Thursday, December 31, 2009

Year End Objectivist Round-up

Hey, Jen has the year end Round-up over at her blog. This issue is a “Best of 2009” issue. Don’t miss the extra-special Objectivisty goodness! Two of my most read posts are included in the mix.

Saturday, December 26, 2009

Realizing a Long-term Goal – How to Make Yourself into a Cook

It’s a lazy day after Christmas and I am doing what I normally do at year’s end: using the time to clean up unfinished tasks that I’ve been meaning to complete. Today it’s reading; I’m cleaning out my backlog of magazines and trying to make progress on the two books I’m reading. One of the sets of magazines I’m catching up on is a few back issues of Cooking Light. Given that this is the time of year to think about goals and given that I’ve used that subscription to improve my cooking skills over the last few years, I thought I’d relate that method for you as a way to look at developing goals and making good on them over the long term.

Cooking was always something I enjoyed but never really spent enough time on to do really well. Mostly I appreciate eating good food. As I was exiting my marriage about two years ago I decided that I wanted to become a better cook, specifically I wanted to be able to make meals that I could enjoy eating, that is being able to make really tasty food. I chose to do this with a particular method or formula that was regimented and thereby relatively easy to follow and stick to. Here’s what I did:

  1. Bought a subscription to a cooking magazine. In my case it was Cooking Light. I had a few friends who made recipes from the magazine regularly, and had enjoyed tasting them so my decision was easy.
  2. As each month’s issue arrived, I would in reading it mark those recipes that I thought looked good.
  3. I’d make photocopies of the marked recipes and place those copies into a stack.
  4. I resolved to make a regular habit out of grocery shopping picking the same time each week to go the store. This afforded me the ability of being able to plan menus for the week.
  5. At planning time I’d go through the recipes in the stack and pick 2 or 3 that sounded good at the time, and make a shopping list for the ingredients for that recipe.
  6. That week I’d take a few nights to prepare the selected recipes. If I liked them, I’d make a few notes about them (what they would go with, suggestions to improve the taste, etc) and then place them into a 3 ring binder. If not, then I’d either consider retrying them or discard the recipe altogether.

Over the course of a year or so then I managed to build up a repertoire of recipes that I liked, and in the course to improve my cooking skills. Sometimes, I’d make an error in the preparation by not realizing the importance of particular step. I’d make a note about it on the recipe, and then maybe a month or two later retry the recipe. If a particular combination of two dishes didn’t pair well, I’d make a note about what I thought the recipe would be better paired with, or maybe make a note about what sort of wine would pair well with the dish.

I think that this method had some really nice advantages over say simply buying a cookbook.

  • I wasn’t committing a lot of extra time, but rather was committing to a consistent routine. Any week I never was biting off more than I could chew or expecting to become proficient overnight. I simply was taking time to plan menus that were selected based upon my interest in eating the foods described.
  • I was learning techniques as I was making recipes. For example, 2009 saw Cooking Light do a while series of issues on basic techniques (braising, steaming, sautéing, grilling) and with each I’d understand the mechanisms of how each worked, what types of dishes they were used to prepare, and what they did not do well.
  • I was using my own interest in eating good food, by reading about it regularly to continue to keep myself motivated to try the recipes. I think this aspect is critical. Considering the fact that you’re going to have days when recipes fail (and believe me I did! sometimes a whole week’s worth turned out poorly) its easy to get discouraged.
  • Because the method is systematic, when it came down to the preparation of the dish on a particular evening, the planning had already been done. The recipe was tacked to the fridge. I knew all the ingredients were already purchased. On any evening I could simply focus on the basics of preparing the dish. And when you’re coming home from a long day at work, this is the sort of ease that you want. In fact I actually got to the point where cooking was a form of decompression for me. My work is at times abstract, long term, and at time frustrating. Cooking is immediate, concrete, and “hands on.” My success or failure was entirely mine, and would be evident within 60 minutes of starting.
  • Finally I was learning how to think about the science of preparation, not just trying to make recipes. By understanding cooking concepts and then attempting to use them, and by analyzing what went wrong or right I was making these techniques concrete for myself. Essentially applying theory to practice.

The result? Well, I won’t say that I’m a great cook. There are still lots of people whose skills I admire much more than my own. But what has changed is that I’m confident that I can assemble a menu, and prepare a meal well; one that I enjoy eating and would not be embarrassed to prepare for someone else. And that was essentially my goal. I also find that now I can modify recipes to suit my taste because I understand the principles behind how they are put together. All this has had the effect that making food at home is now something I can do as a social activity. I used to enjoy greatly going out to eat with friends or heading to a party where I knew the host(ess) was a great cook. There is something about enjoying good friends and good food together. Now I can do that by my own hand. This sort of sensual, emotional experience is one that is tied to experiencing our values through the people that we value, and our ability to provide them an enjoyable experience, and it is a fantastic experience to be able to create. Some people even make their careers by helping others understand and create this experience, such as good friend and objectivist Jen Iannolo, whose Culinary Media Network strives help people bring that sort of sensual experience into their own lives.

As an example, I had my sister over yesterday for Christmas. The day consisted of not much more than playing with our pups, and chatting, maybe watching a movie. But I inserted food into the mix and it added a special ingredient. In the afternoon I had a small cheese plate, and made up some homemade guacamole (first time I’d ever made it) which turned out fantastically. Then for dinner I made a tenderloin steak with sautéed spinach, and herbed potatoes. My Philly apartment isn’t conducive to owning a grill so I’ve been working on the best way to prepare meats without it. After several different attempts using slightly different technique variations, I made these steaks by first searing them in a pan for about 3 minutes a side, and then finishing them using the broiler, using internal temperature to gauge doneness.  The spinach was sautéed in sesame oil and garlic and finished with just a bit of rice wine vinegar to complete the wilting process. The potatoes tossed in olive oil and herbs, and then roasted in the oven. The whole meal came out perfectly; the preparation was part of the experience as she sat at the bar and helped while we chatted.

It’s taken a year or so to get to this point, but this is what I envisioned as a goal. A goal that was reached by a method that was rather simple to execute looking back on it.  Next year, cooking will be about expanding my repertoire. We’ll see what comes out in my goals for the year. That post will be up in a about a week. Stay tuned.

Friday, December 25, 2009

Pierre and the Caroline Blue Bells

I’m sitting back after a wonderful Christmas spent with my sister, and feeling generally radiant about life. So rather than a heavy post on some intellectual topic I thought I’d pull something a little bit more personal out. This story is from almost twenty years ago, but I posted it to a private blog a year or so ago (original post date: 1/11/08) after pulling out my journal from the experience and reliving it through those words. I’m not too sure what it has to do with Christmas other than I think this time is a time to sit back and reflect on one’s life; to savor it. You’ll see how this ties into it if you keep reading.

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It was 1992, and I'd decided to go on a backpacking expedition. I'd graduated college a year earlier and taken a two week trip to Colorado with Lori. Before that, the last packing trip I'd taken was as a Boy Scout in my teens. So I decided that I was going to do a solo trip and had chosen Maine's Hundred Mile Wilderness, based upon a review I'd read in Backpacker magazine. The Wilderness is the last 100 miles of the Appalachian Trail, ending at it's northern terminus, Mt. Katahdin. It is a contiguous, uninterrupted, rugged, foreboding hundred miles buried deep in the northern Maine woods. Once you start, there is really no way out but to finish, and for most of the trip one will be at least 50 miles from help. The idea of such a trip might seem like biting off more than one could chew, but for some reason I was drawn to it. Maybe it was a testosterone-laced sense of bravado, the need to prove something to myself after my breakup with Lori, or just plain stupidity. It was probably a mix of all those and more. So the decision was made.

After arriving in Maine at midnight after a marathon drive out from Michigan, a brief sleep, and huge breakfast, I set out, with a 60 lb pack on my back filled with 2 weeks of provisions. The trip started horribly. I was carrying so much weight, that I was slow, and on my first day, I stopped several miles short of my planned camp site. Rain set in. Day 2 saw me still hiking at 10 pm, exhausted, headlamp lighting the way, stumbling along the trail, arriving in camp after most other hikers had gone to sleep. Also unknown to me, my pack frame had cracked and the weight of my pack was poorly distributed causing chafing that by week's end would have me plastering duct tape to my hips to hold together the patches of blistered skin. Day 3, the third day of constant rain. I was losing feeling in my feet as they had been wet and cold for a solid three days, and I was behind my hike schedule by almost a full day. The weight of the pack was wearing me out by lunchtime. I was cold and wet, and demoralized, and at times scared. Suddenly this trip had become a daunting demon staring me down, and I was quickly crumbling under its constant stare.

I was considering quitting. There was one escape route about half way in that involved hiking out 15 miles on a logging road and then hitching a ride back to the start, and I was now considering taking it. But that was only one week of hiking and so I was also replotting my route to shorten each day so that I could stretch out the hike to a more respectable length. I hated doing it. I was ashamed. I was trying to grit every day out, and quickly crumbling and I had told everyone at home about my trip and they had been impressed. And now I was faltering. The trail was incredibly tough with wind-sucking, quad-burning climbs and root-littered, muddy trails. Several times I'd lost the trail and almost panicked at the thought of being lost in the woods. I felt alone and I felt like a failure, and worried about how I'd explain it all.

There were hikers all over the trial of course, "thru-hikers" mostly, walking the entire AT for the last 5 months from Georgia to Maine, all with colorful handles (e.g. "Cotton Patch," "Silverback," "Seabear," "Wild Bill," "The April Fools,"), forming a little trail micro-culture. And there were others as well, people doing just The Wilderness. By the fourth day I'd seen many of them a couple of times and was starting to learn their names. They were all friendly, but I was despondent and not in much mood to talk. On night 4 I stayed in a shelter about 5 miles shy of a creek. My plan was to camp at the creek the next night, and then the next day to the jump off point. With me in the shelter that night were two hikers, one a chemist who'd recently been laid off from a pharmaceutical firm and was thru-hiking the AT before starting a new job, and the other a French Canadian named (of all things) Pierre. Pierre was hiking the wilderness only, and I'd already spent a night or two with him at other shelters. His english was poor and we'd spoken very little, but he was a friendly, calm, quiet type. That night the three of us talked over dinner. I confessed to them that I was changing my plans and that I'd not go all the way through the wilderness. I talked a little bit about my frustration and disappointment. The next day's hike would mean that even if I changed my mind, I had lost enough distance that I probably had no way of making Katahdin. I'd "lost the moon" as Tom Hanks would say in Apollo 13.

The next day I was the last one out of the shelter and onto the trail, maybe trying to stretch my time since I only had a few miles to go before I camped. I reached the creek at about noon. Pierre was on the other side. He'd arrived a couple of hours before, and had taken a lazy lunch while he waited for his boots to dry out. I forded the stream and sat next to him and ate my own lunch quietly. I was through for the day. Half way through, Pierre got up, loaded up and turned to continue on the trail. I wished him well. He turned to me and said in broken english, "I see you at the shelter tonight." He didn't ask me; he just said it calmly as if it was simply the truth. And in those words he laid bare my options, my decision. He knew I wasn't planning on going to the shelter tonight, but he'd said it anyway.

And as I finished my lunch alone I weighed it. In my fear and concern at what others would think, and my depression and my efforts to quickly make my journey easier for myself at the least trifle, I'd somehow overlooked what I was giving up. I had 60 miles to go. And I realized that those 60 miles were looming up at me as an impenetrable fortress. They intimidated me. I considered the pain in my legs and my back and my hips, and my fatigue, and 60 miles seemed impossible. But it was only 5 miles to the next shelter. If I continued on I was committed. I'd have to go the distance, there was no turning back. And at that moment, what other people would think ceased to matter; no one was there with me. I asked myself if I could go 5 more miles, and I asked myself if I was prepared to go the full distance. It was not the next step that was daunting. It was thedecision to take the next step. It was somehow finding the will to begin, knowing the journey I had in front of me. I'm not sure what broke then, but I thought of Pierre and what he had said so calmly, and in that instant I was the person he was referring to. I simply saw myself making it. I finished my lunch, and I put my boots back on deliberately, and I loaded up, and I started off.

The trail was still as difficult, and although the rain had stopped, it was still wet and slippery. But I didn't falter. I was going to do this. The "escape plan" had evaporated and I was replotting camps and hikes in my mind order to make up time. My feet were still numb, but they carefully and deliberately put themselves one in front of the other for the next five miles until I reached the shelter just before sundown. Pierre was there cooking his dinner and he smiled and greeted me calmly as if he'd been expecting me. My trip changed that day as did my life. I learned that the way to conquer the seemingly insurmountable is not through strength, but through will, the courage to take the first step. That insurmountability is an illusion; a function only of your perspective. I learned where will comes from, from deep inside, motivated by self. The external does not motivate it, it must spark itself. And I learned what that spark feels like and what it takes to light it.

But that was not the only lesson I was to learn on this trip.

I continued on, the next three days, with daunting hikes each day. The first 60 miles of The Wilderness crosses 2 ranges of mountains. After that it spends 40 miles in the lowlands until coming upon Katahdin and the end of the AT. I spent the next 3 days finishing those first 60 miles. I gutted out each day. I saw many hikers during that time as well, and was moderately cordial to them. I was focused on the goal, and I was determined, and I had a schedule to keep. I took pictures during the first part of the trip but I can't say that I remember appreciating the scenery much. Even now that I had committed to Katahdin, I wasn't focused on it as much as the trail and my goals. The final peak in this segment was Whitecap mountain and as I crested it's summit, I was proud and happy. I could see Katahdin in the distance from the peak and I even though the path between here and there seemed incredibly long I knew that I would make it, one step at at time. I took a few pictures and descended to the next shelter at the base of Whitecap to camp for the night.

I grabbed a spot in the shelter, and began unpacking my pack to make dinner and  go to sleep. Several other hikers had already picked out their spots in the shelter and were doing the same. I heard a noise from the trail and looked up to see two women arriving from the trail headed in the opposite direction as I was. I was a bit amazed when I saw them, as one of them looked to be in her mid 60's and the other was more frail and seemed to be more like 70. They were walking slowly and chatting happily together. They came up to the shelter and stopped and said hi to every hiker in the shelter, asking their name and where they were from. Through those various conversations I pieced together their story.

Aurelia Kennedy and Kakii Haudley were two retirees and best friends from North Carolina. They'd come from Katahdin!! I couldn't believe it. I then figured they'd be jumping off at the same mid-point I was planning on or that they were taking 3 weeks. No, they were doing the entire 100 Mile Wilderness in the same 10 days I planned! They backpacked regularly, and had the lightest equipment, in order to keep their packs under 25 lbs. In the spirit of thru-hikers they'd taken the handle of "The Carolina Blue Belles". They were friendly and bubbly, and infectious. After a while Aurelia unpacked her stove and began heating water for a late afternoon snack, while Kakii began scouting out a spot to pitch their tent. She decided on a spot next to the nearby brook after calling back and commenting to Aurelia how lovely the spot looked and how she loved to sleep next to a babbling brook.

Their snack consisted of tea and reconstituted vegetables that Kakii had grown in her own garden and then dried for the trip. And they talked to each other and the other hikers, asking each about their travels. I asked them about the trail they'd just come on from Katahdin, and they went one about how lovely it was, and how their climb of Katahdin had been gorgeous and such a sunny day. They spoke about the lakes and rivers they'd seen and the various thru-hikers they'd met, some of which I'd also met earlier in my hike. I asked how they got along on the trail and they said it was fine. They packed light, started early each day, walked at a leisurely pace and made good time as a result.

By this time I'd finished my dinner, and the sun was setting. I'd laid out my sleeping bag, and was talking to them tucked in my bag while they finished fixing their own dinner. I was amazed by these women. They were on a different kind of trip that I was. Not different in content for that was identical, but worlds apart in perspective. They had the same goals, the same "one foot in front of the other" perspective, for at their age they had to. But they were happy! They were living in this moment, soaking everything up, and appreciating every little thing they could. And they were infectious. They seemed to genuinely care about the other people they met, and take interest in their stories, enriching their own travels through their interaction with others. I on the other had, though having conquered my fear and set my sights on the goal, was "gutting" it out, stoic, focused.

Aurelia then spotted a book under my sleeping bag, and asked what I was reading. I pulled it out and showed it to her. It was a book of poems by Robert Frost. I'd brought it with me from Michigan somehow thinking that my favorite poet at the time and the Maine woods would go together. Truth was, I had been too preoccupied and too exhausted to enjoy it, even though I dutifully pulled it out and tried every night. Upon seeing it Aurelia gasped and asked if I wouldn't please regale them with a reading of some poetry. She asked so sweetly, and in that wonderful genteel Southern lilt found in the Southeastern coastal states, that I couldn't refuse. They had infected me by that time and I was having the first good night of my trip, one not focused on sleep and pain, and planning out the next day's trip. So I read to them. They each had a favorite and I found it for them and when I asked them to read they said no, they wanted me to do it, and so I did. "The Road Not Taken..," "My November Guest," "Fire and Ice," "Stopping by Woods," "Mending Wall" and on. At the end of each one, they would say "Oh, how lovely," and ask me what I thought of it, and talk of which images they liked the best and recall some memory from their own lives that was similar. And we talked like that for an hour or more. I made hot chocolate, and they had tea, and it was wonderful. Then they packed up their gear and thanked me ever so graciously for reading to them and headed off to their tent.

I sat and read Frost for another hour by the light of my headlamp and I loved it. I took in every poem I read and paused and considered it as they had, and the words seeped into my exhausted body until it finally reminded me that I needed sleep too. They awoke in the morning and made breakfast by their tent and broke camp. Before they left, they came over to the shelter where I was also packing up to head out. They thanked me again for the evening of poetry, and wished me well on my travel and ascent of Katahdin. Then Aurelia asked if I wouldn't like to read them one more poem before they left. They thought it would be a wonderful way to start the day. They asked if I had a favorite and I said I did, and they asked me to read it, and I did. They paused when I finished and said, "Oh my, that is a beautiful poem." And they thanked me again and I hugged them, and then they started off.

When I finally donned my pack that day it felt lighter, and I knew that the reason was not that it was lighter than the day before. My back still ached, and my legs did too, but not as much it seemed. That day, I was in the moment too, and it was as if I was floating over the terrain I was so light. And instead of looking down at the trail in front of me, I looked up, and I finally saw the forest and the beautiful colors, the streams, and the ponds and lakes with moose grazing in them. The air was clear and sunny and fresh and I felt alive. It had all been burned away, all the inessentials and I was here, with myself, for myself. It was not about the goal now. I was the goal. And Katahdin was merely a means of expressing myself. It was not that I seemed insignificant to the world. It was that I was more significant than anything. The world seemed smaller and I seemed larger, and everything was calm and effortless.

I walked 20 miles that day, if you can believe it. I scarce can. I hit my planned campsite at the 13 mile mark by 2 in the afternoon, and decided to press on another 7 miles to the next. The world was in technicolor, and I took it in, and I talked to everyone I met, and asked them at least one question about themselves, and I smiled when I left each of them and wished them well.

Another 4 days to Katahdin, and there were some rough patches, but I carried those lessons with me, and the trials never seemed quite so hard as a result. I climbed Katahdin on October 1st, along with several thru-hiker friends I'd met in the last 4 days, and even witnessed a wedding of two thru-hikers at the summit. I was elated at the summit and so was everyone else. It was a wonderful feeling, pure and rich and floating.

I have a difficult verbalizing how that trip changed my life. I'm certainly not in those perfect states all the time, but much more of the time now. When I came back I had this sort of calmness as someone coming back from war, who sees the trials of everyday life and realizes that they are insignificant compared to the past experience, and who handles themselves calmly and matter of factly. I look back among the posts I've written in the last few months and realize that these two lessons, the lessons of will and savoring the moment litter everything I've written about. For me they are two of the pillars of egoism, and I would see those characteristics purely expressed in the heroes of The Fountainhead, which I was to begin reading shortly after returning home. One cannot coexist one without the other, for it is value and purpose that give life it's meaning, that allow one to sit back and savor the accomplishment. Without value savoring is simply idleness, and without the savoring value is simply stoicism. Together they are pure joy.

And that has made all the difference...

A few of the many pictures here.

Excerpts from my Journal

Things I Learned

1. Carry a walking stick. It helps you through the tough spots and keeps your pace up when you're getting tired.

2. The secret to making good time or distance in a day isn't to go faster - it's to start earlier.

3. Treat each root, boulder, brook, rock slide as a new and challenging problem all its own.

4. Patience - slow and methodical wins the race and keeps you alive.

5. Instant mashed potatoes are the thru-hiker's "perfect meal."

6. Never overestimate what you can get done on the 1st day.

7. Never underestimate what you can get done through the long haul.

8. Wear gaiters every single day. They work!

9. If you have to rest, at least find a place that's pretty - kills two birds with one stone.

10. Don't step on the roots. Step over them.

11. If you follow rule #8, then you can just plow through the mud instead of picking your way across the slippery log bridges. Have fun with it!

12. Wear your boots when you ford a river. Much safer.

13. If you don't stop to take in a view, then why hike.

14. When you get to camp, unload everything you're going to need right away cause you're going to unload it sooner or later anyway.

15. Don't pack your stove after dinner. You never know when you're going to want hot chocolate to go along with good conversation.

16. Let other people have their triumphs. Congratulate them and get out of their way.

17. Take time for your own triumph.

18. Never be afraid to give a little. It comes back to you in so many ways.

19. Get more names and addresses next time.

20. Everybody who tries makes a difference.

21. Thanks to everyone I met, I will keep you all in my heart.

Saying written in shelter logbook by AT thru-hiker

What is above knows what is below.

What is below knows not what is above.

There is a manner of conducting oneself in the lower regions by the memory of what one saw from above.

One cannot always see, but one can still know...

Kendall's poem for the Carolina Blue Belles to start their day

Into My Own - Frost

One of my wishes is that those dark trees,
So old and firm they scarcely show the breeze,
Were not, as 'twere, the merest mask of gloom,
But stretched away unto the edge of doom.

I should not be withheld but that some day
into their vastness I should steal away,
Fearless of ever finding open land,
or highway where the slow wheel pours the sand.

I do not see why I should e'er turn back,
Or those should not set forth upon my track
To overtake me, who should miss me here
And long to know if still I held them dear.

They would not find me changed from him they knew--
Only more sure of all I thought was true.

Poem for a frigid Oct 1st 1992 ascent of Mt. Katahdin

My November Guest - Frost

My Sorrow, when she's here with me,
Thinks these dark days of autumn rain
Are beautiful as days can be;
She loves the bare, the withered tree;
She walks the sodden pasture lane.

Her pleasure will not let me stay.
She talks and I am fain to list:
She's glad the birds are gone away,
She's glad her simple worsted grey
Is silver now with clinging mist.

The desolate, deserted trees,
The faded earth, the heavy sky,
The beauties she so truly sees,
She thinks I have no eye for these,
And vexes me for reason why.


Not yesterday I learned to know
The love of bare November days
Before the coming of the snow,
But it were vain to tell her so,
And they are better for her praise.

Thursday, December 24, 2009

The eBook Explosion

It seems Obloggers are into their eBooks. Both Diana and Paul Hsieh have each weighed in with successive posts looking at their versions of the Amazon Kindle and Ari Armstrong weighs in at his blog as well. No one it seems is quite happy yet. Diana doesn’t like the “Heraclitean stream” of words, and the inability to make detailed annotations. Ari naively thinks that the DRM is killing the industry. And Paul, although closest to thinking his DX ideal, only uses it to read books as he’s travelling.

Given the debate I thought I’d weigh in with my experiences. Although I’ve been reading eBooks for over 2 years now, I have yet to buy into an e-reader like the Kindle. The reason is simple. I’m an techie contrarian; eBook technology and devices are yet too immature, and I prefer to buy in when winners have been determined and the technology and business model are proven. I will forgo being the first one on the block with a new technology and keep my options open until such time as it makes sense to commit to a proprietary channel. Although my family has had iPods since their inception, I am only now considering buying one. I still remember the first Shuffles, and Mini’s that were overpriced pieces of junk.

If I haven’t bought a reader, how have I been reading eBooks? I started reading them on my mobile smartphones, first a Palm Treo and most recently a Blackberry 8800 series. Great options when I was travelling on business and there was simply nothing else to read, but difficult experiences at best. Since I purchased a small MSI Wind netbook over a year ago, I’ve been reading books on that platform as well. My software of choice has been Mobipocket reader and my content has almost exclusively been open source content obtained from Project Gutenberg. Almost anything published before 1925 is available at Gutenberg (Aristotle, Locke, The Federalist, Hugo, Dumas, Twain, Fitzgerald… the list goes on), and given that I’ve been wanting to add classical literature to my repertoire, this seemed like a perfect way to experiment with the ebook experience without making an early commitment. Mobipocket has it’s own store as well, and I have purchased one book mostly as an experiment with the purchase process and to understand the DRM issues. I have recently added Kindle’s e-reader software for the PC and eagerly am looking forward to the Blackberry version which should be out soon. I want a Kindle desparately but I’m holding out until a few features are better developed.

My thought so far? Well, if you’re a very specific type of reader – if you read mostly popular literature in high volume without much study of the content - then ebooks have matured enough to satisfy you. This is the target segment that commercial eReaders like the Kindle are targeting to build their initial bases and I think that they are being quite successful in penetrating this market. That is, ebook readers have mastered the features of readability, convenience in purchase, and portability. If you’re the type who always has a book or newspaper wherever you go, reads for enjoyment, and doesn’t need to study the text, and hangs out in Barnes & Noble or Borders on weekends, then go buy an eReader. The fact is, this really is most consumers. You’re ready for it and it is ready for you. This type of reader is simply replacing the book you’d normally tote with a much more convenient eReader and that is certainly an improvement.

So let’s talk about technology for a moment. The one feature that I wish I had on my platforms is the e-ink technology. I am working entirely with backlit LCD displays. They each have pros and cons as pertains to reading environments (e-ink is great in full light and daylight – lcd’s rock in dimly lit spaces such as the bar I’m writing this from) LCD’s can be hard on the eyes and I find that I fatigue much more quickly when reading from and LDC display. I have managed to compensate for this a bit by using the Mobipocket software’s settings to change background and text color so as to make it easy on the eyes. (I use a light beige background with grey – not black – text. In low light, I darken the background, and in daylight I shift to a white background)

My netbook although slightly heavier than say a Kindle is quite easy to use. I have an app that rotates the screen with a key combination so I can hold it in my hand as if I was holding an open book. The advantage of the netbook is two-fold. First, I can make detailed annotations using the netbook’s fully functional PC keyboard, and second, the netbook itself is multifunctional so I don’t carry a separate laptop and e-reader when I travel. My netbook is my e-reader, PC, and last ditch phone and music player.

Diana’s observation that she found navigating an ebook more frustrating than a paper book is one that I share. I didn’t realize this until I studied the ways in which I use a paper book to help me navigate and recall my location in the text. When I’m returning to a paper book after weeks of not reading, I may not remember where I am. As a result I’ll hold my place and flip back a few pages, scanning paragraphs as I go until I can get enough of a gist of where I am in the story to return to my spot and continue forward. This is eminently easier with a paper book than with an ebook, as the pages and visual patterns of the pages are an aid to fast navigation. I find myself grasping for page numbers. Without those visual cues, re-familiarizing myself my location is much more difficult. This leads to the feel of a Heraclitean stream that Diana reports.

As for the use of a phone like the iPhone or Blackberry to read, this in my mind is a last ditch option and will always remain so. The “Heraclitean” problem is compounded because not much more than a paragraph or two can be displayed on these devices. I have used them either when travelling, or commuting, but I have found that the best thing to read here are short stories, where one is not trying to integrate a story over more than a few sittings. As such the experience of page-size readers like the Kindle will be critical to the broad proliferation of the technology until such time as a leadership position is established.

Returning to business models, Amazon and the Kindle are the clear leaders, but the technology is still young and this could easily change. However, Amazon is 2 generations ahead in it’s reader technology, has a growing installed base, and is quickly taking the correct and savvy next steps to advance its position. I think that the development of this technology will ultimately follow the iPod model where the storefront and installed based will determine the dominate leader. The reader hardware may or may not play a critical role although successive generations need to improve the experience. However, DRM is critical to hold the installed based until a leadership position is established.

As an aside, Mobipocket is owned by Amazon, and the proprietary .mob format is identical to the Kindle’s .azw format, save for a digital switch that requires a check of the Kindle hardware’s id in order to read it. Gutenberg is now publishing in the .mob format and so that makes these open source files immediately readable on the Kindle platform. I think this is a brilliant move as it allows Amazon to experiment with the experience of different consumer segments without blurring the two until such time as they think they understand each consumer’s needs independently at which point they can remove this switch and allow instant cross platform compatibility of e-book libraries. Genius!

My recommendation? If you’re type of high volume reader I mentioned above, jump in with both feet. If you need more from your experience such as detailed annotation or clear cross-platform access then experiment with the experience. See what you like. See what you need.

Monday, December 21, 2009

Dan Edge Weighs In

Dan Edge has posted a thoughtful review of my previous post on relationships. Thanks Dan. I’m happy that he pulled out a key point from the post, and that is the focus on an action orientation. And as such I take as a great honor that he chose to spend his time reading, digesting and ultimately responding to the post. He also rightly points to my discussion of how to think about chemistry as needing further clarification. Dan and I discussed this point last night and it definitely could use some concrete examples. So I plan to come back with some thoughts on it, but not before I finish the 2nd installment in the series.

For those of you who are eagerly waiting on that post, know that I haven’t forgotten you. I’m still sorting through some of the essential points and hope to get to work on it over the Christmas break. Stay tuned!

Saturday, October 10, 2009

How I’ve Changed – Part I, Personal Relationships

It’s an overcast Saturday morning in Philadelphia. I’ve a cup of tea in hand; my dog is still lazily crashed out on the sofa. I’ve yet to build a desire to start my weekend chores so I’m banging out a post.

This post has been knocking around in my head for a couple of weeks now. The idea for it came from an exchange I had recently with a good friend who I haven’t seen in over a decade. He used to be a student employee of mine, and has since had a very successful career overseas and is still stationed in Hong Kong. I had sent him an example of some poetry I’d written (he was/is a poet as well and I thought he’d appreciate the note). The response he sent was a thoughtful mix of thanks, and regret for not staying in touch. And then he said this,

I know how much I've changed since those days -- some of the changes I'm glad for and some I'm not so sure about ..

And that’s what started it. I know I’ve changed in the past twenty years of adulthood; but how would I describe that change? If I had to boil it down into essentials, what would I say is different? I like thinking about that sort of thing; trying to see if I can look at this mass of data that is the last twenty years of my life and see if I can tease out some fundamental understanding from it. What I came up with interested me and so I decided to turn it into a series of posts (originally just to have been Facebook posts, but now deemed quality enough for The Crucible)

Starting to think on this topic, my mind wandered back to a facebook status update I’d made only a day before that seemed really fundamental to the tone of the change that the last twenty years of my life has taken. I wrote this,

There's no other place in the world I'd rather be right now than right here living this life.

That blurb was not some sort of self-talk, scripted phrase I was speaking to myself because I wanted to feel that way. No, at the moment I wrote it I was in the throes of a powerful emotional response to my life in general. I had just left work after a good day; it was a beautiful September day in Philadelphia, and I was headed home to a slate of activities that night around a whole set of goals I’d set for myself. I was feeling this incredible emotional high about my life. But instead of being a rare occurrence it is something I feel almost daily. While I don’t think that the feeling itself is a rare thing, I think the consistency, strength and level of integration of that emotion throughout my daily life is, well, rare.

That became my lead. I certainly couldn’t have said that about my life twenty years ago. Find the root of that change in my life, and I had this sense that I’d find some of the key things that have happened to me over the last two decades.

So I began noodling. I started by chronicling in my head data related to this idea. What other changes could I describe that in part lead to this feeling? Here are a few of the things that I noticed about myself that are very different from the me of twenty years ago (some of this will sound a bit “zen” to my Objectivist friends. Don’t worry, I didn’t leave it at that level of mystery, but instead try to look at the fundamental causes.) :

  1. I find today a far greater integration of my head and my heart, of my thoughts and emotions. This yields a feeling of peace or centeredness or balance.
  2. I think my daily emotional responses today are far less mixed, or clouded and as a result are much more intense, pure and powerful. I describe this to people as living in “technicolor.”
  3. I seem to be able to stop and live purely in the moment, savoring even small pleasures and joys fully without the immediate weight of that adult list of goals, and tasks, and worries. Again, this lends an incredible feeling of intensity in the moment.
  4. Yet, in contrast, today my goals are far more long range and far more complex than they’ve ever been, and I simultaneously feel incredibly effective and competent in my ability to plan and make decisions that will affect my life years out in the future.
  5. I don’t feel a nostalgia for a “simpler, easier” time in my life. The simplest, easiest, most joyful time in my life is right now.
  6. I find that my relationships with other people are far richer, deeper and stronger than they have ever been. This includes both my ability to strike up a rapport with new people I meet, my ability to develop deep lasting friendships with a wide variety of people, and my ability to hold those friendships even across time and distance (as with my friend.)

Now I look at this list and the first thing I feel is pride. I’m not suggesting perfection in describing these things, but when I think across a continuum, I am far more to this side of things than their less mature counterparts. And certainly after thinking about this list, I was highly motivated to ask the next question: How? How have these sorts of things come about in me? What were the key causal factors that led to these changes? Like my friend I wondered if they were changes I had made consciously or had simply happened to me. Where they mysterious or could they be traced back to certain actions and choices?

Of course, my Objectivist friends know what perspective I’ll start with as a default, that the things that others might see as “mysteries” in life are actually knowable, understandable, and actionable. That somewhere these changes are the result of choices conscious or unconscious in my life over the last twenty years. And that there is a causal aspects to them. This doesn’t make life less wondrous, but in fact (I think) even more wondrous and beautiful.

So after weeks of mulling things over, of taking examples from my life and testing out my ideas, I think I’ve boiled it down to 3 major things. Listed with most fundamental first they are:

  1. The use of philosophy as a practical science for determining how to live one’s life, and more specifically a framework to understand what role value plays in one’s life. i.e. this is the science of ethics, what should man value, and how should he go about pursuing those values.
  2. The development of a useful framework to be able to deal with and integrate my emotional responses.
  3. The development of a useful framework to characterize and deal with my relations with other people.

So obviously these are three very broad and abstract ideas. I’ll try to deal with one each in a series of posts, beginning with what I viewed as the least fundamental but one of the most enriching, relationships.

_____________________________

The basic principles on relationships comes straight from Objectivism and Rand, but learning how to operationalize those principles has been a years long journey of steady progress. When I speak of relationships here I speak both of romantic love as well as the respect and admiration that form a friendship as I think that at the root, they are driven by the same sorts of guiding mechanisms. I’ll use the term “love” to denote all these forms in my discussion.

As an aside, I recently met Objectivist blogger Dan Edge, and over a brief dinner the topic of relationships, and specifically my ideas in this post came up. This is a big area of interest for Dan and he’s written extensively on the psycho-epistemology of relationships. He was extremely helpful in clarifying some of my ideas, and I’m sure he’ll have a few comments as well.

So here is my framework and a little bit of development of each of these guiding principles.

Love as the selfish expression of value for oneself and another.

If there is one idea that is the most pernicious today and that I hear repeated far too often with regard to relationships it is the idea that the essence, the fundamentality of love lies in its unconditionality. Yet, if the highest moral form of love is to love, without regard for ourselves or for the type of person whom we are to love, then the very concept of love is destroyed. And I would counter that if we look at the relationships that we have that we feel strongly about, that we get emotional about, that one would find that this response is not directed at those things that are common to every man including the cretin or mooch. But rather that these responses result from the unique, the highest in others. We respond to people because we admire them, because we respect them. And we respect them not because they are like every other man including the thief and the liar, but because they are different, because they are good, because they share the same sorts of ideals that we hold. When we admire, we must differentiate, and when we admire, we admire the best, the uncommon. And we admire those things because we share in them.

This is a profoundly selfish act. And it is causal. Love, respect and admiration are the things that we feel when we find in others the things that we hold to be the best within us. This, not selflessness or unconditionality is fundamental essence of love and friendship. Here is how Rand puts it.

“Love, friendship, respect, admiration are the emotional response of one man to the virtues of another, the spiritual payment given in exchange for the personal, selfish pleasure which one man derives from the virtues of another man’s character. Only a brute or an altruist would claim that the appreciation of another’s person’s virtues is an act of selflessness, that as far as one’s own selfish interest and pleasure are concerned, it makes no difference whether one deals with a genius or a fool, whether one meets a hero or a thug, whether one marries and ideal woman or a slut.” – The Objectivist Ethics

So this is a fundamental shift in my thinking over the last several decades. Coming from a Christian background I used to believe in the unconditionally principle, that love was a selfless thing and that its highest expression was to give of our selves to all people regardless of status, expecting nothing in return. I can’t begin to describe how destructive this idea was in my life, and it took years to weed out all of the places that it’s tentacles reached into my psyche.

So does unconditionally describe something that has merit. Yes, but only in a very limited contextual sense. When we evaluate a person we do so in a hierarchy of value. Some things are more important than others in a person’s character. To forgive someone a fault is a recognition of this hierarchy. We forgive the small things, but we do so because the more important things are good and valuable. We forgive a good husband the fact that he sometimes forgets to take out the trash, but we do so because he is a solid, good, and faithful husband. This is not an expression of true unconditionality, but rather a reflection of the fact that that love is based upon the virtues of another and that those virtues have a priority of importance. We do not ask the beaten wife to forgive her unrepentant, violent husband by virtue of the fact that he remembers steadfastly to take out the trash. That would be true unconditionality.

Now Dan Edge challenged me a bit on this idea, asking whether it is really always virtue that we identify and psychologically respond to. What of this notion of the idea of psychological “chemistry.” In his series “The Psycho-Epistemology of Sexuality” he discusses what he calls “individuating elements of self,” that we are also drawn to and have emotional responses to. If for instance you and someone else share a love of the baseball and specifically the Philadelphia Phillies, that this aspect could be a basis for having a shared emotional connection, and that this is also a fundamental part of a relationship. Doesn’t this fly in the face of a claim that virtue is what we really respond to? I agree with this in a qualified sense. A few years ago, as I was crystallizing the ideas in my head that would lead to my decision to divorce, I wrote to a friend on the topic of relationships. It’s still one of the best posts I’ve written on the topic. Here is what I said about chemistry.

Character before chemistry (or make sure the chemistry you're attracted to is tied to character)…
I'm not saying that chemistry (i.e. all those behavior things that attract you to a person) isn't important. What we are really attracted to initially in a person is their "sense of life" [after all]. But some of what makes up chemistry is easily mutable, and some of it is more stable. The part that is more stable is more closely tied to values and virtues. If you can, ask yourself if you can tell that behaviors have value judgments behind them, or if they are value-less, or if they show contradictions. Find the chemistry that you believe flows out of character and that is the chemistry that is likely to be more stable. Additionally I think some elements of chemistry can be "learned", so even if you don't feel chemistry in a particular area look for character traits that are still there.”

So what has this change in perspective led to in terms of my relationships? What did my previous more self-less relationships look like? I think when you lose the idea of self, and it’s importance, two things happen. First, if respect and admiration are a reflection of value, one fails to know explicitly their own values, leaving ones responses to other people to be whatever your range of the moment emotional responses give you. In essence I didn’t know why I valued people so I found myself choosing based solely upon my emotional responses. Secondly, without this concept of value in a relationship, one completely fails to recognize and take into account why another person would want to reciprocate. That is, one fails to recognize that a relationship requires not only value on your end, but on the end of the other person. This leads to a very sort of immature conception of relationships, where one response to one’s own range of the moment emotional responses without focusing on either one’s own or the other’s needs in the relationship. Some people mislabel this as a “selfish” response. Dan calls it “self-centeredness” contrasting it with objective selfishness.  I prefer to keep it distinct as a form of selflessness because I think at it’s heart that is what really drives is.

The substance of that value as a series of actions, as trades, or spiritual payments.

So what makes up the substance of a personal relationship with someone else? What does it consist of? Certainly we’ve talked about valuing and respecting another, and we’ve talked a bit about the emotional joy one takes in that esteem for another. But these are not enough. At its core a relationship is made up of a series of actions. In the Objectivist ethics, to value something is to act to keep and or gain it. What you think about something is important because it helps you decide what to value, but it is insufficient. The same is true of a friendship or love that you value. It is defined by the actions you choose. what is the nature of this set of actions? It has a unique set of characteristics. Back to Rand,

“Love, friendship, respect, admiration are the emotional response of one man to the virtues of another, the spiritual payment given in exchange for the personal, selfish pleasure which one man derives from the virtues of another man’s character.” – The Objectivist Ethics

We act out of respect, admiration or love because we have received pleasure or joy from another person, and if we are consciously explicit about it, that pleasure is derived from the best within them. In that sense the action is a payment or trade with another. Now I’ve heard some decry the idea of actions as trades or exchanges as a crude example of why conditionality is bad. “How can you force a claim on someone by giving to them with the expectation of some return.” My answer is that this is a mischaracterization of the trade. I am not making a payment with the expectation that I can now claim some reciprocation. It is not a quid pro quo, in that sense. I have already received my benefit! It is the joy I am already deriving from this relationship! My payment is not for future benefit, but for benefit already received. This is why Rand calls it a spiritual payment. Such actions say, “I’m doing this for you, because I admire/respect/love you, and the person you are today brings me great joy.” And that’s all. There is no claim on future returns. Accounts are already paid.

So what sort of actions might we choose in this exchange? The answer to this question lies in the recognition that a relationship must be of value to the other person for them to want to continue it as well. And if relationships at their core are based upon admiration for the highest virtue and character in another, then that should be a component of what you return. If you derive joy from the best and the highest in another, then give of the best and the highest within yourself. Give what will be valued, in terms that the other person will see and value. Sounds awfully abstract. What does this mean?…

Dan challenged me again on this point over dinner, effectively saying “Come on Kendall, do you really think that every action we undertake in a relationship is somehow tied to our value of another? Every single little action?” My answer to that Dan is that it need not be. But in fact, to the extent that it is, to the extent that I hold those ideas explicitly in my mind, and act consistently on them, is the extent to which one is able to enrich and deepen connections with other people. It is the very illustration of the point I’m trying to make. For those of you who weren’t there, Dan stopped by Philly on his way north, and we had a brief dinner and conversation. Within about ten minutes of meeting we bonded. I don’t think that was an accident, and that it was our choices and actions that became a series of trades which ultimately led to a very intense discussion and a feeling of connection. I offered dinner and conversation because I know we both revel in ideas. I specifically chose to discuss this post because I know relationship theory is a particular interest for Dan. And he chose to engage me, to challenge my ideas where he saw gaps, because I’m sure he knew that if I was rational and honest, I would value such a frank discussion. To the extent that we held this framework consciously in our minds and acted upon it, I’m convinced helps explain why we bonded. That has been my experience.

I’ll give another example in a more romantic context. One of the best dates I can think of is cooking dinner for a woman. I am a huge lover of all things beautiful and sensual, of esthetics in general; art, music, food, flowers. On one level to prepare a meal with all the trimmings (music, flowers, candlelight) for a woman takes effort and skill. It is not an easy thing, and to do it in a sense requires the best of what you are. But on a sensual level it is an esthetic, spiritual gift. It says “I’m going to use all my effort and skill to surround you with things that are beautiful; that you can directly perceive as beautiful through your senses, and in doing so directly create for you the emotional response that you bring me.”

Look at how the nature of a relationship changes with this framework. One admires the best in people, gives of the best in themselves to express this admiration. One understand explicitly why one feels the way they do, and seeks to understand how they can provide value for value gained from the relationships. One does not seek to be loved in spite of their flaws but because of their virtues. The things that generate pride in me, generate admiration when I see them in others. When reciprocated in the same fashion it creates an almost electric spiral of connection whether a friendship or a romantic relationship. I can only describe relationships like these as heroic. This is what I feel so much more of today.

Love as a dually volitional

I think the final aspect of relationships that I’ve come to understand and appreciate much more deeply is the aspect of relationships as dually volitional. That is, both people must decide that they value and want to pursue a relationship. Unlike goals or values that we pursue individually, where only our own choice determines if we succeed or fail, one aspect of any relationship is forever out of our direct control: the choice of the other person.

The younger me had trouble sometimes differentiating this difference. I would take it personally when others chose not to pursue relationships with me. I would continue even after that to try to pursue such relationships, thinking somehow (as with all my own individual goals) that the force of my will would eventually persuade them that they really did value me.

I no longer take this personally, nor do I take responsibility for another’s choices. I am responsible only for my half of the equation. I hold myself responsible to know why I value people. There is no guarantee that I’ll be valued in the same way. I hold myself responsible to offer the best within me. There is no guarantee it will be reciprocated. I hold myself responsible because I want and pursue relationships because I value them, and derive selfish joy and pleasure from them. There is no guarantee that others view relationships in the same way.

Operationalizing it

So here are my four action rules that operationalize the principles listed above. I’m not going to expound on them too much as hopefully they will seem clear after the discussion.

  1. Find people of the highest character you can. Seek out admirable people regardless of means, background, and all the other superfluous characteristics. Where chemistry is concerned, its ok to seek more optional factors, but seek out those that ultimately stem from character if you can determine them.
  2. Know why you like them. Spend time to introspect and be explicit and concrete about why you like them. Yes, you have direct emotional responses to people. They are not magic or mysterious. They are causal. Know the causes. Doing this will help you become a better judge of people, and it will help you hold that admiration and respect much more strongly and clearly.
  3. Seek to understand them. Understand what they value and how they value it. This will help you not only understand their character, but also help you craft actions that they will strongly value.
  4. Act to express you admiration, respect and love. Remember, it’s not a relationship until you act to keep it. Do this by reflecting that respect and admiration, by offering of yourself in ways that give of the best of you, and in ways that the other person will value.

I believe these ideas are at the core of the relationships I have today. I believe they are the reasons that I have the strong connections with people that I do. And while there is no guarantee that everyone you approach will reciprocate, I can assure you that if you practice these ideals, that you will end up with an incredible rich and durable set of relationships in your life.

In my next post I’ll deal with the topic of emotions.

Monday, August 17, 2009

Published

I am happy to announce that an op-ed I wrote on Carbon Cap and Trade policy was published in my (then) local newspaper, The Midland Daily News. It was published in its entirety and with no editing.

Sadly, the article is not available online, but I am providing a link to my copy of it. This article was also my final paper for my OAC Intro to Writing course. I’m very proud of the piece and while MDN is a small town paper, it was a valuable introduction into the submission process. Consider it a small indicator of bigger things to come.

Friday, August 14, 2009

Booting Up and Back Online

It’s been a long almost 3 months since I was regularly blogging. A few posts from OCON in between and almost 10 weeks of silence. I stopped for good reason. I needed to focus on a series of changes in my life. If you missed me, great! Know that my life is getting settled after going through significant change, and the time off has enabled me to focus on the changes and come back to blogging that much more quickly. Hopefully my regular readers are still out there and glad at my return. I expect that posting will ramp up both on The Crucible and sCap from this point forward so stay tuned!

To explain the changes a bit, I’ve transferred to a new job within my company and moved to a new city, Philadelphia! This after a period of turmoil within my company as the financial crisis hit, and we attempted a large acquisition right in the middle of it. Most of my colleagues and I have spent the last nine months wondering if we’d even have a job at the end of it. I had friends who sadly lost theirs. Luckily, I not only have mine, but I have been afforded a wonderful opportunity to work in the acquired company and to completely change my lifestyle. In the last month I’ve picked up my life in a small town in the Midwest, sold my four bedroom house on a quiet comfortable street and am now living in downtown Philadelphia in a small apartment not a few blocks from Independence Hall. I love the adventure, and Moxie and I have settled right in and are reestablishing all the routines that help keep life in balance and allow me to begin to focus on longer range pursuits.

And so as this process begins to happen and the tide of stress recedes, I thought I’d take a blog post to take an accounting of the goals I set at the beginning of the year. Part of the process of living a goal directed life is to use those goals to steer by.That is, as one works toward them, and unexpected events occur, one needs to periodically step back take stock of current position, get new bearings and adjust plans. I need to decide what the lost time of the last three months means, and which of my goals may have become unattainable this year, and which are still attainable yet need modification to the action plans.

So here is that analysis on those goals which I shared at the beginning of the year. The original goals are shown in bold.

  • House - Remodel two bathrooms, repaint two bedrooms, install that steam shower, and put in a very large flower bed in my back yard. That assumes I stay in this house (but that is a story for another time).

Well, I don’t have a house anymore so this one is nixed. I did manage to remodel one of those bathrooms, and get the painting done. I highly regret never finishing the steam shower installation. I would so liked to have used it just once.

  • Health - Compete in at least 3 duathlons, two of which are Olympic distance - bettering my 2007 time.

This one must be changed, just for the time component required to prepare. The season is ending, and realistically is over in early October. That is eight weeks away, and that is almost too short. 3 races are impossible, and after searching for races in my area, Olympic distance is also out since one has to pick what’s available. That means this one, or this one, both Sprint distance.

I’ve gotten to a minimum level of stamina and endurance to be able to kick training into high gear, but that training has to be very structured and focused. I’ve decided that since I’m proficient in technique for the run and bike, and that the race is shorter, that I don’t need to spend long hours there to get into shape. Instead, I’m opting for the first 2 months of a modified P90X program, supplemented by 1 or 2 well-designed training rides/runs every couple of weeks. Rather than risk pushing too hard and overtraining in the specific sports I’ll need, I am hoping that more cross training, and overall strength and conditioning will get me fit, with less risk of injuring myself. A buddy had convinced me to try the P90X earlier in the year and the move was an opportune moment to get set up, since I wanted to supplement my riding/running with work I could do in a small apartment with a minimum of equipment.

Needless to say, training starts Monday. I’m not worried about my time, although I’d like it to be competitive (yeah, I get like that….). My last slightly-shorter-than-Olympic-distance du was a 2:06, but that was a hilly course and a trail run, and I was in great shape. Honestly, I don’t know what that would translate into for a sprint distance, and I doubt I’ll have a good sense of it given the low level of actual ride/run time I’ve planned. I’ll just have to take what I can get.

  • Education - Complete next two OAC classes. Get a better grade than I got on the first one! (so humbling that was for this over-achiever!)

This one is on track. 1st class finished in winter semester, and 2nd due to start with the beginning of 2nd year. I wish I knew what my grade was for the first class (grumble, grumble…) but I felt as though I was getting the hang of it.

  • Books - Read at least one work of good literary fiction per month (for a total of 12). Yes, this might not seem like many, but Anna Karenina is on the list. Definitely a stretch goal.

Ugh. I am plugging away at this one, but I’m on book three (Anna Karenina) in month eight. I suspect I will fall short.  Five to six may be more realistic.

  • Writing - Increase blog readership to a steady 100 visits/day (or ~3000/month). That's going to require a whole lotta changes, and a commitment to more regular blogging.

Taking a break from blogging has been a setback for this goal so I’m going to have to backtrack here. I may be doing well to get my readership back to what it was in January. That’s ok though. It’s a worthy goal, and I don’t think regardless of how busy I am that I could ever stop blogging for good. I got some great tips from Diana at OCON, and hope to implement those as well.

  • Writing - By years end, I will author one article for the Objective Standard. Yup, this one scares me a bit.

Still on the drawing board. Still a bit scary. I had hoped to take my OAC final op-ed on Cap and Trade and turn it into a 5000-6000 word article, but with C&T already languishing in Congress, I may have to change subjects. I don’t have good inspiration for a new topic yet. Ideas welcome! In good news, I did have that op-ed published, but there’s another post about that coming!

  • Canine - Title Moxie in AKC Agility - Open Class - both Jumpers and Standard. I'm not a high volume trial attendee so this one is going to require some finesse.

This one is going to require more than finesse now. I have not trained, have not found a new training facility (which I must have since I don’t have a yard or equipment anymore), and trial schedules get thinner after summer. Like the du, this requires preparation time with Moxie, and I am not sure I have it. I suspect I’ll have to table this goal until next year.

That’s it, the rest of my year (mostly)…

Saturday, July 11, 2009

OCON Final Days

It’s been a long week.

Saturday afternoon, and my optional courses are completed. I’m going to crash the closing dance tonight, and then quickly pack as my flight out is early tomorrow. Not much to update but here are the remainders:

  1. Peter Schwartz gave a great lecture on the role of the free unfettered mind as part of a free market. Peter is a marvelous speaker and specializes in analyzing key controversial topics such as multi-culturalism, and libertarianism. He did this topic justice, literally!
  2. Harry Binswanger completed his two part series on the nature of objectivity. In this lecture he analyzes the subjectivism/intrisicism/objectivism trichotomy and then illustrated the disastrous effects effects of subjectivism and intrisicism and the redeeming value of objectivity in various fields including ethics, law, art, and politics. He offered to illustrate the same in baseball, but alas we didn’t get to hear it. Binswanger is a master of epistemological concepts, especially at showing their immediate relevance to real life actions and current events.

Social

  1. Diana’s Obloggers dinner was a success, with such notable bloggers attending as C. August of Titanic Deck Chairs, the husband and wife duo of One Reality and 3 Ring Binder, Gus Van Horn, TOS’s Criag Biddle, and new blogger Rational Egoist’s Jason Crawford in addition to Paul (GeekPress) and Diana (Noodlefood). We burned the midnight oil back at the hotel discussing all sorts of topics!

Beyond that I’m exhausted, but in the good way. I’m looking forward to the flight back and a little bit of downtime before work on Monday. Also, next week is the week of my move so plenty of other excitement going on. Within a week or so I’ll be calling Philadelphia home.

Thanks to everyone I met! What a great time, filled with intellectual discussion, fun and food. See you Vegas next year!

Thursday, July 09, 2009

OCON Day 6 & 7

It’s Thursday afternoon and I’m parked at the Seaport enjoying some downtime between classes. I find that, as an introvert, I get drained by continued interactions with others and have to recharge my batteries periodically, so I’ve got the iPod plugged into my brain and thought I’d post another entry. These are discussions of Session 2 courses

Academic

  1. Greg Salmieri gave his first OCON general session presentation. His talk focused on the role of man’s mind in Atlas Shrugged. Specifically he focused on two classes of action, productiveness and valuing. Excellent talk. While most people could easily point to Atlas as an example of productiveness in action, the act of valuing, at least in Rand’s conception of it is harder. I think her conception of valuing is a very unique perspective, specifically as active rather than contemplative
  2. John Allison, former CEO of BB&T, gave a rousing talk detailing how philosophy enters into the core values of BB&T and how BB&T operationalizes those values. It’s stunning to see the success that BB&T has had over Allison’s 20 year tenure and the operationalization of these values is certainly one driver of that success.
  3. I’m taking two history courses this session. The first is Eric Daniels “History of Religion in America” which examines what the role of religion has been in America both prior to and after the founding. The second is John Lewis’ “History of Archaic Greece” which looks at the period of Greece’s infancy, prior to the Classical Period. both are excellent courses, and I think that Daniel’s course contains analysis relevant to today, while Lewis’ course is a bit more enjoyment and part of a larger series on Greek history.
  4. I’m taking Ellen Kenner’s course on psychological visibility in relationships and in Atlas Shrugged. I think that this principle is a fundamental principle for evaluating and enhancing personal relationships, and this course is excellent. If you’ve not been exposed to the thinking here, I highly recommend it.
  5. Finally, last night was the academic panel where key Objectivist academics discussing their activities in academia. I twittered this even heavily and it’s worth looking at the detailed points if you want to build your enthusiasm. Three years ago, academics were talking about trying to place Objectivist philosophers in academia and scratching to get a seat at the table. Today, there are several Objectivist philosophers at key universities, and active dialogue with non-Objectivist philosophers on Rand’s ideas.

Social

  1. Tonight is Diana Hsieh’s Obloggers dinner, and I’m looking forward to seeing many of my fellow bloggers!

Wednesday, July 08, 2009

OCON Days 3,4 & 5

Session 1 is over. Session 2 began this morning. I’m going to limit my comments to the material in session 1, and pick up session 2 in a few days. My crow is overloaded and I’m blogging on break so I’ve got to unload now, as there’ll be more coming right behind.

Coursework

  1. Biddle course on Rights and Metaphysical law: still superb, still highly recommended
  2. Tara Smith followed up her first General session presentation with a second one on the significant threat of Non-Objective Law. This course was more technical in nature and paralleled her talk last year on the menace of Pragmatism. Bottom line is that non-Objective Law is a danger, not simply because it fails to provide for the protection of individual rights, but that it enables and activates their destruction.
  3. Harry Binswanger is the king of teasing out the intricacies of epistemology and highlighting the absolute necessity for good epistemology on downstream ethics. His lecture dealing with the nature of Objectivity is no exception.

Social / Personal

  1. I’ve met several fellow Obloggers and OAC students, many of whom I’ve only known virtually up until now. This includes Reasonpharm’s Stella Daily, Titanic Deck Chair’s C August, the husband and wife team of One Reality and Three Ring Binder. The OAC students met up at a mixer a few nights ago which also served as graduation ceremony for 4th year students. 
  2. I’d have mentioned Galileo Blogs’ Ray Niles in the above, but he deserves a note of his own as he’s also my roommate and a significant source of intellectual discussion.
  3. Due to my lighter schedule in Session 1 I had 2 afternoons entirely free so I availed myself of the hotel facilities and obtained a massage, steam bath, and an hour or so by the pool reading Tolstoy. Yesterday I went over to the Boston Museum of Fine Arts and spent a very enjoyable afternoon exploring. Highlights include Leighton’s Painter’s Honeymoon, John Singer Sargent’s Daughters of E.D. Boit, and Monteverde’s Columbus as a Boy.
  4. Just a side note, I decided to use my netbook for taking notes, and it has surpassed all my expectations. I can take notes very effectively, and with roaming wireless access from the hotel Twitter in real time. Battery life is exceptional as long as I cut processor speed and screen brightness, and the weight of my briefcase is significantly less. The only downside is that my fountain pens which I dearly love using are seeing little use.
  5. Finally, I’ve had a large number of conversations both light, and technical with various persons throughout the conference. Highlights include a discussion with Prof. Doug Altner regarding the status of Objectivist economists, and more coaching from Diana Hsieh on blogging and her experience running a multi-contributor blog.

Sunday, July 05, 2009

OCON – Day 1 & 2

It’s lunch time on Day two of 2009 Objectivist Conference. I had intended to blog daily but alas, yesterday was so full, I’ve not gotten to the post until today. In essence that is the theme concretized. This is my third conference and what always amazes me is the level of intellectual stimulation, through presentations, dinners, and the casual side conversations that arise spontaneously.

Highlights from the first few days of Session #1

Lectures

  1. Craig Biddle’s course on Metaphysical Law and Moral Rights. This is a phenomenal course. Biddle essentially develops Rand’s basis for individual rights, as contrasted with the Founders. In essence day 1 he analyzed the philosophical basis behind the lines in the Declaration of Independence, “we hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are endowed by their creator with certain inalienable rights…” Self-evidency and endowment by their creator are not accidents. They trace back to Locke in his ideas of “natural law” and Jefferson’s conception of “moral sense.” Starting with Day 2 he masterfully develops Rand’s contrasting basis for rights from the facts of reality. Biddle’s case is clear and well presented, and I highly recommend this course.
  2. Dr. Tara Smith’s lecture on Atlas Shrugged, entitled No Room for Ceasar: Good and Evil in Atlas Shrugged examines the either / or nature of key hero’s decisions in Atlas Shrugged. It is a powerful look at how the facts of reality give rise to absolute decisions, and how one cannot shirk from making those types of decisions in leading a fulfilling life.
  3. Finally, today Dr. Onkar Ghate presents a tremendous analysis of the philosophical basis of the “separation between church and state” essentially articulating what is meant by the term, and tracing it’s roots back to Locke’s proper conception of rights, and the role of government and the church. He then illustrates how both today’s religionists (“freedom of religion”), and secularists (“freedom from religion”)make incorrect and unfounded arguments for the meaning of this separation. Dr. Ghate is brilliant and this lecture shows it. Highly recommended!

Themes

A few themes I see in this year’s conference

    • Several courses are analyzing Locke’s influence on philosophy. Biddle examines Locke’s incorrect conceptions of natural law, and the divine basis for rights, while Dr. Ghate examines his very well formulated concept of the separation between church and state.
    • The courses are increasingly presented in a way that does not require a background in Objectivism to be clear. Biddle’s development of Rand’s idea of rights is inductively based and relies at each step upon observations of the facts of reality.
    • The passion exuded by both speakers and the attendees gives on a sense of how importantly ideas are taken, and how clearly and powerfully those ideas are presented. Whether its Tara Smith forcefully entreating us to commit to live our own lives, or Craig Biddle beginning to tear up as he relates the story of an 11 year-old girl whom the FDA restricted from obtaining experimental cancer drugs, as a way to show that force is anti-life, you see real concrete evidence of the power of ideas and philosophy in living on earth.

Social

  1. Opening Banquet. I always go to this, as it’s a great chance to meet everyone at the start of the conference, and to meet new people as well. I had a great dinner with Paul and Diana Hsieh, and fellow OAC classmate Brian Olive. Paul and I continued a discussion we’d started via email on methods and tips to help get some of my newly written op-eds published.
  2. Dinners. I had dinner last night with my roomy Ray Niles, Richard and Lisa Salsman, and John Lewis and his wife. It was fantastic! Good food, good wine and certainly fantastic intellectual conversation.
  3. I’ve gotten the opportunity to meet several objectivists who I knew only online or who were fellow OAC students. It’s always a pleasure to meet people who I’ve only known electronically, and finally put a personality to the ideas we’ve exchanged.

Communications

Just a quick reminder that there should be several bloggers posting on Ocon as well. I saw Paul Hsieh writing a post in lecture just this morning so Noodlefood should have something new. Also, multiple OCON attendees including myself are Twittering their activities at OCON. You can follow them all if you look for the #OCON tag.

Friday, July 03, 2009

OCON

Quick note for those of you who’ve missed me. I’m at the 2009 Objectivist Conference in Boston, and plan to blog some highlights from it during the conference. Stay tuned!

Tuesday, June 02, 2009

The Bostonians

The 2nd book in my reading goal is completed. Reading this one was painful, and while I now have Anna Karenina on my nightstand, I’m convinced that it will be a far easier task than plowing my way through Henry James’ The Bostonians.

Published in 1886, The Bostonians tells the story of Boston feminist Olive Chancellor, and her rivalry with Southern lawyer and cousin Basil Ransom. At stake in this rivalry is the allegiance of young Verena Tarrant, a young Bostonian woman, whom Olive has recruited as a protégé in the feminist movement. Verena is a capable public speaker and Olive hopes that she will use those skills in the interest of advancing women’s independence. Basil’s interest in Verena is purely romantic; however, he is a Southern conservative and disagrees with her feminist views entirely.

The plot of the novel chronicles the interactions of these three characters and revolves around Verena’s choices as a result of the influence exerted on her by Ransom and Olive Chancellor. The plot concept has potential and James could have taken it in several interesting directions. However, the book falls flat due to several key aspects.

First, James prose is stiltingly dull and tiresome. I am used to the long extended sentences prevalent during the period, but his descriptions are lifeless and far too abstract.  Second, James characterizations do not add to the plot or help explain the characters actions. In fact, the key plot turn centers around Verena’s final decision. To explain this decision he does not expose us to the arguments that Basil uses to effect her change of heart. Even more egregious, he misleads the reader in regards to Verena’s character, effectively saying that her final decision reflects the fact that her actual character is nothing like what he has described throughout the entire book! This is the equivalent to the pulp crime mystery whose final attribution is explained by the revelation of critical knowledge heretofore unavailable to the reader.

I have been told that The American is James’ best novel, but unfortunately, it’ll be a while before I can muster the courage to plunge back into a book by this author.

Monday, June 01, 2009

Oh, did I say that posting would be light?

It’s been a few months since I’ve posted. I learned a couple of months ago that I was being transferred to a new job in a new city. The past weeks have been spent learning the job, preparing my house for sale, and miscellaneous “stuff which I hadn’t considered, but that keeps sucking up my time.”

The new job is in Philadelphia, and I’m terribly excited both for the work and for the chance to live in a large city and nearer to my sister. If anyone is in the area, please zip me an email. I’d love to build a network of Objectivists in the area.

I’ve got my head above water for the present so a few posts will probably come out. I’d like to think that I’ll be able to stay with it, but not knowing the things that will tug at me I can’t promise anything. When I do post it will be with the level of quality that keeps all five of you coming back.

Oh, my latest is up on simply Capitalism. It was my first paper for my OAC Intro to Writing class, which is one of the best writing classes I’ve taken. Also a great post by Doug on the backdoor money presses our states are trying to create.

Sunday, April 12, 2009

Tweenbots

There is an idea that I’ve heard repeated at various times in my life, that there is not enough charitable feeling in naturally “self-centered” man to be of meaningful help to those in need. When I respond that there is ample benevolence in man, and in a capitalist society, ample surplus of productive resource (time, money, etc) that  we should not make it a forced duty to be charitable, but rather allow man’s natural benevolence to take its course, most people tell me that resources have to be aggregated and centrally directed to be effective.

Here at least a is small demonstration that this thinking is completely wrong. 

Saturday, April 11, 2009

Saturday Round-up #7

My puppy is being groomed this morning so I have a few extra minutes in the coffee shop.

1. Paul Volker, Reagan’s FED chairman and the engineer of Reagan’s economic recovery in the early 80’s, continues to be marginalized in the Obama administration. One wonders if the messages he’s delivering don’t jive with the desired policy direction. Of the top advisors Obama has, I thought he was the best hope for reasonable policy.

2. For those of you following the development of e-books, things are heating up. Kindle is working on a larger screen version. I’m still on the sidelines waiting for the right time to jump in. Until then, my netbook will suffice.

3. Steve Forbes is probably the one public figure rationally advocating for a gold standard or at least a dollar peg to gold. I am seeing this sort of argument being made more and more. Very good editorial by him here. In the same issue publisher Rich Kaarlgard, who I normally love, get the “Biggest Letdown by a Headline” Award. Reading the title “Failure of Morality, Not Capitalism” I was hoping that maybe a reasonable philosophical argument was coming next. Alas, the moral problem is not altruism, but “man’s animal side.” His prescriptions for what to do next reflect of a hash of mixed premises, with government playing the role of keeping man’s animal nature from hurting itself.

4. I follow a whole bunch of conservative and/or libertarian blogs. Mostly, I want to get a sense of what sort of intellectual discourse is going on these days in an attempt to remake the right into something that will have political clout, (and hopefully more philosophically grounded). David Frum’s NewMajority.com has become for me a huge disappointment in that area and a continued reflection of how the lack of philosophical grounding leads to terrible mix of ideas. It is what I would expect from a “moderate” website; mostly an amalgam of issues borrowed from the left and right, all toned down so as to appear more palatable to a greater majority of Americans, and almost all compromising any sense of principle. It is in essence borrowing the worst of all worlds. I especially was incensed at this article “God’s Climate Plan” which blends religion and environmentalism together in what Onkar Ghate forecasted at last year’s OCON would be a real warning sign of the continued dominance of religion: the coming together of religious mystics and environmental mystics.

Friday, April 10, 2009

My Latest on Simply Capitalism

… can be read here.

Friday, April 03, 2009

Even the Smallest Action

I’m back. I’ve learned not feel guilty when I take a hiatus from blogging, so I won’t apologize, but I will explain. First, I’ve been working on a few of my other goals, specifically remodeling one of those bathrooms. It’s good at times to get concrete, immediate tasks in your radar screen, but jobs like these become all consuming else they take too long. Second, my company is not immune from the economic crisis and good friends have been losing their jobs in the last few months. It’s not over yet, but hopefully will be soon. Third, there is so much in the news these days that is infuriating, I find myself not only struggling to keep up with the other things going on, but also quickly enraged. I’ve learned that while a rant is good for my own psyche, it makes for particularly poor writing quality and I am more keenly aware of my blogging efforts as efforts to communicate something rather than simply unload my frustration. So I’ve refrained from writing until I felt I could be a little be more controlled in what I wanted to say. In that sense, not writing is actually practicing better writing.

I’m almost finished reading The Aristotle Adventure, Burgess Laughlin’s great book detailing the historical fate of Aristotle’s philosophical ideas through the Middle Ages and into the Renaissance. For those who believe that ideas drive the course of history moreso than extraneous physical factors, and who know the fundamentality of Aristotle’s ideas about reason recognize that it was the rise of religious mysticism and the repression of the study of philosophical ideas that led to the destruction of the classical world and ushered in the aptly named Dark Ages. For a millennium, Aristotle’s ideas hung by a very thin thread until they were rediscovered by Christian scholastics in the twelfth century. The Aristotle Adventure recounts the route by which those ideas survived. It is a detailed account of the various scholars throughout the various cultures who preserved and transmitted those ideas. It started out to me as a somewhat encyclopedic account of these scholars, but somewhere in the middle it became for me a fascinating look at the mechanisms by which ideas are translated. By examining specific actions, and their results in the successful transmission of ideas, Burgess paints a picture of what is fundamentally necessary to advance ideas. Here are some big “take-away’s” for me.

1. Battle of Reason vs. Mysticism. This whole era is dominated fundamentally by a battle between advocate of religious mysticism (early Christians and Muslim) and advocates of reason, with mystics having the upper hand. Unlike the Hellenistic period, where free inquiry was generally accepted and which had a strong tradition of intellectual inquiry, the Dark Ages see advocates of reason generally suppressed and persecuted. Books were destroyed; philosophers were constantly being denounced as heretics. When reason itself is on the defensive, it becomes terribly difficult to keep an intellectual tradition going.

2. Value, i.e. human imparted meaning as a key to transmission. A book can molder on a shelf or in a cellar, the ideas it expresses languishing in the culture. It is only when people internalize and hold those ideas as a value and then act upon that value that ideas are disseminated. That is a powerful lesson to any advocate of reason today. Unless you know what ideas to value and then you act upon those values, nothing changes. Ideas don’t change the world. People acting on them do.

3. The value of books. This was a fascinating sideline to me. At this time, “books” were not mass produced, but rather generated as single volumes, often by the author himself. When you realize the value of the ideas contained within them, and that many times during this era that the transmission of ideas from one generation to the next relied upon a few texts surviving into the next generation, you get a sense of the value that scholars must have place on particular volumes. When you read of Spanish scholastics travelling to Babylon in the Arab world, in search of books (!) it makes you consider the ubiquitousness of ideas today, and the knowledge available within a few clicks on Amazon.com in a whole new light.

4. Role that even small actions play in advancing or preserving ideas. Sometimes the difference between the loss of ideas and their preservation consisted of nothing more than hiding volumes from those who would burn them, or maybe a copyist replicating a key text so that it would survive into the next generation for some scholar to find and make use of, or maybe simply teaching others the ideas so that they could pass them on as well. At times it did not matter if these persons even understood the ideas they were transmitting (although ultimately that is critical). Again another lesson of intellectual activists. There is plenty of work to do. And sometimes that work consists of even the littlest things.

I had a friend today express personal dissatisfaction with some of the things he was doing, searching for more “meaningful” objectives in his life. I look back upon the lessons of Burgess’s book, of the various factors required for success: valuing, understanding ideas, small steps in disseminating them. I look back at a millennium of struggle for reason, and then I think of my friend’s frustration. So here he is at a protest he led outside the G20 this week, a pro-capitalist protest in the face of all the anti-capitalist protests that abounded there. I think about the fact that he’s valuing ideas, disseminating those ideas, the right ideas, with an understanding of what he is saying. And I realize that he’s standing on the shoulders of giants, and yet in his own way, reaching just that little bit higher. Meaningless? Hardly. Thanks to Burgess for writing his book, and nice job, Rory.

“Anyone who fights for the future, lives in it today.” Ayn Rand.