Monday, July 30, 2012

The Market is Flawed

Evolution is a stochastic, self-organizing process. There is no invisible, guiding hand. It produces a lot of wonderful things. It doesn't produce perfection. It doesn't produce morality1.

The same is true of the market. I follows different rules, ad is based on a different system, but it's fundamentally similar. Organisms compete, some flourish and thrive, others whither and fail. Some get together and cooperate for mutual benefit.

It doesn't produce perfection. It doesn't produce morality.

Why is that so hard for some people to comprehend?

The free market allocates resources, money, and manpower to solve problems, and it does so with marvelous efficiency. However, it only solves profitable problems. It doesn't give a damn about anything that doesn't generate a profit. Caring about your fellow human beings doesn't generate a profit.

You only have to look at 90% of the examples for the last five hundred years for examples of appallingly selfish, inhuman behavior. Outsourcing jobs and shoveling the profits into foreign banks. DuPont lying about CFCs. Ethyl and Big Oil lying about lead. Tobacco lying about cancer and addiction. And that's all just within the last 60 years. In the nineteenth century, prior to the Roosevelts, they were even worse.

We have government for a reason, because self-organizing principles don't actually lead to the best possible outcome. It would be better for everyone if everyone had a good education and a decent job, but the market leads to inefficiencies and so some people don't have either of those things. The market honestly doesn't care; government steps in to take up the slack.

Is it a coincidence that the people who don't believe in evolution also fetishize the market's ability to solve all problems?

This is surprisingly appropriate. In a month, no one will understand why I chose it.

1 - Okay, actually it does. Problem is, it produces good and evil in equal measure as competing strategies.

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Political Correctness Gone Mad!

What is political correctness? Was it ever really a thing? Did it ever go mad?

What is it? An effort to avoid giving offense with respect to race, religion, creed, gender. Basically, being aware that there are people out there who aren't exactly like you, that their lives will have been different, and will respond differently than you to various things. At least, that's they what people assume it was "before it all went wrong".

But was it really? Nope. The phrase "politically correct" goes back to at least the eighteenth century, when it meant "to be in line with prevailing political opinion". To toe the party line, in other words. And that's the sense people use it in today. Like there's some sort of thought police or "politeness nazi" out there making sure you're only ever excessively courteous.

Was it ever really a thing? Yes and no. By 1970, it was briefly popular with the New Left, a sort of post-Marxist, left wing movement in the US and UK. In the 70s and 80s, however, it was used self-referentially and ironically1 by liberals, leftists, progressives, feminists, etc to guard against relying on orthodoxy. In other words, they were using it as a foil against what conservatives have been accusing them of ever since!

Did it ever go mad? Nope. Rather, there was a sea change regarding the political battleground of the US. Rather than being fought between races, classes, or even religious or political groups, the battleground in the US became divided between the ideologies of progressivism and orthodoxy, which in many ways transcend the other divisions. You find orthodox and progressive Christians2, African-Americans, and across classes. Now economists struggle to understand why poor white Christians have overturned the Republican party, making the Tea Party more than just an angry mob, despite that it advances the interests of the Koch brothers, aggressively libertarian, anti-poor billionaires.

This began in the 90s, perhaps coincidentally with the fall of the Communist bloc. Around this time, there also came into vogue an effort to get people to use kinder and more neutral language. "Challenged" instead of "retarded". "Disabled" instead of "handicapped" or "crippled". "African-American" instead of "black".

I'm not too certain about the right, but on the left, political correctness is usually approached apologetically. Like, "It's a good idea, right? I agree with it, but some people take it too far maybe?" This in spite of the fact that no one ever took it "too far". The only places where that ever happened were in parodies, like the Duckman episode, "Forbidden Fruit", or the Jeremy Piven vehicle, "PCU".

My recollection of the response on the right would be akin to "I'm gonna call a spade a spade! He's not 'challenged', he's a goddamn retard! And that guy's no more African than I am for all his funny shirts; he's black!" It is, at least in part, a way to act tough and sound tough, like you're standing up for freedom and stuff, but against whom? No one is actually enforcing anything.

Don't congratulate yourself for saying the hard truths. You're just an asshole.

Is PC a thing? Yes! It's called being polite. It's about recognizing that words actually do have power, and some are freighted with negative meaning thanks to historical realities. We say "developmentally disabled" because the former technical, medical term "retarded" went into common usage and became highly offensive. The exact same thing happened to the previous technical, medical term which was why "retarded", which means "slowed" or "halted", ie "developmentally disabled", was chosen to replace it. The previous term? "Idiot".

Political correctness never went mad. Political correctness was never a thing. The right acts like there's some sort of leftist conspiracy enforcing an orthodoxy, a Stalinist thought control experiment being enacted in our universities. Nothing could be further from the truth. "Political correctness" and "politically correct" were always used by the left to guard against that very kind of thing, and as usual, the right has stolen it (an orthodox mindset is almost constitutionally incapable of developing new ideas, it seems to me) and turned it against its former users.

All there ever was was an attempt to understand, an attempt to speak clearly, an attempt to be decent to our fellow human beings. How on earth is that a bad thing?

1 - proving the hippies were hipsters

2 - Though the right has fought long and hard to claim the title of Christian solely as their own, and to label all progressive "Christians" as "

Monday, July 16, 2012

DOMS Follow-Up

I mentioned in my previous post that it's possible to alleviate post-workout soreness by starting with easy exercises. I also mentioned that Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness is caused by eccentric contractions. A question I failed to address: can you avert DOMS by avoiding eccentric contractions during your workout?

Short answer: Yes.

Long answer: No.

You could bring a partner to the gym who grabs your weights for you at the top of each rep, so you don't have to lower them. Or you could just be a gigantic asshole and drop your weights1. There are ways to avoid eccentric contractions. However, they're difficult and time consuming and, frankly, not worth it.

Even in aerobic exercise (like running) that mostly avoids eccentric contractions, you're still going get eccentric contractions, especially when you get tired. It's almost impossible to avoid.

Finally, it's not worth it. Eccentric contractions happen. You catch things, you drop things, you run, you fall. Every once in a while, life is going to throw you a curve ball and you're just better off all around if you spend some time preparing. So get fit, mix up your exercises with a little of everything; isolations, compounds, aerobic, anaerobic, keep your body guessing and it'll keep itself ready for anything. Also, read a book; you're brain's like anything else. Use it or lose it.

1 - First, that damages the equipment. Second, it damages the floor. Third, it could damage someone else. If you can pick it up, you can put it down. Don't be an asshole.

Post Workout Soreness

Every once in a while, something terrible happens. Someone makes a terrible mistake, an unalterable, permanent, life-changing mistake. He turns thirty. Once you turn thirty, everything is ruined forever. Your hormones begin a slow decline and your waists begins a slow inflation. Fortunately, this can be combated, with healthy diet and exercise. Sometimes the person wakes up and decides to rectify his horrible mistake1.

That's day one. This is day two2.

That god-awful pain is known as Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness (DOMS). In short, you're stiff, you ache, and every movement is an explosion of agony. God help you if you sneeze after working your abs. The pain shows up the day after you exercise and lasts for three to five days.

The part that might confuse you is that it's not lifting the weights that causes the problem. It's putting them back down. When you're lifting the weights, you're performing what's known as a "concentric contraction". The muscle is applying force while getting shorter; it's applying force in the direction of motion; it's lifting the damn weight. When you're lowering the weights, you're performing an "eccentric contraction". The muscle is contracting while being elongated; it's applying force against the direction of motion; it's hitting the brakes as you put the weight down. The mechanisms of muscles and how they work in all conditions is poorly understood, not least because it's difficult to work out in an MRI machine, but we know a few things, among them that eccentric contractions cause DOMS.

First, we know that older beliefs about the causes of DOMS are wrong. Muscle spasms and lactic acid build-up have both been ruled out. Exercise can lead to painful muscle spasms, if you dehydrate yourself and get a nasty electrolyte imbalance what with sweating. However, that condition can be thoroughly alleviated without eliminating DOMS. And lactic acid is water soluble and would wash out of the muscle in a matter of hours. For years there was a popular home remedy; drinking sugar water was supposed to dissolve the lactic acid and prevent soreness. It didn't work, not least because the sugar would be unnecessary and lactic acid wasn't the cause.

What is the cause is structural damage throughout the muscle tissue. Again, poorly understood (it's much easier to rule out a hypothesis than to confirm it), but it's not damage to individual fibers or cells, but may be the connections between the filaments, the fibers. Okay, now that we know almost nothing about what causes DOMS, how about preventing it? I know of two ways to prevent DOMS. They're guaranteed to work, and they're the only things that do.

  1. Never work out.
  2. Always work out.

There. Isn't that simple?

I'm serious. Make sure your muscles never face an unusual challenge. That means you never challenge them, or you always challenge them. Either way, no unusual challenges. Personally, I work out six days a week. You don't have to be quite that extreme. I think three days a week would be sufficient.

Still, that's not going to help you at the start of a workout. You're going to be sore; it's unavoidable. However, there are ways to minimize it. Start soft. Be extremely pessimistic in your estimates of what you can handle. Then cut that in half. Then work up from there as slowly as you feasibly can. You'll be sore, but not as sore as if you start challenging yourself right away. By the time you get to the point where you're actually challenging your muscles, you'll have worked through the sore period and won't have any more.

Another thing, don't be afraid to work out when you're sore. It'll make you feel better. So long as you're not working at 99%, you're not going to be injuring yourself.

1 - That's a popular meme. You see it a lot. It's from the wonderful blog, Hyperbole and a Half.

2 - Unsurprisingly, I found that image in a blog post talking about strength training.