Does not Compute

I spend a lot of time these days (arguably more than is useful) following the world of politics, in large part through Twitter and podcasts like Vox’s The Weeds, FiveThirtyEight’s Politics Podcast, and Crooked Media’s Pod Save America.

Recently, I’ve been trying to expand that circle, to include cogent thinkers and writers with whom I wildly disagree. As John Stuart Mill put it, “he who knows only his own side of the case knows little of that.” Indeed, based on conversation with family and friends across a wide array of issues, it’s rare enough to find people who can articulately justify their own positions, much less make the strongest possible case for the opposing perspective.

Most political arguments – online and off – tend to be adversarial. Which, research, shows, is a terrible way to actually change opinions. Once people engage emotionally, opinion becomes tied to identity, and people quickly discard facts that don’t align with their already-held beliefs.

Instead, the science backs a more nuanced approach: start from a place of agreement (to avoid thet emotional roadblock), then reframe the problem and introduce a new solution. Given a different point of view, and then reasonable evidence that supports it, the other person doesn’t have to be ‘wrong,’ just simply accept that, given the problem’s new definition, a different decision might be right.

To make that style of argument work, however, you need Mill’s deep understanding of both sides. And, to that end, I’m especially impressed with economist Bryan Caplan’s proposed gold-standard objective: being able to pass an ideological Turing test.

A traditional Turing test is meant to demonstrate a computer’s human-level intelligent behavior: a judge engages in a typed conversation with both a human and a machine; if the judge can’t reliably tell the machine from the human, the machine is said to have passed the test.

In turn, that leads to (libertarian) Caplan’s ideological Turing: put him and some liberal Ph.D.s in a chat room, let liberal readers ask them questions for an hour, then vote on who isn’t really a liberal.

That level of ‘passing’ is a high standard indeed, and one for which, on the issues I care about most, I still doubtless fall short. But it remains a useful goal, especially if you’re following politics not just as entertainment (cf., Eitan Hersh’s great recent paper on ‘political hobbyism’) but rather to change minds, and thereby make change in the world.

And What Does the Cow Say?

My parents were in town last weekend, babysitting my nephew. One of those evenings, after my mother had read about a dozen children’s books to put him to bed, she pointed out something I’d never previously considered. While most of the near-universal children’s book themes – numbers and letters, say – are the building blocks of future learning, there’s another classic that makes much less sense: animal noises.

Indeed, while there are literally thousands of books on Amazon that cover the topic, unless you’re one of the less than half a percent of Americans who will one day work farming animals, I’m totally unclear on the purpose that knowledge serves later in life. What, exactly, are children meant to take away from it? As Samuel Taylor Coleridge once observed, “all the brute animals have the vowel sounds; only man can utter consonants.”

Don’t Make ’em Like They Used To

In the last week, the politically-minded fitness world has been abuzz with the theory of exercise that Donald Trump shared in a recent New Yorker feature:

There has been considerable speculation about Trump’s physical and mental health, in part because few facts are known. During the campaign, his staff reported that he was six feet three inches tall and weighed two hundred and thirty-six pounds, which is considered overweight but not obese. Trump himself says that he is “not a big sleeper” (“I like three hours, four hours”) and professes a fondness for steak and McDonald’s. Other than golf, he considers exercise misguided, arguing that a person, like a battery, is born with a finite amount of energy.

Like many of Trump’s science-minded proclamations, this one is mind-bogglingly stupid. And it reinforces my long-held belief that massive heart-attack is the likeliest way for 45 to serve out less than a full first term.

But what really caught my eye was a piece about the quote in GQ, which ran through the exercise habits of recent presidents past: Obamas pick-up basketball games, W’s “100 Degree Club” (waiting until the temperature hit 100° before heading for stacks of 7:00 miles), Clinton’s pokier lopes in 90’s jogging suits.

The real kicker, however, is a reference to an episode I think I knew about obliquely, but had largely forgotten:

On the campaign trail in 1912, Teddy Roosevelt stopped in Wisconsin for a campaign rally. There, a crazed assassin (who later claimed to have been egged on by the ghost of William McKinley) sprung from the crowd, and shot Roosevelt in the chest at point-blank range.

The bullet, however, simply got stuck in Roosevelt’s pec muscle. Though doctors wanted to bring him immediately to the hospital, Roosevelt explained that he was not mortally wounded, and would go ahead with the speech. Blood still dripping from the wound, Roosevelt told the gaping crowd, “I have just been shot, but it takes more than that to kill a Bull Moose!”

So, in short, Donald is definitely being a wuss. And Teddy Roosevelt, who I also think of whenever I visit New York’s American Natural History Museum, full of taxidermied fauna he gunned down on hunting trips during his spare time, is undoubtedly the original Most Interesting Man in the World.

Bottle-Full

This time of year, as the weather turns, and people start thinking about having to appear in public in a bathing suit, there’s a sudden uptick in diets and gym trips. With a sense of deadline looming, they tend to jump in full-throttle.

But here’s the bad news: you didn’t get out of shape in six weeks, and you’re probably not going to become a cover model in that amount of time either. I see a lot of people who don’t want to face that reality, cutting their calorie intake in half, hitting the gym seven days a week. And, for about two weeks, it works like a charm. By the third week, they’re overtrained, nursing a summer cold, and entirely burnt out.

Harvey Penick, the legendary golf coach, liked to say, “when I tell you to take an aspirin, please don’t take the whole bottle.” Just because something is helpful doesn’t mean five times as much is five times as helpful. In fact, overdoing it often has entirely negative effects; an aspirin may cure a headache, but a bottle of it will kill you.

So if you want to kick off a summer fitness push, I think that’s a great idea. You can set reasonable goals, make a plan, and see solid results over the span of the next few months. Or you can take the whole bottle, and set off on an unsustainable beach countdown crash approach, which, after a few weeks, will similarly probably be dead.

Back to the 90’s

If you, like me, were a teenager in the 90’s, this should hit close to home:

It’s all that and a bag of chips.

Neutrality vs. the Robots

On Monday, I posted about the importance of net neutrality, and of making your voice heard as the Trump FCC considers rolling back the existing strong enforcement policy.

Fortunately, that’s hardly a minority view, as more than a half million people have weighed in on the FCC’s public comment system to that end. (To reiterate, you should, too: go to gofccyourself.com, click “Express”, then leave a comment supporting “strong oversight of net neutrality based on Title II enforcement.”)

However, about ten percent of the comments have weighed in against net neutrality. And while that might elsewhere be a sign of healthy debate, it’s a bit suspicious that 58,000 of those comments use the exact same clip from a 2010 anti-neutrality press release, with posts cycling in perfect alphabetical order by posters’ names.

According to some crack reporting by ZDnet today, the supposed posters of those comments confirmed that they hadn’t left the comments themselves. Some didn’t even know what net neutrality was.

In other words, this looks like a textbook ‘astroturfing’ bot attack. Given the outsize role of bots during the 2016 election, I hope more media outlets will follow ZDnet’s lead, and give this issue the coverage it deserves. It’s bad enough that powerful internet service provider lobbies egged the FCC into considering scaling back enforcement in the first place; it’s even worse if those same players are resorting to underhanded tactics to try and make it seem like it’s what we, the people, want.

Additive

When people start getting serious about their fitness, they often start to opt for well-marketed “scientifically designed” food substitutes instead of actual food. They drop simple fish and chicken, for example, in favor of protein drinks and bars.

I’ve written before about one set of problems that causes, as breaking food down and then reassembling it from its constituent components leaves out all kinds of important micro-nutrients.

But problems exist in the opposite direction, too. A number of ‘harmless’ additives used in those reassembled food products are increasingly turning out to be not so harmless after all.

A study recently published in the journal Nature, for example, demonstrated that two widely-used emulsifiers (carboxymethylcellulose and polysorbate-80) threw off the gut microbiome in mice, sufficient to cause inflammation, colitis, obesity, and metabolic syndrome.

As the researchers conclude, “the broad use of emulsifying agents might be contributing to an increased societal incidence of obesity/metabolic syndrome and other chronic inflammatory diseases.”

The solution? Eat real food instead of food products. It’s the simple, healthy choice.

Neutral

The internet is, by design, a very robust system. Instead of a hierarchy that can be controlled from a central point, it’s a distributed network. So, in the words of legendary computer scientist (and Electronic Frontier Foundation co-founder) John Gilmore, “the Net interprets censorship as damage and routes around it.”

But there’s one real point of weakness in the internet’s design: the single pipe that connects from the distributed cloud directly to you, the end user. You depend on your mobile provider to connect your phone to the internet, or your cable provider to connect your desktop computer. Which, in turn, gives those providers unique power.

Imagine that the internet is like the island of Manhattan, and you live directly across the Hudson River in Fort Lee, New Jersey. For anything to make it to you from Manhattan, it would have to cross the George Washington Bridge.

Because the bridge is publicly owned, we take for granted that anyone who wants to can drive across. But what if that bridge was privately owned? All of a sudden, the owner of the bridge could start making rules about who could use it. For example, the bridge company could cut an exclusive deal with Domino’s Pizza, and prevent any other pizzeria from delivering to you over the bridge. Goodbye real New York slices, hello doughy circle of crap.

And that’s basically what net neutrality is about. Much like preventing the bridge company from making an exclusive deal with Domino’s, under net neutrality rules, Verizon isn’t allowed to make a deal with Amazon Prime that would then block you from accessing Netflix.

Back in 2000, the FCC put net neutrality rules in place using their Title I enforcement standard. Verizon, in turn, sued the FCC. And the courts ruled that, for the FCC to be able to actually enforce net neutrality, they would need to instead use the stricter Title II standard.

Three years ago, in a giant push that united the internet, consumers commented en masse and convinced the FCC to adopt that stricter Title II net neutrality standard. Victory!

But last month, Trump appointed a former Verizon attorney, Ajit Pai, as the new head of the FCC. And, as Pai said, “net neutrality’s days are numbered.”

Pai has now proposed moving net neutrality back to the looser Title I standard. Which, as the courts have already ruled, the FCC can’t actually enforce.

So, if you care about a free and open internet, about a level playing field in which new companies can compete against rich, entrenched players, now’s the time to act. Americans’ voices convinced the FCC to adopt a strong standard three years ago, and we can keep those protections in place by making our voices heard again today.

To help out, head to gofccyourself.com, and click the ‘express’ link. (Because of the huge wave of support thus far, the FCC’s website appears to be regularly crashing, so you may have to try again later if the site is currently down.)

Then leave a comment saying you want strong oversight of net neutrality based on Title II enforcement.

It takes two minutes, but it could have an immeasurable impact on the future of the Internet. That’s pretty solid ROI.

Again, gofccyourself.com, click express, then “strong oversight of net neutrality based on Title II enforcement.” Get to it.

Two

This morning, Eliud Kipchoge ran a marathon in two hours, twenty-five seconds. On the one hand, that fell short of the sub-two-hour goal that he and his Nike support team had been shooting for – a parallel to Roger Bannister breaking the four-minute mile exactly 63 years back. But, on the other hand, it bests the prior world record time by more than two-and-a-half minutes, a nearly superhuman feat.

It’s hard to get a real sense of how crazy a sub-two-hour marathon is. As it’s a consecutive series of twenty-six 4:41 miles, it’s literally just harder than setting your treadmill to 13mph, then running for two hours nonstop. To demonstrate that, Wired put today this great video, which includes (along with some physiological analysis of the feat) a number of members of Wired’s running club trying to see how long they can hold that 13mph. In short, it turns out they can cruise for about a minute before things fall apart. So, just more than 99% of the race to go!

Congrats to Eliud and everyone at Nike. The two-hour barrier may not have fallen today, but it’s only a matter of time.