Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Progress in the snatch!

Last week I finally repeated my best snatch ever, lifting 70 kg in a single, seamless movement, above my head. A puny number for those steeped in the art and lore of weightlifting, but a significant milestone for me, as the last time I performed such modest feat of strength was about 24 years ago, at the tender age of 20, in my 2nd year of college (the last year I consistently trained w weights for maximal strength, as afterwards I focused more on rugby, which demanded less peak power production, and which led me to less consistent training and finally to leave barbells altogether).

When I started lifting again, about 7 years ago (being 37 YO), I couldn't even dream of regaining the strength level of my youth, and back then I thought just being able to DL (thus, lift from the floor to about hip level) what back then I clean & jerked (thus could put violently over my head) would be just the shit.

Three years after that (40 YO) I was deadlifting 100. Two years more and I DL'ed 180 (the big breakthrough came, obviously, when I learned how to train for steady, consistent, strength gains, thanks mostly to "Starting Strength" by Mark Rippetoe and 5/3/1 by Jim Wendler), and I was C&J'ing above 80 kg, and wondering if I would get to 100 before ripe old age took away most of my type II muscle fibers, rending me unable to move explosively overhead anything heavier than a toothpick. But the snatch always posed a significant challenge, as it seemed to be much less dependant on brute force, and much more on subtler and harder to develop qualities, like speed, coordination and even, dare I say it... grace.

So while my brutest and most basic lifts (squat, bench press and deadlift) soared my advances in the C&J were slower, and in the snatch nonexistent... until now. A mix of pure accumulation (snatching two and three times a week, alternating volume orientes sessions -but still based around singles and doubles between 80 & 90%- w intensity oriented sessions, going to a daily max), better technique (so yep, seeing lots of videos in the interwebz, plus reading a ton of articles may pay off, if you are willing to, in addition to passively watching and reading, put the ton of work required to actually apply what you learn) and quite some mobility work (to be able to better adopt the right position from which to pull efficiently).

I'm not saying that technique wise (or even speed wise) I'm anywhere near where I want to be, as my form is still somthing quite ugly to look at, but you put in the hard work with a totally different mindset when you see results coming and that effort paying off... next lofty goal: a bodyweight snatch! (that requires a modest additional improvement of 20 kg, when the last three years have taken me from 50 to 70... but hey, if you want to reach the moon, aim for the stars)

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

What should be done (III)

In my previous post within this series I concluded that the first feature of Capitalism (the fact it forces everybody -or almost everybody- to devote all of their energies to the accumulation of Capital, thus excluding nay other pursuit of what may be considered a "good life") was alredy problematic, and not to be put up with. Before deducing from that a particular course of action, however, I stated the need to review the influence of the other features I had identified in order to have a comprehensive valuation of what should be changed in our socioeconomic system. I proceed to systematically carry out such valuation:

  • The existence of stable private property laws and nominally free markets doesn't seem to impose any unnecesary burden on individuals, or to undercut their propensity for empathy and charity. During most of human history (at least since the neolithic revolution that brought us agriculture) there has been private property, and markets where each person property could be exchanged, without significantly hindering human flourishing (indeed, as Marx remarked, a state of generalized property, where all the citizens had enough land to cultivate, as in early colonial America, was incompatible with Capital accumulation, which demanded the forcible expropriation of the masses in order to create the industrial reserve army on which it fed). Both rigged markets (where parts exchange goods and services with vast asimmetries of negotiating power, of information or of both) and (a typical consequence of imperfect markets) very unequal distribution of properties are indeed a hindrance to that human flourishing which should be the final aim of any social system. We may have to better define what kind of market interventions are desirable (as not all the movements towards greater efficiency are necessarily good, and as as the rationality of them is not to be taken for granted), but in general terms I do not suscribe to the idea that private property is theft (although much of it started as theft originally) or that its suppression would be an improvement. People do work better when they can safely count on keeping (a substantial part of) the "fruit of their labour", so giving them that safety seems to be in the common interest, as long as it doesn't lead to unacceptable unequalities (a big caveat, that will require further work, but Rawls' "difference principle" sounds like a good rule of thumb from which to start)
  • The use of money as a mechanism for recording debts (who owes what to whom) doesn't seem to be overly problematic, either. Although its widespread use as standard of value sometimes shows a somewhat corrosive effect (allowing for the comparison of goods that should remain inconmensurable) the fact that it eases the exchanges of goods and services between strangers (and thus fosters social mobility, allowing an alternative to relying in birth and social rank for deciding on whom to trust) compensates for that potentially deleterious effect. I recognize money has suffered from a bad rap lately, and has been pointed by some as the root of all evil, but I think its critics tend to confuse the sign with what it signals. The excessive accumulation of debt, and the way conditions for canceling it are calculated, may be unjust, destructive, unfair and whatnot, but the denomination of that debt is not in and of itself an evil. Even in a Resource Based Economy some currency would end up being used, as the immediate cancellation of all obligations in all exchanges is neither possible nor desirable. Let's just rememeber that money appeared in Lydia around 600 BC, and for a good 2000 years it sloshed around without causing capitalism to sprout or major financial crises to multiply (well, there were a good share of crises, financial and otherwise, in those millenia, but adscribing them to the use of money may be too far fetched).
  • The existence of commodities is somewhat more problematic, as through the homogeneization they impose on the products to be taken to the market they enable the fierce competition that serves as motor force for the impersonal functioning of such markets, (the competition) being the explanation of their ruthlessness and inhumanity. In the name of competition the executives exploit their work force, lay them off when needed and keep their salaries as low as possible, whilst where competition is thwarted (as we would expect) salaries tend to be higher, work hours shorter and overall working conditions (in terms of additional social benefits) better. However, that reduced competition is in the end paid by the buyers, who have to disburse a higher price or go through subpar service. It is interesting to note that commoditization does not answer to any request from the buyers side (although the buyer is more than happy to accept the lower price commoditization allows), but is rather imposed by the seller, which requires the economies of scale that it enables to achieve. My impression is that people is happier buying products specifically tailored to their needs (can be problematic in the case of water or electricity supply, but even in those there is some space for customization), and even willing to pay a reasonable premium for it, as tendencies such as O2O marketing, mass customization and microtargeting show. Add some technological breakthroughs (like mass scale 3D printing) and may be commoditization is about to disappear (or have its importance greatly diminished) without needing any further action
  • The ability of each agent to sell his labour-power in the market (the existence of a labour market itself) is also pretty problematic. As long as people sold things they had produced themselves they knew where they stood, how much it had costed them to produce and thus how much it was beneficial for them to accept in exchange for those things, without ever having to trust the whole of their value-producing potential to a third party (the employer) whose interest could very well be very different from his. The moment in which people started selling services (i.e. their own time, with the expectation from the buyer of a certain level of proficiency in how that time was employed) things got more complex, although as far as the payment of those services was expllicitly linked to their duration the worker still had a pretty acceptable control over the rest of his life (although the mechanism of indoctrination that had educated him in maximizing the accumulation of capital in which he participated already compelled him to sacrifice as much of his "free" time as possible, but that is a problem of the first feature of capitalist systems, not of this one). But the moment in which the employee had to sell the whole of his time (at least, for the whole duration of a socially defined "working day") things started going South fast. Ironically, when the capitalist system was being created (I'm thinking more in the XVI than in the XV Century here) legislation had to be passed to ensure the capital owners could use "enough" of the workers time, both through massive expropriations which forced enough people (the industrial reserve army, in Marx's terms) into their hands, through the definition of a long enough working day and through the imposition of harsh punishments to those that attempted not to work (anti-vagrancy and poverty laws, in practice laws against the poor), whilst now the legislative bodies of most Western countries push in the other direction, trying to limit the extent of that use limiting the duration of the working day, setting a maximum amount of extra hours per year and setting fixed holidays and rest days. However, the violation of those statutes is most widespread, and for almost all professional categories the extension of the time devoted to work beyond its legal limit is more the norm than the exception...  
Time for a quick recap. We have already gone through all the features we identified as defining "classical" capitalism, and found that the first of them (imposing on all members of society "in good standing" the goal of accumulating capital, for themselves or their employers, excluding any other possible goal) was an aunalloyed evil;  the second and third (use of money and existence of stable property laws and free markets) were neutral, and thus compatible with a "Good society";  the fourth (homogeneization of goods in commodity form to ease their production adn trade) was a mixed bag, but probably prone to disappear by itself, not requiring any action; the last one (ability to sell one's complete labour-power) seems to be more bad than good, but has proved itself difficult to improve unless through legislative action...

We still have to analyze the "moral valence" of the features of the most advanced form of Capitalism (which we have dubbed "digital"), but this post is already too long, so that will wait until the next one.

Monday, July 21, 2014

Latest toy

This weekend I finally could unpack (and move to the dungeon) my latest toy: a beatufil pair of farmer's walk handles bought in StrengthShop (which btw allowed me to experience again their superb customer service, and super reduced delivery time, great job again, mates).

These are the handles already in the gym:

I took them for a walk on Saturday (with the invaluable help of my youngest one, which came with me from home and stayed gently out of the way, cheering all along) for four walks in the alley in front of the dungeon (aprox. 30 meters long), loaded with a couple plates apiece (which makes it about 46 kg per hand, about 100 pounds), and it felt great (almost too easy). Now to load them gradually I have a problem, as anything that goes in 'em requires 4 units, so I can only add another four plates (86 kg per piece) which sounds a tad too much (maybe I give it a try w straps, as if not I guess the grip would give way after a few secons).

So next steps, increase the sets (number of 30 m walks), and in the meatime order a couple more 10 kg plates, and a couple more 5 kg plates for good measure!

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

What should be done (II)

A few weeks ago I blogged here about how we should live, and to what extent working according to the rules of a corrupting system would be an unacceptable surrender of our dignity, and a cowardly shirking of our duty towards ourselves and our fellow citizens. I didn't reach any conclusions, as I needed first to clarify what was it that made the current system so unacceptable. I started that clarification in this subsequent post, but it ended up being just a description, from which little could be deduced.

In order to refine that line of thought, I intend to review the undesirable features of the system described there, so I can better see to what extent they are essential (so their elimination or amelioration would require the complete overhaul of the social structure) or accessory (so they can be worked around without such a drastic change).

The main thrust of my objection to the digital capitalism we live in is its lack of "humaneness". Instead of being conductive to the fostering and development of the highest potential we have as rational beings, it seems to incentivize the basest, most stupid, most primitive impulses, and to reserve its biggest bounties for those that can single mindedly pursue those impulses (in the end, too many times it seems to pay to be selfish, rude, insensitive, downright violent, lying, duplicitous, jingoistic, self-aggrandizing and philistine). Now that tirade reads more as a denunciation of the worst aspects of human nature, irrespective of the social system in which it develops, so at first sight may seem of little help. Let's dig a bit deeper on how the peculiar features of our kind of capitalism may foster or hinder those traits.

Let's start then with the first, and probably most essential feature of capitalism tout court: the fact that it forces everybody to work crazily towards greater and greater capital accumulation, or the accumulation of money or other marketable amterial goods (which starts, of course, selling one's own labour power if he is not endowed with some initial capital, and trading the commodities he can get hold of for profit once he has). Before we pass judgment on this, we have to better understand what is the nature of that compulsion, and to what extent working for capital accumulation is compatible with a worthy life. As it turns out, both questions are tightly intertwined.

To ascertain the way society forces us to work we have to distinguish between two life situations: we have those people (the vast majority of the population) who start out in life with no assets of their own, and those that from their very first day have a sizable amount of property they can draw from. For the frst group, the sale of their labour-power is not optional, as they need some income to satisfy their most basic needs. It could be argued that we are not in Marx's time any more, that the salaried worker does not need to sell all of his labour-power for the capitalist to appropriate it (paying only its exchange-value, which is always a much smaller amount, and the real origin of all the capital's profits), that now he or she could sell just a portion, enough to satisfy his basic needs, and enjoy the rest of the day as leisure time. Well, just writing that imaginary argument made me giggle, as anybody that maintains such choice is actually possible, specially for the collective we are talking about, shows either bad faith or an astounding lack of knowledge of how the labour market works in advanced industrial societies. Any young worker who does not show a willingness to "give it all", to put the interest of his employer before his own or to extend his working hours if needs be would last very little in most (if not all) of today's hypercompetitive firms. There may be some cosseted niches were this is not so (university professors that just got tenure come to mind, and may be some highly unionized jobs in tightly regulated sectors, like air controllers), but I'd guess there are so few of those niches as to consider their overall effect negligible.

So we can confidently assert that one unavoidable consequence of the first defining trait of our social system is that it forces the vast majority of the population to work incessantly towards material wealth accumulation, as those who do not show interest in such incessant toil (or would rather direct it to other ends) are forced either entirely out of the productive system or relegated to their lower rungs (and treated with scorn by all the sources of "legitimate" opinion, which devotes much of its symbolic production to sing the praises of the "winners", thus by contrast denigrating the "losers"). Before we consider how that dreadful consequence could be avoided, for completeness sake let's review the downsides if any) of the rest of capitalism' features, which will rquire yet another post

Tuesday, July 8, 2014

Our current socioeconomic system (I)

A couple weeks ago I wondered to what extent it was possible to be a morally good person in an essentially corrupt (and corrupting) system, trying to address the ages old choice between accepting the "rules of the game" spelled out by the kind of society we inhabit (selling out) or devoting all of one's energies to overthrow the system (the known Eco's dichotomy between "apocaliptics" and "integrateds"). To begin to answer such life defining question I think it is important to identify the defining features of our socioeconomic system, so we can determine which of those features are inherently evil, and require to be entirely abolished, and which ones are just imperfect and could be evolved to frame a more humane commonwealth. Once the analysis is complete, it should be clearer how best to proceed. For lack of a better term, I'll use the denomination "Digital Capitalism" to refer to the world system that took shape after the IT revolution that blossomed in the last decade of the XXth Century, and that now pervades the globe as unopposed and undiscussed way of organizing human groups, independently of their previous cultural or historical background.

The first and foremost feature we can notice is that it is still a form of Capitalism, which in itself requires some clarifications:

  • As in any Capitalism deserving of the name,  the main goal socially transmitted to any and all of its individual members is the accumulation of capital. ¿What is capital? any material good that can be appropriated, defended against others (protected by private property rights) and transmitted in a market in exchange for other goods, or for the promise of other goods (credit), and that is acquired and/ or kept with the explicit purpose of increasing itself 
  • Thus capital requires both clear and stable private property laws (a minimal uncertainty about the future possession of any good immediately marks it as unfit for being kept for the purpose of increasing its owner's capital) and a market economy where goods can be exchanged at a profit
  • Money (a social technology for keeping track of who owes what to whom) is a form of capital, not to be confused with the commodities or services that can be acquired with it (a serious error that invalidates most of Marxist thought from the beginning)
  • By the same token, commodities are capital only insofar as they are kept for the purpose of being exchanged for other commodities in the pursuit of gains. The house you live in, the clothes you wear and the expensive wine you keep in your cellar (as long as you intend to drink it some day) are not capital, but what you eventually use capital for (or rather, what you spend money on, as the money you spend is not strictly capital, either... in Marxist terms, you extract use-value from a commodity by extracting it from the sphere of circulation, thus destroying it), although they can become capital (if you decide to use them for the purpose of obtaining additional capital, in whatever form, from their sale)
  • Labour-power is neither capital nor a commodity (as it is not a material good), nor the only source of value in commodities (another Marxian error, and the origin of most of what went wrong with his thought afterwards), although it IS a source of value, and a very complex one to quantify and to homogenize at that. Trying to measure units of labour power (labour time) is both futile and in the end circular (very clear in the first volume of "Capital": the value of a labour day is calculated adding the amount of goods needed to sustain the labourer for the day, but the values of those goods have first to be expressed by the amount of "social time" needed to produce them, "social time" being an unmeasurable construct trying to reflect not only the times devoted to their production of differently skilled workers, but also the "accumulated labor" used to build the means of production themselves -machinery, engineering- and achieve the land productivity required by the socioeconomic unit in which the measurement takes place)
To clarify so far, Capitalism as a social order appears in Europe around the second half of the XVI Century. Before that we had already seen the accumulation of Wealth as a socially ordered goal, but not of capital. The difference being that wealth (and its social twin, power) were pursued "for its own sake", for the enjoyment they brought, not with the explicit and clear goal of increasing their own quantity. ¿Why in that place and that time? A number of reasons, both ideological (birth of a certain type of "trascendent individualism" precipitated by the protestant schism), technological (birth of what we still now as the "Scientific Method" which allowed humans to harness energies until then unknown, deployed in the Industrial Revolution shortly thereafter) and specially political (Europe was from the beginning the theater of endless wars of dominance, not much different from China in the warring states period, albeit in Europe it had been going on for a much longer span). In short, at that time it was realized that huge capital accumulation won wars (as only "pure" capital, not appropriated for the consumption of any particular elite, could raise and equip the massive armies that ever costlier continental and naval warfare demanded), so the societies that prospered were the ones which more successfully inculcated into their citizens the importance of capital accumulation (cloaking as public virtues thrift, renunciation, a certain level of egoism and disregard for other people's well-being, and all the gamut encompassed by Weber's "Protestant ethic").

So even after defining capitalism in a precise enough way (so it can be clearly differentiated from aevery other form of organization tried on Earth in the last 30,000 years) we can look at how it has evolved, and today's variation is different in turn from all its previous incarnations. ¿What does it mean that the current capitalism is "digital"?

  • First, a certain level of technological development is required, that allows at least for a) massive customized production of consumer goods, with minimal human involvement (automation); b) cheap (meaning, independently of price level, available to everybody and practically ubiquitous) communications and c) reliable (and again, easily available everywhere for everybody) energy production
  • That level of technology enables an increase in the complexity of multinational corporations, an increase in commercial and technological flows between country and an increase in awareness of how "the other half" lives (AKA globalization, but also a weakening of traditional culturally bounded narratives and thus postmodernism)  
  • But that same level of technology allows in turn for the recording, storage and dissemination of "information", initially a digital representation of the "material" world (be it music, still images, animated inmages -movies-, books, and what have you). Although society still tries to treat information as a commodity (subject to a price, exchangeable in a market), some of its features make this treatment problematic: it can be copied, transported and reproduced at virtually no cost, and such copying and transporting and reproducing do not alter its original form, and can be done without the original owner noticing... 
There is an inherent tension between the capitalistic features of today's society (oriented towards capital accumulation) and its increasingly digital nature (oriented to the use and eventually modification of information which is by its very nature very difficult to monetize, and can not easily participate in the project of perpetual capital increase, although it has made some of its poster child -from social media moguls to digitally savvy media stars- fabulously rich), which we will explore in a separate post