Friday, November 25, 2016

Keep lifting after the honeymoon phase is over

As princess Irulan, daughter of emperor Shaddam IV Padisha famously states at the beginning of the first tome of Frank Herbert’s Dune, “a beginning is a very delicate time”. Indeed, in my bookish childhood beginnings were a dreary business. Every time I immersed myself in a new book (that was many times a week) I had to first find my bearings. I read mostly fiction then, and a good deal of science-fiction, and God knows that science-fiction beginnings are dazzling and confusing and disorienting. It’s not just entering in a new place, populated by people you still don’t know anything about, but on a whole new universe where the usual laws of physics may not entirely apply, where societies are systematically imagined to work differently (but in the end not that differently) from your own, and where customs and mores and unspoken assumptions can’t be relied upon to guide you through the plot.  

To this day, acquiring a new skill is a bit like starting a new book: you feel clumsy and insecure, you soon realize you are woefully inadequate to perform it, especially when compared with more experienced practitioners, and there seem so be an unbridgeable chasm between what you can actually achieve and your aspirations. As the traditional wisdom would have it, if you persevere and keep honing your ability, you end up having a reasonable level of mastery, and you can actually start enjoying the application of such skill. Be it writing poetry, reading in a new language, playing a sport, developing web pages or drawing comics, what I’m essentially saying is that beginning sucks, but overcoming such sucking enables the patient practitioner to reap the rewards of his application and become that “better version of himself” that so many times I’ve propounded as the ultimate finality of human life.

As an aside, there are a couple activities where the beginnings are not that tough, and for some they may even result to be even more enjoyable that what comes after. The first of them is dating: when we start going out with a new prospective couple everything is peaches & cream. Everything the other person says or does is charming, amusing, interesting and a source of endless fascination. Her utterances and comments and suggestions are deep and thoughtful. Her face is an inexhaustible well of wonder, each gesture and countenance a trove of suggestions, of rich signals to be deciphered and treasured. If she happens to smile, or even more to openly laugh, what a joy, what inexpressible happiness and exultation! But as is well known, after a (sometime shorter, sometimes longer) period of time the initial wonderment wears off and the relationship has to either find a more stable, better rooted footing or wither away, to be replaced  by some new one (and we all know of people that seem unable to make their relationships grow beyond that first phase of elation and settle in a more sustainable and mature form).

The second kind of activity blessed by nature with an easy beginning, I will argue, is lifting weights. And as with relationships, it is likely to be followed by a more mature, more stable phase when there is not so much exultation and fun but, if pursued consistently, is apt to give us much firmer benefits. Now some readers may argue that the beginning of a lifting career is not that different from other complex pursuits, as we soon realize we are not that skilled, and definitely not that strong to begin with. BS, I say. Most moves are so easy a kid can learn to do ‘em in a technically sound way in 10 minutes (believe me, not only did I learn myself in such a timeframe -and I’m no genius of kinetic self-awareness- but I’ve taught my own kids to do it without much fuss), and every session brings with it the wonder of being almost effortlessly able to move more total weight than the previous one. A most exhilarating feeling, as becoming gradually (but sure-footedly) stronger is a solid foundation for a host of additional pleasurable and rewarding mental states (more self-confidence, better ability to do in a sustained way difficult thing, more tolerant to pain and discomfort, etc.)

But like in sentimental relationships, there comes a time when it is just not so fun anymore, when the prospect of going to the gym and complete the planned schedule does not fill you with joy but either leaves you somewhat indifferent or, worse, what it fills you with is dread of how difficult and painful and exhausting it will be. My contention, and what this post will argue for, is that such wholly expectable moment has to be overcome, for it is by overcoming it that we not only become better persons, but learn a valuable lesson that unlocks additional possibilities of personal growth and improvement.   

First, let’s take a look at the underlying cause of most people disenchantment. When we start lifting progress comes naturally and easily (as every experienced coach say, at the beginning almost everything “works”). Making a weak and detrained person half strong is comparatively easy, as long as you do not prescribe some utterly asinine program based on an excessive volume (or highly ballistic moves that can prove dangerous and lead to injury), regardless of age.  As long as you do not expect a 90 year-old lady to do full snatches on her first day, or ask a detrained guy of any age to do 10 sets of 10 reps each of half a dozen moves, they will be OK, and will improve from one session to the next. Some will do it at a slower pace, some will do it by leaps and bounds (young females and, especially, young males become stronger just by breathing, eating normally and sleeping well, so if you add a few compound movements it’s amazing how insanely strong they can become really fast) but all and every weak human beings have the potential to gain some strength no matter how asininely they are coached (unless they get injured, of course, so the basic boundary to effectively train them is “do not do stupid shit that can get them harmed”).

But after a few months (or may be quite a lot of months, if progress has been slower) people are more than halfway in their way to reaching their full genetic potential (a somewhat slippery concept, but bear with me for a while) and can be considered to have overcome their novice phase (that phase has a very precise meaning in Mark Rippetoe’s terminology, which we will come to in a moment). That means that to continue progressing it is not enough to do just any combination of sets and reps of nay move. Recovery within each training session, and recovery between sessions become a priority (more so the older the trainee), and if things are not balanced properly it is very common to stop progressing altogether: too much volume and little recovery and instead of being stronger and moving more weight every single day you find that what you could lift a week ago feels like it is stapled to the ground. Reduce the volume substantially and increase the rest periods (decrease frequency substantially) and you meet the same result. What gives? No wonder a lot of people in forums and seeking advice end up thinking that this lifting thing is an arcane science (or more like a dark art) that requires paying some guru a lot of moolah to be able to keep on adding a few paltry grams to the bar.

And when the required effort keeps on increasing whilst the measurable improvements keep on becoming smaller and smaller (the almost omnipresent law of diminishing returns) it is not surprising that so many people quit entirely, and stop lifting altogether. Hell, even some of the greats turn to other interests (there is a very specific transition from lifting for “performance” to lifting for “aesthetics” that take many former powerlifters to end up in bodybuilding shows which I found deeply disheartening, but I will not go into such deviancy for now) as finding the willpower to keep on punishing oneself in the gym after many years in the iron game is understandably difficult, and that’s why you see comparatively few people able to squat over 400 pounds or deadlift over 500 (something that, according to Justin Lascek, any healthy male who puts his mind to it should be able to accomplish). When it starts being difficult to further approach those numbers, they raise the foot from the gas pedal, and when understandably the car slows they let it stop altogether and divert their straying attention to other pursuits, like Pilates or Zumba, “toning” their muscles, “leaning” and other sorry excuses for working less hard and not having to push themselves so hard.

Well, I’m not here to criticize anybody, but I will say this: lifting heavy weights beats, hands down, any other form of physical activity. I’ve played rugby (great for conditioning, and much, much more fun), I’ve run until my reconstructed knee told me in not uncertain terms to shove it, I’ve shot putted (which is really a lot of heavy lifting plus jumping oddly with a cannonball that then you let go a couple times a week) and cycled and swum and rowed and skied and skated, and let me inform you they are not even close. Any other activity is probably funnier, and as such I fully understand it can be a deeper source of joy and contentment for many. That is not what I’m arguing about. But if you want to be “fit” (whatever that means), if you want to ensure you fully function as a normal human being is intended to function (with well-oiled joints, reasonably strong and balanced muscles for moving thick, dense bones around them and a sense of balance and coordination to direct them) there is simply no substitute to lifting repeatedly a heavy barbell, in “big” compound movements that involve most of the body, and doing it frequently. Again, I’m not saying swimming, or running, or cycling are not great exercises. They are, and chock full of benefits for your body and most likely for your mind. Hell, even Zumba and Pilates, which I can not help but see as glorified versions of 70’s aerobic and old school calisthenics beat by a mile stayin’ in the couch watching TV and eating Doritos all day. And if that is what makes you tick, by all means go for it. But just don’t think you are making the most efficient use of your time (and especially, don’t try to proselytize me into following your latest fitness trend, thank you very much). Not that everything must be decided based on efficiency, and as I’ve said a number of times now, if balancing on a Bosu ball with pink dumbbells in your hand is what lights your candle, have at it to your heart’s content.

Obviously, I’ll stay lifting, and lifting frequently, and going heavy now and then, and for sure “pushing it” well beyond the point of noticeable discomfort (and every now and then right into the realm of all out effort, and occasionally in that of questionable sanity). And hope to counteract the unavoidable setting in of old age ‘til the day I croak, not necessarily setting new PR’s (unless I start using the Sinclair coefficient for calculating it, but I’ll still wait a few years for that) but programming my lifts judiciously so I can keep on improving, no matter how hard it is (no matter how dark an art I have to learn in the process) until that very last day. A few pieces of advice for those who are, like myself, past their prime years and thus need to apply some sound judgment:

·           Don’t get too obsessed about sets and reps and percentages of 1RM. If you have been some years in this game you already know what your body tolerates and what you can get away with. Periodize and program some undulation (start your “waves” with more reps with less weight, and slowly add weight while reducing reps per set… when you reach a high enough number start again, if possible slightly higher) but leave yourself some leeway to accommodate changes in your baseline strength

·         Be consistent, but don’t get obsessed about it. Allow for some slippage in your schedule caused by more load at work, bad sleep because of the kids, longer intervals due to attending family events, etc.

·         As you grow older, it may be advisable to notch the intensity down a bit. Still go heavy now and then, push it when you feel like it, but don’t impose on you many sessions above 80-85% furthermore, 85% of a 500 pounds DL is significantly more taxing than 85% of a 300 DL (Duh!) You should be pretty strong by now, that level of strength only grows when used judiciously, not so much when called upon frequently with no rhyme or reason

·         Assume that it may take longer to recover from the same effort you recovered easily from just a few years back. Specially from moves with a marked eccentric component. Heck, I’m talking about squats. Low bar back squats can be wrecking (again, not exactly big breaking news here), so as you will be doing them (heck, what kind of program does not include lots of heavy squats? A shitty program, that’s what!) you better program some extra recovery measures afterwards (be it foam rolling -which, btw, has never done anything at all for me- deep tissue massage, or plain ol’ eating a ton of carbs)

·           Probably it pays to break your training in more sessions of shorter duration. Instead of very depleting couple of full body sessions twice a week, of almost two hours each it may pay to do four sessions of 50’ in which you stay focused from the beginning to the end, and instead of leaving the gym like the cast of The Walking Dead (and I’m not talking of the “live” part of the cast that tries to escape from the zombies here) leave sprightly and full of energy, itching to come back for more as soon as you can, but…

·           Pay attention to your joints. Past certain age, I’d be surprised if you don’t have at least one or two ligaments and tendons either surgically replaced or chronically inflamed or at least giving frequent and clear signals of protesting all the abuse you have heaped upon them. Be gentle to them and accept that you better be picky and take some aggravating exercises off the menu, rather than keep pushing beyond the point of no return. And frequent training seems to make that condition worse (unless you choose the exercises in each session to provide for adequate rest of the aggrieved joint), so balance your programming accordingly

Just apply some common sense and you may enjoy a long, productive lifting career. I’m not telling you following those simple rules will ensure you become your country’s IPF champion and/ or record holder, but they sure can make you have a physically more rewarding, fuller life. And that, my friends, is what a life well lived should be about. 

Monday, November 21, 2016

The proles are rebelling! (well, some of them, maybe)


Let’s get some perspective first, with help from the lyrics of a recent Loquillo song:

The future is shrouded in mist
The present unseen
The past is like ice
On which we slip

Only love delivers us
And it does it once and again
I tell you to believe me
Through an act of faith

Two weeks ago who would rule the powerful USof A was still shrouded in mist, but that piece of information is now part of the past: transparent and visible, but impossible to change (until it recedes further, when the explanations and ultimate causes surrounding it will get fuzzier and fuzzier and we will become unable to ever agree about them). And it is already slippery, as I see four main narratives congealing about how an individual opposed almost unanimously by the elite (even the leaders of his own party were more than tepid in their support) ended up receiving more electoral votes (not popular votes, but such is the peculiar system the Americans use) than his very prepared opponent:

·         It is all about the candidates. Hillary was terrible. Trump was a “master persuader” (in Scott Adams words, man I don’t think I’ll ever be able to see Dilbert in the same light again…)

·         It is all about the economy. The slow recovery of the past eight years has been unequally distributed (all the benefits have gone to the richest 1%) and a substantial portion of the electorate (the ones living in the most economically depressed areas, aka the rust belt, which coincidentally happens to be mostly white) are still hurting, jobs have not come back after the big 2008 recession, hope has mostly died, they suffer from all kind of economic maladies (lack of educational opportunity, lack of investment, crumbling infrastructure, lack of prospects of economic betterment, in sum) and they have showed a collective finger to an establishment that they see, regardless of party affiliation, as complicit with such dire state of affairs

·         It is all about the sociological divide. Half of America lives in rural communities centered around churches and Sunday school, hearing country music and watching NASCAR, the NFL and baseball while owning increasing amounts of guns. The other half lives in big urban agglomerations with no church (but lots of Starbucks and craft breweries), hearing rap and watching the NBA (and maybe also baseball) while thinking owning a gun (let alone walking around with it in plain sight) is nuts. None of those halves understand, comprehends or has the slightest sympathy for the other, and this time the rural one (what Scott Alexander has termed the “red tribe” Anything but the outgroup, and has been recently and most famously portrayed in J. D. Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy as a hotbed of addiction, broken families and other social dysfunctions) was more successful mobilizing their numbers to vote, while the urban one got too complacent and stayed home, lulled by its supposed demographic advantage

·         It is all about race. The vanishing majority of angry white males joined together in a last effort to turn back the clock and regain some of their (unjust?) privileges that they perceive as slipping away from them. The winning message was nativism, overt racism and opposition to immigration and political correctness (understood as a limit in the free expression of white grievances)

Of course, those narratives are not entirely opposed. A tough economy and the perceived lack of fairness of what is seen as a rigged system strengthens what we may charitably call “not very enlightened attitudes” about race. Even if we leave race aside, when you see your lifestyle, your values, even your aesthetic preferences frequently scorned and mocked by a distant elite you circle back to your tribe, formed by those similar to you, and reject everybody lacking the perquisite tribal identifiers (including race, of course, but also religion, attitude towards guns and musical taste). However, I think when analyzing the election’s results it is useful to keep them separate, as they point to very different potential futures:

·         If it were an issue of just choosing the right candidates, there is not much to be done. The primaries process is pretty dysfunctional in both parties, ensuring they both select the candidate that is most appealing to a base that seems unable to expand beyond 50% of the electorate, and that in each electoral cycle seems to push harder for a more partisan candidate, imposing bigger and bigger difficulties to pivot to the center, where general elections were traditionally won, although Trump’s win may make many reconsider that worn out piece of wisdom. Indeed, it could be argued that Trump won on one of the most right-wing platforms ever crafted, whilst Hillary (who, let’s not forget, won the popular vote by what is appearing as a historically high margin) run also on one of the most left-wing platforms ever… All this was to say I think unrealistic that the current dynamic may allow for the future choice of more moderate candidates, with better skills at unifying an electoral body that is badly divided. And such unhealthy division (the much touted increase in partisanship derived from an increased self-isolation enabled by social media and network TV) is what makes the “candidate appeal” theory null and void.

For republicans Hillary Clinton was the worst possible candidate: stilted, inauthentic, utterly corrupt, a pathological liar, not liked by her own electorate and with too much baggage. But I seriously think even if the Dems had run FDR, or MLK, or Nelson Mandela, or Barack Obama again the Repubs would have seen them as inauthentic, mumbling, corrupt, inarticulate, etc. (hell, there is a whole segment of the Interwebz devoted to badmouthing exactly those figures, you know: Breitbart, Taki, American Renaissance… oh, well, I forgot one of them was already masterminding the campaign of the winner). Ditto for the democrats, who saw Trump as a misogynist, an overt racist, a populist, a pathological liar, a narcissist, an embezzler, a con artist, a fraudster and a chauvinistic pig. But they would have seen in a similar light most of the candidates that the GOPers were considering (see their treatment of them during the primaries), as they do with any GOP president from Andrew Jackson on (probably the equivalent of the right’s demonization of the record of some figures that a couple decades ago were almost beyond criticism, like FDR and MLK, is the left’s derision towards Ronald Reagan, which briefly seemed to aspire to a similar status).

So it’s really not about the candidates. The climate of venom and despondency that has infected the electoral body is what causes any candidate to be seen as unacceptable and a paradigm of moral filth by almost a half of the population (the ones supporting the opposite party), no matter what. On a side note, and seen from afar, the equivalency as presented by the press between the two candidates has been something to behold. Sorry, my fellow Americans, but the candidate you just happened to choose is by no measure, standard or metric comparable to the one you collectively rejected. But that will merit a post of its own.

·         If it were the economy, it has to be clarified why people who are essentially angry about how wealth is being distributed have collectively decided to hand the reins of power to the party with a program more explicitly designed to give them the hardest shaft, cutting taxes on the already rich and most likely degrading further the flimsy safety net (which they think “those other people” enjoy, but of which they are the true beneficiaries) that barely remains in place. We are embarking in a fascinating experiment which I’m not very optimistic about: is a massive dose of voodoo economics able to get the economy growing again, like the WSJ editorial page has been thunderously proclaiming for years? Because, although Trump has promised everything and its opposite in the campaign trail, Voodoo economics on stilts is what seem to be coming to the republic: reducing the fiscal burden of the segment with less marginal propensity to consume and reducing redistribution (starting with healthcare for the needier and likely following wit food stamps) implies almost by definition reducing aggregate demand. That reduction may (or may not) be counterbalanced by a massive public investment program in infrastructure, which the country badly needs, but if pursued in parallel with the tax cuts that have been so much publicized it is difficult to gauge the impact of the ballooning deficit that may ensue. The other element to be taken into account is deregulation (it is still not clear what and how, as this is one area where it is easy to grandstand but difficult to actually simplify very complex codes that reflect the experience of decades), and this is the one area which I’m more curious about, as some economists seem to think that regulation was the true villain and thus its elimination is all that’s needed to make the universe whole again (Deregulation is princess Celestia from my little pony ). I’m more than a bit sceptic about it, and history doesn’t give us much hope, but I’ll keep an open mind. If the experiment fails, I’m even more curious of how people will react in four years…

·         If it were the sociology it has to be clarified why people who identify themselves as hard-working, straight, God & guns & heartland folks have chosen as their champion a New York millionaire (who claims to be a New York billionaire) with three wives, admittedly loose sexual mores, unscrupulous business practices and a history of stiffing contractors that one would expect to be very badly received by the social milieus where those contractors hail from. Although the white working class seems to resent professionals (which they actually have to interact with, and be bossed by) but have nothing but admiration for rich people that happen to have inherited a good deal of their wealth (What people don't get about the WWC, by the way, the article ends recommending not to confound blue-collar resentment with racism, good luck with that, as I’ll show in the next section), them being conveniently far away, so they can rationalize such distant admiration assuming they surely “worked darned hard for every cent they have” (hilarious, I know). There is a tinge of truth in the fact that Clinton won 88 of the 100 most populous counties (getting there over 12.5 million votes more than Trump), but could only win 332 of the roughly 3,000 less populous ones (in which Trump got 11 million more votes than her), and they were those 3,000 counties which ended delivering the majority of the electoral college to him.

·         If it is race, History (which is but the handmaiden of demography, or was it the other way around?) is still on the side of the Dems, and if not in four years in eight they will more than recover, doesn’t matter how they rebuild or what they do, who they choose to represent them or what platform they run on.

So, to summarize, it was not a tremendous difference in the quality or the charisma of the candidates (the less qualified by far won); it was not the economy (the losers of globalization chose the candidate that most assuredly will ensure they keep losing ground); it was not the sociological divide (the rural working class chose a urban millionaire who shares none of their values); there is only one explanation left (those globalization losers with a traditionalist set of values, that happen to be mostly lily white, decided that Hillary Clinton was too cozy with blacks and latinos, which at the same time they see either as undeserving poor or as illegal immigrants pushing their salaries down and stealing their jobs, and so either voted against her or stayed home).

Before moving on, there is one particular canard I’m reading a lot which I would like to put to rest: A significant number of NYT and WaPO commenters keep claiming that it is all the Democratic party leaders’ fault, who chose the wrong candidate, understood as the less liberal one. I suspect those angry and self-righteous commenters are the same ones that kept pillorying the editorial boards of the MSM for warming up to Mrs. Clinton (the ones that made me write presciently Hillary has the steepest hill to climb). Such luminaries keep thinking that, had their first (and in many case only) choice been the candidate, he would have “easily” defeated Trump, based on a number of (early and thus not that significant) polls that showed a marginally better chance of the Vermont senator winning in a two-way race against the real estate mogul than the one ascribed to Clinton. Look, this election has upturned many old certainties, and I am as error prone as the next analyst, but there is one truism I think still holds: there is no way a self-professed “democratic socialist” can win a general election in the USA. Not before hell freezes over, or pigs fly. The college-educated kids tend to repeat that Sanders would have done better with the white working class in the rust belt that costed Hillary the election. I doubt that (remember the working whites are against “Washington insiders” precisely because they see them as redistributionists that take their hard earned money to give it to the blacks and immigrants), but even more significantly ,he would have lost the majority of the college-educated elder whites that Hil won as they were repelled enough by Trump to consider voting for her, and that I have a hunch would have felt threatened by Bernie in a way they didn’t feel with her at the top of the ticket.

Be it as it may, reading back my analysis and immediate forecast (What to expect after Trump loss, Yep, I said it, Nazis! and Only maybe he doesn't lose after all ) I think most of it still stands, with some minor caveats (and a major one, of course, as I thought Hillary would be the winner after all):

·         The death of the GOP is as certain as it was, but the new ANSWP will at least be able to maintain its previous name of “Republican party”, which will make such death undetectable for the less insightful observers. Even some of the old cadres will remain (I’m looking at you, Paul Ryan), and of course they will claim to be applying the traditional GOP recipes all along, but international isolationism, breach of trade treaties and massive deficits (does somebody believe that the huge tax cuts announced by Trump are going to be even partially offset by proportional cuts in spending? What about the promised military buildup? And the fact that there will be a whole new breed of cronies to shift funds to in addition to the old ones, which will surely reposition themselves?) will give the game away, being the opposite of what the GOP has nominally stood for (maybe with the exception of the deficit, which they always had a soft spot for as soon as they gained real power).

·         Also, I stand by my prediction of expecting more repression as a necessary manifestation of the ANSWP true nature, a further increase in guard labor and the prison population (where you know which races will be even more overrepresented, don’t you?), a further militarization of the police (and forget about that wishy-washy liberal dream of having them wear body cameras so they can be more easily indicted if they misbehave… them misbehaving “judiciously” more and more frequently is exactly part of the package, as long as they do it only with “those people”), further intimidation of the press, further erosion of niceties like the right to challenge your detention in court (or the expectation not to be tortured when detained) and of course, all of it will happen with the approval of a SCOTUS that is about to turn violently to the right (probably one of the most momentous consequences of the election, as the justices appointed by Trump -anywhere between one and four- will constitute a conservative supermajority likely to last for a full generation).

·         The split of the Democrats (them losing the white working class) didn’t have to wait for the arrival of a more astute, more cunning führer. It has already happened, and they are likely to go through a very turbulent period at least until the next midterms, with a discussion perversely reminiscent of the one in the GOP between those blaming the defeat on their candidate not being left leaning enough (all those Sanderistas that doomed Clinton by not showing up to vote in enough numbers and that now are in the front lines of the firing squad claiming, against all odds, that their preferred option would have crushed the Orange one) and those arguing that they need to regain the center to appeal to the hosts of dissatisfied working class traditionalists (the “rural America”) that broke off so decisively for Trump this time. As I pointed towards, the working white class has indeed separated itself from the urban poor (where blacks and latinos are overrepresented) and strongly rejected “identity politics”, which were a very salient part of the Democrats’ agenda, as representing a set of values they find utterly alien. Trying to bring them back to a wide coalition is going to be challenging (to put it mildly).

All of which is sad and sorry, regardless of how predictable it was. Which brings us back to the title of this post. Remember my Toynbeean framework for prognosticating the downfall of Western civilization in its moment of apparent triumph? (a quick reminder: Everything going to hell - but gently ) The dominant minority had indeed succeeded in imposing a universal state on the world, but it had lost its creativity to confront external challenges, so it was slowly being swamped by them, isolated from its worst effects thanks to its enormous (and growing) wealth, and unable to inspire the masses as it turned more and more intently to extract rent from them forcibly. That masses had in turn become proletarians (again, in Toynbee’s sense, very different from Marx and having nothing at all to do with who owns the means of production). Not sharing the values of the dominant minority, and more and more excluded from the decision mechanism that set society’s direction, all they can do to express their dissatisfaction with their lot is to revolt (I was going to title this post “the proles are revolting!”, but wasn’t sure my readership would appreciate the double entendre).

And boy, are they revolting (rebelling)! In a most peaceful manner (at least in the West). The British don’t want to be part of Europe, doesn’t matter how much poorer such choice makes them. The Colombians don’t want to accept the ex-terrorist (or leftist insurgents, depending on your viewpoint) of the FARC between them, doesn’t matter (again) how much it costs them. The Americans vote in for the highest office a “colorful” character like Trump, doesn’t matter what absolutely all their representatives (in academia, in the MSM, in both established parties, in the summit of the corporate world -with the exception of Peter Thiel) tell them. The Europeans, caught in a demented institutional straitjacket they seem unable to shake off, will keep lurching towards greater extremism until such constraints are dismantled, and all bets are off what may happen afterwards…

The common thread in all those cases is the all-too-predictable reaction of a majority that has been consistently lied to. Lied to by a value system (a dominant reason) that kept on telling everybody that relentless competition was the only way to happiness, as it would make everybody better off. But enough people is reaching an age when they plainly see they are not materially better off than the previous generation, and in many cases they are significantly worse off, as even when they have barely as many material goods as their parents (normally obtained working longer hours), they realize that in the hustle and bustle of producing and acquiring them for themselves they didn’t find time to beget and nurture a next generation big enough to sustain them in their old age, which now looms as a frightening time of reckoning (even Ross Douthat has realized this: The post familial election ).

After discovering they have been lied to, it comes as no surprise they distrust every message they receive from the ones they identify as liars (all the members of the dominant minority) and they become easy prey for the lies of anyone perceived as an outsider (I think it was Chesterton who quipped that the problem with people that has lost the belief in God is not that afterwards they believe in nothing, but that they believe anything). Of course, most of the “outsiders” (most of them as belonging to the old dominant minority as the most frazzled establishment pol, btw) don’t have a clue of how to deliver the prosperity they promise their gullible followers, so they resort to that old populist playbook: propose simplistic solutions to every problem and find a scapegoat to blame when they do not work.

So we will soon find what particular scapegoats the last wave of populists chose. And how they fail, of course, because nothing short of a complete redefinition of the dominant reason will be enough to arrest our collective decline. And redefining dominant reasons is darn tough, indeed. To begin with, it requires clear sighted thinkers with the ability to reach enough people (what used to be known as “respected public intellectuals”) able to formulate and advocate for it. When those thinkers are heard, the society (or civilizational group, in Toynbees terms) can change course and avoid catastrophe. When they are not, the society crumbles (think late Roman empire, or Tang’s China) and a new one surges from the rubble and the ruins, free from old habits of thinking. Of course, if such unfettering compensates all the suffering, the impoverishment and the dissolution of social bonds caused by the crumbling is an open question. How bad will it be this time? I started this section asserting that so far the rebellion of the proletariat has been entirely peaceful and through democratic means. Once they discover they are as much being lied to as they were under the “old” plutocracy (which happens to be exactly the same as the new one) such peacefulness should not be taken for granted any more… 

Tuesday, November 15, 2016

Of God, godlessness and dominant reason

This last weekend I had to daunting prospects. I had to complete two punishing training sessions in the dungeon (my own private gym) totaling well over twelve tons and finish reading the Systéme de la Nature by noted XVIIth century French philosopher and notorious atheist Paul-Henri Thiry, Baron d’Holbach. Both endeavors I contemplated as being as far from pleasurable as any voluntarily undertaken activity could be, and most assuredly I was not attempting any of them to increase my happiness, well-being, amusement, merriment, entertainment, enjoyment or pleasure. Rather the opposite, I expected both activities to be a hard, painful, protracted slog full of anguish, suffering, struggle and potential disappointment.

Man, were they disappointing indeed. On Saturday evening I attempted to train and had to stop after just the warm-up sets (front squats with the empty bar), as I had such an acute case of muscle soreness in quads and adductors (from previous low bar back squat session three days ago, being old just sucks that way!) that there was no question of attempting the work sets afterwards. I had to go back home, the proverbial tail between my legs, limping all the way as a cripple and gasping at any short flight of stairs I had to climb.

But that was not the worse part of it. Back to the Systéme, the edition I had purchased clocked in at 501 imposing pages, and by Friday night I had read the first 241, so I only needed to go through 270 pages of dense French philosophical prose. It is interesting to note that the Baron was born in Germany, and I think that it shows in a French prose which is a bit more stilted and less prone to fancy constructions than your average encyclopaedist. Much easier to mentally translate for a not-that-expert speaker of the tongue of Molière. But of course, the relative difficulty of grasping the meaning of the text had nothing to do with the inherent unpleasantness of the task. What made it a truly foreboding prospect was the certain knowledge that the opinions presented by the good Paul-Henri would be as diametrically opposed to mine as conceivable. Not only that (reading people who think very differently from yourself is almost an obligation of an intellectually curious, honest researcher that is more interested in truth that in confirmation of his own bias), but I knew those opinions would be adorned by the most tiresome rhetoric, shrouded within the most blatant grandiloquence, to hide the deficiencies of a not-too-subtle logic.

Before I delve deeper in the reasons for my distaste of poor Paul-Henri’s writing, I have to recognize this is to a certain extent an instance of the pot calling the kettle black, as any reader half familiar with my usually convoluted arguments (amply displayed in this blog) has probably had more than his share of circumlocutions, rhetorical devices and tortured (and not too easy to follow) logic…

Be it as it may, the fact of the matter is that when the Baron gives us his opinion on believers in general he never addresses them as “bad”, or even as “bad and evil”. They are unfailingly “bad, evil, astute, cruel, cowardly, befuddled, ferocious, besotted and silly”. Just one epithet would never do for him, and finding less than four or five synonyms is already difficult, as he probably judged a shorter declamation wouldn’t convey as effectively the full amplitude of his bile. Of course, long series of similarly meaning epithets are only one of the peculiar quirks of d’Holbach’s style. Like in the Iliad certain whole sentences tend to unfailingly appear accompanying some names, even when the close proximity of their appearance makes for a grating redundancy. So human action is repeatedly described as “without the agent’s participation, in spite of him”; the idea of a deity is regularly referred as “lacking any coherent content, just a set of negative qualities put together without much care”. The first time you read such sentences you may find them witty (or not, I didn’t), but after reading them for the fifty fifth time you feel like jumping through the window to meet your maker and be assuaged that all that flapdoodle was exactly as unfounded in sound reasoning as it sounded.  

Why on the Lord’s green Earth did I undergo such unpleasantness, you may ask. Well, Hume famously attended some of the séances at the baron’s highly literate salon, and the Scot is said to have asked the French if he thought there ever was a true atheist (to which the Baron even more famously replied that in his table alone at that very same moment he could count sixteen). My own interpretation of Hume is that he never entirely abandoned the argument from design (see the final declaration of Philo, the supposed mouthpiece for the author, at the end of the Dialogues concerning natural religion, where after driving Demea nuts, and out of the scene, with his supposed skepticism, he recognizes to Cleanthes that “a design, a purpose, are evident in the world” -now most scholars attribute that final statement to irony and Hume’s love of equivocation, but I call BS, and maintain that this is the closest he ever came in writing to expressing his real view… why? Because he was a sharp cookie, that’s why), so I wanted to understand better the differences between Saint David and some contemporary philosophers that seemed to be much more uncompromising in their rejection of religion than him.

And boy, were they uncompromising. The whole tract by d’Holbach is a virulent, vitriolic denunciation of the uncountable ills that religion causes unto society. I recently had read the (much more nuanced, that’s the advantage of historians over polemicists) Le problème de l’incroyance au XVIe siècle. La religion de Rabelais, by Lucien Fevbre, in which he essentially concludes that there were no atheists (nor could there be) back then, and I wanted to better grasp what had changed in those two centuries for such an exemplar to appear.

My preliminary conclusion is that, in the first place, Locke appeared, with a plausible view of how human understanding could develop mechanically (impressions give rise to perceptions which are stored as memories and can then be retrieved as ideas, without anything like free will being required as having any explanatory power… never mind that what you explain ends up being a pale cartoon of how the mind works, as phenomenally experienced through introspection). Then Galileo and Newton appeared, explaining how a few, simple, mathematically formulated laws could explain the major motions of the cosmos (never mind it could only offer relatively crude approximations to very simple mechanical phenomena which left out as non explainable much more than what they could describe). And in the meantime, of course, the great religion wars that ravaged Europe until the treaty of Westphalia in 1648 happened, giving a (deserved) bad name to revealed religion (Christianity) and church teachings.

So from a very crude psychology, an even cruder (but supremely confident) physics and some sociological observations (let’s remember that in July 1766 Francois-Jean Lefevbre, le chevalier de la Barre, was tortured, beheaded and burnt at the stake (not that at that point he would have minded) for not taking his hat off in front of a procession and owning Voltaire’s dictionnaire philosophique) the author concludes, as forcefully as possible, that no spirit is necessary to explain the functioning of the human mind, that furthermore no spirit is required to explain how nature works and hence, that there is no spirit at all, and that believing in such fairy tales is not just wrong, but supremely pernicious.

Again, the logic is pretty crude (the good Baron gets all excited trying to refute Clarke, which could be done quite elegantly, and then directs some poorly aimed and wholly unsuccessful broadsides against Descartes and Newton, but he doesn’t seem to put his heart as much on it, probably thinking that the argumentation against Clarke had already done all the heavy lifting and was enough) and, apart from practicing my French, it wouldn’t have been that illuminating, hadn’t it been for a small fragment I found near the end (in page 416):

I’ll try to tidy it up a bit in my translation (my north American readership has soared recently, so that’s the less I could do for them):

They realize soon that the Gods of Olympus are much less to be feared than those of Earth; that the favors of the later provide them a well-being much surer than the promises of the former; that the riches of this world are preferable to the treasures that heaven reserve to its favorites; that it is more advantageous to conform to the views of visible powers than to those of powers we will never see

There you can see (I may even say, there you can admire), in as clear and condensed a version as you can dream of, the transition from the dominant reason of the previous age to the new one.
Remember (Abridged History of Western Thought) before the modern era the dominant reason was summarized by the following three commandments:

1.       The goal of life is to save oneself (in the afterlife)

2.       The position in the social hierarchy is determined by birth (so there is no point in trying to improve one’s place in it)

3.       People may pursue a number of different, sometimes conflicting desires (first and foremost to survive, having enough food, shelter and health; afterwards things like belonging to a group, and even acquiring some mastery in a recognized pursuit, from humanistic disciplines to crafts as prescribed within the guild structure –what MacIntyre called “a practice”- were welcomed)

But, thanks to Hume (between others, and remember Hume was in turn strongly influenced by Locke and Hobbes, which are also direct predecessors of d’Holbach) that framework for understanding ourselves and coordinating social efforts successfully was replaced by the following (economic reason):

1.        The goal of life is to satisfy desires (as only emotions, or in his words, “passions”, can move us, and those passions can only be explained as the impulse towards feeling pleasure and avoiding pain, which is what desires consist in)

2.       The position in the social hierarchy is determined mostly by birth, but it can be slightly improved by “moral worth” (as defined by social consensus)

3.       People may pursue a number of different, sometimes conflicting desires (survival in a peaceful time is more of a given, so things like recognition, justified by an innate “sympathy” can play a greater role)

There is little doubt that the components of a dominant reason are themselves hierarchically ordered. Changing the agreed and generally accepted idea of what a life well lived looks like is more difficult (and has a greater impact on how people do in fact live their lives) than changing the criteria of who deserves more recognition, who orders and who obeys. And changing those criteria is in turn more difficult (and thus such change is more momentous, has a greater impact on citizens’ lives) than changing which desires are socially sanctioned (and thus what kids are, from the earliest age, trained to desire, to manifest and to publicly pursue). And what the presented text isolates for us is, as close to the source as possible, the exact moment in which the new dominant reason is so extended, so universally accepted, that a very cultivated writer can present it as if it were a universal, everlasting, self-evident truth.

Because of course, for the ancient Greeks and Romans, and for the Germanic tribes that overturned their civilization, and for the medieval Europeans that built over the ruins left by it, and even for the renaissance intellectuals and noblemen that rediscovered the great works of their remote ancestors the expression of d’Holbach would have been unintelligible, and completely devoid of sense. For them there were no “gods of earth” (matter) which could compete with the Olympians, or which could be feared/ questioned/ given allegiance to. A lot of things had to happen for the unimaginable to become the received wisdom, to the point of soon being unquestionable, just part of the intellectual landscape.

So maybe the effort was in the end well worth it, as the puzzle of how economic reason came to be is now a bit clearer. Also, I came back to the gym on Sunday and completed my front squats and bench presses as planned (it still amazes the difference 24 additional hours of recovery can make). Which for me is the final validation of how wrong the utilitarian world view (and the accompanying fatalism/ determinism about how the human mind works) are. I didn’t read a supremely boring, supremely predictable old French text because I derived any pleasure from it, as Bentham (and Jevons, but that will require a separate post) would have it. I didn’t go (twice!) to the gym because any sort of convoluted felicific calculus showed me that was the course of action I would derive more satisfaction from. Far from it. I did it because both were difficult, unpleasant things to do, but both would, in their different and even somehow incompatible ways turn me in a slightly better person. Stronger and may be wiser. But not definitely happier.

Who gives a damn about happiness, anyway… 

Monday, November 7, 2016

Latest (I hope!) reflections on Trump, Hil and the USA election

Looking back at the seemingly interminable USA presidential campaign that is about to end (tomorrow the last voters will cast their ballots and we will finally know who will rule the remaining superpower -and indirectly the world, more on that later on- for the next four years) I’d like to wrap up my latest thoughts on the ugliest campaign on living memory (according to most political analysts, I’m afraid they haven’t read many of the colorful epithets candidates regularly hurled to their opponents in the XVIII and XIX centuries).

Before getting in the particulars, I have to say that this electoral cycle so far has been pretty predictable, no matter what many pundits that like to mistake their preferences and desires with what the voters really prefer may say. Just looking at the polls (that up until now have been pretty accurate, but of course the final measure of how much American pollsters have earned their good reputation will be taken tomorrow) it was clear that a) Trump would get the Republican nomination b) Hillary would get the Democrat and c) the race would be quite close, and would deepen a realignment that had been going on for some time (taking low education white voters -most markedly old ones- towards the GOP and young ones with a college degree or above in the opposite direction, regardless of race). I may remind my readers that back in May I predicted a Hillary win, but with only a 55% probability, whilst I assigned Trump a 45%. In June I was musing that Hillary would face bigger difficulties than what the media were acknowledging (because while I saw most of the GOP electorate “coming home” to Trump regardless of what their supposed opinion leaders declared, I considered that a good deal of the Obama coalition would never make their peace with the former first lady, which is exactly what the polls in the final week have been showing, hence their otherwise unexplainable tightening). Finally, by the end of August I said that I believed Hill would win by a smaller margin that what most in the liberal press were thinking (I said back then that he would be just 4-6% behind, and may be I even was too bullish on Hil, I now lean more towards a Clinton victory by 2-4%), which is where I think the election will end. Of course, in 48 hours I’ll have the final validation of how right (or wrong) I was all along, but regardless of the final result, we shouldn’t forget that:

·         The US political process is broken beyond repair, and I don’t see things improving in the next decade. Whoever wins tomorrow, almost half of the electorate is going to absolutely hate the result, consider it an unmitigated disaster for the country, deny any shade of legitimacy to the victor and abet only the most blatant obstructionism from the representatives elected by him/herself. That means that any attempts at passing legislation and doing things like actually governing are going to be seen as treason and result in a primary challenge down the road. I mentioned in a previous post (everything went to hell) that I saw the USA going down the dangerous road that leads to another civil war. That was only in part an exaggeration, but given the rhetoric both sides use to refer to the other I don’t see how two or three more elections in the future they don’t end up openly advocating secession.

·         Funnily enough, both candidates seem to rely on economic advisers that are intent on “fighting the last war”. Democrats would rely on fiscal policy (increased public investment) to try to reanimate the moribund growth rate, something I’m skeptical about (doomed, doomed I tell you!) and Republicans on Voodoo economics, as the only clear thing in their program is that they would reduce taxes on the rich and increase military spending (according to the WSJ they would also slash regulation, the ultimate boogie man for conservative economies and as feeble an explanation for these last decades anemic growth as you can find). I won’t bore my readers explaining why Voodoo economics is bound to fail, as history provides explanation enough for those with two functioning neurons. The relevant piece of information is that the second biggest economy of the planet is likely (almost certain) to remain well below potential growth for the foreseeable future (one wonders what the heck is “potential growth” at this point).

·         In a scenario of low economic growth and increasing political polarization it is a safe bet that populism, feeding on disenchantment with the status quo, will continue attracting bigger and bigger portions of the electorate. I already mentioned how Trump may stay (dubious) or go, but that a more polished leader may well take his mantle and appoint himself as the representative of the disgruntled white middle and lower class. One cunning enough not to so openly alienate women and some minorities (although enmity with some minorities, perceived as too pampered by the existing establishment, is a precondition to gain the confidence of the disenchanted whites), but still able to take advantage of the racial animus and the open scorn that sector professes towards the traditional political process. The problem, of course, is that with such materials (extravagant promises of socioeconomic improvement and alienation of easily identifiable portions of the population) no stable polity has ever been constructed or standard of living ever improved. As the promises are not honored (and, being extravagant to begin with there is no way they can be) the alienated portions are more and more singled out as guilty of insufficient participation in civic life and finally used as scapegoats (not only are they not “pulling their own weight”, but they end up being necessarily accused of sabotaging the national project and more and more harsh repression end up being seen as the only available policy towards them)

·         The framework for thinking about such social dynamics was provided more than half a century ago by the likes of Arnold J. Toynbee. However, the growing alienation of the internal proletariat (and the diversion of creative energies towards the defense from an overstated external one) can be countered by a kind of evolution that was better described by Edward Gibbon (of course in his Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire). The creation of empires (of autocratic ones, at least) can be seen as the internal answer to a social crisis of legitimacy of the existing resource allocation criteria. Once the dominant elites are not able to convince the dominated majority (and we shouldn’t forget that in a democracy there is dominant elite as much as in a totalitarian regime, only the criteria for being admitted in the elite and the mechanisms they use to influence the majority’s behavior vary) that it is in their best interest to follow their dictates, and they fear the hoi polloi may even resort to violence to get a bigger share of the collective wealth, they embark in a program of overseas expansion looking for foreign centers of production which they can exploit (either obtain preferential terms of trade to keep growing the internal wealth or, more nakedly, impose a tribute on them). Both the USA and China are approaching (and the former may have already arrived there) a point  where the attraction of such course of action may seem irresistible. Trump already announced as much with his suggestion of just “taking Iraq’s oil” (a tribute, or a thinly veiled extortion in exchange for protection), and China is building his armed forces to be in a position to do so when its economy hits a real bump. And it’s not like the public opinion in the USA would oppose on principle to such imperial program, as you already can read countless opinions decrying Europe’s “free riding” on the coattails of the American nuclear umbrella.

·         Note that all those aspects of the post-election reality (greater internal enmity and partisanship, the attempt at imposing economic policies doomed to fail, increasing repression towards minorities to compensate those failed policies, growing risk of civil war and the potential recourse to an openly imperialistic external policy, eventually culminating in the exaction of tributes from those rich countries without comparable armed forces) will probably come to pass regardless of who ends up being the winner tomorrow.

A narcissistic personality like Trump’s may make some of those tendencies likelier, while a secretive, conspiratorial (some would say paranoid) like Clinton’s may be more congenial to others. I’m not trying to convey with this that both are somehow comparable (I leave that to people like Slavoj Zizek: If you like and old Stalinist advice, vote for Trump! who seems to be on something very strange in that shambolic “endorsement”). The former secretary of state seems to have a more balanced, more predictable personality, and under her presidency one can imagine the most noxious and dangerous tendencies somehow abating or being checked. But I despair of her (or anybody else’s) being able to totally suppress or revert them. Does that mean that a Trump presidency would be preferable, as he would doubtlessly speed things up? (things in this case being the terminal crisis of the American hegemony and the collapse of our current world order, may be in a conflagration of epic proportions). I devoted a full (and very long) post of our current system being at the same time both morally reprehensible and the best one that had ever been tried: Da System. That should make us very, very wary of trying to replace it with “something else” that has not been very well thought of, as it is vastly more probable that what we substitute it with ends up being considerably worse. Resorting to a somewhat worn out biblical metaphor, Samson brought about a great deal of change on the Philistines architectural landscape (most pointedly, on the environments of the great temple of Dagon), but it is not clear at all that such changes were for the better (especially for himself)… 

Friday, November 4, 2016

Let the good (and bad) times roll

Two nights ago my second son (ten years of age) asked my wife, just before falling asleep, to inquire if I liked the fact that time passes. Mercifully he didn’t expect her to come back with the answer immediately, but to posit it to me so I could mull it and share the results with him later, at a time of my convenience. Today’s post is my attempt at an answer.

First, let’s clarify right away that I do like it. Without time passing there is no phenomenal life (or rather, there is no life as a succession of perceived phenomena), there is no experience as experiencing things require a “flow of consciousness” in which such experiencing takes place (or may be it would be more accurate to say “in which such experiencing takes time”, temporal and spatial metaphors have an annoying tendency to get mixed and mangled and confused…) Hence if the alternative to a universe where time flows is a frozen universe where nothing at all happens because everything stays the same forever, I think we can all agree such hypothetical universe is much less preferable to our own.

But of course, that’s not what my son had in mind when he asked the question. What concerned him is that things may only go downhill (or are more likely than not to go downhill when you contemplate life from a quite comfy and elevated position) from the present, and he has repeatedly told us he would like not to grow up (neither him nor his brothers) and especially he would like us not to grow old. Seems to be something all my sons catch, as we occasionally joke about the sentence our elder regularly included in our nighttime prayer, asking the good lord not to allow anybody to “grow old or to die” (the good lord seems to have stubbornly ignored my son’s request, but I’m sure he has his reasons for such apparent cold heartedness)…

So what he really wanted was some reassurance that I find it OK to mature, and let time change us. That the ravages it occasionally causes in the form of infirmity, frailty, loss of vigor and, yes, ultimately death, are overall worth it. Quite a tall order, as I’ve let my readers in what I consider a dirty little secret of our age. What our dominant reason is rather pointing us towards is, in the immortal words of the old Greeks, that “not to be born is the best for man”. That life and its sorrows and griefs and pains are not in the end compensated by a superior amount of joy and delight and contentment. And of course, you don’t need to be an extremely subtle philosopher to pick that message. More apparently in the more economically developed countries, increasingly dominant majorities do indeed believe that life, on its final balance, is not worth it, and thus voting with their gonads not to extend it any farther.

Talk of a self-fulfilling prophecy! Because what I will tell my son is that I joyously, wholeheartedly, emphatically, clear-eyedly, playingly, mischievously, cantankerously, exaggeratedly, like the fact that time passes. And one of the main reasons is precisely him (and his brothers). But of course, such an answer is not valid for those of my contemporaries that have chosen not to reproduce, and thus by renouncing to experience one of the greater blessings that life can offer they are validating their previous belief that life itself is nothing to write home about, is a gigantic chore where the bad outweighs the good and “getting old and dying (alone) is not a secondary plot, but the main and only argument of the play” (in the terrible and pessimistic and rotund words of the Spanish poet Jaime Gil de Biedma, from his poem “I will not be young again”, which I’m going to translate here and now because what the heck:

That life is a serious matter,
One starts to understand only later,
Like all the youngsters I came
To sweep away with life and its obstacles.

I wanted to leave my mark
And depart to great applause
To get old, to die, were only
The dimensions of the theatre.

But time has passed
And the ugly truth becomes apparent
To get old, to die,
Is the only argument of the play)

What a concise and beautiful summary of the “ugly truth” that desiderative reason presents us with. In a life in which the only intelligible desire is to improve your social standing, to get old and to die is “the only argument of the play”. And of course, having kids may help for a little while, like having a “trophy wife”. You send them to incredibly expensive universities (like you pay for her plastic surgery), you boast with your friends of how well they are doing in life (if things go well, you give them enough social capital as to ensure they will increase on the amount of positional, non-shareable goods you will already bequeath them), and to that extent they bring some joy to your otherwise empty life, devoid of true value. But in the end they become independent beings, they stop contributing to your position in the social hierarchy (actually, they may start actively competing with you, and in a zero sum game their gain can only come at your loss), and indeed once they are all grown up and live by themselves there is only so much they can do to satisfy the only desire you have been taught to harbor…

Which is just another beautiful illustration of the noxiousness and overall undesirability of the dominant reason we have come to collectively embrace, that practically ensures that happiness won’t be part of our lot as long as we don’t substantially modify the shared rules that bind us together (because that’s what dominant reason does for us, as I’ve incessantly preached in countless previous posts).

Back to what I will tell my son (he already knows about desiderative reason and how we don’t share its main tenets with our fellow citizens, he was present when I expounded its pitfalls in my dissertation defense and, having talked about it with him a number of times he seems to have understood most of it), I’ll let him know that I enjoy, and relish the pass of time being fully aware of its drawbacks. I know that, at 46, I can only expect to grow physically weaker with every passing year (and that most of my personal records won’t be improved by me, ever). I know a few things that allow me to be optimistic about the pace at which such weakening shall proceed (as long as I can stay active, train judiciously and eat healthily -but without obsessing about it- I will be able to forestall most ailments for a long time to come… most but not all), but my skin will be thinner and more wrinkled, my hair will grow thinner and sparser (except in some unruly areas, like the eyebrows, the ears or the nose), my eyesight will falter and I’ll soon require eyeglasses, and probably my hearing will also worsen. My joints will stiffen a bit, and become even more creaky and less supple. Of more concern to me, my ideas will become somewhat more rigid, and I will be less tolerant of the opinions of others when it does not coincide with mine (and I will justify it saying that mine is much more informed and considered, given my greater intelligence and wisdom, hah!). Learning new skills and acquiring new knowledge will become more difficult, and probably I will not find the same excitement in it. All those things are intrinsically undesirable, and I am not exactly looking forward to them, but I still think they are a very sensible price to pay for the much greater joys that I expect to come alongside those somber developments.

What joys are those? First and foremost between them, seeing my kids grow, and become the fantastic human beings they have the potential to be. Witnessing them become unique, unrepeatable individuals. Letting them flourish and bestow their exuberance unto the world, a world that will be all the better thanks to them. I don’t know what form such flourishing may take, and I don’t want to interfere much with it. I’m not the kind of toxic father that somehow wants to get even with the world through his descendants, and pushes them remorselessly since they are toddlers to excel in some competitive endeavor or other where the lack of recognition of his own accomplishments caused him some kind of trauma that he expects to heal vicariously through his kids’ achievements. All I would like is for them to contribute to the creation of a “Kingdom of ends” (Kant’s words, a damn Kantian like me always ends up circling back to the sage of Könisberg’s concepts) where everybody is treated like an end in himself, and never as a means; where people worthy of happiness can indeed be happy; where everybody acts in ways they believe could be enshrined in universal laws, that they would autonomously give to themselves without fear of contradiction.

That is indeed how I try to educate them, so they grow up to contribute to a better world. I honestly don’t know how that better world may end up looking, and as I highly value freedom and choice as intrinsic goods I don’t think I need to give it to them fully defined, as they will surely need a lot of leeway to adjust to what they will find along the way. I don’t care much how they choose to shape that contribution, as I see my and her mother’s role as providing a good role model and giving them a modicum of security and tons upon tons of love and encouragement to pursue their interests and construct a worthy personality. Set some example that instantaneous gratification is not necessarily the best course, and that doing difficult things is most times more worthy, and leaves you with a sense of accomplishment that the easy pleasures can not match. But of course, what difficult things they do and in what easy pleasures they indulge nonetheless should be up to them (as long as it is not something blatantly self-destructive, that is).

I truly pity people like Aubrey de Gray or Ray Kurzweil, that make a fool of themselves trying to convince people (while who they are really and transparently trying to convince is themselves) that we are on the verge of enormous medical and technological breakthroughs that will allow us to live forever. Behind the confident braggadocio of every techno-optimist declaring his belief in the imminent conquest of immortality I can identify the old, and crumpled figure of Gilgamesh, terrified by the prospect of their own deaths. There is something unseemly and unmanly about such fear.

I’ll share another little piece of my inner life with my readers: every single work day I ride in a motorcycle to get to work, and back home. After thirty years riding, I’ve seen (and experienced first hand) my share of accidents, near accidents and scares. Two friends lost their lives in motorcycle crashes, so regularly getting on two wheels serves as a superb reminder of your own fragility and the ease and suddenness with which everything may end. Every single day, before putting on my helmet, I have the following dialogue in my head:

-        This thing you're about to do is pretty dangerous… this could very well be the day when they finally get you for good
-        Yup, it very well could be
-        So are you ready for that? Are you willing once more to risk the road and the inattentive car drivers and the potholes and the oil spills? Ready to pay the ultimate price if push comes to shove?
-        It’s been a good life, no regrets…
-        Good then, let’s kick start this and may the lord be with us

And there I go. And when I’m back that night I’m grateful for having been given the chance to live one more day, to enjoy one more day of a loving wife whom I want to grow old with, caring together for three magnificent boys that will be our legacy, and make the world a better place than the one we found, as it is our responsibility to make the world a better place than the one our parents found when they in turn arrived in it.

Not to end in too ominous a note, what with all the talk about death and departing and such lofty ideals as making the reich der zwecke happen, I’ll note that we guys have it incomparably easier than gals. I can confidently look forward a maturity and old age where I am if not respected at least accepted however mother nature ends up shaping me, hoping it will be more or less something along the lines of:

Now my poor wife (poor not only for having to deal with the likes of me, but for being a woman in a society that imposes such differential burdens) may think that what society expects from her in the next three decades is to look something like this:

Man, if I were her I would be truly distressed by what I may had to do (or undergo) to meet such unrealistic expectations. She can at least rest assured that I’m gonna love her dearly no matter how much she departs from those (slightly unnatural) standards. She knows full well I find much sexier:

I’m just weird that way, and find attractive (may be the term sexy was misleading, sue me) character, intelligence, humor and a certain world-weariness that reflects a life lived to the full. Like the one I expect to live with my wife. Not a fullness that can be achieved by dining in expensive restaurants and traveling to exotic places (babies are too damn expensive!), but by being essentially unselfish, and yes, sacrificing the pursuit of happiness for something more elevated: being worthy of being so (pursuing happiness is self-defeating, anyways).