The Mother of All Goals – Dropping to “Normal” Weight with StickK

 

By Dan Wilcock

Weight loss is a great American pastime, or perhaps a great American folly. Oceans of money are spent on it. Entire forests are cut down to publish guidebooks. The only times I’ve been fairly successful at it have been when I’m not particularly paying attention to it.

I set a goal for myself this week: drop enough weight to achieve normal BMI. I’m a 5’10” male, so that means 172 pounds. Right now I’m around 200, of which I’m not particularly proud. But there it is.

What makes me think I have a chance in hell of reaching weighing what I did when I entered college?

I’m going to nudge myself my using StickK, where I’ve created a commitment page and pledged to contribute $5 to charity each week I don’t meet my weight goal. The first few months of .5 pounds/week reduction targets probably won’t be that tough. I imagine that toward the end it will be a lot harder and I may need to cough up the cash.

Why aim at so-called “normal” weight when there are good reasons to be skeptical of BMI in the first place? Why try to be what Americans perceive as skinny when some studies suggest that being a little overweight is healthier over a lifetime? I agree with this skepticism. Muscle-bound people are sometimes considered obese using BMI since it’s such a crude measurement. Being a little overweight may be just the margin we need against wear and tear and the ravages of time.

All that being said, the goal and its attainment matter to me. Dropping to 172 would provide a lifetime benefit. Getting there will require setting a lot of new baselines from which to live—in terms of daily exercise (I love to run), nutrition, and sleep. I’m also fond of StickK’s methodology—setting up iterative real consequences over time for success or failure (your get to keep your money or fork it)—such that progress occurs in dripping drops. There’s a very popular social science book behind ideas like this called Nudge, which I recommend.

Failure is a real possibility, and I’m happy to pay for it. But, as I’ve written before here, archers aim high to hit distant targets. I’ll let you know how proximate to the mark I am as I go.

Have you tried using StickK or similar programs to meet a goal? Have you succeeded or failed? Drop a comment if you’d like.

Nice 4.5-mile Running Route in Rockville, MD

By Dan Wilcock

Anyone interested in finding a peaceful, woodsy running route with few course interruptions in Rockville, MD, should check out

this route

(link will open a map of the route in MapMyRun).

It’s a good training run because it balances inclines (there are four good hills long enough to feel a bit of burn), descents, and flatter areas, and because there are only three intersections where cars can cross the route. I run it all the time, and love it.

If Rockville Town Square is your point of reference, warm up from there by walking north on Washington Street (walk past Dawson’s Market from the square and turn right on Washington). When you get to the post office on the corner of Washington and Martins Lane, you are at the start point.

There are just a few turns on this 4.6ish-mile loop.

  1. From the start, run up and down the hill on Martins (which eventually turns into Nelson).
  2. Turn right on College Parkway (the beauty of this run is that it skirts a large wooded area, so it’s more peaceful than some other parts of Rockville. This turn is where you start running around the woods).
  3. Turn left on Yale and go all the way to the end. Just as you reach a wall of trees, you will see a trail heading to the right. Take this trail up to the Millennium Trail.
  4. Turn left on the Millennium Trail. There is a nice long downhill stretch here for cooling down. Then the trail begins to climb.
  5. Just before you get to a big bridge spanning I-270 (if you get to the bridge, you’ve gone too far), turn left where the trail forks into the Rockville Senior Center campus. You’ll see the Senior Center and a playground. There’s also a funky statue made of boulders and branches right where you turn.
  6. Turn left when you get to the Senior Center can run in front of it onto Carnation.
  7. Turn right on Aster Boulevard, one of the nicest residential streets in Rockville.
  8. At the end of Aster, turn left on Nelson, which will take you back to the start/finish.
  9. The end of the race has three good hills in succession. By now you are warmed up for them, and they are a great way to finish your workout.

Hope you enjoy it. Leave a comment if you do. If you know of an even better route, send me a link.

Be the change you’d like to see in the world

A simple aphorism sums up much of human wisdom from antiquity to today: Be the change you’d like to see in the world.

This encompasses the Golden Rule, the Buddha’s Eightfold Path, and countless other traditions.

Like many simple things, achieving it requires  a great deal of refinement and practice.

I’m far from the mark myself.

Recently a combination of readings made this idea resonate more strongly than usual for me.

First, I’ve been working through a stack of books on the Roman Stoics such as Epictetus and Marcus Aurelius and their philosophic ancestors in Greece, primarily Plato. These schools of thought encourage scrutiny of the things before us, which allow a more objective perspective on justice or the moral good.

Second, I’ve been reading contemporary thinkers on sustainable, community-based, environmentally friendly life. I’m currently making my way through Deep Economy by Bill McKibben. Next up will be Small is Beautiful by E. F. Schumacher.

The confluence of these thinkers is rather striking. Once we scrutinize the things around us, we realize that, while we can’t choose the reality around us (the Stoics in particular believed in destiny), we can scrutinize that reality and choose how we act. The question is, what kinds of choices?

That’s what brought me to ‘be the change you’d like to see in the world.’

I think that Schumacher and McKibben point to some better alternatives than the default settings in America’s society, which currently sends most of its resources to hedge fund managers and corporate executives whose relationships with our  communities are mostly abstract and involve maintaining profit margins.

I’ll write again after reading Schumacher, and perhaps a bit more of the ancients.

Reading the Stoics

Bronze of Marcus Aurelius, Louvre, Paris (Image by Marie-Lan Nguyen via Wikimedia Commons)

Bronze of Marcus Aurelius, Louvre, Paris (Image by Marie-Lan Nguyen via Wikimedia Commons)

By Dan Wilcock

Reading ancient Stoic philosophers such as Epictetus, Seneca, and Marcus Aurelius does not require a classroom setting, nor a professor with proper academic credentials. Those elements add value, but the Stoics’ ideas can grab us immediately. I think three Stoic classics in particular are worth reading:

  1. Seneca’s letters, collected by Penguin Books as Letters from a Stoic and filled with advice on the good life, are marvels of clarity and humor. I’d recommend them to anyone.
  2. Epictetus’s manual on the art of living is as simple as it is powerful.
  3. Marcus Aurelius’s Meditations record Stoic advice he gives to himself as emperor of Rome.

Anyone with the slightest amount of responsibility in life would benefit immediately from the elegant but stern challenges and goals Aurelius sets for himself. Just one example:

“Stop letting the guiding principle within you be tugged around like a marionette by the strings of selfish impulses,” (from the Meditations, as translated by Pierre Hadot).

When I read passages like the one above–and the three famous Stoics’ works are full of such gems–I’m struck by how they apply to life here and now. We are marionettes tugged around by marketers, forces indifferent to us as moral beings. Our selfish desires are inflamed by well-paid experts in the arts of persuasion. We have the chance to do what’s good, and in stoicism the moral good consists in helping others, but we squander our opportunities on destructive trifles.

One passage doesn’t do justice to the wealth that can be found in these old classics. They are all worth reading in translations of the original Greek (Epictetus, Aurelius–both Romans who wrote in Greek) and Latin (Seneca). Reading them in the original would no doubt be fascinating, but I have no intention of putting in the requisite years of study. As the Stoics would advise, and Socrates and Plato would likely concur, I’ll take the shortest route to the goal. Marcus Aurelius puts it emphatically and eloquently:

“Don’t live as if you were going to live for ten thousand years. The inevitable is hanging over you. As long as you are still alive, and as long as it is still possible, become a good man,” (from the Meditations, as translated by Pierre Hadot).

Not everything by these three writers can be digested by readers who don’t know much about the ancient world and its philosophical context. So while I think that all three are powerful and comprehensible enough for any reader to start reading them directly, some things require expert untangling. A good framework for understanding the more enigmatic passages of the Meditations is Pierre Hadot’s classic book The Inner Citadel, which cleared up some things I found confusing.

Hadot is adept at identifying the framework of Stoic thinking: their way of viewing life (destiny and accepting what life presents with serenity), its purpose (serving others and the moral good), and the need for each person to exercise a cohesive guiding intelligence (stripping away the noise of life to find the objective signal).

I hope to write more about the Stoics as I read more from them, and compare them to the Greek thinkers (Socrates, Plato, Aristotle) who formed much of the basis for their worldview (and that of Western civilization). Thus this blog post is just a point of departure.

Bye Bye Twitter

By Daniel Wilcock

 

I quit Twitter this month for the following reasons:

 

  1. Using Twitter is playing with fire when it comes to your life and your reputation. You can lose your job or suffer other similar losses for momentary stupidity or carelessness—or even just for writing something that can be misinterpreted. There’s so much questionable content on Twitter that it’s also easy to embroil yourself by accidentally retweeting it. In the analog world, statements can usually be clarified in the moment. “Did you mean what I think you just said?” That doesn’t always happen, but it’s more likely than on Twitter. Our statements also tend to expire with the air that carries them. This freedom may start to disappear with the possibility of Google Glasses recording all speech. Europeans won the right for their online lives to be forgotten by Google. One day we may cloak our speech in scrambling technology, which we turn off only when we give explicit permission to be recorded. Until then, I’m going to reserve my online expressions to carefully considered media such as this blog. There wasn’t any specific incident that pushed me over the edge. I just sense the potential for one in the future.

     

  2. I’m not a politician, and I don’t have products to sell, so why am I constantly marketing myself? You may be different from me. You may have a job that requires you to market certain wares, including yourself. I feel fortunate that I’m not in that position except for when I’m job hunting, which I’m not right now. So much of Twitter is pure marketing. Why subject myself to it? Why not choose the ability to discern and think for myself? Why not seek out the voices I find wise, rather than what I’m exposed to by marketers? I’ve used Twitter to market this blog, but I realized that I’m mostly writing this blog to record my own thoughts. If people tune in, cool, but I’ve stopped marketing it.

     

  3. Twitter is just about as bad as Facebook. Twitter and Facebook are seemingly very different. I used to think Twitter was better because it tends to shoot you into other websites suggested by the people you follow rather than try to hold you in place like Facebook does. It also makes it easier to interact directly with just about anyone, unlike Facebook where public figures are a few steps removed. You can “like” celebrities on Facebook and leave comments for them, but it’s harder to rouse them directly the way a direct tweet can. Despite the differences, the two companies are in the very same business, selling you to corporations. When I quit Facebook more than a year ago, Twitter became its replacement for me to the tune of 1000 tweets. I think I always knew that it was kind of a false choice—like thinking Coke is any better than Pepsi. They both are corrosive to health, at least for me.

     

  4. It changes people. I’m a fan of Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s writings, but I can hardly stand his persona on Twitter where he gets into quarrels, spouts off rather randomly (pun only somewhat intended), and generally goes against his stated desire to be a private person and not a public intellectual. I think he’d be better off quitting too, especially since he writes in his books about via negativa, removing things that undermine our ability to live well and trusting negative rather than positive advice.

     

  5. It involves spending time writing to strangers rather than my family and friends. Think about it. I do realize that you can only allow your family and friends to follow you on Twitter. Maybe that’s a good option. Luckily, most of my family and friends are too sensible to be on Twitter. I’m certain I’m missing many family photo albums on Facebook. That is lamentable, but not worth signing back up for an account. Perhaps it will give me an excuse to start calling family members. “Hey, I haven’t seen you guys in forever, especially since I’m not on social media. Could we visit sometime?”

     

  6. Community is centered on my doorstep, not in cyberspace. I think I’ll let this one stand without further comment.

     

  7. It’s just not for me. If you use Twitter daily and love it, that’s your right. I’m judging it, but by my own lights. If you love it and see no reason to stop, tweet on my friend.

     

  8. Last but not least, the way reciprocity works on Twitter bugs me. Follow me and I’ll follow you back. Coded hashtags designed to signal readiness to play this game of stranger accumulation. Drop these same strangers, and they’ll drop you. And then there are a few people I know who didn’t follow me back. Is this because they don’t reciprocate, or because they simply don’t notice in the avalanche of their Twitter feeds? These kinds of questions could drive me crazy with a kind of internet-based palace intrigue. Forget about it! Life is complex enough without needless head games.

Review: The Circle by Dave Eggers

Image from the publisher’s website

By Daniel Wilcock

Google, Facebook, Twitter, Amazon. What if they all got rolled up into one corporation? What if that corporation became increasingly omniscient and swallowed the political world and then the totality of everyone’s quotidian life? Past dystopian novels such as Fahrenheit 451 (which targeted television and the banning/burning of books) plotted the trajectory of an illiterate society ruled by mind-control. The Circle may be as implausible as Fahrenheit 451 in the long run, but it raises a lot of key questions about where we’re headed as a society with the increasing ubiquity of information technology. I can’t think of a better novel to ask these questions through a compelling work of art.

The novel, set in the not-too-distant future, opens with Mae, the main character, beginning a job at the Circle. Openings at the tech firm (which resembles Google) are hard to get and highly coveted. Mae has an inside connection in Annie, her friend from college who has risen to great heights within the company. The new gig rescues her from the dreary job she’s held down at a utility company in the months since graduating. These opening scenes are what I’d imagine the first few days of a new job at Google to be like, only even more cartoonish.

That being said, Mae’s initial job is real work, handling the complaints of companies that advertise and sell products using the Circle and its currency system. Customer satisfaction must hover near 100 percent and reciprocating messages and invitations from fellow workers (inner circle) and followers (outer circle) is expected. Screens on her desk proliferate. The Circle keeps adding digital treadmills under her feet, but she’s remarkably adept—Annie tells her she’ll rise fast, and this sets her up as a kind of ‘chosen one’ figure.

Life outside the circle is painful, complicated, and slow. Mae’s parents struggle with her father’s MS and with battling their insurance company. But Mae still finds some enjoyment in the outside world, kayaking in the San Francisco Bay. These naturalistic interludes stop when Mae gets caught borrowing a kayak from the rental shop after hours by one of the exponentially proliferating “SeeChange” cameras that feed HD video into the Circle. As penitence, Mae decides to “go clear” (an inflection of Scientology) by donning a camera that broadcasts her every move to her growing list of online followers. An increasing proportion of the world’s politicians have gone clear, and the Circle is poised to ensure that everything is known.

What happens to Mae? There are key characters and events I’m leaving out. I don’t want to spoil the book, which really is worth the time. For me, the pages flew by in just a couple of days. I guess you could say I was already pretty receptive to the points that Eggers is making through his fictional craft. Last year I quit Facebook. At the beginning of this year, I decided to stop shopping at Amazon. Recently, I dropped Twitter. My problem with each of them is their tendency to draw humans into their own little marketing-oriented universes. Twitter seemed a bit more useful, as it so easily spits users into other web pages. But it still tracks you for profit and mostly is just a marketing echo chamber. I still use Google, and perhaps this is the company that would be the hardest to avoid since its free services are so ubiquitous (gmail, maps, drive, etc., etc., etc.) and their mastery of the online advertising market is almost complete (“complete” is an important word in The Circle).

Google has a very wide utopian streak. But as Jaron Lanier points out in Who Owns the Future?, the utopian vision has also led to consolidation of money and power. I’d recommend pairing that book with The Circle. In different ways, both authors are calling for underground resistance and disruption of the mega disruptors. Recently I’ve read a lot of Nassim Nicholas Taleb, whose writings—particularly Antifragile—argue against size and speed in favor of things that are decentralized, idiosyncratic, human, ecological. I agree with this line of thinking. I could also see another reader might come to a very different place with The Circle, which is a testament to the book’s understatement. I recommend this book highly.

Rediscovering Nassim Nicholas Taleb, Almost at Random

Nassim Nicholas Taleb (2011 photo by Bloomberg via Taleb’s website fooledbyrandomness.com)

 

By Daniel Wilcock

A random mistake at the airport earlier this month—checking in the book I intended to read along with the bag that contained it—reintroduced me to Nassim Nicholas Taleb‘s “Incerto” series of books. Even though I’d read and loved the Black Swan a few years back, the other three volumes, Fooled by Randomness, the Bed of Procrustes, and his latest Antifragile, somehow hadn’t caught my attention despite my knowing about them. How foolish. Taleb is an intellectual of the street fighting variety. His books pull brains out of stupid mode and light them on fire. They awaken readers to errors and misperceptions everywhere. That for me is the mark of a good philosopher. Yet a grain of salt or two may be needed. His stridency and dismissiveness of others are also the marks of an egotist cult leader, which I don’t think he is, but more on that later. How did I figure that his other books weren’t worth reading? Consider this blog post a way to make amends for this error.

By good fortune, but not randomness since the book is a perennial bestseller, a bookstore at Dulles International Airport happened to have a copy of Taleb’s second edition (2005) of Fooled by Randomness. Purchase made. Thus instead of reading the third volume of Lord of the Rings on the flight to Tokyo, an equally fine endeavor, I had the pleasure of jolting my worldview a bit. In Taleb’s hands, the hours ticked by pleasantly despite the cramped conditions, bland food, and impossibility of sleep.* If you enjoy non-technical philosophy and contrarian viewpoints, I’d say give this author a try.

Each of Taleb’s books is a fractal component his larger oeuvre, which argues that the “knowledge” and advice we encounter fail to adequately take into account the random, the opaque, and the unknown. This turns most modern human beings, particularly those who pay attention to mass media, into suckers and turkeys. His focus is on how to make decisions in an environment where we are continuously deluded and blind to the big disruptions he calls “black swans.” He thinks that these big events, which we never can predict, end up running our lives. He prefers negative to positive advice. These lessons, heavily informed by ancient philosophers like the stoics and contemporary behavioral economists such as Daniel Kahneman, mostly boil down to “don’t be a fool.” This is ultimately an impossible edict for humans, but archers aim high to hit distant targets.

Fooled by Randomness is the humblest and perhaps the most endearing of Taleb’s works. It shows how he gathered the bearings of his world view and contains the key admission that contextualizes the brash and seemingly arrogant way he battles with status quo thinkers. He admits repeatedly that he is a fool himself. One thing he attacks in others is their lack of similar humility, which is risky and ultimately destructive. Without this baseline caveat, it’s easy to misinterpret as self-righteous Taleb’s attacks on most other professional thinkers, particularly financial analysts, economists, journalists, and academics.

Fooled by Randomness is Taleb’s initial takedown of professional predictors. Like all of his books, it’s a mélange of autobiography (he worked as a trader for 20 years, then as an academic who writes books and doesn’t seem to like the academy much, and now as a flâneur, which is French for an idler who lives well by not making plans), philosophy, real-world observation and fictional narrative. It introduces a semi-autobiographical character called Nero Tulip (a name suffused with wry references), a financial trader who follows a seemingly lackluster “barbell” investment strategy of bonds plus small bets that pay off big in the event of market crashes. Despite having a risk-adverse worldview, Nero envies the flashy lifestyle of his neighbor, a fellow trader getting rich quickly with the latest financial trend. The neighbor “blows up” in the end and leaves the market. Nero is vindicated and remains in the market before he randomly ends up crashing a helicopter.

Later, in the Black Swan, Taleb introduces other semi-autobiographical characters like Fat Tony, another trader (and a necktie-free wise-guy gourmand that judges people subconsciously by smelling them) who functions as a comical mirror image of the experts Taleb attacks. Despite his argument that narratives pull the wool over our eyes, he calls it the “narrative fallacy,” Taleb uses these little stories nonetheless since humans’ brains function through narratives and also because he savors their artistic side. He appreciates style and intellectual pleasure, and finds great value in novelists and thinkers whose works have withstood the erasure of time. He’s a man who since his teens has read voraciously—40 to 60 hours a week, which reminds me of the number of miles run by marathoners each week—and I think these “Incerto” books are the output of his idiosyncratic inputs.

After putting down Fooled by Randomness, I picked up both the Bed of Procrustes, and Antifragile. The former is a collection of Taleb’s aphorisms, pithy little sayings that contain his wit and wisdom, and I think best enjoyed piecemeal, perhaps a page a day. Antifragile is another beast altogether, but similar in structure and content to the Black Swan. Taleb writes that Antifragile contains his main argument, the central idea of the Incerto. The title is a new word he invented. Antifragile refers to the quality of things that benefit from randomness, volatility, damage. These things have convex shape rather than concave when plotted on an axis. They have more of an upside than a downside when stressed. Examples can include the human body (up to a certain limit), the world of small businesses, barbell-style investors, and authors. In other words, he’s come up with a philosophy based on his own path to the good life. Again, he favors negative advice, a time-tested school of thought called “via negativa.” He finds wisdom in the concept of “small is beautiful” since larger size makes things more fragile. I could go on, but if you find these ideas tantalizing, the best thing to do is pick up the original.

As promised, a grain of salt. I think any thinker who warns you off most other thinkers, and one who is so clearly impressed with his own pathways in life, runs the risk of being an egotistical cult leader. Were Taleb more of a religious fanatic, rather than what I perceive to be a very erudite and broad-minded deist, his brash denunciations of others would come across (to me) as highly suspect. He’s a rich and confident man making sweeping statements. You might argue that being a notoriously cantankerous philosopher is his retirement hobby. His words often lack much humility other than his early admission (and not often repeated by the time he gets to Antifragile) that he’s human and fooled by life just like the rest of us. I think his arguments in each book are highly worthwhile, but need to be placed in the deeper context of all four books taken together. Taleb says the books can be taken in any order, but I think Fooled by Randomness is the best place to start. Just reading the Bed of Procrustes, one might legitimately ask “who is this jackass?”

Taleb’s a self-confessed fool, but he’s grappling with the tools that illuminate his foolishness and even provide the chance for a good life. That’s why I won’t repeat the mistake of sleeping on his work. As Taleb the flâneur would argue, and as my mishap with my copy of Tolkien suggests, we gain from being open to randomness.

 

*

ANA economy-class does have a few good things going for it, such as the opportunity to savor Japanese beer such as Premium Malt’s (sic), but trans-pacific travel is still a grind. Having a good book for the 13 hour flight is an indispensable remedy for the pain of temporary captivity.