Trolling, BS, and detection of such

Jeff Atwood offers a nice explanation of trolling on the internet, and offers some diagnostics:

in any discussion that has a purpose other than gladiatorial opinion bloodsport, the most telling question you can ask of anyone is this: Why are you here?

Did you join this discussion to learn? To listen? To understand other perspectives? Or are you here to berate us and recite your talking points over and over? Are you more interested in fighting over who is right than actually communicating? […]

In other words, are you here in good faith?

Atwood points out that the origin of the term troll is not fairy tales or Tolkien, but fishing. And so it surprised me when he phrases his advice as “Don’t feed the trolls”, rather than extending the metaphor by saying “Don’t take the bait”. I like the second version better because it reminds us that the purpose of an internet troll is to bait his readers.

I also like the diagnostic question “Are you here in good faith?” I just read Harry Frankfurt’s short booklet “On Bulls—“—twice!—and was struck by the writer’s observation that what distinguishes BS from lying or other forms of deception is its flagrant disregard for the truth, i.e. it is less common but just as easy to heap up a pile of BS from truth statements as from false, what matters is that the BSer has a different motive than conveying meaning to the hearer. Trolling is different than BSing, but it seems to share the property of employing communication for purposes other than communicating.

Millennials are also often described as having finely tuned BS detectors, usually by those who worry professionally about how to get them inside the doors of a church, and in their case I think the description is correct—they quickly turn away from heaps of wordy hoohah motivated by goals other than straightforward communication of meaning. I think this is a skill worth cultivating.

Standing desk, core exercises

Be forewarned, here comes another where-I’m-at-right-now post. I’m inclined to avoid this sort of writing. But then again, I’ve learned many helpful things from others who took the time and trouble to write down the details of their own experiences. So in case you are dealing with posture issues, or back pain, or low metabolism, read on!

Ever since my bout with rheumatoid arthritis (started in 1988, ended in 1999 or so) I’ve dealt with chronic low-level aches and pains—the arthritis is gone now, but it caused lasting joint damage during its stay. And so it’s often hard for me to tell whether particular pains are beyond remedy, or perhaps warning signs of other bad behaviors that could be corrected. But lately I’ve been paying more attention to my overall health, looking for places to make obvious small improvements, thinking about how to slow or stop various age-related downward slides, maybe even turn some around.

For a few months I’ve worried that sitting for long periods was becoming more uncomfortable for me. Which had me paying more notice to the latest fad claiming that “sitting is the new smoking”. And reading more closely whenever another item about standing desks showed up in my feed. One of those mentioned that standing desks were one way to increase one’s NEAT, or Non-Exercise Activity Thermogenesis—basically, one’s default rate of burning calories—and since I was already wondering why (and annoyed that) my sedentary-lifestyle NEAT was so low, I decided to give the standing desk a try.

I’ll leave aside the geekier details of standing desk options, since those are easy to find online. I opted for the $22 IKEA hack, perfect for an experiment—inexpensive, easy to assemble, easy to add to your current desk arrangement. And the good news, for those without a nearby IKEA store, is that the items can be ordered online for only $10 shipping. One thing not clear from the article, though, is that the legs of the side table are hollow, meaning there isn’t much wood for the screws to grab when you mount the shelf brackets. Someone else suggested bolts long enough to go entirely through the leg, secured with a nut and washer on the far side. This is what I did; it works well, and the hardware cost about $2 at Lowe’s.

Notes on setup:

  • I set the keyboard shelf so that when my forearms rest on it my elbows are at a 90 degree angle. My forearms are always touching the shelf, but the shelf edge does not cut into them at all.

  • I raised my monitor by stacking books underneath, about 2 inches worth. The top of my monitor is about even with my eyes. I try not to incline my head while looking at the monitor.

  • I use an anti-fatigue mat, which is essential for me. I was standing on it either barefoot or in sock feet, but my feet were getting cold! I picked up a cheap pair of sandals with thick soles, and now alternate between those and bare/sock feet.

  • In El Paso I use my laptop as my primary computer, with an external monitor. The laptop is sitting to my left side, on the desktop, with the screen tilted so I can see it while standing and use it as a second screen. There is a chair in front of it, so that I can sit down for a rest and still continue working. At home I will use two side tables for the two monitors connected to my desktop computer, and will probably have a separate desk where I can sit at the laptop to do work.

  • I bought a folding child’s stepstool, 9 inches tall, which lives in front of the anti-fatigue mat. I occasionally rest one or the other foot on it, as a way of shifting my position while standing.

You can imagine multiple physical issues will arise when making the transition from sitting to standing while doing deskwork. Fortunately, I’ve had a lot of experience over the past ten years standing for long stretches, sometimes for three hours straight, while performing music with Chris. So I’m already able to spend significant time standing, and am confident that I will be able to make the adjustment.

The more interesting challenge is to “get into the zone” while standing. After 40 years or so I have a strong association between deep thinking and extended sitting, which needs to be broken. But being absorbed by the task while standing is not as difficult as I expected, and so I expect that practice will make up the difference. And luckily I’m at a point in my work where there are no large tasks requiring extended attention, just a laundry list of smaller ones that I can attend to as time and energy permit, with rests in between as needed. This entire post is being written at one go while standing, and this is the fifth day of the experiment. It took about an hour.

It’s no surprise that extended periods of standing made my lower back pain worse. So I started thinking about that. And when a friend mentioned that faithful engagement in “core exercises” had helped his own lower back pain quite a bit, I looked into that. These are definitely my kind of exercises, more a matter of stretching than working up a sweat. I began doing some of these in the morning: partial crunches, hamstring stretches, press-up back extensions, bird dog, knee to chest, pelvic tilts. The difference is remarkable. Where I used to spend 30-60 minutes in the morning babying myself to simply stand upright, the 20 minutes I spend on these leaves me feeling almost normal. The knee to chest exercise is particularly good for my pain, and when my back begins to ache during the day I spend a few minutes engaged in it and am refreshed.

All this together has me thinking about posture, something I’ve always neglected because it hasn’t much mattered—sitting is sitting. But now I’m looking into better ways to stand, and to walk. More on that if and when I find them.

Forever Fat Loss, by Ari Whitten

Based on a recommendation from Cindy Rollins, I borrowed a Kindle copy of Ari Whitten’s Forever Fat Loss, using the Amazon Prime free trial that I’m offered every so often. The ebook is only $3, and I might have paid it otherwise, but since it only took me an hour to skim through and I won’t ever read it again, I’m just as glad to have the money stay in my pocket.

Which isn’t to say it wasn’t worth the time, or even the $3, since I learned a few helpful things—or, more accurately, I had a few thoughts of my own reinforced by the writer’s main points. Whitten’s overall claim is that people will maintain a healthy, stable weight as long as their eating is in proper balance, and that weight problems are caused by various imbalances in the modern diet. Of the food innovations he counts as culprits, three resonated with me.

High reward foods. We can spend a lot of time untangling the threads which have led to the attractive, addictive quality of modern processed food, but the result is that people are driven to eat too much of it. The alternative is to eat a pre-modern menu—and by pre-modern, I mean backing up only a hundred years or so, before foods were carefully crafted to maximally entice the eater.

Call it low reward food, or simple food, or whole food, or use Michael Pollan’s rule of no more than five ingredients, or adopt whatever guideline is most helpful in assisting you to fill your plate with food whose origins are still recognizable. The fact is that you will only eat as much of it as you need, because you have reduced or even eliminated its entertainment value.

By eliminating entertainment value, I don’t mean to suggest that the result must be dull or unenjoyable, just that craving needs to be put to death. I think it is possible to enjoy simple food for its goodness—the taste of a potato or tomato, the mouthfeel of olive oil or chicken fat, the chewiness or aroma of rice—in the same way one can enjoy the goodness of a long walk or a sunset. But I don’t think we crave those things, and when we do crave something it is a signal that something is out of balance.

High variety menus. Whitten nicely observes our addiction to variety in our eating is a source of trouble because it takes too many different foods to satisfy our resulting appetite. The appetizer appeals to a different part of us than the entree. Even though we’re stuffed from the main meal, there’s always room for dessert. Between-meal snacks fill different spots yet. And by the end of the day we’ve consumed far too much.

Contrast this with eating like a peasant, i.e. the way most people have eaten for most of history. The menu consists of a few staples, day in and day out, only occasionally punctuated with something festive. Whitten’s example comes from the sherpas he spent time with in Nepal, who ate rice and lentils at practically every meal, sometimes garnished with carrots and curry. Mine would be Mexican peasants, who subsist mainly on rice and pinto beans and corn tortillas … a meal I can enjoy just thinking about it! But also a meal which serves its purpose exactly, enjoyable in the eating but without the temptation to eat beyond my need for sustenance.

Both these points resonate with me because of the pattern I chose for this latest diet, mostly out of laziness and lack of imagination. I don’t eat breakfast, but will drink a couple of cups of coffee during the morning. At lunch I have a sizeable salad—lettuce, tomatoes, mushrooms, cucumbers, with an oil and vinegar dressing. During the afternoon I will eat an apple and a banana. For supper the default is rice (white or brown, depending on what the rest of the family is eating or what’s in the refrigerator) with a chicken thigh (skin on), garnished with soy sauce and Louisiana hot sauce. If beans are on the table I might have some of those. Sometimes instead of the chicken thigh I will have three fried eggs, or sauteed greens and mushrooms.

I started skipping breakfast because I wanted to regularly experience a bit of hunger, if only to remind myself that it won’t kill me. During the rest of the day I find that I’m not hungry at all, and any temptation to eat is coming from somewhere else (usually boredom). And I also find myself appreciating qualities in my food that might otherwise be overwhelmed in a more complex menu dominated by high-reward items. For example, I never get tired of that initial jolt of olive oil or chicken fat—where others complain of a sweet tooth, I was seemingly blessed with a “fat tooth”.

(I should also mention that I am blessed with a high threshold for monotony, and my ability to enjoy an unvarying diet is not some sort of moral victory. If a lack of variety is a stumbling block for someone trying to bring their eating under control, I can sympathize but I can’t offer suggestions for how to overcome it—I can only note that it is a skill that help in a powerful way if one can somehow obtain it.)

The other idea I’ve found helpful is movement vs. exercise. I was on my way to discovering this through other reading, but Whitten sums it up nicely—the amount of energy you can burn through intense bouts of exercise pales in comparison to what you can burn by incorporating regular and steady movement into your life. Not that there’s anything wrong with exercise, but it does best when added to regular activity, not as a substitute for it.

I started walking not for weight loss reasons but for health reasons. I like it, but it also highlights for me how sedentary the rest of my day is. I am also limited in the time I can devote to it—and I don’t want to start “redeeming” that time by multitasking, since I enjoy the time away from work and think I need the regular break it gives me. So I’m ripe for Whitten’s suggestion, namely to use a standing desk. Whatever small increase standing gives me over sitting will be multiplied by the many hours I spend at my desk, so I think it’s worth a try. When I return in mid-May from my next trip to El Paso, I plan to make one of these as a relatively inexpensive way of running the experiment.

One seemingly strange thing about Whitten’s book is that it does not say much about how to go about losing weight. This may be for the best, since his greater point is that a focus on weight loss tends to distract from the much more important matter of maintaining a healthy weight through proper eating. Still, anyone who starts out above their healthy weight will need to first reach that weight, presumably by eating at least somewhat differently than they will once a healthy weight is achieved. The only reliable route I’ve discovered so far is the obvious one: calorie restriction.

When I started my diet seven months ago, I sketched out a menu that was roughly 1000 calories short of what I supposedly needed to maintain my weight. That should have resulted in a 2lb-per-week weight loss, and in the early days it did (even faster at the beginning, since I had suddenly put on pounds after staying fairly stable for years). But then the weight loss slowed, even became erratic according to the scale. But my menu is unchanged, my weight is going in the right direction, and I don’t think I’d be happy eating less, so I’m inclined to throw a bit more patience at the problem.

Right now I figure I will reach my original goal in late fall of this year, at which point I will reassess. And whenever I do find the weight I’m happy to maintain, I plan to stick with basically the same menu, except when possible eating reasonable portions of whatever the family is eating for supper. In other words, I plan to abide by my current diet from now on, adding only whatever extra food is needed to keep my weight up.

I know my previous diets failed because I looked at them as temporary mechanisms employed to get me to a particular place, at which time I could go do something different. I’m hoping that by making this current diet into a permanent mindset I can find a way of eating which feels natural to me while still keeping my weight stable. Check back with me in five years to see how it went!

Testing a new post editor

This is a test post, to see if the online editor would be a usable alternative for creating blog posts on my WordPress blog.

UPDATE: It seems to work. At some point soon I will write a post explaining what is and why I want to use it.

Naipaul’s seven rules for beginning writers

There’s a lot of advice for writers out there, ranging from the practical to the mystical. I like to read it, but I don’t usually study it closely, trusting that if I encounter a truth about writing often enough, stated in different ways, I will absorb what I need.

Once V.S. Naipaul wrote down seven rules for beginning writers, at the request of the Indian news magazine Tehelka. Being a beginning writer myself (or at least one who is perpetually beginning again), I took a look. They’re pretty good, and I think I may do more than just ponder them.

Do not write long sentences. A sentence should not have more than 10 or 12 words.

Each sentence should make a clear statement. It should add to the statement that went before. A good paragraph is a series of clear, linked statements.

Do not use big words. If your computer tells you that your average word is more than five letters long, there is something wrong. The use of small words compels you to think about what you are writing. Even difficult ideas can be broken down into small words.

Never use words whose meanings you are not sure of. If you break this rule you should look for other work.

The beginner should avoid using adjectives, except those of colour, size and number. Use as few adverbs as possible.

Avoid the abstract. Always go for the concrete.

Every day, for six months at least, practice writing in this way. Small words; clear, concrete sentences. It may be awkward, but it’s training you in the use of language. It may even be getting rid of the bad language habits you picked up at the university.

You may go beyond these rules after you have thoroughly understood and mastered them.

The rules about short sentences and short words I violate habitually. I don’t know how often I use adjectives and adverbs. I have my own long-standing rule about always backing up a point with one or more concrete illustrations, but I’ve never sat down and scrutinized my writing for abstractness. I am actually a stickler for word meanings, and will often look up words that I am using to carry the weight, not just to double-check my understanding but to look for nuances.

What I particularly like about Naipaul’s rules is that they don’t constitute a law, but rather a discipline. He states clearly at the end that they are to be practiced for a time, as well as a purpose—to rid yourself of bad habits. And that, once mastered, you may go beyond them. But (I assume) they will still constitute a default, that going beyond them will be exceptional in some way, and by mastering the rules you will know when going beyond is needed, as opposed to merely possible.

A large part of why I often violate Naipaul’s rules is that when I write I am frequently exploring possibilities, ways of thinking, ways of getting thoughts down in writing, ways of evoking a response in a reader. I understand that big words and long, complex sentences can work against the goal of communicating—but I want to have written them so that I have a hands-on feel for doing things that way.

But as I enter the final stretch here, I need to lay off the experimentation and use what I’ve learned to get some things done. I’m in a similar position to Naipaul’s “beginning writers”, who surely had much knowledge of the building blocks of writing, words and grammar and such, but were now ready to learn how to deploy those elements effectively, to write in a way that conveys meaning efficiently and accurately and evocatively. So I will look for a way to adopt Naipaul’s discipline for a season.

Two by David Brooks

Sometimes I love what David Brooks has to say, and sometimes it leaves me cold. Sometimes I agree with him, sometimes I don’t. This variability gives me confidence that he is not pandering to any particular audience but rather following his own muse.

I loved his concept of “bourgeouis bohemians” and the incisive observations he made about them—some of which cut close to the bone back then, just coming out of a high-salaried corporate environment. His dalliances with neuroscience weren’t to my taste, but I always appreciated (and admired) the fact that he was engaged in a long-term intellectual project, something that most folks in his business—punditry—tend to give up in the face of weekly opinionating.

His essay The Thought Leader is a classic example of his early style, even though it was only written a year or so ago. It is a very cutting look at the temptations of punditry and the kind of person a pundit can become.

Not armed with fascinating ideas but with the desire to have some, he launches off into the great struggle for attention. At first his prose is upbeat and smarmy, with a peppy faux sincerity associated with professional cheerleading.

Within a few years, though, his mood has shifted from smarm to snark. There is no writer so obscure as a 26-year-old writer. So he is suddenly consumed by ambition anxiety — the desperate need to prove that he is superior in sensibility to people who are superior to him in status. Soon he will be writing blog posts marked by coruscating contempt for extremely anodyne people: “Kelly Clarkson: Satan or Merely His Spawn?”

Of course the writer in this unjustly obscure phase will develop the rabid art of being condescending from below. Of course he will confuse his verbal dexterity for moral superiority.

All that keeps this from being unbearably scathing is the knowledge that Brooks knows whereof he speaks, by dint of experience. The temptations and pitfalls are dangers he has faced personally, and I think he would agree that he hasn’t always triumphed over them.

In case that caveat isn’t enough for you to forgive Brooks for the piece, please balance it with today’s The Moral Bucket List. It is taken from his new book The Road to Character, which I will be reading when it is released Tuesday. These paragraphs should be enough to persuade you that Brooks is a thoughtful guy. [Emphasis added]

It occurred to me that there were two sets of virtues, the résumé virtues and the eulogy virtues. The résumé virtues are the skills you bring to the marketplace. The eulogy virtues are the ones that are talked about at your funeral — whether you were kind, brave, honest or faithful. Were you capable of deep love?

We all know that the eulogy virtues are more important than the résumé ones. But our culture and our educational systems spend more time teaching the skills and strategies you need for career success than the qualities you need to radiate that sort of inner light. Many of us are clearer on how to build an external career than on how to build inner character.

But if you live for external achievement, years pass and the deepest parts of you go unexplored and unstructured. You lack a moral vocabulary. It is easy to slip into a self-satisfied moral mediocrity. You grade yourself on a forgiving curve. You figure as long as you are not obviously hurting anybody and people seem to like you, you must be O.K. But you live with an unconscious boredom, separated from the deepest meaning of life and the highest moral joys. Gradually, a humiliating gap opens between your actual self and your desired self, between you and those incandescent souls you sometimes meet.

So a few years ago I set out to discover how those deeply good people got that way. I didn’t know if I could follow their road to character (I’m a pundit, more or less paid to appear smarter and better than I really am). But I at least wanted to know what the road looked like.

Errol Morris

I’ve long admired Errol Morris as a documentary maker. Only in the past couple of years did I discover his writing—in part because he hasn’t been writing all that long, since 2007 or so.

Lately I’ve been on a bit of a Morris kick. I re-read his piece on anosognicia, which is how I discovered his writing. And then I read The Ashtray, where I discovered to my delight that as a graduate student Morris had studied the history of science (so had I, as an undergraduate, but only in a couple of courses for a philosophy minor). And I’ve just watched The Fog of War (free to watch on crackle), his interviews with Robert McNamara.

What I especially like about Morris is that he is entranced by the matter of truth, but in an agenda-free fashion. Sometimes this gets him in trouble with his fans, who tend to be agenda-driven. I liked this quote about his own interviewing style, from an interview about The Fog of War.

I sometimes describe my school of interviewing as the shut-up-and-listen school, which frustrates some viewers, perhaps because they’ve become accustomed to that adversarial style of questioning where the journalist tries to back his subject into a corner or force him into contradiction, or force him into obvious lies that can be exposed. I’ve always felt that there’s much more to be learned by allowing people to express themselves, to reveal themselves.

Part of my enterprise, of course, is to learn about people, to try to enter their mental landscape, to learn how they see the world, how they imagine themselves in the world, and, in the case of McNamara, how they imagine themselves in history.

I’m completely on Morris’s side here. In one’s ongoing effort to align oneself with the grain of the universe, not much is more valuable than a different perspective—after all, we spend a lot of time and effort shaping our own perspective, why not benefit from the work others have done, and bless them with the benefit of ours?