship proceed organically and according to the desires of both participants.
  • Constructing a list of ideal character traits in a mate, and then pumping your date for information to determine whether they possess those traits. Another way of describing this is: Seeking out reasons to end the date and the relationship as early as possible, based on a pre-formed mental model.
  • Hastening the date and the relationship toward sex without letting the relationship proceed organically and according to the desires of both participants. This usually happens under the argument that "I'm just dating and having fun," or sometimes, "Hey, I have needs, and I'm looking for someone who can meet them."
Without a doubt, these are the kinds of behaviors that are sure to keep you single for a long time. If you want to stay single, by all means, do any and all things on this list. 
I can assure you that, so long as you continue to engage in "dating mentality," you will remain single until such time as you become exhausted by it. In fact, I suspect that a non-trivial number of marriages occur when two people who have been engaging in "dating mentality" become exhausted by it at the same time. There was nothing special about that particular relationship, they just both finally happened to reach a point where they couldn't take it anymore; and they happened to be dating each other at the time, so marriage was the next logical step. I do not think such marriages often end up happy.

Now that we know what not to do, let's think about what better thing to do instead.

Knowing What You Want Is The First Step Toward Actually Getting It

The first thing we should all do before we begin dating is develop a picture of what we want our lives to look like, say, twenty years into the future. Twenty years is long enough to overcome all the silly indecisive things like, "I'm not ready for kids," or "I want to be in a good place before I _______." Twenty years is the point after which you've figured all that stuff out, and you've proceeded to a life that reflects your true values. 

To wit, in twenty years, you'll either already have kids, because you want kids, or you definitely won't have kids, because you don't want them. In twenty years, you'll be living in your permanent dwelling, in your permanent location, be it the big city or the suburbs or the country. In twenty years, your career will be stable enough that you'll be able to make plans about the future. You'll likely have obtained the important things you need, such as a car or a house, or you will have paid off all or most of your student debt. None of those things will be top-of-mind in twenty years, and so what will remain is the kind of life you want to lead, according to your values.

This is important because it cuts straight to what you actually do value. We have a tendency to get caught up in things like, "I want my partner to be funny" or "I want my partner and I to be sexually compatible." That's all fine, as far as it goes, but what you really need to do is exclude all potential mates who aren't on the same life-path that you are. You're never going to be happy if you want to settle into a nice home, while your spouse wants to join the foreign service. You're never going to be happy if your spouse wants children, but you don't. You're never going to be happy if the two of you can't get the basic, fundamental vision of life more or less correct.

Don't Care About Anything That Doesn't Matter

The second step toward getting what you want is to stop caring about anything that doesn't speak directly to your vision of the future. In other words, if you've been carrying around the idea that your ideal mate comes from the same culture or religion as you, or that you'd never date an artist, or that you dislike people with long hair... just forget about all that

The right person for you is the one who can keep you satisfied in the long run. Superficial things like hair and hobbies won't matter to you in twenty years. Even supposedly significant things like culture are largely irrelevant. Honestly, in twenty years' time, it's going to matter a lot more that your spouse wants children than it will that she wants to raise them in the Jewish faith. And while you might object to Judaism (or Hinduism, or whatever it might be), none of those objections occupy your mind during the better part of any day. If you object so much to a person's cultural traditions that you can't let them do their thing for 20 minutes in the morning, or for two hours every Sunday, and that you're willing to give up something like children or sexual compatibility just so that you don't have to bear witness to an off-putting cultural quirk... I've got news for you: You're probably not going to make anyone happy and you should forget about the prospect of finding a life partner.

The lion's share of what you think you care about, in fact, doesn't matter. It won't matter in twenty years that your spouse is short, or bald, or black, or a "jock," or anything else. What matters is whether you've managed to build a life that looks like something you want to live in, a life you actually want to experience day in, day out. 

If your objection to a potential mate doesn't speak to that, then it simply isn't a credible objection.

Now That You Know What You Want, Be The Person Who Deserves It

The final bit of advice is the most important piece of the whole shebang. It's great that you want to date the hottest woman in your community; but if you don't take care of your looks, and you don't make much money, and you don't have a lot of talent... then it doesn't really matter. It's great that you have your heart set on a nice man who treats you gently, but firmly and who provides for you willingly and unconditionally; but if you spend most of your time eating snacks and binge-watching Netflix... then it doesn't really matter.

The point here is that the most attractive people to you are people that you are going to need to be attractive for. You can't just sit back and wait for the ideal person to discover you and decide of their own volition that, without having to make yourself into anything better than what you are, you're the best thing that ever happened to them. Get real. You're probably not even the best thing that happened to yourself.

All isn't lost, though. Like every other human being out there, you can be better than you are. If you're not fit, consider hitting the gym; it couldn't hurt. If you're not very good at making conversation with strangers, consider joining the Toastmasters or something; a first date is a series of conversations you have to make with a stranger. If you're not a very talented person, consider getting a new hobby and developing a knack for it; better to be dedicated to something interesting and attractive than to have to look your dreamgirl-or-guy straight in the eye and say, "Oh, you know, I just like hanging out."

If you want someone to love you, then be someone worth loving. Everyone has weaknesses and shortcomings to chip away at. You'll never be a different person, but it's painfully easy to make progress on your major shortcomings with minimal effort. Think of it this way, if you could guarantee yourself perpetual marital bliss for the rest of your life in exchange for $10,000, wouldn't you do it? It's a small price to pay for permanent bliss. If you could guarantee yourself a really good marriage by reading a few books, taking a coding bootcamp, or shedding 20 pounds permanently, wouldn't you do it?

In the grand scheme of things, making yourself into a much better person in order to win the heart of a worthy spouse is a very, very small price to pay for having a worthy spouse! Have you seen those couples who are the envy of everyone who sees them? Do you think they got there through dumb luck? Of course not. They worked hard to become the people they are today, and when they finally met each other, they were ready for the beautiful relationship they now get to have.

And it can happen to you. But you have to be ready for it. So, become the person your future spouse wants to date.


Edward Van Halen, Rest In Peace

In light of the untimely death of Edward Van Halen, I felt inspired to listen to all of the band's studio work in chronological order. It was such a wonderful experience! It really was the best way to come to terms with his passing, and to enjoy what he gave to the world, to honor his memory. 

I thought I would share some of my thoughts after having listened to the full catalog in this way. These are just the thoughts I have after having dived deeply into the wonderful music of Van Halen.

1 - I honestly don't think there's a weak album in the whole catalog. We can say a lot about personal preferences, and there's no accounting for taste, but in terms of the quality of the music, every album is, in my opinion, excellent.

2 - When you listen to the albums back-to-back in chronological order, you get a much better feel for the underlying cohesiveness of the whole catalog. It's tempting to say there was a change in musical direction when Hagar joined the band, but if you listen to the compositions, it's really hard to make that case. 5150 and OU812 are natural, logical progressions from 1984.

3 - In general, all of the Van Hagar albums are extremely underrated. They are consistently musically interesting throughout, and Sammy Hagar was truly an incredible singer.

4 - Anyone who listens to "A Different Kind of Truth" with their ears on can tell that Wolfgang Van Halen is an incredible musician. It's just obvious. I don't understand how anyone could say or think otherwise. He's the bee's knees.

5 - About the only real gripe I have across all their albums is the fact that they did something really strange to Gary Cherone's voice on VHIII. I think if they had produced the vocals better on that album, it would have been better-received. That said, it is a pretty "out there" album for Van Halen, in terms of compositions and the semi-acoustic, softer tones employed, so I'm not surprised that most VH fans dislike it.

6 - For me, the most pleasant surprise was "Balance." I really love the eastern influences and the mystical lyrics. I think it's not Sammy's best vocal album, but the music is really, really good.

7 - Edward Van Halen created a really unique sonic niche with his compositions. There are elements of contemporary jazz seamlessly blended with hard rock and pop rock, and that is such a quirky blend. I think the contemporary jazz elements are what really define the VH sound - sue me! You can hear it! I can even hear the Allan Holdsworth influence. EVH has that same "chord sclaes" approach to his riffs, and yes also to his solos. It's absolutely lovely.

Anyway, if you have the chance to go through all their albums like I did, I encourage you to do so. It's a great experience.


Texas: The Ups And The Downs

Over at Econlog, Bryan Caplan has written a post about his impressions of Texas, based on his recent trip/speaking tour of the state. He correctly identifies many of the multiplicitous positive aspects of Texas and life here. 

 Texas has a lot going for it, but there are a few downsides. The main downsides are:

(1) Sprawl: I'm all for new development, but a sea of identical-looking houses interspersed by the occasional fast food chicken restaurant does not make for very pleasant living.

(2) Antipathy for plants? The older areas of the Dallas/Fort Worth metroplex are very nice indeed, with enormous oak trees and beautiful parks. In the newer, sprawling areas, all trees are instantly mowed-down and replaced with lawn and concrete. This makes the landscape uglier, hotter, and more prone to flooding.

(3) Government corruption: Many of Texas' infrastructure projects are simply boondoggles, transfers of wealth from the taxpayers to the construction-company friends of politicians. Road construction is the classic example, in which miles of highway are torn up, and then rebuilt exactly as it was before. Rather than improving or widening the roads, they simply tear them up and rebuild them again, over and over, in an endless transfer of taxpayer money to construction companies.

There are a few other things I could point to that I dislike, but the simple fact of the matter is that no location is perfect-perfect. But, for a happy mix of good weather, fine people, excellent economic opportunities, and low cost of living, Texas circa-2020 is about as good a place as you're likely to find out there in the world. 

I think most of the people who dislike it here have what I would call niche criteria when it comes to choosing a place to live. You won't find purple mountain majesties or a large Lebanese diaspora here, for example. Most of what Texas is lacking consists of these sorts of niches. If someone were to say, "I'll never live in a place where I can't have a weasel as a pet!" or "I insist on paying a state-level income tax!" then, okay, Texas might not be for you.

Still, for the average Joe, Texas is a great place to be. No wonder people keep moving here.


Lemonade Stand

(Or, How to Turn $37 Into Lemonade, And Then Into $50.)

Suppose you wanted to open a lemonade stand. Some internet searching reveals that the lemons, sugar, and water required to make lemonade add up to an overhead cost of about 37 cents per serving, in today's September 2020 dollars and price level. (Let's assume for simplicity's sake that you borrowed the table, the pitcher, the cups, etc.)

So, the cost to you is $0.37 per serving. You decide to sell your lemonade at a profit, so you choose a somewhat arbitrary price of $0.50, which earns you $0.13 per serving sold. 

Let us finally, and optimistically assume that you sell all the lemonade you make, and that you can make as much lemonade as you need to meet demand. You're clever enough to choose a good, legal location on a hot, sunny day, and so sell 100 servings per day whenever you decide to sell lemonade. You make a consistent profit of $13 per day. Not bad scratch for a little tike such as yourself.

Let's recap: Each day, you spend $37 at the grocery store for lemonade supplies, and you gain $50 from your customers. The difference between your cost and your revenue is $13, i.e. your profit.

Question: Where did this profit come from?

Yesterday, your customers were walking down the street with $50 in their collective pockets, and today, they are walking down the street with lemonade. You turned their $50 into lemonade; they turned your lemonade into $50.

Isn't it odd that you turned $37 into lemonade, but your customers turned $50 into lemonade? What happened? Did they over-pay?

No. While it's true that your customers could very well have gone to the grocery store and bought their own lemons and sugar, there are a few problems with doing so. First of all, it's inconvenient for them if they want lemonade now, relative to just buying a glass from you. Second, they'll likely end up with a surplus of lemons, sugar, lemonade, or all three; that is, they probably only want a glass of lemonade, not an entire lemonade stand. Third, when you went to the grocery store, you weren't thirsty; they were.

The revenue you make at your lemonade stand represents not only the cost of lemonade inputs, but also your customers' underlying sense of value, which is determined by convenience and thirst. 

When you turned $37 into lemonade, you weren't thirsty and you weren't inconvenienced. You ended up with a surplus of lemonade on purpose, so you could sell it. You also invested your surplus convenience and your surplus satiety into your lemonade stand.

At the end of the day, you turned $37 into lemonade, but then you turned convenience and thirst into $13 cash.

This process of turning other people's thirst into money is about as close to magic as the world gets, and it's one reason I've always been fascinated by economics.


An Idea For Improving Politics

Almost everyone agrees that the political situation in America today is dire. Very dire. Political polarization is at an all-time high, and neither of the major political parties seems equipped to reduce that polarization. The Republican Party has more or less traded in its old platform ideas for the sake of advancing a cult of personality, and not even a particularly attractive personality. (Seriously, have you ever heard anyone since before 2015 say that they want to be like Donald Trump or that they emulate him as a person?) Meanwhile, the Democratic Party is being held captive by an increasingly shrill and literally destructive mob of critical race theorists whose ultimate objective is to destroy, not racism, but capitalism. Both sides are becoming increasingly violent, where here "violent" means, "literally engaged in causing physical harm to members of the opposing political team."

It's scary out there, and there is very little hope for improvement. Granted, a vote for Joe Biden at least appears to be a vote for establishing the old status quo - not that that was a particularly attractive thing, but merely that it seems better than four years of a worsening political environment under Trump. That, of course, assumes that four years of the Biden-flavored status quo would improve the political environment at all. I'm hopeful that it will, but there's no guarantee, and a wide array of hypothetical scenarios in which things could get worse. 

If only someone had a good idea for improving America's political environment. Lucky you, faithful readers! I have given this issue a few moments of idle thought, and have unsurprisingly solved the whole puzzle over the course of a can of La Croix.

It came to me as I was reading a friend's Facebook status. He remarked that the federal US legislature had passed a particularly low number of bills this year: 158, compared to the usual 500 or so. His point was that the obstructionists in the legislature were preventing all the other well-intentioned legislators from doing their job, which is of course to create new laws and pass them.

The astute, libertarian reader will immediately note that my friend's assumption is that many of the problems we currently face as a country stem from there being too few laws. If the legislature could only pass more of them, more of our country's problems would be solved!

Not to give away the ending of this post too quickly here, but the astute, libertarian reader will have already guessed how this thing ends, anyway.

I thought to myself, ("Self," I thought), What if one of the underlying problems here is that we see the government's job as being "to create new laws and regulations, and to enforce those that already exist?" In such an environment, a "successful" politician will be the one that passes more new laws, and/or enforces the existing ones more stringently. Assuming all politicians have only the best of intentions (ha, ha), the most successful politician in a world like that will be the one that succeeds at creating and enforcing laws; over time, politicians will become more successful at doing so; ever-more laws will have to be created, and ever-more-stringent enforcement mechanisms will have to be devised to ensure the "success" of the political system, subject to its assumed purpose.

What if we instead defined the government's job to be something like, "to serve as the final arbiter of conflict?" In such an environment, a "successful" politician would be the one that most effectively arbitrates conflict. The goal of legislating would not be to simply create and enforce new laws, but to create laws that reduce conflict and eliminate conflicting laws. The goal of the executive would not be to merely enforce the law, but to reduce conflict with the law. The goal of the judiciary would be to literally arbitrate between two conflicted parties. The more conflict is reduced in such a system, the more "successful" politicians are deemed. 

That all sounds a bit idealistic, but I'm not really articulating a view about the mechanics of government. Rather, I'm articulating a view about how ordinary people can think about government, such that our political environment improves. 

Change the way we think about government, in other words, and we might just change our political system.

There is no room for cynics in this idea, though. Cynicism is a cancer that destroys everything it touches, and it's probably responsible for most of the terrible things you see out there, at least as far as politics goes. 

So, if you want to be hopeful, maybe it's time to try my idea on for size. How might your attitudes and opinions change if you thought of government as a conflict-resolution mechanism, rather than a law-enforcement mechanism?


Get In Shape / Help Me Get Points

Tony Horton is creating a new workout program along the lines of his previous programs, the world-famous P90X series (X1, X2, and X3). I've been doing the various X programs for years now, and I find them the perfect compliment to running. Running rapidly depletes upper-body mass, which can result in weak back and core muscles. That, in turn, can create the kinds of muscle imbalances that lead to running-related injury. I started doing Tony Horton's workouts after suffering a pretty big back injury, and simply stated, they nursed me back to health. I haven't been significantly injured since.

So, needless to say, I'm a huge fan of Tony Horton's workout philosophy, and his programs, and I'm a passionate believer in his training approach. Am I interested in the new program he's developing? You bet I am!

Somehow I ended up with a referral link that gives me "points" if people click on it and sign up. If you're looking for a new workout program, why not be part of Tony Horton's beta testing group for his new program? If you're interested, and don't mind giving me a few "points," whatever they're worth, click here right now and sign up for the email list.



The Ultimate Frank Zappa Playlist, Episode 1

Youth is often defined by simplicity. As children, most of us have very few responsibilities compared to the lives we lead as adults. Our parents provide us with food, shelter, and clothing, and make all the important decisions for us; so, ultimately, our lives as children are really quite simple. We spend that time playing, socializing, dreaming, and forming the core perspective that will direct our thoughts and actions for the remainder of our existence. For this reason, children often think in simple and direct terms. Childish ideologies are known to be black-and-white; childish perspectives are contained in one-line platitudes; childish identities are encapsulated in categorical summaries like, "He's a jock," "She's a nerd," "He's one of those artistic types," "She's a free spirit," and so on. 

But real people, in real life, are nothing like this. Reality is complex, containing multitudes. No one is exclusively a "jock" or a "free spirit;" the truth is that most people contain elements of both, and of so much more. While most of us like to think we adhere to some kind of central ideology, the truth is that most of us fall short of our ideals and rationalize those shortcomings ex post facto. There is a little bit of the hero in each human being, and a little bit of the devil, and the way those two pieces swirl and interact makes all of us adults who we are. We decidedly cannot be encapsulated in categorical summaries, none of us can, nor can our inner thoughts be accurately expressed in platitudes and slogans. 

A popular artist, however, exists as a sort of exception. Artists, the people themselves, are of course just as complex and multifaceted as the rest of us. But popular artists are also in the business of selling their art, and one of the best ways of marketing that art is to present it as being more than merely a nice song or a pretty picture. A truly great artist has a way of creating a whole artistic world unto itself, and consuming their art as a member of the audience is often a matter of personally stepping into that world, imagining oneself there inside it. 

After all, what great art lover has never imagined what it would be like to walk along M.C. Escher's twisted staircases, touch the liquified drops of Dali's melting clocks, or walk along the distant paths visible in the background of one of Caravaggio's masterpieces? What serious music fan has never gazed out at the passing countryside during a long drive and heard the sound of a moody favorite song? Or, overcome with grief or sadness, who has never put on a long, sad, dreary album that sets to sound the powerful agony of our inner turmoil? Or likewise played the most exciting, invigorating music during times of pure elation?

Artists who specialize, and who gain fame for their work, must to some extent present themselves as the architects of these imaginary worlds so that they might invite us in for a visit. Ozzy Osborne thus becomes the "Prince of Darkness," Michael Jackson the "King of Pop," James Brown the "Hardest Working Man in Show Business," Prince Rogers Nelson an unpronounceable and highly sexualized symbol, and so on. These titles function as more than mere nicknames, they're marketing taglines designed to help guide the consumer -- er, the listener -- through the process of stepping into that artistic world. It helps set the stage for what's to come. That is, it provides the frame.

"The most important thing in art is The Frame," Frank Zappa wrote in his autobiography, The Real Frank Zappa Book. "For painting: literally; for other arts: figuratively -- because, without this humble appliance, you can't know where The Art stops and The Real World begins. You have to put a 'box' around it because otherwise, what is that shit on the wall?"

When a public artist steps out into the world as an artist, that is, as a representative of the art he or she hopes to sell, that artist exists as a living Frame in the Zappanese sense of the word. An artist selling art is a person engaged in the act of defining for the audience where the real world ends and the art begins, so that the audience can step inside and see how they like it. 

And for most artists, this is a relatively easy part of the job. The struggle of a great soprano consists of all the years of agonizing practice, slowly honing her craft and cultivating her voice until it becomes a thing of absolute beauty. Acting the part of a diva, by contrast, is no sweat. Take a bow, accept the bouquet of roses at the end of the big aria, and always decorate every media interview with beautiful, cascading laughter and wide-eyed declarations about the magic of the music you are just so fortunate to be able to sing. 

All anyone knows about that diva is her voice, her love of the medium, and her gratitude for existence. The fact that this woman might also be an obedient daughter, a callous sister, a treasured friend, a close confidant, a keeper of secrets, a terrible cook, a rather mean romantic partner, a loving mother, or any mix of all of these things is always obscured by her dedication to selling her art when in public. It is her duty as an artist to be That Voice. All other aspects of her life are important, of course, but only to her. To the audience, they are mostly irrelevant; at best, an aside in her Wikipedia entry, and at worst, salacious gossip.

With all of that in mind, it becomes clear that Frank Zappa had a serious problem: his artistic work was as complex and multitudinous as most people's lives are. Fed on a steady diet of pop culture, history, music theory, and practical economics, Zappa wanted to pour all of these ingredients and more into his art, twist it all together, and see what came out. The result was always something unmistakably Zappa, but how does an artist market a portfolio that contains a little bit of pretty much everything?

Frank Zappa could not be "the diva" or "the guitar god" or "the rock icon" or "the freak," or any other thing; at least, not without sacrificing the other elements of his art. The art world was not then, and is certainly not now, capable of absorbing a marketing message that required nuances and multiple facets. 

So, instead, the marketers did the best they could with the primitive tools they had. Some of his lyrics were comedic, so for some he became "comedy music." Some of his lyrics were overtly political, so for others he became a purveyor of "acerbic social commentary." Some of his music was deliberately whimsical, even noisy and abstract, so for favorable critics he became "avant-garde," while for hostile critics he became "ugly."

Where all of these descriptions -- and the many other failed descriptions of Zappa's work -- fail is in their singularity. How would we describe the Sistine Chapel using only a three-letter word? The truth is, Zappa's music fused elements of Dadaism, avant-garde, 20th Century orchestral compositional concepts, social commentary, highbrow humor, toilet humor, inside jokes, personal quirks, conceptual music theory, satire, earnestness, and above all a love for music. As he put it, "Anything Anytime Anyplace For No Reason At All."

That indelible combination created one of the largest and most varied bodies of work in the music world; not the rock music world, not the 20th Century music world, but ever. And all of it is unmistakably Zappa.

Over the course of this series, I would like to guide an unfamiliar audience through some of the depths of Frank Zappa's music. My hope is "to suggest, to the suggestible listener" that Zappa's art is best understood holistically, as a complex sum total, rather than as a mere set of marketing taglines the seldom ever really do justice to what they attempt to describe. If an audience mostly unfamiliar with his work (and that will be my assumption throughout this series) can be chaperoned through some of its most important elements, then perhaps that can help demystify and obviate the appeal of one of the Twentieth Century's most exciting musicians and composers.

Well, where better to start than with "Inca Roads," a song that served as one of Zappa's signature pieces during the mid-seventies? I've chosen it for a number of reasons. First, as the opening track on the One Size Fits All album, it fits as an apt "kickoff." More importantly, however, is the fact that it packs so many classic elements of Zappa's music into a relatively concise space.

To really understand this piece, it helps to have heard the version that most of us only got to hear in 1996, when it appeared on The Lost Episodes, released after Zappa had passed away. This "lost" version of "Inca Roads" presents all of the musical themes arranged as straightforwardly as possible, with none of the excess decorations present in the version released in '75. The dedicated Zappa fan might find this simpler version a little too boring for everyday consumption, but the student of Zappa will appreciate having the complex musical themes laid out plainly in advance.

After all, the song's Wikipedia entry suggests, "The non-serious nature of these lyrics and even the music itself seem to be mocking other progressive rock bands and their possibly forced divine depth." But interpreting Zappa's music solely through the lens of satire flattens its dimensions. Its obvious from listening to the stripped-down version of "Inca Roads" that the original album version was arranged specifically to introduce each melody, and indeed each permutation of the melody, slowly and deliberately. Once each element of the full composition has been so introduced and permutated, the band takes a break while Frank Zappa performs one of his trademark improvised guitar solos -- another classic element of Zappa's music. The guitar solo appearing on the One Size Fits All version of the song is, in fact, a particularly good one by Zappa standards, and it's easy for the listener to close his or her eyes, turn the volume up, and get lost in the moment as Zappa himself surely did when he performed it live, on stage in Helsinki, Finland. 

(This Zappa technique of mixing performances from some records with those of others, which he termed xenophony, is yet another important element of Zappa's music, which I will surely explore in greater depth in a future episode.)

But when the solo climaxes, the band falls nearly silent, things get briefly quiet, and then... "Inca Roads" really begins.

When the band kicks back in, all of the previous melodies reappear in their proper sequence, gradually building from quiet to loud, from separate to cohesive, until at last the full "Inca Roads" compositional sequence appears, driven mainly by the marimba lines. These melodies are permutated the same way they were at the beginning of the song, but each time the speed gets faster and faster until the keyboard solo ends and we hear the full sequence played at hyper-speed, unaccompanied, by Ruth Underwood on her marimba.

As for the lyrics, again Wikipedia suggests that they're satire. It states, "As the song progresses, the lyrics become sillier and seem to mock the beginning of the song. An example of this is "...or did someone build a place or leave a space for Chester's thing to land (Chester's thing... on Ruth)." But whoever wrote this was unfortunately unfamiliar with the meaning of the phrase "Chester's thing." Chester, of course, refers to Chester Thompson, the band's drummer at the time; while Ruth obviously refers to marimba player Ruth Underwood. Note that both drums and marimba are percussion instruments played with sticks or mallets. So, when Zappa announces, "Chester's thing on Ruth," he's directing the band (and the listener) to play Chester's drum fill on Ruth's marimba. Lyrics of this kind can be found throughout this song, and Zappa's full catalogue.

While Zappa's lyrics ostensibly explore an idea presented in popular book at the time that the Inca Road system was built by aliens who landed in South America during ancient times. You can learn about this on the History Channel's "Ancient Aliens" TV series. But the lyrics also serve a meta-purpose in that they provide sonic placeholders for the instrumental themes of the composition. As the lyrics change, they do so in comical ways, but this isn't a form of mockery so much as a fun way to permutate the melodies themselves. And by the end of the song, it all collides in a glorious, and dare I say absurdist, mishmash that only Zappa could have pulled off. 

There is, in fact, nothing "satirical" or "mocking" about the song "Inca Roads." It's one of the most earnest, cheerful, and straightforward pieces Zappa ever published. Unsurprisingly, it is also one of the most complex and physically demanding pieces in his repertoire. 

We start here, and if you've followed along this far, then you're in for what I hope will be an exciting and educational series!


Something Is Inevitable - But What?

These last few years, especially the first half of this tumultuous 2020, have been an almost surreal experience for me. Even the simplest facts seem incredible. For example, who would ever have guessed that Donald Trump would become the President of the United States? Whether or not you like his policies, you have to admit that the mere fact of his presidency is highly unusual. I'm not sure there is a historical analogue for it.

It's not just the Trump presidency, of course. There are just so many things about life today that seem strange. America's ongoing military campaigns across the Middle East, a violent historical fact that has depleted our national treasury and strained our military resources, are 20 or 30 years in (depending on where you start counting) and show no signs of abating, even as we descend into an economic depression the likes of which has never been seen before. The United States of America, stereotyped as a bastion of free enterprise and laissez-faire capitalism, is now engaged in some of the most protectionist and mercantilist policies -- not just of the USA's brief history, but also comparatively across contemporary nations. The "socialist" European Union and communist People's Republic of China often give more powerful defenses of free international trade than any public figure in the United States today, other than the usual free-market libertarians who have been around for decades. The Black Lives Matter organization, a publicly Marxist organization with a professed antipathy toward the institution of private property, is the anti-racist organization that has captivated our youth; BLM, rather than any other organization out there. 

Even my fellow libertarians are acting out of type, making arguments for universal welfare schemes and environmental paternalism, arguing against democracy itself, or in some cases defending racism as a human right. 

The common denominator in all of this seems to be impassioned extremism, rather than stoic rationalism. It almost seems to me as though even-tempered and restrained thoughtfulness is just... gone. In its place, even formerly rational people seem to be competing with each other to tackle quirky, zany, and/or extreme ideas for their sheer novelty. 

Is that it? Do people now latch on to the extremes and the quirkiness mostly for their novelty, whereas reasonableness is boring? Or, is it that reasonableness doesn't make the news because it doesn't generate enough popular interest? Something else?

Now, when I look at what's happening around me, I am overcome by a single thought: "This can't possibly go on." It's not sustainable for a diverse country of 350 million to stop trading in the international marketplace while deficit-spending many several Middle Eastern wars and flirting with socialist populism. It just can't continue. It will inevitably end.

The end is inevitable, but how will it happen? Will the United States grow more restrained, reduce its global military presence, reduce its annual budget, seek more inter- and intra-national cohesion, and become a calmer nation overall? Or, is this the beginning of the end of the United States as we know it? 

I honestly don't know.


Life In A Global Pandemic, Part 11

When the pandemic first struck, the world was overcome by a mantra of "stay home." At first, this was a sort of communal and positive message, but soon it morphed into a terrible kind of moralizing. Old ladies would call the police on kids playing ball in the schoolyard. People turned on each other.

Eventually, the case rates started to decline, and the country started to "open up" again. That was short-lived. Now we're confronting another round of closures. The difference this time is that there is no longer a "stay home" mantra. Now the mantra is "wear a mask."

Intelligent people should be able to understand that the pandemic wasn't just going to go away because people "stayed home," but if it wasn't clear at the outset of all of this, it should at least be clear in hindsight. Now, however, we're in round two. We already know to be an empirical fact that we can't fight a pandemic with platitudes like "stay home." Fighting it with "wear a mask" will be no different.

Unfortunately, as the pandemic wears on, people become progressively more moralistic. "Wear a mask" started out as ugly as "stay home" ended; what it grew into was a tortuous act of moral grandstanding. It got so bad that I had to take a break from social media and just play with my kids for a month. Now I'm back, and I can confirm that it's even worse.

To be clear, both "stay home" and "wear a mask" are useful pieces of advice to the extent that they work to reduce viral load. What we must keep in mind at all times is that the goal here is to reduce viral load. Wearing a mask isn't a failsafe, nor is it the single act of all acting that will result in a better outcome. Wearing a mask is just one personal hygiene practice among a whole set of skills that we all ought to practice in order to reduce viral load.

When you see someone wearing a mask, you still have no idea whether that person washes his hands after using the restroom or blowing his nose; you still have no idea whether that person practices social distancing; you don't know if he just spent last night in a crowded bar or at a big political rally. You basically know nothing about that person's life, experiences, or hygiene practices. If you were to suddenly conclude that this person is on "your side," the side of "SCIENCE," the side of good and right-thinking liberal people who want the pandemic to end as soon as the research will allow, you'd be making a big mistake.

Likewise, if you see someone without a mask, you know equally little about the other 23 hours and 59 minutes of his day. Don't jump to conclusions.

This kind of knee-jerking is, sadly, what I've come to expect from my American community, as is the moral grandstanding. I've simply grown tired of it, exhausted by the perpetual moral outrage expressed twenty-four hours per day. (Or Tweeted, ugh.)

What I've also, sadly, come to expect from my fellow Americans is a lack of true efficacy. That is, those who wear masks likely don't change them and wash them often enough. They probably don't wash their hands often enough, or thoroughly enough. (At the beginning of the pandemic, there were memes about washing your hands for a full twenty seconds. I wonder who still does that anymore? It's only been a few months.) They don't engage in time-tested hygiene habits like using a bidet, sterilizing their kitchen countertops and bathroom surfaces. They don't wipe down the interior surfaces of their cars.

All that is to say, people talk quite a big game about wearing masks, but when push comes to shove, no one is willing to do what truly needs to be done to reduce viral load. People are still as filthy as they ever were. I had gotten used to how dirty people are; now I have to get used to their being both dirty and sanctimonious about masks.

I sure hope someone develops an effective vaccine for this.


Slate Star CoDoxxed

Get it? Because he says they're "doxxing" him.

"Doxxing" is a type of cyber-bullying in which the bully publicly reveals private information about the target, such as their home phone number or address, their employer's information, photos of the target's children, and so on. This is considered to be extremely threatening. Imagine that someone publicly posts a photo of your small child playing at the park, along with the Google Maps link to the park and a comment to the effect of, "This is where that racist Joe plays with his kids." That's doxxing. Yes, it's bad.

But that's not what's happening to Dr. Scott Alexander So-and-So. Let's dive in.

First, The Back-Story

Go ahead and cruise on over to slatestarcodex.com to get Dr. Scott Alexander So-and-So's version of the story. It goes something like this: A writer from The New York Times wanted to write a story about a popular blog that generates a lot of interest and that maybe got some things right about COVID-19 early on. That was fine with Dr. Scott Alexander So-and-So until the journalist said, "By the way, I've been able to figure out what the So-and-So stands for, and I'm going to put that into my story." Dr. Scott freaks out a little and says no, don't do that. The journalist says it's company policy.

So, Dr. Scott Alexander So-and-So deleted his whole blog, saying that The New York Times was trying to endanger him by doxxing him "for clicks."

Before I go on, I would like to remind my readers of my previous posts about Dr. Scott Alexander So-and-So. Here's a link. You will see from what I've written before that I consider the guy to be really weird. It's not just that I dislike his blog - and I do - it's that he seems emblematic of a very bizarre strain of Silicon Valley culture, and the deeper you get into this crowd, the heebier the jeebies, if you catch my drift. 

His blog rose to prominance when some well-regarded bloggers started linking to his posts. They all seemed to consider him very smart and thoughtful. Soon enough, "everyone" was reading him. Over time, his posts have become more performative. He started out writing like a self-conscious nerd, and now he writes as though he is playing the part of a self-conscious nerd who thinks he is a really smart and funny guy. That's fine. Fame changes you. I don't care.

What I do care about is the content of his blog. Each post tackles any number of topics. He's written on climate science and economics and technology and artificial intelligence and psychiatry and biology and sociology and anything else. He always presents his views as though he is an expert, but quite often it's painfully obvious that he's just done a couple of hours of internet research. There's no shame in doing some casual research and blogging about it, but when everyone starts calling you an expert, and you keep doing light research and presenting it as Dr. Scott Alexander So-and-So Presents The Answer To A Problem That People Have Been Trying To Solve For Decades, then it starts to get on my nerves.

I mean, it's dorky to do what effectively amounts to college homework assignments as an adult passing the time. But it's problematic to be taken seriously for it.

An "Anonymous" Blogger

Dr. Scott Alexander So-and-So openly admits that his name is a pseudonym. First question: Why is he using a pseudonym? Maybe it's like a stage name. Lots of people have stage names. Stage names can be a lot of fun. But that's not why Dr. Scott Alexander So-and-So says he uses a pseudonym. Instead, he says it's because he wants to remain anonymous.

But Dr. Scott Alexander So-and-So also says that Scott Alexander is his real-life first and last middle name. That sure is an odd choice of pseudonyms for someone who wishes to remain anonymous. The legendary whistleblower "Deep Throat" wasn't a guy named Deep Throat McInnis, and if he was, going by "Deep Throat" wouldn't exactly be a cloak of anonymity. "Deep Throat" was not a pseudonym that resembled his or her real name at all. It was an obviously made-up moniker; it was intended to be obviously made up, because if everyone knows that Deep Throat's real name is nothing whatsoever resembling Deep Throat, then no one has any idea what Deep Throat's real name is. That's true anonymity. That's not what Dr. Scott Alexander So-and-So wanted, obviously. If he wanted that kind of anonymity, then he would have chosen a pseudonym more like "Deep Throat," or "Alone" (the pseudonym of the writer of The Last Psychiatrist blog), or "Slate Star Codex Guy" or something.

Pretty much everyone knows that Mark Twain is Samuel Clemens. Samuel Clemens didn't choose "Mark Twain" as a pen name because he wanted to be anonymous. He chose it because he thought he could sell more books under the name "Mark Twain" than under the name "Samuel Clemens," and he was probably right. Mark Twain sounds way better. But when the press discovered his real name, Samuel Clemens didn't delete all his books and complain about being doxxed. He just did what any normal person using a pen name would do: He said, yep, but I write books under the name Mark Twain. And there was no issue.

The matter was slightly different with "Publius," or "Publicus," or whatever name they were using to write The Federalist Papers. In that case, they had to be anonymous because they could have been killed for treason. Notice again how "Publius" bears scant resemblance to "John Jay" or "John Adams."

It gets worse, of course. Not only did Dr. Scott Alexander So-and-So choose a "pseudonym" that was actually just his real name, he published many old links to all his old blog posts, in which he discussed personal details of his life. He discussed the experiences of the patients he saw in his clinical psychiatric practice. He held public meet-ups, advertised on his blog and on his social media accounts, where he agreed to meet with pretty much any old person who happened to read his blog or follow him on Twitter. He didn't meet strangers with a cloak and a mask, either. He met them using his real face and his real name and as his own, real, self. In short, he presented himself publicly as Dr. Scott Alexander So-and-So, Please Don't Use My Last Name Because I Want To Be Anonymous, Honest.

Not exactly the behavior of a man who seeks anonymity, is it?

Playing At Being Famous

But okay, maybe he was just naive about the matter. That could be the explanation, right?

Still, fifteen years of naivete over the course of progressively building internet fame seems to strain credulity. Once you start getting calls from The Times, wouldn't you reconsider your willy-nilly attitude toward divulging personal details? I mean, if it mattered to you that you remain anonymous, and you started to become famous, wouldn't you then quietly cull your blog of all references to your real life and real identity, and then just stick to publishing bi-weekly homework essays? Wouldn't you cool it with the public meet-ups and stuff?

You would indeed, if you cared about anonymity.

So, another possible explanation here is that Dr. Scott Alexander So-and-So liked being famous and well-regarded for publishing homework essays on the internet. He liked being able to organize meet-ups and watch strangers show up, wanting to meet him. He got a taste for fame, and decided he wanted to keep up with it. That's find and dandy, too. I don't fault a man for wanting to be famous. Lots of people want that. 

Then, this feature in the New York Times should be his big break, right? Finally he gets his big spotlight in the press. Finally he can divulge his true identity, set up a Patreon account, publish a book, and maybe secure a regular writing spot at Slate Magazine, or Vox, or The Atlantic or something. If you wanted to be a famous public intellectual, isn't that what you'd do? That's what I would do. I would work hard for my big break, and when it finally came, I would try to make the most of it. I'd try to capitalize.

But that's not what Dr. Scott Alexander So-and-So would do. What would he do? Delete his whole blog and complain that he's being persecuted. Weird, right?

Another Possibility

I'm just going to float this theory. I have no idea if it's true, and no skin in the game one way or the other. But it's a theory that makes sense to me.

Imagine you did homework essays for fun. Imagine you were kind of a nerd who lived with ten other people in the same house, you've gone on record saying that you don't have much luck with women, and you're basically just a clinical psychiatrist somewhere. Then imagine one day a lot of genuinely smart public intellectuals start reading your homework and say, "Hey, look at this guy. He seems smart."

So then imagine that you decide to keep up with the homework. People are reading your posts. You feel well-regarded. Heck, you are well-regarded. You get a taste of fame, and you decide you enjoy it and you want more of it. So you keep at your homework, and people keep reading you and linking to you.

And it's all pretty nice because it comes easy to you. You can do a couple of hours of internet research and write about it, no problem. So that's what you do. But at the bottom of it all, you know you're not really solving any problems. You know that your lengthy essays aren't really all that meritorious. You don't think you're all that smart, but everyone keeps saying that you are anyway. Thus, you enjoy the position you're in, you love the fame and the accolades, you like the meet-ups, maybe you even get more romantic attention than you did before.

But you don't have what it takes to capitalize on your fame because, at the bottom of it, you only have the willingness to do a couple hours' internet research per week. You know that people who write books - people like Malcolm Gladwell and James Altucher - actually spend a lot of time and money on research and interviews and collecting information. You know that it's their full-time job. And you know that, while you'd love to give a TED Talk and be interviewed by Tyler Cowen, you don't actually want to spend all your time researching the information you write about.

You know that because you've done enough internet research to understand that there is a HUGE difference between really knowing something and just sounding like you know something. And you know that your expertise is in the latter, not the former.

So things are going well. You have lots of readers, including some incredibly smart people who say nice things about you. When occasional readers point out the flaws in your arguments, you now have a legion of fans to do the additional legwork for you. All you have to do is sound kind of plausible, and there will be enough grains of truth in what you write that your fans can fill in the blanks on their own. In this way, you get them to do the legwork on your most controversial claims, and you get credit for it without having to do the hard work.

Well, that sounds a bit phony, doesn't it? Isn't that what fakers in the business world do? They get really good at sounding good, and then they pass off all their work to underlings, taking all the credit for themselves, and scaling the corporate ladder without ever having to do the hard work. This is classic charlatan behavior.

And when charlatans in the business world get caught, what happens next? They usually quit the job in a blaze of glory, finding a way to spin it such that they get a similar job elsewhere, hopping from job to job until they either get promoted or outed as a fake. And the story is always the same: "I did this amazing thing and that amazing thing, and then someone tried to take credit for my work, so I left." It's always that somebody set them up or something.

So, if you were a faker, if you were this kind of charlatan, only instead of being in the business world, you were in the world of internet blogging... imagine this. Imagine that a real reporter, a real professional writer, asked you for an interview and hit you with some hard-hitting questions that you couldn't answer because, let's face it, you're not who everyone says you are. Imagine that these hardball questions were difficult enough that you started to fear that if your fans got to read your poor responses, the veil would come off and you'd no longer be seen as Mr. Smart Well-Regarded Blogger.

What would you do?

Some people might delete the whole blog, in a blaze of glory, and claim that the reporter was trying to cause you personal harm.

I've seen similar things in the business world. I won't say for sure that this is what happened to Dr. Scott Alexander So-and-So, but it's a story that is consistent with a particular and plausible set of circumstances.

We shall see how it pans out.


Life In A Global Pandemic, Part 10

From my vantage point, it is safe to say that, after those who have unfortunately lost their lives to it, children have suffered the worst from Covid-19.

We adults tend to be quite comfortable in our daily routines. Assuming we have jobs and can earn a living, we spend our time in consistent ways, day-to-day. Even adults with a robust and active social life only have time for a few hours of such socializing per week, and this often comes in scheduled ways: "date night," "girls' night," "poker night," golf on Sunday mornings, etc. For the most part, it has been possible for us adults to modify these activities to account for social distancing guidelines, or substitute them with alternate forms of entertainment. For a lot of us with stable incomes, then, our quality of life hasn't been impacted too badly.

But the story is completely different for children, whose primary social network -- schooling -- has been shut down for months. If you're a child whose extracurricular activities rely on intimate contact, such as music, dance, martial arts classes, and sports teams, even your more sporadic socializing has been elimiinated. And, depending on how strictly the family adheres to social distancing, many children have not been able to see their same-age cousins, friends, or neighbors for months. Even when that interaction can take place, it happens in a way so limited as to prohibit all the running around, laughing, and interacting that most children do with each other.

The result is that many children are stuck in a dystopian nightmare that few adults can truly appreciate.

Even worse: there doesn't seem to be any good way out of this nightmare. Some schools, intent on opening up in the fall for a full classroom schedule, have erected bizarre plastic barriers around desks to prevent disease transmission. There are photos of children being allowed to "play outside" only so long as they stay in circles painted on the ground, socially distant from all other children.

The isolation that my own children feel is palpable. Human beings need social contact, and children in particular need all the running around, and being silly, and physically touching other children that happens during unstructured play. I fear we may be grappling with the adverse mental health consequences of socially isolated children for decades to come.