Saturday, August 25, 2007

The Human Element and this human element

The ad campaign has been out for some time how, but I've wanted to blog on it for a while and this seemed like an appropriate time. For the first time, I can remember, my company has put out a corporate branding campaign that is inspirational, at least at it's highest, most philosophical level. Dow's Human Element campaign started with a series of prominent TV commercial spots, and introduced a theme that is truly inspiring, in the Objectivist sense. That is that it is man, and man's mind, i.e. reason that is at the heart of innovation, and progress. The commercials almost make me cry. What I love about them is that at the close they are even emotionally integrated, alluding to the fact that the chemist and the marketer, through the use of their reason and passion, are inextricably bound to the sculptor or the writer or the poet.

Unfortunately, Dow's follow-on use of this theme in trying to concretize this idea, brings in mixed concepts such as environmental sustainability, energy conservation, and volunteerism. While disappointing, it should not take away from the visibility attained through the initial message. Maybe it's a sign that our culture is shifting, but ever so slowly. [And if one think that those who hate capitalism aren't still alive and strong, look to the perversions of this theme to show utter hatred for companies like Dow, who have long been lighting rods for environmentalists, and anti-industrialists.]

But it is this idea, this fundamental idea or belief in man's potential, his reason, his passion that is so purely represented in the first commercials from the series. Such an abstract idea, but yet it is present in each and every decision we make, each goal we set, and each plan we put into action. It is concretely identifiable in each one of us.

For those who don't know, this year has been a year of significant change. I've reconnected with my intellectual self, righted some mistakes in my past, and come out all the better for it. One of those changes has been physical, namely the loss of a few pounds and improvement my physical conditioning, hoping to once again compete in endurance races at a respectable level. That particular plan has progressed very well so far. I'm at my target weight; I feel as good as I did 15 years ago, and the training is on plan. However, I have yet to test myself, to measure my progress according to the standard of my goal, competitive racing. My first race is not planned until Labor Day (a "warm up" 10K run), and then my season culminates in 2 duathlons (run-bike-run) in mid September and early October.

That schedule changed today. I've been curious as to where I stand for some time now. About a month ago, I surprised myself after a hard 1 1/2 hr training session, which involved several tempo intervals (intervals at race pace), by jogging over to the local High School track and ticking off a 7 minute mile without a problem. My 5K PR (personal record) is a 19:16 (which got me 7th place at a local race) and is approximately 6:20 miles. A 7 minute mile is within striking distance of that time!

So today I had planned a 2 hr bike workout, but awoke to a pouring rain. I was disappointed. I needed the workout, and I'd been running all week so I was looking forward to the bike. I dressed and headed over to the gym instead. On the way, I remembered that there was a local race today. As part of their Human Element campaign, Dow is the primary corporate sponsor for The Blue Planet Run, an around-the-world "ultra marathon" performed by a small team of runners, to build awareness for the need for purified drinking water. That run happens to pass through my town (the corporate HQ of Dow) today and there are all sorts of events planned to celebrate, one of which is a 5K race. hmmm.

After an hour of spinning at the gym, I am drenched and bored. I really want to be outside. I have 6 months of Michigan winter to look forward to in the gym, and this is not it yet. Finally, I throw in the towel in frustration. "That's it," I say to myself, "let's take these babies over to the race and see what they can do." Race is at 5. It's 10 now. That means I've got 7 hrs to get rehydrated, rested and mentally prepared to put out a race quality effort.

And now the synapses start flashing and I am in preparation mode. Suck down two Power-ades on the way home. Plan light lunch at noon. Then it's on to strategy. I haven't been training for a race this short, but rather longer ones. That means I'm not used to running at top of my heart rate range and I will have to factor that in. I'll also have to mentally get into the groove quickly because the race will be over in 20 minutes and any dallying at the beginning will spoil my outcome.

Strategy is simply, really. What I show up with in terms of speed and endurance physicality is already fixed by my training. There is nothing I can do about it. The only question is can I execute at maximum potential. To do that means one thing, knowing where my "redline" is, getting to it as quickly as I can, and gutting it out for the rest of the race. Redline on a human is measured by heart rate. My lactate threshold, i.e. my redline, is about 167 bpm (beats per minute). My race zone is 160 - 167 bpm. I have trained into this range on several occasions during interval workouts, but not  maintained it for more than 6-8 minutes. That means this race is going to hurt more than any of those workouts, and I have to prepare myself for it. I'll wear a heart monitor, and carry my stopwatch, to monitor my tempo and make adjustments. I don't expect to hit my PR, but I'd sure like to come close to it. If I do 7 minute miles that will be just over 21 minutes. I'd like to go sub 20.

Sun's out now. Could have gone riding.  Too late. I've paid my money and got my number and my chip. I warm up well; putting my heart rate up to 160 before the start. Once we've started, my heart monitor skitzes during the first 3/4 mile! When it finally comes back on, I'm at 169, woops, too high. I dial back, and try to settle in and find a "rabbit" someone running at the same or just higher pace who I can pace off of. I see a guy I know; he's 33 and a good runner, so I settle in behind him. Mile 1: 6:17, uh oh this is going to put me higher than 20 minute time. First mile should be 5:50 - 6:10, because the rest will be longer. I try moving up to 169, but it's a bit more than I can handle at this point. Mile 2: 6:40, this is going to put me at 20:30 at best. Need to find a way to increase just a bit, and need to do it now. I ramp up to 174. Heart is pounding in my chest. My breathing increase almost to gasping. I'm closing on the runner up ahead of me, but not fast enough to pass him by the finish. At the finish, I'm 20:25, and ecstatic. I didn't go sub 20, but finished at sub 7:00 mile pace on all my miles, and without anything left so I know that this was probably my best possible time. I estimate I placed about 20th overall (in a field of 300) with an age group placing of 5th. I'm 15 years older than my last PR, and I was only off by 1 minute. Had I not worked out in the morning or been training for sprint events, then maybe, just maybe, I could have beaten it. So now I know where I'm at, and can adjust my training over the next month before the race on Labor Day.

I've written about racing before. To me this is the concretization. The thing that shows me the Human Element in action. The initiation of a thousand separate actions that add up to one long term outcome.

[Author's note: This post was a stretch, and the subtitle could have been "How Kendall Snuck a Race Brag onto His Capitalism Blog" but there are things that just must be done on a runners high, and this is one of them.]

Praise for Windows Live Writer

Live Writer rules. That's all there is to it. A client based program that interfaces with my online blog. It is essentially my journal, my repository of all my blog ideas. Offline or on. It's interface is intuitive. It is able to show me what my blog will look like once its up, without uploading it. I like Blogger, but I hate its editing interface. Live Writer does the trick. This my second blog post using it on my new laptop, and already the process of composing posts is so much simpler.

Thanks Diana for mentioning it, although I cant find the reference just now. Noodlefood rules too!

Friday, August 24, 2007

Esthetics and Commercialism

On my recent trip to China, as I perused the stack of magazines I'd brought with me, I happened upon Virginia Postrel's article Dress Sense.  I have been a fan of Postrel since she was editor at Reason, and have been enthusiastically watching her break into mainstream journalism. I ripped out the article as I do with all the articles I find compelling, folded it up and put it in my briefcase, not quite knowing what I'd write, but knowing there was something interesting in the article.

The article makes the case that fashion is museum worthy, as a form of art. Not just from a historical perspective, but from a design and beauty perspective. What I found fascinating was her description of how fashion, specifically commercial fashion of the last century, is eschewed by museums as unworthy of display.

Behind the criticism of fashion as an artistic medium is a highly ideological prejudice: against markets, against consumers, against the dynamism of Western commercial society. The debate is not about art but about culture and economics. Critics who decry fashion collections are less troubled by the prescribed costumes of dynastic China or the aristocratic dress of baroque France than by the past century’s clothes. With its fluctuating forms and needless decoration, fashion epitomizes the supposedly unproductive waste that inspired 20th-century technocrats to dream of central planning. It exists for no good reason. But that’s practically a definition of art.

Her case takes this argument on, and this is what I love about Postrel. She sees the intersection of esthetics and business as a good thing. Business is not some grubby corrupter of high art, but rather the enabler or creater of a broader audience for it. Her phenomenal book The Substance of Style, which overviews the proliferation of esthetic design in  popular culture (think iPod, Crate & Barrel, etc.) specifically makes the case that it is the innovations in manufacturing, distribution, and resultant rising income levels, that have created an "esthetic abundance" of selection available to the average consumer. That mass customization enables the proliferation of personal esthetic choice.

And so rather than the everyday trying to "wedding crash" the province of high art, we have artistic elements making their way into the everyday, with capitalism creating the opportunity for this to happen. And when one looks at history, one can see that this has always been so; that the commercial in art has enabled it to exist and to flourish. Michealangelo was paid to paint the Cistine Chapel. Some of the best artwork of the late 19th and early 20th centuries was also commissioned work. I think of Maxfield Parrish  whose paintings were prominent on the covers of magazines such as Collier's, Scribner's, and Century, and also on calendars. Or Hollywood photographer George Hurrell, whom Postrel highlighted in her Atlantic article Starlight and Shadow who created the lighting techniques that gave 1940's Hollywood it's glamour. People who created art to be appreciated and viewed by someone so much that they were willing to pay money for the opportunity. This is the highest expression of the value of a work of art, as described by Ayn Rand in T he Romantic Manifesto; the highest expression of the desire and need of man to bring his view of the world into full, conscious, concrete focus.

Art is a concretization of metaphysics. Art brings man's concepts to the perceptual level of his consciousness and allows him to grasp them directly, as it they were percepts.

This is the psycho-epistemological function of art and the reason of its importance in man's life (and the crux of the Objectivist esthetics).

Just as language converts abstractions into the psycho-epistemological equivalent of concretes, into a manageable number of specific units-.-so art converts man's metaphysical abstractions into the equivalent of concretes, into specific entities open to man's direct perception. The claim that "art is a universal language" is not an empty metaphor, it is literally true—in the sense of the psycho-epistemological function performed by art.

The insertion of artistic elements into the everyday has value, and those who do it, and those willing to pay for it are the good. And so why shouldn't a gown be considered for it's artistic beauty? Is it not in reality, as Postrel so aptly characterizes, a sculpture, three-dimensional and made all the more ephemeral by the fact that it is designed over the framework of the human body, and to be seen in motion, and to be touched? Compared to the piles of garbage and canvases of painted blobs that pass for art in today's "Modern Art" museums, and exhibition of 20th century fashion would be a welcome addition to any museum.