Friday, February 27, 2015

Is there a God? Does he care? Should we?

For a change of pace from my latest forays in political economy, which is a very contingent and immanent topic, I’m going to devote Today’s post to a quite transcendent one (in the most strict sense), which kept me pretty busy in a previous stage of my life, and has been a background preoccupation during all these intervening years. A short introduction may be in order: there are a number of questions every thinking person should be able to answer for himself, like the three Kantian ones subsumed under “what is man?” (What can I know? What can I expect? And, How should I act?). Between them I strongly feel the three ones I’ve used as title are important enough, even if the answer is just a shrugging and a “who cares?”… which is by and in itself a significant enough answer. Not one I would be contented with, though, so I’m going to share with my patient readers a bit of the answer I settled on for myself, without any intention of proselytizing or convincing anybody (this is not how I roll at all, it is intended more as a way of clarifying my position for myself, as it is by no means a clear cut one, even after devoting so much thought to it).    

Now there are certain areas where to arrive at a satisfying position one must necessarily do some research, as relying on one’s intuition and personal history alone will most certainly cause the researcher to miss a lot of useful hints from the ones that have covered that area in advance. No student of Physics would pretend it would be fruitful to start pondering about the best way to represent the movement of solid bodies without studying first Newtonian mechanics (and most likely Einstenian relativity, for completeness sake), as a lot of ground has already been covered by our predecessors, and it would be a major loss of time not to build upon that. Similarly, a lot of consideration has already been given to the possible existence of an all powerful being who is the ultimate cause of our (and everything else’s) existence, so even if we reject every and all arguments from authority it makes a lot of sense to spend some time reviewing what the main contributions to this particular discussion have been. These, then, would be your Cliff Notes on the main arguments presented for the existence of God in the last 2,600 years:

·         The first cause/ prime mover: for everything that moves/ changes there is a previous cause that initiated the movement/ change. That cause has itself a previous cause, and so on, so if we want to avoid an infinite regression, there has to be a first cause that started it all. Aristotle gave the argument its original formulation (probably he was already echoing previous doctrine) and Thomas Aquinas codified it in a Christian guise in the XIII Century. It has never been all that popular because it is not immediately obvious why a) that first cause should be a person (have at least the features of intelligence and will) ; b) what is really the problem with an infinite regression (if nature has existed for an infinity of time many of those are to be expected) and c) to what extent positing a first cause so back in time we really can not know much about it is actually an explanation

·         The ontological argument: we owe its original formulation to a XI Century monk called Abelard, in a little delightful book that has become almost impossible to grasp nowadays called Proslogion, and it runs like this: as you can conceive of things more perfect than others, there has to be something which is the most perfect you can conceive of. That most perfect concept must include being all powerful, all benevolent and all knowing (among other features). Now here comes the interesting part: that concept has to necessarily exist, as existence is a perfection, and if it didn’t it would be possible to conceive of something even more perfect. Thus that most perfect concept is real. As obviously that most perfect concept is also known as God, God is real, it exists. To say this little piece of logic (of sophistry for its opponents) has been much debated would be a gross understatement. None other than Kant (even the most casual reader of this blog knows how much water the opinion of the Great K carries for me) dismissed it with the (arguably no less obscure than the argument itself) dictum that “existence is not a predicate of the subject” (so we can not posit the existence of something as implying an additional perfection, as if it did not exist after all the previous perfections ascribed to it would be fictitious, and the whole exercise of conceiving something of which nothing more perfect can be conceived is invalid)… let’s say for the moment I find Kant’s rebuttal not entirely convincing, although not entirely devoid of merit either

·         The argument from design: although in one form or another it has been around also from the Stoics time, its clearest formulation (at least to us, distinctly modern types, I’m not so sure it would have been intelligible at all to an Athenian citizen in 400 AC) comes from William Paley, who almost single-handedly spawned what is known as “Natural Theology” (never heard of it? Do not worry, we’ll arrive soon at why). In the book of the same name (XVIII Century, although it was published at the beginning of the XIX). According to his most famed metaphor, if we saw a stone by the way we would not be much surprised, as from studying it we may discover the blind processes that originated it, but not much more. If we, however, saw a clock, with all its intricate pieces finely adjusted and assembled, even if we knew nothing of the subdivision and measuring of time we could assume a purpose behind the device, and the clarity of a purpose would signal the existence of a thinking, willing intelligence behind its creation. What Paley developed in minute detail is how the natural, biological world is a mechanism like the clock (not that it is deterministic, mind you, although he shared most of Newton’s strict causalism, but that would be a discussion for another day), that in its intricate design and apparent adaptation to the purpose of living everywhere betrays the existence of a designer. I’ve highlighted the “biological” part because it is in the living world where Paley saw the most convincing evidence of design, in the extraordinary adaptation of living organisms to their environment. And the fact that his opinion was so celebrated (it was mandatory reading in most disciplines in Cambridge, to the extent that the very person that truly demolished the whole thing was thoroughly conversant with it) explains why the appearance of an alternative explanation of that adaptation has been so culturally significant. I’m talking, of course, about the Theory of Evolution, but before dwelling on it we will linger a bit on a previous criticism of this argument (previous even to Paley’s formulation of it).

The high point of that criticism is normally assigned to David Hume (which for many “debunked” or “demolished” the argument from design, to the point that he supposedly rendered it invalid almost single handedly). In his book Dialogues concerning Natural Religion (published in 1779, three years after the author’s death due in part to the procrastination and hesitations of his good friend Adam Smith, founder of classical economics) he has his main characters discuss the possibility of deducing the existence of a supreme being from the orderliness and convenience of the Universe, only to dismiss it as the product of a very incompetent deity, or a cabal of uncoordinated ones, as there was so much inconveniences and disorder side by side with the aforementioned. There is not so much demolishing or debunking as Hume apologists would like to claim, as the whole argument is constrained by the dialogue form, where different characters express different opinions and it is hard to tell what the author really thinks (this is pretty characteristic of the Scottish philosopher, which liked to be pretty equivocal in some of his stances, specially the ones that could get him in trouble). However, the most critical and acerbic one, Philo, is the one most modern readers tend to identify Hume with (although in a private letter to a friend he claimed to align himself with the more moderate Demea). I’ve grappled myself for a long time with the Dialogues, and I’ll just finish with the rhetorical flourish with which the very skeptic Philo ends his participation (I’m quoting from memory, as my copy of the book is not presently by my side): “nobody has a deeper recognition of the greatness of divinity than me. Nobody can be so fool as to deny a clear design, a clear purpose all around us”. Coming from the mouth of the avowed representative of the uttermost doubt, it is pretty significant, and in other writings I’ve vouched that it is the closest to his heart, truest declaration of what Hume actually believed (the passage is conveniently forgotten by the very numerous atheists that want to make good ‘ol David their patron saint, of course).

But of course, that would not be the last word about the plausibility of the argument from design, and little after Paley published its greatest defense the whole thing would be (now truly) obliterated by one of his countrymen, the notorious Charles Darwin. But how that come to be will be the subject of another post…

Friday, February 20, 2015

Listening to your body (about volume and intensity)

Most periodizations tend to enter in a phase when you are just trying to push too hard, specially if you try to sneak a bit of progression in the volume phase and you keep adding a few kg on the bar every microcycle, whilst trying to sustain the volume by doing at least the same number of reps in each session. There is a point in which you may find yourself training at a too high of an intensity for the volume you keep moving, and although in some cases (and I think for short periods of time) it may translate into faster gains, I am currently of the opinion that it ends up being counterproductive, as the adherence to the program falters (it just becomes too challenging to go every session to keep pushing the sets, ever closer to the body’s limit) and workouts start to become more distant, affecting negatively the training density by decreasing the effective frequency at which each lift is trained.

This is the situation I found myself in those past weeks: I was going to a daily max that was supposed to be reasonably easy, but I left my ego take the better part of me and kept pushing it higher and higher (to the point of beating my all time bench press PR not once but twice, as I reported in these posts: 1st BP PR and 2nd BP PR), although this was detracting more and more from my recovery capabilities. To make things worse, after the “daily” max I went for an AMRAP set with a weight that started being a 75% of my 1RM, but which I kept raising every week (the proverbial 2,5 kg for upper body lifts, and 5 kg for lower body ones), trying to equal or beat the previous week number of reps. To top it off, I did 4 back off sets with the same weight used in the AMRAP, for 6 reps each.

Of course, after 3 weeks running this little scheme the microcycles were not taking the mandatory 8 days (training every other day, three days devoted to each one of the main lifts and a fourth one to maintain a modicum of Oly lifting technique), but 10, 12 and even 14, as I realize now I was unconsciously searching for any excuse not to train (work, family, dissertation, cold, you name it) because I was scared shitless of getting to the gym and forcing me through an ordeal of truly close to failure attempts, crazy heartbeat rythms after getting barely alive from under the bar and epic soreness the day after.

So I’ve recognized the need to dial it back a bit and, in order to keep the volume higher, lower the intensity and stop pursuing 1RM equivalents (almost) every session. I`ve also decided to ditch the AMRAP sets and focus on sets across, trying to reach a certain number of total reps (around 40 when I train in the vicinity of 75%), distributed between more manageable sets (of no more than 6 reps each). My hope is that it will make the sessions more manageable both from the standpoint of the sheer stress they produce and the time required to recover from them (I suspect the inability to train as scheduled was the way my body had of indicating my will it was not ready to keep on taking this kind of abuse). Of course, one has to have a certain experience to feel confident making this kind of adjustment to a plan, as it can be just a way of pussying out of a demanding program, and thus reducing the rate of gains to achieve.

But now I'm quite certain I have to make the volume mesocycle all about quality reps in a higher range (5-6, totalling above 30 per session per move) to create a bigger foundation which I will not start bulding upon until the intensification phase, which will not begin until a couple of weeks hence. So let's keep the head cool and the muscles hot, and keep those fast & furious reps coming.

Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Playing a game of chicken with your Country? Does it matter?

Most likely prodded by my previous posts about the overall ineffectiveness of the solutions the “new old left” parties in Europe were proposing for the ailments of our current socioeconomic system, the week has presented us with some outstanding contributions to the public debate by two of their most prominent figureheads. First, my countryman Pablo Iglesias, head of Podemos, penned this nifty little piece in the Grauniad: Platitudinous Pablo Pleas for Pleasant treatment of Greece (if at least it was originally written by himself, and as a former university professor he shouldn’t stoop to hiring speechwirters for little compilations of platitudes and stereotypes as these, it already raises him a notch above your average functionally illiterate politician); little afterwards, the very notorious (and not necessarily for his academic contributions, the press is fickle like that) Yanis Varoufakis, finance minister of Greece since Syriza won the latest election, used the space afforded to him by the very newspaper of reference that has come to epitomize mainstream media to insist on the same vein in this very similar piece: Bruce Willis lookalike poses as tough negotiator
Why this coincidence, we may ask? Well, for Greece the rubber has finally hit the road (more prosaically, the shit has already hit the fan) and they are in discount time towards Grexit, a most dreaded scenario because of the uncertainties that come with it. After having campaigned on the premise of a free lunch (again, like politicians of every sign in every age are wont to do), this time in the form of a painless renegotiation of their debt terms with their European Union partners, they have to face the harsh reality of the unyielding nature of creditors everywhere, specially ideologically distant ones. They may choose to stay in the Euro, and essentially maintain the harsh austerity measures they so vilified the previous government for agreeing to accept, or send those measures to the dust bin and leave the Euro (for which they will have to improvise a lot, as famously nobody in all this years spent any time thinking how such an exit would be effected). Our friend Varoufakis just tried to buy himself a little negotiating leeway by doing the media equivalent of throwing the steering wheel through the window when playing a game of chicken (more technically, in terms of game theory he seems to be so fond of, he is signaling to the other part the high price he is willing to pay rather to renounce his demands), with the following message: “after publicly stating we would never back down, you cannot expect me (my government, the whole people who elected us) to loose face and now accept your starting conditions”.

The advantage for the Troika (or the Ecofin negotiating in their name) is that they don’t have to resort to those slightly desperate maneuvers, as they are not really accountable to any electoral body, so they can be as reckless or as cautious as their character impels them to be, the consequences be damned (which makes for a much more comfortable, and potentially more successful, depending on how you define success, negotiating strategy), and were I to bet I would put my money in them getting their way rather than the Greeks getting theirs. As an aside, Iglesias does have a dog in this fight which explains the timing and time of his own article, as the exit of Greece from the euro (and even worse, the potential subsequent implosion of their economy after a massive capital run) would be very bad news for him, giving fresh ammunition to the leading parties in his country, which he is willing to displace, and which would no doubt point to the Greek drama as a cautionary tale of what would happen in Spain were he to gain power. Note that were he to really believe in the soundness of his political receipts, that is not necessarily a bad thing in the medium term, as for the next electoral cycle (he should assume) the social policies Greece would be able to freely pursue once outside the straitjacket of European deficit-obsessed, austerity-imposing, elite-dictated policies would cause it to recover economically much faster than her erstwhile partners, and would then become an exemplar and a beacon for progressive policies everywhere else.

But I do not think Mr. Iglesias (or Mr. Varoufakis, for what it’s worth) does really believe in the soundness of their policies in the first place, or they would have advocated leaving the Euro from the get go. So the safest bet for him is to win not the next election in five years time (which would require him to manage an newly minted organization under the harsh limelight of intense public scrutiny for all that long, no small task), but win the immediate one, cashing on the dissatisfaction of the electorate with the incumbent parties and in the nadir of the crisis that austerity has imposed on most of society. The possibility of economic recovery is very bad news for him (although, again, being consistent he should believe that such a recovery is a mirage, and can not happen, as the economic consensus is wrong and can not deliver growth and/or an improvement in most people’s living conditions).

Now, coming back to this post title, does it matter at all? In the big scheme of things, probably not. We in the West better get used to a long phase of low growth, and soon of nearly permanent recession, as the double whammy of demographic contraction and technological stagnation kick in. It really doesn’t matter what policies the government pursue: high indebtedness (which will not cause interest rates to spike, as money has nowhere else to go in a landscape of universal low growth and low yields) or low indebtedness; high taxes or low taxes; high public investment (the aggregate demand is not going to budge, as the private sector becomes more and more aware the mass of new consumer lining up to buy their products, and thus justifying new investment in additional capacity, is not going to materialize because ooops!, they just have not been born at all) or low public investment; Keynesianism or monetarism… More or less debt is not the solution, and if that is the case, more or less austerity is just a means of causing unnecessary suffering in the population (as reducing debt in no way improves the economic prospect of the nations that do it), the solution is to reengineer society’s operating system so it stops working only under the illusion of unceasing growth in the ability to produce measurable quantities of material goods. And a first step in that direction is to wean ourselves off from the need to work as many hours as possible, regardless of station, inclination or desire. And I hope every reader of this blog already knows what the first step of that weaning off is…

Friday, February 13, 2015

Debt and its Discontents

In a previous post I analyzed what the new leftist parties (or groups) dissatisfied with the system had in common with the old ones, and I warned (threatened?) to devote a separate one to what I found as the common core of their proposals, the renegotiation/ forgiveness of debt. For the ones already in power (the Greek Syriza party) it had gained even more urgency, although they have had to water down their original proposals quite a bit, as I predicted, from “end austerity right now and those uptight Germans can stick their Greek IOU’s up their arse, ‘cuz we are not paying them, the euro be damned” to a more humble “let’s soften the austerity measures a teeny weeny bit, please, and try to extend the debt maturation period, after which we will pay, of course, all of it, as the responsible European members we are and always have been”. Which is all well and good, and par for the course, we wouldn’t expect anything different from any government, would we? (the fact they are behaving so “responsibly” is already a mild disappointment).

More than in governments behaving like governments (old or new) are wont to do, I’m interested in the claims of their ideological affiliates, and the justification of the current state of affairs it lets us guess.
The first interesting thing the Greek (and likely, the upcoming Spanish one) brouhaha tells us is the complex justification (usually cloaked as a most straightforward one) of the opponents of debt restructuring/ alleviation/ goddamn forgiveness. It takes the outward structure, in Paul Krugman’s words, of a “morality play” in which the debtors are already morally suspect: instead of working like the diligent ants (that happened to lend them the money, having saved wisely), they overspent, lived the great life, used the money to feed their dissolute mores and nefarious vices, and now it is only just and fair that they are made to pay up to the last penny they slothfully and gluttonously enjoyed, even if that means condemning them to the direst poverty. It is a way of self-serving moral “reasoning” with a long tradition in the West, a fixture of which was not so long ago the debtors prison where people unable to pay their debts would languish, even if that meant (in patriarchal times when there was a single breadwinner per household) unavoidable destitution for their families (and the further inability to ever pay, as there aren’t many ways of earning a decent income in a prison, debtor’s or otherwise, so it was just a punitive measure without any expectation of restitution for the original lender other than preventing the “moral hazard” that deficit scolds like so much to use in their arguments today). We will have more to say about the merit of such arguments, but first let us review how much force the “everybody should pay back their debts, no matter what” injunction has, as seen from every one of the three main moral traditions:

·         Utilitarianism: from a utilitarian point of view, the thing is quite simple. If the debtor can derive more satisfaction from the money he received than the creditor (seems a quite modest expectation, given the latter parted from it voluntarily), “the greatest happiness for the greatest number” is reached if the debtor keeps it, and never pays back, and the injunction loses all its force. Now some modern psychology would remind us about human rationality being biased towards loss aversion, which makes us suffer from a loss more than what we would enjoy the equivalent gain, so even if the debtor enjoys the money more than the creditor, the suffering he experiences for not receiving it back may well compensate even that greater amount of enjoyment… I’m not fully convinced (as the experiments to identify, let alone measure, that loss aversion are quite contrived), but the proponents of debt repayment in any case may retort that I’m misconstruing the utilitarian argument. They may counter argue that lending is a socially beneficial social practice, so a greater collective happiness is achieved if people with higher propensity to save can offload their savings in people with higher propensity to spend presently, and that offload would be severely curtailed if nobody ever paid back adducing they felt they contributed to the greater social welfare by doing so. Still unconvinced, as the patent inability of a lot of Countries (Argentina during most of her history, Greece now, 90% of African nations since independence) to ever pay back their huge debts has never curtailed the appetite of foreign lenders to keep on happily sending checks to them (checks they have been even more happy to cash and the spend in oh so fungible goods, rather than invest to improve their lot and some day, long in the future as it may be, consider paying back any of it)…

·         Deontology: the deontological argument is a bit more contrived, specially since there is an implicit promise when accepting a loan to pay it back in the agreed schedule, and we know how we poor deontologists get all jittery about breaking promises (telling a potential assassin where his intended victim is hiding? Aw, shucks, such is life… but, lying to him to spare the victim’s life? No way Jose! You can not wish that as a universal rule without contradicting yourself –just kidding). Of course, the rebus sic stantibus clause can come into our help here: we made the implicit promise to pay back assuming things would stand more or less the same (or change in our favor, as the real implicit assumption in a loan is that the debtor will improve his life’s lot, may be even investing the received cash, so he will in the future be able to pay), which they are typically not. Another way of (deontologically) looking at it is asking: can we will the lack of payment of debts to be a universal law? Wouldn’t it contradict the purpose of the social practice of lending, causing it to cease? Well, if we are serious about this whole deontological thing, we have to admit it does, to the hilt. There is still a (tiny) sliver of a way out, and it comes from the fact that deontology prescribes everybody to be charitable. So as debtors we are forced to recognize the moral imperative of paying back our debts. But as creditors we are equally forced to forgive our debtor’s amount, or at least to diminish it as much as possible, specially if not doing so would impose a great burden on him, incompatible with his dignity as human (remember, a rational being that has dignity instead of price… which means you can not put a monetary value on that dignity). Just remember that second part every time somebody gets all Kantian on you about the need for austerity and for everybody “living within their means” (funny that everybody that resorts to that sentence is usually thinking in means substantially lower than their own…)

·         Virtue ethics: no discussion here, in all accounts of the right character that dictates what virtuous behavior consists in, frugality, not depending on others and trustworthiness are outstanding features, all of them incompatible with asking anybody anything (least of all something as… mundane as money). A virtue ethicist (which shouldn’t be mistaken with a virtuous ethicist, much as she would love to be) would never go in debt in the first place, and would strive to pay back more and sooner than initially stipulated as a matter of principle.

Now, funnily enough, most economists that contend that debts have always to be paid are firmly entrenched in a very utilitarian worldview. All of their epistemic perspective (maximization of a ghostly dimension called “welfare” when not directly “utility” as the sole explanatory variable of human behavior) is steeped up in that tradition, so one would expect them to be the most lenient about the whole thing, with deontologist somewhat more stern and virtue ethicists (if there is any outside of Rosalind Hursthouse, which I sometimes doubt) most opposed to it. But the two latter are in principle opposed to the whole economicist mess we are in, so it is not likely you are going to hear from many of them.

However, I hope I have at least questioned the immediate correctness of the injunction “always pay your debt, no matter what”. Which is a good thing, because specially when you look at the second part of it, things start to get much more shady. Regardless of the utilitarian perspective which pervades their opinions, the proponents of that idea tend to appeal, as we mentioned, to the concept of justice, understood as giving everyone what is due to him (“what is due” is a synonym of “what is owed”, and isn’t the very definition of debt that it is owed to the creditor?). But if we look more closely at the term, we quickly recognize it comes from the Latin iustitia, which in turn is the word they devised to translate the Greek dikaiosynĂ© (I love old Greek so much I can not avoid transcribing it in its original Greek characters: dikaiosunh  -although not sure if the omicron after the second iota should not be an omega… whatever, it’s where the “dicy” in “theodicy” comes from), which originated in a society where money had not yet been invented to keep track of who owed what to whom. So their concept of justice had more to do with occupying properly one’s place in a very hierarchical society, and discharge honorably the duties the social group had defined for you (see? Virtue ethics and deontology were joined at the hip at birth, one evolved from the other, as the aforementioned Hursthouse and MacIntyre already guessed). But, and here is the important thing ,those duties were reciprocal, and the exemplar for them was hospitality (an absolutely key, defining concept in the Western Mediterranean world between 1200 BC and at least 400 BC): you received in your house a complete stranger and gave him food and shelter because not doing it would be an unpardonable affront to the Gods and the customs of the group, would mark anybody who did it as an outcast and a monster. In exchange, you counted on any stranger (not necessarily the one you originally sheltered) in turn doing the same for you when you were abroad. But for that reciprocity to obtain, and this is what takes us closer to the applicability of ancient notions of justice to debt repayment in the 21st Century: the persons entering in a relationship had to be equals for the concept of justice to apply to it: kings (rather tribal chieftains) lodged with kings, merchants with merchants, herdsmen with herdsmen. It was as unthinkable for a herdsman to ask for the hospitality of a king as it would be for a king to deign to visit the hut of a pauper.

I’ll have more to say about how the strictures of bronze and iron age Greek society have contributed to conform our notion of debt (and what we have conveniently forgotten about it), but I will leave this already long post with a question: where is the equality in Today’s debt relationship? And if there is no equality when constituting the relationship, has the appeal to justice any merit, then?

Wednesday, February 11, 2015

The (real) mind-body connection (or why your optimal training method is failing you right now)

Those even mildly familiar with the iron sports (either for strength or volume gains) will recognize the mind-body connection as one of the recurring concepts presented as a key ingredient of progress (much touted by Ah-nold back in the days, and likely pirated from someone else). My position regarding it, as with most “broscience”, is that there is no such thing, beyond some placebo effect (you can find some pseudo-scientific defense in Sad attempt at a scientific justification of BS but it probably speaks more about the limited applicability of EMG data than about the true effectiveness on “focusing on feeling the muscle”).

However, I do believe there is a more empirically based connection between how your mind feels and what results you get, although it is a bit more convoluted and complex to manipulate that thinking really hard about the muscle you are contracting in each rep. The real deal here is the ongoing enthusiasm you can gather for your own program, to keep going after it every single day, in every single (growingly punishing) session. I’m assuming some experience here, so for this to apply you have to be an intermediate/ advanced lifter already beyond the novice phase (so no more Linear Progression gains, but needing to periodize and take each cycle to a slightly higher intensity, thus requiring a considerably higher expenditure of will power, in exchange for lesser and lesser gains). If you fit the bill I’m sure you’ll relate with how difficult it is to convince oneself not to focus with zen-like abandon, but just to keep getting under the bar and performing each set as it gets excruciatingly closer to the physical limit you feel able to reach.

That’s why most elite powerlifters (and weightlifters) thrive in group settings, and identify lifting in a team of like-minded individuals as the most important factor to achieve greatness. If you train all by yourself it is too easy to skip/ delay workouts, take some freedoms w the programmed weights or be more cavalier about recovery. Belonging to a group gives them the extra oomph needed when laziness rears its ugly head and makes us question how badly do we really want to go in the freezing cold to do battle with a heavily loaded bar.

And that’s why the optimal training program you are following ends up not being so optimal after all, as the more demanding the program becomes (and it absolutely HAS to be demanding to keep progress coming beyond the initial beginners’ phase) the stronger the temptation will be to take some minimal slack, and those slacks add up to finally not following the program that much. For example:

·         Big lifts programmed with F3 (to be performed 3 times a week) end up being done in F2, or even F1.5 (as other commitments –work, family life, extended recovery- keep on popping out and reducing the days you can actually go to train)

·         90% intensity becomes more like 70% in the accessory movements (as after the main lift of the day you just cannot summon the mental fortitude to go so close to your limit again)

·         The 5,000 calories a day you identified as needed for top recovery end up being more like 3,500 most week days (as you eat outside, feel like crap after guzzling just half of it and decide to compensate later on at home, only to arrive there as fed up as right after lunch)

I’m talking mostly about myself here, but I think it is pretty common within this particular population. So when you honestly assess how what you have been actually doing vs. what you had planned to do you may surely find out that in terms of volume, frequency and intensity you have been consistently underperforming. It is just being human. A first approach to solving it, if you are utterly convinced of the validity of the programming principles applied, is to adjust the program down a notch so the workouts become less demanding (and so they are easier to comply with). We may call this strategy “increasing stickiness by decreasing the challenge factor”. Progress may be slower (you end up moving less total weight per session, be it by performing less sets, less reps, or the same but at a lower intensity), but more consistent and continuous than in the “half-compliance” scenario.

A second approach would consist in the dreaded “program ADD”, or keep switching programs just to keep training varied and thus funnier, and make it more palatable. As long as those program are not markedly suboptimal, the advantage of following them more closely surely more than compensates for their potential shortcomings.

A third approach (the one I favor) is not just to rotate different programs, but to keep changing the whole training philosophy (after a minimal period to ensure each one of them can deliver the goods that made you choose it in the first place), chasing different physical attributes (between the ones I identified in this post: What to train for). Readers of this blog will recognize that approach as the one I am currently following, as I rotate the pursuit of strength (measured as 1RM in the powerlifts), speed-strength (measured by the distance I can put the shot) and power (measured by the weight I can put overhead in the Olympic lifts), each for about 3 months. The only problem I’m facing (and which has indirectly caused much of this post) is that I made the rotation “circular”, starting the year with the same pursuit with which I ended the previous one, which will have me pushing strength through powerlifting for almost  five continuous months, which is starting to take its toll (very busted knees and wrists, almost perennially fried lower back, alarmingly low aerobic capacity...). HOwever, we are only six weeks from the Spanish Powerlifting Championship, in which I’m planning to compete, so I guess I’ll just have to man up and keep it going until then

Tuesday, February 10, 2015

What is Occupy Wall Street waiting for? (Podemos, Syriza and the new old left)

A spectre is haunting Europe once again, as well as the US of A. Not the spectre of communism this time, but of dissatisfaction with the current system (both political and economic, partly caused by the grave error of thinking they are separate realms – as Polanyi taught us). Although there are different dynamics at play (in the US just less and less participation, in elections and in civic life in general; whilst in Europe it manifests itself in the rise of “anti-system” parties, more visible in the left, and some mild xenophobia within the ranks of the right) the underlying trend seems to point towards a diminishing faith in the inherited way for collectively deciding how the common goods should be allocated (by transferring the responsibility for such decision to elected representatives, which are in turn organized in groups with a common platform on how they should direct the common affairs).
But nobody seems to translate that dissatisfaction into a realistic program to really improve things. One possible explanation is that after many years (in the case of the UK, Centuries) of democratic practice, representative democracy is seen as a sophisticated trough, and the party system everywhere as a way of distributing pork to the ideologically close, or in a time of fading ideologies, simply to friends and cronies of those in power, and every new politician that arrives to the scene full of promises of regeneration and transparency just seems to want to displace existing parties to get a place for themselves, without changing the underlying structure.
To clarify my own thinking on the issue, in this post we are going to examine the shortcomings of three “groups” (two of them organized already as political parties, one of which has already successfully seized power, and the third one a more diffuse “movement”): Syriza (leftist party who recently won the Greek elections), Podemos (leftist party that is currently polling as the number one contender to win the next Spanish national elections, although as they are still a year away anything can happen) and Occupy Wall Street (a quite amorphous group of people who may or may not be camping currently in some US city to draw attention to the sorry state of the world, or of American politics, or the plight of the poor, and that claims to represent the 99% of the population, or whatever percentage of the 99% that is opposed to the policies that favor the opposite 1%...)

·         Syriza: The guys have at least shown a lot of gumption for voluntarily willing to take charge of the huge basket case formerly known as Greece, after a disastrously failed austerity policy has left the Country in even worse shape than it was four years ago (no small feat). Most of the European press (that tends to tilt conservative these days) are going to demonize them no matter what they do, and the (also mostly conservative) governments of their fellow European countries are not going to lend them any hand, as their potential success would undermine the credibility of their own economic recipes (and embolden the broadly anti austerity tendencies of their opposition). So, given they have promised more they can deliver (but that’s almost part of the job definition of every politician nowadays, regardless of where they campaign), and that they preside over a highly corrupt, dysfunctional, every-man-for-himself Country the guys are screwed. Which may not be a bad thing after all, as the only way for them is up (even with the modest capital holders that may still had some money in the Country are already fleeing it, making a generalized bank run all the more likely with every passing day). However, given their chance of improving the life of their countrymen stand at best at a paltry 1%, instead of going bold and proposing some truly radical measure (from going really hard after tax evasion to confiscating the estates of the ultra rich to exiting the euro and refusing to pay the national debt altogether) all they are talking about is slowing the rate at which they pay an already absurd debt level (around 170% of GDP, but hey, Japan’s is even bigger, and nobody thinks of them as close to bankruptcy or demands stratospheric interest rates from them in order to lend them money). At the same time they ask for additional money to prop up their ailing banks… Unfortunately asking to renegotiate debt in more favorable terms and asking for additional lending do not sit well together (as you are just giving the other party in the negotiation all the leverage), as really all they can use are vague pleas to the already grim plight of their people, which central bankers and Brussels Eurocrats are pretty much inured to. We will talk a bit about the effect and consequences of debt reduction either towards the end of this post or in a future one, but let’s just advance that if that is all your program consists in… you are toast

·         Podemos: so these guys are not (yet) in power, and are already showing some ugly signs of not being as clean as they claim (their number 2 guy received half a million € from Venezuela for a study that apparently was never written –small potatoes as far as big time corruption goes, but with the added merit of being given to a University professor that at the time wielded no power and had no expectation of achieving it- and somehow forgot to declare it to the fiscal authorities until the press caught a whiff of the affaire). They were born within a wider social movement (“indignados”, who namely served as inspiration to other protest movements in many counties) and initially showed the same lack of clear purpose or organization, but they managed to put together a platform to the European elections (where normally interest runs really low, and the amount of voters that actually care to drag their asses to the polling stations is minimal, so votes can count more) and have a surprisingly strong showing (nothing earth shattering, a bit above 10% of the polls, but as nobody saw them coming from nowhere, it gave them a tremendous media exposure). At the beginning they were just a growing bunch of civic associations, motley groups of mostly single-issue citizens and a few university professors at the helm (professors of “political science”, which any reader of this blog will identify as a big no-no for me), but with the perspective of potential electoral success they quickly gave themselves a classical party organization, with a definite platform, a clique of commanding cadres and they essentially showed the door to anybody not willing to play along the rules they set. Probably unavoidable if they really want to win a “real” election (as opposed to the European level one where they have already competed, which is something of a make-election) and wield power…

Now one of the things they have finessed in the few months they have been in the limelight is their political program, jettisoning their original plea of instituting a Universal Basic Income (so they keep on becoming less and less endearing to yours truly, but probably loosing the likes of me is the least of their concerns) and becoming more and more undistinguishable from a traditional social democratic party, with some rhetorical appeal to traditional leftist sensibilities in that they would a) tax the rich more b) spend more in social services (unfortunately, the amount of spending, although never fully spelled out, is likely much bigger than the additional revenue brought in by the additional taxes), which in turn would require c) going deeper into debt, the Germans and the EU treaties (which impose a cap in the amount of deficit over the GDP you can incur) be damned…

·         Occupy Wall Street: From what I can still gather about them, they seem to be in a pre-Podemos stage (so not yet constituted a political party, or any form of organization that can aspire to compete even in a local election). They seem to be OK with being little more than a discussion forum, and the improving economy, whether it lifts all boats or not seem to have taken a lot of wind from their sails. As they were truly concerned by giving everybody a hearing and not stifling the discussion between the loosely affiliated members, there isn’t anything like a coherent program they have put together that could be praised or criticized, but one of their more recognizable mouthpieces, Dave Graeber (a fine fellow, whose Debt, the First 5,000 years I enjoyed greatly) is basically for a more or less universal “debt jubilee”, as he sees the forgiveness of debts as a necessary condition for the overcoming of our current unfair socioeconomic system.

So from these three examples we see the new left is essentially for more public spending, only partially financed by higher taxes on the rich, which sounds a bit like getting something from nothing. So not that different from the old left (and the old and present right, as promising free lunches has been a staple of politicians of every sign since the time of the original Athenian democracy). No wonder that the common thread, then, is the obsession with debt and not paying it (or paying it more slowly, which in a deflationary scenario may have the opposite effect). So ¿is debt leniency really a part of the solution? We will explore it in a separate post…

Wednesday, February 4, 2015

Some reflections on how the mind works

Fed up with the current state of Philosophy of Mind, and how every “neuroscientist”, or even worst “neurolinguist”, “neurophilosopher”, “neuromoralist” or whatever fancy term they have coined these days seems to be eating the lunch of good old fashioned “armchair” thinkers? Well, so am I and I think it’s time to strike back.

Let’s start with some much needed clarifications. The moment you make human mind the subject of your study, you forsake the term “Science” to describe your work, as I explained in this recent post (Of Science, Philosophy of Science and Pseudoscience). You are studying chemical reactions between molecules that happen to be living (maybe within a brain, or constituting a functional unit called “neuron”? Fair enough, you are a (somewhat odd, given the constraints of your field) chemist. Do you use a complex apparatus that shows what areas of the brain have a higher flow of blood when performing certain tasks (aka fMRI)?  You are like some kind of engineer trying to deduct what was the intent behind a complex system (like feedwater in a combined cycle plant) by measuring the electrical consumption of an isolated pump… you may find all sort of interesting correlations, but good luck with getting the overall picture. Are you performing some ludicrous “experiment” where you ask young university students (characterized by their WEIRDness, or the fact they are predominantly White, Educated, from a Industrialized, Rich and Democratic Country, which makes them highly Unrepresentative of humanity as a whole) to perform some trivial task while you measure the performance of something apparently quite unrelated? Then you are a somewhat limited (because of the puny numbers typically involved) statistician, nothing to do with Science again. Are you “modeling” the behavior of some bit of organic matter (a cell, a neuron, a whole organism, an entire ecosystem) and its interactions with the help of a computer? You are a more or less glorified programmer (and please, spare me the awful term “computer science”, using computers has as much to do with science per se as using a balance, a ruler or a mass spectrometer… sorry, but knowing a syntax, which can be argued is the ultimate contingent construct, is just the opposite of knowing universal truths).

So if you tinker with how the brain works, you are at best an engineer (nothing wrong with that, I myself being one), and you have some claim to be conducting non-basic scientific work (although I suspect most of the basic science regarding how the brain works has already been sorted out, and what is left is adding heuristic rules to better predict some macroscopic effects out of the aggregation of individual reactions… unless you believe in some wishy-washy “emergent” properties, of which we will have more to say later). And if you busy yourself with how the mind works you are (drum roll please)… at best a philosopher, at worst (like most nowadays) a charlatan. Again, nothing wrong with that, either (I consider myself both, and am proud of it), but please, please don’t try to fool the poor unsuspecting public pretending your talk of universal grammar, memes, emotional intelligence, the role of the amygdala in emotions, the prefrontal lobe (which seems to be active in goddamn everything the five pounds of gooey matter seem to do!) or the existence of a “module” specifically evolved to identify arrows pointed to the left is somehow scientific.

Not that I’m arguing that it is unsound (not all of it at least), or that it is useless (far from it!), or even that it is somehow untrue. If I read Griesbach’s Textual criticism of the New Testament I may find his hypotheses brilliant, useful and mostly true, without pretending they are any kind of Science. What I’m trying to say is there are many ways of knowing (of interrogating reality, and filtering the tentative answers we may arrive at), and Science is only one of them, admirably suited for some fields, and totally unsuited for others.

And my contention in this long and (as usual) rambling post is that the methods of Science are valid to speak about the gooey matter (as about any matter whatsoever), but not so much to talk about what purportedly that matter “generates”, namely ideas, feelings, perceptions (that require a perceiver), intents, values, and all the dreamy stuff that takes place “inside our heads”. I know, I know, supposedly all that stuff, it has been proved beyond any doubt, is a creation of the particular combination of neurons, electric currents, free floating ions, ganglia and all the rest that resides inside our skull, so it stands to reason that both things (the gooey matter and the mental features that depend on it) are essentially the same. Any attempt to treat them differently would be laughed off the room and labeled as “dualism”, which has been disproved along with the belief in fairies (by jolly, even a staunch Christian like Polkinghorne proffers to embrace what he calls “dual aspect monism”). Maybe, maybe not. So let me stake my position here: Monism, the belief that there is only one kind of “really existing reality”, namely matter (which can be, more or less, weighted and measured, hence its Cartesian and old fashioned denomination of res extensa), is an unnecessary reduction of a (slightly) more complex reality. Sorry Mr. Damasio (and Dennett, which expressed it more clearly and more brilliantly before), if Descartes made indeed an error, it was not his dualism. And monism is wrong due to its unability to tackle two fundamental problems:

·         The existence of “ideas” (of which mathematics gives us the best instances: to take a most obvious example the number Pi “exists” as really, forcefully and undeniably as the planet Pluto –which by the way does not exist any more, now being labeled a planetoid, but I don’t want to go in the shales of the denotative theory of language and the second Wittgenstein-, and saying Pi is just the product of different configurations of neurons inside different skulls just misses the point that although the neurons and the skulls are different, the number is exactly the same, beyond anybody’s ability to spell it completely)
·         The existence of qualia (a word the neurobabblers detest as much as I do the expression “political science”), or the nature of the link between the perceptions we are conscious of and the physical nature that originates them, also known as “the hard problem” (as per David Chalmers) or the “astonishing hypothesis” (Francis Crick), it being so hard and so astonishing that some philosophers, rather than renouncing (or at least questioning) their monism have preferred to wish it away and declare there is nothing to explain, as we have no consciousness anyway and we are but zombies with the illusion of being conscious (Dennett devoted a full book, Consciousness Explained –which I enjoyed a lot, by the way, although I disagreed almost with every single word written in it- to dispel that “illusion”)

So to finish for today, Monism is wrong, there are other elements to reality apart from matter, and the scientific method, as much as I love it, may not be the most adequate approach to explain some of them. The interesting question, of course, is how many types of “really real” thingies are there, and how do they interact. But even hinting at the answer is going to require another post (or a whole long chain of them).