Monday, March 06, 2023

Bad Algebra (or, Why I'm Reading Plato)

When I went back to school to get my Computer Science degree, I took a Calculus course. It was sort of a spiritual awakening for me: but never mind that for the moment. Sometimes the instructor would put a problem we'd had trouble with up on the blackboard. He'd work through it, get through the parts we already understood, and then, right at the most confusing moment, he would stop. 

"And the rest is just algebra," he'd say, toss the chalk back into the tray, and move on to another topic.

This happened a couple times. When the students began to ask him to work out the algebra, too, you could see a light going on for him. It was the algebra we were having trouble with?

"Look," he told us, very earnestly. "You've got to get your algebra nailed down. Your bad algebra is going to kill you."


He was right. There's nothing particularly difficult about calculus: its reputation for difficulty comes of the fact that you have to be comfortable with algebra in order to do it, and not many of us learned our algebra all that well. 


Today, I think, "my bad philosophy is going to kill me."


When I was young and impressionable, growing up in hick town in a backwater state, I decided that philosophy was useless. I actually had pretty good reasons for deciding so. I wanted to know how to live: and the only philosophers I encountered assured me that they could not help me. Each individual created his own meaning, they said, and he committed himself to it: reason could help him neither to find meaning nor to clarify it. (I don't even know who these philosophers were: I got their ideas mostly second-hand, and I was a young innocent. People pontificated about Sartre and Camus a lot in those days: it probably had something to do with them.)

So. If philosophy and reason were useless in figuring out how to live, it seemed to be that the next best thing was case studies. Novels offered case studies: what sort of life do you have if you set your heart on this, or cultivate that? Philosophy had no answers, maybe, but fiction had lots of local, provisional ones. So I read fiction, and wandered into literature, and basically made a life of it. Not a bad choice. I don't regret it.


But I had made a large mistake. I had thought that I could just leave philosophy alone, and as it turns out, that's not the way it works. Ignoring philosophy doesn't mean that you don't have ideas about who you are, what the world is, and what you should do in it. It just means your ideas are bits and pieces absorbed from anywhere, unexamined and contradictory. You build your life on these notions: you can't help it. And you find yourself then at age 64 asking once again, "how should I live?" and realizing that this is a problem that you don't have even the minimal tools for addressing.

Your bad algebra is going to kill you.

So: start over. Learn the basics. "What good is Plato going to do you?" someone said to me. "He's wrong about everything important." Maybe so: but you have to start somewhere.

Monday, February 20, 2023

Spring Slash

I am silent when called upon to witness:
I bow my head and mutter, "let each planet
take its course, let every life end where it will; why,
with no writ for life, should I open my palm for death?

Who is calling? You get no more of me
with your mighty obscurities. Say it plain
or get out of the road." My long patience
has run out. The Spring slash is burning, but no voice

comes from it. A beetle makes its slow desperate way
over the moss, while the shadows of birds and clouds
fill him with distress: O brother! We understand as much.
Our call is important to them. Yah. Fuck them.

A wind in the throat of the Gorge: a keening
and a death wail, and whitecaps on the river. It was snow
not long ago, and there'll be snow again before the year turns.
If that's a call I am not home.

Tuesday, February 07, 2023

Winter Afternoon

The pigeon's toes as he carefully
steps over his own feet: the cock
of his head at the swish of a car:
the night-echo of 4 p.m.
when the light has (mostly) drained from the sky
and rinsed away the day's greed,
(the day's greed for now) to make
room for the evening's: oh
my dear friend I miss you:
you were always undismayed
even when terrified, and 4 p.m. 
was a trifle to you. Now I am expected
to find my own courage, 
and I have none, and no one now
wears silks of outlandish colors,
turquoise: apricot:
chartreuse: plum:
how anyone faces this hour of the day
without a visitor in motley
who carries summer in her fists
I do not know.

Saturday, January 28, 2023

Annual Report for 2022, part 2

First, the grand overview, using the most familiar measure. Here's my weight in pounds, measured daily since May 2017. My discipline was very good for the first year and a half. I got down near 150 lbs, and decided I was skinnier than I liked, so I deliberately gained back 10 lbs or so. I stayed around 160 lbs for a couple of years. Then, in Spring 2021, I started experimenting with fasting. That brought my weight down rapidly, but my discipline deteriorated. Other things were going on: I was worried about my father's health. So I can't be sure, but it's hard to look at this graph and not to suspect that in Spring 2021 I disturbed my hormonal equilibrium. A pattern emerges of losing control for a few months, getting it back for a few months, and losing it again. With an overall trendline going steadily up. I didn't like the looks of this chart at all.

There were other ways to view the data that were more encouraging. I was putting on a lot of muscle through these ups and downs: I was training consistently, and I had inadvertently taken up the bodybuilder's typical bulk-and-cut method. I don't, unfortunately, have hip measurements clear back to the start of the project, but you can see that the graph of my waist/hip ratio, over those last ups and downs, makes the situation look a lot better. I was veering wildly from 90% to 95% and back again, but the overall trendline didn't look so bad. So I was alarmed, and determined to do something, but I wasn't panicked.

I had started tracking binge behavior a couple years ago -- just marking every day as "binge" or "no binge," where "binge" simply means "didn't eat exactly what I planned to." The graph of that looked, towards the end of 2022, like this:

That trendline was very alarming indeed. he whole project was threatened, if that went on. I would simply lose control entirely. I realized I needed to change my focus. A dozen pounds of weight, an inch or two around the waist, was not nearly so important as getting on top of the binge behavior. That trendline really needed to be reversed. 

So. I am back at at 90% waist/hip ratio now, and my project is to keep it there -- to hold that line horizontal -- for at least four months, and to do it without any bingeing at all. At that point I may try to steer down a little bit more; I would really rather have a slightly smaller waist; but getting the upper hand of the bingeing is obviously much more important. The binge graph now looks like this:

A better trendline, but not the one I want, yet. I'm not out of the woods.

So the 2023 project is to end the binges once and for all, and to have nice steady, stable, horizontal lines.

Tuesday, January 17, 2023

After Socrates

I've been watching John Vervaeke's new series, After Socrates. I appreciate Vervaeke very much, and I'm finding the series very worth watching.

My problem is that I roundly dislike Socrates, and have from the moment I met him. He is a humble-braggart and a busybody, minding everyone's business but his own: on his own showing he neglected his family and let them fall into poverty while he spent his time gadflying about town and picking quarrels with anyone reputed to be wise. What kind of conduct is that? 

And so often, such pettifogging, nitpicky arguments! Such sophomoric glee in mere triumphs of words! That sort of thing is forgivable in an undergraduate, but a man in his prime ought to have moved on. He should be listening to the heart by then, not to the words: and he should care more about the person he's speaking to than about scoring points in a debate. But Socrates just loves to win arguments, and to rub his opponents' noses in their defeats. I have been trying to read him fairly. Starting again, and making every assumption I can in his favor. Suppose he really does believe that God called him to this task. Suppose it wasn't particularly congenial to him. Suppose he really was trying to understand reality, with all the resources he had. Suppose he really thought he was supplying exactly what his city desperately needed, and what only he could supply. I'm trying. It's tough going.

At the same time that I find my antipathy intractable, my respect for Socrates (and the Platonic and Aristotelean tradition he begot) keeps increasing. The standpoints from which I used to despise them have proved even more fragile than theirs: the liberal, individualist ideology I was raised in has crumbled; the  projects of the Enlightenment have come to grief; the Buddhist philosophy that I once adopted now seems to me inadequate. We're back at square one. It doesn't matter whether I like him. What matters is what's true, and what it means for how we ought to live.

So I go on. I have my old college penguin paperback: I've read the Euthyphro and and the Apology; I'm making a good-faith attempt to actually understand what he means by "soul" and "God": I am taking into account -- as I couldn't, when I was an innocent undergraduate -- that translating arguments that turn on exact nuances of the source language is fiendishly difficult, and the points made almost always turn out looking either more obscure or more obvious than they do in the original. 

It's not hard to discover ways in which this Socratic argument or that are inadequate, after 2,400 years of l'esprit de l'escalier. But if I have demanded more of Socrates, I should demand more of myself: I should be listening to the heart.

Saturday, January 14, 2023


I awake to dread, and the cold winter light
walking its fingers down the wall. 
There is a little comfort in the thought:
maybe God has called you to this task
not because you can do it, but because you can't.

Tuesday, January 03, 2023

Feast Days (annual report part 1)

I have four designated feast days during the year, days on which I deliberately go off my regimen and eat whatever I want: Thanksgiving, Christmas, my birthday in March, and (in theory, because my sense of symmetry demands it) some unspecified day in high summer. I suppose this is a variant of the "cheat days" advocated by some diet gurus: the idea being to take some of the pressure of constant self-regulation off, and deal with binge behavior by getting ahead of it a little. But the term "cheat day" seems excessively negative, and possibly self-defeating, to me. The whole point is that I'm not cheating. Also, "cheat days" seem to happen oftener, in some versions once per week: my discipline would go to pieces if I were going off regimen that often. But there are days of celebration when it feels mean and antisocial to measure my oatmeal and weigh my potatoes. They're typically days of stress, for those of us who are trying to self-regulate: so it seems better to just roll with the holiday, have fun, eat too much, and go on with life.

It sets me back. It takes a week or even two to lose the weight I can pack on effortlessly in a single day of unregulated eating. But on the larger scale that I now think and plan in -- who cares? I'm not looking forward to some utopian liberation day. I will always need to "watch what I eat."

2022 was a hard year for me. I don't have time yet for my annual report, but the summary version is that 2022 was the first year I felt like my achievements were seriously under threat: I gained about fifteen pounds, and then lost ten, and gained fifteen more pounds, and lost ten again. That isn't as bad as it sounds, because I was packing on muscle at the same time: bodybuilders are quite right when they observe that it's a lot easier to build muscle when you're in a large calorie surplus. But if I gain ten pounds every year, in a few years I'll end up fat again. Not what I want: not what I'm going to do. It's been 70 days since I last had to record a binge day, which is the longest period since I began recording them, two years ago. Trendlines on my binge graphs are already looking less ominous, and I have (in the stock-market parlance) "broken out of the box." 

The challenge for 2023 is not to lose weight -- though I do expect to drift very slowly down another five pounds or so, and to lose another inch off my waist, still -- but to hold my graph lines more horizontal than I ever have. I know how to lose weight now, and I'm confident that if, in times of stress, I overeat, I know exactly how to to undo the damage. But what I have still never done is really hold a steady body composition, without having periods of bingeing and binge-repair. That's my ambition now. I want a nice steady horizontal graph.

(I seem to have drifted into delivering the beginning of my annual report anyway. Oh well. Graphs, with commentary, to follow :->)